While “writing it down” might seem like common sense, it wasn’t always the case. From the times of Ancient Greece, Plato tells a story of a worried Egyptian King, who, upon witnessing the invention of writing, remarks,
“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. ”
To some, the notebook was a dangerous device, a thief that would rob us of our memories . Fortunately, these days, there’s plenty of evidence from our Psych texts that say we humans are pretty shabby at keeping the facts straight. In fact, each time we recall a memory, we change it! Here lies the beauty of the notebook. Have an idea for a new project? Why not log it somewhere for future reference? With diligence, the notebook can become our own personal hub for spurring on new project ideas.
The Project Log and You
Keeping a notebook takes time–time that cuts away from making the actual project. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that a little well-written forethought can be keep your eyes open to ideas that might otherwise be hidden when we’re focused on the details.
The Master Reference
It’s hard to resist the urge to leap in and start tackling the project head-on. A few resistors and op-amps on a breadboard later, and maybe we’re already halfway there. After all, why slow down drawing the circuit when you can just make it? Unfortunately, while we can get pretty far in one night, we can’t always finish. When that happens it’s far more difficult to restart from a crow’s nest of wires than it is from a master reference. Here lies the beauty of the notebook. When we compel ourselves to write down
an idea, we’re challenged to give an overarching depiction of what we’re trying to build with sufficient detail to construct it later. Once we’re actually building that 3D printer or breadboarding the circuit, we’ve got the dimensions or schematic we logged earlier to jump back into the same context. Fortunately, from block-diagrams, to circuit diagram symbols, to logic gates, previous engineers have created an entire vocabulary of symbols for communicating with each other. Why not use it to communicate with our future self?
The Multi-Body Solution
When we write down or type up our idea, we put deliberate efforts into entertaining it. Perhaps it’s another mechanism for robot locomotion. Maybe it’s a rough schematic for a switching power supply. Either way, to remember it later, we’ll need to give a sufficiently detailed description to recall it again when the time is ripe. If we can push ourselves to put this idea into our notebook, we can reap an interesting benefit. Now that it’s on paper or in text format, it can stand by itself.
When we look back on what we’ve written, perhaps, a day or two later, we can entertain it from an outside perspective. Reading over what we’ve written, we’re giving ourselves a second angle from which to look at the same idea–almost like getting another person’s opinion. And in one sense, it is. The notebook becomes a conversation with a “yester-you.” We give ourselves the ability to entertain many perspectives, each split across a different time period when they were written down.
Beyond Pulp-and-Paper: 21st Century Notebooks
It’s been a good 3000 years since the Mesopotamians started doodling cuneiform on clay tablets. Surely, we can do better! Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, we don’t need to keep scribbling like a caveman to keep our thoughts straight. These days, online build logs and digital photo albums have been helping us present ideas, but they can also help us generate them. I thought I’d shed some light on two modern-day tools that are tuned for the rough draft.
Sometimes, we need to run a test-snippet of code to crunch some numbers. Perhaps we’re in the lab, running a quick experiment, or maybe we just need to double check our bit-math. IPython turns your web browser into an interactive Python terminal. Small snippets of code can be dropped into Mathematica-like “cells,” which can be run with a simple Shift+Enter. Being browser-based gives it the flexibility of running on any platform, and you can even run the notebook on a server remotely, allowing you full access to your notebooks anywhere you can find an internet connection.
IPython is the lab scientists modern day mission log. It renders LaTeX into beautiful mathematical equations, and it has all the tools and libraries available in Python. It’s cell-structure encourages small coherent snippets. With IPython, you can crunch numbers, plot data, and export html webpages, all from the comfort of your browser. For the curious, have a look at some other folks’ more polished lab manuals online, some of which are clean enough to be stand-alone works of technical beauty.
The IO: a connected build log
Paper may be able to give you the chance to revisit your own take on a project; but, sadly, others don’t become part of this feedback loop. Recording your thoughts and projects online gives you one edge from keeping a solo notebook: peer review. Keeping a notebook gives us the advantage of revisited a deeply thought-out topic with a fresh set of eyes. Publishing your thought process, however, actually gives us many fresh sets of eyes! If you’re getting started on a project and want to open it to the world, Hackaday.io is a fantastic place to get the project underway. No project need be complete to turn a few heads, request feedback, and get others to exchange a few pro-tips on your project underway.
Off the Mental Back-burner and On Paper
Whether we’re using a fully-fledged IPython interpreter, your anthology of builds on Hackaday.io, or scribblings on a few scraps of paper, we’re promoting spur-of-the-moment calculations. As the day goes by, we can take one or two of the many ideas that fly through our mind and catch them before they slip away. Most of these thoughts might not realize themselves into fully-fledged projects, but that’s OK. With our thoughts now on paper, in text files, or online, we’ve given these ideas the honest treatment they deserve of being entertained just by writing them down.
Surely, there are more pieces of technology that can help us save our thoughts. Google’s Keep, Github Gists, and DEVONthink are all fantastic examples of fresh pieces of software that help us log our thoughts. If you’ve got a particularly nifty way of taking notes, we’d love to hear them in the comments.
 Plato on Writing. http://www.umich.edu/~lsarth/filecabinet/PlatoOnWriting.html
 Notebooks as memory aids: Precepts and practices in early modern England. Richard Yeo. Sage Publications 2008.