Long Hands

So I have a confession to make. I'm not writing longhand very much at all. Actually its insignificant the amount that I'm writing things out longhand any more. I was struck by this fact the other day, when, after a day where I felt like I didn't get anything done, I opened a notebook and did some project planning/review on a sheet of paper. And I realized that my fountain pen was empty.

The interesting thing, I think is that I'm sort of a pen nut, and I've always loved having cool pens that made the act of writing a pleasure. So much so that since high school I've always had a Namiki Vanishing Point Fountain Pen around. These are heaty, but very usable fountain pens, that use a retracting nib (awesome!) and the grind on Pilot/Namiki nibs is great [1]. I love writing by hand, and for a long time I've felt that I do my best planning and rough work long hand.

There two big reasons that I think this has worked so well for me. First of all, I have a great spatial memory, and having notes that are fixed on a page makes them easy to remember, particularly if they're arranged sequentially, reading through the past archive can be a really power contextual memory aide. I haven't tried it in a while, but I can take a notebook from the past, and flip through the pages and sometimes recall all sorts of stuff about the moment in my life that I was writing those notes [2].

But there's a conflict here. I'm a geek so it makes sense to a digital system to keep track of these notes. After all, it's just text. There are a score of reasons why this makes sense: digital text is searchable, it's more enduring, its easier to read, there are search tools, and I type considerably faster than I can write long hand. But, there are of course downsides: digital text isn't as portable for on the fly creation, the semantic/spacial "features" of notebooks are basically lost, and the truth is that search is only really useful if you're looking "for" something, rather than browsing through [3] taking system, because in order for search to be useable you need to be looking "for something" where as, if you're looking at a notebook, it's all browse and no search. Clearly there's a place for search, but loosing "browsing cabibility," is a huge downgrade.

At some point, about a year ago--as this was the inspiration for tychoish.com--I thought hey, "maybe a "blog" notebook could give linear context," and still be digital. Well tychoish.com didn't work out so well for this, but I've been using ikiwiki, which is mostly a wiki, but it has some useful blogging capabilities. Unfortunately, I've had a hard time getting it to work since I upgraded my computer, and switched to git. [4]

And the end result is, that without really trying to, exactly, I've gotten to the point where I'm not writing anything out, really, and I have, sort of, all the bases covered. I have a computer that is more portable than the last one. I have a flash drive with a couple of good ssh clients on it, I have web access to my repositories. It's all there, and it's all accessible (to me), and that's something that I can already tell has been a good thing for my workflow. At the same time, as my little project planning session a few days ago with the notebook illustrated, there are times when the change of venue/context is enough to get things rolling if they're stalled.

The moral? Digital is good, particularly once you find the right solution, but maybe it isn't quite time to throw away all the notebooks. Also I write this I realize that I should probably write a post about backup, but that's for another day.

Onward and Upward!

[1]So here's a bit of specialized knowledge that doesn't get out very much: Apparently Pilot/Namiki (who also, incidentally make the nibs for Cross pens, or used to at any rate) run about a half size smaller than other makers. I think this is the difference between German/European and Japanese/Asian pen makers (which I think is true,) and might be related to the difference in absorbency of velum/high-rag content paper, versus rice paper, but that's just me talking out of my ass.
[2]Interestingly, this has always been the most successful when I have used the least structured note taking methods, and don't divide my notetaking into too many piles. Having one big box to put things in, means that the semantic connections between all the bits of information remain intact.
[3]I'm tycho of the footnotes today. Anyway, as an aside I'd wager that the "browsability" of wikis is perhaps the undervalued key to their success (and also a reason why many wiki's fail). You can, as I often do, just bounce around a topic or category in wikipedia and learn a great deal, whereas with the rest of the internet, you're less likely to get more than one or two degrees away from a google search.
[4]It's really ironic, because new hardware/software, and a more capable database, should make the software work better not worse, but it's clearly an install issue related to the fact that I'm in a pretty non standard environment. It's a great program, and it's even better if you're using a debian-flavor and don't have to fight it to install. Seriously this is another aside, but if I could get OS X apps and interfaces with a debian core/apt-get that really worked consistently, I would never look back.
comments powered by Disqus