I know I’ve been off on two long tangents recently: The long series of posts about practicing self reflection kept this blog busy for two months, and before-and-after that I’ve been doing a deep rabbit hole exploration of Slipboxes. I’m still yappin’ about Slipboxes, but I think we’ll be seeing more random things here in April.
But before that happens here’s another thing related to the Slipbox: I found this really detailed summary of Ahrens’s, How to Take Smart Notes. I’ve been reading and studying these notes, as I’m reading and studying the book. Take a look at this post, How to Take… —the site is literally named The Rabbit Hole. You’ve been warned.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
~ J R R Tolkien
At least, one Slipbox to rule over all the various mediums of information I have.
You see, the Slipbox also solves a problem I’ve known I’ve had, (stop laughing at me!) for a long time: PDF documents get lost. Not, “I can’t find it,” lost but lost under the gently falling snow which ultimately covers all. For a while, I used to print and comb-bind stacks of things from their digital format, just so they would be “equal citizens” in my spaces with other professionally printed things. But, (aside from the killing trees wastefulness of it,) this is a crap-ton of work. Yes I have them in a folder, (not on a hard drive but rather on a file server with a redundent array of drives backed up into the cloud,) but I never look in that folder. Out of sight, and they’re soon out of mind.
The Slipbox solved the real problems of finding a PDF and remembering to continue reading it. (Aside: Bear in mind that being able to print-to-PDF means I can turn anything from the Internet into a PDF. You should too.) I simply create a slip in the Slipbox for the digital document; When Where Matters: How Psychoactive Space is Created and Utilised, wound up at 8d in the Slipbox, (still early days in my fledgling Slipbox’s addresses.) So I prepended “8d – ” to the filename and then threw it into the storage folder.
Perhaps you guessed that I have a small mark on the slip too? I do. It’s a little sort of dog-eared document icon telling me that there’s a digital document “attached” to this slip. Done. Now the slip points to the digital doc; Digital doc points back to the slip.
And then I tossed that slip on my desk with the stack of books I’m currently reading. Second problem solved: Digital PDF is now on the same footing at things physically on my desk.
The things that worked out weren’t _supposed_ to work, so I realized on my birthday: I had no plan for after 40. As often happens at forks in the path—college graduation, quarter-life crisis, midlife crisis, kids leaving home, retirement—questions started to bubble to the surface.
~ Tim Ferris from, Tribe of Mentors
If you’ve not heard of this book, my pull-quote is from Tim’s Introduction… eight lines into the book. The book is 597 pages, and the pages of the book—not including the hard covers, just the pages—are 1-and-three-quarters inches thick. It’s can serve as a functional foot-rest in a pinch. (But interestingly, not as a doorstop since it’s mysteriously light for its size. I keep wondering if the back half of the book is hollowed out, as in a prison escape movie, hiding a whoopie-cushion full of Helium.)
Anyway, if you’ve not heard of this book, find a copy and start reading the Introduction.
This book arrived in our house November, 2018. I started into it and it is, as one would hope, chock full of stupidly interesting ideas from so many different people. I got through 64 pages before, for some reason which I only just today realized, I put it down one evening. And then I didn’t pick it back up for, well, two years. I mean I moved it around a lot, but whatever it was that made me _want_ to read the book, there was something else that made me _not_ want the book.
You ever have sand slipping through your fingers? I didn’t realize it, (until today,) but that’s what made me walk away from the book. Yes there’s some malarky and woo-wu in the book; But there’s so much that I want to dig further into. Back in 2018, what was I going to do with that? …blog about every other page? Instinctively I knew that wouldn’t do _me_ much good.
But today? Today I’m comfortable knowing that I can bump into ideas, mull them over, and produce a contextualized, reduced to something I’m interested, idea… and drop that into the Slipbox.
I think there are some specific reasons why Zettelkasten has worked so well for me. I’ll try to make those clear, to help readers decide whether it would work for them. However, I honestly didn’t think Zettelkasten sounded like a good idea before I tried it. It only took me about 30 minutes of working with the cards to decide that it was really good. So, if you’re like me, this is a cheap experiment. I think a lot of people should actually try it to see how they like it, even if it sounds terrible.
If you’ve been following along with my personal knowledge system, Zettelkastën and Slipbox journey of discovery you might be interested in this deep, DEEP dive someone else wrote. This is one of the many things I read all over the place before beginning my experiments. I don’t agree with his “30 minutes … to decide”; It’s taken me a little bit /sarcasm longer than that. But I do agree with his assessment. And everything else in that link.
When I began trying to understand how a Slipbox would work for me, I think I was most stuck on the idea of entry points: Where and how would I find myself going “into” the Slipbox?
Turns out, I’m “in” the Slipbox a lot simply because I’m often adding things to it. So of course I run into other slips and ideas inside the Slipbox.
But I’ve had a lingering concern: What happens when I want to locate something in particular within the Slipbox?
All the instructions and guidance I see caution one to not try to structure the Slipbox from the beginning; cautions against trying to incept the perfect categorization of all the stuff you don’t yet realize you are going to want to add… They are correct; that way madness lies. And so I set off creating top-level slips, (slip address “6” is an ambitious, “Mastery Projects,” because I wanted to add a slip 6a1 about “concept shaped holes”.)
But still that lingering concern: What happens when I want to locate something in particular within the Slipbox?
And so I’m stealing a trick from the even-older-than-Slipboxes/Zettelkastën methods of creating commonplace books: How to create an index on physical media (journals, blank books, or little paper cards going into a Slipbox!)
slip 4c is “Slipbox indices” slip 4c1 is “people by last name”
Here I’m hacking the Slipbox addressing system. Yes, I’m leaving room for a later 4c2 that could be another index, by topic. But mostly, I’m making sure that the slips under 4c1 can then be letters— 4c1a, 4c1b, 4c1c and so on.
And here’s the hack from commonplace books: To Build an index that doesn’t get out of hand, take the first letter and the next letter which is a vowel.
If you’re wondering, that means there could be 26×6 slips in this index. (a-z gives 26 first characters, times a, e, i, o, u, y gives 6 second characters.) But in reality I’ve reached about 40 slips and I’ve not had to add another for a while now.
What’s on each slip? Just references to other slips in the Slipbox…
4c1wa has Ward, William A — pj4.28 Wayne, John — 4a7 Ward, Bryan — 4b21 Washington, George — 4a19
It’s not sorted. It’s simply in the order I added those names. If the card overflows, I’ll add an identically addressed 4c1wa since the items on those two 4c1wa cards aren’t in any particular order.
What? Is it worth it? …yes. I’ve already gone in to add a person, only to discover they are already in the Slipbox somewhere completely different and that’s a connection I hadn’t noticed before…
BOOM! There’s the other part of the Slipbox I wondered about: How is this thing going to make new things fall out of my thinking.
In these blog posts I’m trying to capture my initial experiences using a Slipbox. These posts are tedious to write and relatively long reads– just to capture one tiny idea. Sorry about that.
Why am I writing this post about the Slipbox?
When [if?] you start a Slipbox, you quickly wonder: Should I “import” everything [glancing about, books, Evernote, blogs… whatever it is you have]? Woa, that’d be a lot of work. It’s obviously not necessary that one “import” all your previous whatever-you-have in your life into a Slipbox; It’d be your Slipbox so there’s no “necessary.”
But there is some heated discussion about this: should one, or should one not, back import? The consensus is DON’T. The theory is that I have collected too much stuff. (That feeling of having collected much, but yet not accomplished what I want to with it, is part of what I’m trying to wrestle to the ground.) Putting anything into a physical Slipbox is a little more friction. And that’s one of the key points.
On the other hand, I have a curated collection of things here on my web site. And one dear-to-me tag is for specific podcast episodes I’ve heard over the years. That’s why I’ve been working through adding these particular podcasts to the Slipbox.
Today I found a podcast episode that I listened to in 2017. I was adding a slip about this podcast, noting that it is a wonderful introduction to Stoicism. I’m far beyond the contents of this podcast now, having done a lot of reading of original source, and modern analysis. But it’s something I wanted in the Slipbox, for the next time someone asks. (Elsewhere I pointed out that writing URLs is bonkers, so what I do is add a slip to the Slipbox and add a little symbol to remind myself there’s a corresponding blog post.)
So there I was adding that podcast, adding the person-reference (not explained here how/why I do that, sorry) …and OH SNAP! That podcast is with William Irvine. Back then, I had no idea who he is/was.
I’m currently reading a book by W B Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life. It’s an introduction to the ancient art of Stoic joy. (It’s an interesting book, etc but that’s not the point today.)
The point is that this connection was one I had missed. If I had had that podcast in my Slipbox, I would have noticed when I was first looking into this book.
Not sure all that typing is of any help. But there it is none the less. :)
Only recently did I become aware of the key point of a Slipbox: It can capture your thinking and enables you to have a discussion with your own thinking. I’m aware of this key point, but I’m not entirely certain it will work. I am convinced that the only way to find out is for me to try the experience.
There are many ways to do capture, and those ways are useful for various things. For example, capturing information with the context necessary to use, or do, the thing captured:
GTD is based on storing, tracking, and retrieving the information related to the things that need to get done. Mental blocks we encounter are caused by insufficient ‘front-end’ planning. This means thinking in advance, generating a series of actions which can later be undertaken without further planning. The mind’s “reminder system” is inefficient and seldom reminds us of what we need to do at the time and place when we can do it. Consequently, the “next actions” stored by context in the “trusted system” act as an external support which ensures that we are presented with the right reminders at the right time.
Other examples are: A collection of books (at personal or institutional scale); personal journals; note-taking (think school studying); at-scale capture of information (Evernote, and ad hoc ways of doing that oneself). There are many more: Personal or team Wikis; Online collaboration systems (Miro, Emvi, et al).
I’ve tried all of the above. Some I’m still using—big time using! Collections of books, notes, journals, Wiki’s, and others.
And yet, something was still missing. The first problem was that I could only sometimes sense there was something missing. The best I can describe it: It’s like hearing a sound and not being sure you heard it. Later, in a very different location, you think you heard the sound. Eventually, you know the sound, without being able to describe it. It’s a sort of pattern in my mind, into which something should fit.
So the current experiment with a Slipbox is my attempt to place a ‘something’ into this pattern— this concept-shaped hole. I will continue to write about this as I go along. Today I wanted to try to take a snapshot of the hole.
Today, a deep dive into how slips get added to the Slipbox. I’ve been working on the Slipbox the last few days—I cannot wait to look back on these posts and the Slipbox in another decade. :) But mostly it’s been meta work: Deciding on format for the slips, and beginning to sketch out the conceptual superstructure of the Slipbox, … tedious and boring and the sort of process and organization work which I flippin’ love. *ahem* What follows here is a story, with photos. I’m going to go through adding three new slips to the Slipbox.
I was reading this book (image below) and I came to the section in the lower right. I thought that was interesting. The underlined bit in particular is a really great sentence about Stoicism. (I’ll get to the actual sentence in a moment.)
You might be wondering how I manage to make books lie open so neatly. There’s a clever hack (image below) for that. See also, Book holder for paperbacks. I’ve graduated from using a pencil, as I describe in the Life Hack linked, to using these gorgeous steel rods I found. Furthermore, because I’m insane, I used heat-shrink tubing in a lovely shade of blue to cover the ends so they don’t mark up tables and such.
Back to that sentence which caught my eye as I was reading.
I grabbed a blank 3×5 card—what I’m using for the “slips” in my Slipbox—and I copied the bit I want from the book. (image below) I did not write that “5a1” at the top initially; After I did a lot more of what I describe in this post, it occurred to me to write this post, and I didn’t feel like rewriting this slip to take a photo without the “5a1”.
This slip has the bit I wanted to capture, then the page number, and the “(2a1)” is a slip reference; it’s the address of this particular book’s slip in the Slipbox. These things don’t have to be in any particular layout. They are all obvious in the context. What page number could I possibly mean, other than page 33 in the book itself? What could possibly be a (2a1) in the Slipbox—a book, but I could also just go look at (2a1).
All our books have a note in the front (image below) which say “LT” and which has the major Dewey Decimal System number. I’ll let it settle in, the level of commitment it takes to have done this for every book in the house. But it’s easy to maintain, just do it for each new book as they arrive. The “LT” is a reference to Library Thing, which is a magical web site that tracks library contents. In LT I know every book I’ve ever owned, which are currently in the house, I have a wishlist, etc..—going to a bookstore is magical when armed with that knowledge.
I may as well mention that the Dewey number is on the spine too. (image below) Yes, on every book. Yes, the books in the house are also shelved by Dewey Decimal. I learned a lot about what librarians actually do when I tried to find the Dewey Decimal number for a book—hint, it’s an art, not a science.
So it’s easy to figure out that the book I’m quoting from on this new slip is in the Slipbox at (2a1) because it’s on the postit in the book. I jot that on the slip, “this is where I got this from: Page 33 from the book at slip 2a1.”
Ok, I’ve capture that little quote. Where do I put this new slip in the Slipbox? Well, I think it’s a great idea about Stoicism, and Stoicism is in the Slipbox already. Below is a photo of the slip whose address is (5)—that’s the “5” at the top left. This is an “early days” slip so it has a silly-short address. This slip is just a list of topics I have under “Philosophy,” today just the “a” section for Stoicism. There is a boring “5a” too (not shown.) This seems silly, until I get to “g” under Philosophy, and that slip is 200 slips farther along in the box. Then I’ll be flipping through looking for that “silly” (5g) slip.
So (5a) already exists, and it is the home of “Stoicism” in my Slipbox. So where do I put my newest slip with this little quote from book (2a1)? I flip to (5a) and realize there’s nothing after it. So this new slip becomes (5a1). I wrote that (5a1) on there dead-last. And then I tossed it into the Slipbox behind (5a).
I did all that stuff to make that new (5a1) slip, and then I went back to reading the book. A few pages later I find this…
I scribble on the margin (above) since this is interesting. There’s a tiny “16” there. I look at this book’s notes—the book I’m reading in the photo—and it’s a reference to a book I actually have. (There’s also a tiny “17,” but it’s not a book I have.) I grab the referenced book and find the referenced page, starts lower-left (image below)… (I’d love to say the Dewey shelving was handy, but I am also reading this book! So it was sitting close at hand already.)
I had started reading this book before I had a Slipbox. When I looked at it today though, I realized that I’d have captured this exact bit… if I’d had a Slipbox.
Not shown: I made a (2a2) in for this book. Looks much like the (2a1) image above. I added (2a2) to the note in the front of the book.
Then I made a new slip (image below) for this bit about Stoicism… (I also added “pg 20” after taking this photo.) The note in the front of the book says “LT 171 (2a2)”—but I just made (2a2) anyway.
The cool part about this is the slip can lay around if I feel like having it close by. It’s a thought, and I know where I got the thought. When (if!) I want to put it into the Slipbox…
I flip to (5a) for Stoicism… there’s a (5a1) already, so this slip becomes (5a2). I add “5a2” to the top of the slip, I date the slip (the dates are “when it was added” to the Slipbox, not “when I wrote it”,) and toss it in the Slipbox.
A Guide to the Good Life by WB Irvine is the first book, way above. That’s the one I was reading this morning that started all of this. The next image is (2a1), the slip I created for this book.
Don’t panic. I’m not adding a slip for every book. This isn’t a card catalog for the entire library. This slip got added to create a home for the next card…
I have a feeling that this book is going to be referred to often. (Often enough to warrant adding it to the Slipbox.) Now, as I find (2a1)—aka references in the Slipbox to this book—when I flip to (2a1), I immediately see (2a1a) which tells me what the book is about. Or least what Irvine hopes the book is about. :)
Continuing my thinking about personal knowledge management systems, it’s time to set down my method for pointing to the things on the Internet from a paper system.
The obvious way to do this is to simply write the URL. This is also horrible. URLs are long, and worse they are often, (but not always,) case-sensitive. I’m never going to write a URL in cursive, so I’m left with printing it, and my preference is an all-caps block style, which doesn’t render lowercase characters. The solution of course is what’s called a URL shortener. Hold that thought.
But there is a bigger problem: URLs change. Or more correctly, the resource goes away or is moved. This is referred to as “link rot.” I want to create links in the context of a Slipbox, which I’m expecting to use for a few decades. All the URLs will surely rot. So I’d love to find a way to make links to URLs a little more like a reference to a book, journal, or other physical object.
First, it’s important to remember that such a link would be in the context of a slip in my Slipbox. So the “why is this interesting” will be on the slip. If, (when!) that link rots, I’ve obviously not lost what I captured on the card. What I want, in my solution for linking from paper to the Internet, is some way to capture a little bit of the actual resource—the thing the URL refers to.
Hey! I have that already, it’s my blog. I frequently quote a little and then describe what I’m linking to, and then perhaps riff off that, go deeper, or make some connection.
Recall that every slip in a Slipbox has an address. It’s a baklava-layering of letters and numbers and they are easy to read/write. So I could create redirections on my blog, (this is easy to do.) I could make “a42o17x3”, (some card’s address on which I want to link to a URL) would lead to the blog post with the actual full URL. On the card, I just leave an indication that there’s a URL—maybe that’s a litlte ↬ or something easy to write. Then, when creating the slip to capture the link (and its context/why) I go to the blog and create that redirection (and the actual blog post of course.)
I suspect you’re boggled, but to me that’s easy. But I can make it easier: Just put the slip’s address somewhere in the blog post. Now I’ve eliminated the entire redirection / URL-shortening system. (Which is digital, and therefore will eventually break or become overloaded and crash etc.) I’m already working hard to backup and protect the contents of my blog, so just add a tiny little string in the blog post; I could simply type slip:a42o17x3 and I’m done.
There’s another thing that clicks into place: All the URLs I’ve already captured on my blog might be things I want to import into the Slipbox. How on Earth would I do that? Turns out it’s easy. I already have a website serialize tool that knows how to “show me one year ago today” as a link to my own site. (and any other year-back, so each day I glance at a few previous year’s today’s posts.) This ensures I’ll soon glance at all the URLs I’ve already captured giving me the opportunity to create slips in the Slipbox.
I feel like some things are starting to come together here. ymmv. :)