Log Books

The other day, I was discussing with a friend about my log books, and it seems that, while it’s fairly common with scientists of all sorts, it’s not a generalized practice amongst computer scientists and programmers. But it should: the log book is not only for chemists.

First, the log book serves as… a log. A written trace of your activity during the day. While this sounds silly, it may be useful in retrospect when it is needed to assess time spent on a particular (class of) task(s), to get a good idea of were you are spending your time at work.

Logging your activities with start/end hours or time spent is a good way to explain a pointy-haired boss that no, software isn’t easy, and no, setting up a server doesn’t take 0 time. It’s also a great way to keep track of overtime so to know when your employer owes you money or off time.

But the primary use of the log book, at least the way I use it, is to note in one place all your ideas, with schematics, references, even half-baked… I mean, partly formed ideas. I note formulas, with derivations and explanations so that in six months or six years, I know where it’s from and why it works, and what I was thinking.

The log book also serves as a trace of your (personal) progress, over a long period of time.

A variant of the log book is the “meet book” where you note stuff that happens during a meeting: events, topics discussed, action points, phone numbers, e-mails. If for the regular notebook I favor the letter-sized Mead Five Star spiral quad ruled notebooks, for the “meet books”, I prefer smaller notebooks, the kind that fits in a pocket, the one you can get just about everywhere. For the meet book, I like those with rigid covers, as they are much harder to mess up, even if you carry them around.

When a log or meet book is filled, I date it on the cover, sometimes using a white sticker, something 25/6/2009–10/2/2010, with a terse description of its contents “research, ETS”, and keep it in a safe place. I used to scan them entirely before storage, but that hasn’t proved very useful since most of the contents are NDA (but that might not be the case with my current job).

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It’s not really important exactly what log book protocol you choose (there are many, some even specifying how you should split your page with dates, notes, and general remarks; some are made explicity for laboratory experiments, etc.), what is important is that you do use one, and write down things that you find useful. Your programming tips, the things that gave you a hard time to fix, where you spent your time, contact information, etc. What you find useful and what is likely to be useful in the future.

3 Responses to Log Books

  1. David Clark says:

    My training has been in science, but computing has been part of that work since the very beginning. As a scientist, I am very familiar with keeping a notebook or log book. As a programmer, I am annoyed with my choices.

    Paper notebooks let you record anything easily. The problem usually comes years later when you are trying to find something. Electronic notebooks let you record text easily. Drawings, schematics, maps, chemical formulae, and so on are a bit more challenging to enter. It’s much easier to find stuff though. But you don’t always have the gear with you when you want to record something.

    I’ve been searching for something better for years. About seven or eight years ago I had a job that provided a tablet computer running Windows OneNote. It had decent handwriting recognition using a stylus, but connectivity was poor at the time and battery life was only about 2 hours. I had high hopes for the iPad, but frankly it’s not a very good platform for taking notes and the handwriting recognition has been less than stellar.

    The best compromise I’ve found so far is EverNote. When I am near the gear to type in notes, that part is easy. When notes are handwritten, you can take a picture of the piece of paper and put it in EverNote, then search in the image. It isn’t as seamless as real handwriting recognition, but it gets me by.

    I’d be interested in hearing if others have the same issues/interests and their solutions.

    • Steven Pigeon says:

      Yes, the freedom of pen-and-paper is very hard to beat, even when you have sophisticated software. For example, if LaTeX renders superb equations, it has nothing of the spontaneity of a quad rule sheet of paper and four or five stylos of different colors.

      I considered scanning the logbooks and getting them OCR-ed and indexed, but I have no idea on how to do that efficiently and with good results.

      I think I tried EverNote on iOS4 on the iPod when looking for a better notepad, but the iPod is a dreadful medium to write on (even more so when you have big fingers). Maybe the iPad or a tablet would make it fun to use. I don’t know. I’d have to try.

      But the problem with documents within special containers, is that they do not necessarily live forever. My paper-based notebooks will outlive me, probably, but in 10 years, I am not sure how well the (say EverNote) files will fare.

  2. Mark Drake says:

    I like to use UPAD on my iPad, it’s actually what sold me to owning one in the first place. Get yourself a stylus with it. I’ve probably wrote 50 pages a month since and it lets me share it directly from the iPad via PDF export.

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