How to unwrap a CD

When I first saw an Asheville CD store saleskid flip open the hinges of a CD case to remove that annoying sticker from across the top of the lid, I was gobsmacked. Once I saw it, it seemed so simple -- why had no one ever shown me this before? Why had I not been able to figure it out on my own? (Part of my surprise being that I'm a notorious rules-follower and it's obvious, isn't it, that you don't take something apart unless someone told you it was OK?) The Proper Discord blog posted a great little video tutorial on how to unwrap the cellophane packaging from various types of CD cases. It's little bits of knowledge like this which makes life on the Interwebz worth living.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvRLrMcJvbo&w=640&h=480]

Hat tip to Kirkville

Jailbreaking my Kindle Touch

To get screensaver images of my choice onto the Kindle Touch (the one without the special offers) required several steps:

  • Jailbreaking the Kindle Touch
  • Installing the screensavers hack
  • Gathering the images
  • Formatting the images
  • Grouping and renaming the images
  • Transferring the renamed images to the Kindle Touch

I won’t go into exorbitant detail on how I did what I did, but this post will pull all the steps together into one place so I have a record of what I did in roughly the order I did it, in case I need to do it again, God forbid. I also throw in a few stray observations along the way.

Jailbreaking the Kindle Touch

“Jailbreaking” is such a harsh word for what Wikipedia more delicately refers to as “privilege escalation.” The Kindle Touch (also referred to as the Kindle 4) has been slower to fall to jailbreaking and custom hacks, but entropy catches up with everything.

Jailbreak your Kindle

  1. In Pathfinder, use the Edit>Select… dialog to select all JPG files.
  2. Right-click on the selected files, select Services>Convert to PNG. The Automator workflow takes the JPG files as input, churns away, and creates PNGs with the same filenames in the directory.
  3. Select all the JPG files again and then move or delete them. So we now have a directory full of PNG files.
  4. Starting from the top of the file list, use Pathfinder to view each file’s Info and check the dimensions. I used Pathfinder’s drawer for this part, which showed both a preview of the image and its attributes. About two-thirds of the files were in the proper 600x800 format. When I found a file that was not, I selected the file and ran a Keyboard Maestro macro that opened the file in Preview, entered new dimensions of 600x800, and then saved the file.

So, after another few minutes, I had a directory of files in the required format and size.

Grouping and renaming the images

There are two more constraints on image files for the Kindle.

First constraint: The screensavers directory is limited to a maximum of 99 files. I had collected a little over 200.

I decided I wanted a few different sets of files that I could switch out every now and then when I got bored with the current set. So I broke the files into 5 directories of roughly 40 files each. To ensure I had a fairly even, yet somewhat random, collection in each set, I used the Finder’s color labels to help me visually differentiate files into various stacks.

In Pathfinder, starting with the first file, I gave every 5th file a red color. Then green after red, then blue, and so on. I then used Pathfinder’s Edit>Select facility to copy all the red-coded files to a “red” folder, all the blue-coded files to a “blue” directory, and so on.

Great – I now had five groups of files reflecting a mix of styles and images. Not boring!

Second constraint: Filenames. Here’s what the simple screensaver readme has to say about them:

  • Each image MUST be named bg_xsmall_ss##.png, where ## is a two digit number from 00 to 99
  • You MUST have an image named bg_xsmall_ss00.png and you CANNOT skip a number (ex: bg_xsmall_ss00.png, bg_xsmall_ss02.png but no bg_xsmall_ss01.png)

Pathfinder to the rescue again! A new feature in Pathfinder 6 is a Batch Rename facility that uses an Automator-like workflow interface. I quickly created a renaming workflow for the first group that I could save and re-use for the remaining groups.

If I decide later that I want to instead have larger sets, it’s very easy to move all the files into a single directory and run the renaming workflow again.

Transferring the renamed images to the Kindle Touch

The easiest part! Hook up the Touch to the computer, select and drag the new screensaver files to the Touch’s screensavers directory, unmount, and unplug.

Bah-dah-bing! I now can see a carousel of fun images whenever I put the Touch to sleep.

The above steps did not arrive cleanly and without effort. The process involved lots of trial and error for every phase before I finally hit on the right combination and sequence of steps. You could say that this was an awful lot of work to serve a fairly trivial purpose – and you would be right – but I would say that it was not work: it was good, clean, nerdy fun.

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Kindle Touch screensavers

The Kindle Touch (non-ad supported) comes with 20 attractive gray-scale screensaver/wallpaper images. They’re fine, but after a while, I wanted to see some different images. One of the reasons I got the ad-free Touch was so that I wouldn’t be assaulted with an ad every time I picked up my Kindle to read something. I returned the ad-supported Kindle 3 because – among other reasons –  although I can take ads in magazines, I didn’t want to see them in a book – not even an e-book.

The web is full of Kindle-supported screensaver images that I would have preferred to see on my device, but Amazon doesn’t allow me to customize the Kindle in even that harmless way. And this annoyed me.

So I took matters into my own hands, did a bit of hacking on my Kindle over the weekend, and now I have a pool of about 200 attractive, varied, and unusual images I can use as screensavers on my Kindle, as the following gallery shows. Tomorrow, a post on how I did it. If you want to see the many (many) sites I scoured looking for images, and thus get a peek into my own little OCD manias, you can browse them via my Pinboard links.

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Muleteer, Occultist, Whitesmith

The Bureau of Labor’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system maintains a set of job and occupational codes to ensure consistent statistical and information gathering.

Blacksmith working hot iron

As part of my research for a paper in my Organization of Information class, I looked up the SOC’s tortured history, starting from 1940 till the Office of Management and Budget mandated in 2000 that all governmental departments standardize on it.

In a rather dry 1999 document on the code’s revision (PDF) I found a simply wonderful two-page list of all occupations listed in the 1850 Census.The list starts on page 11.

The three trades in this post’s title come from there, as do these charmers:

  • Philosophical instrument maker
  • Salaeratus maker
  • Shoe-peg makers
  • Calico printers
  • Button makers
  • Chandlers
  • Sawyers
  • Morocco dressers
  • Daguerreotypists

Salaeratus maker? It’s explained in a 1999 Voice of America broadcast on the above document and a few online dictionaries.

It’s a remarkable picture of a vanished land and time, when life was local, rural, and everything of any value had to be made by someone, not imported from offshore. Notice how many occupations end with “makers” and “manufacturers.” Notice how few of those jobs make their way to the current SOC headings. We’ve gained, certainly – less tedious, back-breaking work for a majority, more prosperity, more goods available at a cheaper price – but I can’t help feeling something’s been lost, too.

P.S. This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on my previous blog, Oddments of High Unimportance. Don’t go telling on me for plagiarizing myself, now.

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“Time” is related to how much information you are taking in – information stretches time. A child’s day from 9am to 3.30pm is like a 20-hour day for an adult. Children experience many new things every day and time passes slowly, but as people get older they have fewer new experiences and time is less stretched by information. So, you can “lengthen” your life by minimising routine and making sure your life is full of new active experiences – travel to new places, take on new interests, and spend more time living in the present – see Making Time by Steve Taylor .

Many people understand movement is required to get them where they wish to be, yet they hesitate to step into that movement. We understand that you hesitate because you don’t want to make a mistake, but such thinking is faulty and we will tell you why. You cannot make a mistake! It is impossible! If you have surrendered and entered into the flow, your guides and helpers will be assisting you, instantaneously, to help you get where your soul desires to go. It doesn’t matter which direction you take your first step in because the flow is self adjusting. The important thing is to take that first step, in any direction, because you cannot guide something that is not in motion, Dear Ones! Again, we love you for your mindfulness, but now is not the time for stagnation. Using surrender and flow with intention is mastery in motion, and a wondrous thing, indeed. Feel free to step into movement without fear, knowing that all movement is forward movement and will take you, without fail, to the place of highest good. ~Archangel Gabriel

Memotome.com

I’ve mentioned Memotome.com in previous posts and it’s an essential part of my productivity toolkit. It sends me email reminders of tasks I want/need to do, birthdays and anniversaries to remember, and pretty much handles most any recurring task.Memo To Me - Free Reminder Service

The site has been around for a long time and I doubt that it’s changed its visual design since the early 2000’s, when I first heard of it. There are plenty of other reminder sites that will ping you via email or SMS, and they look prettier, operate a little more smoothly, and offer more enhanced services than Memotome. But I came to the party with Memotome, it’s been utterly reliable all that time, and I resist the idea of starting over somewhere else.

Google Calendar holds my weekly schedule and one-time only appointments I schedule on the fly. Goodtodo manages portions of my to-do list for work and home, and provides a way for me to schedule a task for the future very quickly with the assurance it will pop up exactly when I want it to.

Memotome occupies that gray sort of area where I want to be reminded of things but I don’t want to see them on a calendar. These are items I can set and forget.

Yes, Google Calendar lets you create secondary calendars that you can turn on and off, but I find Google Calendar increasingly complicated and its settings page for a new event almost bewilders me with all the choices. Goodtodo is great for quickie todo tasks, but its recurring functionality is not as flexible as I’d like; I want some items to recur forever, but Goodtodo limits me to a maximum of 99 recurrences, for example. Also, its emails arrive in plaintext so if I include a URL in the body of the reminder, it does not arrive as a live link.

Memotome is plain but it hits a sweetspot for me. It does not offer some features that other services offer: weekday only reminders, weekend only, “every other day/week/month,” and so on. So I have to get clever and create multiple reminders to get around that limitation (such as creating two weekly recurrences, one for Tuesday and one for Thursday).

One feature it offers that I like: “every few weeks.” When I’m trying to encourage a new habit, I like a once-in-a-while reminder for me to check in with myself.

You can use the service for free, but donating whatever amount you think the service is worth upgrades you to a level where the email reminders are a little more useful (your event title is the email subject line, URLs included in the body of the reminder become live links, etc). Check it out.

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The Splurge List

I don’t remember where I got this idea, but it’s one I’ve been using more lately. The idea uses wishlists and a form of timeboxing to help me reduce my impulse spending, especially online. It’s so, so easy to buy a Kindle ebook or an MP3 album on Amazon, especially when the items are priced in the cheap single-digits. The downside of this is that by the end of the month, I may have bought lots of little stuff and their total is in the double-digits.

Money

So, as I run across these little gems I put them into my Amazon wishlist. The  Amazon wishlist browser extension lets me put stuff on the list that Amazon doesn’t sell (like shareware or recordings/books from small publishers). I also have a “splurge” tag in my Pinboard bookmarks, which is mainly a holdover from before I used the Amazon extension.

So when the impulse to buy something online strikes, I just click the button in my browser and, bah-dah-boom, that item is out of sight and, for a little while, out of mind. I can then move on to the next shiny object.

On the last day of the month, I get an email from Memotome.com that says, “Congratulations! You can now redeem an item or items from your splurge list for $25. Have fun!” I then spend a happy few minutes considering the items I might want to buy for myself. I also cull the list of stuff that I’m not interested in anymore.

I now can decide whether to blow the $25 on a single book, or two CDs, or a mix of cheaply priced ebooks and MP3s, whatever I like. The key, though, is that what I buy has to be fun or frivolous. That’s the carrot and it’s what makes this process doable for me. (It’s similar to the idea of a cheat day or reward meal for dieters.)

This trick may not banish all impulse purchases, but it’s been working for me this year. I believe the grown-ups refer to this practice as “delayed gratification,” but I am only a recent and reluctant member of that grim tribe, so I cannot say for sure.

 

 

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Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Like many other Americans, I became aware of Hughes through his "Shock of the New" documentary and considered myself lucky to snag a copy of the hardback from a remainder table at the (long-gone and lamented) Intimate Book Shop in 1983. Most people can name critics of movies, music, and books because we hear those products talked about on NPR or Entertainment Weekly. Art critics -- not so much. The only one I could name with any confidence would have been Hughes. I did not read much of his stuff, but like Gore Vidal or Pauline Kael, I had only to read a few lines and I could hear the cadence of his prose, and the stunning way he could put together a sentence. I always liked his boisterous charisma and certainty.

The following paragraph is from his memoir, "Things I Didn't Know." Thanks to The Daily Beast for bringing it to my attention.

“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.”

—Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know

 

Libra Horoscope for week of August 16, 2012 The Hubble Space Telescope has taken 700,000 photos of deep space. Because it’s able to record details that are impossible to capture from the earth’s surface, it has dramatically enhanced astronomers’ understanding of stars and galaxies. This miraculous technology got off to a rough start, however. Soon after its launch, scientists realized that there was a major flaw in its main mirror. Fortunately, astronauts were eventually able to correct the problem in a series of complex repair jobs. It’s quite possible, Libra, that you will benefit from a Hubble-like augmentation of your vision in the next nine months. Right from the beginning, make sure there are no significant defects in the fundamentals of your big expansion.

My event planning template

I had read at some point a post on Mark Forster's forum that made a big impression on me. When talking of productivity, the writer said to think about what needed to be done in terms of tasks, routines, and habits. Tasks require a lot of attention and energy, routines less so, and habits are automatic. The trick to being more productive at the office (or anywhere) was to routinize as many tasks as possible, and if appropriate, make them habits that required little conscious attention at all.

Events Calendar

Example 1: Working out in the morning? Establish a routine for setting out the weight bench the night before and put your sneakers and shorts right on the floor so your feet hit them when you get up the next morning.

Example 2: I have a monthly report I produce that requires multiple steps across multiple files. After creating about 7 or 8 of these reports, I finally created a 3-page procedure that walks me through every step. Until I wrote out those steps, I didn't realize how many little decisions I had to make along the way and why I kept putting off this relatively straightforward chore. This task will never be habitual, but it is now more of a routine.

So I wondered about event planning, and how I could be more systematic about the planning and tracking so that I didn't have to remember anything.

I researched various event checklists on the web and developed my own events template, with separate sections for things like contact information (all the people I had to contact for an event), copies of all the emails I sent, a screenshot of the flyer we sent out, a lessons learned section, which I filled in as part of a debrief meeting after the event, and many other informational bits and pieces.

ASIS&T required its member groups to file an annual report of its activities. So, I included blanks in the form for the data they wanted to see. My goal with the event planning document was that it would be a package of every word we sent, every person we contacted, every  problem we faced. That way, we could review them if we chose to return to a particular venue or to see what attendance was like for a specific event. These documents also  encapsulated a lot of experience so that when new members of the board came in, they could look at our historical record and see how we planned and executed events.

When I took on the National Night Out planning responsibilities again this year, I pulled out the event template and used it to capture everything related to this year's event. I can now pull out the document when it's time to plan next year's event, and most of the hard thinkwork will have already been done. I'll just need to plug in new dates and new names.

Feel free to download the template document below. I've also included a generic event planning document that I compiled from various sources around the web; it provides a week by week countdown of everything that you may need to have in place for a successful event. These are in Microsoft Word 97/2003 compatible format. Feel free to edit at will and use for your own events!

eventtemplate (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

eventplanningchecklist (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

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“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.” —Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know

On being an information packrat -- Part IV

One of the great things about a good productivity system is that it contains decision points where you can decide to keep or dismiss outdated tasks. If “buy Christmas cards” is on your list, and it’s April, then you can probably safely delete that task and not miss it.

Abundance

Not so with information. Dismissing old or outdated information is not often a step in casual information management. We tend to keep stuffing it into our storage systems because there are no obvious temporal or physical limits. So we invoke the “just in case” clause and the information debris silts up on the hard drive.

So what are some good, simple ways for managing the information I’ve decided to keep in my life?

Seth Brown’s post on information processing helpfully provides a three-part structure for thinking about information management, which I’ve adapted below:

  • Filtering incoming information
  • Consolidating information
  • Retrieving stored information

Here are some ideas I’ve run across that I’ve found the most useful, challenging, or memorable. Others are new to me as I’ve run across them in researching these posts. (Part 1 of this series contains my complete list of sources.)

I use (or will use or may use or sometimes use) a mix of these methods, depending on the context, the information, mood, energy, time, etc. Also, my workplace habits tend to be more rigorous than when I’m relaxing at home, for example.

Keep in mind, always:

  • Less is enough
  • You’ll probably never refer to what you keep
  • You won’t have more time in the future to organize this stuff. Deal with it now.

Filtering incoming information

There is, of course, my spaciousness question, which can be helpful but is not a cure-all, especially at the office.

 Keep it only if you need it now

If it’s for a project you’re currently working on, keep it. Otherwise, let it go.

If you’re keeping it for a specific reason, create a bin for it: a folder, an envelope, a directory on your computer, etc.

Is it action or reference? How do you envision using it?

JD Meier has a great page from his online book Getting Results the Agile Way on managing information, from which I’m borrowing heavily. He recommends deciding whether this is information you need to take action on – in which case, it goes into whatever productivity system you use – or it’s reference.

He also recommends creating a scenario (or in developer-speak, a use case) that helps you evaluate whether to keep the information or not.  If you cannot imagine using the information to satisfy the needs of the scenario, then let the info go. You can always find it again later.

Adam Kayce is also a devotee of practical information processing. He suggests asking a similar question: When I need this information in the future, what will I be doing? Asking your brain a more sophisticated question like this kicks off the imaginative machinery that generates possible scenarios you can use to evaluate the new piece of information. If you can’t see yourself actually using this information in the future, then you can probably safely let it go.

Ask: would I search for this on my own?

Tom Stafford explains the endowment effect and suggests asking a counteracting question. For objects you’re considering throwing out, like a book or clothes: If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?

And for information that is sent to him via email or other avenues, he asks: If I hadn’t just been sent this link, how hard would I work to find out this information for myself?

Consolidating Information

OK, the information has gotten through your filters and you want to keep it. What next?

Create fewer, but bigger, bins

By and large, create as few folders as possible. But put more stuff in them. Don’t spend too much time creating hierarchies of directories; keep the list flat, which makes them more scannable.

An IBM study on email use concluded it was better to use search across a few email folders than to create elaborate mail folders. (Well, maybe – we use Lotus Notes at work, and its search facility stinks. Gmail’s, however, is great.)

For paper items, I use a method described by Eddie Smith at Practically Efficient: a single pouch, labelled with the current year, and I put most loose bits of paper in it. The most recent items are tucked into the front of the pouch. (More about this in the Retrieving section.)

Bins should relate to projects, not general ideas

Think about the practical application of the information you’re keeping; keep it action-oriented. Your hard drive is not a commonplace book.

Adam Kayce recommends creating specific, project-related folders for any files you want to keep. Don’t think “entrepreneurship”; think “My Startup Business.” If you don’t know how you’ll use the information, you can let it go.

Let it cool off

As time passes, bright shiny objects tend to go a bit dull.

To keep myself from buying whatever bright shiny object floats before me on Amazon, I park the object on an Amazon wishlist. I love wishlists since they give me a place to park non-urgent decisions that I can review later at my leisure. Time works its magic and weeks or months later, I can review the items on the list and more coolly judge whether I want to invest money or time in this or that object.

Likewise, if I see an article that passes the spaciousness question, I send it to my Kindle via Readability. Every morning, Readability sends a digest of the previous day’s web pages to my Kindle so I can read them at my leisure sans ads. I have an embarrassingly large number of these digests. I am just now getting around to pages I sent to Readability in late May and am finding – surprise, surprise – that they’re not as interesting today as they were three months ago. In a digest of 20 articles, I may read fewer than half of them.

This is the value of a parking lot, a deep-freeze, call it what you will. Out of sight, out of mind can be used to advantage here.

For digital files, create a folder on your desktop called “Inbox” or “Parking Lot” or whatever. Put the loose MP3s, PDFs, working files, etc. in there and then clean it up later at your leisure. Set a reminder in your calendar program to review the items or – if’n you’re brave – set a program like Hazel to automatically delete the folder’s contents every other month or so. If that’s too radical, use the annual pouch idea: create a directory, name it “2012,” and put the files in there.

Have lots of stuff already? Keep only 3 

Peter Walsh recommends in It’s All Too Much that booklovers who want to make room on their shelves trim down their collections to the best 3 books of each genre they really want to keep: the best 3 Alan Moore graphic novels, the best 3 Chekhov collections, the best 3 books on meerschaum pipe collecting, and so on. If you have a collection of objects that you want to thin out – salt and pepper shakers, cookbooks, spun-glass seashells – but you can’t emotionally let all of them go, then maybe you can let some of them go and keep the 3 that mean the most to you. Become a curator; define the criteria that are important to you.

As you can see, the key point of many of these methods is to rouse you out of your trance and really look at these objects and the emotional issues that are attached to them. Weigh them, consider them. Why are they there? How are these objects serving you now – today? What’s the worst thing to you, emotionally, about letting them go?

Sift

I remember one of my professors talking about this strategy. Oftentimes, just sifting through the sedimentary layers of files silted at the bottom of your hard drive is enough to scrape off something good or to see that this item isn’t needed anymore. Creating new directories, grouping files, creating a new hierarchy of directories: manipulating the files in a sort of woolgathering way can help the quiet creative part of your mind to sift the information and perhaps see new patterns in it.

This can be useful in cleaning up old email collections or writing an article or essay. Sifting, making lists, resorting, reordering, refactoring – these use the slower thinking processes of the brain and can yield benefits beyond the simply productive.

Retrieving Stored Information

Decide whether you want to optimize for speed of storage or speed of retrieval

For some items, such as receipts or health insurance forms, I have specific labelled folders so that I can access them quickly if I need them. When I am saving digital files from a project that I want to use again later, I put lots of information in the filename so I can figure out what is in the file a year from now. In these cases, I am spending time creating metadata that will let me retrieve items faster.

By contrast, with a yearly folder to hold stray paper, I’ve optimized for speed of storage. If the paper isn’t something related to insurance or financial matters, I can quickly stuff it into the pouch and I don’t worry about assigning any metadata. I can deal with a loose paper item quickly at the expense of having to spend more time looking for it later –  should I ever need it.

…Pause…

Information management is obviously one of my life’s themes and I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic later when I have something new to say. Lord knows I can’t let a stray thought pass without the Internet knowing about it.

In the meantime, I think I will try to embrace the big-picture message: let it go. Seth Brown pointed me to an NPR article with the rather melancholy title, The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything. (It’s a good article; read it.)

Exercise the power of choice. Choose what you want to enjoy, enjoy it, and then let it go. The tighter your hold, the less you keep.

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Depression frequently occurs as resistance to the flow. Anxiety can come from focusing too much on the unknowns of the future and feeling unsupported. A lack of movement in your life indicates a lack of gratitude for that area of your life. Dear Ones, yet again we tell you that the key to empowered living is surrender (which allows your guides to assist), flow, staying in the Now and gratitude. If you simply focus on those aspects you can save yourselves a lot of unnecessary discomfort. So, the next time you feel out of sorts, ask yourself, Am I embracing the flow? Am I in gratitude? What are the blessings of this Now moment? Have I asked for assistance from my team of helpers? This will help you pinpoint where you need to self adjust and bring very quick relief as well as empowered movement back to your life. ~Archangel Gabriel

Robertson Davies on Useful Knowledge

On my 1998 "sabbatical," I read about 25 or so books. Among them were the collected works of the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, one of that country's great literary lions whose rather old-world style and eccentric areas of expertise led to some fascinating novels -- What's Bred in the Bone being a particular favorite of mine -- and some interesting failures. One doesn't hear much of Davies since his death, and that's a shame.

In one of his early novels, Tempest-Tost, he has the music master deliver a little speech that impressed me so much at the time that I've delightedly trotted it out whenever the subject of information management rears its tedious head. 

Up to the time I read the book, I admired and attempted to emulate the Sherlock Holmes idea of the mind as a limited container for information that needed to be categorized for convenient retrieval:

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

A Study in Scarlet

But on reading the following passage by Davies, I saw there was another way one could organize one's mind -- mainly by not attempting to do so. It seemed to me then, and to me now, as so much more natural and relaxing. And in this age of structured information and rigid databases, it's a quote I find very inspiring because it's so human:

“Oho, now I know what you are. You are an advocate of Useful Knowledge.... Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

Isn't that marvelous? As I think about how I wish to manage my information stores, I think about that shaking the machine vs shaking the dustbin. Which is more robust? Which is more fun to maintain?

On being an information packrat - Part III

Clouds breaking up after a rainy morning in th...

The first post in this series looked at information hoarding, and the second looked at mindsets that could help me reframe the problem.

Now, one thing to know about me is that I always go for the most complicated solution first. It's a part of my nature and something I have to plan around. So once I start planning a new intervention for myself, I keep in mind another Extreme Programming maxim: Do the simplest thing that could possibly work. Add complexity only when needed.

If I want to reduce the trivial information entering my life, then one way to do that may be to adopt a goal so large that it does not allow room for trivia to grow or collect. During the years when I was getting my master's and working full-time, I found that I almost naturally prioritized what was important and what was trivial. Can  I do something similar in this case?

Perhaps. During some goal-setting exercises last year, I read Mark Forster's book How To Make Your Dreams Come True (available free as a Microsoft Word download here) and one of his own goals was "spaciousness." For whatever reason, that word resonated with me. I also wanted to feel spaciousness in my schedule, in my physical surroundings, in my head. Clutter-free, room to move, breathing space -- all inadequate to describe the feeling of spaciousness that I desire, but they're a place to start.

So one way I could employ a goal of spaciousness to reduce my information hoarding would be to ask myself a question of every piece of information: Will this add more spaciousness to my life? 

This is not the question I tend to ask of most bits of information in my life. I usually ask, Is this interesting? Would this be fun to read? Would this make me look smart and knowledgeable? And usually, the answer is yes, of course, please, bring it on, more, MORE, MORE.

But keeping in mind that people rarely access their personal information stores -- and I will be no different from anyone else -- then the spaciousness question may serve a useful filtering function. Spaciousness is a deeper, wider, longer-term ideal I want to welcome into my life; I am hoping it will naturally crowd out the bright shiny objects that are of temporary interest only and that serve only to steal time from my future.

Also, asking this single question is simple and easy to remember. I will, of course, have to rouse myself out of my web-reading trance to ask the question until the question becomes more of a habit.

I tried it out a few times today already. I was scanning an email newsletter, clicked on a link that looked interesting, and almost sent the article to my Kindle to read later, when I thought to ask myself the question. The answer came back immediately: No.

I rather regretfully passed on the article, and forgot all about it till I wrote that paragraph. If I really want to read it later, it's available on the web. Until then -- let the bits go.

Ah, but Mike!, you cry (I hear you out there, crying): what about information you do want to keep? Howsomever will you handle such items, pray tell?

The next (and, I hope, last) post in this series will round up several methods for thinking about and managing your growing information piles. I fear it may turn into another corker of an omnibus blessay, but then I do this research so you don't have to.

And yes, I know it's amusingly ironic that I'm creating yet more information about managing information. But to quote my favorite tech writer, Andy Ihnatko, "I am but an imperfect vessel for the perfection of the universe."

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An improv principle and event planning

In the winter of aught-six, I took a beginning improv class at DSI Comedy Theatre and learned a lesson that I pass along almost as holy writ to others.

DSI Comedy Logo

As an actor who always preferred having a script in hand, lines memorized, and my character's blocking pencilled in, improv struck me as insane as Frost's tennis without a net. Improv always scared me to death, yet I always loved watching it. It was a mystery. So I decided to face up to it and took the class, which was excellently led by Ross White (who now edits Inch).

Ross taught us that there were -- invisible to the audience -- many little rules and guidelines to improv and, weird to say it, but I actually did feel my mind change its shape and stretch to make new neural connections about halfway through the 6-week class. Many of my assumptions about how to act onstage were challenged.

Of the many things Ross taught us, there were two principles that stuck with me. The first was counter-intuitive. In a two-person scene, when given a random prompt ("You're a chocolate chip in a cookie -- go!" "You're superheroes who work as janitors -- go!"), the pressure is on and the temptation is to force the scene to a conclusion, to lift it and drag it -- and your partner -- to where you think the scene should go.

As Ross explained, though, that's working way too hard. Beginners think that, in a two-person scene, one actor needs to give 50% and the other actor needs to give 50%. In fact, Ross said, the breakdown is this: one actor gives 25%, the other actor gives 25%, the situation gives 25%, and the audience gives 25%.

When you look at the scene in that way, you can relax and make more impact with less effort. It's not all up to you; you're simply one of many people ensuring that the scene will succeed. Everyone is pulling together.

Which leads to the second principle: trust. You simply lay back, let the water support you, breathe, and just float. Relax and trust that your partner will contribute ideas to the scene (though you have no clue what they'll say till they say it) (and they probably won't know until then either),  trust that the scene will take wing and lift off, and trust the audience, which really does want to see you succeed. When I learned to stop forcing the punchline or forcing the moment, I found myself enjoying improv more and being delighted and surprised at where our improvised scenes wound up.

I explained the 25% principle to fellow neighborhood association board members last night after they congratulated me for working so hard to organize the NNO event. As I told them, it wasn't that difficult. I only had to give 25%, the other board members gave 25%, the potluck event on its own gave 25%, and all the neighbors who came out to eat and meet gave 25%.

After people started trickling in to put their dishes on the tables, it really was like an improv scene come to life. No one could control what was going to happen next; you could only go with the flow, work with what your partner gave you, and trust that it would all turn out just right. Which, I'm pleased to say, it did.

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National Night Out

In Durham, about 90 neighborhoods have signed up to participate. Police officers are scheduled to drop by as many of the neighborhood events as possible. In our case, Morehead Hill used to have an annual potluck and we've folded that tradition into the annual NNO event. Other neighborhoods will have ice cream socials, games, music, and so on.

When I researched my master's paper, one interesting tidbidlet I noted from a criminal justice study was that one way to reduce crime in the community was to have a neighborhood get-together at least once a year. That face-to-face social time was enough for neighbors to meet and recognize each other, refresh connections, and so on. There's something about actually seeing people, getting to know the "regulars," that helps everyone.

The study also noted the interesting fact that meeting more often than once a year did not significantly reduce crime in the neighborhood. It's a small investment of time and energy that has the potential to yield outsized results.

I could easily extend this post to details of how I'm treating this year's event differently from last year, working with volunteers, and the kind of volunteer job I realized I'm best suited for -- we may even get rained out tonight! How am I coping with that?!?-- but I shall reserve those details for a later post of ghastly length and inordinate self-absorption.