Superpowers Take Time


So I’ve been doing this Wikity thing for a while now. I use it as a personal learning environment.

When I learn something new, I try to capture it and connect it. This usually comes in stages. First, I’ll just capture some text, usually with the Wik-it bookmark (but sometimes with “Share to WordPress” when I’m on my phone).

Here’s something I was reading at lunch about salt, arguing that low salt diets were as bad for you as high salt diets.


So I think of a name. The name is just a handle, like a variable name for an idea. Importantly, it’s not the name of the article I pull it from, but the name of the idea I’m pulling. (Multiple ideas might come from a single article).

The idea here, or the pattern, is this response curve to salt. If you eat barely any salt, you have an increased risk of coronary issues. But if you eat a lot of salt, your risk increases too. Statistical patterns like this are often called “J-curves” because when they are plotted on line graphs, they often make a “leaning J”, like so.


I call this “Salt J-Curve” and post it to Wikity.

There’s a lot to just that process, in terms of learning. I’ve found the right paragraphs (I choose ones here that are less opinionated than the conclusion), I’ve given it a name. It takes maybe 30 seconds, but it’s an engaged thirty seconds.

I decide to improve the article. I add the graph and an introductory line. “Both low-salt and high-salt diets are correlated with increased mortality.”

Again, a small one minute thing, but the process of summarizing what the excerpt says in a sentence further solidifies my understanding. I hit back space a number of times before I get it right.


Finally, it’s connection time. As people familiar with the process know, rather than writing a judgment on the card, you try to find connections you can make to other cards.

Here’s a mockup I made of the card format a while ago: at the bottom you show connections to other cards (and explain the connection). I used to call these “references” but the point is the same. You must connect your new knowledge to your existing knowledge web.


Anatomy of a Wikity Card: Title, Abstract, Treatment, Related Cards and Pages

So back to salt. I need some references, and I know that J-curves are also associated with alcohol consumption. A drink a night is correlated with benefit, whereas both many drinks and no drinks tend to co-occur with bad health effects. I search on alcohol, with a vague memory of a card I wrote on those curves. (UPDATE: Responding to Kate’s comment, a lot of time I have no memory of any cards, in which case I just plug in related terms and see what comes up).

So I search “alcohol”.


Hmmm. So here’s an issue.

I’ll see if I can explain it to you here. My “Abstainer Bias” alcohol card reminds me that the J-curve in alcohol is thought (by some) to be a result of the fact that abstainers are a very different population than infrequent drinkers. If you take a population that has a drink a week and one that has a drink a night they are going to be roughly comparable population. But _zero_ drinks, now that’s a special number. People doing zero drinks in our culture are generally doing zero drinks for a reason. It might be religious reasons. It might be health reasons. It might be they’re a former alcoholic. It might be that at an advanced age, they don’t handle it well any more.

So that curve in alcohol is likely not a cause-effect curve telling you to drink “just the right amount of alcohol” to get in the alcohol Goldilocks zone, it’s probably a normal dose-response curve where each bit of more alcohol = just slightly more death, no matter how much you drink. We know this, because if we take out people that abstain from alcohol entirely, the J-curve goes away.

This happens in my head in about three seconds, by the way. “Oh, right, abstainer bias!”

So if I want to make a link from Salt J-Curve to Abstainer Bias, what would it say? Can salt have an abstainer bias too? Let’s look at the chart again.


This is just a guess, or the fragment of an idea, but where would you expect people with high blood pressure to be? Well, I’d expect them to be two places on this graph. I’d expect the people with very high sodium intake to be have a lot of cases based on cause/effect.


But I’d also expect a lot of people with heart conditions and high blood pressure to be abstaining from salt, and would assume they cluster at the bottom.

So I write up a link at the bottom. “The J-curve here may be just another example of [[Abstainer Bias]]” and link to the card.

This process, beginning to end takes about 3-5 minutes. I’ve done it hundreds of times since November, and now have a library of stuff which produces neat connections about half the time I use it. It took a long time to get here, a lot of work, but I am not kidding when I say it’s a superpower. Or as I said to David Wiley a while back, “My main pitch for this thing is this — it’s made me smarter. A *lot* smarter.”

It does that by forcing me to suspend my reaction to things until I’ve summarized them and connected them to previous knowledge. It forces me to confront contradictions between new knowledge and previous knowledge, and see unexpected parallels across multiple domains. It forces me to constantly review, rehearse, revise, and update old knowledge.

What do other social media solutions do? They allow you to comment on it, to share it. They ask you to react immediately, preferably with a quick opinion. They push you to always look at the new — never connect or revisit the old. They treat your reaction — your feelings about the thing — as the center of your media universe.

Can any of this be good for learning? For empathy? For innovation?

Of course, doing it this Wikity way takes time. The more you put in your library, the more useful it gets, the more it feels — honestly– like a superpower. But I don’t know how to market that to a culture used to gratification on day one, I really don’t. And I don’t know how to explain the benefits of a product that generates insights that are complex, not simple. It’s a puzzle.

What I do know is that it continually teaches me surprising things, and forces me to question my judgment. As long as it’s doing that, I guess I have to keep trying to explain it.

10 thoughts on “Superpowers Take Time

  1. Tiny detail: the role of “vague memory” in the process. When you describe what you do I see absolutely the value of summarising and linking to get smarter. This is what I love too.

    But I wonder if wikity has in its future the capacity to develop suggestive (prosthetic) memories of things to link to without being too intrusive.

    I write things and forget them entirely, and this forgetting is fast. The idea of wikity at scale induces navigational terror.

    Is there a way for people like me?

    • I usually just type in search terms. A lot of time I forgot I wrote something, so there isn’t even a vague memory.

      There are ways to do suggestion, but they are a bit heavy on coding. The most common way is to scan the text you wrote for words of low frequency (using a frequency map or dictionary), generate a list of synonyms, then search on that list.

      So you take this text:

      Both low-salt and high-salt diets are correlated with increased mortality.

      ![]( “”)

      > Last year, experts convened by the Institute of Medicine assessed the evidence concerning sodium intake around the world. They agreed that efforts to reduce excessive sodium were warranted. But they cautioned that no such evidence existed to recommend a very low salt diet….What [the NEJM study] found was worrisome. When compared with those who consumed 3-6 grams per day, people who consumed less than 3 grams of sodium per day had an even higher risk of death or cardiovascular incidents than those who consumed more than 7 grams per day.

      And you do the analysis that pulls out “correlated” and “consumed” (low frequency words used twice) and “low-salt” and “high-salt” (low frequency terms given prominent placement).

      Then you search on those.

      This sounds simple, but it’s actually the hardest thing in web programming as it involves very specialized mathematics to do right. It’s what Google, Netflix, and Amazon pay programmers $200,000 a year to do.

      As far as people like you (!!) the idea of the brand new card interface is that you can do lots of little quick searches and scan them quickly, which means no navigation until you get very close to an idea. But that’s the best we do for the moment, make throwing darts quicker in order to increase chances of bullseye.

      • I really think those little cards are helpful because lots of times i don’t have enough time to blog but i find snippets i wanna save. Currently i just write them somewhere (ugh this reminds me of my PhD except i use my phone not paper) then attempt to go back and blog. As if blogging is the end goal. When collecting these snippets in their own right in a retrievable manner should be the main goal and any coherent blogging or whatever is just a side benefit i can choose to follow or not. Because not blogging should not mean these thoughts aren’t worth keeping. I am seeing lots of benefit for this for research. Could we possibly do some sort of and Wikity integration where stuff we highlight and comment on there can be transferred as onto Wikity?

    • Oooh. I like this, Kate! I think reading Mike’s post made me think of neural networks and how the process kind of replicates the forming of connections that happen in the brain but makes it happen externally. Whether being such a similar process helps it make sense somehow? Suggestive memory sounds algorithmic though and I would worry about what it might lead to, even as I recognize its potential

  2. This is an awesome post, Mike, possibly one of the best cases for Wikity and what you’re reaching for here. I assume that because of the FedWikiHappening that I already have a good idea of what ur reaching for. But this post illustrates it so simply and convincingly and makes me feel like it’s a solution to a lot of my own problems with learning. I don’t know if I think about it longer if it will still have that effect but it has it now.

  3. Who the bleep would not want super powers? I’ve been watching Mike closely, and I get inspired, and do by wikity in fits and spurts. (which ever one of those are the pauses I do more). It would be interesting to find at what point one’s collection gets rich enough to find worthy connections and/or at one amount of time it takes to get to the regular habit level (let’s call it the Caulfield Curve)

    • Well, honestly, I need to make it simpler, and as Maha suggests on Twitter, I need to make it easier to find and get other people’s cards (thereby increasing community).

  4. Mike, I’m curious about the relationship between your blog and your wikity. Do you have a way to mark some content in the wikity and publish it as a blog post, or do you just use wikity as notes while you write your blog post (which I guess you then ingest back into wikity) or something else? If you’ve already described this process somewhere else I apologize, just point me at it. Thanks.

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