Is Anything Better Than Paper

"Is anything better than paper?" In ProgrammersNotebook, MichaelFeathers describes his use of a paper notebook and suggests that nothing is better. Also on that page, I describe the spiral notebooks I have used for years.

Here I'm just taking a survey, getting folks' ideas: for you, is anything better than paper? And what is it? Chime in! -- RonJeffries

We have all our fancy computers and software, but is anything really "better" in some sense than paper and pen/pencil? And in what sense is it better, and for what? The following pages spell out just how a certain technology or method can replace paper, or is better than paper. Some folks are now using PalmOs and similar HandheldComputers. Some others use Voice recorders, some use combination methods of Electronic devices Pdas, Digital and Analog Voice Recorders, Scanners (to scan notes made on paper). But it seems there is no fit it all, good for every situation SimpleAnswer? to the question "IsAnythingBetterThanPaper"

What then is good for what, and in what circumstances?

Some pages providing answers:

IpreferMemory? -- I prefer my own memory to paper. It works hands-free while driving, works without light late at night, and it's waterproof in the shower. I especially like the way it improves everything I put into it. I have missed an occasional appointment. Perhaps that's an improvement too. -- WardCunningham

MentalShorthand and Wiki -- I prefer MentalShorthand, and Wiki of course to exchange links with the outer world. -- FridemarPache

MemoryHasShortcomings? -- Memory can get clogged while trying to juggle too many things at once. It's not unusual to remember to buy toothpaste only when you're about to wash your teeth, but never while you're in the supermarket.

If'n only I'd a written it down -- As for my memory, well... Darn, I forgot what I was going to say. Seriously, if I write something down, I'll often remember it without ever looking at the paper. -- JeffGrigg

Arguments and situations for using paper

'Small stack of Blank cards -- I have a set of blank cards on which I write everything important: every to-do item, every appointment, every commitment I make. I find it relieves memory of its tasks. And it's usually a small stack, so it's easy to find things.

For temporary information -- (i.e. schedules or to-do type stuff), paper is extremely difficult to beat mostly because I don't have a _lot_ of temporary information I need to deal with, so the minimal storage space provided by paper is usually more than adequate. Whenever I do have a lot of temporary information to deal with, it's kind of like with messy software -- more documentation will just make life worse, it's time to do the equivalent of refactoring.

I'm a cheapskate -- Paper is unbelievably cheap, it's so thin that you can literally see through some pieces, and it's pretty durable. It's also compatible with most wetware. It's not extremely compatible with hardware and software, but a $30 scanner will let you easily store, duplicate, and transmit the basic information from your paper.

Palms break easier than paper -- Try putting a Palm in your pocket, riding your bike, then getting sideswapped by a car. The paper in my pocket was fine (my leg ached a bit though). Sure, it doesn't stand up to lots of liquids all over it nor fire, but I'd be seriously worried about a Palm or similar equipment in those situations too. It tears easily too, but you can use a protector (binder) just like with a Palm if you want. Besides, tearing is a feature. I defy you to tear part of your palm off and pass on the information to someone else.

Paper more romantic -- My wife says paper is many orders of magnitude more romantic.. I don't think she used the words orders of magnitude though.

'Easier to draw and think with -- Paper makes it easier to draw tables. Paper helps two-dimensional thinking. Visualize your data as a table next time you see it. -- AsimJalis Paper is wonderful. I can draw or write just about anything. The computer limits the kinds of data I can input to the kind of stuff its programs allow. Somebody has to write a program to edit a kind of data before I can even insert it. But on paper, I only have to know it in my brain in order to be able to write it down and work with it. (With the exception of fractals -- it takes a long time to draw a fractal on paper, in some cases longer than it takes to write a program to draw the fractal.) Besides, LinksDestroyFlow. -- EdwardKiser Although others claim that LinksCreateFlow.

Forces you to rethink -- see ImproveInsteadOfCopy

Remarkably LowTech but convertible -- The wonderful thing about paper is that all it takes to write on it is a pen or pencil. Another is that it is remarkably LowTech, Portable, and non-intimidating. I keep a stack of 3by5cards on my desktop or a couple in my pocket, and when the phone rings, or someone calls an emergency meeting, I grab one or two of them and a pen, (Mine is a Right-Handed Pilot - Precise V Rollerball V7) and I'm ready for any kind of surprise. I can interface paper with all kinds of things - If I need to put the information in the computer, I just lay the card on the face of my $90 Scanner and click my secret scan indexing and storage program and acquire it. I have a bunch or pre-defined folders in my secret scan indexing and storage program and I just drag the card to the appropriate folder, and then throw the card away. (After I use both sides). (I recycle the card and all writing paper I use). If it needs to go into my Organizer or my Palm Pilot, I slip it in the front pocket of the organizer and at the proper time and place, I enter the appropriate Information. (Often the card contains non-essential information, so I only extract stuff I need to keep.) Another good thing about paper is that it has long retention (goes back in time to before computers and holds thing I have long since forgotten) I have been known to scan into my computer a 25 year old document (My Birth Certificate) Occasionally I receive paper documents I wish to translate into data form, I Scan it to my secret scan indexing and storage program , I file it according to subject or topic in folders, I group or edit it to include relative information, I have the secret scan indexing and storage program Create a searchable index, etc. The computer can do things with this information that paper and any manual organization technique can not.

Static issues but not sequences -- Paper is good for displaying static issues. Other means are usually preferable for showing detailed sequences of operations. It is easy to show a single user interface screen on paper. It is very difficult to accurately represent a user operation involving a sequence of screens on paper.

What about paper/pen/pencil -- Is "paper and pen/pencil" a single technology, to be contrasted with multiple electronic technologies? I think there are multiple paper-based technologies, each of which has different advantages and disadvantages. The one I am excited about and that has changed my life is IndexCards. This technology addresses many of the problems with the pen-and-floppy-paper technology (LegalPads?) -- it's much more durable, portable, flexible, and so on. -- ApoorvaMuralidhara

'Just in case -- Some of us are lucky to keep a few pads of paper on our desks, in addition to all the garbage in our computers.

'''Raw Formed Ideas -- The difference between paper and any electronic medium is the willingness to record ideas in raw form without editing. When I record a sudden idea on paper I don't feel it has to be complete, and can just quickly jot something down and get back to what I was doing. This seems to retain the rawness of the idea. If I enter it into a computer I feel a strong urge to edit the idea to some sort of "completeness" ; this is almost always premature and usually dulls the idea. "The willingness to record ideas in raw form without editing" is a good insight. But I find (first with a Newton OMP, now with an HP 545 and Transcriber) that the minor misrecognitions, if not fixed, obscure the sense of what I was trying to note when revisited later. One can save as ink, but those scribbles, as with my notes on real paper, can also be meaningless when revisited later.

Paper rules -- My vote is that paper wins. Maybe palmtops will be worthwhile someday, but until then paper rules:

Use without batteries -- I use the pocket size 2 page per day Day-Timer (R) for all appointments, "to do" lists and general planning. I keep the "month at a time" (formally called a "six year planner") in another pocket for more long-term planning; typically a week to a month at a time. I'm never without it, and generally refer to it as my "brain." (A common sentiment, I understand, among heavy pocket calendar users.) If my life were more complex, I'd upgrade to a larger version (with "half-size" 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 inch pages), which would allow me to carry most important project documents with me by reducing them 50% on a copier or folding them in half. Great thing about it is that it's fast, easy, fully visible all the time, and the batteries never run out.

File-em or File-13 -- In meetings I bring a conventional 8 1/2 by 11 inch note pad, tear out the pages and file or lose them after the meeting as appropriate.

At my desk -- I keep a cheap spiral notebook used as a "stream of consciousness" notepad where I jot random fragments of trivia of typically no long-term value. This is how I avoid being swamped by hundreds of tiny little pieces of paper; yellow notes getting stuck on things and getting lost.

I've tried dozens of things -- to organize my life... including diaries with cards in them, note pads (all sizes), mnemonic tricks: HowToDevelopAsuperPowerMemory? by whoever wrote it, a special todo directory on my desktop boxes in priority/date order and so on Ad Nauseam.

I'm Definitely Undecided -- I'm absolutely and completely undecided. If I put it on my computer, I can find it. If I put it on paper, it's harder (for me) to organize it so that I can find it. The exception is my personal organizer (aka "Personal Agonizer" to Trekkies). But it's limited and suitable only for certain types of things. I have used it for project notebooks, but space is a problem. Perhaps a larger organizer would fix that. An organizer is excellent for keeping appointments, to do lists and phone numbers, though I wish I could more easily do reverse phone number lookup. And aside from all of that there is drawing. Even if you have a drawing package for your pilot, it still feels too much like an etch-a-sketch and is too small and limiting a surface to make any meaningful pictures or doodles (even if I'm the only one that knows what they're supposed to mean).

I keep one or three notebooks, Palms don't meet all needs -- So I keep a notebook or three with me too as much as I can (and I prefer the feel of a ballpoint pen or rolling ball pen to a pencil or marker). I'm fond of the spiral notebooks that flip open like a book (rather than a clipboard) as I can more easily use both sides. And I like the paper with "perforations" so I can easily remove pages. And I like not only drawing and doodling and diagramming (all extremely difficult on the pilot), but also writing on a diagonal or sideways or upside-down or whatever seems most convenient for what else is on the page that I'm annotating at the moment. Don't get me wrong, I think my PalmPilot is great and I use it for a lot of things, some of which are even notebook-like. But I still like my pen and notebook too, and my pilot isn't yet close to taking way my need nor my desire to use pen & paper.

Cards for a day -- I use blank 3x5 cards to write down brief notes (like phone numbers and other miscellanea). I keep them close at hand in the office. I write on them, act on them, and pitch 'em. The cards are almost never saved for more than a day. -- SeanOleary

For simpler days -- For those who like pencil and paper you'll find this user interface interesting: (broken) note even the typed font is like a typewriter, nostalgia for simpler days.

When confronting rock -- Paper defeats rock, every time.

How paper ultimately trumps all -- virtually any piece of paper can pretend to be a palmtop, but no palmtop can be a piece of paper. QED. ;)


'Generic -- I have no direct experience with electronic organizers, but they appear to be rather clumsy when I see people use them. OTOH, I think the day will come when they will be very worthwhile. In my vision, an electronic organizer would be very focused on what it does, very easy to navigate, have reliable handwriting recognition and connect easily (transparently?) to a desktop computer. -- KielHodges

Paper in a case with a Palm -- The PalmPilot is not useful as a programmer's notebook, because I can't write PalmGraffiti fast enough. I am a big fan of my PalmPilot - I carry it everywhere and rely on it - but I don't type much more than the odd address or appointment directly into it (it contains loads of info that I typed into a PC and downloaded). I have a PalmPilot (it was a gift last year) and certainly use it to jot things down and keep track of lists and other PIM-like stuff. But writing PalmGraffiti is kinda clumsy. Some folks get really good at it, and can do stuff as quickly as they could write with pen and paper. But even so, it's still not so quick'n'easy to do special symbols, much less write vertically or diagonally. I received a nifty gift this year for use with my PalmPilot. It's a nice leather carrying case that is 4"x5" and zips open and shut like a book while fitting the PalmPilot in fairly snug without the need for velcro. It has a few pockets for holding some credit cards or business cards, and a spare set of batteries fits in the spine. And best of all, it has a nice, convenient penholder and pad of paper that fit right in along with the PalmPilot.

Wiki On a Palm -- I've been using a PalmIII for the last year. I've found it very stable (although it has crashed on occasion.) There are practically no maintenance chores involved in running this machine. Getting the PalmPilot made me realize how much fiddling about I have to do to keep my other machines running. It's mostly used to record, sort and search through ideas. I tend record only short notes (and pointers to longer ones). It's quite an effective way to carry my bibliography database around. The global "find" across all applications on the Pilot is proving to be very useful. (Reminds me a bit of FindPage on wiki.)

More affordable so I tried it -- The Palm Pro I got cheap this summer is better than most electronic gadgets I've tried. I can take notes in meetings and write short pieces of text. Not code however. Appointments and todo lists are neat. MeanTimeToCrash? is about a week, and battery life between 3 to 4 weeks. -- DickBotting

Total Replacement -- My PalmVx? is indispensable. It has totally replaced my calendar organizer, address book, and (now that I've sync'ed it with my e-mail client) it's a reliable way for me to carry around all my e-mail. I've never been able to keep an updated calendar or address book for any REAL amount of time, so as far as time management is concerned, Palm beats Paper (which is interesting, because in the game of PaperScissorsRock?, Palm IS Paper.

Used for 4 years' -- I vote for the Palm. I've used one for four years, so Graffiti doesn't slow me down a bit. I also have a PythonLanguage environment (PipPy) and a SchemeLanguage environment (LispMe) on my Palm IIIc, which lets me code ideas for algorithms and play with them a bit when I'm away from my workstation.

VademClio -- Recently I got a VademClio (also sold as Sharp Tri Pad) as a toy. It is a Win CE computer about 6" x 8", that can be used as a pad or with its keyboard. I've been trying to use it for all my note-taking, with an eye to deciding whether a computer could ever replace paper. (And with an eye to writing a few articles on what it would take.) The Clio has Calligrapher, which lets it read my printing and handwriting (yes, handwriting).

On neat thing about the VademClio is that it has Calligrapher (Vadem bought the company) so it can actually read my writing. I have to go a little slowly, but it actually reads my cursive better than it reads my printing! And my cursive sucks! -- RonJeffries

Won't help me. I can barely read my handwriting. Machines don't have a chance. -- MichaelFeathers

Okay. I get it. You use letters when you write. It'd never work for me. -- mf

I use the VademClio in "raw ink" mode most of the time. So it is just recording my scribbling, not converting it to text at all. That keeps it more like paper with a memory. Nonetheless, after I play with it for another couple of weeks, I will not be surprised to see myself returning to my spiral notebooks. But it's cool.

Casio BOSS -- I've had and used a Casio BOSS for quite a few years (64K of static RAM), but found it largely useless for scheduling and active note taking. It is quite useful, however, as a "card file" for largely static information: I use it to hold airline schedules, ATM locations, contact information (phone numbers), and operating hours of places I frequent (like the post office). Its encrypted password protected memory can be useful in obvious ways. But otherwise, it has never lived up to its vendor claims. The toy keyboard, for example, is painful to use.

Handspring -- "I think my HandspringVisor is better than 3x5 (inch, I'm in the US) cards. I jot ideas on these IndexCards as I think of them throughout the day. Every day or so, I transfer the ideas worth keeping around for a while to my PalmOS device, which can then automatically show me items with a variety of customized views such as by date or by category. There's only one place to look for "top of the head" info now, either on cards I haven't yet transcribed or on the handheld." -- ChrisBaugh

AppleNewton -- I took a lot of class notes on my Newton. Advantages: it recognized my handwriting, I could intersperse diagrams (real ObjectOriented drawing: circles, graphs, figure completion), quiet, small size, I could escape to a keyboard or the microphone if I needed quicker input speed, geek chick magnet. Disadvantages: limited memory, early LCD screen didn't have much contrast, became obsolete. -- IanOsgood

Communicating -- Additionally, electronic documents always communicate legitimacy. -- RodneyRyan?

Most palm devices come with an IR transfer method so you can do exactly that, AND retain the data that you just metaphysically tore off. Of course, problem with that is requiring the other person to own a similar device. -- IoaPetraka

Sandwiches are better without paper -- Recently, I got an Italian Combo Grinder for lunch from the local pizza place. They wrapped it up well in high-quality paper. As I ate, unbeknownst to me, some of the paper got stuck to the sandwich, so I ended up eating a combination of salamis, cheese, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, dressings and paper. According to my tastes, everything in that list before "paper" is better than paper, but particularly the salami. I love salami. -- WaldenMathews

Sound Devices

MiniatureDigitalVoiceRecorder? -- I've started using a tiny digital voice recorder to record quick notes. It's a lot faster than writing or typing. I use the Targus digital recorder that can be plugged into the HandspringVisor. Whenever it's convenient, I play back all the messages and transfer them to my to-do list, the bug-tracking system, my wiki, or whatever. -- KrisJohnson

Tape recorder with pen and paper -- I use a tape recorder in my car and next to my bed at home to record random thoughts/inspirations. I also have a pad of paper and pen by my bed. And I keep scraps of paper in my wallet, should I be suddenly hit with inspiration or critical data.

Ideas come instead of sheep (sleep) -- Mostly, I come up with my best ideas when trying to sleep! ;->

When to use a Laptop -- If I'm going to be taking extensive notes, I use my laptop. My typing speed is about as fast as longhand, and I find I organize my ideas better when I type (in long hand, I tend to use a lot of Boxes and Arrows, but they are decidedly NOT UML) Plus, it saves me from retyping my notes into the computer.

RevisionControlSystem -- I recently discovered RCS RevisionControlSystem (after reading about it in ThePragmaticProgrammer) and if anything is better than paper, this is it. I predict that version control software will be a giant market for document-centric offices, provided someone can lick the learning curve and user-interface challenges for "Joe Windows". -- SeanOleary

Use for games

So... does anyone know how to play Tetris on a piece of paper? -- NatPryce

[Tetris may be stretching it, but there are lots of games to play on paper - TicTacToe, boxes, even racing - you draw a course then push the top of a pen where it intersects the "track" you start from on your next turn), paper aeroplanes (let's see a pda float gracefully for 20 feet)...]

Is that one of those games where things drop and you shoot at them? If so, tear the paper into two pieces. Place one on a table and rip the other into little bits. With your left hand, sprinkle little bits over the paper and use your other hand to knock them out of the air by throwing pencils at them.

Tetris is the "falling blocks" that you try to fit together. You could do it with two people: One running the falling blocks, and another shouting instructions.

No, no, hang about. Are you really the programmer who doesn't know what Tetris is?

Paper Football (AmericanCulturalAssumption). Fold it up, find a friend. I've yet to find a programmer who won't flick a paper triangle around with me when we're supposed to be doing something else more important.

Whiteboards (see CleaningUpWhiteboardPictures)

Whiteboards are better than paper. They're easier to share. Plus, they smell so good. Too bad they're so hard to fold up.

I tried a pocket size whiteboard once... not good. -- DickBotting

Whiteboards? The glaring things with the stinking, squeaking, dry markers? Not seconded. Real blackboards it is! :) -- HH

The only thing better than paper is a wall covered with whiteboards. -- MarkAddleman

Where one of my ex-CowOrkers (hi, Dan!) used to work, rather than buy a bunch of whiteboards they simply coated the walls with some sort of childproof paint. -- ErikSeaberg

The effects of clothing on thinking -- The "data mavens" who keep mickey-mouse drawing pads in their showers just in case they get a good idea there are amazing (admittedly, many of us do our best thinking there). I've often wondered if there is a correlation between nudity and really great ideas. The worst part is, there probably is, given that clothing is often associated with conformity, etc. Note: Almost nothing works in the shower -- For some reason I don't often think of many new ideas in the shower. If I do, I can write them down after drying off.

Programmable phones -- (cellular or otherwise) are rotten because there is no easy way to keep most of them up-to-date with a desktop computer. Too bad the phone doesn't have a built-in modem it could use to download them... It's worse than that. All digital cell phones modulate and demodulate. I think the hardware is all there, it just needs a little bit more software for cell phones to email their address list to your home computer, and your home computer to email its address list (translated to a text message somewhere along the path) to the cell phone. So close, so very close ...

What about speakers and microphones -- Idea just occurred to me: Is it possible to have PC to PDA to PC communications over using the speakers and microphones? Early modems with acoustic couplers seem to indicate it's at least theoretically possible. Try FusionOne.

MagicPen and CharacterRecognition? -- ----

Electronic Devices detract -- I made a concerted effort for a little over a year, (1992-3), to use ONLY electronic means to keep notes, project information and such unless I need to share it with someone else. The most consistent conclusion I came to over and over was simply this - technology itself too often becomes a deterrent to actually getting many things done with relation to groups. I found that taking my laptop or Newton to meetings detracted from the group focus of getting work done in these settings even though I found dramatic efficiencies for myself. Until technologies become so common place that they don't draw unnecessary attention to themselves, they are often unusable in public environments. This "detractor" element has lessened with time, but still holds true even today with all the gizmos and gadgets available and used by more and more people. I wouldn't and don't go anywhere without my Newton or something similar. -- Bob O'Brien

Hmm. Of all the techie types I know (lots of them) the only one who doesn't have and use daily a Palm or similar device is a buddy of mine who promises to get one "one of these days." [This is the same guy who has yet to own a cell phone.] I suspect that he'll have to grab a Palm when the pressure of being the only engineer in a meeting who can't share meeting notes through beaming gets to him.


All of this is great, but I can tell you from experience that, for a blind person, almost *anything* is better than paper. For a totally blind person, braille is almost impossible while moving. Even the most portable versions require a flat surface to enter data. In braille, you can't scribble in a book. You can't really draw diagrams, and to most of us, they wouldn't really be useful anyway, even if you could.

I'm in the middle of trying to invent a handheld computer that uses a one-handed keyboard strapped to my thigh or something to get the kind of instant scribbling you're all talking about.

A QWERTY strap-on keyboard like with HalfQwerty software ? Or some sort of Braille keyboard ? My paper alternative is emacs. I use emacs-wiki and planner mode together to make notes. Appointments in emacs's calendar and phone numbers in BBDB. When I want to jot something down, I use a thing called remember mode, which appends whatever I write to the end of my dated planner file, where I can go find it and sort it out when I want it. The whole planner file's a wiki, with some other non-standard link types so I can link to whatever I want to.


Now then, paper has many uses as we know. Ever notice how Microsoft Word uses a dotted line to indicate where the pages will break? That dotted line almost makes me want to tear my screen. Anyone else have that pattern? If Microsoft broke into the toilet tissue market, do you suppose they would be softer than Charmin?

Well, tissue's a lot softer!

"Absolutely, nobody peddles more BS than MicroSoft." -- SeanOleary, ducking.

In certain backwaters, there is confusion as to the definition of "software". One lady I met over a decade ago thought it meant small electronics, like walkmans and vibrators and the like. In other places (I'd rather not be specific), they think software refers to paper goods, especially of the toilet variety. Thus, there's high confusion and even some giggling in these camps when they get their hands on a white paper titled "Software Reuse". Where I come from, you don't do that.

NoteWiki is an interesting little program written in VisualBasic that operates like NotePad with WikiWords. I keep it on my PenDrive, but can't use it most of the time because I don't always have a PersonalComputer or NotebookComputer handy. Single documents are linear, but Wiki can help form a web of connection between related thoughts. Isn't Ward's WikiWikiWeb just a public NoteBook of sorts? -- WillGray

Smart Paper

Read TheDiamondAge by NealStephenson -- someday we will have "SmartPaper" which will have many of the best characteristics of both "real" paper and computing devices. I personally prefer computing devices and use a Palm extensively, but there are times when I use paper because it makes more sense. I think current computing tools are either too small or too large, and too inflexible to do many things that paper makes simple. When I can grab a sheet of "smart paper" and scribble on it without thinking, but later transfer what I scribbled to other information devices to manipulate, store, share, etc., then we'll be there... -- AndyMoore

For a SmartPaper candidate see:

With scanner and secret scan indexing and storage program like Technology, we are already at an inexpensive alternative to what "SmartPaper" implies. With secret scan indexing and storage program we can take any "DumbPaper?" and transfer it via Ocr into a PaperlessDeviceObject? which is manipulatable, storable, and sharable.

One Project which needs to be considered soon is the digitization of content from books and other old and perishable media, including data on disks and CDs into information media that will last for a thousand years or more.

Maybe you've got this backwards. Paper has already shown extensive longevity, much better than any 20th century invention, including bits of tape, metal, and plastics. Maybe we should transfer all these CDROMs onto papyrus. -- AlainPicard [Data from some early NASA missions are already unreadable!]

Alain, note that the list of media the last poster made included "perishable media" and the NASA media you mentioned. Books for the last half century have been printed on an inferior grade of paper; many books are crumbling because they were printed on inexpensive paper made principally of wood fibers. When have you seen a book printed on paper with cotton or silk content? These last considerably longer (perhaps as long as 200 years). [I personally own a large book printed in 1568 and its condition leads me to believe it will be completely readable and usable four centuries from now. The book outlasted the language: 16th century French. MarcVeeneman ] Surely we possess technology which will make storage persistent beyond that, perhaps into the thousands of years? Perhaps a composite material? Or stainless steel optically encoded via laser engraving on disks or sheets? Also, glass has shown the ability to survive for thousands of years, or granite or the same material as that of the Rosetta Stone? Perhaps that would be a good name for a project to preserve our important information ProjectRosetta?? or as the oldest surviving writing, we could use the politically incorrect "ivory".

The RosettaProject?:

Well, I was being facetious. However, the situation may not be so gloomy. It may be that the magic medium we're looking for already exists: the Internet. I'm thinking of SecurityThroughRedundancy?. Already, many people are afraid that their digital selves become indelible, and ill-chosen words on a newsgroup may come back to haunt you years later. -- AlainPicard

Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (ISBN 0375504443 ) reveals where the myth that "modern" paper is highly perishable came from. In fact no-one actually knows how long books printed in the last century will last, though many people have sort to exaggerate the problem for a variety of reasons.

It is an observable and testable that certain types of paper grow brittle and begin to decompose with age. Preservation of the text and inscriptions made in books is clearly a worthwhile goal. I have books from 50 to 120 years old as well as newspapers over 40 years old and can observe the condition of the paper. The oldest books have pages which are fragile and crumbling, the newspapers are yellow and brittle. However a set of the eleventh edition of the EncyclopaediaBritannica printed in 1910 on "Britannica India paper" looks like it will survive for at least another 1 or 2 hundred years. The quality of the paper (and the care and keeping of the books) will be determinants. The preservation of texts and manuscripts on paper requires careful attention as the documents exceed 1 to 3 hundred years (Examples The Constitution and Declaration of Independence).

See: PerishableMedia for a discussion of the best media to protect valuable information.

Engraved diamonds - that's what we need. Carve our notes into solid titanium.

At any rate, I started train commuting and decided I wanted to code/blog/calendar/etc on my trips. Went through all of this. Found several difficulties: (1) handwriting recognition OCR sucks, so working on paper is out if you want it converted to digital. (2) Graffitti2 sucks. (3) Scanners are painfully slow if you want a lot of pages, and paper-feeder-scanners are expensive.

There are any number of good, technical solutions to the problems - but none of them are quite "there yet". My wife has always wanted to digitize her teaching notes and worksheets, but the process of doing so would be agonizing.

Power-Simplicity Chart

    |  Computers
  P |
  o |
  w |               Paper
  e |
  r |

Scanning also works -- So too this online introduction to CategoryTheory - scanned handwritten papers surprisingly readable and intimate.

Ready for anything -- Now that I have read through the above, no matter when the data hits me, I'm covered.

Thinking OutsideOfThePresentTime:

A stack of about 6 to 10 sheets of A4 resting just in front of the keyboard works for me, have formed the habit of many years now. I 'push' and 'pop' sheets off as sometimes you get directed here and there in the daily grind of bug-bashing or designing or whatever.

Another reason that paper will win every time is this: Imagine, there you are, driven from Plymouth to a meeting somewhere not far from Andover, you run into the garage toilet and... let's see you wipe yourself clean with a PalmPilot or a laptop! Boy was I glad to have a pile of folded up A4 in my jacket pockets, so for me, paper is king.

-- SeanCharles?

Reading this page makes me wonder why Light Pen's never caught on. If word processors supported instant drawing capabilities with a light pen, and other features (like tabbed pages), without the hassles of hidden page codes, would there be any need for paper? You can always print, email or save it to a usb drive. Light Pens would be great in conjunction with Desktop Sharing or collaboration technology, where you could highlight/erase sections of a screen.

LightPen?s never caught on because of the physical fatigue caused by the large amount of waste motion involved (preparing to write, putting down the pen, and writing on a surface perpendicular to the (physical) desk). A TabletPc eliminates most of the fatigue problems, but adds the issue of handwriting recognition, since they don't typically include keyboards.


A blackboard has a distinct advantage over paper because it is easily visible and shared among multiple people. It also requires the least amount of effort to update. Paper and pencil and eraser would be in second place, while whiteboards with industrial strength cleaning chemicals are in a distant third.
Spiral Notebooks

But I draw columns inside the first page, and update page number, date and subject as I fill them out. Interesting no-one has said diaries, after all our high-schools put us through.

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