Laptops and Lab Manuals

People use all kinds of things to take notes in meetings. Some people use yellow legal pads; some people use green stenographer pads; some people just use the backs of materials handed out at the meeting. Recently, I have begun to see a lot of people in around Stanford using lab manuals. These are very nice bound books with blank pages. They are designed for scientists who are taking notes on experiments in a laboratory. These notes will be part of the data, the official record so to speak. So not just any scrap of paper or yellow pad will do. These books have to be strong and have good quality paper. Some of the ones I have seen have graph paper that looks like it has a very high rag content. These just are not the sorts of things that people used to use to take notes in administrative meetings or philosophy seminars. So I ask myself: why so many nice lab manuals all of a sudden?

I think the answer is laptop computers. I need to delve into history to explain this insight.

Before the laptops came the first portable computers. I remember my first portable. I think it must have weighed at least twelve pounds---but it was tiny compared to the PC on my desk. I had a lot of fantasies about that computer. As I brought it home to unpack it I really did think I would probably just carry it around with me all day long, taking notes, saving great ideas in a way that would allow instant retrieval later, impressing my friends. And I was sure it would be great on trips. Instead of wasting my time reading mysteries on the plane, I would whip out an article or two on my portable computer. I was sure it would change my life.

The dream began to fade by the time I had gotten the thing out of the box and carried it from room to room looking for a good place to try it out. It was already getting heavy. Twelve pounds is really quite a bit of weight to carry around. I quickly gave up the idea of keeping it with me all day long. Still, I enjoyed it a lot. I could sit on a comfortable chair and type away with it on my lap---at least until the lack of circulation in my thighs began to bother me.

I still harbored ambitions of taking it on a plane and changing my life. Some little inner voice was telling me it wouldn't work, while another little inner voice was sure that it would. I was unsure what to do right up until the moment I left on my next trip. I had the computer all packed and sitting with the rest of my luggage by the door, but I wasn't really sure I would take it.

My wife decided the issue. She saw the beautiful but admittedly large black vinyl case setting next to the rest of my luggage. She picked it up. "Isn't that your computer?" she asked. "Yes it is," I replied. "You're not taking that heavy thing on the plane with you are you?" she asked. "Well why do you think I got the thing in the first place," I replied, a tad defensively. "I don't want to waste the four hours on the plane. I can get a lot of work done on my computer this way," I added. "Well, you know best," she replied in a way that meant roughly, "Well, you don't know what you are doing."

Of course, she was exactly right. I couldn't really get the thing fully open in my economy seat. When the passenger in front lowered their seat back I almost lost both of my hands. During the brief periods of time when I could type on my computer, I mainly thought wistfully of the mystery novel I would have been forced to waste my time on, if only I had left my computer at home.

That's all ancient history. For the past couple of years there have been really small computers. Lots of people have laptops that weigh less than five pounds, some a good deal less. These things really are not too bad to carry around in a briefcase or in a backpack. The batteries work well. For a while, one saw a lot of these in seminars and meetings, even though they cost several thousand dollars. One doesn't see so many of them now. What happened?

These people had the same sorts of dreams I had, it just took them longer to give them up. They dreamt about how wonderful it would be to have their laptop computers with them in these seminars. They had dreams of taking notes on their computers; keeping wonderful records of the seminars and lectures they had gone to; printing these out for all sorts of purposes; searching them, combining them, spending long evening enjoying them, their lives changing dramatically because of their new laptop computers and all of these searchable files. For the rest of their lives they would have all of the information they had ever heard in a seminar or lecture at their fingertips.

Unfortunately, this hardly ever worked out. In the first place five pounds may be light for a computer, but it still gets tiresome to carry these things around. The laptops were amazingly quiet for computers too, but not quiet enough. Little taps in the seminar room irritated other attendees, especially those who did not themselves have laptops. People who had trouble organizing their notes when they did them with paper and pencil still had trouble when they were on a diskette. People who never used their notes when they did them with paper and pencil also didn't use them when they did them with a computer. I think most of these laptops are ending up as small desktop computers, just like my first portable did.

However, these laptops did make one dramatic change in the lives of the people that used them, and that brings us back to the subject at hand, why we are seeing all of these lab manuals.

The people with these lab manuals are just the people who were bringing the little laptops to meetings and seminars a year or two ago. They realized that it was worth large amounts of money to them to have classy way of taking notes in a seminar or meeting. Before laptops one would think hard about spending more than a dollar or two on a notebook for a seminar. One would usually just snarf a yellow legal pad or a green steno pad from the department supplies shelf. But after the experience of spending a couple of thousand dollars on a laptop, the eight or ten dollars a really nice lab manual costs doesn't seem so much.

I guess this is just one more example of how the computer industry is bolstering all facets of the American economy.