While browsing around the site, I found that the Milk and Cheese vinyl toy set has been knocked down $10 to $59.95. Something to think about when that stimulus package kicks in and we’re all going crazy saving the economy. Think about it, baby. Alcohol, coffee and groceries disappear. Poof, they’re gone. Ethereal nonsense, you’ve just wasted your money, dude. These toys, however, will stand by you, remain with you, from one economic tragedy to another. You can even take them to the shelter to keep you company when things really tumble into the toilet. I’m pretty sure you can. And nobody will steal them, whereas they’d take so many other things you could waste your money on.

Okay, then. I think I’ve made my case. I think you know what to do.

Paul Graham:

I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.

On specifying your terms

One of the books I read over the Christmas vacation was Writing the Mind Alive, which one Amazon reviewer tags as the book to go to after freewriting has taken you as far it can. I used to write morning pages and still enjoy journaling, but I’m always open to new approaches and methods (the Topics du Jour approach being one that has most impressed me recently). The method was created by two ex-academics, who lead workshops on the method. Their web site is here.

The book is an easy and breezy read, and I appreciated the inclusion of students’ “Writes” (as the authors call them). The method is straightforward and, as some of the Amazon reviewers notes, not all of the ritual surrounding the Write–which includes lighting a candle and playing Baroque music–are really necessary. Also, the book (as one would expect) sings the praises of its “proprioceptive method,” affording it real and affecting emotional benefits to its practitioners.

What most separates the method, for me, is its direction to use what the authors call the “proprioceptive question” or PQ. As one transcribes one’s inner monologue and writes, “I hate it when my mother does that,” the method directs one to listen to the voice and then ask, “What do I mean by ___?” In this case, “what do I mean by hate?” or “what do I mean by that?” And then write out what you mean.

The goal, as the authors explain, is to dig out those details that are glossed over by the wallpaper words we use to not look too closely at the things that bother us. What do I mean by things? Remembered events, memories, assumptions, images, long-buried hurts, and the like.

I usually count a technical book a success if I can get at least one good idea out of it. I consider the PQ a good idea and one I’m going to start using in my own journaling. As I’ve found in my coaching and in monitoring my own self-talk, I will often make a blanket statement as if to say. “Of course, what I’ve said is true and inviolable and not to be questioned.” But as I’ve gotten rid of various blocks and taken risks and experienced successes, I’m seeing more and more the value of exercising some healthy skepticism by making my assumptions explicit and bringing them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

The whole idea of defining one’s terms hove into my view first due to an email newsletter by Laurie Taylor, host of BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed. I admire the way Taylor always attempts to connect that week’s program to a personal anecdote and his lighthearted style is welcome. Here’s his 21-Dec-2008 newsletter:

I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit.  For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname.  But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym.  It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.

It was a very appropriate designation.  Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions.  It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right.  Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor.  You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life.  We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage.  ‘We don’t make love any more.’  That would really get Dyt going.  ‘Make love?  Make love?  Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade.  What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences.  He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.

Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.

But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure.  Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks.  Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:

“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.  The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.  (And in both cases there are similarities.)  Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print.  For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”

I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests.  Dr Dyt would not have approved.

I think Taylor heightens his professor’s point of view and his own reaction for comic effect and to make a better point for the newsletter. But as I read about Dr. Dyt’s approach, I was thinking, “Yep, yep, good for you. That’s the way to do it. Don’t lecture. Let the student teach themselves.” When working with my coach or talking with one of my mentors at school, I find I do often have to say my assumptions out loud. I frequently find that the other person has a different assumption or interpretation of the term or concept; because I’m open about what I think I mean, they’re able to either set me straight or give me new information I wasn’t aware of.

A very simple tool, and easily dismissed because of its simplicity. But I think it has great potential, particularly in school, where I’m asking questions to associate new knowledge to old mental structures so as to create new structures. Defining one’s terms also helps thicken those endless essays and papers. And as I prepare to move into a potential role as teacher, I’m wondering how best to deploy this tool for good educational effect.

The key is to not become Dr. Dyt (if he was ever like that). Don’t ask the question endlessly of every word or idea that comes your way. Set boundaries so you don’t distract yourself. In the proprioceptive writing method, the Write is limited to 25 minutes, with specific follow-up questions to help the writer link the new information from the Write into a larger mental frame.

Michael Lewis, in a remarkable article on the end of the Wall Street boom he documented in his book Liar’s Poker, offered up this choice anecdote on the value of getting specific:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”

This also reminds me of the five whys method, used to find root causes of problems–stop at five. No need to burrow further down the rabbit hole (or your navel) to find the ultimate cause; after a certain point, you have to stop and put that information into action. Otherwise, the questioning becomes an exercise in itself, rather than a means to an end.

There’s a famous story of Confucius from the Analects:

Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before acting. When Confucius heard of this, he said: “Twice is enough.”

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

What I'm doing on my Christmas vacation

The digest-sized
Image via Wikipedia
  • Packed about 15 books (about half of them small cartooning or graphic novel-type books), of which I expect I’ll read 1.5. Right now am knocking back about 40 pgs/day of Lewis Shiner’s Black and White, which makes excellent use of its Durham background and locale.
  • Was up till about 2 am the other night troubleshooting my brother-in-law’s computer setup. I brought my Apple Extreme Router with us, thinking I could set up a wireless network so Liz and I could maintain the filthy computing habits we wallow in at home. Discovered that his modem already had wireless routing built-in, so spent most of my time getting our laptops to recognize the network.
  • Was up till 2 am this morning reviewing 1000+ emails in my “to read later” pile on Gmail. Decided that this cannot go on, as it falls squarely in the not urgent/not important quadrant. So have been unsubscribing from RSS feeds and newsletters as they land in my inbox.
  • Writing in my journal about what I want less/more of next year -- less input, more  output. Less fat, more muscle. Less spending, more saving. That kind of thing. (I’d actually wanted less computering and more reading over my Christmas break, but that’s not happening :D )
  • Playing with Phil’s kitties, Luke (aka Stinky Pete) and Zorro (aka Sweet William). Luke is now splayed across the dining room table, flicking his tail.
  • Decided I’d like to accomplish just 3 things a day, and they’re all the same things: 40 pages in Lew’s book, one blog post/day, some exercise every day. Anything else I accomplish above that very low bar is gravy. (One of those things being messing around with MacVim, for some unknown reason.)
  • Continue with thinking about the independent study, about how I want to organize myself and my time in the spring, and in general unplug myself from the all the web feeds and inputs I bombard myself with. While I enjoy the novelty of this intellectual snack food, I want space in my day to sit and think and mull and process what I’m consuming. Fewer diversions, more time.
  • My coach has asked us at recent seminars what qualities we want in our lives right now. I’m extending that to include what do I want in my life everyday in 2009--a little exercise, a little reading, a little quiet time, good social interactions, a better sleep schedule, etc. Part of what I’m doing now is wondering/imagining/picturing how that would work.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Spring 2009 - Independent Study

Different types of peer-reviewed research journals
Image via Wikipedia

I was not terribly interested in the spring courses being offered, and The Ineluctable Cassidy suggested an independent study might be an option.

I poked around and discovered that another friend, Carolyn, could supervise it. Because Carolyn is a doc student of some years standing in the school’s digital curation discipline, knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly savvy about making the most of opportunities, this is a tremendous way to jump-start an academic career. I hope to learn as much about how she looks at life and work as I do about digital curation.

Anyway, she is an excellent guide to this strange new world of academe and to this field. We decided to work on a research study and she sent me several links to follow up on, read, and think about; suggested I start a research journal; and asked me to suggest some possible areas of interest where we could do some work. The output will be an article, or paper, or poster, or something that can be put on a CV.

This research was, in fact, another drain on my attention as I tried to finish up my fall assignments. I barfed out some ideas an in email to Carolyn but they struck me as too big, too vague--showing, no doubt, my unfamiliarity with the field. No matter. That’s why I’m doing the research.

When January comes, I’ll be taking the Research Methods course and the independent study. We decided the indie study should count for 3 hours credit, which means about 9 hours/wk of work. Because I’m not having to travel to campus for this extra class, I expect that should fit into my schedule OK.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Status of the Ph.D.


  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions–Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?–that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn’t fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

2008 Fall Semester Wrap-up

@1125h: Checking mail, backing up
Image by Angela Sabas via Flickr

Follow-up to my fall break posting.

  • I spent the last two days deleting 1000+ emails from my Gmail “read this later” pile, deleted all unneeded emails from my fall classes, and deleted from my hard drive all the working files and drafts I used to create my various homework assignments. I keep only the final versions that I hand in and only the emails that included those files as attachments.
  • The semester, as usual, ended oddly. One feels that there should be more emotional celebration when you turn in that final assignment, but it’s not a race where there’s a clear winner and the outcome is unambiguous. I’m usually just restless and antsy and give me whatever grade you feel like giving me, I’m too tired to care. Fellow students comment on how we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves and all this free time. It’s a feeling I remember from when I used to act in community theater; we’d spend 6 weeks of evenings and weekends rehearsing, and when the performances and parties were over, we were generally glad to be done with this show that we were now thoroughly familiar with (and, consequently, sick of) and ready to move on. We talked about what we’d do with these acres of now-free time. After two weeks, we were back auditioning for the next show.
  • I expect this odd feeling--all revved up and then looking around at an empty landscape wondering where everyone went--will recur when graduation eventually rolls around. :)
  • I am pleased to report that I got high marks for both classes, which means I have a complete set of high marks for all of my classes thus far. La, how jolly.
  • Looking back, I probably could have handled both classes more easily had I not been severely distracted by the whole Ph.D. question. All that questioning, research, writing the essay, and pulling together those threads really distracted me from my everyday assignments.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Moyra Davey on Random Reading “So how are we to draw up those reading lists finally? I have been fascinated to note how many writers invoke chance and randomness as guiding principles in choosing their books. I am talking about Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who, citing ‘the John Cage-ish principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too,’ spent a winter reading the Greek tragedies because she happened to find a discounted set in a mail order catalogue. I’m talking about the serendipitous findings of Virginia Woolf, the little pamphlet from a hundred years ago that she comes across in a second-hand bookshop that stops her in her tracks and rivets her to the spot. I am talking about the happenstance of Georges Perec, who, while engaged in the tedious task of arranging his bookshelves, comes upon a book he’d lost sight of and writes: 'putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour [it] lying face down on your bed.’ He further speculates that in our pursuit of knowledge, 'order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.’ And finally, I am talking about the passionate book collector uncrating his treasures after a two-year hiatus, as portrayed by Walter Benjamin in his autobiographical essay 'Unpacking My Library,’ for whom 'chance and fate … are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these book.’

"Just as a bookcase full of read and unread books conjures up a portrait of the owner over time ('joggers of the memory’ Perec calls them), so the books that arrest us in the present constitute a reflection of 'what we are, or what we are becoming or desire’ (Schwartz). There is nothing random about that, or about any of these other seemingly random ways of coming to books, and it is from this notion that the oddly apt idea of books choosing us, rather than the other way around, seems to make sense. The idea of a book choosing the reader has to do with a permission granted. A book gives permission when it uncovers a want or a need, and in doing so asserts itself above all the hundreds of others jockeying to be read. In this way a book can become a sort of uncanny mirror held up to the reader, one that concretizes a desire in the process of becoming.” –Moyra Davey fr. The Problem of Reading A Documents Book, 2003

From Charles Bowden in Blood Orchid:

“We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.”

So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you’d be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn’t just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it.

Client begins first meeting by making a big show of telling you that you are the expert. You are in charge, he says: he will defer to you in all things, because you understand the web and he does not. (Trust your uncle Jeffrey: this man will micromanage every hair on the project’s head.)

Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe.

Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.