Rumblings from the slipbox

I hear a rumbling sound coming from my slipbox. It’s a rumbling sound like that of a distant summer thunderstorm, after dark. It’s the sound of a giant, grumbling in the next valley over. It works fine. I’ve simply had an idea for something that I can only do, if the slipbox were digital. I’m tinkering with some tools to see how exactly I want to set things up if I switch to digital. Interesting times!

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It’s a lot of work

Granted, cultivating a slipbox is a lot of work. This morning, as I regularly do, I was rereading journal entries. A year ago I had made note of a book, Trust Yourself, and how it had spurred some specific thinking. Finding mention of the book in my journal caused me to reflect on what I had written: Was it still accurate? Journaling for the win.

I had also made a little note, “(2tu1)” of the book’s slip in the slipbox. It took only a moment to flip there… and to discover I had written out 9 slips under the book with some take-aways and key learnings from the book. A crash refresher on the book, completely unbidden; A gift from my self-from years past.

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Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition comes up in discussions of optimal learning. Once one learns something, it’s best to review it after a period of time, then a second review, third, etc.. with the time between the reviews increasing. There are class structures and software packages which implement this. (Randomly over the years I’ve even considered dumping everything I ever wanted to learn into such a system.)

Part of the power of the spacing is that you don’t come to expect when a particular bit of information will be reviewed. “Oh! I need that knowledge, I guess it is important.” It all apparently causes the brain to not allow the knowledge to expire and be lost. I’ve discovered that my regular usage of the slipbox is randomly, (in the sense that I have no sense of what or when to expect to bump into an idea again,) reminding me of things.

For example, I had a slip, “4c2se1j” with an idea for a blog post on it. As I was writing the post, which involved Sönke Ahrens, I flipped to her name in the slipbox to add this slip’s address to things related to her. She’s on the slip at “4c1ae(3)”. (Because “4c1ae” overflowed to a second “4c1ae(2)” and then third slip “4c1ae(3)”.) Next to her name I added “4c2se1j”. Your eyes may have glassed over, but that’s just another random moment in my using the slipbox—nothing particularly interesting there.

While doing that, my eyes flashed across two addresses already on Ahren’s line…

First, “2ho1”. Just four characters, but I instantly recognized the “2” as a book reference, and Ahren’s book is “HOw to take smart notes.” Several of the ideas from the book flashed through my mind.

Second, “4c2ko1a”. That looks gnarly, but “4c2” is themes. “4c2ko” then must be a word with first-letter K, and first-vowel O, and it has to be related to Ahrens? …that’s easy. That would be the slip for “KnOwledge systems”. I don’t know for sure (without looking) what’s on “4c2ko1a” but lots of ideas related to knowledge systems popped into my mind.

Don’t be distracted by my insane, paper-slips in physical-boxes system. There are countless ways to take notes. (Ahrens has a lot of great stuff to say about that, and I’d argue she has The stuff to say about it.) My point here is that by taking notes into a system that is designed to help me think—not tell me how to think—it does in fact help me think and helps me learn and remember.

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slip:4c2ko1c.

Slip addresses with a “/” in them

Sometimes some small little niggling piece-of-sand-in-my-oyster gets resolved, and all is right in the world. This is one of those cases. This is a tiny, but irrelevant if you don’t have a slipbox, little thing that was bothering me…

Crash-course/reminder:

  • Every “slip” (which for my slipbox is a 3×5 card, but one could use anything) has a single address.
  • If a slip’s address is “address31” (that is NOT actually an address) it must be unique, because I’m going to note that address on other slips, as a way of saying “see also the slip at address31”.
  • There are two competing needs: The need to be able to infinitely insert slips between existing slips, and the fact that one cannot know the structure of the final assembly of slips. (Both because the assembly is never technically finished, and because you don’t know what you’ll assemble.)
  • The solution is a hierarchic address system. The address of my first slip is, literally, “1” then “2” then “3”. When I need a slip between 2 and 3, I go “down” a level: The address “2a” is between 2 and 3. I have slips with address like 4a800 — literally the 800th slip between 4a and 4b. I also have addresses like 4c1fi.

“4c1fi” is interesting. “4” is my commonplace book. “4c” is for slipbox indices. “4c1” is for people. (There’s a 4c2 for themes, like “farming” — I just stuck my finger in there now, and was surprised to find “farming”.) But what is going on with that “fi” part?

I mentioned above that “4a800” is the 800th slip under “4a”. Does that mean “4c1fy” is the fy-th slip between “4c1” and “4c2”? Yes, sort of.

Sorry, did I lose you with “counting with letters?” On the slip addresses, I’m alternating letters and numbers as the addresses go down in layers. So in the letter-based levels of an address, I’m using: a, b, c, d, e … y, z, aa, ab, ac, ad, … fg, fh, and finally fi. This is counting in base-26, using roman letters as the glyphs. “fi” is 159 in the more common base-10. So is “4c1fi” the 159th slip between “4c1” and “4c2”? Yes, sort of. It’s actually about the 20th slip between “4c1” and “4c2”.

There’s no reason I have to use all the addresses. Sometimes I want to pack some meaning into the address itself. That’s what’s going on with the slips under “4c1”. That “fi” in the address tells me the card contains {people whose name,} (that much I know, because I know “4c1” is an index of people,) starts with an “F” and whose next vowel is an “i”. That sounds nuts, I know. Let it go for today, because I’m about to get to the point of my title about the “/” in addresses.

Suppose I want to have the address on a slip tell me something, like a date?

Slips have a date on them— the date I created the slip and put it in the box. But what if I want to see, on the slip for farming (!) a reference to another slip… and I want to know something interesting about that referenced slip? What if I wanted to put the date in the slip address? October 4, 2021, for example, could be written as “211004”. (I’ll be long dead before 991231 rolls over to 000101 in the year 2100.)

One day, I decided to keep a slip for every recorded conversation I’ve done. That’s another blog post. That happened to be slip “3”. The slips under “3”—the ones for each recording—would then be “3a”, “3b”, “3c” and so on. But I wanted to somehow put “211004” in the address. :(

That’s what the slash if for.

Farming has a reference to “3/211004b” because “3211004b” would suggest I have 3+ million top-level slips. The slash makes it clear the address is “3”, then down a level to “211004”. (Then down a level to “b”, because this was the second recording on that day.)

So, I randomly grabbed “4c2fa”, which I discovered has “farming” on it, and which mentions the {second audio recording I made on Oct 4, 2021} (I can see that from “3/211004b”. flip flip flip Ah, yes, I now remember this conversation with Kate

Apertif: Here’s one way the slipbox grows. I was looking at the “4c2fa” card with “farming” on it, and another conversation popped into my head… with Chris Moran. There’s a slip for that recording — flip flip flip find Moran, who I can tell would be on “4c1mo” just based on his name, that mentions “3/181125a”, and I can see without even looking at that slip, that’s a recording from November 2018. And I just added “3/181125a” to the slip with “farming.”

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Brain-slipbox alignment

A faithful reader hit reply recently and asked…

How do you get your brain to be consistent with your slipbox? I’m thinking it would be an excellent thing to do/have, but I also know that if I was filing thoughts under a tab where I thought it should go, there’s a good chance that when I look for it later, a different tab is where I’m going to think it should be.

The short answer is: I don’t get them consistent; I don’t actually want them to be consistent. That’s not what the slipbox is for.

And then a two-part longer answer:

First: It is vastly better than my brain at keeping track of things. For example, if I have a name, I can find entry points into the slipbox by using the index of people. That’s at “4c1”. “4” is the common place book. “4c” is slipbox indices. “4c1” is for people. It’s a visually easy to spot section of the cards though. I use 3×5 tabbed dividers to find the main letters. Grabbing a random card— “4c1lo” (that’s four-C-one-L-O) has people whose last name starts with “L” then first vowel of “O”. The card has “London, John”, “London, Jack”, “Lombardi, Vince”, “Loomis, Carol”. In this case names that actually start “LO…” but that is not usually the situation. Next to “Low, Steven” is a reference “3/211027a”  … and I know what the “3” section of the slipbox is: recorded conversations. So that’s a conversation I had with the person on 21-10-07. To summarize: Given any name, I can find them in the slipbox; or I can tell they’re not in the slipbox. In other situations, I can go into the box: “what were my notes on that book?” I can find books (digital, physical, essays and papers too) are in the “2” section of the slipbox.

Second: The slipbox is not meant ONLY to be a card catalog system. It’s not ONLY a giant index of things. It’s primary goal is to have a conversation with the entire collection [whatever I’ve put in the slipbox so far] of my thinking. It’s not a database of bits of information (“Harrisburd is the capital of Pennsylvania”) but rather a database of thoughts about things.

I admit it’s all very obtuse. After a year of fiddling with it, I’m convinced that it’s adding value to my life, but I still find it very hard to explain. One parting thought from a book about note taking is that one needs a context and system within which to think. Not a strict plan for how to think. The context and the system need to be as UNstructured as possible to enable the flexible thinking.

Finally, there’s a tag for all the slipbox posts, that might yield additional breadcrumbs if you flip through them, https://constantine.name/tag/slipbox/

Hope that helps :)

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Slips

I was leisurely tinkering my way through my morning, and my mind kicked out a few ideas. It always does that. Yes, I talk about my mind in the third person, because sometimes I think I have a Tulpa.

The first idea that popped up was about sending a message to someone to wish them a Happy New Year. At the time, I had not yet awakened the sleeping dragon—my computer. (I could say: My personal Eye of Sauron was still closed.) Things change for me once I awaken the dragon each day. But I have this idea to send a message, and it’s important, but I don’t dare awaken the dragon to ask if I can just send this one quick message. I’ll look up again and it’ll be 4 in the afternoon. Instead, I grabbed one of my precious slips and jotted a note.

Holding the slip I realized this was brilliant. I recently bought a brick of 1,000 3×5 cards because the slipbox is voracious. I have plenty of these little slips. So why hadn’t I done this for the past year that I’ve been keeping a slipbox? Why did it happen for the first time today? It happened because I used to see the slips as precious; They were nice, heavy, beautiful 3×5 cards that sit close at hand and are supposedly waiting to become immortal slips in the slipbox. Just the other day, I used the last one of my original stash, and I broke open that new brick… and realized I’d bought cheap-ass crappy Amazon knock-off 3×5 cards. (I had only spent $13 for 1,000 so I wasn’t too upset.) When that idea to send a message popped into my brain, I thought: “well, I have 1,000 crappy slips to use up . . .” and this little queue of individual ideas quickly appeared on my desk.

No, the coffee mug does not currently contain rum.

The lesson I re-learned this morning is that even a slight change of context can have an outsized affect on something. (In this case, my “precious” slips [you’re hearing Gollum aren’t you?] had become “crappy” slips.)

Setting aside what you think of my specific anecdote here, where might you make a small change and discover some surprising benefit?

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First anniversary

tl;dr: Yes, it really does work.

It’s been one year since I started collecting my thinking in a slipbox. In the photo, the box on the left is full of materials—blank slips, dividers, etc. The box on the right is the older portion of my collection of quotes; It’s the portion of the quotes which has been released as daily podcasts for the Little Box of Quotes. The center box is the meat of the slipbox and contains over 1,000 new slips, with about 250 of those being new quotes. But, enough with the statistics.

What can I do with it? A startling amount of interesting things come out. I’m not going to write up an article right here to prove it. But suffice to say I’ve recently been dipping into the slipbox to augment something I was writing. I’m trying to remember, any time I’m writing anything, anywhere to pause and ask the slipbox about it. When I do that, I almost always find something to add.

One really big question I had when I started the slipbox was whether I wanted it to be physical or digital. I’m happy to report that I made the right decision. So much of my life and things that I do are digital. I’m so tired of digital stuff. Any time I can be doing something in the physical world, that’s a plus. Never once have I regretted not being able to free-text search the slipbox. Instead, it remains a pleasantly tactile experience to search, retrieve, and create.

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Where to file a Thorn?

Dreams come true. You just have to be willing to work for them.

~ Annie Mist Þórisdóttir

slip:4a748.

Apparently, these two-fer posts aren’t as rare as I thought.

Without thinking, as I transcribed that quote, I used their preferred way of writing their name—at least, that’s how they are attributed in the source I had at hand. (Every web site I find romanizes it to Thorisdottir, offensively—in my opinion—sterilizing the family name to simple roman letters.) I was feeling all proud about even being able to write that character.

And then I went to file the quote in the slipbox. Uh… “Houston, we have a problem here.”

Step one: What is it? It’s a Thorn. Wikipedia helpfully, (that’s sarcasm,) explains:

[…] in modern Icelandic, it is pronounced as a laminalvoiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠],[1][2] similar to th as in the English word thick, or a (usually apicalvoiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative [ð̠],[1][2] similar to th as in the English word the. Modern Icelandic usage generally excludes the latter, which is instead represented with the letter ðæt ⟨Ð, ð⟩; however, [ð̠] may occur as an allophone of /θ̠/, and written ⟨þ⟩, when it appears in an unstressed pronoun or adverb after a voiced sound.[3]

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorn_(letter)

I didn’t quote the part where they say, it’s not actually related to the letter P, which we get from Greek.

Well it looks like a P. That suggests filing this person under “PO”.

Iceland is the only place that has not, long ago, replaced it with “th”, and it’s pronounced like “th”ick. So I’m going to treat it like “TH,” and then Þórisdóttir gets filed under “TO”. (Wait, why not under, “TH”. Because my index of people is arranged by first-letter, plus next-vowel—not by the first two letters.)

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Deep dive into books

Today I thought I’d share a thorough explanation of what I do “to” a book these days. This process—which to be honest I don’t follow for every book I read—is the result of combining a few different ideas:

  • I love the physicality of books. The typography, the paper, writing in them, desultory bookmarks, (I add my own ribbon bookmarks,) and numerous sticky-notes poking out the side.
  • I love the peaceful, inertness of books. They literally sit there and do nothing. There are no alerts, and no interaction, (from anyone beyond the author’s original magic spell.)
  • I’ve always wanted to retain more of the knowledge from a book once I’ve read it.
  • I’ve wanted to be free of my self-imposed rule of reading every page.
  • These days I have a slipbox, and I want it to grow.
  • I love to collect quotes.
  • I’ve always wanted a set of crib notes, summary, or something that I could lay hand on after reading a book.

Arrival

Fortunately, books arrive slowly. It took practice, but I learned to do all of the following in a minute or two.

If it’s a new book, I take a few moments to prepare the spine. (Please tell me you know how to do that.) I affix a small, white, circular label on the spine, and I slap a sticky-note on the first face opposite the cover.

I skip over to librarything.com and find the book in “Your Books”—my books, that is. Most arriving books are coming in after already being in my “wishlist” collection; They get moved to the “library” collection. Otherwise they get searched for and added to my collection. Books get tagged as “physical,” (as opposed to those tagged “PDF,” “iBooks”, or “Kindle,” because, yeup, I track those too.) I see what MDS number Library Thing says the librarians of the world have chosen.

On the sticky-note, I write “LT”, (for “this book is entered into Library Thing,) and the MDS number. I write the main, three-digit part of the MDS number on the label on the spine.

Finally, I skip over to bookmooch.com and remove it from my Wishlist over there to ensure I don’t forget about it. (Lest I accidentally “spend” my Book Mooch points requesting a book I now have.) If this is a book that someone sent me because of Book Mooch, I hit the “Received!” button instead.

This book is now “ours.” And some amazing things are now possible just by having spent a couple minutes on each book as it arrives. (Please ignore the entire week I spent bootstrapping ~500 books when I started doing all this. :)

  • Physical bookstores are fun again! What books are on my wishlist? (500+ at the moment) …okay, what wishlist books are tagged, “priority”? (about 250 — yes I have a problem.) Picking up a book… “this looks interesting…” Do I already have it in the house, maybe now is the time to buy it? Did I once have it, and it’s no longer in our collection, (part of my collections in Library Thing is “had but gone now”)?
  • Long-term storage of books doesn’t mean they are lost. A big portion of the books in our house are here because we want to keep them. They sit for years untouched. Those are shelved by MDS number. Ask me for a book, and I can walk directly to it; It’s either laying about somewhere and top of mind, or it’s shelved where it can be found immediately.
  • This is morbid, but if the house burned down I could decide what books to replace.

Books are for reading

Well, technically, one can also build a thing called an anti-library. But eventually, hopefully, or at least this is what I keep telling myself: I start reading the book.

I do tend to read the entire book. But generally I read the table of contents first to see what I’m getting into. If I think the book is going to be a really deep read—something I want to read more than once, refer to, and really ingest—I probably read the Afterword first. The Afterword was written dead-last, after the book was done and the author is a different person at that point. Then maybe the Foreword, or some books have a Summary, or a Preface, whatever.

I’ve no qualms about skipping parts. For example, in books like Trust Yourself by M Wilding I skipped all the anecdotes and skipped all the workbook/exercises stuff. I ended up reading only about one-third of all of the pages. (Still, a good book by the way.)

As I’m reading, if anything quotable jumps out, I’ll capture that on the spot. This leads to me making some marks, allocating a slipbox slip address, and I’ll leave a small post-it sticking out the side. I’ve never met a book worth reading that didn’t have at least one quotable bit awaiting me within.

Slipbox

As soon as the first slip gets created from the book, that slip needs to refer to the book. That means the book itself needs to be in the slipbox. Apparently, I always wanted to be a librarian.

And now I can leave a “(2tu1)” reference on the quote’s slip.

So that’s a bit of detour, but it really only takes me about a minute. You’ll notice—first photo at top—that the sticky-note for this example book has a slipbox reference, “(2tu1)”—the parens mean “this is a reference”. I didn’t put that on the sticky-note when the book arrived. That was added when I put the book into the slipbox by creating slip “2tu1”.

But mostly, I’m just reading the book.

Identify summarizing bits

One day, I’m finished reading.

I find that even if it took me months to finish, the book’s contents remain pretty fresh in my mind. I flip through the book cover-to-cover, just skimming and noticing what I recall from reading. When I see a good, representative bit, I simply stick in a blank card at those spots. This lets me gauge how many slips my “summary” will be; Two is too few, and 20 might be too many.

Each spot has some key point that I want to include in my summary. I don’t write anything at this point. The goal is just to stick the cards into all the places that I want to include in my summary.

(I once tried using a printed template whose layout facilitated taking brief notes and had pre-printed page numbers. Folded, it doubled as a bookmark so I could build some notes as I read. When an idea leapt out, I’d find the page number on the sheet and jot a note. It was a neat idea, but didn’t work out for me.)

Summarization

Finally, I go through all the spots I’ve identified and I do a little underlining. I jot the basics of the idea on a slip and address it. So for this example book, whose slip is addressed “2tu1”, this first of the summary slips goes “below” as “2tu1a.” Next summary slip would be, “2tu1b”, “2tu1c” etc.

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When in doubt

We once spent 7 years remodeling our house while living in it. *shudder* Note to self: Don’t ever do that again. In such a journey, you must learn to navigate a precarious balance between perfection, and omgbecky just get it done! Reflooring the entire house? …maybe lean toward the former. Gutting the only bathroom to subfloor and bare stud walls? …maybe lean toward the later. (Ask me in person and I’ll tell you some stories.) But there is a huge swath of work that falls in the middle area.

“When in doubt, rip it out,” became my matra in those years. Yes, we could fix, cover, repair, patch, shift, or ignore whatever-it-was. And we’d then forever live with the fixed, covered, repaired, patched, shifted, or… well, you can’t ignore it forever. So any time there was doubt, we ripped it out. Dug it up. Tore it down. And then—as time, energy, and money—were available we did it the right way. Or at least, the way we wanted it.

This principle works spendidly too for things other than one’s physical domicile. “What would be the right way, or at least the way I’d want it to be?” will lead you on a journey of exploration.

What’s the right way to repair the crown wash atop our chimney?

How should I convey all these features, benefits and doo-dads to new community members?

How should I organize this book I’m writing?

What would whatever-this-is be like if I did it the Right Way(tm)? …why is that the Right Way(tm) and what if I did it differently?

…but this is actually a post about my slipbox. I’ve not posted recently about it, and it continues to grow. Mostly I continue collecting quotes. But the main part of the slipbox is growing slowly as well. The topmost-level numbers are major divisions, conceptually. “4” is a hierarchy of analects. (I’ll pause while you search.) And “2” is for books.

Any time I want to refer to a book, I add a reference like, “(2b2)” on a card. I had setup the 2nd-level-letters to be MDS leading digits. So that’s a reference to the 2nd book in the 2b section. The point isn’t to understand the structure, when I see a reference… I can just go find the slip. I’m simpy explaining how it was setup. When I set it up, I thought a structural organization would be the way I’d like it.

I was thinking I’d put notes about the books elsewhere in the slipbox. Turns out I’d rather keep a few notes directly “under” the slip for the book itself. But that means I can’t easily find Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow—great book by the way. I have to go find its MDS number and then go into that slipbox section. So yesterday I pulled all the slips out of the “2” section and redesigned the entire thing.

“When in doubt, rip it out.”

The section is now simply organized by title. That book is now under “2to1″ —”to” from the title, first book under “to”. But the first rule of a slipbox is that you cannot change the address of a card. Other cards likely refer to it. And my blog posts have slip addresses on them. And I have digital documents with slip addresses in the names.

So I spent hours hunting and searching through everything, updating blog posts, updating filenames of digital files, updating notations on slips, … hunting down the physical books and updating the notes I keep in the books. It was a big undertaking.

If you’ve been following along with my slipbox journey, you’ve seen me write about how the slipbox enables having a conversation… with the ideas in the slipbox. It sounds wacky, I know. But my experience yesterday showed me it’s true. Every idea, every slip, were mine originally—I put them all in there. But I had an entire day’s worth of new ideas, connections, rereading parts of books, making new notes, … it was totally worth every minute, (yesterday and to date creating the slipbox.)

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