16 – In Praise of Notepad

16 – In Praise of Notepad

Dear students, I would like to introduce you to one of the most useful and effective software products ever to grace a monitor. Best of all, it’s perfectly free. You may, in fact, already have it installed on your computer. That software product is… well, actually the title of the article has already spoiled it… Notepad.

Notepad is an extremely basic, format-free word processor. No doubt, you are all familiar with Microsoft Word, in which you perform activities like typing out your assignments, formatting reports, and ignoring spellcheck, but there are other, simpler programs that can be used to type out quick notes. For many older computers, especially laptops with more limited memory and processing speed, Word can take a little while to open. Also, when you’re finally done with your assignment, the files it creates are often pretty big when compared to the actual amount of text you are saving. This is because Word adds a lot of hidden characters, background information, and formatting specifications to your document. This is called “metadata,” because it is data about the actual data and thus “meta” (beyond).

Metadata about a computer document, and really any electronic file in general, can include such specifics as the date of creation, the name (or account name) of the author, the date of last modification, the size of the file, the permissions (who can create, delete, and modify it) and so on.

If you just want to type out a quick reminder to yourself for later on, this might seem like a bit much… and it is. Notepad, on the other, hand, creates relatively small text files without all that often unnecessary code, and is much friendlier to low-resource machines. While it does track some metadata, such as the date of creation, it doesn’t store nearly as much as its larger relative.

If you’re a Mac user (and you know who you are) your system will have some equivalent program such as TextEdit. The idea, however, is the same: you have access to a lightweight, basic text-creating and text-saving program. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that human minds and computer systems both have strengths and weaknesses. The human mind can do things we are unlikely to ever be able to replicate in an artificial network. In previous articles I have outlined the difficulty of writing a program that can perform procedures that most of us consider to be quite elementary, such as holding an intelligent conversation. On the other hand, what the human mind lacks is precision.

Consider the way that even our motor systems work. If you’ve ever thrown darts, or participated in any game requiring physical skill, you know that proficiency is some part natural talent and many parts repetitive practice. You have to “get good” at something by training your reflexes, perception, and muscles through rigorous, repeated activities. The brain is much the same way when it comes to forming memories… the more frequent and intense the experience, the more likely we are to create indelible memories of that experience.

Most memories fade over time. While a few people are blessed (or cursed) with something called eidetic memory (which used to be called “photographic” memory until it was recognized that it extended beyond merely visual stimuli), most of us would struggle to remember any details of experiences we have had months or years ago. Again, this does vary with the nature of the experience being recalled, but generally speaking our mental storage cells appear to have some kind of probabilistic “half-life,” which means that the likelihood of recalling specifics diminishes by 50% after a certain period of time. Let’s say, then, that for a given experience, the half-life of its retention is three years. After three years, you are only 50% likely to remember its details. After six years, that likelihood is halved again, and so there is only a 25% chance. After nine years it falls again to 12.5% and so on.

If you’ve ever forgotten something important, like an anniversary, a birthday, or the due date of an assignment, you now have a more scientific-sounding excuse than, “I was busy,” or “The porg ate my homework.” Instead, you can now say, “Sir, my half-life expired early.”

If you try that on me, though, I am likely to reply, “Why didn’t you use Notepad?”

One of the things that computers do well is “remember” things very precisely for very long periods of time. I say “remember” in quotes, because it doesn’t quite work the same way as in biological systems.

If we leave a flower in a box, and come back a week later to find the flower still there, we would not really say that the box remembered the flower. Similarly, with computer memory we are putting electrons, magnetic polarization, or electrochemical cells in a certain order, and would naturally expect (in the absence of damage or malfunction) to find them in that exact order when we return to check.
This amounts to a very stable and reliable system for keeping track of information for quite a significant length of time, unexpected disasters (see last month’s article) notwithstanding. And while there are an impressive amount of calendar, agenda, scheduling, and reminder apps available for computers and smart phones, I find myself using Notepad far more often than any software actually written for and dedicated to that purpose.

On the desktop of both my home computer and my laptop there are icons for runnable programs, folders for commonly-used locations of my hard drive, the Notepad program, and a couple of actual text files. In fact, on my home desktop computer I have three right now… a general “Notes.txt” file, a more specific one with a to-do list, and another called “Grades.txt” for when I am grading students’ papers and want to record grades and post comments all in one block rather than one at a time.

I’ve made it a habit to periodically check these files, which are very fast to open, read, and close, to make sure that I know what I have on my plate for that day (or, technically, that night, since most of my work at home is done after sunset). I am occasionally surprised to find a task or two that I had recorded days before that I would likely have forgotten if I had not done so. As I complete each task, I simply delete the reminder from the text file. As I remember or come up with a new one, I add it. I also shuffle them around, putting them in order of either importance or which ones I want to deal with first.

While I have only started doing this fairly recently, and I never really had a problem forgetting assignments as a student, I do wish that someone had given me this advice when I was still in college. Not only would it have made it more certain that I would have been able to keep track of my daily tasks and their due dates, it would have given me a stronger sense of control and confidence in my ability to organize and manage my time. Recording things this way as soon as they occurred to me would have freed me up from having to constantly perform a mental scan of all my classes to see if there was anything I needed to do for any of them. If I had been the less responsible type, I can imagine it would have saved me several times from the shame of having forgotten a paper or project, and we must imagine this together, for I am sure that none of you, dear students, have actually had such an experience as this.

Now, if you are one of those students who is already using some helpful program to keep track of your work and your time, that’s great. You’re already familiar with the benefits of what I am talking about, and have found a software tool with which you are comfortable. The majority of you, however, probably are not, and while there’s something to be said for the mental discipline you are developing by keeping it all in your heads, there is absolutely no downside to letting computers perform the services for which they have been created – helping us out where we tend to be less than electronically precise.

To return to the physical activity analogy, human beings need to train themselves rigorously in order to obtain a high level of skill at doing things like aiming, throwing, and moving around in general. Even then, the most talented and highly trained athlete will occasionally make a mistake. Computer systems, on the other hand… once a robot, for example, is programmed to throw a dart at a target, it will always hit that target as long as the conditions remain the same.

We may rely, then, on our electronic servants to do their part, and support us in our efforts to get things done. The university experience is certainly a demanding one, with many academic and social points of interest competing for your attention. While there is no “one way” to navigate these uncertain waters, I imagine you’d would appreciate all the help you can get. Notepad offers its services, and it asks for little in return… a few pennies from your electric bill, perhaps. I recommend that, if you are not already using more advanced programs to help you in managing your time, you give this technique a try. The assignment you save from never being written may very well be your own.

P.S. I used to use Notepad for even more purposes, like editing the HTML files that make up web pages. While I’ve moved on to more advanced editors for these kinds of activities, because they benefit from the more advanced tools that they have to offer, Notepad remains my go-to app for simple notes to self.

David Aguilar
Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
Galen University