Drops Of Jupyter Notebooks: How To Keep Notes In The Information Age

Our digital world is so much more interactive than the paper one it has been replacing. That becomes very obvious in the features of Jupyter Notebooks. The point is to make your data beautiful, organized, interactive, and shareable. And you can do all of this with just a bit of simple coding.

We already leveraged computer power by moving from paper spreadsheets to digital spreadsheets, but they are limited. One thing I’ve seen over and over again — and occasionally been guilty of myself — is spreadsheet abuse. That is, using a spreadsheet program to do something I probably ought to write a program to do. For those times that you want something quick but want something more than a spreadsheet, you should check out Jupyter Notebooks. The system is most commonly associated with Python, but it isn’t Python-specific. There are over 100 languages supported — many community-developed. You can even install a C++ interpreter backend for it. Because of the client/server architecture, it is very simple to share notebooks with other users.

You can — in theory — use Jupyter for anything you could use Python for. In practice, it seems to get a lot of workout with people analyzing large data sets, doing machine learning, and similar tasks.

The Good: Simple, Powerful, Extensible

The idea is simple. Think of a Markdown-enabled web page that can connect to a backend (a kernel, in Jupyter-speak). The backend can run on your machine or remotely and will support some kind of language — often Python. The document has cells that line up vertically (like a single wide spreadsheet column). For example, here’s a simple notebook I created to explain how a bunch of sine waves add up to a square wave:

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The Hacker’s Notebook: A Mission Log For Every Project

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. [1]”

To some, the notebook was a dangerous device, a thief that would rob us of our memories [2]. 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.

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