On taking notes and the act of writing something down

When I was a student, it was in the pre-laptop era, taking notes was a valuable action. The better your notes, the better your end results and examinations. You were highly trained, very fast, listening and writing at the same time. I was very particular about my pens, they had to slide over the paper rapidly, no screeching. The paper was important too: my whole academic cycle has been penned down on recycled fair trade paper with elongated rectangles printed on them.
Hence a bit more than 10 years later, taking notes is something I’m trying to reintegrate in what I do. For this, I have my particulars again, trackball pens and squared paper and the digital. The paper notebook can be put in my pocket.

The digital realm is quite complicated: do you take notes in a wiki (I get hopelessly lost in them), do you have a scribble pad somewhere (based for example on now terminated etherpad), do you choose a proprietary system such as google docs and more of the likely? Do you publicize everything you note down or do you keep stuff private – and how?
I chose free software only, use Open Atrium (quite a struggle to install) to try and stay organized, this blog (WordPress), and a timid attempt at microblogging on Identi.ca.
The biggest issue is the private public part. In order for me to try to be as clear as possible as to why I want to preserve a certain piece of information, a link, an image, writing in public such as this post kind of forces me to stay clear. On the other hand, certainly not everything wants to be publicized. And this is where it is somewhat hard. Do you keep certain items in Draft status? Do you go for the other platform? A paper notebook? A digital scribble place – and how do you keep this linked, see the bigger picture, draw the mosaic of your thoughts and notes?

These thoughts about taking notes got triggered by several issues this week. One of the triggers is a book: Field Notes on Science & Nature, Edited by Michael R. Canfield.

This lovely book review captures the gist of the book.
The book and review start out with a similar question to the one in this post:

Why are scientists’ field notebooks so valuable? And do notes really matter anymore, with global positioning systems, laptops and digital cameras available to document information traditionally recorded through sketches and barely legible scrawl?

The scientist notebook is the main thread – but the narrative on taking notes goes beyond that.

“The one thing I can confidently say about all this scribbling and note-taking,” Mr. Heinrich writes, “is that if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen, and the more I wrote the more that did happen, because this process stirs up ideas.”

Another matter I have briefly touched upon is “order”, structure – or the lack of it.

One central concern of “Field Notes” is how to go about the journal-keeping. Do you toss everything in, creating chaos, or do you adopt a rigid system that allows for easy interpretation but risks excluding something important? The consensus leans toward chaos. “Record everything you can, while you can, in as many different ways as you can,” says anthropologist Karen L. Kramer, because items that seem incidental at first have a habit of becoming important later. Even Darwin had scrawled on the back of his Red Notebook, in which he first began to outline his evolutionary theory: “Nothing for any Purpose.”

What if the personal is reduced to a minimum – trying to ban feelings from these science stories.

A few writers bravely defend the more systematic forms of notebook-keeping that leave no room for personal observations, musings, hypotheses or sketches. Spreadsheets and other computerized forms of note-taking also have their advocates. Entomologist Piotr Naskrecki says that the laptop and thumb-size memory drive saved his career from hopeless disorganization, though he confesses, candidly, that they’ve cost him the “physical evidence of one’s scientific prestige—the extensive shelves of important looking volumes and journals.”

Still, concerns about the longevity of the newer media have most of these authors clinging to pen and paper, at least as a backup. What if Darwin had used floppy disks? The revelations in a journal can, and often do, go unknown or unappreciated for generations. “As someone who routinely encounters objects that can speak to us over millions of years,” writes geologist Anna K. Behrensmeyer, “I may have bias toward things that have stood the test of time.”

Sometimes I go back in time and look at what I have written on these public/personal writing places (blog & microblog). I think I mostly agree that formulating an interest stirs up ideas en generates other ones. And hopefully they can be inspiring for other people..

Verb: to stir

stir (third-person singular simple present stirs, present participle stirring, simple past and past participle stirred)

1. (transitive, dated) To change the place of in any manner; to move.

My foot I had never yet in five days been able to stir. —Sir William Temple

2. (transitive) To disturb the relative position of the particles of, as of a liquid, by passing something through it; to agitate.

She stirred the pudding with a spoon.
My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred. —Shakespeare

3. (transitive) To agitate the content of (a container) by passing something through it.

Would you please stand here and stir this pot so that the chocolate doesn’t burn?

4. (transitive) To bring into debate; to agitate; to moot.

Stir not questions of jurisdiction. —Francis Bacon

5. (transitive) To incite to action; to arouse; to instigate; to prompt; to excite.

To stir men to devotion. —Chaucer
An Ate, stirring him to blood and strife. —Shakespeare
And for her sake some mutiny will stir. —John Dryden.

[quotations ▼]
* 1922, Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

That night he was almost too happy to sleep, and so much love stirred in his little sawdust heart that it almost burst.

6. (intransitive) To move; to change one’s position.

I had not power to stir or strive, But felt that I was still alive. —Byron.

7. (intransitive) To be in motion; to be active or bustling; to exert or busy one’s self.

All are not fit with them to stir and toil. —Byron.
The friends of the unfortunate exile, far from resenting his unjust suspicions, were stirring anxiously in his behalf. — Charles Merivale.

8. (intransitive) To become the object of notice; to be on foot.

They fancy they have a right to talk freely upon everything that stirs or appears. —Isaac Watts.

9. (intransitive, poetic) To rise, or be up, in the morning.

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