Fall Review

During 2007’s fall break, I took a breather and penned (odd word for a blog post, but I’ll use it) an update on how the semester was going and the changes I was going through at that time.

A question from Brother Thomas and my friend Rani’s firing up of her own blog about her academic struggles and successes compelled me to do another mini-review of how the semester is going. So, some random thoughts in random order:

  • The semester’s academic work is going just fine, though I do always seem to be about a week behind, with two large projects looming like giant looming things. Despite all the work that’s piling up, I feel mostly on top of it all. I have the 500-Human Information Interaction class (the “intellectual fun” class) and the 523-Introduction to Relational Databases class (the rock-logic technical class that is torquing my intuitive English-major brain). They’re a good balance of subjects for me to have. And both of the teachers are excellent.
  • The index card trick alluded to in this post didn’t survive. It duplicated the hardcopy monthly calendars I keep in my binder; also, it’s too easy to check the class reading schedule on the web. I prefer the calendars since I can see a bigger swath of date-related information at a glance; my planner book tracks my daily to-dos. Small piles of index cards were just one more thing I didn’t want to track.
  • The binder, by the way, is my secret weapon. It holds a master academic calendar, all the syllabi, assignments, class notes, etc. for both classes, with tabs separating things here and there. I take notes on generic grid paper, hole punch it, and add it to the binder later. I should probably re-write the notes to really cement it all in my head, but – no. No, I won’t be doing that.
  • My day job sucked up all life, space, time, and peanut butter pie out of my life during September, which made completing the schoolwork esp. challenging. Fortunately, I faced this predicament last year and prepared better for the crunch this year, so it went as smoothly as it could go. But there was still no peanut butter pie.
  • My time management changed at some point this year; I can’t pinpoint where or when. I’ve rather quietly (to me) adopted the injunction to “start early.” This is the secret weapon of accomplishing grad-school work. I think it happened when I looked at my master calendar and saw that I had multiple major deliverables due at work and in both classes during the same week. But look at all that empty calendar time just sitting there the week before! So I’ve started pushing this stuff out earlier. Even if I can’t get it finished early, I can at least get it started early and so the ideas compost while I do other things. So going back to the task is more a matter of keeping the ball rolling, rather than getting it started.
  • Starting early also helps my projects “to accrue” rather than “to be worked on.” I found myself doing this last spring and am doing it as often as I can this fall. A time management tactic by Mark Forster is this: when faced with projects stretching out for some time ahead of you, start work on the most distant project first. It sounds counter-intuitive, but getting that big project started early gets your subconscious involved in sifting and shaping the material, solving the problem, etc. If I can touch the project regularly over the coming weeks, I find that I add a little more to it each time with very little strain. (This is very much a blend of Forster’s continuous revision and little and often processes.) There are inevitable hours-long work sessions, of course, including the finishing of the piece, but I get more satisfaction out of those sessions knowing that good-sized chunks of the work have already been done.
  • I recall a week when the deadlines were so lock-stepped that I had to finish a task or project before resuming or even starting the next project. Had I gotten sick, or dropped one of those projects, I’d have never caught up and my empire would have collapsed.
  • At times like that, I remember my co-worker Richard’s advice. He’d finished a hard 2 years getting a master’s in bioinformatics, and sometimes took unpaid leave from the day-job to get his schoolwork done. When my manager and I started our master’s programs, he said: “Don’t skimp on your sleep; you can’t afford to get sick and fall behind.” And: “Just accept that no one will get 100% – not school, not family, not home, not work. If you can give them 90%, you’re doing outstanding.”
  • I saw my mentor, The Improbable Cassidy, in the hallway and, teasingly, asked her how many groups and committees she was a member of this semester. She shook her head and said if she stopped to think about it all, she would freeze. We agreed that denial is an often underrated coping mechanism.
  • Cassidy has a new baby, The Wondrous Anastasia, and what with feedings and naps, Cassidy has adopted the “work when you can” method and testifies herself to be more productive even than before. During crunch times, this is a good strategy and, though it’s a filthy habit, it does work. I find myself using it with distressing regularity.
  • Speaking of Cassidy, she persuaded me to join the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (cc:ASIS&T) as the Program Chair. I felt I owed her some tremendous back-payments on favors she’s done for me the last 2 years, and that’s a large part of why I agreed to do it. Also, I felt it was time to start getting a little more involved in the life of the school and meet more of my peers. (I’ve volunteered on special projects in the past, but have never held a board position before.) Since joining, I’ve sent out typical Mike-Brown over-the-top emails (rather like these hideously long blog posts that are dinosaurs in the Twitter Age) on program and publications ideas, disgorged a flurry of emails to help organize a recent talk, and spent several hours creating an event-planning template to make these things go a little more smoothly in future, I hope. (Slow-learner that I am, I finally twigged that “program chair” = “event planner.”)
  • A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For the last two semesters, I’ve parked in a park-and-ride lot and taken the bus. This semester, after sampling the parking deck behind the post office (only for dire emergencies at the beginning), I’m now parking there regularly and willingly paying the $3 for 3 hours. No more waiting for or missing the bus, and I can now linger for after-class conversations or meetings. And if I don’t linger, I get to the office a half-hour earlier, which more than pays for the parking fee.
  • No. Exercise. At. All. Apart from walking across campus or up stairs and, sorry, they don’t really count. A 45-hour-per-week job, with school – plus the homework and the commuting to and from – as basically my second job, crowds out exercise time. I started the Hundred Push Ups program but did not make it past the first week. I’m such a marshmallow.
  • The Beauteous Liz, as per usual, minds the store at home and picks up the slack of household management since my attention is always elsewhere.
  • The Ph.D. Oh Lord. That’s another blog post. Maybe later.
  • In the past, while waiting for the bus, I’d pull out cards and write to friends, since I don’t have time to write long letters anymore. (They’d be happy with long emails, but I think cards and letters arriving in the mailbox are more fun.) This semester, I’ve not had time nor brainspace to write any cards at all. I hope to get back to this soon, before Cara & Andy leave Seattle for NC in November and before Sue & family leave California for Sweden very soon.
  • Last fall, I stopped my banjo lessons because it was one rock too many. I restarted the lessons in May with a new teacher and have continued them through this fall. Music lessons are a metaphor for lots of things related to life and learning and growth, and my teacher is an excellent guide for all of those things. The learning is hand-eye, rhythmic, and uses different parts of my brain than the verbal/technical parts that are way overused. I can feel myself getting better as I practice, and that’s a good feeling. Also, good practice requires total focus, which helps distract me when the black dog of melancholia follows me home.
  • I started this program officially in Spring 2007. Now, I find myself recognizing more folks in the halls, chatting with them, getting their stories. It’s socially comforting to be recognized. It’s happening slowly for me, given my schedule, but it’s happening.
  • Viewing that paragraph on cc:ASIS&T and this exponentially expanding blog post should tell you that I must not be busy enough. It’s all, as Rani sez, “structured procrastination.”

"Reminding him with a tap"

Anton Chekhov:

There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her claws sooner or later, trouble will come for him -- disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.

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" by Alice W. Flaherty

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.

"Lost is okay"

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 part of the daily ‘scope. 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.

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!

On being a professional

I don't take many notes in my 500 class, but I wanted to get this down from the professor, Dr. Marchionini:

If you're a professional, then you have to think. The professional dwells in confusing places where the boundaries are fuzzy and you have to make decisions. If you're not thinking, you're a factory worker.

He wasn't disparaging factory workers, by the way -- we've all worked those kinds of jobs. But the kind of working and thinking that we're preparing ourselves for can't be performed by rote.

Storing Nuggets of Information

The following are comments I left on the high-fun personal blog PigPog. Back in 2005, Michael wrote a post on storing and retrieving nuggets of information. This invited a couple of unedited brain-dumps from your Humble Correspondent. I'm posting them here because my original links to the post were broken after a site redesign and I would not want to lose them again. Also, since I'm in info-school, they seemed appropriate to post here. As these posts are from 2005, I've naturally moved on and made changes to my routines, but they're a good snapshot of my thought and habits from that time.


A few things come to mind:

Other writers: From his essays, I twigged that Martin Gardner kept drawers of index cards, meticulously cross-indexed, with relevant articles or snippets from his reading paper-clipped to them. He’d draw on these when writing his books/essays.

The New Yorker magazine also had a legendary cross-indexed 3×5 index card catalog of the magazine’s contents going back to the founding. Their insurance company identified the index cards as a risk, which led them to move to a database, and then to scan in the issues, and then to release the magazine’s contents on DVD (I’m getting them for Christmas). The 3×5 card system has now been abandoned. (Read this in a NY Times article and an interview on NPR.)

Journalist James Fallows (who worked with Msft on the development of OneNote, I think, esp from a journalist's perspective) is a computer buff from way back. He touted the use of old DOS programs like Grandview (outliner program to help him organize his stories) and Lotus Agenda (”a spreadsheet for words,” which had pretty amazing natural-language processing of text on the fly– Google on that and breathe in the nostalgia). He used Agenda to collect snippets of everything, create categories and views on the fly, and essentially keep track of his research and notes.

Nowadays, he uses Brainstorm and Mindmanager, and who knows what all.

The novelist Robertson Davis kept a writer’s notebook of ideas, characters, etc (near to my heart as a writer). He numbered each page, and each entry on a page got a letter. When it came time to write a novel, he noted that entries 9F, 10A, and 12B related to a single character, and he drew the threads together that way.

I’ve also had (and have) the info-packrat disease, which fueled my purchase of Agenda, Infoselect, Ecco Pro, and god knows how many others.

The computer columnist Jim Seymour wrote somewhere, and it made an impression on me, that there is information that likes to be structured — by chronology, by someone’s name, by the alphabet, by location, by function, by program name, whatever — and then there is loose info that you can’t define a container for YET, but that you can’t bear to lose. This has caused me sleepless nights and I debate its core usefulness to me, often.

The 43Folders post on living inside a single text file inspired me to try again at home with Notetab (Windows text editor). It has a simple structuring facility it calls an outline, but which is simply a flat list of topic headings on the left, and the text on the right. I’ve found I prefer the flat headings to hierarchical; they remind me of keeping notes in my Palm Memo (ie, “Books/Loaned to,” “Books/Library,” etc). it’s also like spreading everything out on a table so I can scan it quickly; nothing is hidden underneath another topic; everything is on the surface.

Lately, I’m trying to bookmark less often, save info less often, UNLESS I have a specific project in mind. In that case, I create the folders/structures to contain that info and the info naturally adheres to it.

At work, I use a dead-simple program called Electric Notebook (http://lincoln.midcoast.com/~ian/notebook.html), a very personal (ie, idiosyncratic) program with few of the amentities of OneNote, except that it can sit open all day, I type stuff in as it occurs to me, with (I hope) the right keywords, and then I search on it as I need to. Which is never as often as I think. It’s an electronic logbook, basically. It’s based on just keeping stuff chronologically, but in a rough-and-ready fashion. I find that it’s dumbed-down enough to suit my simple needs very nicely. I find, though, that I use it at home less than I use Notetab.

For structured info at work, I use an OpenOffice Writer document to simulate Word’s Document Map function (which is similar to Notetab’s outline function — is there a pattern??). This document is called “infoindex” and holds various Unix commands, checklists, timecard chargecodes, etc., that demand to be stored and used as reference, not stuff that’s part of the passing scene. Stuff I input into Notebook that’s worth remembering or referring back to more than once gets migrated to the infoindex.

I find this two-pronged approach works well for me. Electric Notebook for unstructured info, Infoindex for structured info. And it’s a simple enough process that I can use it when I’m distracted or under the weather.

I would also refer you to the c2.com wiki’s entires on LogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?LogBook) and ElectronicLogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ElectronicLogBook).

Sorry for the long post! But this is a big interest of mine.

Mike


Oh, and another cs.com link to Programmers Notebook, which includes a list of best practices: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ProgrammersNotebook


Hi Michael — ... I’ve always been a fan of commonplace books, don’t know why. I keep a Word file that I dump them into, and at end of year I print it out and put it in a “Commonplace” folder; the folder also holds hard copy I come across that I want to preserve.

See, information packrat :)

I bought Brainstorm and have tried it a couple of times, but it also doesn’t click with me. I’ll probably try it again; I like trying out idiosyncratic programs made by developers at home. Notebox Disorganizer is another oddity; the UI is basically a spreadsheet grid, but each cell is a cubbyhole in which you can dump your information. The Editorium newsletter had a neat description of how he uses it; scroll down to “Resources.”

Mindmaps are more fun to hand draw and noodle with, IMO, than the software-based ones. Too much cognitive overhead and time spent getting it just right on the 'puter, when a good-enough handdrawn one will help sort out your thinking.

There’s also Evernote, if you’ve not tried it. It’s been getting some good buzz.

Yes, Agenda was Kapor’s brainchild, and he’s now working on something called Chandler, supposedly another info mgmt tool. Agenda still has quite a loyal following.

So much software, so little value from so much of it. I wonder if, in a world of less software meant to save time and improve my life, I’d have read more books.

I think software is sometimes best used for a specific project or purpose, not as something to live in. That’s why I like the idea of the single text file approach — Google has taught us that categorization is not vital if you have full text search. And there’s little in my personal life that requires the full categorization that I need in my workplace.

Still, I’m one of those people who like to file and make categories, so it comes naturally to me. I remember something I read a long time ago, that humans (esp computer people) tend to leap for the complicated solution first, thinking of all the exceptions that have to be trapped, and so on. In reality, a good-enough system will probably work and you only should handle exceptions as they arise.

This is why I’ve drifted away from all-in-one software solutions, because I find I tend not to think of them as easy to use as a pencil or a text editor. (I daresay PigPog is an attempt to simplify GTD in the same way.) I also think that’s the value of the weekly review, to refresh those brain synapses about what’s out there. You can’t remember everything, but if you can remember where you put it, then that’s just as good. As the Extreme Programming guys say, do the simplest thing that could possibly work.

You probably read/heard about the researcher who used DevonThink as his commonplace book/dumping ground for bits of text. He had an assistant type in lots of stuff and then Devon searched around and made unusual connections the writer would not have thought of. But the time cost of doing something like that is prohibitive to me. And as you say, what if the software never progresses (like Agenda or Ecco)?

Sorry for another long post! I find this kind of discussion hits on things I’ve tried to figure out in my own life/work.

All best — mike

"Giant hammer"

By improbably (and I’ve often thought, mistakenly) landing a brief berth in the Technorati Top 100, 43 Folders was also “discovered” by an unspeakable black mildew of PR people who, on their clients’ behalf, “reach out” to bloggers with the gruesome goal of getting them to trade their credibility for access to free crap and “embargoed” press releases. Mm, pinch me. And, somewhere in there, I heard somebody say, “Marketing is the tax you pay for being unremarkable,” and I dreamed of having that phrase printed on a giant hammer.

"Rickety towers of ad hoc solutions to unforeseen problems"

In a recent critical essay about economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek, Jesse Larner notes:

... Hayek understood at least one very big thing: that the vision of a perfectible society leads inevitably to the gulag. Experience should have taught us by now that human societies are jerry-built structures, rickety towers of ad hoc solutions to unforeseen problems. Their development is evolutionary, and as in biological evolution, they do not have natural end-states. They are what they are continuously becoming. Comprehensive models of how society should work reject the wisdom of solutions that work and deny the legitimacy (indeed, from Lenin to Mussolini to Mao to Ho to Castro to Qutb, deny the very right to exist) of individuals who demonstrate anti-orthodox wisdom. Defenders of these models are required by their own rigidity to invent the category of the counterrevolutionary. To Hayek, this is what socialism, communism, and collectivism—he makes little distinction between them—mean: the dangerous illusion of perfectibility. ...

And when the interchangeable young man says, after the cricket game on the lawn, “Ripping performance, old boy! Come up to the house and meet the mater,” well, that touches all my Anglophile buttons.

Advice to a 40-odder on re-entering school

When I let it be known around the office back in 2006 that I was interested in going back to school, and that I'd targeted UNC's SILS, an acquaintance introduced me to a friend of hers who had just gotten her MSLS degree from there. I think we talked in January or February and I was amazed at the impromptu compactness and pointedness of the excellent advice she gave me. It was a great example of how, when you make your intentions specific and known, life opens its hand and leads you where you want to go. Anyway, here's the advice she gave me, with a few tips and embellishments from me.

  • Read the professor's bios and see what their backgrounds are. Focus on the ones whose interests match yours. One of them could be your advisor after you enter BUT--start talking to your fellow students after you arrive and get their advice on potential advisors as well.
  • Avoid applying for the fall semester. Apply in January instead--the application pool is smaller and there's less competition.
  • One of the things that made me an attractive candidate was not just my work experience, but also that I wouldn't require a scholarship.
  • Information Science is wide open and encompasses a broad field. Even if you don't know exactly where you'll land in SILS, you should be able to find a place in it.
  • Feel free to call the office and ask to set up a visit. The staff is very friendly and they often conduct tours of the building and surrounding area to prospects.
  • The GRE is a formality if the admissions committee thinks you'll contribute to the program. (That didn't make the GRE any more pleasurable!)
  • This was the best advice: she suggested taking some SILS classes, even online classes, as a continuing ed student via the Friday Center. The courses are cheaper than if you're in a degree program, and provide some familiarity with the school and professors (though adjuncts often teach the online courses). I took two classes this way and those hours transferred in very easily after I was accepted.
  • I scheduled my first cont-ed class during a summer session. This allowed me to get familiar with campus and the bus schedules at a more relaxed pace than I could have done during the general crush and chaos of the fall or spring semester. And no long line waiting to get an ID card!
  • Be aware that the Friday Center and the Graduate School are two separate entities. If you fill out the North Carolina residency form for one, you also have to fill one out for the other. An instance of the bureaucracy being set up for the bureaucracy's convenience rather than the student's. (And no, no one tells you this. You either have to find out on your own or read some big dumb blogger passing on his hard-won wisdom.)

Related post: Studying for the GRE

Hallway conversations

Rachael in the elevator: "So, Mike, are you going to do a doctorate?" Dr. Tibbo as she was leaving her office: "So, Mike, has Carolyn talked to you about joining the doctoral program?"

NEVER wear white socks with dress shoes. It’s akin to “finishing” too early on your honeymoon night. Which means you should be ashamed.

Links Harvest: novels, narrative, BAE

  1. Narrative and novels as models for social relations and as simulations of economic approaches.
  2. First in a series of BBC4 radio programs on what the novelist's imagination can offer sociological research on place. Settings: the rural idyll, the city, and the suburb.
  3. "Once you've restricted yourself to information that turns up in Google searches, you begin having a very distorted view of the world...A book is not 150 successive blog entries, just like a novel isn't 150 character sketches, descriptions, and scraps of dialog. " A narrative, even in a computer book, helps to order experience.  Computer book author Charles Petzold on the grim economics and reality of book authorship.
  4. Grim? Grim. Writer and editor Susie Bright explains why she's stopped editing the Best American Erotica Series, laments the collapse of the short-story market (no readers=no markets), and predicts  what could happen next. (Her blog is NSFW, if you need to know that sort of thing.) One of many money quotes: "Book reading is not in vogue any longer, it's eccentric. No one would even bother to have an obscenity fight over text, because so few people would be in 'danger' of reading it."

Digital History Hacks

William Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, runs a great blog, “Digital History Hacks: Methodology for the infinite archive.” I first ran across his blog last year via a couple of his research-related posts, the kind of “how to succeed at grad school” material that I continue to scarf up. One, on knowing when to stop doing research, offered great advice from one of his advisors: “Your research is done when it stops making a difference to your interpretation.”

Another post recommended just writing down the direct quotes and avoiding paraphrasing. He diagnoses his students’ note-taking problems as simply not using enough sources (but, again, know when it’s time to stop looking).

But what really fires Turkel up is using technology to grapple with history and I find his ideas and opinions invigorating. Similar to how historians want to get their hands on old documents, Turkel wants to use today’s digital tools to examine historical evidence.

His About page says, “In my blog I discuss the kinds of techniques that are appropriate for an archive that has near-zero transaction costs, is constantly changing and effectively infinite. ” Given that one of the themes of my education includes providing curated homes for digital materials, I’m curious as to his attack on the subject of dealing with digital records as historical documents and historical documents transformed into digital records. I also think his embrace of technology–especially programming–within a humanities-oriented discipline provokes some interesting ideas on how technology could be used or promoted within the academy.

He has a definite zest for the tech side and encourages digital historians to embrace programming as a tool that’s as creative and useful and ubiquitous as email or RSS feeds have become. He has co-authored an e-book and web site called The Programming Historian that introduces the tools and basic knowledge needed to create simple programs in Python and JavaScript. The goal isn’t necessarily to become a programmer, but to introduce to historians and other scholars in the humanities a new set of tools they can use to further their research and scholarship. Instead of scouring SourceForge for a unique one-off utility, says Turkel, create your own. The intellectual experience alone is enough to grow your capacity for looking at problems in a different way and, I would say, builds your confidence for attacking bigger and more unusual problems.

Turkel provides a great example of what he’s talking about in his series of posts titled “A Naive Bayesian in the Old Bailey,” a step-by-step account of the tools and approaches he used to perform data mining on over 200,000 XML files of digitized records from the Old Bailey. His final post sums up the experience, his decisions, and the value such an endeavor can provide.

Turkel’s vigorous advocacy of learning basic programming and tech tools reminds me of this post from the blog “Getting Things Done in Academia,” where Physiological Ecologist Carlos Martinez del Rio suggests that science grad students pick up two tools, with at least one being a programming language. This enables the eventual scientist to add to their own toolkits, encourages logical thinking, and enables a flexibility and enhanced ground speed when it comes to research.

This is not an attitude that I’ve seen in many of the courses I’ve taken so far at SILS, I think. There is certainly a zeal for programming and technology that arises naturally from the students themselves; they’re so fluent with the web and a zillion different web apps and sites, that they can imagine a solution to a problem in their minds and see PHP, CSS, JavaScript, and so on, as building blocks–or perhaps, a latticework–that will eventually solve the puzzle. And I know the faculty encourages the students to explore. No one is holding them back.

But, to be fair, it’s more likely that that attitude really isn’t germane to the primarily introductory classes I’ve been taking for the last 4 semesters. I’ve only recently settled on a focus area that will help me choose courses and a line of study for the next 4 semesters. Most of the technology I’ve played with so far–such as the Protege ontology editor–has served as a fine introduction to what’s out there, but there’s no time to practice mastery.

The master’s program’s primary goal is mainly to introduce us to a body of literature and a field of study; soak us in the basic ideas and concepts; and raise our awareness of the issues and problems that exist. If you want to go deeper and more technical, that’s fine, you can do that, and your master’s project offers an opportunity to develop a skill if you want it. But SILS occupies an unusual position in the campus course offerings. UNC’s computer science department doesn’t offer some basic courses, so SILS feels it needs to offer them; for example, courses on web databases and XML. It’s acknowledged that the standards of these courses are not up to those taught by the regular faculty. Still, these courses offer a safe place to practice and make mistakes, and that’s valuable. And, as one professor told me, if you’re smart, you’ll be able to pick up what you need and get out of it what you want. The important thing is to just start, wallow around for a while, and see what emerges.

The last word goes to Turkel, who says here that historians, more so than other practitioners in other disciplines, are uniquely positioned to pick up the basics of programming, in a passage I find rather inspiring, and not just for students:

Historians have a secret advantage when it comes to learning technical material like programming: we are already used to doing close readings of documents that are confusing, ambiguous, incomplete or inconsistent. We all sit down to our primary sources with the sense that we will understand them, even if we’re going to be confused for a while. This approach allows us to eventually produce learned books about subjects far from our own experience or training.

I believe in eating my own dogfood, and wouldn’t subject my students to anything I wouldn’t take on myself. As my own research and teaching moves more toward desktop fabrication, I’ve been reading a lot about materials science, structural engineering, machining, CNC and other subjects for which I have absolutely no preparation. It’s pretty confusing, of course, but each day it all seems a little more clear. I’ve also been making a lot of mistakes as I try to make things. As humanists, I don’t think we can do better than to follow Terence’s adage that nothing human should be alien to us. It is possible to learn anything, if you’re willing to begin in the middle.

You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.

And so you must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it.

But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.

You will be told also – ignoring our permanent dependence on food, clothing, and shelter – that you live in a “knowledge-based economy,” which in fact is deeply prejudiced against all knowledge that does not produce the quickest possible return on investment.

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Thanks for showing you gave the matter some thought by starting your email with "hmm."

Notes - The Book, The Internet, Literature

First heard of the "Is Google Making Us Stupid/Killing Literature" foomfahrah via this Mark Hurst post and this follow-up. Kevin Kelly was quite a player in the debate also, here and here, and all the above links will let you read all sides to your heart's desire. Clay Shirky's post questioning the "cult of literature" really popped the cork. Both Kelly and Hurst agreed with Jeremy Hatch's post that it's not the medium that disturbs your reading focus so much as your inability to discipline your reading habits, whether online or off. I wish I had the rhetorical power and skill (and time) to write a blessay on the subject, but here are the rough notes I made today as I criss-crossed cyberspace reading, skimming, and frowning. They add different vegetables to an already spicy gumbo.

  • Hatch and Kelly (and others) have no problem with reading on a computer screen. Hurst and Kelly both highlight this quote from Hatch's post: "...your ability to concentrate on a long text is not a function of the medium of delivery, but a function of your personal discipline and your aims in reading."I would say that that is probably true for Hatch, but not so true for me. I've had surgeries on both eyes for detached retinas and cataracts (and follow-up laser treatments to burn off lens plaque); reading online for long periods tires my eyes in a way reading paper-based materials do not. Perhaps this is because the light is being pushed to my eyes via my 20" Trinitron monitor rather than the light being reflected off the page; I don't know. My cataract doctor also urged me and every computer user I know to use wetting drops or lubricant eye drops at least hourly. He said he's observed computer and laptop users not blinking their eyes for nearly a minute, and this aggravates dryness and irritation of the eyeball.Kelly asked for some scientific studies of how reading online is materially or measurably different from reading books. In addition to scans of brain activity, why not also check eye movements, eye health, posture, etc.?
  • Better equipment may also help. I did read a book or two on my Clie in years past and it was OK, but it's not an experience I sought out very much. (Also, reading on my Clie isn't the event that an evening spent reading a book is, for me.) My 13" MacBook has a great screen for reading, but most PDFs I get don't fit comfortably on that screen, so I often wind up changing zoom levels and scrolling around a lot. On my PC, running the monitor means running my big desktop PC with the loud fan, which is annoying. Also, the hummmm of the equipment impels me to do something--don't just read! My apparatus for online reading isn't as transparent as the typical book apparatus I'm used it. I do often print out the things I want to read and take them with me.
  • Kelly, I think, points out the arguments of how word processors changed writing styles. Other commentators pointed out how every new technology changed how we created or consumed stories or (ugh) content. James Burke's series "The Day The Universe Changed" heavily makes the point that writing altered people's memories; it certainly had implications for the creation and performance of epic poems. I think it's safe to assume that the online experience will change reading habits, but we don't know how.
  • I was fascinated by Hatch's post where he said he really hasn't known life without computers around. I'm part of the generation that bridged the computing divide; I didn't use computers for full-time work until 1989, when I started using a Mac II for writing and laying out a newsletter. And the Internet (in the form of Compuserve) and the Web weren't part of my life till about 5 years afterward. Before that, yep, it was books, typewriters, and lots of scratch paper.
  • If people are having trouble reading books because they're reading online too much, it may be as Hatch says, more a matter of discipline or habit. But we're talking experienced readers and computer users here. It may be that the computer offers wonderful distractions. But it may be a generational thing, where us older readers are comforted by the handrails a book offers: pagination, tactile response, heft, the ability to open a book into 3 places at one time to check the TOC, endnotes, and a diagram. I find I miss the handrails when reading online: I have to use a little more cognitive juice to gauge how far I've come and how far I have to go in a book (though the scroll bar suffices), I have to think about how to set a bookmark if I want to go back and check something I've read before, I have to think about how to implement marginalia. I know all of these can be done online, but I have to think about how to do it; these tasks feel more "natural" (that is to say, "practiced" and "learned" and "I already know how to do it") with a book in hand.
  • I remember a long-ago question to Marilyn vos Savant. A guy noticed he was having trouble concentrating. What was the one best thing he could do to regain his focus? Her answer: read a novel.
  • "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Were we stupid before? Or are we letting ourselves get lazy? Is that the same thing?
  • I'll probably change this answer after reading Carr's article, but: I think the simple answer would be to just shut the damn computer off and stop the input for a while.
  • How much of our reading mechanisms are "natural"--that is to say, innate, inborn? Our brain's hardware hasn't really changed all that much for the last several thousands of years. How important is training and association, and simply what we're most comfortable with? Could we refer to these latter components as the "software" running on our wonderful hardware?
  • Burke said in his series that, with a book, you could hold a man's mind in your hand, argue with him, learn from him--without having to go and see him. But books (and the publishing industry that grew up around them) eventually grew to serve as mediators and quality gates for centuries, becoming another effective barrier. If text (like music) is now flowing at us in a stream, it means that we're now again accepting unmediated information. Lots of that information may be worthless, but other mediators will arise (like the NY Times, Slate, Salon, Yahoo, and others), readers will choose which they prefer to use to sample the stream's myriad contents, and the mediation will continue, but in new forms.
  • I suppose one test you could do to check the efficacy of online vs book reading would be to have book-reader James Wood and bits-reader Jeremy Hatch read the same book in their preferred formats and see how the discussion proceeds. Does the medium change what they notice or what they talk about? Methinks that the conversation we'd overhear (and I'd love to overhear it) would be two excellent readers discussing what impressed them about the book, the (ugh) content. Instead of references to "that scene on page 12" we might instead hear "that scene where she cuts the watermelon", but that's not a big deal.
  • I do like Kelly's point about redefining what a book is, what are its boundaries. "Book" to me means a specific physical object. We need a new name, a new metaphor, a new image.
  • But truthfully, and I think even the digital partisans would agree, some subjects just work better in a book or folio form. Large-format art books, for example. I have a great big book of illuminated journals and letters that I adore turning the pages of, and my Absolute Watchmen and Alice in Sunderland volumes are just exquisite pleasures to read, browse, linger over, and they're easy on my poor eyes. I get great joy from appreciating the craft of the book, its art. There's also something about the possession of a beautiful physical object I can hold in my hands that I don't feel with digital objects.
  • Is the worry that we're becoming illiterate or aliterate? People may choose not to read because there are other things they're rather be doing. I'd say the latter is more precisely the issue some worry about. But haven't there always been fewer literate educated people in the world, than the reverse? (How many copies of a book do you need to sell to get on the NY Times Bestseller List? Compare that to the opening weekend attendance of the worst summer movie in the world. Which is larger? By what magnitude? There's no going back.)
  • Reminds me of Gore Vidal's comment that, at the dawn of civilization, song and poetry were at the center of the culture. Then books occupied the center, and pushed poetry out to the edges. Then movies and radio occupied the center, pushed books and novels to the edges, pushing poetry even further out. Then television rose in the center, and so on and so on. While none of these earlier artforms have died out, they aren't at the center and their enthusiasts talk to each other more than they talk to the mass audience.
  • I was struck by some commentators' replies that they loved their PDAs or iPhones to read books while standing in line, making use of downtime, etc. (A friend at work calls reading while on the toilet "parallel processing.") Not to be a prig, but -- is that really the best use of your time? Wouldn't your brain benefit from no input AT ALL for just a few minutes? When I'm in line at the grocery, I'll say a mantra to just pass the time and put me in a good mood. I'd hate to start reading something, get lost in it, and then have to hurriedly close it to push my cart forward. When I start reading, I want to stay in that world for a while. When I'm not reading, I want to stay in this world and be aware of what's around me or just mull things over.
  • Kelly mentioned audiobooks as a medium that no one was talking about. I listen to mine in the car, so only ever hear them in snippets; it makes for a somewhat disjointed experience. In Steve Martin's memoir that I got through Audible.com, I lost the photos that appeared in the book but I got banjo interludes between chapters and him actually singing some of his songs. So that was a good trade-off.
  • Genre became an issue with Shirky's essay and Birkerts, too. Fiction vs non-fiction seemed to be the issue. Would the discussion change if we were talking about poetry rather than prose? Could you read a few lines of Shakespeare or Keats or the Iliad while waiting in the grocery line, and then could you say you really read it? And what do I mean by "really reading it"? Does the context of where and how you're reading affect how you read a specific genre? (Obligatory mention of Poetry Daily, which I do visit daily.)
  • I'm surprised Wendell Berry hasn't weighed in by now (but then, someone would have to print out all the essays and send them to him). Wendell would add some more fun to the discussion.

Update: Talk about serendipity. Listened to a BBC Radio 3 discussion on the Future of the Book. In addition to talking about how a book, being self-contained, excludes other distractions, they mentioned the signaling aspects of book-readers, particularly subway or tube readers. Their choice of book signals to the other riders what kind of person they are; a "One Hundred Years of Solitude" reader might be advertising something about themselves quite different from a "Da Vinci Code" reader. One presumes a Kindle or iPhone reader are also advertising something about themselves to the people around them.

Update: "The Amazon Kindle I passed around the room was so forgettable that no one mentioned it during the next 90 minutes."

The only thing you get to do in this world is choose what a good life is and then aim for it. But that requires being opinionated. Every day you are choosing what’s a good life for you.

“There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” -Lon Chaney

Got that? They’ll be a quiz. Originally from Little Pet’s Picture Alphabet, 1850’s. (via Nonist Annex)