DIY or not, just use it

Let’s go a step further and talk about stuff that doesn’t even require any batteries to operate. Yes, I’d like to dedicate this post to something very unusual to put into such a blog, something completely in the analog realm. But that’s something that I’m pretty sure everyone potentially reading this blog had encountered and used at least once in their lives. Yes, I’m talking about plain old normal pen-and-paper notebooks.

There weren’t so many interesting things in my childhood, but I remember that I had several pocket-sized notebooks, and, aside from various nonsense, I loved to fill these notebooks with some algebraic expressions and derive new formulas from the ones I already knew. Then, I took an even smaller but more pretentious-looking notebook and just copied the results of my calculations there. Most of the time, it was really pointless (some of my calculations even contained errors but I didn’t mind a lot if I found that out), but sometimes I managed to derive really useful formulas that they taught us much later, in the higher grades or the university, if at all. When I was a university student though, I stopped personal notetaking almost completely, only to resume it much later in the digital format already. Now, I decided to go back to pen and paper, at least partially. Why?

Well, I still write this post in a digital format, because I’m not good at writing long stories on paper and not keen on copying over what I have written using a keyboard (and trust me, OCR isn’t an option as my handwriting is so horrible no OCR will be able to handle it in the forseeable future). But this is because I purposefully aim my publication to go to the outer world. In the instances when I am fully alone with my research, I found it to be best to have nothing in the way between my thoughts and the medium where I can do freeform recording of these thoughts immediately. Even the mere fact of having to open an application to type something I’m not gonna publish anyway just started to feel a bit wrong for me. Not to mention some really obvious things, like “paper notebooks don’t need energy to work” and “you don’t have to switch apps/modes if you want to start drawing in the middle of writing”. The latter, by the way, is something I really enjoyed with my latest research (again, watch-related, but I hope you’ll see its results here soon) where I drew some schematics and the text around them. I don’t say there are no apps to do that, but it would involve much more effort than it should. To make my final decision about all this, I had to try and start over.

And what’s a better way to start over than the good old DIY? Especially when everything you need to do this is a blank sheet of A4 (or similar in size) printer paper and scissors.

  1. Start by folding the sheet in half (so that the shorter sides connect), then again in half and once again in half. Make nice creases at each step. Then unfold it and you should be left with 8 evenly-sized rectangles.
  2. Fold the sheet in half just once and then make the first cut: from the folding edge across the middle up to the central point of the large rectangle (where your creases intersect). Be sure you’re cutting from the folding edge, not from the open edge, and don’t cut past the center. Unfold the sheet and you should see a nice horizontal hole in the middle of the sheet that spans two central sections.
  3. Cut across one of the vertical creases from the sheet center to the top or the bottom (I usually choose the top). Make sure you don’t cut or tear anything else by accident. You should be left with two central flaps on the top/bottom side of the sheet.
  4. Orient the sheet so that the flaps you just made are facing top. Start folding the paper along the already existing vertical and horizontal creases from the right flap: over, under, over, under and so on. Wrap the last flap in the opposite direction so that it makes a complete “book cover”.
  5. Rotate the resulting fold so that any open sheet edges are facing down. That’s it, your 10-page booklet is ready!

Now, you’re probably wanting to ask me something like “Come on bro, why are you posting this elementary school origami BS here?” Well, situations can be very different, and if you just need to have something to have on you all the time in terms of notetaking, no need to complicate things as you can do it yourself. The obvious pros of making such a mini-booklet are that it’s very compact (A7-sized if you make it from an A4), easy to make (only two cuts required, no staples or glue, just a single piece of paper), easy and safe to dispose of along with all the information on it (just burn it, again, it’s a single piece of paper) or, on the other hand, equally easy to store anywhere if you need it (including, but not limited to, front or back inner pockets of larger size notebooks). Besides being more efficient than the usual 8-page fold (the layout used for zines, the only practically possible layout for single-sided printing/photocopying that doesn’t involve gluing at any point) that also has the same page size but only has 6 pages inside, this folding scheme also uses the sheet space more efficiently than the 16-page fold because each page here just has twice more area, so in total that’s like 20 pages of that 16-page fold in terms of how much information you can write here. Also, two of such booklets can be (kinda) naturally interlocked with each other by tucking the second one’s first leaf into the pocket of the first leaf of the first one. This extends the capacity to the whopping 16 pages inside the combined booklet and 18 pages in total! Same way, you can extend to 24 or even 32 pages inside if you really need to, but I feel like 16 is just about the practical limit of this setup without it getting too bulky and tending to fall apart with ease.

Even the single-sheet setup can be useful nonetheless, and more than you probably could think. For instance, when I realized we have 8 pages inside this booklet and not in total, I immediately thought of it as an ideal disposable weekly planner. The front cover can be used to mark the week the booklet is for, and the backside can contain some metadata or other garbage or duplicate the front cover for convenience. Then, the first page inside can contain the list with overall weekly plans, and the pages 2 to 8 can contain the todo lists for every day of the week. For a lot of people with a full-time job, including myself, a week is the most stable and predictable unit of life measurement. It’s not too small for thinking you’re living the today+Δ only, and not too big for giving your plans a greater chance to be ruined. But the beauty of such thingy is that you can use it for virtually everything, from planning your next week or jotting down important thoughts, IMEI editor codes or math formulas to drawing simple sketches or spitting out pure nonsense you just need to put somewhere, and then performing the ritual of burning the nonsense to clear your mind. Anything goes with these DIY microbooks if it works for you. As for the cover, why not: if you don’t want to buy a specialized A7 notebook cover, you can use a cover for any A7 format documents available in your country, and, if necessary, modify it to hold your booklet.

For more fundamental or long-term writings though, I obviously opted for a ready-made solution with replaceable booklets. I think I could make a “traveler’s format” notebook myself, I’m just too lazy to do this, so I bought a Midori-style clone from our local manufacturer, and one of a very good quality, I must add. Not being a big fan of multiple rubber bands and t h i c c journals, I think my setup will never have more than two inserts at a time, but this clone also has a nice set of pockets inside the cover front where various more or less flat things can fit, so I deem it versatile enough as it is. Having watched several Midori-related videos though, I don’t really understand why people tend to overcomplicate stuff so much. It’s just a notebook cover for the replaceable inserts that itself (with one blank insert bundled) costs around $50 (+shipping), and the additional inserts cost about $5.4/each for the most basic ones (blank, lined, grid) and $9/each for the advanced ones like the card pockets. On the contrary, I bought mine, already with some pockets inside on the front cover (3 for cards and 1 for larger objects) made out of leather, and a single insert of my choice, from a local manufacturer brand for $15, and additional blank and lined inserts for ~$3.8/each. Not trying to advertise the brand but this really raises the question: what do the Japanese really ask so much for here? It ain’t Korg or Casio. It doesn’t take any kind of the highest technology to manufacture such notebooks anywhere in the world where leather as a material is accessible. A perfect target for small craft shops and not-so-lazy DIYers. But the original Midoris are the ones who gained huge, almost Moleskine-grade mindless cult following by hipsters around the world. Let it be, I’ll rather support our national manufacturers whenever I can in these trying times.

But I digress from the people who are used to fill such notebooks with various stuff besides the usual booklets of paper to write or draw in. They baffle me. Maybe this format encourages to do so, I really don’t know. But it’s a “brilliant” marketing strategy: to announce a notebook that is “hackable, but you’re supposed to hack it with our officially released add-ons only”. Luckily, nothing prevents any third parties from creating their own inserts of the same format. Anyway, why do people buy so many non-basic inserts and how do they manage to shove all this into a single cover without the main booklets sticking out so much, is beyond me. Maybe the stock Midori booklets are just not as thick as the ones my local clone is shipped with. But it’s just puzzling how people who want to use the notebook as a tool to organize their lives manage to turn it into an unorganized mess too. No wonder because whatever happens inside that leather cover fully reflects the thought processes of its owner. And instead of trying to organize their thoughts, such owners think that the notebook can somehow magically help them to do this, but end up bringing the same disorder into its pages instead. Yes, it’s a creativity tool, but just a tool nonetheless, it doesn’t have any additional intelligence to share with you. Of course it’s a more subtle example of a famous saying from the Fight Club, “the things you own end up owning you”, but it still holds even for such simple things. And endless reviews and discussions on which notebooks or notetaking systems are better just confirm it one more time.

So, what is the bottomline after all this train of thoughts? Well, it’s simple: stop wanking on creativity tools and start creating. Stop wanking on guitars and synths and start playing them. Stop wanking on digital cameras and start taking photos/videos. Stop wanking on soldering stations and start soldering. Stop wanking on IDEs/graphics editors and start coding/drawing. Stop wanking on notebooks and pens and start writing. Focus on what you create and don’t let the how distract you. No “success stories” driven by marketing agendas can ever replace your own experience with the tools you already have and your own knowledge or ability to learn how to use them as efficiently as possible. You, and only you, can decide what makes yourself more productive and creative. Remember this, and remember to apply this whenever you’re in doubt about your tools, and a lot of things about your activity suddenly will become much simpler than they seemed.