Moleskines Redux

Moleskin ® redux

Of course, I claim a lot of the credit for this decade-long trend Why Startups Love Moleskines: 

“The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.”

I have returned to Moleskines recently, partly because I realised I have a cupboard full of them, and partly because of exactly this problem: there’s no digital equivalent experience. 

  • easier to conceptualise on paper
  • you can doodle when the speaker is waffling; those doodles embellish, even turn it into Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes
  • you can whip it out in places where an electronic device would be weird, or rude, or impractical;
  • there’s a natural timeline to your thoughts
  • there’s something sensual about having a pen in your hands and holding a notebook
  • pen and moleskine focus your thoughts and attention
  • the cost of the book acts as a brake on mindless note taking (writing stuff down without really thinking why) 
  • no mindmap software has ever really improved the mindmapping experience. 
There’s probably more to it. But maybe the point is that this isn’t a fad. People have been using these in the geeky community for more than a decade, suggesting that they have established themselves as a viable tool. Being able to easily digitise them — for saving, or processing, as I did this morning with a chart I sketched out which my graphics colleague wanted to poach from — is a bonus, and saves us from the fear of losing our work. 

(Via.Newley Purnell)

A Moleskine Covered

I’ve written about Moleskine notebooks before, which was why Arthur of Renaissance Art handcrafted leather notebooks wrote to me about his Moleskine Journal covers:

About 8 years ago I went shopping for a journal and could find nothing I liked. So, I sat in the aisles of Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores every nite after work educating myself about how to make books. A few months later I started making my own. Then my hip arthritis made me unable to do my job so I started selling the books I made to supplement my unemployment check. We now sell all over the world from our website, www.renaissance-art.com and employ a few other artists in our studio where we make all of our things. We recently started to make leather covers for the moleskine journals, I saw your blog and here I am writing you.

I also met my life and business partner, Kristel, online. She was in Antwerp at the time. So, in a very real way, technology and the internet have radically changed my life.

Interesting story. Of course, folk may argue the Moleskine covers are plenty nice and tough already, but it’s a nice, personalizing touch. The covers range from $20 to $39, and Arthur offers a discount if you buy the Moleskine itself from him too:

We offer 3 different Moleskine Leather Cover styles: Traditional, Wrap and Tie and our Snap closure which is the one shown above. Two of the covers include pen loops. The pen loops may be ordered in one of 3 different sizes, depending on the the thickness of the pen you prefer to use.

Jim’s Answer To The Moleskine

My friend Jim was passing through town the other day, and we compared Moleskines. Or rather, I brought out my immaculate Moleskine and he brought out a black pile of something or other. I asked him to tell me about it in response to a comment from someone about the benefits of the Moleskine pocket on an earlier post. Jim posted his comments here but I reproduce them here in full, along with pictures:

To add to the great debate, Moleskin versus Miquelrius.

My qualifications, in brief, included 14 years in journalism, consulting, peacekeeping and roaming the world for other NGOs and international organizations. As a shorthand writer as well as one time foreign correspondent and official diplomatic notetaker, I think the old fashioned paper notebook is more reliable, in the long run, and less intimidating. It can transition gracefully from presidential palace to remote village. It doesn’t get crushed, run out of batteries or attract attention. Wrap it in a Zip Loc bag and its waterproof.

While I like the Moleskine’s “high end” features such as the strap, pagemarker and back pocket useful, it has drawbacks. The Moleksin has less volume, therefore I use one every three months as compared to a Miquelrius every eight months, even with extensive notetaking. This means the Moleskin is less useful as a portable archive.

Size does matter, but the Miqquelrius is still small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (open)

The Moleskine is also more expensive, so using them more frequently adds to the cost.

It is narrower more difficult to do good shorthand. The width also limits your ability to sketch and draw, everything from organigrams to the scenery.

My solution? Improvise with the Miquelrius to get something just right. Add a small envelope to the back. I use left over wedding RSVP envelopes:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook pocket #3

I generally use two green elastic bands for section dividers. I picked those up wrapped around my vegetables from Trader Joes. The elastic bands the postman leaves behind also work:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (wide)

Pages can also be marked with Post-It Flags, paper clips and regular Post-It Notes folded back into the page you last used. My pictured notebook has been around the world a few times, including to a few remote African and Indonesian villages. It looks a bit tattered by the time you get it back to Washington, but I reckon there is nothing better for your “street cred” as a guy who knows what’s going on in the field than walking into a meeting with a weathered notebook.

Thanks, Jim.

Moleskine Art, And A Backlash?

Just had a chance to visit the Moleskine Art exhibition in Hong Kong’s Times Square (a rather impoverished version of the original, the huge outdoor screen blaring trash across the concourse being the focal point).

Anyway, a modest exhibition in the basement, in one glass case in the shop. But nicely done by enthusiast Patrick Ng, and a true window on what people can do with their Moleskine notebooks. Here are some terrible photos I took with my cellphone of some of the exhibits (some much better pictures can be found here):

Jak0310(34)

Jak0310(35)

Jak0310(33)

Anyway, I’m probably biased because I interviewed him, but my money is on Mike Rohde, who does some lovely sketches in his:

Copy 1 of Jak0310(31)

Ironically, I left the shop buying some pens and a very, very cheap (HK$9) Chinese notebook. The paper’s cheap, the binding’s poor, there’s no pocket, no bookmark, but it’ll probably do for my sub-par thoughts, for now, given it’s less than 10% of the cost of a Moleskine and Hong Kong ain’t a cheap city to live in:

Jak0310(36)

Is this the start of the Moleskine Backlash?

The Moleskine Without The Skine (Or The Mole, For That Matter)

From Jason Kottke, a simpler version of the Moleskine: My analog Palm Pilot, a piece of 8.5×11 paper, folded twice.

That way, when I need to look up a phone number or jot down an address, I don’t have to get out a notebook, my computer, or hunt around for a piece of scrap paper. And it won’t ever get stolen like a cell phone or handheld might.

The Moleskine Multi-Tab Hack

I’ve been experimenting a bit with the excellent Moleskine hack suggested by Jerry Brito for adding Getting Things Done tabs to the notebook. Jerry divides the book into five sections — next actions, projects list, someday maybe list, article ideas, and notes — which I found wasn’t enough for the messed up life I seem to be leading at the moment. I have never quite succumbed to David Allen’s world, and found I preferred to add stuff to specific places, so that I could easily re-read them and follow up on them. So I added sub tabs, which sounds confusing, but isn’t. Well, perhaps it is.

Dsc01638

The basic idea is that there are five main divisions, or colours: Tech (anything tech related, subdivided into notes, ideas for columns or posts, expenses, dealing with the Editor), Personal (moving house, getting married, diary, that kind of thing), Action (the to do stuff, from Now to my Big Picture stuff, which I call 30,000 feet), Dump (anything, from phone numbers to words I want to Google at some point) and Book (for a book I’m writing). Each section is a colour, each subdivision is a tab — actually those sticky labels that are a cross between Post-Its and book markers (which seem to come in five colours anyway).

Now the Moleskine was already in use when I started playing with this, so I found myself just adding the label to wherever I had started one of these lists in the book. I found it better to only allow the tab labels to protrude slightly from the edge of the page, thus:

Dsc01644

To make it easy to find stuff I numbered every right hand page (which takes you up to about 100 in a normal Moleskine) and then used the first page that falls open — the first double page — as an index:

Dsc01643

I know this all sounds kinda messy. But it seems to work. Having the colour coded tabs dotted over a 100–page spread actually makes them easier to find, because it’s very easy to estimate the page you need to jump to — 45 is about half way through, 79 is towards the end, etc. Sure you need to use the index, at least to start with, but I found I quickly got the hang of it. If you liked you could write on the tabs to identify them more easily.

I’m sure this won’t work for lots of people. And one could easily argue that all this extra complexity takes away the simple beauty of a Moleskine. I would probably agree, but this seems to work for me, at least for now.

The Moleskine Report, Part V

Further to my postings and column on the Moleskine notebook, here’s one final emai linterview with Patrick Ng, Hong Kong-based host of the upcoming Moleskine Art competition. I reproduce it in its entirely because Patrick has a very fresh and direct way of articulating the problem, and the solution:

There is currently no substitute for pen and paper: Unless the electronics industry goes drastically into certain new direction or comes up with new new inventions, the situation won’t change for me coz I’ve been there.

It all goes back to the “pleasure of writing”. I won’t mention the age before my Sharp IQ-800 but I was a Newton MP user and the webmaster of Hong Kong Newton User Group, Newton drew me because of the stylus and the proximity of true writing and the promise of merging traditional scribbling with digital connectivity. When Newton went dead, most switched to Palm including me. Palm didn’t give me the same “true writing” feeling. Believing that the future is digital, I switched to Psion, Treo and now Blackberry. And all of a sudden, I found that there are too many variables in the playground:

ever changing models -> upgrade or lost data in predictable 6 months because new features are there, old features won’t be supported, I feel very uneasy.
– switching to new gadget -> all the hassle to export/import data -> decide which contact you want to delete due to limited storage or different format -> fax number became mobile phone number etc. In addition, if you use a Mac, sometimes you have to buy more software so that you can export/import or sync properly. Hassle. – PC card, flash or hard disk now have longer life span, but your device stores them in particular format, putting them into other devices won’t save your data unless you do export/import. Isn’t it extremely volatile?
– Run on built-in battery -> carry charger all the time

Simply said, it is too much to put everything into a PDA and rely on one device for everything, we are far from there yet, as I said, unless there is a drastic change or new new invention. You simply think you needed to store all those information, because it is so powerful, but by doing so you increased a lot of the hassle forgetting that PDA is to help you tackle the tasks on hand, right here right now. People compare their PDA by how much new tricks they can do, ask them “do you take notes or to-do list on it?” I bet most would say “it can”.

For me, “pleasure of writing”, scribble freely and under my control, show the notes under sunlight to 3-4 people at the same time, fax, copy, scan, print…. everything is so readily available to support me and my little notebook.

Notebook: Click your pen, write.
PDA: Switch on PDA, pull out the stylus, go to program, File-new, scribble, File-save (maybe auto now). Hassle. Further, I remember where to look for my previous notes by visual memory and flipping. On a PDA you need to rely on the search function, you simply cannot search for scribbles. Now, what if I want to print out that scribble? Do I use connection cable to sync first, or find a printer that support infra-red printing, or connect through bluetooh or wireless network…. Do I need that many options to simple duplicate something I wrote? Most things I needed to jot are short and to the point and temporary, there really is no need to use an electronic device to do that.

All I need to attend day to day mobile tasks are really simple: take notes and followup. I do carry my very useful Blackberry and send/receive email anywhere I feel comfortable including dozens of business trips around the world. That fulfilled my immediate purpose also. The rest of my digital life is Mac.

My Mobile Suit Schedule: Moleskine weekly diary 2005 Notes taking: Moleskine pocket size blank notebook Email/Phone#: Blackberry Word/Excel/Presentation/OfficeNetwork: Powerbook 12″

On top of the above, I love to put things down on paper artistically, especially my thoughts and feelings and dreams. The texture of paper, the way ink or paint behave differently on paper, the millions of possible ways to use one page…. these aspects seems irreplaceable by digital. So after over 10 years of struggle with digital devices, I came back to pen and paper for certain tasks and personal enjoyment, and digital for the inevitable.

Finally, I thought of using CrossPad (IO Pen’s previous incarnation?) but that too added hassle more than practical. So: 1. PDA industry is completely wrong in trying to put everything into one device, people need cup to drink, camera to shoot, movie to go…. not one monster. 2. Merging of paper and digital. I heard that a new class of display in the form of thin film should be out very soon, but the “pleasure of writing” element is still really not there. Besides, nobody steal notebook and I can lose it and replace it pretty easily. 3. Magazine digital. I subscribe to Zinio for MacWorld, PCMagazine and Harvard Business review. It is good that I can archive all issues digitally in perfect condition, but I do sometimes buy hardcopy of Harvard Business Review for my business trip airplane, toilet, hotel reading pleasure.

Thanks, Patrick. And for those of you interested, there’s still a couple of weeks to submit your entry for his art competion.

More On The Moleskine Alternative

I just heard back from someone in the Scottish company that makes the Alwych notebook, an alternative to the Moleskine, which I posted about a few days back. Ian J Johnstone of the J. R. Reid Print & Media Group Limited (careful: the link doesn’t seem to work well outside IE) kindly emailed back a bit of background on the company’s notebook, which I pass on here for those of you looking for an alternative to the Moleskine:

We have supplied these notebooks for many years. Their unique selling point is the “All Weather Cover” which has made them popular with many individuals and organisations which require a durable notebook that can stand up to life outdoors. We supply them to, among others, the British Armed Forces and the British Antartic Expedition and, as you mentioned in your e-mail Michael Palin is a fan – and our unpaid ambassador – mentioning them wherever he goes to talk about his adventures! We always know where he is in the world from the internet orders he generates for us.

The book comes in various sizes and internal layouts. We sell lots of Alwych Books to Bird Watchers, who use them to record sightings and often to sketch birds, Fishermen, to record their catches and Archeologists, for recording their findings at “digs”. We are currently developing a “Super Alwych” which will address our customers desire for a fully waterproof notebook and we hope to launch this book in the second half of 2005.

So there you have it. I don’t see any specific reference on Palin’s site to the Alwych, although the keyword ‘notebook’ throws up some interesting little nuggets, like this one from Dhaka, Bangladesh:

When I get out my notebook, a curious crowd presses against me. The Lonely Planet Guide devotes a whole column to ‘Staring’: ‘The Western concept of privacy is not a part of the culture in Bangladesh,’ it warns, and I can see what they mean. I find it as much comical as threatening, as 20 or more people all peer over my shoulder to try and see what I’m writing in a very small book. When I stop writing, all eyes turn to my face, watching expectantly. When I resume, they go back to the book, following every line and curve with the utmost concentration.

I like the look of the Alwych though I haven’t tried using one yet. It’s without the band and pocket, and the All Weather Cover is bendy, if that’s not getting too technical. It’s also slightly taller than a Moleskine, as I’ve compared here:

Dsc01649

Anyway, definitely worth trying out if everyone on your block has a Moleskine and you want to look different. Are there any other candidates out there?

 

The Moleskine Multi-Tab Hack

I’ve been experimenting a bit with the excellent Moleskine hack suggested by Jerry Brito for adding Getting Things Done tabs to the notebook. Jerry divides the book into five sections — next actions, projects list, someday maybe list, article ideas, and notes — which I found wasn’t enough for the messed up life I seem to be leading at the moment. I have never quite succumbed to David Allen’s world, and found I preferred to add stuff to specific places, so that I could easily re-read them and follow up on them. So I added sub tabs, which sounds confusing, but isn’t. Well, perhaps it is.

Dsc01638

The basic idea is that there are five main divisions, or colours: Tech (anything tech related, subdivided into notes, ideas for columns or posts, expenses, dealing with the Editor), Personal (moving house, getting married, diary, that kind of thing), Action (the to do stuff, from Now to my Big Picture stuff, which I call 30,000 feet), Dump (anything, from phone numbers to words I want to Google at some point) and Book (for a book I’m writing). Each section is a colour, each subdivision is a tab — actually those sticky labels that are a cross between Post-Its and book markers (which seem to come in five colours anyway).

Now the Moleskine was already in use when I started playing with this, so I found myself just adding the label to wherever I had started one of these lists in the book. I found it better to only allow the tab labels to protrude slightly from the edge of the page, thus:

Dsc01644

To make it easy to find stuff I numbered every right hand page (which takes you up to about 100 in a normal Moleskine) and then used the first page that falls open — the first double page — as an index:

Dsc01643

I know this all sounds kinda messy. But it seems to work. Having the colour coded tabs dotted over a 100–page spread actually makes them easier to find, because it’s very easy to estimate the page you need to jump to — 45 is about half way through, 79 is towards the end, etc. Sure you need to use the index, at least to start with, but I found I quickly got the hang of it. If you liked you could write on the tabs to identify them more easily.

I’m sure this won’t work for lots of people. And one could easily argue that all this extra complexity takes away the simple beauty of a Moleskine. I would probably agree, but this seems to work for me, at least for now.

The Moleskine vs The Alwych

It arrived too late for the column, but there’s an alternative to the Moleskine that has its followers: The Alwych.

Alwych

The blurb on the website describes the notebook thus:

‘ALWYCH’ books have a unique strong, flexible and highly durable ALL WEATHER cover.
The pages are section sewn for strength, before being welded into the cover.
The ruled pages are printed on light cream paper, this increases the opacity of the pages substantially, compared to ordinary white paper.

Indeed, they are well-crafted and worth a look, though they lack the pocket, the elastic band and the bookmark tag of the Moleskine. They are, however, made in Scotland, which has to be good news.