Thursday, February 14, 2008

No-longer-tortured confessions of a notebook bum

I've waited far too long to post and all the good topics (colored pens, note organization...) are taken, and I wasn't there for Matt Jadud's talk, having been... well, working in Manhattan at the time. (For those of you who don't know me, I'm not actually an Olin student - just used to be. Class of '07. My name is Mel.)

And what this means is that I get to improvise around what information I can glean from the wiki on the weekly theme. Basically, I make stuff up in the absence of actual content. Or to make that sound somewhat better, it's my hope that these weekly reflections will (1) make me look up from my coding and knock me into the world of ideas on a regular basis, and (2) provide a breather of perspective from outside the bubble, where I'm colliding with things that aren't midterms and credit-hours (more like taxis and bug reports). (I mean "colliding" in the poetic and not the physical sense. At least for the taxis.)

It seems like this week's theme is "vital ideation," aka "the whole class," and... design notebooks! I've been a chronic doodler ever since the days of boredom back in elementary, and used to draw Sierpinski gaskets, Hilbert curves, and more in the margins of my math notes, but that wasn't "design." Later, Fritz the Homework Penguin showed up on all my problem sets. And then quick song parodies, and sketches of the people sitting ahead of me, or drawings of the tip of my left thumb. Not really design.

Or is it? I used to feel all guilty about not keeping my notebooks "intellectual" or "inventor-ish." Ben Linder filled his pages with gorgeous 3D cutaway sketches of apparati; other classmates bristled with neat formulae, pencilled-in circuit diagrams (with lots of eraser marks to show where resistor values had been tweaked), or even colored sketches of costumes for a play. I... drew my thumbnail. And cartoon versions of math symbols that talked in Shakespearean verse.

But that's the way my brain works, and the stuff it occasionally needs to spew out (along with experiments on how lightly I can draw a pencil line, or the train stop to get off at). Design doesn't just mean "class notes," nor does it mean "design of things," as if every page of the notebook had to be funneled towards some known end goal. It's a place to braindump and structure and re-dump things back into my brain. It's like plugging in extra mental RAM.

So what does that design? The way I think. What I think of, what I write down, what I give myself permission to say, and to whom. I need to move things from my mind into the real world, and writing them down is the first step in mentally shifting me towards making that happen; somehow, a project proposal is different when you're holding it than when you're tossing the exact same words* around in your head. Then you can scan it, share it, shred it - but you're dealing with your thoughts-made-word, and that makes it easier to make the jump to word-made-flesh (why yes, I was raised Catholic). And it makes it much more definite and visceral when you rip out an idea and attack it with scissors than when you go, in your brain, "meh, I won't think about that any more."

*note my bias towards the verbal! Our language is a powerful shaper of how we think. I'm still only fluent in American English, but would love dearly to be able to keep my notebooks in Chinese, Italian (with backwards handwriting), and... many others. I've tried keeping notebooks where I avoid the verbal by only drawing, or vice versa with only words, or words and abstract shapes (no real-world objects allowed), but I find anything less than my full range of output options leaves me feeling stymied rather than challenged. (Exception: I hate clipping external objects into my notebooks. They're strictly two-dimensional marks by me on paper. I'm not sure why this is - perhaps the bulk.)

Sure, Fritz the Homework Penguin won't be waddling across my kitchen floor anytime soon. But the math symbol cartoons turned into Rhomeo and Julihat and a roughly dozen-person production at one spring Expo. And the fractal doodling turned into my first foray into teaching at a math summer camp at my high school. So you never know. And yeah, sometimes my notebook turns up things like alternative train door closing mechanisms in between the drawing of the plastic bag my groceries came in and a couple of half-finished sci-fi novel plots. And sometimes there's actual work in there; some computations for part tolerances, some pseudocode and a chart of data flow.

But I pity the clerk who'll have to go through my scribbles for "prior art," if I ever make something important enough for someone else to get into a legal tiff over some day. "What relation does this French-speaking rabbit have to your processor design?" they'll ask**. "Well, both were on my mind at the time." "Is this a... necessary part, the rabbit, for your invention to work?" "Necessary for me to think of it in the first place," I'll answer (if I'm being completely honest). My brain is a space where many strange things collide, and from this mess occasionally emerges an intentional design.

Design notebook? Yes, if I use the term loosely. Designed notebook? I choose my paper and my writing implement and my own restrictions on usage based on the direction I'd like my brain to go in (or not). But it's my notebook, in any case, and useful to my life, and it's good enough to make me happy.

**Yes, I know that patent proceedings don't actually go this way, and I'll redraw any very important diagrams before submission, and label them nicely with ID numbers and stuff. It's called "artistic license."

Mel Chua is a lazy bum who staunchly refuses her parents' orders to get a job. During her "year off" (right now) she overcooks spaghetti and attempts to save the world. Her current notebook is a somewhat world-ravaged green Google minitome from Leslie Hawthorne that she keeps forgetting is in her pocket. This weekend she will get a larger one.

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