Friday, April 08, 2005

Electronic Paper

Remember the paperless office? The name dates the idea: if it was conceived in the past decade, it would have been the e-office, or if Apple were involved it might have been the iOffice. However it's called, the idea hasn't been realized, and for good reason. Electronic document management still has a ways to go.

  • Display

    I refuse to read books on CRT monitors. When I program or write, I spend time staring into space and thinking; when I read material which is not too technical, I spend almost all my time looking at what I'm reading. The difference in eye strain is tremendous.

    I have fewer troubles with LCD monitors, and I do sometimes read books from my laptop screen. But I have difficulty reading from my laptop in bright light or when the screen is at an angle.

    I think I would be far less inclined to print out papers if I could read them from a sharp display -- monochrome would be fine -- which didn't flicker, was easy to read when tilted to nearly horizontal (the angle at which I usually read and write), and remained easy to look at in a brightly-lit workspace.

  • Portability

    I read at the desk, in bed, in planes, in libraries, in cafes, and in other places as the whim strikes. I can carry a book or paper with me under my arm, or possibly even in my pocket. They don't get hot; they aren't too heavy to hold in my lap; and I can easily hand over whatever I'm reading for someone else to glance at a choice passage (I don't mind someone reading over my shoulder, but only for a short period). It's possible that some of the e-book readers would meet similar requirements, but my laptop certainly doesn't.

    I read a lot of technical material at a desk, though. So for the purpose of removing some of my paper clutter, this is not such a big deal.

  • Browsability

    I have several tens of books that I can navigate by feel: given a topic or a passage, I can get to within a few pages without looking at the pages at all. For most books, I can navigate to pertinent information by rubbing my thumb along the outside edge to reveal a bit of each page in turn. The pages go past far too quickly for me to read anything in detail, but the structure of the text -- paragraphs, inset equations, section breaks, figure layout, and so forth -- is distinctive enough that I don't need to read any details to find what I want.

    The ability to quickly riffle through the pages of a book in order to see where some bit of information lies -- or to verify to myself that I have picked out the wrong book -- is perhaps the most significant reason I still print out papers and read paper versions of technical manuals. Dragging a mouse along a scroll bar isn't nearly as effective, particularly when the rendering engine in the reader software I use (Acrobat or Ghostview) can't keep up. This is a shame, because there are other ways in which electronic documents are far easier to browse than are paper documents: hyperlinks and full-text search are wonderful things.

  • Archival accessibility

    I regularly visit the engineering and math libraries in order to get books and articles which aren't available yet in electronic form. And when I do get them, I make paper copies. These paper copies are often terrible: the text is blurred near the page edge by the binding, or it is cut off at the top or bottom of the page, or it is too dark or too faint. But I still make paper copies, because it's currently the most convenient thing for me to do.

    Perhaps I should invest in one of those hand-held copy devices?

    Besides making paper copies when I access other archives, I'm inclined to make paper copies of my own important documents for my personal archive. Technology does change, as I've been reminded while helping one of my professors convert his old Epson printer files -- on 3.5 inch floppy disks -- into more modern formats.

  • Markup

    I don't like to make notes in my books. I do take notes while I read; but they go onto separate sheets of paper, which I then fold in half and use as bookmarks. A few of my best-beloved books are now probably ten percent note-scrawled bookmark (by volume). For papers, however, I have no such compunctions: when I read a paper carefully, or when I revise a paper in progress, I fill the margins with comments and diagrams (usually in a nearly-illegibly small hand).

    I compose carefully organized notes which are essentially archival; I sometimes never look at those notes again, as the very act of organizing them keeps them in my mind, often for months or years. I also jot notes temporary which consist largely of diagrams and equations, with only a few fragments of text. Sometimes I compose my archival notes directly on the computer, though usually I prefer to write them longhand -- I type too quickly for my thoughts to keep up. But I almost never do any sort of jotting at the keyboard. It's possible to write equations, draw diagrams, and make proofreading marks on the computer, but it's inconvenient.

    (As an aside: I use LaTeX when I typeset my notes. My notes contain equations; and, system preferences and aesthetics aside, I find the MS equation editor too balky to be convenient. But even Word looks good when compared with HTML, which is a terrible markup language for mathematical composition. Were HTML slightly more convenient for mathematical markup, or were extensions like MathML more broadly available, I would no doubt post more mathematical blog entries. I leave it to you to decide whether this would be a good thing.)

It is for good reason we use paper rather than papyrus, vellum, clay tablets, wax tablets, slates, or sand tables. Paper is flexible (both literally and figuratively), inexpensive, durable, and lightweight. Even if it were possible, I would not wish to see to see paper completely displaced. But I do wish electronic document management were a little more advanced, if only so that I could access my technical library with equal ease at home and at work without overloading my backpack.