Project #106 – Research Notebook

Professor Peter Bock started me on the path of research notebook devotion when I took my first Machine Learning course at the turn of the century. We were lectured on the importance of them weekly, and somehow keeping a research notebook became one of the few organization habits I retained from my undergraduate career.

When I started graduate school at CMU everyone had one, not just the AI nerds. Despite the fact that nearly everyone owned a laptop and lugged it everywhere, research notebooks were almost universally preferred over anything with a battery. It’s a low-tech solution, but it’s much less cumbersome to write out charts and diagrams by hand on paper, and computational linguistics is all about using elegant informational figures over plain text.

My notebook goes to and from work with me every day and accompanies me on all my errands and vacations. It functions as a date book, address book, sketchbook and sewing log. I use it as a journal when I go overseas. Pages are filled with to-do lists, crazy ideas, algorithms, recipes, and notes on conference talks. I even have a few pages with diagrams of my company’s systems just in case I need to explain it to a visitor on the fly. In short, my research notebook has everything I need in one place.

I’m down to just 5 blank pages in my current notebook, so it’s time to break in a new one. I’ve been through a lot of brands, but my favorite remains the Miquelrius Spot 4 medium-sized spiral notebooks. I have a stack of them in my closet from the time I found them on sale in the CMU art store and bought everything in stock. That was a good day. If all goes well I’ll have enough for 10 more years.

All of my research notebooks must be spiral-bound so they’ll stay open to the correct page when I leave them on a table. I also like the grid paper, a total necessity for someone whoe draws diagrams frequently. Size is also important. The Spot-4 ones I like are about 6.5 inches by 8 inches, so they fit in a purse and are easy to keep with me at all times.

It’s not normal, but I like to glue things into my notebook. I used images from my picture file to sprinkle some mini-collages at irregular intervals throughout the notebook. I also glued in a lot of interesting single images, and pages from my Edward Gorey page-a-day calendar. I have an easier time finding things if I can associate them with a distinct image (“Ah! That was a few pages after the proboscis monkey!”). Plus, I’m more likely to carry my notebook around and flip through it if there are pleasant images inside.

I also draw in a calendar, one quarter at a time as I go on. April’s theme is, um, ‘Judgmental Otter’. (May’s theme: squid!) I also cut in tabs in the lower right hand corner between months. It helps me flip back and forth, and it helps me find my calendar even if the notebook is closed. I just flip through the pages with my thumb on the lower right corner until I hit the ones that don’t flip.

I hate ripping out pages from my precious research notebooks (They can’t be replaced!), but people look at you a little funny if they ask for a scrap of paper and you refuse even though you’re holding a notebook presumably full of paper. So, I always have a few pages of post-it notes that I can hand over with little pain. I also use them to mark important pages or go back later and add notes. It’s less cumbersome than carrying around the whole pad.

I also like gluing in a few crossword puzzles on the last few pages. They’re good for those unexpected moments of boredom on the bus on in a waiting room. I went through four of these the last time I had jury duty. I also have an envelope glued to the very last page for carrying receipts and miscellaneous items.


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