Tag Archives: memory

The Records Project (A Study of Paper vs. Computers)

One of my interests is finding efficient and useful ways to create, store, and retrieve information. I’ve tried tools ranging from wikis to to-do list managers to databases to Evernote to electronic notebooks to binders and paper notebooks, and while I continue to use a small fraction of those tools, still the grass is always greener on the other side, and I’m continually trying new ones.

When I recently started my biggest project to date, though, I knew that success required tools that would work and that would keep working, and, to my surprise, I’ve found those tools. This isn’t to say that they have not changed and been added to and removed from and modified, but their core has remained, and the project has remained workable, useful, and interesting to me – unlike nearly every other system I’ve used for more than a few months (I’m coming up on a year and nine months now). Because it’s been such a success, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from the project, and I would like to share the general idea.

Paper vs. Computers

When people talk about how to store and access information in the Information Age, the first and often most divisive question is whether it should be accessed through one or more computers or printed on sheets of dead tree. The debates inevitably come down to the same arguments over and over: Computers let you access information more efficiently, computers are the wave of the future, computers are faster to work with, computers let you back up your information. But then computers can crash, and paper is easier to read and work with, makes it easier to include information that’s more complicated than letters of the Latin alphabet, and doesn’t require you to have a charged battery. I’m sure you could supply a few more sound bites if you were called upon to do so. Nobody ever seems to win these arguments, although both sides are usually quite sure they’re right.

The debate is often portrayed as a battle between the enlightened people who understand technology and will carry the torch into the future and the technophobes who stick to paper because they’re scared or ignorant of technology or don’t want to give up what they’re used to, who hang on desperately to the relics of a bygone age and have been seduced by some foolish notion of emotional attachment to having paper in their hands. If this is the narrative you’re used to, the answer you read on the website titled The Technical Geekery might surprise you.

My answer, actually, is that we’ve built a false dichotomy for ourselves. There is no reason why a system needs to be limited to one medium, or why a system should be limited to one medium, except for lack of imagination, laziness, and the kind of technological elitism described above. At best, the people developing email systems, word processors, and databases implement a “print” function while looking down their noses at users who still want to take the antiquated and environmentally irresponsible action of printing out a document. So much more is possible! There is no reason why a system analogous to hypertext cannot be implemented on paper, except for the fact that almost nobody does it (the rare specimens of paper encyclopedias that remain being one of the few exceptions). There is no reason why we cannot have electronic searching and eBook copies of our printed documents, except for the way the book industry has developed. There is no reason why part of a system cannot be part on paper and part electronic (and I don’t mean that your book includes a CD-ROM containing ugly, buggy, and worthless software that works only on a specific type of computer and was thrown together at the last minute and shoved into the back of the book along with a prominent note on the front cover that you’re making a good purchase because it comes with a FREE CD!). And there is no reason why a combined system like this cannot exchange information in both directions as it develops. These ideas are what I’ve explored – to great success – in my project.

The Records Project

This project is called the Records Project. It’s a surprisingly slippery concept to define, so I’ll describe it simply: the core idea of the project is that I sit down and write about my life every day. That might end up being three lines on a sheet of paper that very briefly sketch the important events of the day, or it might end up being several thousand words of exposition or exploration or ranting. It all depends on the amount of time I have and my mood and what happened during the day. (Incidentally, I think this flexibility is key to the success of the method: some days there just isn’t the time or interest to do anything more than three lines on a sheet of paper, but making that an acceptable entry has ensured that I haven’t given up on the project.)

There are two places where I write things in the Records Project, and I’ll look at each of them in turn.

Random Thoughts

The first is called Random Thoughts, and it’s a document that’s been evolving since 2009. In this document I put quotations, anecdotes, ideas, and notes to myself; I add things if and when I feel like it. It’s kept in two text files on my computer; one is an archive and the other contains the current year’s notes. In order to be able to reference things in the document, the entries are numbered sequentially. Using some custom Linux Magic™, if I know I want to go to, say, entry 3456, I can call up the Random Thoughts window (which I always keep open on my laptop), type ;ta 3456, and the program figures out which file and what line that entry begins on and brings me there.

The power of that system starts to become apparent when you consider that, after more than 4500 ideas that run through your mind enough to make worth recording, you start building off of ideas you’ve had previously and it’s nice to keep track of how they link together. If, when I’m writing a new entry or when I’m reading old ones, I’m reminded of something else, I do a search of the document to find the other entry, and I link them together by simply writing the number of each next to the other. Thereafter, if I’m reading one and want to see the other, I can position my cursor over the number and press Ctrl-] to go look at the other entry.

(A section that you can skip over if you want, for those interested in the theory of linking: My links go both ways, a method known (creatively enough) as bidirectional linking. Most of us are used to unidirectional links because that’s what we have on the Web, but in many cases the connection is equally valid and interesting in both directions. The main reason many systems don’t use them is that it’s more difficult to maintain: you have to go place a link at the other end, and in a system like the World Wide Web, you probably don’t have permission to write a link onto somebody else’s web server. Since this is all my system, the only issue is the effort, and I’m committed to the better links it produces, so I write “BL” (for Backlink) and the source at every location I link to, even when this means going to the shelf and grabbing another notebook when it wouldn’t otherwise have been necessary.

The stories of other pioneering hypertext systems and some people’s insistence on bidirectional links on the Web are fascinating; take a look at this, for instance.)

Here’s an example page of Random Thoughts (click to enlarge):

Random Thoughts screenshot


CB stands for Chrono Book, a name chosen because once upon a time I had many other types of notebooks titled “something book.” My CBs are 80-page Moleskine Cahier notebooks; there’s nothing magical about that type of notebook, but I like them, they’re likely to be around for a while, and sticking with the same ones makes things nice and consistent. I’m on my twenty-fourth one at the moment. I make sure to write an entry in it every evening, but beyond that there are no requirements about the content or length. (Occasionally, if I don’t have time to treat the events of the day properly, I will put the entry off until the next day and just make some brief notes before going to bed.)

Here’s what a typical page looks like:


Searching CBs

The paper-is-for-Luddites camp will point at me here and say, “Hah! But how do you find anything in your 2000 pages of paper notes?” Believe me, I thought about this before I started – and while I admit that I do not have full-text search and that that can sometimes be a liability, I can still find things remarkably well. The heart of the system is an index of each notebook, which I maintain in the front cover of each notebook as I write, adding to it after I finish each day’s entry. When I finish the notebook, I type all of the index entries into the Records Project Paper Augmentation System (RPPAS).

The RPPAS is a custom software package that I wrote from scratch; here is where being highly computer-literate comes in handy. I took a long, hard look at how long it was going to take and other possibilities for handling the task, but found that there was no other software that even remotely resembled what I wanted. The RPPAS is still in development, but all the essential features that I need work.

The software runs in a terminal (a text-based interface) because it’s easy to program and efficient to use. It looks like this:

RPPAS screenshot 1

With the RPPAS, I can search all of my indexes at once for keywords I’ve put in the index. Once the results are displayed, I can press the number next to it to see what notebooks and pages that keyword is used at. Here’s an example for the keyword “Technical Geekery”:

RPPAS screenshot 2

If there are a number of locations listed for the same keyword, it can be pretty tough to figure out which one used the keyword in the way you were thinking of. Since index entries are really just a concise way of describing the content of the page, I wrote the “nearby” query to quickly list other index entries around a given one. For instance, in the following screenshot, I can easily learn that the rather vague entry “gender” listed in CB14 was about a discussion we had in my sociology class about whether the concept of gender should exist in society, as well as the “unpopular opinion” that arose as part of the discussion:

RPPAS screenshot 3

I happen to remember offhand that “CB14” began during the end of the Interim term of my freshman year, but that’s not something I can count on for all the notebooks I have, especially as I continue to add more. So if I don’t remember when the events in CB14 actually were, I can use the aptly named “When was” query, which shows the dates as well as the events listing, a list I put in the front cover of each notebook listing the most salient events:

RPPAS screenshot 4

This system allows me to find most things in about thirty seconds of searching at the computer. The downside of indexing as opposed to the full-text search possible on a computer file is that I might neglect to add a certain keyword or have not thought about the relevance of that keyword to the text at the time when I wrote it, and I would then be unable to find it by searching that keyword in the index. Even on the occasions where this happens, information is rarely lost forever; I can often remember a related concept which is in the index and find it that way.

It is foolish but common to assume that full-text search is intrinsically superior to paper-based search methods like indexing. Full-text search can be defeated as well; I recently couldn’t find the list of classes I intended to take next semester in my Random Thoughts document, even though I was certain that I’d written them in there. After manually paging through the document scanning for it, I found that I’d described them as “courses” rather than “classes,” causing the search to miss it. Full-text search, when used for large documents, also has an unfortunate tendency to find all sorts of things that are not actually relevant (unless you remember the exact wording that was used), forcing you to wade through piles of irrelevant information. Since index entries are assigned manually, they only get attached to things that you consider important, and you can use the same wording in the index for related pieces of information that don’t actually share a keyword in the text.

(Before you ask, Google succeeds in providing useful full-text searches of the unimaginably massive amount of data on the Internet using an extremely complex algorithm which draws on all kinds of metadata provided by sites (including index-like keywords!), the number of links to each page, what other users have looked at, the user’s personal search habits, and God knows what else; any system smaller than Google simply does not have the data or the computational resources to make that a useful approach.)

Exchange between Mediums

At the end of my discussion of paper and computers, I alluded to the idea that my definition of a good paper-computer hybrid system includes exchange of information in both directions. I have three ways of doing this (besides the already-described searching mechanism).

First, in addition to references within CBs and Random Thoughts, I use references between the two. Often I want to quote something I wrote in Random Thoughts in CB, or I want to allude to an event or experience from CB in something I write in Random Thoughts. So I simply write “RT 2412” in my CB or “CB20.56” (volume 20, page 56) in the Random Thoughts entry. If I want to look up the Random Thoughts entry, I go to the computer and type ;ta 2412 into my Random Thoughts window; if I want more information on the event, I can do some poking around in the RPPAS with that reference, or I can go to the closet and grab the notebook. There is really no disconnect between the electronic and paper components.

Second, I scan all of my completed paper notebooks into the computer, thereby addressing another of the anti-paper objections, that I might lose the notebook, drop it into the water, or have my house burn down. The scans are high-quality enough that I could reprint them or use them as a substitute for the paper notebooks if necessary, although I’d still much rather have the originals.

Finally, I occasionally print out a copy of the index, which I can use if I don’t have a computer handy and which will itself provide a backup to the computer version. (I do back up my files, but you never know for sure what might happen.) I’m a typography nerd, so I spent some time creating a feature that uses the LaTeX engine to create a nice, compact index (PDF, as an image at legible quality would be huge).


I know there’s probably one more burning question for many readers: why go to all this bother? This might be a question of why I want to use the hybrid paper/computer system, or why I’m doing this project at all. These are valid questions, and I’ll take them in turn.

Paper is a different medium than a computer. And because of this, I write differently on paper than I write on my computer. In particular, after many years of hard work and practice, I’m an extremely fast and natural typist (it’s a bad day that I type at less than 100 WPM in complete comfort). In my simple form of handwritten shorthand I can reach about 50WPM when I’m giving myself writer’s cramp while frantically scrawling scribbles that I might be able to read back in five minutes. Typing would mean that I could write more; for a while I kept a journal on the computer, and I think I did write more words than I do now. But for CBs I like writing slower, taking a few more minutes to reflect and really think about the words I’m writing instead of mashing them out on the keyboard.

Call me weird, but I also like writing by hand, and it’s something I don’t get a lot of chances to do nowadays, so paper gives me that chance. As I said before, I tried keeping a journal on the computer for a while, and I was inconsistent with that because I didn’t enjoy it; it always felt like a chore. I wanted to have a record of what I was doing and my thoughts, but I didn’t want to write it, and that’s as much a recipe for failure as trying to become a professional musician when you can’t stand practicing your instrument. Writing by hand with my fountain pen and my notebooks and going through the ritual of numbering and indexing makes it less of a task. Occasionally writing does feel like a task in this system, but only rarely, usually when I have something on my mind and resent having to take the time to do anything else at all.

That’s why the project has succeeded with paper, and why I don’t think it would have succeeded on the computer. It would also be a tremendous, unsearchable mess if I hadn’t developed the computerized indexing system and moved all of my random notes into the computerized Random Thoughts. This is why the combination is the solution.

But why do it in the first place? There are plenty of reasons, but a couple stand out. I initially started the project because I wanted to improve my autobiographical memory, and that has certainly happened. I’m sure that it has also made me a better writer, even in the relatively short timespan of the project. I’ve written over 450,000 words in RT and CB combined, and even when I’m not trying to produce polished writing, writing that many words cannot help but improve your writing skills. And often I do look something up in the thesaurus or spend some time working out how to express a complex idea. Finally, it satisfies my desire to have a complicated, organized system of information that is truly useful, and I get to play with information systems while accomplishing something.

Should you try something like this? It would be silly to say there is a right answer to this question. But a Random Thoughts–like document takes practically no effort and can be both lots of fun and extremely useful. All you have to do to start is create a new document in your word processor or text editor of choice and start typing whenever you have something you want to write down. That can be quotations, stories from your day, reminders about things you need to do, anything you want. Sure, there are tools that will make it easier to use (for instance, I have macros that will jump between files, find numbered references, and automatically insert the next unused number for a new entry), but you don’t need them to get started.

My CB system is for the truly dedicated. I have not left out an entry for a single day so far, and I don’t intend to. Regardless of how picky you are about that, it takes time and deliberate effort to write something regularly, and most people will give up (including me, until I found this system). It also takes additional time and motivation to maintain the search system so that you can find things. I think it’s worth it, but everyone will not, and we would live in a boring world if everyone did.

That said, I highly recommend a project of this kind (if at a lower level of commitment), even if you only try it for a couple of weeks and conclude it’s not for you. And trust me, it gets easier: once you’re past the first couple of months, it changes from being a difficult project you’re working on to something you just do.

If you’re interested in the RPPAS software I described earlier, my code and a manual can be found on GitHub, licensed under the GNU General Public License.

Using the Internet to Recall Sayings and Quotations You’ve Forgotten

Ever remember fragments of a saying? Or just part of a quote? You’re not alone. The trick is figuring out how to search for it. Here are two searching tricks to rescue you from that annoying feeling of remembering just part of something.

1: The Asterisk
There’s a really handy Google trick that almost nobody seems to know about: an asterisk (*) matches any single word. This lets you easily search for quotes that you can only remember part of. For example, “one death is a * a million deaths is a *” will easily bring up Joseph Stalin’s fairly well-known statement, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” (I have this posted on my wall right in front of me, so I’m not liable to forget it, but I couldn’t think of a better example.)


This trick works wonders; there are only so many possible sentences with that precise structure, and if it’s something reasonably well-known, the first page of hits is liable to give you a unanimous verdict on what you were trying to think of. If you get irrelevant results (which has actually never happened to me), you can try putting the whole thing in quotes. It’s also possible that you remembered the part that you knew wrong; try adding more asterisks in places you weren’t sure of.


2: Searching Books on the Internet
This is what happened to me the other day. I remembered the following phrase: “You may be the world champion tetris player, but eventually….” That was it. For the life of me, I could not figure out where it came from, or indeed any information about it. So I went to Google and just typed that in. Guess what? There was exactly one hit, a Google Books result taking me to exactly the passage I was looking for.


To test whether this was a transferable trick, I grabbed five books from my bookshelf, flipped them open to a random page, and typed in a quote from each. A search for the quoted passage (only ten words long or so, and devoid of any specific names) brought up the correct title of the book in five out of five cases.


The uniqueness of fairly mundane English sentences is truly surprising. Some things that worked:
  • “It lay out in the open, several feet away and unreachable” (Once Upon a Time In the North by Philip Pullman, 1 result)
  • “nudging people to use the standard cursor keys” (Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks by David Karp, 3 results)
  • “For the last six months we have exhausted every means of locating you” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 3 results).
So next time you can’t remember the source of a quote you’re thinking of, forget about thinking hard and scanning through books–just type it into Google. In most cases the websites also let you see a couple of pages of context, so you probably don’t even have to go get the book. Remember to use quotation marks around the quote, assuming that you’re fairly sure your words are exactly right–you’ll get much more relevant results.


Many sites and devices that you might use have their own search features (for instance, I can search all the books and documents on my Kindle from the main screen), but with the success rate of this technique, I’d only recommend using that if you don’t have immediate access to Google.

How Computers Count, and How You Can Do Cool Stuff With The Same Techniques

(I’ll get to that intriguing image later, don’t worry. I can’t put an image in the middle of my post, apparently.)

This is part one of an eventual series explaining a bit about how computers work internally. In this article, you will learn how to count to very high numbers on your fingers, and how to easily compact six yes/no values (do I need to bring x, y, and/or z home with me today?) into a single number for easy remembering. You’ll also learn how this relates to the way computers work.

Hack 1: Counting to 1023 on your fingers
Ever needed to keep a quick tally of something but didn’t have any paper handy? Counting on your fingers is a really easy way, but it’s limited by the fact that we only have ten fingers (well, most of us, anyway). You could get clever and count to five on your right hand, then raise one of the fingers on your left hand to represent five. But even that system only gets you up to thirty.

The way I can get to 1023 (which is certainly more than you will ever need) is by using the binary number system instead of our usual (decimal) numbers. Here’s a brief explanation of it, if you’ve never seen it:

In decimal, the second place represents ten of the first place. In other words, in the number 13, the 1 has ten times the value of the three. If we didn’t know how the system worked, we could interpret the value of 13 by multiplying the 1 by ten, and the 3 by one, and adding them together: (1 * 10) + (3 * 1) = 10 + 3 = 13. Each new place multiplies the value of the previous place by ten, so we have the hundreds (10 * 10) place, then the thousands place, and so on.

In the binary system, the second place represents two of the first place. So the binary number 10 can be converted to a more familiar decimal by multiplying the twos place by two, and the ones place by one: (1 * 2) + (0 * 1) = 2 + 0 = 2. Each new place doubles the value of the previous place.

More concisely, the values of the places in the two systems are:
Decimal: thousands, hundreds, tens, ones
Binary: eights, fours, twos, ones

Obviously, binary is a lot less compact, since it only has two possible values for each place, 0 and 1. However, it has some great advantages as well: The 0 and 1 can just as easily represent off and on, which gives it the potential to work for both of these tricks.

To count to 1023 on your fingers, use your rightmost finger as the ones place, and keep working on up. That little picture at the top of this post shows the values that you would assign each finger (obviously you probably won’t have the diagram when you need to use this method, but each finger is just twice the value of the one before it, so you can calculate it in your head fairly easily).

To count to, say, four, start by raising the 1 finger. Then lower it and raise the 2 finger. Then raise the 1 finger again. Then put down both the 2 and 1 fingers and raise the 4 finger. Obviously, this process can be continued indefinitely.

Hack 2: Storing Multiple Numbers in One Number, or How To Know What Classes You Have Homework In
I have a problem: During a typical day at school, I forget what classes I need to bring books home for. This results in wasting time at my locker (which is bad when I have a bus to catch) while I try to read my planner and see what I wrote down. And of course I can also forget to write something down thinking I’m sure to remember it.

I tried to solve this by spending a few moments reading my planner and thinking over everything I was supposed to do before I left my last class. But I often forgot in the few minutes between there and my locker. Then I had an idea.

I have six classes that I might need to keep track of. I have more than six fingers. So I assigned a finger to each class (in the order that I go to them during the day). If you add up the numbers for those fingers using the diagram, you’ll get a unique number representing that permutation. A single number is a heck of a lot easier to memorize than yes/no values for six pieces of information. You can even use some fancy mnemonic system (like the Major System) if you need to remember the number for a while.

Of course, the entire system is useless if you can’t convert the number back into the information you were trying to memorize. But that’s easy enough.

1. Find the highest power of two that is less than the number you memorized (for instance, if my number is 58, the qualifying number is 32, as the next one, 64, is too high).
2. Raise the finger representing that number, and subtract the number from your memorized number.
3. Repeat until you hit 0.
4. Use the arrangement of fingers to reproduce the original information.

Does this seem awfully complicated? Yes, it does. How about an example?

My classes are:
World Lit
U.S. History

Each of these gets a number, starting from the top.
Calculus (32)
World Lit (16)
U.S. History (8)
Speech (4)
German (2)
Physics (1)

Today I had homework in calculus, world lit, history, and German. So 32 + 16 + 8 + 2 = 58. 58 is “sushi” in my mnemonic system, so that’s all I have to remember to know what books I need. Of course, I can start with 32 after my first class (or, preferably, 0, if I don’t have any homework) and add to it as the day progresses, to keep a running total.

When I need to know what books I need to bring, I take 58, raise my left thumb (which represents 32), then subtract 32 from 58, leaving me with 26. Then I raise my right thumb and subtract 16, leaving me with 10. And so on. The math only takes a few seconds.

Naturally, mine is not the only application of this system. There could be numerous more situations like it, and maybe you can think of one.

What The Heck This Has To Do With Computers
This article is only partly about a few silly (though occasionally useful, at least to me) tricks–it’s a computer newsletter, and needs to be at least tangentially related.

Binary is the system that a computer uses internally to represent numbers (and everything else). If you wrote a program that simply counted up to infinity (or rather, until the computer ran out of memory), it would internally do something almost exactly like my finger-counting process, the only difference being that the changes are electrical charges moving on a microscopic scale rather than fingers. (Adding and manipulating those numbers is quite another matter, and while it’s quite interesting, it’s not well-suited for an easy-reading newsletter.)

As for the other hack, it relates to a common programming trick. When you define an integer to store a number (if it’s been too long since algebra, an integer is a positive or negative number with no decimal places), the computer sets aside a certain number of binary bits, typically 32, to store the number. (A bit is either a 0 or a 1, a single binary digit; a binary 1 would be one bit, while a binary 1010 would be four bits.) This way, it can store any number between 0 and 2147483647. (Lost in the technical talk? Jump down to the next paragraph.)

All this is to say that if you store a value of 1 (which uses only one binary bit), you’re using thirty-two times the amount of memory that you need to. That doesn’t sound particularly significant, but when you start storing thousands or millions of pieces of information in a database or other file, you want to conserve as much space as possible.

So instead you can use a method similar to what I described above. The computer uses a different process involving binary numbers and Boolean logic, which is technical enough that I’ll spare you from it, but the basic idea is the same–pack a bunch of different numbers (or, in my case, yes/no situations represented by ones and zeroes) into a single number.

(Phew! I’ll have something a bit simpler for you next week, but I hope you learned something from this.)

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Slashes and Backslashes, Oh My

Slashes and backslashes can be difficult to tell apart–they look pretty similar, and to make matters worse they’re both used in describing the location of a file. Hopefully you’ll have an idea of the difference when you’re done with this article.

Part 1: Telling Slashes and Backslashes apart

  • This is a forward slash (often known simply as slash): /
  • This is a backslash:

If you have difficulty remembering which is which, try this:

  1. Imagine the two characters forming a hill, like so: /.
  2. On the left side (forward slash), you go up the hill. On the right side (backslash) you go “back” down the hill.
Here are some differences:
  • The forward slash is located on the same key as the question mark.
  • The backslash is located between the Enter and backspace keys and is on a slightly longer key than normal. (On specialized keyboards, the backslash can get moved to all sorts of places.)
  • A forward slash is used for writing English text.
  • A backslash is usually used only in computer contexts.

Part 2: When to Use (Back)slashes

1. In filename paths:
Here are some ways of specifying the location of a file, several of which you probably recognize:

i. http://www.google.com
ii. C:Windowssystem32progman.exe
iii. /home/soren/code/scripts/m.sh
iv. \SERVERMusic
v. smb://SERVER/Music

(i) is a URL for a page on the World Wide Web. Web addresses always use forward slashes. You can probably get away with typing backslashes and have the page still load, but doing so is poor form and may occasionally not work. Please don’t say “backslash” when reading a web address–it annoys some people to no end.

(ii) is a Windows file path. These paths always use backslashes. You can supposedly use forward slashes if you want, but many programs will not accept paths typed with forward slashes.

(iii) is a UNIX or Mac OS X style path. These always use forward slashes. These systems will usually not accept backslashes, because the backslash is used for something else (more on that in a minute).

(iv) is a UNC path, used to specify the location of a device or file on a network in Windows. This uses backslashes, though forward slashes will often work.

(v) is another way of specifying a network resource, usually used on UNIX-like systems. This uses forward slashes.

In short, Windows uses backslashes, while UNIX and Mac OS X systems use forward slashes. Most importantly, Web addresses always use forward slashes.

2. Other Uses

Forward slashes can also be used:

  • as a symbol for division (as in 6 / 3)
  • to precede a command in a chat client or other program (as in /quit)
  • to show italics when only plain text is available (like /this/)
  • To indicate command-line options in Windows (dir/p)

Backslashes can also be used:

  • as an “escape” character, to modify the meaning of the following character. This is a common feature on Unix and Mac OS X command lines. For example, if a space would normally mean the end of a command or name, but the command or name contains a space, it would be written like this: word1 word2
  • to indicate integer division, where any fractional result is cut off (7 2 = 3)
  • to indicate that a line of text or program code does not end but should be carried over to the next line (this is the first part of the line
  • and this is the second part)

There are even more uses for these two simple characters in computing; if I didn’t bore you out of your mind, you can check out Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_(punctuation) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backslash.


If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.