Old-world skillz

Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time
Image via Wikipedia

I do not know how Michael Leddy finds so many great items for his Orange Crate Art blog. I was struck by his link to this column by The Providence Journal's Mark Pantinkin on certain specialized life skills we (of a certain generation) accrued growing up that aren't needed in this day and age. There's a hint of grumpy old man in his tone, but not too much.

Some of the skills on Pantinkin's list overlaps with mine: the high-beam toggle on the floor, the rotary dial phone, threading the film in the camera, using coat hangars (and aluminum foil!) to improve TV reception, and dropping the phonograph needle on a turning record.

My own modest list would include:

  • Black and white darkroom skills, especially threading the film, in the dark, onto wire reels that I then dumped into the fixative. If the film touched itself along that spiral, the outcome was just ugly.
  • Using a pencil to re-wind slack cassette tape onto its spool.
  • Affixing labels to 3.5-inch floppy disks.
  • Creatively naming computer files within the 8.3 scheme.
  • Using a proportion wheel to size photos for a newspaper page -- and keeping your distance from the hot wax machine.
  • Inking and running my dad's offset printing presses, and then running the pages through the collator, folding machine, and stapler. I can still hear and feel the loud, mechanical rhythm and sounds of those machines.

But that said, some skills have not passed away from this ever-progressing world:

  • The Frugal Liz prefers her $20 Whirley-Pop over any microwave popcorn.
  • I still write letters and cards to my friends, and Simpsons stamps are preferred.
  • Banjo strings still go on by hand one peg at a time.
  • A safety pin keeps paired socks together in the wash.
  • The Sunday funnies, even in their sadly depleted state (the News & Observer only has 4 pages of strips run really small), still make fun birthday gift wrapping in a pinch.
  • We still have two-stroke lawnmower engines, shoelaces, eyeglass screws, and other physical artifacts of the daily world that will require specialized skills for a while yet.

I would add, though, a few new skills I've picked up:

  • Working with blog software
  • Using Snopes.com to sniff out urban myths forwarded to me by well-meaning people
  • Navigating Gmail using the keyboard shortcuts only
  • Seeing Netflix movies over my wi-fi connection (instant gratification -- though I do miss the Mom and Pop video stores)
  • And, alas, becoming better than I want to be at troubleshooting Windows and Macintosh computers

Like baby rats

stevereads: The Queen Victoria Series!

Jean Plaidy wasn’t the only pen-name she used, far from it: most famously she was also Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, but if memory serves, there were many, many others. For decades, her novels (a great heaping mass of them historical novels) fell from her creative teats and hit the floor like baby rats – fully-formed, stripped bare for function, and avid for survival.

Momentum, Inertia

My loyal fanbase (Rani and Cassidy) have asked when I would start posting again, after a pause of some months. I stopped in April because the semester was getting pretty intense with a big paper for the research methods class, a workshop I was helping plan and execute, ongoing angst about the PhD, and, oh yes, the day job.

My especial hell week started May 4 and proceeded thusly:

  • Woke to find my MacBook's hard drive was dead.
  • To UNC to take the research methods final exam.
  • Tuesday: take the MacBook to the Apple Store. Thank you, Applecare warranty and Time Machine.
  • Wednesday: go to Chapel Hill traffic court to take care of a speeding ticket, or as a lawyer friend says, "fund-raising day." Fortunately, I had gotten excellent advice from people who'd gone through this before, so I was prepared with my driving history from DMV and sailed through, only $171 poorer and with no points on my license. Extra tip: although court starts at 10 am, get in line at 8 am. It's a lo-o-ong line.
  • Thursday: to Duke to have a small squamous cell skin cancer removed from just above the tip of my nose via Mohs surgery. The center of the face is tricky because there's no extra flesh to fold over the hole that's made, so the dr. basically carved up to the bridge of my nose, essentially creating a flap that he tugged and pulled to cover the hole, pushed some tissue from the bridge of the nose down toward the tip, and then sewed up the flap. It took all day, mainly waiting on test results, punctuated by these moments of high intensity with the doctor.
  • The dr.  advised me to take it easy for the next few days, don't bend over or increase pressure in the head, clean the wound, etc. My nose looked as if the Joker had carved an upside-down question mark, circling the tip and etching a jagged path around and up. My nose had also swelled to WC Fields proportions.  Fortunately, I didn't experience any black eyes (pretty common with surgery in the facial area), only a little bruising.
  • I took his advice to relax seriously and gratefully and spent the next three days in the house, in bed, walking slowly, sleeping a lot. I think I had accumulated a lot of tension from this semester. The good part about tension is, it provides energy to keep you in motion and keep all the balls in the air. The bad part is, when you stop, you STOP. My coach uses the analogy of a rubber band that needs to relax after being stretched. And this is what happened to me: those three days off turned into three weeks away from school-related obligations. I can't remember what I did, except go to work (without school to  deal with,  simply going to the office is like a vacation), come home, surf the web, spend time with Liz, and relax.

I had the sense to recognize I needed this rest, so I didn't interfere with it. I had taken an incomplete on an independent study because life was getting hairy for both me and Carolyn, and I promised to finish the lit review this summer. (More on that in a later post.) Part of me was feeling guilty for not working on it, but another part of me replied that I'd do better if I was rested. And in that weird way my brain has of punishing me, I made a rule that I couldn't do "fun stuff" on the blog till the lit review was done.

The lit review still isn't done, but it's underway. Inertia has yielded to momentum and I'm rewarding myself by writing some posts and clearing my inbox of blog ideas.

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” wrote the wise Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the 1960s, long before the web, or BlackBerrys, or the first use of the word “multitasking” as applied to human activity. “Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace.” Were he alive today, he presumably wouldn’t have a Twitter account.

Sleep, tossing of mind, attachment to objects, subtle desires and cravings, laziness, lack of Brahmacharya, gluttony are all obstacles in meditation. Reduce your wants. Cultivate dispassion. You will have progress in Yoga. Vairagya thins out the mind. Do not mix much. Do not talk much. Do not walk much. Do not eat much. Do not sleep much. Do not exert much. Never wrestle with the mind during meditation. Do not use any violent efforts at concentration. If evil thoughts enter your mind, do not use your will force in driving them. You will tax your will. You will lose your energy. You will fatigue yourself. The greater the efforts you make, the more the evil thoughts will return with redoubled force. Be indifferent. Become a witness of those thoughts. Substitute divine thoughts. They will pass away. Never miss a day in meditation. Regularity is of paramount importance. When the mind is tired, do not concentrate. Do not take heavy food at night.

"What is the world's story about?"

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes:

‘A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world…. Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well – or ill?’

Assorted links

  • "A comparison of the 2008 population — using data from a variety of sources — with the first census in 1881 shows that the number of Cocks has shrunk by 75 per cent..." Read the rest for the context.
  • How to e-mail a professor. They may not notice, but then again, they do notice.
  • Saaien Tist on processing research literature, a topic that is becoming of increasing interest to me and that everyone has a different solution for.
  • Wonderful poem by B.H. Fairchild about "On the Waterfront," a small-town movie theater, and waiting to come of age.
  • I've always liked Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. (More here, here, and here.) Now someone has created a Twitter feed for them (I think with new or homemade ones added, too): Oblique_Chirps.

Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy’s advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn’t really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I’m always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I’m deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton’s Newport’s Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as “Community Attachment” or “Personal Networks”) and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I’d downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn’t called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn’t need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes – the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I’d already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story – or as some may call it, “building an argument.” Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you’ll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren’t there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I’ve been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don’t have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I’m relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I’m learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that’s rather a relief to discover. If I’ve stated the problem correctly, I’m interested in the question, and I’m not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don’t have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone’s already done that.

We tend to think of the task of regulation as one of making systems hard to break. An alternative to consider is making systems easy to fix. Think of a computer. You can try to use firewalls and anti-virus software to make your computer hard to break. But it still pays to back up your data to make it easy to fix.

“The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.” – Kurt Vonnegut

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

1. Beautiful things.
2. Emotionally important things.
3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
4. Everything else.

Typology of New Yorker cartoons

Given the diversity of talents who over the years contributed cartoons to The New Yorker, it may be surprising to learn that everything in our large cartoon bank has, for the sake of easy reference, been reduced to a dozen or so categories…The categories were as follows: arts and galleries; bars and drinking; birds, fish, and animals; businessmen; cars and road signs; cavemen; children, babies, clergymen; cocktail parties; criminals, cops, jails, and judges; doctors and hospitals; heaven, hell, gods, devils, and so forth; olden times (royalty); old people; politicians and generals; musicians; restaurant and food; tourists, vacations; and finally TV and movies. As far as I know, we’ve never had anything in the bank that couldn’t be easily fit into one of those categories. I’m sure the current bank contains a disproportionate number of TV and movie gags. whereas the cocktail party category is rather thinner than it used to be. Desert island and caveman jokes, of course, go on forever.

Lee Lorenz, The Art of The New Yorker 1925-1995, Knopf, 1995

Two projects, two fuzzy ideas, two lit review processes

The 696 independent study is starting out as a literature review of risk in institutional repositories – where it’s perceived to lie, and, what’s interesting to me, who makes the actual decisions? The OAIS model defines the functions of an archival process but leaves the specifics of implementation to each institution. So, for various managerial functions within an archive (archival storage and data management, for example), those functions could be carried out by one person or teams of people. It depends on resources and staffing. Carolyn has advised me to contextualize the risks within the OAIS model and within institutional repositories, which provides me with a good basis from which to select my sources and also (we hope) prevent me from flying off in all sorts of different directions (such as defining risk, decision making algorithms, how risk is managed in other contexts, and so on). I’ve collected a mass of documents and web pages that I now need to sort through, skim/read, and decide what the current picture of the situation is like. She reminded me at today’s meeting that the goal is not to solve a problem, just to describe the situation.

She liked my abstract and suggested headings/subheadings, so she’s assured that I seem to be moving in the right direction. The precise path I’m still working out, but the direction is fine.

For the 780 Research Methods course, we received very good comments and annotations on our Problem Statements, which were intended to help us think through the research problem we’re proposing, start looking for some literature to support it, and define the research questions that will drive our projects. The key here is to ask the right questions and make sure they’re right-sized, so to speak.

As I was writing my statement, I could feel the question and underlying assumptions change under my fingers. That’s OK, that’s part of the process. (And the value of deadlines, it must be said, is that they focus one’s mind powerfully. Damn them.) The professor started out liking my topic and then seemed to veer toward, well, maybe what you’re really asking is this. And I have to agree with her.

So, I need to work on that section some more.

Upcoming is a literature review that has to include at least 8 pieces, at least 4 of which need to be empirical studies. Based on my 696 and problem statement experiences, I can tell that I’ll need to review/download about 25-40 items to find references that inform what I want to do. The trick here is being sure in my mind what it is I want to do.

I spent this afternoon at the library and found 4 books on community networks that I hope will have either good info I can use or leads on studies. Generally, once you’ve found a good article or lit review on the topic, that’s the mother lode that can lead to more and better items.

Must keep in mind, though, that the finished piece is due in about 10 days, which isn’t much time, given the day job, doing our taxes, getting my car worked on, and other obligations. I’ve reluctantly realized that I’ll never get a whole day to just sit and do this work, so I will have to find a way to fit what I have to do into the interstices of my day. Next weekend, though, will need to be devoted to the writing up of whatever I’ve found so I can discover whether what I’ve got will support my research ideas.

It always amazes me how few people go to graduate school, who actually enjoy studying.

The day I got no research done


  1. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry [1] and start researching.
  2. The Maternalistical Cassidy wheels in with Anastasia and asks if I have lunch plans.
  3. I pack up my stuff and we go to lunch (very pleasant).
  4. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry and start researching.
  5. People people people walk by and want to chat. Very pleasant but no work is done. [2]
  6. I get an email from Dr. T saying I’ve been accepted into SILS’ doctoral program (!) and I was granted a DigCCurr II Fellowship (!!).
  7. I sit there stunned and forward her mail to various folks, like Liz and Cassidy. I also send her a thank-you mail.
  8. Not really knowing what else to do, and wanting to settle myself down, I go back to my research. About a minute later, Cassidy comes down and hugs my neck and is giddier and more excited about the news than I am. We chat a bit and process the news.
  9. She leaves to go back to her work and I return to my research. It’s a little after 3pm.
  10. Dr. T finds me in the liberry and wants me to walk with her over to Daily Grind so she can get a coffee-booster before her 3:30pm talk.
  11. I pack up my stuff and we walk and talk about the offer.
  12. I finally give up and go home after getting about 20 minutes of research work done. This will be a hard semester.

[1] Many and many a year ago I worked in one of the tech-writing gulags of Northern Telecom. A young Southern lady who managed the Interleaf publishing resources often told us about the templates and files stored in the “liberry.” Sorry, but that pronunciation just stuck in my head and I don’t want it to leave.

[2] Lori says I should get used to this.

Assorted links

Why I don't use "lol" in emails. Example 2 is the killer.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a nuclear bomb goes off in your city? Wonder no more with the Ground Zero Calculator. [via Librarian of Fortune]