I’m taking a preliminary exam in about a month so I’m very much embedded in the classics of comparative-historical sociology, as well as more recent revisionist works. As such I haven’t been able to dirty up with my usual nerdery.

But I do tend to have a somewhat unorthodox approach to taking notes, partially inspired by my avoidance of anything formatted in Word, partially rooted in my love of emacs (sorry vi fans). I wanted a lightweight syntax (read, in plain text) for keeping notes that wouldn’t get outdated quickly and wasn’t just some terrible hack that I threw together but wouldn’t understand down the line.

Enter Markdown. Markdown is a simple syntax that stores in plain-text and converts to valid HTML. It allows you to created ordered and unordered lists, define bold and italic words, headings and subheadings, and all other nifty features. What I really like about Markdown is that it makes it very easy to take outlines written in any text editor and turn them into attractive, easy-to-read webpages. It’s flexible enough to work on any computer and quick enough to use in lecture without having to fudge with formatting and idiosyncratic word processor errors.

For example, say I want to take some notes on a book.  I can write some very simple syntax like so:

# Theda Skocpol. 1979. *States and Social Revolutions*
 
1. Revolutions
   - They are not made, they come.
   - They are not caused by relative deprivation.
   - Ideology doesn't matter.
2. Cases
   - France
   - Russia
   - China

Pretty straightforward, yeah? I run the text through the markdown script (this command-line syntax will work on Mac and Linux. A similar if not the same syntax should work on Windows).

ahanna@arlo [~] cat Skocpol.txt | markdown > Skocpol.html

And viola:

Theda Skocpol. 1979. States and Social Revolutions

  1. Revolutions
    • They are not made, they come.
    • They are not caused by relative deprivation.
    • Ideology doesn’t matter.
  2. Cases
    • France
    • Russia
    • China

One of the cool things about generating valid HTML is that you can write a CSS file and style it however you want. So it’s not limited to the plain-jane rendering of your browser’s choosing.

I also use it to keep my notes in reasonable order by linking to separate HTML files.

### Revolutions
1. Crane Brinton. 1938/1965. [*Anatomy of a Revolution*](#).
2. Ted Gurr. 1970. [*Why Men Rebel*](#).
3. Theda Skocpol. 1979. [*States and Social Revolutions*](#).

Revolutions

  1. Crane Brinton. 1938/1965. Anatomy of a Revolution.
  2. Ted Gurr. 1970. Why Men Rebel.
  3. Theda Skocpol. 1979. States and Social Revolutions.

NB: These links are only for demonstration purposes and won’t actually go anywhere.

Version control

Another nifty aspect of typing notes in plain-text is that you can use a version control system and actually see the changes between versions of your notes. You can’t do this with files in Word format, and plain-text files in other formats tend to be complicated when trying to observe differences (as may be the case with LaTeX). Another advantage to version control is that it keeps an off-site backup of your working files. I usually generate a new repository for every project I work on.

For the prelim, I’ve been using Git. Git is pretty great, but if you don’t want your notes/files to be public, you’ll have to shell out some cash for a private repository.

Here’s an example from my notes on Barrington Moore’s book.

# Barrington Moore Jr. 1966. *Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy*
 
## Book
 
### Preface
 
1. Purpose to explain varied political roles played by landed upper
classes and the peasantry in the transofmration from agrarian
societies to modern industrial ones.
    - Focusing on large countries, trying to figure out social
      processes that have worked themselves out. Focusing on the
      innovation that led to political power, not the spread and
      reception of the institutions themselves.
    - Use of comparison - serves as a negative check on accpted
      historical explanations and may lead to new historical
      generalizations. Comparativist is making a general terrain map.
    - Three historical routes from preindustrial to the modern world.
        1. *Bourgeois revolutions* (US, England, France) - Key feature
        in these revolutions is the development of a group in society
        with an independent economic base which attacks obstacles to
        liberal capitalism.  
        2. *Capitalist-reactionary* (German, Japan) - Less of a
        bourgeois impulse. The weak commercial and industrial class
        relied on elements of older and dominant landed ruling
        classes.
        3. *Communism* (Russia, China) - Agrarian bureaucracies
        inhibited commercial and industrial impulses. Urban classes as
        weak, along with peasant revolts.
        4. A final route in India, which has a weak impulse towards
        modernization. Serves as a negative check against the other
        cases.
    - Tension between search for generations and doing justice to a
      particular case.

Maybe I want to snip the bit about India. I delete it from the file, save it, then run git diff on it.

ahanna@arlo [~/sandbox/comparative-historical/notes] git diff Moore.1966.txt 
diff --git a/notes/Moore.1966.txt b/notes/Moore.1966.txt
index c2de828..6766bce 100644
--- a/notes/Moore.1966.txt
+++ b/notes/Moore.1966.txt
@@ -26,9 +26,6 @@ societies to modern industrial ones.
         3. *Communism* (Russia, China) - Agrarian bureaucracies
         inhibited commercial and industrial impulses. Urban classes as
         weak, along with peasant revolts.
-        4. A final route in India, which has a weak impulse towards
-        modernization. Serves as a negative check against the other
-        cases.
     - Tension between search for generations and doing justice to a
       particular case.

This is a bit of a trivial example, but if you are progressively working on an original document, such as an article or a thesis, it helps to see the revisions between different versions.

Anyhow, back to studying for me.

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  • David Arnold

    Great approache, doing the same approach over here, was wondering why tf there hasn’t been an app arround this simplke yet powerful idea? all those visual note-taking apps just don’t work, if you really want to concentrate on the lecture…