A couple times a month I’m asked to speak at tech, Linux, and PHP student conferences at various types of events, which would be a flattering opportunity if I was a naturally more tactful person and therefore not worried about dropping f-bombs in a room full of technology-persuing Christian undergrads

Writing research papers

First in a (no doubt about it) ongoing series. When I had to do my first literature review, and my first big grad school paper, last fall, I asked my mentor, The Indomitable Cassidy, for her advice. Here’s what she said:

  • I actually like starting with a “haphazard search,” but I prefer to start in the e-research tools box, rather than the e-journals box. As you may already know, if you click on the Information and Library Science subject area, you will get various resources, such as LISA, Library Lit, and ACM Digital Lib.  It would be good to run a general search in each of those databases, just to see what is out there. Then you will have a better vocabulary to go back and do some more thorough searches.
  • I also like to do the “follow the citation trail” method, in which you find one good trusty generalist literature review on your subject area, then skim the citations for relevant articles. Go to that lit-review article, read its citation list, and keep following until you really hit a gold mine.
  • Also, if you are new to the subject area, it’s worth it to grab someone’s CV that you know is in that area (such as your professor) and see where she has published. Then you can go directly to that journal and skim for relevant articles.
  • Also, don’t let yourself get carried away and start reading all the material you come across!  You have to be industrious about this–try to make a decision from the abstract on whether or not it will be useful.  Use the abstracts to develop a skeleton of your product.  Then go back and really read things to flesh out your literature review.  (I like to skim things and put a 3x5 card on them saying what topical/methodological area they cover, then put them in piles, then go back and only work on that pile to come up with a cohesive 2-3 paragraphs about that sub-topic or method in my lit. review. Then I work out all the transition material later on.)
  • [In answer to my question of her workflow and how she tracked the online pages she found] Actually, I print out all documents that I think might be relevant (from the abstract), then as I read/skim them I make the notes on 3X5s and then sort (so I am sorting the actual documents).  And then I write.  It’s a bit of a tedious project, but it worked for my master’s paper.  :)

"The Midnight Disease"

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Alice W. Flaherty's memoir, The Midnight Disease. Suffering from postpartum depression after the death of her newborn child, she began experiencing hypergraphia -- the uncontrollable urge to write. She filled pages and pages with her writing, and couldn't stop -- the opposite of writer's block. Flaherty is a psychiatrist and her memoir/study grapples with a scientific way to look at creativity, which at times resembles a mental disorder.

When I had the book, I wrote down many passages and thoughts that struck me. Those passages follow. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

(no page #) Far more important, a life chosen to maximize joy may be very different from one chosen to minimize pain.

212 Accounts of the muse's influence are matched by complaints of its fickleness. An example is Donald Justice's poem "The Telephone Number of the Muse":

I call her up sometimes, long distance now. And she still knows my voice, but I can hear, Behind the music of her phonograph, The laughter of the young men with their keys. I have the number written down somewhere.

239 I would argue that these creative states are extreme variants of the inner voice, that constant monologue which fills us from when we first learn language as toddlers until we lose it in nursing homes and intensive care units.

250 When we are thinking abstractly, though, we seem to be doing so prelinguistically, both because the speed of our thoughts seems faster than words and because of the difficulty we often have in putting fleeting thoughts into real words. By contrast, in both the experience of the muse and in psychotic hallucinations, the voice heard has more of a sensory quality as well; it is more like a voice, less like an idea.

This notion fits with our sense that voices, whether spoken or signed, in some way are more primitive than silent thoughts. Just as two-year-olds say aloud much of what goes through their heads, just as six-year-olds subvocalize when they read, so people in the throes of creation, as well as people hallucinating, may be thinking more primitively. Not necessarily more simplistically, but primitively ... more vividly, more concretely, more associatively, less constrained by societal convention.

252 The psychiatrist Mark Epstein has pointed out that keeping respiration in mind as a model for our give-and-take relationship with the external world, and especially with our creative work, would have a very different effect from thinking of the world as something (on the oral, anal, or genital models) to be consumed, expelled, or penetrated.

254 The image is not of the artist enriched by the spirit of art, but ex-hausted by its leaving his body. Finishing a project successfully is, paradoxically, a not uncommon cause of clinical depression.

I think that when you work hard enough on any work, everything of value in you goes into that work. When you finish it, it leaves you, and you are empty.

260 Neurologists and others have attributed the behavior of many famous religious leaders directly to temporal lobe epilepsy.

Moses, for instance, reportedly had convulsive fits starting at age three, speech problems suggestive of aphasia or dysarthria, unusually prolific writing, episodes of sudden rage, and religious visions. One neuropsychologist has even speculated that his epilepsy was caused by his being left in that basket among the bullrushes for several days and sustaining a brain injury from heatstroke.

266 The scientist in me worries that my happiness is nothing more than a symptom of bipolar disease, hypergraphia from a postpartum disorder. The rest of me thinks that artificially splitting off the scientist in me from the writer in me is actually a kind of cultural bipolar disorder, one that too many of us have. The scientist asks how I can call  my writing vocation and not addiction. I no longer see why I should have to make that distinction. I am addicted to breathing in the same way. I write because when I don't, it is suffocating. I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning. Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real, or nothing will ever be real for me again.

People use books like law school. They think if they have some piece of paper – a degree, a contract – then people will respect them and then they’ll respect themselves. But self-respect comes from having some sort of vision for one’s life and heading in that direction. And there is no one who can give you that vision – you have to give it to yourself, and before you can feel like you have direction, you have to feel lost — and lost is okay.

Birthday horoscope for Sept. 24

A horoscope calculated for January 1, 2000 at ...

Here's the regular daily 'scope:

People are more impressed by your efficiency than by your eagerness to please. You need to back up your smiles with an authentic performance. Additional diplomacy must be carried in your toolbox.

Here's usually the most interesting thing. Let's make a date to check it next year, shall we?

If September 24 is your birthday: You currently have a good grip on how to succeed in business without really trying. By the end of October you could be distracted by a romantic hope or tempted to engage in a wild-goose chase. Wait until December or early January to make crucial decisions, changes, or to begin important undertakings.

Liz clipped out last year's birthday horoscope and placed it under my desk mat. Here's what it said:

If you were born September 24: Patience is your friend. Bide your time and don't initiate anything of great importance, such as a mortgage or marriage, before December. You are highly ambitious this year, but must not burn any significant bridges or rush too quickly into new projects. A romantic encounter could have you humming love songs in January and February. Your deep passion for success might be advantageous during April.

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Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The above summarizes much of my contrarian world view. (What else should go on this list?) When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.

Nirvana, or something like it

My friend Rani left me the following intriguing comment:

Mike - would love to know how the life/school/work balance (or juggle rather) is going. Have you been able to obtain equilibrium at all? What about nirvana?

I was going to reply as a blog post that night but spent too much time working on an assignment. (Cue the irony strings.) I wish I had something pithy to impart, as I have no coherent thoughts on this, so I’m afraid I bejabbered a long and rambling discourse to her in an email. But this is what I do, so we must perforce accept what we do not wish to change since it has worked pretty well for us so far.

Anyway, I’ve taken that long and rambling discourse to her and tried to pull out the nuggets to create a letter to myself. If anything, it’s a snapshot of where I am today.

  • I agree with my friends Rani and Cara that balance is a myth. Instead, as Cara said, the best you can do is to achieve integration of all your facets every day, no matter how brief those episodes may be. Work, life, family, self-care, meditation – cram it all into one day. There’s just what needs to be done now, today, but thinking also about what will I be glad I did a month from now, a year from now. Flipping back and forth between the detail and the big picture instead of being stuck in one mode for too long.
  • I work with a personal coach. One of his favorite sayings is “life is every moment.” Meaning, of course, that nirvana is every moment. Right now, as I’m writing this, is IT and it deserves my full attention and as much of me as I can bring to it.No, I don’t hit that moment every time, but I remember another saying (that’s all I do, is remember things, I never think of anything original to say on my own), a Zen one, “Try, try, for a thousand years.” Lately, I’m working on focusing my attention on one thing a time without trying to keep up with all my RSS feeds, email, etc. simultaneously. I find that when I can focus for an hour or so on a single project (work or school), I get more done and derive more satisfaction from it.
  • I feel very fortunate to be doing all this work at this point in my life. I’ve got good time management habits, I understand and am more friendly with my thinking and creative processes so that I’m not fighting them as often, my health is good (I don’t get enough sleep, though), and I’ve been hacking my mind for the last two years with my coach, so that I’m not as plagued by self-doubt or anxiety as I used to be.This month, for example, is a train wreck. It’s the end of the fiscal year for our customer, so I have about 5 documents due, I have to make a presentation at the end of the month on a project I’ve not touched for 2 months, I have major homework assignments (they don’t tend to be hard, but they take a lot of time), monthly reports will take 2-3 days to write, etc.

    Funnily enough, I’m not paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Instead, I’m looking at it all rather coolly (if a little frazzledly) and calculating when I have time to get things done, what’s the highest priority, where can I slack off, when can I sleep late, etc. I turned in an assignment a week early so I could work unfettered on the assignment for my other class, focus on my work projects, and free up an evening so Liz and I could attend a concert (meaning, no homework time that night!).

    That kind of thing. Starting early, giving myself time.

  • My mgr and I have noticed that when we focus on schoolwork, our day job suffers, and vice versa. So it sloshes back and forth between the two.
  • One of my coach’s points is that, when we decide what our territory is, we then have to decide 1) what are the costs and 2) are we willing to pay the price for it. In my case, that has meant lots more communication with Liz so she knows the state of my mind and emotions, ensuring that she understands why I don’t have time to do stuff like go to the movies. Our current rule is that we can have one outing per weekend – it can be out to lunch, or lunch and a movie, or seeing friends for dinner – but the rest of the weekend is for me to do homework and reading.
  • I am keeping up my banjo lessons with my teacher (who doubles as another coach, in a way). I only have time to practice for about 10-15 minutes/day, in the morning, in between getting home from work and starting my evening studies, or in between study sessions, but I think it’s good for me. It gives my brain and hands different work to do and is a good mental break. Also, since I don’t have my fiction writing as an outlet, this keeps me in touch with my creative, performing self.
  • My coach says that it isn’t good to work for hours at a time; it’s analogous to stretching a rubber band at full tension without relaxing it. If you work at full tension for too long, you’ll snap. So you absolutely need to build in relaxation time where you don’t think about work or assignments. For me, last weekend, it meant watching Doctor Who episodes on my MacBook.
  • I also spent this past summer not doing any schoolwork. Instead, I made a conscious decision that Liz and I would spend more time together. So we took a tap dancing class at 9th Street Dance, we started entertaining more on the back porch, we sat on the porch after work or before bedtime and talked about our lives and our plans. We both knew once the fall semester started, that I would not have that kind of loose time anymore. So I tried to compensate for that beforehand. And fortunately, she’s very understanding. She knows that I’m fully stretched working full-time and doing school; and we both know that this is a temporary condition, and not forever. (Well maybe – I’m thinking about getting a PhD.)
  • Every Sunday morning, we go for a 30-min walk in the neighborhood and talk about the week, what’s coming up, etc. (Well, she talks because she’s a lark, and I stare at the ground because I’m an owl, and owls don’t like the morningses.) I also, when I can, read to Liz before she goes to sleep or we sit on the porch and have supper. Time to just sit and mull things over is very important.You know, little everyday things like that do take time away from my studies, but it’s those little everyday things that we tend to remember and cherish the most. Little kindnesses. (Remember that Japanese movie, “Afterlife”?)

    Also, Liz was there before the degree, Liz will be there after the degree. Praise be to the Liz.

  • My systems analysis teacher’s law was, “Never fall in love with anything – system, process, gadget – that cannot say ‘I love you’ in the morning.”
  • So if there’s an answer to Rani’s vague and open-ended question, it’s that I work at it every day and every week. Wednesday, for example, is an early and late day. I try to get to work by 7:30 so I can log my 9hrs by 4:30, so I can get to my class by 5:30, and then get home about 8:45 at night. I see Liz briefly in the morning and briefly again late at night. I call her about 4:30 to see how her day has gone (I try to call her from work once a day).At the office, I endeavor to get ahead on my work projects so that I’m not the bottleneck (my personal metric is that I want to be so organized and efficient at work that I scare people). In class, I just listen to the lecture, take notes, and jabber as I am wont to do. I focus on work, school, and home to varying proportions, as needed.
  • When possible for my manager and me, school comes first. It’s finite, it’s directed short-term assignments, and paying the price now yields a bigger payoff later. But, school doesn’t pay the bills yet. So there are times we have to focus on the day job, take work home, catch up on the weekends, etc.
  • Every day, I try not to think about completing everything all at once, but can I at least feel on top of things for today? (That’s a Mark Forster idea.) I went to bed late Sunday night, but I felt on top of things Monday morning. That feeling never lasts, of course, but sometimes I’m surprised at how little I really need to do to feel on top of things.
  • Talk about equilibrium – see the movie “Man On Wire”. Fabulous!

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about, quote, the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

"This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”