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Pencil and Paper

Easy does it

One of the first lessons I learned at art school was to keep a notebook. Usually I'd use sketchbooks and they would always be with me.
I filled many over a period of 15 years with everything from essays to sketches to studies to notes for computer code. I still have them and they are cherished. I look through them now and again - kind of mining my past for ideas.

Since about 2000 I found that my computer is a better tool for keeping notes and exploring ideas.
But not always. I still have notebooks that I fill up to aid me in my computer work.

As I approach my senior years (:-) I find that my short term memory isn't what it was. Often enough I head to the kitchen looking for something and by the time I get there I've forgotten what I'm after. Must return to my desk and get reminded there what I was thinking about and then try again.

I'm not worried by this. It's consistent with the way I've come to understand our cognitive processes. This goes back a long way to when I was interested in meditation. The idea was to sit and allow the constant flow of thought to subside. One technique was to concentrate on the act of breathing.
The surprising thing is how hard that is to do.
You face a constant stream of thoughts from all over the map. They emerge and merge out of no place much like dreams do.

So when I go looking for something in the kitchen I need to pay do something to fix my goal in my attention as I solve the many subtasks like getting up from my chair and walking around the corner.

Like I say; this isn't really a problem. It's something we all deal with subconsciously all the time. I take it as an interesting probe into how this organ we call a brain works.

This is relevant when thinking of using pencil and paper vs a computer; why don't we just use one all the time?

An example is writing. I'm depend on computers for writing. It's not just that typing is faster than writing long hand, and not just that error correction and editting is easy; it's that having what I've just written in plain sight keeps my mind focussed on a thread of thought. It my thinking wanders a bit, when focus returns I can see what I'm thinking about. This works if I'm writing by hand too.

The thing that seems to me to determine whether we choose between pencil and paper and computers as a tool has to do with the forgetfulness issue I mentioned above. Lots of times I need to capture an idea before it flits away. Jotting a couple of words on a scrap of paper works. I've had the experience of losing the thought by the time I've been able to get my wordprocessor running. On the other hand, once you have the idea nailed you don't want to go through the labor of editting from draft to final by hand. And even if you do that you only have one copy of the thing.

I use pencil and paper a lot when I'm coding. I'm old fashioned and use flow charts to help thinking about the logic of the program. With pencil and paper I can just write a symbol without having to think about that process.
I have software that does flowcharts very well - but when I'm first thinking about a problem using the software can be a problem. Where is the damn symbol hidden? How do you manipulate it?
I've had the experience of forgetting why I wanted it by the time I got a symbol in the workspace.

But normally - once I get the start on paper I transfer it to my computer because of the ease of editting and filing.

I've seen books described as a random access storage medium. The idea is that it's pretty easy to get to a page to access the information there. You don't need computers or operating systems or software. You just pull the book from the shelf and open.

I find a similar thing when I'm sketching an idea on paper. You just place your pencil where you want on the page and make your mark. You don't have to figure out how to do it. That seems to me to be essential for working up new ideas.
But once the new idea is clear then often a computer is the best way to develop it.

Lately though I've been working with an inversion of this situation. I've started making paintings based on studies I do first on the computer.
A painting takes quite a bit of time to do. I use my computer and my snowflake tech to come up with designs I think would make a good painting and use printouts to guide setting up the design on canvas.
But then I find that the ideas that emerge from the act of painting take the picture in a new direction.

Marshall McCluhan once enigmatically said of art that "the medium is the massage". I think what he meant was that the medium you are working in and thinking about subtly pushes what you want to do and can do. It's all good.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.