What are the best ways of absorbing, and maintaining, knowledge?

by Arkanj3l2 min read3rd Nov 201142 comments

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Recently, I've collapsed (ascended?) down/up a meta-learning death spiral -- doing a lot less of reading actual informative content, than figuring out how to manage and acquire such content (as well as completely ignoring the antidote). In other words, I've been taking notes on taking notes. And now, I'm looking for your notes on notes for notes.

What kind of scientific knowledge, techniques, and resources do we have right now in the way of information management? How would one efficiently extract useful information possible out of a single pass of the source? The second pass? 

The answers may depend on the media, and the media might not be readily apparent. Example: Edward Boyden, Assistant Professor at the MIT Media Lab, recommends recording in a notebook every conversation you ever have with other people. And how do you prepare yourself for the serendipity of a walk downtown? I know I'm more likely to regret not having a notebook on hand than spending the time to bring one along.

I'll conglomerate what I remember seeing on the N-Back Mailing List and in general: I sincerely apologize for my lack of citation.

Notes

  • I'm on the fence about Shorthand as a note-taking technique, given the learning overhead, but I'm sure that the same has been said for touch-typing. It would involve a second stage of processing if you can't read as well as you write, but given the way I have taken notes (... "non-linearly"...), that stage would have to come about anyway. The act of translation may serve as a way of laying connective groundwork down.
  • Livescribe Pens are nifty for those who write slowly, but they need to be combined with a written technique to be of any use (otherwise you're just recording the talk, and would have to live through it twice without any obvious annotation and tagging).
  • Cornell Notes or taking notes in a hierarchy may have been the method you were taught in high school; it was in mine. The issue I have had with this format is that I found it hard to generate a structure while listening to the teacher at the same time.
  • Mind-Mapping.
  • Color-coding annotations of text has been remarked to be useful on Science Daily.
Reading
  • Speed Reading Techniques  or removing sub-vocalization would seem to have benefits.
  • Once upon a time someone recommended me the book, "How to Read a Book". Nothing ground-breaking -- outline the author's intent, the structure of his argument, and its content. Then criticize. In short, book reverse-engineering.
Retention
  • Spaced Repetition. I'm currently flipping through the thoughts of  Peter Wozniak, who seems to have made it his dire mission to make every kind of media possible Spaced Repetition'able. I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on incremental reading or  video; also, how to possibly translate the benefits of SRS to dead-tree media, which seems a bit cumbersome.

(I've also heard a handful of individuals claim that SRS has helped them "internalize" certain behaviors, or maybe patterns of thought, like Non-Violent Comunication or Bayes Theorem... any takers on this?)

  • Wikis, which seem like a good format for creating social accountability, and filing notes that aren't note-carded.  But what kind of information should that be?
  • Emotionally charged stimuli, especially stressful, tends to be remembered to greater accuracy.
  • Category Brainstorming.Take your bits of knowledge, and organize them into as many different groups as you can think of, mixing and matching if need be. Sources for such provocations could include Edward De Bono's "Lateral Thinking" and Seth Godin's "Free Prize Inside", or George Polya's "How to Solve It". I'm a bit ambivalent of deliberately memorizing such provocations -- does it get in the way of seeing originally? -- but once again, it could lay down the connective framework needed for good recall.
  • Mnemonics to encode related information seems useful.
Any other information gathering, optimising and retaining techniques worthy of mention?

 

 

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You may be very interested in a document I came across a while ago, which is one man's manifesto on note-taking that he compiled in a (free) ebook called "How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think." You can find it here: http://www.speakeasy.org/~lion/nb/

The program he sets forth is extreme, as he is quite literally trying to detail and commit to memory (on paper) his entire mind. But it contains a lot of useful advice on how to take notes that are useful, accessible, and memorable. I've implemented bits of his system and it has helped a lot in school - I've found that it's much easier and more useful to take notes when there is some method to the madness.

Oh, and if you are at all a visual thinker, Always take notes on paper. Paper offers freedom that lines of computer text simply can not: arrows, diagrams, color of pen, relative sizing of text corresponding to its importance, arrangement of elements on the page, all of these things are immediate, intuitive, and completely your own. I'll cite a paper that highlights the importance of this sort of visual language: http://www.stanford.edu/~rhorn/a/recent/artclNSFVisualLangv.pdf

I saw this! I wanted to bring it up in another LW thread on how detailed a map should one make of one's own map. The author wrote, albeit anecdotally, that he lost a creative edge while in the process increasing his mental clarity.

I didn't post the topic because reading the stream-of-consciousness may have proven a chore to some. But thanks for bringing it up.

I've also thought about this a lot.

My conclusions, in summary, are that the best way to know more stuff over the long term is reading ebooks and the internet and putting everything useful into an SRS.

Cornell notes, shorthand, mind-mapping, livescribe: who cares? You don't need to take notes. Any method of learning that involves writing down what someone says they read (it's called "university") is ridiculous. Almost anything that can be taught by a person can be taught better by a book.

Speed-reading: perhaps, I haven't done much research. Honestly, gathering new info is a tiny subset of the whole "learning stuff" problem. It's the easy part. The hard part is keeping it in memory, for which: SRS.

Mnemonics: this may be worth learning. However, most things which are worth learning can either be learned without mnemonics or only require extremely basic mnemonics (namely, linking / association). The stuff where mnemonics really shines, like memorizing long strings of numbers of decks of playing cards, is pretty much useless in real life. The stuff that's useful is textured data, data that's coherent and meaningful enough to not need mnemonic techniques (apart from simple linking/association), for instance math or programming or physics. You don't need mnemonics to learn the pumping lemma, but you do need an SRS.

One thing I've been experimenting with recently is to use SRS creatively. I add my own ideas as cards to an SRS system, and just read them every time they're due for review (failing them if the idea seems unfamiliar). Another thing I'm trying is to use SRS to re-expose me to things I've read. If you see a nice LW article, just up and copy the whole thing onto an SRS card, then just look over it when it's due for review. You can add notes to each card about how much time you should spend, like whether you should just skim over the article or read it in detail. If you're reading an ebook, just copy each section into your SRS as a re-exposure card (in addition to adding all useful facts in as active-recall cards).

Seriously, SRS with ebooks just completely subsumes all other techniques for learning stuff.

This comment gave me an interesting idea that I shall try next semester, so thank you!

In every lecture/class/seminar one attends, put exactly 3 things from that lecture into an SRS deck, and then that should cover almost all the revision required.

(The write-3-things-down idea comes from another person... possibly a famous mathematician, does anyone know who?)

For making notes I wrote an open-source hierarchical plain-text editor Notilo. It is basically a Notepad with tree structure. There were a few similar programs, but none of them had all of the features I wanted (free, Unicode, saving in database, no special syntax). The program is not finished yet; it works correctly, but it should be more pleasant to use and better optimized for very large documents. (I have stopped the development when the proverbial 20% of features fulfilled 80% of my needs.)

In real life I keep a bunch of A7 papers (for US readers: a letter size cut to 8 pieces) in a plastic envelope and a small pen. The papers are small enough to put in my pocket and bring almost everywhere. Later I write the notes to computer and discard the used papers.

Recently I made a habit to write down almost everything I learn about programming (that's my job), because I have noticed a knowledge loss when I work with some technology, then a few months or years I work with other technology, and then I come back again. This didn't happen to me when I was younger, because when I moved to a new technology, I did not return to the old one, but these days I am using a few different technologies in parallel.

(Once I thought that having a "personal wikipedia" could be great, but I don't want to put private information on internet and running a web server on a personal computer makes it very slow. But there are some programs that provide similar function without the web server.)

Today the computer media are cheap and it is easy to record anything. Problem is, your day has only 24 hours and the Moore's law ain't gonna help you about it. It could be interesting to record every conversation you ever had, but when will you listen to them? And what is the point if you won't? You need to system to search your database; at least provide some keywords to each conversation, so you can search the keywords.

Recently I've been using Evernote to organize my notes. It has a nice phone app that I can use to take quick notes while away from my computer, a computer program, and a browser plugin that lets me clip articles. When it comes to notes I try to think that every time I record an idea I would have forgotten, it is roughly equivalent to thinking of one new idea.

I tend to write out outlines after I finish books or some interesting articles partially to see the arguments more clearly and to refer back to in the future.

It's always interesting/fun to go back browse old ideas I've forgotten about.

This post is quite old but I'm curious if you ever investigated incremental reading further. I'm an IR user and I don't think there is any more effective way of managing large volumes of learning. If you have questions about it I can answer them.

Example: Edward Boyden, Assistant Professor at the MIT Media Lab, recommends recording in a notebook every conversation you ever have with other people.

The link goes to Prof. Boyden's university profile, which doesn't mention his note-taking habits. This is all I could find after spending five minutes on Google:

"He was doing three students' worth of work," says Raymond. "Every moment of his day [is] action-packed." Both his advisors recall with a laugh Boyden's habit of taking notes on all his conversations and ideas. "He does this, so far as I can tell, every waking moment," says Raymond.

Does anyone here know where more information about Boyden's approach is to be found?

I find that annotating articles really helps me retain information. This was hard for me to do online until I found diigo.com. there are some other sites that are listed on wikipedia, but this one is the best IMO.

I'm currently working on a piece of speed-reading software. It works as a browser plugin, creating a floating window in which words flash a few at a time, so that you don't have to move your eyes, and to keep pace.

If people have ideas about features it should have, I'd be interested. For example, how valuable would it be to pause after each paragraph (or group of short paragraphs) and show some sort of summary? For example, it might extract all the proper nouns and low-frequency words and make a tag cloud.

Why do you think any of that will improve reading speed? What are your goals for this software? E.g., do you want to help slow readers (150wpm), or are you trying to help fast readers (350wpm) become considerably faster?

Why do you think any of that will improve reading speed? What are your goals for this software? E.g., do you want to help slow readers (150wpm), or are you trying to help fast readers (350wpm) become considerably faster?

My reason for thinking the flashing-words-in-a-window thing will increase reading speed is that there's already software that does it, which has been confirmed to work. Most people don't use them more than briefly, though, because of the inconvenience.

My own experience was that brief usage of a speed-reading tool increased my reading speed while not using that tool, and that using a speed-reading tool increases my reading speed by enough to justify filtering most of the things I read through one.

My reason for thinking the flashing-words-in-a-window thing will increase reading speed is that there's already software that does it, which has been confirmed to work. Most people don't use them more than briefly, though, because of the inconvenience.

Software that does it (google-friendly phrase: "rapid serial visual presentation") has been available on all the major platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) for at least 15 years. I know from personal experience that on Windows and Linux, the software worked reliably and without any annoying glitches or performance problems. Yet hardly anyone uses it more than briefly. What exactly is this confirmation that you speak of that would move the expected value back to anywhere near where it was before taking into account that hardly anyone in the last 15 years has used it more than briefly?

"Hardly anyone": am I wrong about that? Can you name two people who do not have a large financial or academic-prestige stake in it who have ever used it more than briefly?

It is not enough to show that it has benefits. You also have to show that it does not have major drawbacks that cancel out the benefits. I have a specific drawback in mind that with probability .88 cancels out any benefits for the vast majority of potential users. It is not ignorance on the part of computer users or inconvenience. My experience with using it on Windows 95 and Linux was that although it would be more convenient if softwares like browsers and operating systems were better integrated with it, the inconvenience of using it is not particularly high especially after one takes into account that the user can reserve its use for longish passages while handling short passages the ordinary way. (Do not recall the name of the Windows RSVP software I tried. The Linux software was call sview.)

I have a specific drawback in mind that with probability .88 cancels out any benefits for the vast majority of potential users.

What drawback did you have in mind? I'm confused why you would allude to this without specifying what it was, and curious as to whether it's one I've already thought of and tried to mitigate, one that I've thought of but can't mitigate, or one that I haven't thought of.

I will explain the drawback I have in mind if you answer my two questions in grandparent to my satisfaction.

My reason for holding back on the explanation of the drawback is that it will require an appeal to one or two highly technical concepts (from the field of neuropsychology roughly speaking), and I know you well enough by now to know that you will probably latch onto the highly technical concepts and refuse to write or think about the only part of this thread of conversation that has any significant interest to me: namely, the fact that, unless I am extremely mistaken about your plan, you already have enough information to know that your plan of creating yet another RSVP software is a waste of time even if I had made no mention of any drawback. I predict that you will persist in not updating on this information you already have.

You seem to be under the impression that I'm implementing naive RSVP with a slightly improved UI. I've made improvements that I haven't told you about, and I'm experimenting with different variations on the concept. I believe that people don't persist with RSVP because the software is bad - in addition to the inconvenience of getting started, they periodically force task loads into timeslices where they don't fit, which derails the reader badly. I wrote my own software because I believe I've found ways to reduce how often that happens, and to reduce the disruption when it does.

If you think you know something about RSVP that I don't, just say it. Don't play games.

Are you going to follow up on this?

I would rather just drop it because grandparent's score is currently at minus 3, and by convention downvotes mean, "I don't want to see more like this".

The downvotes are for the "I will only explain if you answer my questions first" thing. If you have insights about RSVP, I do want to hear them.

(Upvoted back up to 0 because this is an entirely reasonable response! Why on earth would someone be expected to want to continue a conversation in which they were getting downvoted?)

Why on earth would someone be expected to want to continue a conversation in which they were getting downvoted?

You may not have read the context of that comment. Here's how the conversation went, from my perspective:

rhollerith: Hey, I know something very important about the project you're working on right now.
Me: And what's that?
rhollerith: Not telling. You'd just ignore me anyways. (-2)
Me: Don't play games.
...
Me: Are you going to follow up on this?
rhollerith: I'd like to drop this conversation now because I was downvoted.

Needless to say, I am quite unhappy with how this conversation went. But ending it there would make it much worse, since I don't know whether rhollerith actually noticed something important, or is defecting by accident, or if I offended him somehow and forgot about it.

You may not have read the context of that comment.

I read the context but just don't object to rhollerith exiting the conversation. You've already had your chance to punish him (via vote and social positioning) for what you perceive to be not paying you your due respect and it isn't necessarily wise for him to make himself vulnerable to another salvo if he anticipates an aggressive response. Even paying the courtesy of responding to "are you going to continue?" was probably a mistake since it allowed you to draw attention to his earlier faux pas. Either don't respond at all or respond with something thoroughly polished.

Basically I am reluctant to expect people to do things that are clearly bad for them unless I have a damn good reason to. (Even if this is a rather trivial instance with respect to degree of 'demand' and 'bad for'.)

since I don't know whether rhollerith actually noticed something important, or is defecting by accident

In rhollerith's story (if I am modelling him correctly) it would be you who was defecting by not answering the questions he had already asked. His mistake was that by social convention it is usually ok to ignore an adversary's questions, especially if witnesses aren't paying close attention. But including "to my satisfaction" was never going to be received well, even by a casual observer - it is a defection that just seems banal and almost cringe-worthy. He could have drawn attention back to his questions in a more effective manner. Perhaps by first giving the example and then hammering down the questions again.

In rhollerith's story (if I am modelling him correctly) it would be you who was defecting by not answering the questions he had already asked. His mistake was that by social convention it is usually ok to ignore an adversary's questions, especially if witnesses aren't paying close attention.

No, the mistake was that I wasn't actually interested in convincing him (or anyone) of anything - I was only trying to use the thread to collect ideas.

No, the mistake was that I wasn't actually interested in convincing him (or anyone) of anything - I was only trying to use the thread to collect ideas.

When I speak of rhollerith's mistake I speak of the deviation of his actions from an optimal path for achieving his goals. In this case particularly with respect to social goals. I didn't speak of where he violated your expectations or preferences be they professed or actual (or both). Having an accurate model of you would be relatively insignificant (and entirely redundant) when it came to predicting how his "to my satisfaction" comment would be received in the social context.

Looks to me like he was willing to talk about what you wanted to talk about if you were willing to talk about what he wanted to talk about. Unless I'm missing one of your comments, you didn't acquiesce to his request, so he didn't acquiesce to yours.

Parent is right: I wanted to extract some sort of concession or token act of reciprocity from him because I have been feeling that my efforts on LW are unappreciated. I considered extracting a promise that he would email me not more than 3 months from now and not less than 4 weeks from now with a report on where his work on RSVP has led, but I settled on, "first answer my questions, and then I will answer yours".

I have an intellectual commitment to trying to be helpful to people who are trying to improve the world and who are not destructive or irresponsible about it (e.g., who are not trial-and-erroring AGI designs) but lately I have been having trouble summoning the actual short-term motivation to do so. Either upvotes or some indication from the person I am trying to help that he considers me more than just an information-supplying machine whould probably have provided that short-term motivation in the present case.

It is no big deal because this period during which I do not feel sufficiently good about myself and my status to continue to attempt small thankless good deeds on the internet will probably pass in a few months. Alternatively I will replace thankless good deeds on the net with some other way for me to try to improve the world.

Speaking of thanks, I hereby thank wedrifid for his analysis. In my defense, I knew the downvoted comment was unsatisfactory, and I was in the process of rewriting it from scratch when I noticed I had accidentally posted it.

I have PMed jimrandomh the information he wanted. (800 words of it.) He is sincerely trying to improve the world and is doing so in a responsible non-destructive way, so I want to help him for some value of "want".

I have been feeling that my efforts on LW are unappreciated.

Do you think this is specific to you, or is it just that trying to improve the world is in general less rewarding than it ought to be?

That's too general a question to answer in a reasonable amount of time!

One way to limit the question is to replace it with this next:

Do you think this is specific to you, or is it just that trying to improve the world by pointing out errors in comments on LW is less rewarding than it ought to be?

Would you like an answer to the more specific question?

Yes, I'd be interested to know if you think your own efforts on LW are less appreciated than other people's, and why.

Also, I would tend to think that pointing out errors in LW comments is one of the better deals currently available in terms of social reward per unit of effort. I'm curious what you had in mind when you said "replace ... with some other way for me to try to improve the world".

I'd be interested to know if you think your own efforts on LW are less appreciated than other people's.

If you are asking whether I believe my status here or my karma score is unfairly low, the answer is no.

When I wrote in great great grandparent that "I have been feeling that my efforts on LW are unappreciated," I meant that my karma score and my perception of my own status here is insufficiently high to continue to motivate me to point out errors here, give thoughtful answers to questions here, etc.

Parenthetically, I would probably have an easier time motivating myself to continue participating on LW if LW were not growing with the result that comments by people I have gotten to know and like, such as jimrandomh and yourself, are mixed in with many comments by people I know nothing about. Of course there is significant global expected utility in attracting many new people to LW that trumps my personal preferences. ADDED. "Continuing to participate" was the wrong phrasing because I will almost certainly keep on using LW to help me learn. The thing I am having trouble motivating myself to continue to do (partly because there's no objective indication I'm doing significant good) is to use LW help others learn, help others realize there is a flaw in their plan to improve the world, etc.

I'm curious what you had in mind when you said "replace ... with some other way for me to try to improve the world".

Well, I could spend the time I would have spent trying to help people on LW on open-source software development. I am confused about what you are after with this question, so I won't say more yet.

I would tend to think that pointing out errors in LW comments is one of the better deals currently available in terms of social reward per unit of effort

When I started to do it, I believed that it is one of the better deals in terms of expected increase in global utility per unit of my effort, but the lowness of the rate at which I am being upvoted contradicts that original belief, and it would be unwise of me to ignore that metric of how effective I am at achieving what I set out to achieve given that I can find other ways of improving the world that also have good metrics attached to them that I might do better at.

Finally, I declare Crocker's rules.

Interesting. There seem to be two separate issues here: karma as motivation, and karma as metric of effectiveness.

Re: karma as motivation. Since you've been here from the OB days and have been sufficiently motivated to participate for the past several years, I suggest that the problem isn't your absolute karma or the rate of increase of karma, but habituation of your dopaminergic motivation system to the amount of karma you get per comment. I suggest (partly from theory and partly from personal experience) that if you go away from LW for a few months (or maybe just a few weeks), the habituation will reverse itself, and you'll be sufficiently motivated to participate again.

Re: karma as metric of effectiveness. This seems a much more difficult problem. Karma is a dimensionless quantity. We know that the sign of your total karma is positive, which suggests that you're doing more good than harm on LW, but how can we convert a karma value into an estimate of how much good you're doing, and compare that to how much good you might do elsewhere? You seem to have some intuition about that, but I'm not sure what it's based on. (Could it just be the affect heuristic? I.e., your habituated dopaminergic system makes you feel bored about participating on LW, and you translate that into a low estimate of effectiveness?) This might be a good question for a discussion post, unless there's an obvious solution that I'm missing...

Speaking of thanks, I hereby thank wedrifid for his analysis. In my defense, I knew the downvoted comment was unsatisfactory, and I was in the process of rewriting it from scratch when I noticed I had accidentally posted it. ... I have PMed jimrandomh the information he wanted. (800 words of it.) He is sincerely trying to improve the world and is doing so in a responsible non-destructive way, so I want to help him for some value of "want".

Ok, now I feel bad about having been dickish about it. Sorry for being so impatient! I got your email. I've got some followup research to do before I respond to it at length, which might take a few days, but that was valuable. Thank you.

The current status is that I have a reasonably good implementation, and am setting up server-side stuff to market and sell, with a 30-day free trial version. Whether people like it and stick with it will ultimately be revealed by the free-to-paid conversion rate.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Thanks for the kind words. Part of the reason this thread did not go smoothly is that my communication skills and helping skills are not where they probably need to be for me to be effective at consistently helping LWers over the internet. Heck, I still have trouble consistently writing a short email to my ex-girlfriend that does not inadvertently cause her to get upset (and stay upset for more than a day).

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RSVP (Rapid serial visual presentation) software has been around for a long time. What makes yours better? Color bars changing as you get closer to the end of a sentence/paragraph, and an extra delay at the end of a sentence/paragraph seem to be the most useful extensions.

I can vouch for being able to read much faster, at the cost of comprehension using RSVP tech.

The main problem I've had with speed reading software has been structure, and with regularly using them. I would like for there to be a pause or something at the end of each paragraph, and beyond that ease-of-use is the most important thing.

I found it hard to generate a structure while listening to the teacher at the same time

You don't generate the structure and make annotations and summary during the lecture or reading, you do those afterwards during your review of your notes.

One key in studying is to not to try to do too much at the same time. Read, then go back and underline or take notes, don't try to underline during the first read-through. Review and condense/summarize then, not while taking the notes. During later reviews, just read the keyword and try to explain it from memory. Active, not passive - the more focused you are on what you are doing, the better you will retain it.

I note that you leave out recall.

You might want to do some research into "mnemotechnics". Also: Baddeley's model of working memory is quite interesting.

Alan Baddeley's popular book Your Memory: A User's Guide is a very useful resource. Because it shows the best understanding of how memory actually works as well as tips and tricks it lets you build further on those techniques. (I haven't seen the 2004 edition linked to. I read the first edition from 1983 and don't know what changes, if any, were made.)

Deliberate, as SRS incorporates active recall per definition, methinks.

For any materials learned through SRS, sure.