One unexpected but delightful consequence of this newsletter format I’m doing at the moment is the volume of replies I get. Far more of you than before get in touch to comment on something I’ve included or to share a related recommendation, and I love it. Probably the biggest single topic in my inbox in the last week has been digital notetaking, which I mentioned in passing last week that I have been experimenting with recently. So, as promised, I’ll go into more detail.
The problem I’ve been trying to solve with my research technique is this: I take in much more information when I take notes by hand, but if I don’t then type them up I will most likely never refer to them again. And typing them up feels pointless, like I’m doing the work twice. I have tried typing notes from books and articles straight into the computer, of course, but I find that a) holding the book open and typing into a laptop is very uncomfortable b) I just don’t digest the information as well as when I write with a pen.
I’m a devotee of Scrivener for organising research and writing (again, I can talk more about why I favour this software in another edition if people are interested) and I really like having all of my notes in that one database where they are searchable. My handwritten notes, though, exist separately from that and therefore aren’t usually integrated very well into the final product. Having two overlapping systems frustrates me and so I’ve long been hunting for a way of bringing them together.
When I saw last summer that the latest iOS for iPad included a handwriting recognition tool called “Scribble”, I was intrigued. It converts handwriting done using the Apple Pencil into typed text. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of people demonstrating this and comparing the relative merits of different notetaking apps before eventually deciding to give this ago. I bought a secondhand iPad and the first generation Apple Pencil and started trying it out.
It works even better than I was expecting. I can easily have an open book and the tablet on my small bureau desk at the same time, and I write straight onto the tablet just as I would with paper. It took a little time for me to get used to Scribble’s pacing — I initially was writing too fast for it — but now that I’m acclimatised it works well. Most of the time it converts my writing perfectly, and whenever it encounters a proper noun it doesn’t know I just use the mini keyboard afterwards to quickly correct it.
Best of all, when I’m finished a set of notes, I use the sync feature on the Apple Notes app to bring them up on my computer and then I copy them straight into Scrivener. Everything now lives in one place, all neatly filed in the labyrinth of folders and tags that my brain needs to understand anything.
This technique has also been good for reading articles and books that come as PDFs. I bought an app called GoodNotes which allows you to import and annotate files. I write in the margins of the PDF as I read on the tablet, or sometimes in an additional notes page inside the app if I need more space. I can then export the file with my annotations if I want, or take the text out alone. GoodNotes has a great feature where you can select handwritten text and copy it so that when you paste elsewhere it comes out as typed text.
Again, the accuracy of this really startled me. I remember trying for weeks to run OCR processes on old magazine pages in about 2013 and getting less than 50 per cent of the words out, and for some reason I just assumed the technology wouldn’t have moved on very far since. But it really has, and although I’ve only been doing this for a couple of months, I’m fairly confident that this is a good long term solution to my problem. I can write by hand and feel like I’m taking in information, but I can then search my notes in my main database. Best of both worlds.
If you have a similar dilemma and are interested in researching this process more, I would recommend the videos of this adorably earnest student to give you an idea of what is possible and the capabilities of the various apps. I don’t personally spend as long as he does making my notes look lovely, but each to their own. For some reason “GoodNotes vs Notability” is a really popular topic for people making videos about this, so search for that on YouTube and you’ll get lots of demonstrations.
Because I write a daily podcast recommendation newsletter, I listen to a lot of podcasts. And I’ll be honest: most of them don’t make of an impression. Maybe I’m just having audio ennui, but even the ones I hear that are objectively interesting and well made sound like everything else coming out at the moment.
Imagine my delight, then, when I stumbled across The Imposter, a Canadian series about the arts that woke my ears right up. The show sadly hasn’t published an episode since 2018, but there’s lots of great stuff still on the feed, from this episode about music for plants to this one about a virtual reality game that uses your emotions to power a holographic pop star that helps imaginary soldiers feel less depressed about war. Weird, yes, but nothing like everything else I hear.
My old New Statesman colleague Nicky Woolf has had a harder year that most: his father was in the hospital for 306 days after catching Covid-19, only recently returning home with life changing aftereffects to manage. Nicky has now written about this experience, and I strongly recommend reading the piece in full.
There are lots of parts that floored me, but I’ll just highlight two here. First, in March 2020, when Nicky had to call an ambulance after finding his dad facedown at the breakfast table, he didn’t get an operator who could dispatch paramedics immediately. He got a recorded message, because the emergency services in the UK were so overwhelmed, and there was a long wait for help to come. That terrified me.
We’re so lucky here to be able to rely on free healthcare, and I’ve always believed that although the NHS is a bit creaky at times, it will always come through when I need it. I’ll never forget the meeting my family had with a famous London cancer specialist when I was very ill, and my father (born and raised in a country that does not have state funded healthcare) asking whether it was worth investing my parents’ life savings in doing my treatment privately. The answer? The food might be slightly better, but I’d be seen by the same doctors, cared for by the same nurses, and receive the same drugs. The differences were merely aesthetic. Going on the NHS did not mean I had any less of a chance.
I’m sure we can all point to the things in the last year that have brought the reality of this situation home to us, and that observation of Nicky’s about calling 911 and nobody answering is one of those for me. And then there was this part, about the way superstition surfaces when you’re dealing with unrelenting trauma:
“I developed rituals: I pressed my lips to a childhood teddy bear for luck before going to bed each night. We have a framed telegram sent by my grandfather to my grandmother when he got back from Dunkirk, a family treasure I began touching every time I passed it, like a religious relic.”
I think lots of us will find that very familiar. Read the article for more.
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you will know that I really like obituaries — writing them is, ghoulishly, a job I would love to have one day. This week I read three extremely different obituaries for three very different women, and I’d like to share them with you.
Leith Mullings, anthropologist. Reading about the life of this distinguished scholar brought me into contact with “Sojourner syndrome”, a term she coined for the intersection of oppressions that Black women experience and the impact this has on health outcomes.
Nina Alexandrovna Andreeva, Soviet revolutionary. I’m really recommending this one for the writing style — it’s probably the most Stalinist thing I’ve ever read.
Margaret Marilyn DeAdder, “self described Queen Bitch”. This one is very idiosyncratic and full of family in jokes, but this line really got me: “In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you do something nice for somebody else unexpectedly, and without explanation.”
I find elaborate cooking projects a good way of distracting myself. They keep your hands busy and unlike crochet, knitting or embroidery, you can eat the results. Over the last year I have: kneaded a lot of sourdough, experimented with the perfect recipe for the softest white roll, and made a lot of fancy soups. I even made Samin Nosrat’s “Big Lasanga”, which took an entire day because it involves making your own pasta from scratch.
Even though I am a big fan of Kate Young’s blog and books, it’s only just occurred me to combine my love for books and my love of food. I’ve once more fallen very deeply into my perpetual Habsburg rabbit hole, via the newish Martyn Rady book and a recent rereading of Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square, and now all I want to make are foods from pre WW1 Vienna. So far we’ve had a fancy dinner of Schnitzel, Kartoffelknödel and Rotkohl, plus a huge vat of Erbsensuppe for lunches. This weekend I’m going to make Vanillekipferl and maybe Sachertorte. Apfelstrudel is definitely in my future too.
Until next time,
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