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Digital Notebooks

Back in IIT Bombay, I had taken up a course called EDL: Electronics Design Laboratory in my 6th semester. The course was on developing an electronics intensive product. The course had no lectures, no exams. The only deliverable was a product which worked at the end of the course! The instructor of the course gave us examples of Faraday’s Diary on a number of occasions to motivate us to document all our ideas and experiments in a notebook.

I agree more than anyone else that documenting experiments and thoughts is a must, but I don’t believe paper notebooks alone are the best way to do so. Paper notebooks store data sequentially; and they are a good platform for simply writing down the day’s activity. However, when it comes to representing a knowledge map, paper notebooks shit in their pants. For example, paper notebooks won’t let me organise my understanding of, say Capacitors. As I get more information about Capacitors, I would like to go back to my Capacitors notebook and modify it. Papers notebooks miserably fail at allowing me to do so. Not to give up easily, I tried to maintain a set of loose papers on my subjects of interest. This gave me a consolation by allowing me to add loose sheets in the middle of other sheets (faking dynamicity). But the fact remained: paper notebooks are simply not meant for storing dynamic information!

Update (22nd November 2014)

I have realized that paper notebooks are in fact better suited for logging experiment results than their digital counterpart. Drawing diagrams, and writing math equations is much easier on paper.

Maybe a combination of the two approaches (paper notebooks and digital notebooks) gives a decent workflow. The experiments can be logged into the paper notebook, but once the log on paper crosses a threshold, the notes should be filtered and the extracted information be transferred into a digital format; and the cycle can then repeat.

We are moving towards a paperless world and with good reason. Digital notebooks bring about a paradigm shift in the way we store and think of information. They give us the flexibility of backing up notes, the flexibility of accessing notes on multiple devices, the flexibility of sharing information seamlessly, the flexibility of peacefully reorganising information, and a hell lot more.

Having failed at using physical notebooks as an effective way of storing information, I searched for digital alternatives. Evernote, Simplenote, nvAlt seem to be some of the popular names. Even neatly organized plain text files should do a better job than paper!


Summary? Digital Notebooks are a great way of organising thoughts and information. Give it a shot :)

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