Launching "From my Slipbox"


Niklas Luhmann's original Zettelkasten

This post is the first in a series I'm launching on statistics, machine learning, productivity, and related interests: "From my slipbox".

A slipbox ("Zettelkasten" in German, translating to card-box) is a personal written record of ideas that you've gotten from things you've read, seen, or heard. Each Zettel is a card containing a writeup of a single concept that you've thoroughly digested and translated into your own words. The cards are also annotated with the addresses of other, related ideas captured in your slip-box, allowing you to follow the threads of ideas.

The Zettelkasten idea is credited to mid-20th-century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who spent decades building a physical slip-box in order to flesh out his ideas on a theory of society. It was constructed like a library card catalog, with ordered unique IDs for every card/idea (see the photo above -- it actually was housed in a library card catalog, apparently). 

 These days, a slip-box is more likely than not to be digital, and there is specialized software to support it. The Archive seems to be especially popular among ZK aficionados, but I just noticed that it is only supported on MacOS. My own choice of tool is, which is supported on all architectures (including Linux!), and supports math markdown. Both tools use local markdown files so that your data is not stored in a proprietary format (links to both tools are below). I store my ZK in a private Github repository for safety and versioning support.

There are plenty of people who build their ZK using physical cards and boxes, just as Luhmann did, just for the pleasure of it. I understand that pleasure -- I think by writing longhand -- but there are huge benefits to hyperlinking and digital backups.

I took up Zetteling very recently, in January 2021. I've always written copious longhand notes about technical things I've read and digested, some of which have become the 'writeups' I've posted in the past on topics like Kalman filters, the backpropagation algorithm, and design of experiments. But my longhand notes sometimes get lost or accidentally thrown out, and the effort required to get from my handwritten notes to material worth publishing is sometimes a deterrent.

I got excited about making a Zettelkasten for the following reasons:

1. It encourages my writing habit

2. It lets me put my thoughts into semi-formal writing immediately, rather than waiting until I have a large writing job to do

3. It fights the brain leakage problem, wherein I quickly forget the details of what I've learned

4. Luhmann claimed that new ideas emerged spontaneously from his Zettelkasten, simply because of its massive size and interconnectedness -- sort of like a huge neural network developing consciousness (I'd like to see that happen!)

5. The promise of more easily generating quality written content from existing Zettels is appealing

6. The idea is for you to spend time 'curating' your slip-box -- rereading your ideas, making new connections, etc. -- which aids my memory, appeals to my love of organization, and makes me feel productive even when I'm too tired to actually write.

A little over a month after getting started, I've written around 150 Zettels on topics such as neural nets, productivity, project planning, variational calculus, causality, statistical modeling, and on Zetteling itself. Each one is a sort of soundbite of some story or idea I found interesting.

Every Friday, I'll be posting a Zettel from my Zettelkasten -- often technical, but sometimes relating to consulting, productivity, or other topics. 

I am hoping that this series results in conversations, and occasional 'super-Zetteling' -- making new connections to interesting content from minds beyond my own.

Some Zettelkasten resources:

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