The never ending problem of how to record personal information.

Public health warning: This post may be sexist in so far as it goes on a bit about gadgets, which as we all know are men’s things!

I don’t know about you but I find diaries and address books troublesome. Not the software, i.e. the contents, but the hardware, the thing you put the contents into. Technology is the spanner in the works here. On the one hand it holds the potential to make this far easier and on the other it confuses matters horribly. 

For centuries people were happy to use an assortment of implements to apply ink or pencil to paper. The paper would take various forms but the process was essentially the same in every case, you wrote whatever you wanted wherever you wanted to write it and then carried the thing around with you. Categorisation was done by having a few different “books” – you might have an address book that would last forever and contain details of all your acquaintances, an annual diary either pocket-size or desktop that would contain appointments and other details and then additionally a notebook for longer notes. The sum total of all three books being the extent of information you felt it important to record and to have available for reference.

With the advent of devices such as the Filofax, enormously popular in the 80’s and probably unknown by most of today’s yoof, many of the previously separate books were brought together in one fashionable binder. I tried one, of course, but couldn’t really get on with it and ended up giving it away. I was considerably happier with the Day-Timer system and I’d recommend you keep this link for the day paper diaries come back into fashion, perhaps not far off.

It worked pretty well, the old paper system. Compatibility was not a problem as any pen/pencil could write on any paper and by using different coloured pens you could have your own version of a colour screen! You could pass on the information fairly easily, if someone else needed to know something they would ask and you would tell them. It wasn’t easy to share your entire calendar but then that wasn’t seen as being necessary, or appropriate. There was an argument that paper data wouldn’t last as long as digital but as Samuel Pepys proves, a paper diary can last as long as you or others want it to, in his case around 350 years so far.

I suppose the popularity of the Filofax and other complex paper systems did indicate that people were ready for something new, they were looking for something more complex, to spend more time buggering around with their diaries and so the new breed of electronic devices were welcomed with open arms. The early ones were only really of any use as replacements for the address book and to be honest that’s still the main advantage of electronic over paper for me. The ability to easily delete/add/change details, to search for any term and to have repeating entries for birthdays and so on are a definite improvement over any paper version of the same thing. It didn’t stop with addresses though, the race was on to create the ultimate device, the one to make all diaries and notebooks redundant.

I think I must have tried them all, or at least one from each stage of development. I remember a very early address-book gadget from Casio or someone like that. I then moved into the Psion range, ending up with a 3 series, which I think I might still have somewhere:

The 3 series Psions were pretty good (aside from the habit of losing the stylus) up until the mid-late 90’s when they lost the battle to Palm devices that were smaller, lighter and easier to use. I went through a series of Palms from monochrome to colour screens all adding a little that was truly better and a lot of stuff that I didn’t really need – games, photos, music, etc. For a short while I was given, no choice, a Nokia Communicator. This was a horrid thing that pretended to deal with email but didn’t really, that was the size and weight of a house brick and with that “Symbian” operating system that made watching paint dry seem like an adrenalin rush. It did at least have a keyboard instead of an annoying stylus but the keyboard was very awkward to use unless you broke all your fingers and reset them into a different configuration. Eventually though, driven by the wonder of a properly efficient push-email system and a very user-friendly design came a device I was pretty happy with, my first Blackberry, a 6230 in 2003. 

I suppose if you didn’t have the kind of job where you needed to spend most of your day trying to stay on top of emails then the Blackberry was nothing special but for people like me it was quite revolutionary and seriously changed the way people communicated. It did the same for email as the mobile phone did for voice. Before the Blackberry everyone knew that you needed to be in the office or possibly at home to be able to deal with mails and so you had a day or so leeway but as soon as clients started being issued with Blackberrys the workday got longer and the expected response to a mail became almost immediate. There were perhaps 6 months or so where my clients had Blackberrys and I didn’t and it was a mess. I’d get phone calls asking if I’d dealt with something, I’d explain I didn’t know what they were talking about and they’d say “Didn’t you get the mail?”. They were referring to a mail sent perhaps an hour ago at most and as was out of the office there was no way for me to know what was going on, usually an emergency of one kind or another. So, for me, having a Blackberry is essential to stay on top of things and although there are many schools of thought I personally like the ability to deal with mails as they come in rather than en mass as used to be the case even if this does eat a little into personal time.

Of course, all this moving from one device to another to keep up with technology would be so much easier if the devices actually talked to each other, but they don’t. The pain you have to go through in trying to transfer things from a Psion to a Palm, from a Palm to a Nokia, from a Nokia to a Blackberry or even from one Blackberry to another is quite ridiculous.

The Blackberry has remained my device of preference to this day. It deals with a lot of things reasonably well. My calendar and mail are synchronsied between device and computer, simple notes can be stored, you can get the football scores and headlines via the browser, it’s a decent phone so no need to carry two things around and it does all this in all the countries I generally visit. If I didn’t have the need for business email however, I think I’d be tempted by the iPhone, at least the next generation of iPhone when they sort the battery life and size/weight out. The iPhone does the web so much better than anything else and with all those apps it is a very neat device. The idea using one or more of the styluses you were born with (yes, apparently styli [stylii] is the wrong word for more than one stylus!) instead of an artificial one really does make sense.

All this whizzo technology might have made serious headway in the arenas of calendar and address books but it has not managed to replace the notepad so I’m still stuck with one hand in digital and the other grasping my Moleskine. There are digital devices you can carry around and type notes with, it’s just that none of them come close to the speed and freedom of expression one gets with a good old notepad and pen, at least not for me. Perhaps this will change with significant leaps in either voice recognition or software that allows you to write on an iPad (for example) in the same way you’d write in a notebook – including doodles.

Am I alone in struggling with these things?

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10 thoughts on “The never ending problem of how to record personal information.

  1. I’m gadget-resistant, so I won’t comment on the content itself, I use just a paperback calender and don’t even carry it round. My head doesn’t need a reminder yet. But I have to congratulate you on the new layout – a breath of fresh air on 20 east.

  2. Love your new layout theme and header photo–beautiful!

    I use a Franklin-Covey (Daytimer-type) called “Her POV.” It’s designed for a woman, not to sound unfeminist, but I prefer the design and font. I write lists of to-do’s right next to my computer and also physically cross things off the lists. I don’t get that satisfaction when texting lists on apps but maybe I haven’t found/used the right app.

  3. Thanks for the thumbs up on the new image! This is a new theme from WordPress, their new ‘default’ theme in fact and it’s pretty good. I’d prefer a different font and slightly smaller spacing between lines but I can live with it. The background colour can be whatever you want as plain colour or you can use a photo.

    The header image is a mix of two photos from our summer holiday last year. One of M & I on the terrace of the B&B in San Gimignano (taken by Zosia) and one of Zosia in a water taxi in Venice.

    I’m a bit of a list person myself although I generally find that after I’ve written the list I never need to refer to it again, which seems a bit silly but that’s how it is.

  4. Love the new layout and photo. My personal needs are still a simple Motorola V180 with 50minutes a month at a great price because I got the plan thru work moons ago. Still works for me. So far I haven’t had the need to switch to something different eccept to upgrade to a camera phone.
    At work we were talking about getting blackberrys to replace cell phones for our nurses so they are able to communicate more effiecently. They could be on top of their emails, new referrals and Drs orders or anything else all with one gadget. I think this will be the one they wind up with. Right now everything is at a lag stage.

    I don’t give out my cell # to work because if I am not at work or home then my time is all mine when not at either. Of course then I am not the deal maker as you Scatts where it would be morst advantages for you work wise. Does it take you away from M & Z a lot.

  5. Not as much as it could, Chris, but it does have its ups and downs. On average it is perhaps a day a week away from home. I’ve dealt with far more extensive travel but that was before I had a family.

  6. Both my wife and I would be in trouble without our iPhones. There are way too many meetings at work and stuff to do to try to remember it all. I think Paula puts everything into Outlook and then syncs it with Google Calendar and her iPhone. I’m split between entering stuff via all three, depending on where I am or what I’m doing at the time.

    We also use them a lot to look up bus schedules (Scheduler PL), occasionally the weather and a LOT for the news – mostly RSS feeds via Google Reader. I also read/write a lot of emails on my iPhone now, usually while on the bus. Oh and later in the working day, when I need to concentrate a bit and drown out the chatter, I’ll put in the ol’ earbuds.

    I’ve got loads of apps on my phone but it’s mostly the basics, though I do do a bit of trainspotting in the form of license plate-spotting (the LicensePlate app), translating stuff when Paula isn’t around via the Translator app, updating Facebook via the FB app and occasionally taking notes with the Evernote app (actually, this is another one I really like and wouldn’t want to give up). Oh and also photos. Apple’s built-in Photos app syncs up with iPhoto (VERY tight integration) so it’s good for showing pics to people that missed or ignored updates to my photos/gallery site.

  7. The hot-wax coating or however it’s called looks great. Now with the photos of happy family maybe you should propmt your wife and then Zosia to contribute to 20 east.

  8. Have been out of the loop recently but a filofax was my main stay when working as an architect and as a site manager in the UK. Just fast and handy (and if you dropped it you wouldn’t lose everything because you’d smash it).
    Presently I’m a home bod looking after our 2 year old boy so no real need for major organisation but if I was to need one I think I would stick with an analogue organiser. I hate fiddling with phone keys but they do allow for relatively quick reminder alarms. I might be nice though to have an book style phone presenting a double page touch screen that allowed free hand writing and sketching. The iPhone has some pretty amazing capabilities in the sketch department I believe though such a tiny format.

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