Most Awesomest Idea Ever?

Perhaps you’re like me. You tend to think about things visually and perhaps after a cartography course and a Tufte book or two you appreciate that visualizations can be far more data dense than an equivalent area of prose. Preferring to think visually is indeed great, except when, like me, you have practically no artistic skills. So you don’t really use it very much because you can’t draw a smiley face, much less a semi-respectable outline of Europe.

An actual drawing of Europe by me. Autographed copies available.

But then came computers with enough power to display graphics – revolutionary in particular were processors with the calculating power to render vector graphics. Now you don’t need to have much artistic talent, because you can have the computer create very precise features by combining highly-constrainted mouse movements (or stylus if you have a graphic tablet) and mathematical formulae. You’ve already seen a few of my results: my long journey towards creating respectable maps, as well as my attempts to recreate timelines as more sophisticated timecharts, with standardized icons to represent different countries and events. (So pathetic are my artistic skills that creating some of those icons was seriously taxing, and I relied upon finding illustrations online and then tracing over them.) But the overall results are pretty good, after managing the steep learning curve that comes with Adobe Illustrator.

Another visual overlay was added a couple of years ago, when I finally realized my decade-long dream of possessing “electronic paper”, or as close as we have to it right now. That’s when I acquired an iPad. So now I have 64 GB worth of space to store photos, maps and illustrations, PDFs and documents, along with sundry games and other apps, all on a portable tablet device. I now have a handy place to put these images.

But there was still something more to learn. I acknowledge I’m probably a bit slow putting these things together, but I still had another step to take on the path to true digital native. And it would come only after a serendipitous confluence of circumstances, for none of the websites/blogs about the iPad for research/scholars I’ve read ever mentioned this need, one that is blazingly obvious to me in retrospect. (Although perhaps it was so obvious to other bloggers that they didn’t bother spelling it out.) Whatever the case, the resolution to my barely-elaborated problems came from a combination of my year-long process to digitize as much as possible (and loading those bytes onto my iPad), my frustration cleaning up my office and finding duplicate sketches everywhere with no logical place to store them, and a random, pre-bedtime session drawing squiggles on the Notability iPad app that I had purchased a year ago but never did anything with. When I had the brilliant idea to photograph my wife with the iPad and draw cat whiskers on her photo,  a little bell went off in my head. At that moment, all sorts of problems and possibilities decided to coalesce in my brain. A voice, perhaps God Himself, said unto me: “Don’t just use the iPad to read documents and take the occasional text notes. Use it to sketch ideas and take visual notes. You know you want it.”

And it is a brilliant idea, because it solves several problems that I had been aware of but hadn’t taken the time to think out. First off, it makes visual brainstorming a snap (but not in a cheesy mind-mapping kind of way). Every time I want to jot down an idea for a map, I don’t have to put up with my pathetic sketches of Europe that make it impossible to see if my ideas would fit on a properly-proportioned map of Europe or not. Nor do I have to go and try to find a blank map of Europe, or print a new copy off. And then I can duplicate that base map in Notability ad nauseum, creating new versions with other notes and ideas at will.

Second, sketching on maps on the iPad eliminates a constant problem I have – multiple copies of visual ideas sketched almost at random over many years, and filed who-knows-where.

A few of the sketch maps I’ve made, and made again…

If they are all located on the ultra-portable iPad, I always know where to look. Notability syncs to Dropbox, and can export as RTF and PDF, which means I can also integrate the images into Evernote. All this takes me that much closer to using the iPad as a single repository for making notes and recording ideas – no matter what room of the house I’m in, or even if I’m not in the house at all. I take the iPad with me almost everywhere, so if there is a sudden Eureka! moment, it’s at hand. Even better, it allows me to do a quick search first to see if I already had that idea a year ago. I can also show it off at the office or at a conference, or take it into the archives.

This ability, this Notability one might say, allows me to not only brainstorm ways of visualizing historical information, but it also allows me to implement something I’ve been thinking about more and more of late: taking visual notes on readings, instead of mere text. You still need the textual notes, for quotes and what not – and I’ll probably continue to do some bastard combination of paper, MS Access and Evernote for this (but see below). But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes that historians included more graphics in their works – how many times must one read a campaign narrative without a map? While I may not like Winston Churchill’s views on the Dutch, he certainly knew how to make comprehension easier for his readers:

Churchill’s integration of image and text. Tufte’s a huge fan too.

When I really want to understand what happened in the past, I need to see the spatial occurrence of (spatial) events, rather than just rely on someone’s textual description. So now I can sketch out operational movements when reading about army maneuvers, or create my own events on a blank timechart, or add to someone else’s illustration. Increasingly I find myself actually sketching out my little icons when taking notes, e.g. that the Allies failed in their siege of Toulon would be indicated by a little red-ink hollow pentagonal fortress in a blank template timechart in the cell for August 1707.

So I’ll play around with this idea a bit, and post an example of two. In theory at least, it seems like a great idea for graphical brainstorming (map-based and chronology-based), and for taking notes on factual historical details and sketching out historical models. I’ve also been playing around with developing a symbolic vocabulary to display causation, relationships, and so on. But that’s all a bit farther in the future.

Next challenge, solving my textual note-taking problem:

The 21st Century Note-taker’s Dilemma



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3 responses to “Most Awesomest Idea Ever?”

  1. John Grenier says :

    Sounds painful, and horrendously difficult:). I’m still a fan of the pencil (not mechanical, i hate those f’ing things and their whimpy lead) and a notebook (actually a $1.99 lab book fromWalgreen’s). Perhaps that’s why I’m not as productive as l’d like to be. I guess I’m just a Luddite at heart, tho I do like my IPad to do things like read your blog. Keep breaking new ground and telling us how it goes. Really, is it possible to teach old historians new tricks?

    • jostwald says :

      Not sure that I want to define myself as an “old” historian quite yet, although I do remember the age before personal computers.
      That said, I was ahead of the historian’s digital curve back in grad school about 12 years ago or so. Not anymore. Back then a prof was teaching a brand new grad course on computers and history. I sat in on one of the class meetings and afterward talked with him about my database my wife (a real programmer) and I had created from scratch in MS Access. He complained that the only thing his grad students were interested in was Powerpoint for lecturing, whereas he wanted to talk about more interesting stuff for research: GIS, databases…

      Nowadays these young whipersnappers like Gavin know all sorts of Web programming, and things like Python. That’s a little too hard core for me, though I wouldn’t mind using some of the textual analysis features (KWIC, collocation…). But I barely made it through The Programming Historian, and can’t imagine surviving a THATcamp. In summer camp in 1979 I could make “Hello World” flash on the screen using Basic, but now I just have to hope that my nephew will learn enough Python to write me some script.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    Before I buy an autographed sketch, I need to know how many you’re doing. Don’t worry, a discrete little number in the corner will do me fine. Something where the dealer will have to pull the print out of the frame to find.

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