Happiness is a blank page

For a while (through grad schools and for several years afterward) I took notes and wrote calculations on loose printer paper. In theory, I would collect the notes into folders, or maybe even punch holes and collect them into binders; realistically, I would always lose them.

Then I thought I would start using notebooks. I went to the corner Walgreens wanting to buy a notebook which would be spiral-bound and with blank pages. Spiral-bound because it always stays open flat and it’s easy to tear off pages, and with blank pages because I cannot write math on ruled paper. It turns out that this was an extravagant demand: all notebooks were ruled. I searched some more, to the same conclusion, and then started using “sketchbooks,” which have plain paper and spiral binding, but have heavy, rough, paper meant for drawing.

Then, one day, hanging out in Japantown waiting for a movie to start at the Kabuki theater during a film festival, I found my dream notebook at the Kinokuniya stationery store. Spiral (actually, “double ring”) bound, with thin, smooth and very white paper, and a beautiful cover design. I bought one, and went to the theater, but it was still too early and we had to stand in line for a while. So I took out the notebook and started thinking about the problem I was working on at the time. And right then and there, I had the main idea in the analysis of one of the algorithms in what later became my paper on approximation algorithms for unique games.

So, I kept buying them, until Kinokuniya stopped carrying them, and now there is nearly no trace of them of the internet. (If you want to try look it up yourselves, it’s the “Expedient” notebook made by Kyokuto ltd., in China.)

I thought I was being a little “peculiar” in being so difficult about what to write on, until I talked about it to other theoreticians, and then I found out that there are many people who, in fact, like to write on unmarked paper and can’t understand why the option is so hard to find in America.

As a happy ending, I was out of town for New Year’s Eve, and I happened into a Muji store. It turns out Muji sells plain-paper notebooks with double-ring binding, and while they don’t look as neat as the Expedient ones, they are just fine, and cheap, and now I have four of them, on which I hope to prove lots of new theorems this coming Winter and Spring quarters. Wish me luck!

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13 thoughts on “Happiness is a blank page

  1. Agree with that. Blank pages are the best option make notes about subjects wich involve maths, graphs, and so on. They just give us enough “freedom”, I think.
    Lately, I have been making some sort of “customized notebooks”: I buy a package of blank sheet and pay to get them spiral-bound. It´s simple, cheap and functional.

  2. Wow, great find. I too have been searching for the perfect note taking material, though I usually settle for light engineering paper. I’ll definitely have to give these a try.

    P.S. Good luck!

  3. I agree about blank being best. What I usually use is a ring binder. I take discarded paper (that still has one side blank) from next to the school’s printers, perforate it at the library and stick it in the binder. When I’m done with some set of related pages, I take them out, staple them and store them elsewhere. I’ve refilled the binder with free paper often enough to offset the initial expense of it, so my solution is probably cheaper than yours. (Plus, I hate to see paper used only on one side, but I don’t like writing on both sides myself.)

  4. I can’t write anything on ruled paper, but I haven’t seen any blank notebooks in any of the local stores here. I stick to printer paper, plastic paper bags (don’t know the word in English) and a couple of folders. It works fine so far, the only thing I’ve lost is a P=NP proof. OK, it might have been an undergraduate homework assigment. And it might have been lost in the sense that I did not write it. Anyway, printer paper works for me.

  5. IMHO these are indeed the best notebooks. It’s not easy to get these in the UK either:-( They are rarely in WHSmith stores, but fortunately sometimes in Ryman stores.

  6. Hmm, isn’t Berkeley on a semester system?

    I use blank pages, and actually do organize them, at least by year and frequently by subject. I also scan these every couple years, so in theory I can throw away my notes to save space. (That hasn’t happened.)

  7. Hmm, isn’t Berkeley on a semester system?

    I think this is what David was referring to as a “subtle way to announce a new beginning”.

  8. Sam, writing on loose pages and then organizing and scanning them is good, but so is going to the gym and eating more vegetables. I would never have the discipline to do that.

  9. OMG :D

    You should know how that sounds for a ‘normal’ person. Just big LOL.
    Certainly qualifies for a comedy episode.

    Cheers and hope there will be time when Expedient-like notebooks will be available in a regular newspaper stand :)

  10. Although they’re *not* cheap, by far the best notebooks (IMHO!) are the bright-yellow Rite-In-The-Rain brand.

    It’s their paper quality is extraordinary — polyester fiber paper that is absolutely 100% waterproof. No field biologist uses any other type of notebook. Neither will you, after you try one!

    Rite-In-The-Rain’s immense catalog includes pretty much whatever size/binding you prefer. Bonus: Rite-In-The-Rain covers are color-coordinated with Springer’s “Yellow Books” :)

  11. >>Sam, writing on loose pages and then organizing and scanning them is
    >>good, but so is going to the gym and eating more vegetables. I would
    >>never have the discipline to do that.

    I had similar problems. So I just switched to an electronic pen + pad, where I can put any kind of (e.g., blank) paper and write (with a regular ink refill). I don’t have to worry about binding the papers together or arranging them in any way: I can throw them away, and just upload their electronic version to my computer, which means I can access them everywhere!

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