A note about notes

by James Somers, February 17, 2010

Since April 2008, I have slowly been building a large repository of notes. It’s a combination of (a) original writing:

  • It is words that jostle in our brains when we read or ask questions. To know them fluently lets one “think without even thinking about it.” You become a better translator: between languages, for sure, but also between their thoughts and yours, that structure and this one. –Fri, 21 Aug 2009 13:27:00

  • An essay can only be slowed—not stopped—by ignorance. Compare mathematics. –Wed, 19 Aug 2009 19:30:00

(b) excerpts from stuff I’ve read:

  • William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.” (The One Argument Ayn Rand Couldn’t Win — New York Magazine) –Fri, 30 Oct 2009 18:18:49

  • “Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo—which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead.” — Neal Stephenson “Cryptonomicon” page 1. –Tue, 20 Oct 2009 00:51:07

(c) jokes (some mine, some not):

  • asking for the cute librarian’s call number –Tue, 24 Jun 2008 19:13:07

  • Waiter to a table of Jewish Women: Is anything all right? (3quarksdaily) –Fri, 11 Dec 2009 10:17:26

and (d) handy words or phrases:

  • “licenses” as verb –Tue, 11 Nov 2008 18:39:14

  • “square these facts” is a good phrase –Tue, 22 Dec 2009 00:01:52

It’s an incredibly useful resource for me. Most of the blog posts I’ve written, for instance, began as small wisps on my notes page. And I’ve gotten used to having my favorite quotes, jokes, and ideas instantly searchable from anywhere in the world.

It’s also quite simple—it’s not like I have to go through some big process each time I’d like to jot something down or capture what I’m currently reading. In fact, using the Tumblr API, a few PHP and Ruby scripts, a cron task, and a retrofitted Firefox extension, I have stitched together a system that lets me take notes in any of the following ways:

  • Highlighting some text in Firefox and pressing ⌥⌘N. This also grabs the title and URL of the current page.

  • Typing “n ” into my Firefox address bar or at any Terminal prompt; I can even format the text using Markdown.

  • Going to a public (but hopefully secret) URL, either for when I’m away from my home computer or when I need to compose longer notes.

  • Opening up the Tumblr iPhone app.

I realized after many failures with more ambitious systems that if there is any friction at all in the process, I won’t stick with it. So the above was designed to be as quick as possible, which means that I considered even seemingly trivial actions like opening a new browser tab too onerous, and I avoided any kind of organization or categorization.

I am, in any case, happy with the result. I now have 2,686 notes approaching 200,000 words, amounting to several hundred pages of stuff-I’d-like-to-remember. More importantly, I have a relatively concrete sense of what I’ve been reading, doing, or thinking about. I can quickly see that from October to December 2009, for instance, I went on a “hard problem of consciousness” kick, or that I read Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction

“If there is an amateur reader still left in the world—or anybody who just reads and runs—I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children” –Sat, 26 Jul 2008 21:19:28

—right after I put down a collection of Ezra Pound’s letters:

Love to you and mother. Salutations to the entourage. Cheer up, ye ain’t dead yet. And as Tourgeneff says, most everything else is curable. –Mon, 21 Jul 2008 23:29:32

And as a strange sort of bonus, by aggregating the metadata attached to each note, I have been able to compile a histogram of submission times. Which means I can now say with confidence that I am least likely to be awake or intellectually active from 7-10am, and that my single most prolific hour is midnight: