Study Notes in the Information Age

Posted by Beetle B. on Sun 06 December 2015

It has been a long time since I was a college student. In those days I took all my notes in the classroom with a notebook. One notebook for each course.

Looking back at the experience, this had some down sides:

  1. Some of what I wrote down was “useless”. Things I thought were important/relevant to the subject but were not. This includes noting down homework deadlines, class policies, etc.
  2. Some of my notes were not extensive enough, but I did not have room on the paper to add to a particular subject. So I would place the extra details on a completely different page, leading to a disorganized collection of notes.
  3. My notes were not the neatest nor the most organized. They would often follow the order the instructor taught it, which may not be the best for my own reviewing purposes.
    • Diligent students would take the time to rewrite their notes at the end of day or week, and would then only use the rewritten notes to study. I should have done this, but I generally did not: Too time consuming.
    • Parenthetically, I must point out that doing this is really a good idea if you want to understand the material well!

Do you see a common theme in these? It’s basically: Once you’ve written something in a notebook, it is very hard to modify it!

We live in the information age, with easy access to computers. Shouldn’t I have used a computer for my notes?

Digital Notes in My Era

In my day, some students would bring their laptops to work and take notes with it. I don’t think many did well with this approach:

  1. Too many distractions with instant messaging and web browsing.
  2. Typing and editing notes on the fly in the classroom was not easy:
    1. Equations are hard to write down quickly. Some students insisted on using LaTeX. Seriously? It was a pain just to make an itemized list!
    2. Diagrams are hard to draw on a computer.

This can be solved easily: Write on paper, and later in the day write up more organized notes on the computer. I did try this for a short while. All I can say is, LaTeX was still time consuming. I gave up quickly.

I still have many of my notebooks. How many times have I consulted them since I graduated?

Zero.

This is depressing.

Enter Org Mode

Org Mode was a game changer in so many ways. When it comes to authoring documents, it has a very simple markup language. Furthermore, it integrates well with LaTeX. In fact, once I learned Org Mode, I never wrote a LaTeX document from scratch. I would write it in Org Mode, and export to .tex.

With Org Mode and Emacs:

  • You can write formulae much quicker than in plain LaTeX. Greek symbols can be written with a simple keystroke. As an example, if you want to write the character \(\beta\), you type ` + b.
  • You get instant feedback on equations: With a keystroke, Emacs replaces the equation with an image of the equation.
  • Images are trivial. Just make a “link” to the image file, and you can get Emacs to display it in the editing window.
  • You rarely need to type any LaTeX command. If you have custom LaTeX you would like to use, Org mode lets you enter it.

Attempts With Org Mode

While working, I decided to learn some Machine Learning, as well as review my statistics. I watched Andrew Ng’s lectures at Stanford, as well as took his Coursera course.

So I put Org mode to the test.

How did it turn out?

On the surface, it worked well, but I still felt it lacking. There’s still the same problem of not being able to draw easily on a computer.

If you’re curious: This file is the final PDF. And this is the Org mode source that generated it.

New Attempt: Pseudo-Blogging

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the Org Mode approach.

Then an idea struck me.

This blog is produced using Pelican. It is a static site generator. You write your articles in a format like Markdown, provide some metadata (dates, tags, etc), and Pelican will generate all the HTML needed.

So I thought: Why not utilize it for study notes?

I decided to take a few algorithm courses from Coursera and put it to the test.

Pelican supports reStructuredText.

With appropriate plugins, it supports LaTeX equations.

You can see the results here.

This worked quite well. I managed to write most of the notes as the course progressed. That impressed me.

Some notes about it:

  • With tags, I need not limit the site to one subject. If I decide to study economics, I tag the articles as economics. Then I click the economics link to see all economics related notes.
  • I can put it online and access it anywhere.
  • For ordering, I piggyback on the dates. The dates are not necessarily the dates I wrote the material.
  • How did I solve the issue of figures and diagrams? I used the Photo Transfer App. I draw on a white board, take a picture, and quickly transfer it to my computer. Fortunately, it automatically gives you a scaled down version of the image - I wouldn’t want 8 Megapixel images on the site. Saves me one extra step.
  • reStructuredText supports entering source code, with appropriate syntax highlighting.

Is it perfect? No. Is it good enough? Probably. One nice thing is that Pelican is extensible with plugins. Will I ever write one to improve this? Not sure. There needs to be a balance between utilizing and optimizing.

I am curious how others have managed taking their digital notes.

tags : pelican, studies