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You put *WHAT* in there? March 16, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.

It seems like I wrote the post asking folks what they used for their log book about a year ago. Ahem. Sorry.

The main goal of that post was to find out what people were actually using for a logbook. Looking over the responses and thinking a bit more, I decided that perhaps I should start off by a catalog of what people put in their logbooks first – before discussing what is out there. Actually, this might be a bit more interesting in the end than just a catalog of the stuff people do use.


This is probably the most popular thing I saw referenced. I’m speaking of things that you can easily type in… thinking on a typewriterkeyboard, perhaps a summary of a conversation or a thought. From personal experience these can range from a short sentence to a long diatribe. I suppose basic formatting (similar to this blog) is nice – but for a logbook the main point seems to be to get an idea down so formatting isn’t so crucial. The other thing people mentioned liking is being able to quickly search for things – which text does very well.

A sub-category here, I suppose, are latex documents. Latex is the premiere mathematical typesetting language. Useful also for writing long books or papers. It has been mentioned to me more than once that when some new mathematical expression needs to be written into a logbook, the person will just latex it and then insert that in the logbook.


I imagine many uses for this – especially if you are in a lab constructing things or perhaps inspecting something. As a result the logbook should have a simple capability to insert pictures from a camera. In general, what this turns into is insertion from a file (jpg, png, etc.). And if it to be easy on the computer it should be either automated or drag-and-drop.

This got me to thinking… if you had to do this often you could probably automate the process using something like the Eye-Fi SD card. You could take the pictures and by the time you got back to your office and had a cup of coffee, all the pictures you just took would be pasted into your logbook awaiting detailed annotation.

Ironically, the use I saw mentioned most in my post was to take pictures of handwritten notes. I’ve used this technique often to record a whiteboard or some paper scribbles – I can email it around to a student if we were discussing it or paste it into my logbook for later reference.

Screen Scrapes/Clippings & Plots

This was mentioned most commonly in conjunction with plots. You have your plotting program running one window and you now want that plot in your logbook. So you fire up your screen clipper (or perhaps it is part of your logbook) grab the plot, and then paste it into your logbook. Poof, the plot is in your logbook.

I’d like to point out two problems I have with this technique: when it comes time to make a presentation the screen clippings are rarely high enough quality for talks. The resolution is often small – and certainly not resizable. Second, the size of a screen capture of a plot is often quite a bit larger than the data in the plot (i.e. think about 10k or less for a histogram bin data vs the 100k or so for the image).  But for keeping track of some intermediate plots this sort of thing is just fine.

Storing the raw data of the plot would of course be ideal, however then displaying that is hard – if you are using a general program you would have to write a plug-in that would translate that data into the plot. Certainly possible, but…


This was mentioned much less than I would have guessed in the responses to my blog posts. I find myself constantly dragging files into my logbook to keep the notes I’ve taken on a paper or something like that close to other similar ideas. The most common file types are probably PDF’s for me. But I’ve done other sorts of files, including Excel and small ROOT files.


Ok. For this you gotta remember who is talking here. I’m Mr. Tablet and I don’t think I could part with the ability to write things. However, I claim as long as one is living in a world where one wants to write down this sort of thing:


Now, I’m totally sympathetic to the idea that one can take a picture of a whiteboard (as I’ve done here). But if you have to do this sort of thing with any regularity – and perhaps on your own – being able to write it down is much better.

The other great use for writing is thinking (a few of you mentioned this in your comments to my post). Free flow drawing, arrows, etc. does work. However, as my wife has pointed out on numerous occasions when I bring this up – most people learn how to think on a keyboard now and they don’t suffer for it!

I did a quick scan of my log book to look where I had handwriting:

  1. Markup of papers/notes I’m reviewing for physics correctness (i.e. I’m not going to send my markup back to the authors as much as I’m going to send a question like “If you make this cut here you are biasing your mass distribution here… please convince me you did this right.”
  2. Free thinking. Probably about 50% of this in my own notes could have been done on a typewriter – it is just handwriting organized line-by-line
  3. Class lectures and class lecture note preparation.
  4. Note taking during a meeting. This is not mostly something that could be done by typewriter – I tend to cut/paste in clips of slides that are being presented and then scribble notes to myself over them.
  5. Working through some problem involving mostly thinking. Say, an analysis problem. I’d say this follows the same 50% rule.
  6. Working through some problem involving a plot(s). What I mean here is if I’m trying to think through some issue that is driven by a plot. Essentially, as soon as I paste a picture into my logbook I draw on it and my reasoning flows from there. So for me this is very much a handwriting thing.

So, I guess #1 and #3 aren’t strictly log-book functions. For #2 and #4-6 I find having pen input invaluable. If you eliminate #1 and #3 I think my logbook is about 20% handwriting content. If you keep those in it is closer to 50%.


So… what did I miss?

Ok – next time I’ll go through some of the ideas people had. Some were very cool – I’d never thought of them; now that I have I could see how they would make a good alternative to what I’m doing. I hope that the gap between this post and that won’t be as long!



1. Martin - March 16, 2010

Hi Gordon,

Those are good points for pen and paper. There are some things that can’ t be easily replaced by typing on the computer. The search function is invaluable, and being able to do handwriting for free-thinking is invaluable. Probably a combination of both would be the best option – and I guess that’s why tablet’s were invented!

Maybe in the future we can have a scanner built in to the computer, that might make it easier to include handwritten equations and scribbles in our log files.

I agree that you can’t use the plots in your logbook for presentations easily – usually for a presentation you have to format it differently and you can’t include the base file in your logbook, but that’s okay because it was put in the logbook for a different purpose. Hopefully the script to make the plot is readily available!

Great post, and thank you for the update!

2. possu - March 16, 2010

code. Matlab, python, LabVIEW, C++, etc. with syntax highlighting/coloring please.

3. alexd - March 16, 2010

Hi. I don’t use this, and don’t remember where I saw it, but it was cool enough to bookmark and may be useful to you as Mr. Tablet 😀



4. John - March 16, 2010

You really need to try Evernote or Microsoft OneNote

John - March 16, 2010

I meant to add that the process of getting pictures into notes is so much easier with recent phones that have decent autofocus cameras and can run versions of these applications.

5. Michael Schmitt - March 17, 2010

Great to have you back, blogging again. 🙂 I guess my own techniques are hopelessly old-fashioned – your ideas and methods sound intriguing to me.

6. Chip Brock - March 18, 2010

Wondered where you went. Your facebooking is attentive, but your blogging’s sagged!

We’ve talked about this before: repeat after me…E v e r n o t e. Just yesterday, a group meeting at Ann Arbor. Evernote and my iphone’s camera and the whiteboard’s instantly memorialized on their server for distribution. One button.

7. More Input Types for the Logbook « Life as a Physicist - March 20, 2010

[…] while speaking of code, possu pointed out this is really useful if one can also have syntax coloring (keywords, variable names, […]

8. Log Book Follow-up « Life as a Physicist - January 5, 2011

[…] back in March I wrote a bunch of posts on logbooks: where do you keep your log book?, what do you keep in it? (and more of what you put in it). I can’t help it. The logbook is near and dear to my heart. I […]

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