How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

The central idea of this book is that a system of note taking can help us incorporate our reading into a process of engaged learning. This involves three levels of note taking:

  1. Inspiration: quick notes on ideas that occur to us in a flash of insight
  2. Reading: reading highlights from books and articles that capture the gist of the content
  3. Permanent: Relating our inspired and reading notes into a body of work that reflects our worldview

The keys are to put our inspired and reading notes into a slip box to help us develop unique insights and to interrelate the permanent work so they remain singular and discete, but at the same time serve as part of a network of relationships that can feed into projects, or specific pieces of writing designed for some purpose.

The thrust of this effort is to develop a note taking process that invites us to build and learn as part of an integrated process. It reminded me a bit of the text based social science and two computer revolutions I mentioned previously. (I’ll put the links in later.)

Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning

“Spaced repetition is a centuries-old psychological technique for efficient memorization & practice of skills where instead of attempting to memorize by ‘cramming’, memorization can be done far more efficiently by instead spacing out each review, with increasing durations as one learns the item, with the scheduling done by software. Because of the greater efficiency of its slow but steady approach, spaced repetition can scale to memorizing hundreds of thousands of items (while crammed items are almost immediately forgotten) and is especially useful for foreign languages & medical studies.

I review what this technique is useful for, some of the large research literature on it and the testing effect (up to ~2013, primarily), the available software tools and use patterns, and miscellaneous ideas & observations on it.”

-Gwern Branwen, “Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning.” March 11, 2009.

The obvious application for spaced repetition is learning vocabulary.

The 85% Rule of Learning

“…we learn best when we aim to grasp something just outside the bounds of our existing knowledge. When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up. We learn best when we aim to grasp something just outside the bounds of our existing knowledge. When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up.”

—Alexis Blue, “15% failure is the learning ‘sweet spot’.” Futurity. November 11, 2019.

The Power and Pitfalls of Adderall: Daring to Be Disinteresting

“Evolution is a nice, big idea. It connotes the glacial pace of an unmeditated act unfolding upon species, concepts, and ecosystems. It certainly doesn’t usually get branded as a feeling. But a couple months ago I felt this thing. Maybe a little like what a mommy feels when her fetus kicks the wall crossed with how the baby feels when it gets its pre-K diploma, and the best word I can come up with for it is evolution. Not the glacial kind, but the real-time, Matrix-flavored kind. I was too busy barreling through the wicked pipe of a 30-milligram Adderall to think about it much when it happened, though. Half an hour into my sunrise dose, I logged into, the extraordinarily put-together training site used by corporate operations to keep their employees up on hot software trends. As an avid Monday Night Football chyron fan, I had promised myself for years that I would learn After Effects as soon as I had the free time; the chemical wave pushed me through an especially potent laziness that has always kept me from becoming the motion graphics expert I knew I wanted to be.

There I sat, glued to my chair, watching the instructional videos on my laptop, guzzling Coke Zero, and practicing in the software on my external monitor. I optimized my posture over the course of the first few hours, ironing out repetitive stress pain as it came along, taking smoke breaks between every chapter: ‘Getting Started With After Effects,’ ‘Learning to Animate,’ ‘Precomposing and Nesting Compositions.’ As the sun dipped below the horizon, I found myself at chapter 19: ‘Rendering and Compression,’ and finally, at dusk, Chapter 21: ‘Conclusion.’ …I internalized After Effects. As the credits rolled, Neo flashed into my head. ‘I know After Effects,’ he said, opening his eyes and staring up at Morpheus through my corneas.”

Trent Wolbe, “How I hacked my brain with Adderall: a cautionary tale.” The Verge. July 26, 2012

How to Teach Yourself Hard Things

  1. Identify what you don’t understand (maybe the most important one)
  2. Have confidence in your knowledge
  3. Ask questions
  4. Do research

…Taking a bit of extra time to take a piece of knowledge that you’re pretty sure of (“there are 65535 ports, Wikipedia said so”) and make it totally ironclad (“that’s because the port field in the TCP header is only 16 bits”) is super useful because there is a big difference between “I’m 97% sure this is true” and “I am 100% sure about this and I never need to question it again”. Things I know are 100% true are way easier to rely on.”

—Julia Evans, “How to teach yourself hard things.” September 1, 2018.

I would add that the an important pitfall is those things that we are sure is 100% true that aren’t true. Being a philosophical skeptic, this is probably everything.