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A Better Logbook June 9, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, science.

Almost every researcher uses one in some form or another. For some it is a bunch of folders arranged by topic stuffed with paper. For others it is one large bound graphic notebook, filled one after the other (I’ve seen senior people’s offices with row after row of these things). The best description I’ve heard of them is a work diary.

I stopped using paper about 10 years ago. I used those large bound graphic notebooks. There was something sublime about how a new, fresh, page felt – and the way a good pen glided over the paper. Lots of us, btw, are pen fanatics. But about 10 years ago I started traveling regularly for my job. I kept one of those lab notebooks for each major topic I was working on. Sometimes that would mean lugging 4 or 5 of them back and forth. There was nothing sublime about that!

I switched to the paper and folder model. I still have boxes. I’d write things down, but I’d never look back at anything I’d written – even a few days old: something I have done with my old lab notebooks. When the magic pen and paper came out – you could write on paper that was on a special tablet with a special pen it would record your handwriting. That was a little better – I still have my online notebooks, though I suspect I can’t read them anymore…

I’ve always been fascinated by the potential for an online notebook. While I was a postdoc I wrote a web based notebook that was basically a work blog. From the command line I would submit a plot and a short bit of text. It was command line driven, and viewed over the web. That worked out pretty well. And others I worked with liked it because they could view it. But, it basically failed. I don’t know if I’m old school, or what, but handwriting, and the ability to write on a plot and scribble, and think with a pen are to important to the way I think and work to be left behind.

About 3 years ago the Tablet PC showed up. Finally, something on the right track. BTW, it didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be a Tablet PC. The important bit is you can write on it and you can see what you are writing on. That is, a graphic input pad won’t do.

By and in-large, it has been successful. The hardware is certainly up to the task. As usual, the software is lagging: the market for lab notebook emulation software is small. A friend of mine uses EverNote to record his work. I’ve been using OneNote. EverNote is more time structured and closer to a traditional log notebook. OneNote is aimed at a more general audience and has a number of extra features as a result. However, it is free form – time ordering of entries isn’t really built in from the ground up. I can see both of these bits of software working well depending on personal work style. A good thing about High Energy Physics is that we don’t have to sign every log page or otherwise prove what we worked on when in case there is a patent suit later on!

But there is still a huge hole. This hole exists with paper and notebooks as well. How to get the @&#^^@ plot that is sitting on your Linux screen into your notebook! In the old days you would print it out, walk to the printer, cut out the plot, get out some scotch tape, tape it into your log. Individually easy steps, but still a major disruption. Especially if you discovered 10 minutes later that the plot is wrong and have to repeat the process (as I often did!).

The other big thing missing is the form factor. I use a convertible Tablet PC from Toshiba. Too big and clunky. Something like this small guy from Motion or the new Origami (or Haiku) devices look promising. And there is this guy from Nokia. The cost for most of these devices is too high, however. The price point at which I would start pushing this sort of thing is around 500 bucks.

What do you-all think?



1. GottaBeMobile.com - June 9, 2006

A Better Logbook

2. The Quantum Pontiff » Tablet Science - June 12, 2006

[…] Over at Life as a Physicist, Gordon Watts has a post about using his Tablet PC as a log book for his research (Gordon works in experimental particle physics.) I’ve been doing the same thing for about nine months now: using my tablet to take notes and function as a research lab book (I’ve also been attempting to lead a virtually paperless life: i.e. downloading all of the papers I am reading and reading them on the tablet.) So how do I like the tablet as a replacement for research notebooks? […]

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