Zettelkasten Forum

The siren song of brain prosthetics

On the principle that most people have nothing to say that is worth hearing, here is my intro.

Over the years I've tried to organize and improve my note-taking, writing, drawing and research with index cards, blogs, Kanban boards, journals, mind maps, structured procrastination, spaced-repetition algorithms for long-term memory, dual-N-back for short-term memory, bookmarking sites like delicio.us and pinboard.in, flash cards, incremental reading in SuperMemo, Microsoft One Note, Scrivener, Markup, Markdown, YAML, emails to myself, wikis and straw grasping.

Of these, wikis seem to have been the most effective, until they too ran out of gas. Still, the siren song of brain prosthetics, ringing like the tinnitus in my ears, has somehow led me to the Zettelkasten Method. 

I am impressed with this community.

Post edited by ZettelDistraction on


  • edited March 30

    @ZettelDistraction wrote:
    On the principle that most people have nothing to say that is worth hearing

    There few statements that are more wrong than this statement. I never encountered any person who didn't have some things worth listening. To a good listener, any person is interesting.

    Welcome to the forums. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • edited March 30

    @ZettelDistraction, welcome to the community.

    You lucky dog to have such a low Erdős number!

    As a budding writer, I love your literation on the list of "brain prosthetics." Traveling through similar terrain, we've all landed here. I've learned on my journey that there ain't no magic bullet, no genie in a bottle, no fairy dust whose sprinkling cures my longing for a deep and meaningful experience connecting with what I learn. It takes work and time. We're all here looking for ways to share ideas to make the work a little easier, a little less likely to lead us into trouble, more engaging, more connected with our lives and goals, and more fun.

    Also, love your combo of alluding to Greek Mythology, neuroscience, and biology in the title of this post. It makes me wonder about the literary creativity of your note titles compared to my dull monikers?

    Post edited by Will on

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • @ZettelDistraction

    Welcome to the forum! Sounds like you've been around the track many times. A lot of us have.

    I love the principle and practice of Zettelkasten and reading about others' experiences in this forum. A word of warning, though - ZK is not a panacea nor is it (necessarily) simple to learn. But it is very flexible, so each person can tailor it to their own needs and ways of working.

  • Thank you for the warm welcome!

    It is true: I have been around the track (not to mention the primrose path--pardon the paralipsis) many times, including enough of those laps where one almost loses patience with life-changing methods. Decades of severe obstructive sleep apnea can "modulate" one's enthusiam too. 

    As for software,  since my iMac sits unplugged underneath my desk, I'm leaning toward Obsidian, despite the apocalyptic connotations--I'm reminded of the flake of obsidian in "The Road."

  • Ah, another SuperMemo expat! So glad to find someone who also did incremental reading! :smiley:

    I was literally just finishing a comment critiquing SM vs the ZK method, based on my experience using SM for a couple of years.


    My follow-up comment is just a couple comments down from that.

    Out of curiosity, when you did IR did you do it as shown in Wozniak's videos and in the examples of others, i.e. copying in text from a source and then selectively whittling it down into cloze deletions to memorize facts / ideas / etc?

    If so there is a much better approach through ZK that would have worked quite well with SM were it not so difficult and cranky and brittle. Love to talk more about this.

  • edited March 31

    My edits have been deleted. I had written replies twice, but at some point Save Comment morphs into Delete Comment. I lack the energy to reconstruct a third attempt. I am interested in your critique of incremental reading, however.

  • @ZettelDistraction Sorry to hear that. I look forward to discussion on this topic. My opinion is that ZK can be augmented using IR techniques, and I effectively do IR now except for the automated display and prioritization components. My reading inbox has a great many articles I've collected, many unread but several in various stages of reading and processing. This simulates the interleaving. I don't have the SM IR prioritization piece but am considering ways to implement that using scripts that query on YML front matter in the markdown files. That's pie in the sky ideas though and it may never be needed for this, as it may just be better to make outlines that group together items in the reading inbox so I can pick multiple sources on topics of interest in any priority I choose.

    So its "lazy IR" rather than programmed IR.

    My suspicion is that an Obsidian plugin or external script can be written to add the scheduled "flip" through the sources in priority order, but it isn't clear how much value that would provide.

  • edited April 1

    The distinguishing feature of Piotr Wozniak's incremental reading algorithm--at least what struck me about it--is that the readings are scheduled to be revisited and dissected into cloze deletions (or else greyed out or chopped up) in increasing intervals. This is supposed to counteract the Collector's Fallacy. Incremental reading still looks to me like a work in progress, and I abandoned it after a few attempts in SuperMemo and in Anki, using plugins for IR. The opportunity cost of using incremental reading versus not using it doesn't seem to justify the effort.

    I did not watch Piotr's videos--I was using IR before Piotr posted any. My other experience with incremental reading was on the receiving end of it, in an extended correspondence with Piotr Wozniak. The replies were extracted from email entered into his Incremental Reading queue, and they arrived, edited down to the parts he decided to respond to, only after the incremental reading algorithm scheduled them, at ever increasing intervals. Eventually the replies stopped altogether. It was as if GOLEM XIV itself, the superluminal supercomputer of Stanislaw Lem's Imaginary Magnitude, had computationally modelled enough of its human interlocutor's intellectual range as to obviate further interaction.

    Speaking of opportunity costs, I like Sacha Fast's idea to use a low tech pen and notebook to begin with. The reasons he gives are convincing. I am very much in the neophyte stage.

  • @ZettelDistraction @davecan - can I join the conversation?

    The more you talk about IR, the more I see that this is one of the key ways I interact with my notes, although I'd call it something different. The incremental part, I'm onboard with 100%! The Progressive movement toward understanding. The reading part was my sticking point. Idiosyncratically, reading seems too passive, too much like sitting on the couch with a tea and the iPad. I want to think that what is meant by IR is really Incremental Editing, moving a note along to better and better formulate novel ideas. To use a gardening metaphor, weeding and pruning, fertilizing, and harvesting. I'm sure now that is what you mean by IR. Not simply re-reading a note, re-familiarizing yourself with an idea. Instead, biting into it and munching it, extending it, seeing where it connects with other ideas.

    First, I on-board an idea into a note. Usually, the note is in rough and frankly embarrassing shape, and then comes the fun of editing it in place, and it morphs and changes into a unique idea.

    Technology helps by putting a list of IR/e candidate notes in front of your eyes at the appropriate time. I think this is a GTD principle. For me, I use Keyboard Maestro to create a template inserted into my morning daily journaling session. It has x-callback-url links that present notes in a way that helps me Incrementally Read/Edit them.

    What I have a hard time with is the prioritization of which notes get presented. I have to admit that this is something I've only thought about in the small, small world between my ears. I can't see where any algorithm can predict relevance. By that, I mean an algorithm can't know the best idea for me to engage with at any given moment. I keep presently created notes in the priority queue, figuring that they must be relevant, and I mix in a random idea for Increment Read/Editing. I also look at everything I created 365 days and 730 days ago, mostly for laughs and to see how far I've come.

    This is only a partial snapshot that shows 26 notes for IR/e! Some take only a moment to re-read and get no edits. Some are incrementally edited and further integrated into my zettelkasten, and then they are re-queued into tomorrow's IR/e session.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • edited April 2

    @Will Of course you can join. In the absence of studies on the effectiveness of incremental reading, however this is interpreted in ZK, I'll stick with a minimalist ZK.

    I'm taking my time reading through the introduction, Ahrens's book, the forum, etc.,--even Nathan L. King on the intellectual virtues. Again I find myself in agreement with @sfast, who wrote elsewhere in the forum that Zettels come in two types (roughly): source Zettels (citations) and interpreted or worked-through Zettels.

    Perhaps the Zettelkasten Method encourages the formation of chunks (as in the CHREST model of chunking networks) and the schemata of cognitive load theory. This is purely speculative and vague--too vague (not to mention obvious) to rise to the level of thought. I'm far from an expert.

    For definitions and remarks on the state of the modeling art on chunks, schemata, see Fernand Gobet, Peter C. R. Lane, and Martyn Lloyd-Kelly. Chunks, Schemata, and Retrieval Structures: Past and Current Computational Models.

    We're a long way from incremental reading. I hope I don't trip the spam filter again.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • edited April 2

    Apropos of nothing, after losing a debate with myself, I've decided to try Zettlr.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • @Will

    Technology helps by putting a list of IR/e candidate notes in front of your eyes at the appropriate time.

    Yes this is it exactly. One distinction though, its not about relevance but rather about priority. As you say it would be difficult/impossible to make an algorithm essentially read your mind to identify relevant reading. (interesting caveat below)

    Since the term and concept of IR was coined by the SuperMemo creator it is traditionally defined in relation to this process: progressively read and process into flashcards, until source is completely processed.

    All I'm thinking about is changing that into: progressively read and process into zettels, until source is completely processed.

    Once that distinction is made many of the remaining IR principles can be applied. In particular a prioritization value applied to source notes would allow the user to enter "IR mode" at which point the app would then begin displaying source notes to the user in priority order. The user can then choose to work on the displayed source note by reading some more of the source and taking notes (or watching, or whatever) or decide to skip it for now. In either case the user can also optionally adjust the priority up or down. Once the work with that source is complete for the current session (whether it was worked on or skipped) the user "flips" to the next source in priority order and the note is displayed and the user can begin processing the next source.

    In SM this is traditionally presented as having copy-pasted the entire source material into the source note and then iteratively whittling it down into individual flashcards. But the material doesn't have to be in the note itself, though it can be if desired and if it can be pasted in without technical limitations.

    So its really about programming attention by showing the sources in priority order.

    There's also an element of pseudo-randomness added in with SM so they aren't strictly in a linear sequence, because they are interleaved with the flashcards as well. So you may get a flashcard, then an IR to process, then two more flashcards, then three IR's to process, etc. It's shuffled each day.

    * Note however I can envision a capability in an app where, given a source note with specific metadata / URL in the YML front matter, the app accesses the source and indexes it behind the scenes. Then when you are interacting with an individual zettel the app correlates the information in the zettel with the indexed information and recommends additional notes to consider looking at, including potentially relevant source notes. This could get messy though but would be an interesting avenue of pursuit.)

  • @ZettelDistraction Yes ZK definitely encourages chunking of concepts and linking them in a mesh of interrelated thoughts. It enables systems thinking and pattern finding.

    Agree with you that IR is not something that can truly be replicated easily. There is something remarkably powerful about how SM works internally in this matter. But given its fairly brittle support structure, very limited ecosystem, and continued reliance on increasingly outdated technology I just don't see it as a viable long-term knowledge development tool like the ZK method. Hopefully the SM algorithm will be set free from the current technical constraints and we will see an ecosystem form around it, unlocking its potential.

  • In other news, my onboard ethernet adapter refused to work. The hardware was fine. Restore points failed. A network reset left both the wifi and the ethernet adapters unusable. I had to reset Windows 10 with user files preserved. Now re-installing apps. I'm close to resuscitating my iMac and installing The Archive. Another wasted Sunday.

  • @GeoEng51 Now I'm familiar with programs that undermine restore points--I won't install those. OBS, Virtual Box...on my machine these create points of no return. My next astounding feat will be to solve the "something went wrong" Microsoft error when re-enabling email accounts. Under Windows, the personal is corporate. :#

  • edited April 10

    I have settled on Zettlr+MikTeX+Pandoc+Zotero+BetterBibTeX, partly because of a superannuated iMac, and because of extensive familiarity with LaTeX and BibTeX (at one time, at any rate).

    I feel compelled to defend Ahrens against an academic review of How to Take Smart Notes. The reviewer misses Ahrens's longueurs on concision, and then suggests, bizarrely, that Ahrens missed an opportunity to remark that the neo-liberal university has created economic pressures that make books like "How to Take Smart Notes" necessary. To begin with, Ahrens's book distinguishes itself from other such books--leaving aside whether they take the neoliberal university as given. While academics face ideologically motivated economic pressures, the book is interesting to writers under neoliberalism or otherwise. If Ahrens truly missed an opportunity to comment decisively on the need for his book among academics, who might stand accused of perpetuating an unjust system by creating their own Zettelkasten, then academics need not read it. Or they could read the review and add the requisite apologia to their Zettelkasten.

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