Sunday, April 3, 2011

2.007 and digital timestamps (electronic lab notebooks)

I was contemplating my sorry lab notebook grades in 2.007, the "Build a Robot" and "Learn all the physics behind Robots" class at MIT, and I realized that the main reason for my failings was not making the logic and conclusions clear enough to an outside reader. (picture labeling, drawing conclusions, etc.).

I realized the main reasons for this are that:
1) I do NOT treat the lab notebook as something I will show industry representatives. I feel like it's main functionality should be for organizing my own thoughts.
2) I feel like anything useful to other people I would rather put online (on this blog, or in more-polished form on OrangeNarwhals). Then, I would link to said blog in my resume, have the link handy for smart-phone enabled recruiters, or print out quality posts.

The other function of a lab notebook, besides
a) getting a job, is for
b) proving I thought of something at some point in time.
e.g. for the US patents, that involves dating and signing every page (perhaps even witness-signing some pages) in case it could be used for filing a patent in the future. In industry, it's also used for
c) communicating with fellow engineers.

For b), a blogspot blog is clearly not admissible for proof-of-date, since most blog software (including blogger) allows the author to change the time and content of the post to whatever she likes.

So then I thought about it, and came up with the idea of digital timestamps. Then I google'd it and turns out digital timestamps / electronic lab notebooks are baked already:
Electronic Laboratory Notebooks: Requirements, Selection & Best Practices--Gase_090916.ppt
Even someone from MIT, although seems neglected:
and there's a company too:

I have this notion in my head, however, that paper is more reliable the electronics*. So my version would be electronic lab notebooks that are printed out onto paper using microprinting (like microfilm). That may be space-inefficient, though, and having the data compressed and turned into code, like QR or something, might work better. That adds another technology component though (not just magnification but also decoding).

*see: hypothesis as to why we have paper records of MITERS records from the 1970s and 1990s but not anywhere else. Apparently we may have tried to keep electronic records. AFAIK any electronic records are gone.

Anyway, in conclusion, my earlier thought process:
FALSE: working 30 hours a week on a 12 unit ("12 hours/week") class should earn me full credit on my silly class lab notebook
TRUE: not taking 10 minutes to add some titles, labels, key points, and clarifications of ambiguities will kill drop me 13 (out of 100) points on my lab notebook grade.

Also, I doubt 2.007 will start letting us submit blogs any time soon in lieu of our lab notebooks, even thought that would be AWESOME. I mean, based on my notebook, most of the stuff would be utterly irrelevant to 99.9999999% of the internet audience and irrelevant to 99% of fellow 2.007 students, but with computers I could just skim right past uninteresting content. And I could do it on my own time (I wouldn't have to choose between office hours, actually building a robot, or listening in to conversations with my section leader, Professor Campbell). And it wouldn't feel awkward at all (no risk of stealing designs if the designs are open-source), and I could ask friends who already know I'm utterly confused before I ask a million questions of my fellow section classmate.

In short, electronic lab notebooks as an option for 2.007 would be transparent, open-source, and AWESOME.

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