Website spring cleaning

Redesigning the website again. This time I’m dealing with my posting anxiety and deteriorating memory, so I’ve added some new ways to post stuff and started on a personal knowledge base.

Update frequency anxiety

I’ve never understood why it feels so important to me to do regular updates. Maybe it’s because I subscribe to a bunch of weekly newsletters from people I admire, and want to be like them. More likely: To some degree, I’m still doing that thing I did when I was 9 years old and recorded myself on cassette tape pretending to be a radio host, “spinning records” for my captive listeners. (My audience then and now is pretty much the same. Hi, dad.)

In any case, I keep feeling bad for not updating often enough, followed by feeling stupid for feeling bad about it. Recently, as luck would have it, I stumbled upon this excellent little article:

How the Blog Broke the Web

Amy Hoy writes about how early blog engines grew into CMS-es while keeping their chronological content sorting as standard. This brought a focus on datestamped updates to a whole bunch of people who wanted easy websites, but with no need to stamp their content with a publish date.

1 note

The gist I got out of it was: fuck datestamps, scheduled posting isn’t for everybody – hey, a lot of people make things that have nothing to do with the specific time at which they were made.

Becoming a librarian

Amy Hoy’s line about “amateur research librarians” really struck a chord, because one of my intentions with this site is to collect interesting bits from books, art and the internet and share them with my listeners anyone who might share those interests. (The personal website keeper metaphors usually involve librarians or gardeners.)

A couple of revelations, then:

1.) I need a way to organize content with less emphasis on dates.

The idea is to get rid of that stupid update frequency anxiety. I’m (hereby) giving up on the idea of the weekly updates for now, since I still haven’t figured out an effective way for me to keep them going for more than few weeks. I’ll get there eventually, but no pressure.

I did some changes to the “next/previous post” links as well, because they didn‘t make sense most of the time. One post rarely has anything to do with another just because it’s posted the following day (or month). Instead, I’m grouping connected/serial blog posts into Projects – typically updates about some drawing side project – and because the questions of “what happens next?” and “what happened earlier?” suddenly make sense and have answers, I’ve kept the next/prev. navigation for these posts only.

For the rest, I dig up some related articles by looking at the similarity of keywords instead of adjacent datestamps.

2.) I should start building a library of bookmarks and notes.

I’m hoping this will give me more to write about, more stuff to share, and most importantly: help me retain information.

It freaks me out that my memory, at 36, feels like it’s starting to go; Not in an Alzheimer’s kind of way, but in a “let me tell you about this super interesting article I just read... I don’t remember exactly, but it was something about goats”-way.

So far I’ve used Pinboard.in and my blog to collect and share bookmarks, but it hasn’t been very effective. Pinboard is terrific for organizing bookmarks, but I don’t like using it for sharing or note-taking. Using the blog to store bookmarks carries the problem of remembering in which posts to find specific links and quotes, and using it for notes feels... unbloglike.

Getting better at notes is going to take some effort, then, and that includes a bit of amateur librarian work. For instance, I’m trying to get back into “deep reading”: pen in hand, underlining and making notes in the margins. I want to do that with online articles, too, but taking notes, whether in a notebook or notepad.exe, feels futile without some kind of filing system in which to collect and organize them.

Eugene Yan has the right idea in a recent blog post:

In regular note-taking, connections between ideas are not made by default. When reviewing a note, other relevant notes (i.e., ideas) don’t present themselves.

[...]

The key is to make connections between ideas during note-taking, way before you need to review them for your work. This forces you to actively connect the dots (during note-taking) and lets you find relevant ideas with ease in future.

Second brains for sale and hire

I’ve been toying with the idea of my own, personal knowledge base for a while. Here’s an example I admire:

There are tons of ready-made philosophies, methods, and services out there, of course, but the ones I’ve tried have been too involved, granulated or quirky for me.

Stepping into other people’s “second brains” makes me all Goldilocksy: techniques such as the aforementioned Zettelkasten seem to require more self-discipline than I can muster, and as much as I admire an unusual wiki (TiddlyWiki, for instance), these things usually don’t work quite the way I’d like.

Obsidian looks very interesting, but kind of intimidating. Notion is awesome, but led me down an exciting rabbit hole of trying to input, organize and cross-reference every piece of data I thought I’d need at some point, from notes and ideas to contacts and their birthdays (and their kids’ names and their birthdays) and TODO-lists about grocery shopping, chores and redecorating. It didn’t last.

To get my archive “juuust right” (i.e. stupid simple), I’d have to design it myself.

The Cardfile

I’ve tried the DIY route before, but failed due to technical challenges. This time around, I’m deep into building this site with Sanity and Gatsby and the ease of cross-referencing and making flexible components has given me a bad case of web development hubris It’s more or less my perfect homepage backend, and it’s finally allowed me to build a personal filing system that feels like it works1.

In addition to the usual Posts, I set up three new content types:

  1. Notes: Small posts with fewer editing options, usually quotes from books or online articles (hence the other two content types).
  2. Books: For books I’ve taken a particular interest in, taken notes from or referred to in blog posts. Mostly a way to categorize the notes and quotes with a common source.
  3. Bookmarks: Links to interesting articles. Notes can reference Bookmarks in the same way as Books.

All these snippets live under a set of Topics, which make up my Cardfile. Each Topic serves as a single-page, ‘CTRL+F’-able2 mess of all related notes, books, bookmarks, and post excerpts.

Thanks to Sanity’s block content model, it’s a doozy to embed these “cards” within blog posts, too, like the bookmarks above. (I guess I could embed notes within other notes, too, but I have a feeling that would get out of hand in a hurry.)

The pay-off

After a bit of use, I find there’s a new “feed the machine” idea going on in the back of my mind while reading, like I’m constantly on the lookout for snippets to steal. Not sure how healthy that is, but it does feel like it helps me focus. Maybe it’s like how you view your surroundings differently when you try to take pictures of them (i.e. the effect of Sister Corita’s viewfinder).

It happens when I browse through the Cardfile as well; when I see bookmarks with no notes, I think: “I should go through this again and extract the parts I found the most interesting”. I suspect I’ve unwittingly gamified my archive and get a sense of fulfillment by “completing” each entry with at least one note.

As for the all-important connections between the cards, they are established manually by assigning Topics, and automatically by keyword matching. It’s starting to give me a feel for how to use keywords efficiently; It’s easy to spot when suggested similar content doesn’t feel similar at all, and what keywords to edit or remove to sever false similarities. (In short, the more specific keywords, the better.)

The update frequency anxiety is mostly taken care of, too, by adding little notes and quotes – sure takes a lot less effort than these long, rambling posts. In the end, the Cardfile is designed to be useful to me, instead of my imaginary cassette tape audience. That’s made this thing feel a lot more like my own, personal space.

The real future pay-off I hope for, when I’ve catalogued a bunch of these virtual index cards, is that this way of organizing them might make me aware of some sorts of connections that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Maybe there’s even a creativity boost to be had, since knowledge of stuff tend to change the way you see other stuff.

And if it doesn’t help me remember better, at least I’ll have my sources close at hand.

Footnotes:

  1. What I really want is a couple of those old floor-to-ceiling card catalogs, but seeing as I barely have space for a laptop, I guess this is the next best thing. []
  2. CTRL+F doesn’t always show content that is currently hidden within a HTML <details> tag. Thus “all notes” is not entirely true when some of them are nested within book and bookmark listings. (Hope to implement some real search in the future.) []