Friday, May 28, 2010

Knowledge Formulation

I got a comment recently asking about how I formulate items. Currently I have 41,600 or so items (I add about 50 and delete maybe 1-3 a day due to bad formulation, the info is not valuable, duplicate item, etc.). I realized that constantly posting how many items I currently have is a waste of space and comes across as being overly conceited and arrogant. Not quite as annoying as the loud guy wearing a bluetooth ear piece (Especially when he wears it all day, even when not on the phone), but I don't want to do anything that reminds me of such a person.

Formulating knowledge is a skill that one constantly improves on. Every month or so I reread the "20 commandments" on formulating knowledge, a must-read for anybody serious about making long-term flashcards. There always seems to be some aspect of flashcard formulation that I can improve in. Efficient wording, learning sets of information, so much room for improvement.

The main thing that I try to keep in mind when formulating items is this: "Keep it as short and as context-independent as possible."

With the precision of a military sniper, hit only what is necessary to make you recall what you want, then leave. For example, let's say I read this article about Robert Oppenheimer. Let's take the last paragraph and make flashcards out of it:

After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but his initial reluctance and the political climate turned against him. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. He had, in fact, had friends who were communists, mostly people involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties. This loss of security clearance ended Oppenheimer's influence on science policy. He held the academic post of director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and in the last years of his life, he thought and wrote much about the problems of intellectual ethics and morality. He died of throat cancer in 1967.

"Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."

Interest dictates how thoroughly the article is dissected and ultimately how many articles are made. You have to determine how valuable this knowledge is. Once you get the hang of placing a value on any knowledge that you encounter, using Supermemo is a whole lot easier.

Let's imagine that I want to know as much as possible about Robert Oppenheimer, so I read this article and thoroughly analyze it, and make flashcards of the interesting information.

Rather than repeat what the 20 Rules are, maybe it would be a good idea to read it, and then look at the examples below to see how the rules apply.

After WWII, Oppenheimer chaired what US Commission? The US Atomic Energy Commission.

How did Oppenheimer feel about the hydrogen bomb? He opposed the development of it.

What did the government accuse Oppenheimer of? Being a communist.

In what year was Oppenheimer accused of having communist sympathies? 1953.

Did Oppenheimer have communist friends? Yes. How were his friends involved with communism? They were involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties.

What caused Oppenheimer to lose his influence on science policy? The loss of security clearance.

What was the cause of Oppenheimer's death? Throat cancer.

In what year did Oppenheimer die? 1967.

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not [...], but science is very beautiful." (Answer: Everything)

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not everything, but science is v[...]." (Answer: ery beautiful)

In regards to his final years and writings, if I were really interested in learning about Oppenheimer's life, I would find more articles about those subjects, and incrementally read those instead of adding the seemingly vague information contained in this article (At least it seems kind of vague to me, not specific enough to merit their own flashcards).

Certain things require more context (Science, historical battles, events in religious texts, and so on), but experimentation eventually shows you how to word flashcards so that they adhere to the 20 rules of formulating knowledge. For example, "In [battle abc], [character x] was killed by [character y] for [reason z]." (Each [bracketed item] becomes a separate cloze deletion flashcard.) "In battle abc, character y killed character x by [method a]."

You are basically isolating what makes the knowledge significant and snipe at those pieces of important information. It might seem like you are making too many flashcards, but because the knowledge is easier to recall, recalling and maintaining such knowledge becomes quite easy. Also, by dissecting knowledge in this manner, by the time you are finished making the flashcards, you will understand and grasp the information much better than you did before.

Hopefully this answers your question/comment :)


  1. Thanks a lot! I still haven't started with SuperMemo, though.

  2. Yeah, if you give Supermemo a try you will understand the challenges and how the 20 rules apply. Languages are fairly simple, but remembering information presents a larger set of problems (Still fun to work through, though).

  3. You provided an excellent example on how to correctly enunciate knowledge in the SRS (whatever flavor one may use). I periodically skim the 20 Rules, and always seem to find something new each time.

    My way of formulating knowledge is very very similar to yours (albeit in portuguese :), so I'm very pleased to realize that I'm doing it correctly.

    Thank you very much for such a hands-on article!

  4. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them; I love thinking through these kinds of topics.

  5. As you know I'm always very interested o the efficiency of the method, as formulation is very important I though nice examples would be valuable for the SuperMemo or Spaced Repetition community, and I was totally wright, great post!

    I even have a Mind Map of the 20 rules, this will be posted ASAP on the blog. Thanks again Fish, I have to steal some examples from your post, but you don't mind, do you?

    On the other hand I disagree with the idea of not posting the load of information many of us, SuperMemoers, can learn effectively, I find this is an inspiration, you're numbers have inspired me to find out where has my time during repetitions being going, and how to improve the return from time devoted to the CALS (computed assisted learning system) into knowledge gain. I have to much topics with no processing, in my case many should have been rescheduled, but I just clicked enter, with the result of the same topics where shown many times with out any extract of information. Keep posting up the numbers, I´ll do the same to (this also should improve personal motivation to learn more, shouldn't it?).

    Posting of people that have consistently used the method just make the method more valuable.

    There are many discussions about why supermemo is not more popular? a reason never mentioned is: "because people are egoistic". Having found a wonderful tool they don't share it as much with others, as they seem in others like competition. This is in some respect just human nature, but goes against the universality of methods of learning that just work.

  6. Sure, feel free to reproduce the above flash cards. I'm more concerned about Supermemo being easier to understand than I care about "flashcard ownership." :)

    If it provides motivation, I'll mention when I hit larger numbers in Supermemo (45,000; 50,000; etc.). I just don't want to give the impression that this blog says to the world, "Hey, look at me, I'm cooler than you because I have more time to make flashcards!" I still use each full moon as a deadline for 1,000 more items in Supermemo, and I have adhered to that for quite some time now (At least when the blog post about it was made).

    That sounds like a good thing to think about (I'll maybe make a post about it after I think about it enough), why is Supermemo not popular? Supermemo seems to be a ladder to knowledge acquisition, but if someone finds a ladder, they want to kick it away so that others cannot use it. Perhaps there are many Supermemo users that use it as a "secret weapon" that nobody else knows about?
    No matter how I try to think about it, I keep coming back to the fact that humanity's flaws ultimately impede meaningful progress, because otherwise all of human knowledge would take the form of Supermemo (Or whatever program is used) items, approved by teams of people to check for accuracy and quality (Adherence to flashcard principles, like the 20 rules). Like hyperlinks, pre-made flashcards could be downloaded after you read an article, book, watch the news, etc. When new knowledge corrects old knowledge, the program would correct the knowledge and reset the flashcard. Knowledge of science, history, etc. would become abundant (And retained by the masses), and hopefully mankind would progress in a meaningful way, learning from their past. But society does not seem to be heading in such a direction; entertainment and mindless dribble (Celebrity gossip, non-news, etc.) are valued, and the greedy, hateful and destructive few end up making things bad for everybody else. From my perspective, there are far too many obstacles preventing us from making meaningful progress. Maybe something drastic will happen, and our outlook for the future will get better (One can hope). Until that time comes, Supermemo (And similar tools) will be used only by a (Relatively) small group of people that value knowledge and progress (And will hopefully use it for good, not evil purposes).

    I'm just very glad that this tool exists in the first place.

  7. My experience on this is mixed: I kind of gave up on sharing this tool. I kept finding 2 kinds of people: those that looked at me in a "this-guy's-crazy" way, and those that found the idea very interesting but never gained the momentum to start using it. Not one of the persons I talked to went on with the system, so right now I'm not worried about it. I just use it, and it's one of the most incredible intellectual tools I've ever found. That's enough for me. ;)

    @ thesupermemoblog: a mind map on the 20 Rules would be a very neat thing. Hope to see it soon! :)

  8. Yeah, I found the same result. Some dislike the very concept of it because they think it makes me "less human," while others say "wow, that is interesting," but they put forth little effort to use it. If it were integrated into everything (Phone/computer/etc.) and was sponsored by a company like Google, something like Supermemo would likely catch on. Now, I just say "I enjoy making flashcards," and leave it at that. I don't bother explaining it because it will likely not be used by the person I'm explaining it to.

  9. This lunatic approach to gather knowledge is interesting: " I still use each full moon as a deadline for 1,000 more items in Supermemo". You don't worry about a set number of items per day but for a longer period, good!

    Nuno: "I kind of gave up on sharing this tool. [..] "this-guy's-crazy" way, [..] found the idea very interesting but never gained the momentum to start using it. Not one of the persons I talked to went on with the system, so right now I'm not worried about it."

    You most probably talked to the wrong people, but I might also be that, consciously or not, you're just kicking the ladder (as LittleFish puts it).

    When I first saw the method (2004) I though of it ridiculous, by 2006 I though of it terribly designed (bought Vtrain and Declan's), by the end of 2007 I started learning to used it. This was after reading the works of K.Andersson on expertise, which open up my mind on how to improve, before the book most of the things I did where by hit and miss. Today, here I am saying no matter how ugly SuperMemo is, its the best of its kind.

    When I started to blog on supermemo was to share ideas and learn from other user in the world there was the yahoo group, but you had to stumble right on your face to see it.

    It's hard to find other users that adhere to a system like Spaced Repetition or for anything other thing you can possibly think related to learning, but there a tons of people that would love to just know it all (that's why a memory chip implant will be a best seller even if there are risk involved).

    I though that not even 100 people would read the blog, yet I gave it a shot (we are close now 14,000 visits in 14 months or so, and I have three contacts on my country that have secretly used it before I even step on the method). Fish was thinking about blogging before to, and he said it was my blogging make him finally get started, I'm really enjoying the discussions here.

    I not saying that - Oh, I worry, Oh, we must change the world - All I say here that perhaps the only reason SuperMemo is not more popular is because of evolutionary principles - Humans are lazy, we have, do, and will continue to spend the last resources available to accomplish any task or goal - If we could only see goals in the future, or the compound interest in speed of learning gained trough spaced repetition, then perhaps more people would embrace it. Then perhaps we could improve even more.

    There's were I want to go, the method is great, I just keep on coming with better ways to deal with some issues, I always want something better.

  10. @ thesupermemoblog: Hmm, I think I see your point. I think it all roots on the fact that we're all very different human beings, with totally disparate motivations. I find your vision and LittleFish's on these subjects very refreshing because I'm the kind of person that most of the times is not worried about seeking the Truth (especially with uppercase ;), so what you say is very different from my mindset. As I said, I think it's very refreshing and also believe that kind of thinking plays a big part in the advancement of Humanity, though for me the SRS is used mainly to boost my intellectual performance.

    Of course I also learn many topics that are not related to work/science/engineering (japanese, history, geography, a bit of philosophy, etc), but right now the SRS is the tool around which most of my academic life is revolving. And yes, I'm addicted to learning. :)

    Summing up: I believe the majority of the persons is not oriented to teach these topics, just like most of the persons is not oriented to learn it... UNLESS we see a major cultural turn. And I'm not at all optimistic about that, I'm afraid.

    @ LittleFish: These changes take a long time, but what you said regarding the ubiquitous implementation of this software by the big technological players would certainly help to speed them up.

    Hehe!! I never thought about the "enjoy making flashcards" line. Good idea!

    By the way, I loved your

  11. @Nuno:

    "For me the SRS is used mainly to boost my intellectual performance"

    For me to.

    "I'm addicted to learning. :)"

    I think were there are at least four of us now (I'm adding P. Wosniak), instead of the the many undisclosed amnesiac societies, we should form the Adicted Learners Non-Anonymous Society, lol.

    "I believe the majority of the persons is not oriented to teach these topics, just like most of the persons is not oriented to learn it"

    Succinctly put, I couldn't concur more.


    This ubiquitous implementation is a great idea, but I'm also pessimistic on the issue of great corporations taking a role this issues.

  12. Hi!
    I am a beginner in Supermemo. And I am trying to study Chinese language with Supermemo, any tips or recommendations? (e.g. what site to learn chinese, how to formulate good chinese language flashcard, etc)
    Reply is highly appreciated, thanks!
    btw, I am an Indonesian and I studied English all by myself, so if I make mistake please correct me(if you will) thanks again ^^

  13. Hello, I have been "fighthing" with sm for 2 months but I still have problems to formulate paragraphs which include enumerations, and for every part of the enumeration, there is either a description or even another sub-enumeration.

    Could you please formulate one of these complex indexed paragraphs?

    It would be of great help for me because I am studying a material made of legal texts which follow this structure, I mean, they are fully itemized at different levels and at the same time they have lot of explanatory text.

    Thanks in any case.

  14. Could you post a sample paragraph or two (Or three) of what you are trying to learn?

  15. Here you have my own translation. Thanks a lot, I really need some help to move forward consistently. Please specify if you use clozing or create flashcards.

    "22/1988 Coasts Law. Article 3.

    The public domain includes:

    1. Shore and bank of rivers close to the coast, which include:

    a) Maritime-Terrestrial zone or area which is between low tide line and the maximum of high tide or biggets wave line.

    This zone also includes marshans, sea lagoons or any low land generated by the effect of tides, waves or sea water infiltration.

    b) Beaches or loose materials sediment zone, sucha as sands, gravel and pebbles, including scarpments, sand verges and dunes, with or without vegetation, generated by the action of sea, coastal wind or any other natural or artificial cause.

    2. Territorial waters and inner water, with its bed and subsoil.

    3. Natural resources of the economic area and continental shelf."