Sunday, December 27, 2015

Taking Notes

When I'm working on something complex, either a bug or new code, I keep notes. Nowadays I could blame that on an aging memory, but I've been doing it too long for that to be the reason. Originally I used paper notebooks, writing in pencil so I could erase and make corrections.

I take notes in a special style that has stayed quite consistent over the years. To make it easier to scan the notes and follow the "logical" structure I prefix sentences with capitalized "keywords". Some of these are familiar ones like "BUG" and "TODO" that are commonly used in source code comments. I also use "Q" to start a question (since the trailing question mark is harder to spot) and "A" for answers. Some less standard prefixes I use are "COULD" and "MAYBE" which I use to prefix proposals or hypothesis. ("MAYBE" being stronger than "COULD") Here's a fabricated example to give you a better idea:

BUG: calculating a checksum occasionally gives an incorrect result

Q why does it work some of the time ?

A probably a concurrency issue

MAYBE add locking

BUT that could lead to deadlocks

SO make sure no other locks are held or taken at the same time

TODO: review code to look for similar problems

These notes are generally just for my own use, but I've still tried to keep the notation fairly self explanatory so if someone else did need to read them it wouldn't be too hard.

You might imagine that the main benefit of keeping notes would be that you can refer back to them. But I find I rarely do that. Occasionally if I run into problems afterwards I'll go back to my notes to refresh my memory, especially if I didn't completely resolve the issue. But that's the exception.

I find the biggest benefit is that it helps me think through a problem, to be a little more logical, to expose and examine my thinking, to see what I've considered and why I think it is or isn't the right approach. It helps prevent me from going in circles and not making any progress. Often it's just as helpful to rule out certain alternatives as it is to find successful ones.

I'm a believer in clear code over a lot of comments. But what clear code doesn't tell you is why you chose that particular approach. It's good to add comments for that type of thing, but comments will seldom tell you the logical path you took to reach that point, the dead ends you explored, the approaches that turned out too complex or had performance issues. That's where the notes can come in.

Unless I know something is going to be complex I don't start out making notes. Instead, I'll work on it for a little bit and if it turns out to be tricky, then I'll make a conscious decision to start taking notes. I might make a few retroactive notes of my thinking so far but usually I'll just start from that point.

For a brief time I used Google Docs for these notes. That worked quite well for bigger projects, but it was too heavyweight for jotting down ideas or brief notes. And in the past they didn't have a very good mobile story.

For the last few years I've been using Evernote. I like how it syncs between all my devices and can be used off-line. The Mac and Windows versions are different enough to be annoying, but I don't imagine there are a lot of people that use both. From a software development perspective it seems crazy that they develop and maintain what appears to be two completely separate programs, but cross platform apps are a struggle, even today.

I briefly tried using Penultimate and Note Taker (from Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc fame) for taking handwritten notes in meetings. Scribbling something was easier and less distracting from the meeting than typing. But then I ended up more or less banning mobile devices from meetings because people find it impossible not to be distracted by all the notifications they get from texts, emails, FaceBook etc. (That's not as much of a problem for me because I have all notifications turned off. And being an antisocial programmer I'm not as addicted to that steady flow of chatter.)

Although I'm not big on diagrams, I did take advantage of pencil and paper to occasionally sketch out things like data data structures. This is a little harder to do when typing into some kind of text editor. I use Google Drawings if I want a more polished result. To quickly sketch diagrams on the iPad one app I like is Jot! Unlike a plain drawing app it lets you move things around and add editable text. However, it doesn't fix up your rectangles the way Paper does. But Paper doesn't let you add typed text to your drawings.

A few days ago someone asked me if I had used any apps that turned handwriting into editable text. I hadn't, unless you count way-back-when with a Palm and its quirky alphabet designed for easy recognition. (Which I quite liked and used a fair bit.)

Coincidentally, I recently got an iPad Pro and its companion Pencil. (Sadly, I'm not immune to the lure of the new new thing, despite feelings of guilt about it.) I hadn't really found a lot of use for the Pencil, although it did work well and had a much better feel than the previous fat soft iPad styluses that I'd tried.

So today I did some searching and found 7notes. Having not tried any handwriting recognition for years I was amazed at how well it worked. I started out printing but soon found it handled even my sloppy cursive. Of course, if I got too sloppy it had trouble, but even I have trouble reading my own handwriting sometimes. It has good support for auto correction and offering alternate possible words. Like the keyboard auto-correct, you do have to keep an eye on how it's interpreting what you write or you can get some funny results.

Although 7notes does have integration with Evernote it requires manually transferring notes back and forth. I started thinking it would be nice if I could use the handwriting recognition in Evernote itself (or other apps). I was happy to find that the same company has an iOS "keyboard" using the same technology - mazec. It doesn't have all the features of 7notes but seems to have the same basic recognition engine.

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