Renumbering my index cards

When I started building a new index card note box, I followed Scott Schepard’s lead and used the Wikipedia Academic Disciplines as the overarching structure. I’ve come to dislike that system. It’s too dependent on hierarchy, and one I don’t really follow. So, this morning, when trying to install a new note about Libertarianism (topical!), I became frustrated and renumbered everything.

I’m now using a simpler, more Luhmann-like card numbering system. (Some would call it “Folgezettel”, but I’ll stick with “numbering system”).

Each new card gets a number, with the first being 1.1. If a subsequent idea plays directly off the first, it gets 1.1a. If it’s on the same general topic, but unrelated to the first, it gets 1.2. The next completely unrelated idea gets 2.1, etc. If I stick to this, I’ll end up with numbers like 134.3a1b and that’s just fine because I know what’s nearby and I always have the index to fall back on.

Bob Doto does a nice job of explaining all this in How to Use Folgezettel in Your Zettelkasten.

Now I don’t need to worry whether “Libertarianism” falls under “Political Science” or “Mythology”. I can just file it somewhere behind my existing thread on, say, “Selfishness”.

My Antinet and Barthes’ “Camera Lucida”

The first book I read with my Antinet in mind was “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” by Roland Barthes. I’m not doing a book review here, but I wanted to say a few things about the process of reading with the goal “installing” notes into my Antinet.

Camera Lucida and my bibcard

I’m not someone who needs a Zettelkasten. I’m not working on a book or paper or anything. I want to use what I’ve read. Even better, I’d like to integrate the things I’ve read with my own thoughts. I want to learn.

The problem for me has been that I don’t remember what I read. I have several bookshelves packed with books and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what’s in most of them. It’s frustrating, and such a waste. I’m sure I must’ve gleaned something from all that reading, but what? And what can I actually do with it?

I have always believed that using an analog (pen and paper) process is better for thinking, but I’ve been so enamored with digital “Tools for Thought” the past few years that I’ve spent much of my time reading blog posts about “How to Take Smart Notes” using Obsidian or Roam or Emacs or what-have-you. All I have to show for it is a thousand text files and a useless bubble graph. I don’t need a “second brain” I need to better utilize the first one.

After reading Scott Scheper’s book, “Antinet Zettelkasten”, I was sufficiently inspired to go all-in with the Luhmann method, so I sat at my desk with “Camera Lucida”, a pen, and a blank 4×6” index card.

It was amazing. First, sitting at a desk while reading is a great idea because I didn’t fall asleep after three pages like I normally do. More importantly, I found myself reading with a goal. I was actively looking for things to remember, and writing them down. This was in contrast to my usual approach which is looking to “have read” the book. I filled my “bibcard” with quotes, references, and ideas from the book as I read it. These notes are meant to be processed and “installed” in my Antinet later, but even if I were to skip that part, I gleaned much more from the book than I normally would. I’m remembering more than from, say, highlighting passages in the Kindle. I’m telling you, there’s something to this whole paper thing! :).

I don’t know if my Antinet will ever amount to much more than a half-assed attempt at “Knowledge Management” but so far the simple act of creating it has paid dividends. I’m excited to see where it leads.

Indexing my paper notebooks

I keep a simplified version of a Bullet Journal in paper notebooks. I write in it every day. I write tasks, log meals and moods, write journal entries, copy quotes, etc. This way of working fits my brain, and I see no future in which I’m not doing some version of it.

But I must admit that y’all are right, searching paper notebooks kind of sucks. However, I’m not moving my notes to digital just so I can search them more easily. That’s not a trade-off I’m interested in. Instead, I’m working on a system that makes my paper notebooks easier to search. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I’m working on making it easier to find things I’ve written in my paper notebooks.

A year ago I started highlighting key words and topics in my notebooks (see Highlighting in Notebooks). This works great. It lets me quickly scan my notes and pick out important topics. What I’m now doing is adding those topics to a separate index. I already maintain a table of contents in each notebook, but that’s not the same as an index. My index is kept in a box of 3×5″ index cards (see photo).

The beginnings of my notebook index

Each notebook gets a number (e.g. 01) so the index entries reference this. For example, if there are several pages about “Health” in Notebook 01, it gets indexed like this: “Health: NB01.23, 45, 67”. The “NB” prefix may be unnecessary, but I’m thinking that at some point I might want to differentiate between sources. I might have written something in a notebook (NB) but there might also be something written in my Antinet, so I can do “AN2024/1/2A” to reference the specific card. Or perhaps I filed something written using a typewriter in a ringed binder. That might be “B02.34-35”. I’m still noodling on this.

Speaking of my Antinet, the contents of my notebooks/index differ from that of my Antinet experiment (which I’ll write about later). This index is for personal notes, observations, interactions, etc. The Antinet is for topics I’m interested in.

Have you tried keeping an index like this? If so, I’d be interested to hear how you’re handling it.

It was meant to be a workbench but has become a writing desk

My “workbench”

I put together a workbench in the basement after moving into my wife’s house. It has all the things I might need for minor repairs or electronics projects. You know, in case I ever feel the urge to fix or build something.

I often imagine myself as someone handy with tools. Someone who is not just creative, but can actually implement his ideas. Or someone who can repair things. It’s fun to imagine myself as that person, but I am not that person.

Since the “maker” urge hasn’t arrived, instead of using my workbench as a workbench, I’ve been using it as a standup writing desk. I have my notebooks and paper-related doodads within reach on a shelf to my left. My pens and stamps and pencil sharpener are on another shelf in front of me. It’s working out well, so I don’t mind that it isn’t used for what I intended.

Highlighting in notebooks

One valid criticism of using paper for notes is that searching through notebooks is rather difficult. With my poor handwriting, scanning for certain information in a wash of squiggly lines can be painfully slow.

For a couple of months now I’ve been going back through my notes periodically and highlighting key words and phrases. I’ve found that if I emphasize the most relevant bit of each note, I can find most things fairly quickly. It also helps when simply perusing old notes. Usually, I want to skip anything “meta” like which pen I’m using or the regular “Why am I still using paper?” fluff. Zipping over the highlighted phrases makes quick work of it.

Someday this could also help with building an index. If I ever decide to bother, that is.

So yeah, highlighting my paper notes is useful and I recommend it. I wish I’d thought of it sooner.

Pilot Custom 823 Fountain Pen

It’s been a while since I bought a new fountain pen. This is about the Pilot Custom 823.

Pilot Custom 823

Literally every review I’ve read says the same things: “It’s not a looker, but what a great writer!” I can only resist that kind of consensus for so long, so I bought one. I have the “smoke” color with a fine nib. I ordered it from JetPens  for $270. I’d say this puts it well into significant purchase territory, so I was very excited when it arrived. I’ve been journaling quite a lot recently and was looking forward to spending time with what reviewers call one of the best every day writers.

I’d like to tell you that it was love at first write, but that wasn’t the case. The pen looks fine, if a little boring. I didn’t get it for its looks, so I don’t mind. The pen feels very good in hand, too. This is important. It’s not too heavy or unbalanced, either with the cap posted or not.

It’s a vacuum filler, which is apparently unusual but I’m not sure why, as it’s super easy to fill. It holds a lot of ink, too. This does make it more difficult to switch inks, but I don’t switch often so this isn’t a problem.

So what’s not to love, then? Well, I didn’t love how it wrote. I bought the pen to write with and not look at, so this was a problem. It felt somewhat scratchy and skipped more often than I’m used to. At first I thought of it simply as “feedback” but it was worse than just feedback. It felt dry. I’m left-handed, so any scratchiness in a pen is amplified. This was disappointing.

I thought maybe I had received a bum copy, but I’m loathe to ship things back and wait so I’d try a few things before giving up.

First, I ran it with wetter ink. I typically use one of the quick-drying Nooder inks like Bernanke Blue , but thought something wetter might fare better. I ordered Pilot iroshizuku kon-pecki ink and it was an immediate improvement. Also, what a great ink!

Pilot iroshizuku “kon-peki”

Then, I spent some time writing in a Midori notebook . Maybe I got an off copy of the Leuchtturm notebook I have been using, but writing in the Midori made a huge improvement.

So the problem wasn’t with the pen, necessarily. It was just a combination of the fine nib, dry ink, mediocre paper, and being left-handed.

Things were much better, but I still wasn’t thrilled with how it wrote. I wondered if maybe the nib was simply too fine. Japanese pen makers’ idea of “fine” is different than that of the German pen makers. Here’s a comparison between the fine nib on the Pilot and that on the Pelikan M400.

Left: Pilot Custom 823 Fine. Right: Pelikan Souverine M400 Fine.

I had to find out, so I ordered another Custom 823, but with a medium nib. After a day with the new pen, I’ve concluded that it’s perfect. The combination of better paper, wetter ink, and broader nib is wonderful. This is my new favorite crew.

Pilot Custom 823, Pilot “kon-peki” ink, and Midori MD notebook.

My Holy Grail Pen and Paper

CJ Chilvers:

Writers spend way too much time and money seeking out their “grail” pen and paper combo — the tools that will make their work so much “smoother.” It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated in all creative pursuits.

Why does he quote “smoother” here? Is that from something? It’s an odd word for describing creative work.

I’m happy that Chilvers has a setup that works for him and that he doesn’t feel a need to try anything else. A little envious, even. On the other hand, I don’t love the insinuation that people who try different tools are somehow on a futile and unnecessary quest that can never lead to anything other than frustration and reduced creative output. OK, that might be me reading too much into it, but, isn’t it possible that some people simply enjoy trying new things? Can the search for better or more enjoyable tools never be more than just blind consumerism or creative procrastination?