Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category
If you’re like me, you spend so much time typing on a computer that a good notebook or journal is one of life’s finer pleasures. I’ve kept a diary of my personal life for close to 30 years now, and I have a shelf full of journals. I’ve found a great many that I enjoy writing in, and choosing a different one each time is part of the fun.
But thus far, my quest for a notepad has been unsatisfying. Many notepads have loved me, but I’m sorry to say their love has been unrequited. I’ve tried all the usual things: Moleskine, loose-leaf paper, binders, what have you. But I never found something that is practical, functional, a joy to write on, and a pleasure to look at and hold. I just can’t settle into a long-term relationship with my notebook, because I haven’t met The Right One yet.
So, naturally, I decided to stage a giant contest amongst all the premium notebooks I could find by reading online reviews, searching the Internet, and visiting my local retailers. Read on, but I warn you, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars amassing a collection, and I’m not going to waste all that on a short blog post. And yes, there will be a winner at the end.
Before I review any of the notebooks, let me explain what I’m looking for.
The Perfect Notebook
My quest for the Holy Grail of notebooks began innocently enough when I happened to read that Kate Matsudaira is a notebook connoisseur and will only write on Semikolon Il Creativo notebooks with Uchida Le Pen pens. Intrigued, I included one of each in my next batch of “stuff” from Amazon.com. I immediately fell in love with the pens, but the notebook was much larger than I expected it to be — far too large to be practical as I travel and carry it hither and yon.
So what do I want?
- The size. It needs to be large enough to write on easily, leaving readable margins, without wasting a high percentage of the paper. It needs to be small enough to slip into a bag or hold in a hand with several other things; it should be neither bulky nor so small that it gets lost and slides to the bottom and gets all crumpled by other things.
- The proportions. Too tall and skinny is bad; too short and wide is bad. Something fairly standard is best, like the usual A* paper proportions.
- The thickness and number of pages. Enough to last a while. Not so many that it’s heavy or bulky in a messenger bag; not so many that if I lose it, a giant chunk of my life and professional notes is gone. There’s always some risk, but it needs to be balanced.
- The type of cover. Rigid, thick covers waste space and add weight, as well as being difficult to pack in a carry-on bag. Something springy and thin, but substantial enough to help with writing, is best.
- The binding. I write on both sides of the paper, and it needs to fold open easily and flat, be very durable, and not force me to write awkwardly when I’m writing in the center margin of the left-hand page. It should also not curl awkwardly when I’m near the first or the last page.
- The closure. I’m not a big fan of elastic closures; they get in the way more than they help.
- The paper quality. As I said, I write on both sides. It needs to resist bleed-through and be smooth and strong.
- The ruling. I like ruled notebooks, but can do all right with blank. If there’s ruling, it needs to be pretty narrow. Nothing wastes more paper and annoys me more than too-wide ruling. Any ruling also shouldn’t force or encourage me to leave too much of a margin.
- The index, table of contents, helper charts, page numbers, and so on. Some of these things are wonderful in moderation; a table of contents and page numbers, for example, are a delight. I can quickly index a notebook after using it, and it becomes immensely more useful for reference. Do I need 12 pages of conversion tables and timezone maps? Not really.
- The bookmarks or page markers. I prefer a silken ribbon for journals, but for notebooks I actually prefer none; my favorite is these magnetic owl page markers.
- The design. This is the most subjective and intangible thing of all. The design needs to be professional, a little bit creative, and inspiring. It should make me feel like an artist as well as an engineer. If I may stereotype for a moment, the Germans perhaps err on the side of being too mechanical, the Swiss can sometimes feel as if everything is meant to be a coffee-table conversation piece, and the Americans can be deathly boring. I want something that makes me feel light and nimble, practical, yet … a craftsman, somehow.
Is that really so much to ask?
After assessing a number of books, including some extras provided by my wonderful and resourceful wife, I’ve realized there are really three categories. Regardless of what a notebook or journal is designed for, in my mind it ends up in one of these, even if it’s supposed to be something else:
- Journals. Journals tend to have a bit larger margins, may offer fold-over magnetic covers or other clasps, and are usually mid-sized. They often have beautiful designs on the covers, but are relatively plain inside. If notebooks were coffee, these would be a latte.
- Moleskines and imitations. These come in several sizes but generally have elastic loop clasps, minimal features such as a single pocket inside the back cover, and are generally boring and middle-of-the-road in nearly every way. As coffee, these are a cup of Americano at best.
- The exceptional notebooks. These vary more widely and have a lot of personality and special features. These are espressos, macchiatos, and cappuccinos.
And now, let’s get right down to brass tacks!
Allow me to repeat the photo from before:
From the left, and roughly in order of size, these are:
- An Italian leatherette journal by Markings
- A Semikolon Il Creativo, large
- A Quo Vadis Habana
- An iPad for size perspective ;-)
- A PaperBlanks journal
- A Peter Pauper Press journal
- Another PaperBlanks journal
- A Mead Cambridge notebook
- A deconstructed journal by Studio Oh!
- A Whitelines Squared notebook
- A Clairefontaine notebook
- A Barnes & Noble journal refill
- A Leuchtturm 1917 notebook
- A Moleskine notebook
- A Chameleon Like notebook
- A Semikolon Il Creativo, small
- A (small) Chameleon Like notebook
- A teNues CoolNotes notebook
Whew! That’s a lot of reviewing to do. I’ll go through them [mostly] in order. I’ve uploaded hi-resolution photos; click on thumbnails to see the bigger picture. In some cases I’ve linked through to Amazon, when a product is available there. Some others I never buy online, or can’t find online, although you may be able to find them if you search. You can see more photos of the notebooks there. I’ve focused mostly on the inside of the books, but there are good photos online of the exterior too.
Italian leatherette journal by Markings
This is a wonderful journal that I’m going to enjoy filling up. Though the design is understated, and I tend to like some eye candy on my journals, the cover is supple and has a suede feel, and there are enough pages to be a good journal. (Unlike my notebooks, I like a diary to last a good while.) The paper is smooth and heavy, the ruling and margins are nice, and overall it feels great.
As a notebook, I can’t really use it. It’s too large, too thick, and too heavy to carry around. The teacup in the photo is a bit oversized, so it is actually a bit larger than it looks.
192 pages, 10.25 x 7.5 x .75 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Target for $12.99.
Semikolon Il Creativo, large
This is the notebook that started this whole quest. It’s perhaps the most “designed” of all of them, with an elaborate perpetual calendar on every page in German, French, and English. It also has several pages of table of contents and calendar overview at the front, and sheets of stickers and labels are included. I immediately wanted to label everything in sight. The notebook made me feel like putting my whole life in order, and I knew I’d feel great about it if I did.
The main problem is that it’s way too big for me to carry around. I want something a lot slimmer, to start with. The cover is nice and flexible, and there are other nice features, but I can’t get past the bulk. I also have a gripe with the ruling, which is too wide. I’m forced to write way too spaced-out, or to write two lines per rule, which is annoying and cramped.
The paper is a bit coarse, almost ridged, and I am pretty sure that this texture is intentional. It should be great for pencils, but is not as good for the pens that I use.
This notebook is designed for notes, but I’ll use it as a journal. I wonder if I’ll write less about emotional things and dreams, and more about analytical things?
304 pages, 10 x 7.75 x 1.0 inches. Rule width: .375 inches. Bought at Amazon for $14.97.
Quo Vadis Habana
This notebook is a big step down in size and bulk from the previous two. It’s a much more practical size to carry around, and it has the best cover of all of them, in my opinion. The cover isn’t quite rigid; it’s flexible enough not to be annoying and uncomfortable in a thin bag with other things crammed in. The paper is top-notch quality — silky smooth and creamy. The corners are rounded, which is always appreciated in a notebook. And, the notebook and the paper are made in the USA, from certified sustainable forests.
The ruling might extend a little too close to the margins, but although the book doesn’t open completely flat, it comes very close; close enough that there shouldn’t be a problem with the margins.
All in all, a very nice notebook, and one of the top contenders for certain.
160 pages, 6.375 x 9.625 x .625 inches. Rule width: .222 inches. Bought at Amazon for $20.99.
These are my favorite journals. They have a ribbon marker, a magnetic clasp cover, a huge variety of beautiful cover designs to choose from, and they’re easy to find at Barnes & Noble. I’ve probably bought over a dozen of these. It’s great when there’s a sale; I’ll buy several at a time.
The paper isn’t quite as nice as I’d want in a notebook, but it’s great for journaling. It is slightly rough. The journals are plain inside, with no decorations, and a small note on the inside cover about the pattern reproduced on the outside. For example, I’m currently writing in the one shown closed, and this cover is inspired by a Persian Safavid-style design from centuries ago.
I wouldn’t use these for note-taking. They’re a little too bulky, the ruling is a little too wide, and the covers are too rigid.
288 pages, 9 x 7 x .875 inches. Rule width: .318 inches. Bought at Barnes & Noble for $18.95.
Peter Pauper Press journal
This journal is certainly in the same class as the PaperBlanks journals. It’s about the same size, and also has beautiful art on the cover; in this case, a Van Gogh. The paper is a little heavier, and there’s no clasp to hold the cover shut. It has slightly fewer pages and is a little thinner.
192 pages, 9 x 7.5 x .75 inches. Rule width: .318 inches. Bought at Amazon for $13.49.
Mead Cambridge notebook
This notebook is a great find, in my opinion. It’s a good size, is thin and flexible with a semi-rigid cover, has trimmed corners to avoid dog-earing, and has nice paper. It’s all business, but is just sophisticated enough to feel good, too.
As you can see, I’ve chosen a variant that has an extra column on the right for notes to be set aside. I’m going to give this a try because I often find myself going back and cramming cross-references or additional information into the margins. There is a variant without this extra column, however.
The ruling is a nice width — just right for me. The color might be a little too dark, though. It could be lighter, or even use light dots, like a signature line, and it’d be nicer in my opinion.
The downsides: the binding doesn’t quite open flat, though it comes very close, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be all that durable, though the notepad is thin enough that it shouldn’t have a long heavy-duty life to wear it out. The ruling doesn’t have any margin in the center of the binding. This might seem like a nitpick, but without that guide I find myself cramming my pen into the crevice when writing on the left page, and having trouble with an even left-margin when writing on the right page.
All in all, one of the top choices for a notebook, due to its design, practical size, and low price.
160 pages, 8.625 x 6.75 x .4375 inches. Rule width: .220 inches. Bought at Target for $8.95.
Deconstructed journal by Studio Oh!
This journal is perhaps the most versatile of the notebooks and journals I’ve shown here, because it could easily be a very respectable notebook as well. Its binding is the most attention-grabbing feature. Take a look:
The journal opens absolutely flat, without a hint of resistance. This is the flattest-opening notebook I’ve ever seen. Will the binding hold up? On close inspection, it does seem pretty well-bound. I suspect it’ll last.
The cover is quite rigid, the corners are rounded, the paper is silky and smooth though perhaps a bit thin, and overall it feels really nice. The only points against it, as far as a notebook, are the ruling width and the stiff covers. It’s also a little heavy, now that I think about it. Still, it’ll easily be a great journal, and could be a very nice notebook too.
192 pages, 8.625 x 6.5 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Amazon for $13.85; also available from Barnes & Noble.
Whitelines Squared notebook
This premium-quality notebook has a really unusual feature: instead of white paper with dark lines, it has slightly gray paper with white lines. The idea is that this is less distracting and will glare and contrast less, and that what you write will stand out, rather than conflicting with the lines. I chose a “graph paper” or grid, instead of a lined/ruled notebook.
It’s a nice size (A5, perfect!), has really nice paper, and is made with a C02-neutral process. It’s sharply designed and utilitarian, with a black cover that has a single orange horizontal stripe. There’s no arguing that it’s not a high-end notebook.
The downsides? The cover is rigid, and the corners are squared instead of rounded. The binding doesn’t open flat; in fact, it doesn’t really even come close, and this will be a nuisance. Although the white-lined feature seems nice, I wish it didn’t extend all the way to the edge of the paper. The grid feature does give some guidance for margins, but I foresee myself getting greedy in the margins accidentally.
I’m going to have to say that a couple of the others are nicer, because of their binding and ruling with margins.
200 pages, 8.5 x 6 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .197 inches. Bought at Amazon for $11.95.
This notebook is practical and functional, with a plain black cover that’s flexible, and rounded corners. Inside there’s no decoration or jazz; just basic, plain ruled paper.
The paper, though, is a highlight. This is Clairefontaine’s famous high-quality paper, and I’ve used it before. It’s really nice quality.
The notebook is also a great size: not too thick, not too large (A5 again), easy to carry.
Downside? There are no margins, and the ruling is wide for my taste. The binding doesn’t open as flat as I’d like. Still, a very good choice for a notebook.
192 pages, 8.125 x 5.875 x .4375 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Amazon for $10.99.
Barnes & Noble journal refill
I grabbed this journal refill from the shelves at B/N for one reason: it’s simple and inexpensive. It’s designed to replace the interior of some kind of journal, I’m not sure what exactly. The paper is a high-quality Italian ivory, and the cover is heavy card stock. The binding opens very flat, more so than many of the notebooks I’ve mentioned above.
On the downside, the corners are not rounded, and there is a decoration at the bottom of each page, which shouts out “journal!” and not “professional notes!” Still, it’s a better choice for notes than some of the notepads I’ve bought.
224 pages, 8.25 x 5.75 x .625 inches. Rule width: .26 inches. Bought at Barnes & Noble for $7.95.
Leuchtturm 1917 notebook
This Leuchtturm 1917 notebook has a very analytical, practical feel. It has some great standout features, too, such as page numbers on every page, and the paper is obviously good quality. It also has some nice additions, such as stickers for labeling and archiving, and the binding is very nice, although it doesn’t quite open flat easily.
Other than the added touches such as page numbers and high-quality paper, you could easily mistake it for a Moleskine if you weren’t a notebook snob. The cover is plain black, with a bit more flex than a Moleskine cover, rounded corners (and the pages are rounded too). As soon as you open it and examine it, though, you see why their motto is “details make all the difference.” It’s obviously a step up in quality from a Moleskine. For example, although the ruling is essentially the same in design and width, it’s much lighter than the Moleskine’s obtrusive, coarse rules.
249 pages, 5.75 x 8.25 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .236 inches. Bought at Amazon for $15.99.
Ah, Moleskine, how we love to love you and pay a premium for you. Yet you’re so… boring. Your paper isn’t all that great, your cover is uninspiring, your heavy ruling goes all the way across the page with no margin, your elastic droops and sags. You are the girl next door, and goodness knows why you’ve gotten a reputation for being the beauty queen, because you’re not the best girl to take to the prom.
On the other hand, Moleskine notebooks are perfectly functional, with a nice binding, and lots of adoring fans can’t all be all wrong, can they?
240 pages, 8.25 x 5.25 x .625 inches. Rule width: .236 inches. Bought at Amazon for $15.41.
Chameleon Like medium notebook
This is essentially another Moleskine look-alike, although it’s a size smaller and has a tan cover instead of black. The binding is actually nicer, though the paper is not as nice. Overall, nothing remarkable to see here.
It’s at this size and form factor that the notebooks definitely start to get too small for me. A small, rigid notebook like this isn’t the easiest thing to carry or write on, and you end up wasting a lot of space unless you cram your writing really close to the edges of the pages, which makes everything unpleasant.
192 pages, 7 x 5 x .625 inches. Rule width: .278 inches. Source: freebie at a conference, though apparently they can be had for about $4.99.
Semikolon Il Creativo notebook
This is the small version of the large Il Creativo mentioned above. When I saw that the large one was too big for me, I tried to buy a medium one, but it was unavailable from any sellers I could find, so I tried the small one. Unfortunately, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this one is Really Too Small. It’s cramped to write in. It’s just as thick and blocky as the large size. It has too many pages. And it has that annoyingly wide ruling.
I wanted to like it. But I just can’t. I wish I’d been able to get a medium-sized one, but frankly I wouldn’t have enjoyed it all that much either. Alas!
304 pages, 5.625 x 4.375 x 1 inch. Rule width: .375 inches. Bought at Amazon for $8.37.
Small Chameleon Like notebook
This is just the smaller version of the above Chameleon Like notebook. Way too small for my taste.
teNues CoolNotes notebook
Ditto — this notebook is another mini-Moleskine-lookalike.
Do you want a journal? I think you can hardly go wrong with the Peter Pauper or the PaperBlanks. The Studio Oh! is a great choice too, especially because it’s actually a nicer grade of book and is a little less pricey. It isn’t as beautiful, though. On the larger side, the Markings leatherette is a hefty journal that will last a long time, though it’s plain too. And if you want a journal that screams “Swiss watch designer’s journal!” then maybe you’d like the Semikolon Il Creativo.
Do you want a Moleskine? Then buy one. Do you want something like it but better quality? Then get the Leuchtturm, hands down. It’s easily the nicest thing in the Moleskine class. I also like the Clairefontaine a lot, and if you’re looking for something a little different, you might like the Whitelines.
Do you want a big, bulky, analytical notebook? That’s the Semikolon Il Creativo for you again. Organize thyself!
But if you’re like me and you really want a compact, flexible, practical notebook that slips easily into a messenger bag, opens flat, has nice paper, is slim and inexpensive — then I’m leaning towards recommending the Quo Vadis Habana or the Mead Cambridge Premium Notebook, depending on your taste. Note that I can’t find the Cambridge online, but if you’re near a Target it’s probably easy to find. I might go back and buy a half dozen or so, just in case that turns out not to be true!
In general, the ultimate notebook for me is 80-100 sheets of paper or 160-200 pages (I’ve listed pages above, to make everything consistent), an A5 size, and has pretty minimal features — no need for a ribbon or an elastic strap — just nice-quality paper, a slim and flexible design, and the right ruling and margins.
This is a follow-up to my last post, in which I asserted that without free software and hardware, privacy is impossible. Suppose we have trustworthy, free hardware and software. What else is needed to thwart efforts to monitor our everyday behavior on a massive scale?
Let’s look only at one activity that’s currently being monitored: email. How can we make email less vulnerable to prying eyes?
Technology to encrypt email between ordinary citizens (PGP, OpenPGP, and GnuPG) has existed for years, and in a form strong enough to frustrate any known attempts at decryption. The encrypted emails can be decrypted, but it requires a brute-force effort of computing, which would take far too long with available computers.
But if you and I use this technology right now to encrypt our communications, we’ll actually make ourselves more interesting targets. That’s partially because we’d be among the few people doing so. Have you ever noticed that nothing draws attention like whispering in a public place? I don’t know what proportion of ordinary email between everyday people is encrypted, but if pressed, I’d guess it’s fewer than one email in 50,000. That’s an extraordinarily strong signal to authorities looking for needles in the haystack of Internet activity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA has large-scale brute-force encryption-cracking clusters dedicated to forcibly decrypting the few encrypted emails that wend their way around the Internet.
But what if everyone sent encrypted email? Then it wouldn’t be remarkable. Those little hi hon, do you need me to pick up groceries on the way home? emails I send would be as common as more weighty ones. Brute-forcing may be feasible on a small scale, but I doubt that even un-guessed-at techniques and availability of powerful computers could brute-force decryption on the scale of the whole of the Internet’s email. The NSA, unable to determine whose emails to decrypt, would have to settle for snooping on a smaller scale, or giving up.
What would it take for everyone to use encryption in their emails? It is practically impossible, and thus certainly won’t happen, unless all email software makes it the default behavior. And since most people use email software from companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google, this will not happen. Even if these companies wanted to make such software encrypt-by-default, I am absolutely certain that they would be secretly barred from doing so. (Plus, as I’ve said in my earlier article, their software would not be trustworthy and we’d be spied upon in other ways. Why spy on email software when you can spy on the whole operating system?)
Email encryption would also have to be a lot simpler and more automatic. Most computer users, in my opinion, can’t understand the concepts of public and private key pairs, how to generate them, how to exchange them, how to know if another person’s key should be trusted, and so on. Even HTTPS is baffling to most computer users — and the only thing they’re exposed to is their browser’s address bar and the presence or absence of a lock icon, a much simpler thing to understand. Yet a majority of people still get it wrong and expose themselves to phishing attacks, viruses, and other scams. This is not a criticism of them; it’s a criticism of the technology. Security technology is way, way too hard for everyday people to use. Thus we’ll never have mass encryption unless something fundamentally changes in how we do it.
Even if we had mass adoption of encryption, there are a couple of things that would make it easier for the NSA to continue spying on us. Once they decrypt one message, they’d have the key to decrypt future emails to that same recipient. So over time they’d be able to snoop on more and more people. Encryption keys would have to be rotated regularly to frustrate this. For this, and other technological reasons, absolutely everything would have to “just work” without any need for manual configuration or intervention. If a human has to do something like rotate an encryption key, it won’t happen. Anyone experienced with backups knows what I mean.
The other is that only the body of the email message is encrypted. The subject, sender, recipient, IP addresses, and a surprising variety of other data would be unprotected. This is too much for my comfort. It’s essentially equivalent to the so-called metadata they’ve been collecting from Verizon, for example (caller, callee, time of call, and so on).
The bottom line is that we are using technologies such as email that were never designed to be resistant to the snooping now occurring. Email encryption is a bolt-on afterthought. It’s not feasible society-wide, by default, for all users; and on a smaller scale, it helps identify interesting snoop-worthy targets. And thus there’s really nothing we can do that will make government monitoring of email impossible.
In a future post I’ll broaden this topic beyond email.
The recent revelations about the NSA’s wide-ranging surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike has spurred a lot of outcry. Of course, some people are crying for legal solutions, but there’s absolutely no chance of any present or future elected official changing or stopping it (it’s already completely illegal and always has been, so more laws can do nothing but poke loopholes in existing laws forbidding surveillance).
We’re on a road that leads to only one place: total, absolute government monitoring of everything we do — and thus, to some extent, control of everything we do. I’m not a conspiracy theorist or right-wing nutcase. It’s just a simple fact that any reasoning person should be able to deduce from a little objective examination of history and a smidgen of logic.
This is really serious. We are (and have been for years) hovering on the brink of a sudden plunge towards a truly Orwellian society, with progress heading that direction pretty steadily. What are you going to do about it?
The only way to stop surveillance is to encrypt things and make surveillance impossible. Not just impossible for some people. It needs to be impossible for everyone, which means it has to be based on math that’s essentially unsolvable (this is how encryption works). If they can do it, they will do it.
The only way to make decryption impossible is with encryption and decryption systems that are designed to have no possibility of central control. If there is any kind of central control or access to the system, your government will seize that and use it.
The only way to trust those kinds of systems is for them to be made wholly of open-source, free software. No amount of proprietary-ness or obscurity brings security. This is because if there’s any type of hidden or secret knowledge about how to use or build the system, someone has an advantage, and that advantage will be held by those who shouldn’t have it.
The only way to trust the software is if it’s running on trustworthy hardware. You can run the highest encryption you wish, but you can’t read what’s on your screen unless your computer’s hardware and software decrypt it to show it to you. That means that your computer’s software and hardware has access to the decrypted information. And if there’s any back door in the hardware, it’s untrustworthy and will be exploited.
This is why I continue to be a Free Software Foundation member. Vote with your wallet and join the FSF today. It’s a tiny organization with fewer than twenty staff who’ve made an incalculable difference in your freedom today. Without the FSF I have no doubt we’d already be significantly further down the road to the total monitoring and control of normal citizens’ everyday lives.
I’ll end this post with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. – Fourth Amendment, US Constitution
That amendment was written for damn good reasons based on horrific abuses of power by governments through the ages. Think about it.