Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor (kistaro) wrote,
Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

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Analog surrender

I have been agonizing back and forth for the last several years over the right notetaking system for me. Evernote is clearly the correct archiver for me- the big info bucket I use for absolutely everything I think I might want to just sort of hang on to for later reference- but it's not very friendly to think into; it's where thoughts go when I'm done with them immediately.

I am astonishingly ineffective at being creative into a computer. I've spent years fighting this, not least because my handwriting isn't very legible. But the bottom line is that, emotionally, it is a very different experience to be writing by hand; the very physicality of the act means something to me, and my thoughts are much freer. I need to write my notes by hand- I can't think freely into a computer screen, and I can't really keep track of a meeting unless I'm writing by hand, either. Typing becomes a transcription, a surrogate for thought; it's sort of an ironic side effect of my typing speed- I can keep up with many speakers, so it doesn't force me to summarize the same way writing does. It does force me to write in a straight line in a text-shaped document (unless I click around a bunch in OneNote, but that's still not as free as a pen unless I'm using a stylus and just writing), which pretty much destroys all the expressive power of my scrawls, circles, strangely-shaped bullet points, arrows linking things to things, margin notes, doodles, incomprehensible diagrams, side notes, and basically everything that makes my engineering notebook look like the dediated work of a raving lunatic- everything that makes those notes mine, and everything that makes them carry actual brain-valid meaning I need for my notes to have value.

I am astonishingly ineffective at keeping track of paper. Perhaps the less said about this, the better.

I need something to bridge the gap: some organized, computer-backed method of taking notes by hand. This is why I've been following tablet PCs for years: they seem like the perfect mix. But Windows Tablet PCs lack the ergonomics of a conventional notebook, and I've been trying to use my iPad for the purpose. A very good stylus (the Wacom Bamboo stylus sincerely earns its double-the-next-competitor price tag; it is the only stylus for the iPad that truly functions as a precision instrument) and a variety of notetaking software has highlighted that no developer for Apple has figured out handwriting ink tracking nearly as well as Microsoft did in Windows Journal and OneNote, and having a touch screen rather than an actual stylus digitizer makes a massive difference, and not in the iPad's favor. I can choose a notetaker that gives a blocky straight-line approximiation of my handwriting, one that keeps up with my writing but somehow makes it totally illegible despite feeling like it inks fine with a palm-recognition algorithm that fundamentally doesn't work, or one with a well-designed auto-adjusting manually-adjustable palm-rest region, good letter shapes, a mostly-clear-if-rounded-off rendition of my handwriting, and an infuriating half-second of lag between my writing on the screen and the line trundling along behind my pen. None of these are satisfying experiences, to say the least.

The LiveScribe Pulse is infuriating in its own unique way. Many of the software issues have finally been violently hammered into submission, leaving me with the experience of simply writing on paper with a pen, then plugging the pen into the computer to download a wonderful image of my handwriting. Well, in small notebooks, an image of my handwriting if an earthquake was happening, because the on-screen magnification maximizes the artifacting caused by the inevitable combination of imperfect tracking and a non-infinite frame capture rate. I have a bad habit of collapsing my loops, yes, but it's not as bad as the Pulse makes it out to look! Oh, and there's the other problem that it's the experience of holding an extra-chunky Fischer-Price Ten-Color Pen (if you ever had one of those as a kid, please know that I am not exaggerating very much comparing the Pulse to one of those) except much, much heavier because it is full of a microprocessor and a camera and a battery. "Ergonomics" is just a catchphrase until you are living with chronic tendonitis.

I've been hedging (expensively) back and forth between my iPad and my LiveScribe Pulse (styluses, writing apps; notebooks, pen tips, journals) for the entire time I've had both available to me, and I've realized why I can't settle on one: because neither one of them is a very good solution to the problem. LiveScribe is charging me premium prices to use average gel ink on average heavy paper, and the iPad is desperately trying to please me like an enthusiastic puppy but just isn't up to the task due to fundamental limitations of the hardware.

In the entire time I've been using these notetakers, then on my PC note archive, I have referred to my notes as follows:
  • LiveScribe notes: zero times

  • Penultimate (iPad) notes: zero times, but I emailed them once

  • NoteTaker HD (iPad): zero times, but it's really good at margin scrawl on PDFs

  • Noteshelf (iPad): twice

Meanwhile, I refer to them in their original form repeatedly, and frequently, right up until I finish what I'm doing, archive them, and then rarely touch them again. I don't think these stats justify all the damn trouble I'm going to. Clearly, the primary thing I do with my notes is use them to think, and I am compromising exactly that, the primary and most important task, in the pursuit of the archive scenario I use very, very rarely.

I've been neurotic about my notes for years. But here's the weird thing: that's started to go away. The things I'm worried about forgetting go straight into Evernote- my phone takes a picture, or I dash off a quick text note. Occasionally, it's a handwritten note- and 90% of the time, I have neither iPad nor LiveScribe kit, so I've written it on a napkin and then I took a photo of it. I am clearly trying to solve the wrong problem here.

Tomorrow, before I go to work, I am going to go buy a nice high-quality notebook I can pull the pages out of and then put them back in after I've scanned them and decided what section/order they go in, and solve the entire problem and stop worrying about it. Not everything is ideally solved with high-tech approaches.

I guess there's a bottom line here. I love pen and paper. Despite my handwriting, it means a lot to me, emotionally. And if that's the most important thing it takes for me to be creative and productive, all I need to do is respect that, use the right tools to do that job, and make compromises in the right places (archiving) instead of interfering with the primary function of the tool.

I've migrated to DreamWidth. The original post is at View comments at; go ahead and use OpenID to post your own, or you can comment here.

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