End o' the semester cleanup

After the Spring 2007 semester, I asked Marilyn what she did with all of her notes, drafts of papers and presentations, and so on. She said that she used to keep everything, but now she kept only the final copies and threw the rest away.That struck me as a sensible way to go. When I was a reporter, one piece of advice I got was to destroy my reporter notebooks when I was done with them. If the story had been printed, it was part of the public record and that's where people should go for the information. So here's what I'm planning to do as I wrap up the end of a very busy Fall 2007:

  • Online: Delete all the Google Docs stuff that supported my papers.
  • PC: I keep separate subfolders for each class by its number. Go through each one, delete the drafts and supporting research material; keep the final version of papers I handed in. The papers have the citation references if I need to pull up the original articles again. Move this folder to my INLS folder, which sits in my Archives folder.
  • Zotero: I used this to capture pages for a paper and spit out the citations. Delete everything. Update: Well, maybe that was too hasty. I've read of heavy-duty Zotero users who use it to keep lots of stuff; some heavy RefWorks users do the same thing to track their citations and readings. Up to now, I really haven't needed that kind of tracking power, so I'll wait to deploy that weaponry at a later time.
  • Hard copy: I think I'll start a binder for papers that have my professors' handwritten comments. There actually haven't been that many papers in my school career so far; this was my writing semester, with about 12 one-page critiques, two 15-page papers, and lots of writing on a grant proposal. I like the idea of keeping them all in a binder, tab-separated. Update: What I actually did was label two manila envelopes with the class number, put my hardcopy papers in them, and file them under "I" for INLS. I fell back to asking myself, "What's the simplest thing that could possibly work?" Binders require just those few extra steps that I didn't want to go through; much easier to put everything in an envelope (including the syllabus and reading lists) and be done with it.
  • Printed articles: I really can't read journal articles on-screen--I need hard-copy. I've kept them all through the semester in separate pouches for each class. I'll look at each one and probably just recycle. Any articles that have to do with my work project I'll put aside and keep in a binder at work.

Now, keeping track of all this mess during the semester is another challenge I haven't conquered yet. I like the intellectual tidiness of keeping everything online, but it's not always practical. For one class, I kept my graded critiques in a binder; for the other, I stuffed the graded paper into a pouch that held all my readings for the semester.

Done, done, and done

For the last month, just as I thought I was nearing the finish line or reaching a milestone where I could catch my breath, another deadline or commitment loomed, both at work and at school. I spent last weekend binge-grading grant projects submitted by other teams in my Digital Preservation and Archiving class, reading an article, drafting a critique of said article, and drafting a research proposal. The grant info was due Monday, the critique due Wednesday, the proposal due Friday. Ho ho, thought I, can I turn in the proposal on Wednesday and avoid a commute to campus on Friday?

Well, no. The grant stuff and critique got done, but the proposal was a disaster. I just finished it tonight, printed it out, and after tomorrow morning, Christmas shopping can finally begin.

But here are lessons learned on the proposal:

  • Start early. Crucial to me, since I had to junk my entire first draft and start over from scratch.
  • Get a fellow student to read your paper and critique it for you. I’d read about this idea in other blogs, but this was the first time I’d done it. She was supportive but put her finger on a key weakness that I couldn’t write or think around. She also knew what he liked to see in papers and student work and provided good advice. Hence, my need to scrap it and start over.
  • Go back and read the professor’s directions. The weakness she pointed out was clearly delineated in his instructions for the proposal, had I but re-read them. Be a lawyer and read the fine print.
  • Don’t research forever–timebox it. The danger here is that I had left myself so little time that I barely skimmed the articles I found. No time for fancy research techniques; scan, skim, ingest. But the earlier you can do this, the more facts you can feed your brain so it can go to work in the background.
  • I started to feel panic a second time as I started over on the writing. Classic fear response. I relaxed and fell back on my ol’ NaNoWriMo skills and tips: Write a vomit draft. Don’t edit. Lower my standards. Think quantity, not quality. The more you write, the more you can write. Just keep your fingers flying. If you just don’t know what to write, the trick here is to write about your inability to write. Describe the frustration. Describe what you want to be able to say. Lo and behold, this always seems to unjam the blockage for me. (It’s all going to be deleted anyway, no one’s going to see it, so go crazy.)
  • I used InstantBoss (freeware), set for the standard 10 + 2 * 5 routine. By focusing for just that 10 minutes on writing and not diverting myself with editing, I got a good two pages done my first night. Tonight, I worked about 45 minutes total to finish it.
  • The key is not to finish the paper; the key is to keep starting. Eventually, you’ll reach the end.
  • I also decided that it’s OK to relax and do B-level work on this proposal. My class participation and other work have been more than up to the mark. No need to torque myself into a perfectionist knot.
  • It’s OK to feel like the slow kid in class. Three of my fellow students had finished their proposals early and I was disappointed that I couldn’t be a member of their club. Oh well–next time.

Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it - just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at a men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black coffee.

Mike Shea:

Audiobooks are my e-books. ... Audiobooks take the content from a novel and turn it into something else - something I can use when I can't read a novel. That’s what these e-book readers seem to miss. I want to search text, transform it, cut and paste it, and listen to it. If I want to sit and read it, I’ll go with the actual book. They’re about fifty times cheaper, more durable (do you think you can read a Kindle if you bury it in the mud for 1000 years?), and far more lovable than some plastic box with a bunch of buttons on it.

Generalisstimo

Rebecca at ProtoScholar has been on a tear of great posts lately. Her musings on being a generalist or specialist struck a special chord with me.

One of the disadvantages I felt coming back to school is that I’m ignorant of a whole body of knowledge (library science, library processes, library history) that I think many of the younger grads around me have already ingested. The more I hear about catalogers, indexers, and archivers, the more I feel I’m missing out on a deeper conversation. Because I’m not a specialist, I have to survive as a generalist.

But. An advantage to being a forty-odder is that I can bring a wider range of associations to bear on certain topics, or at least a perspective that wouldn’t occur to many of my peers, and that can give me an advantage. Many of my oddball interests of the last 20 years are for whatever reason surfacing now and then in my studies, and I’m able to use them in class discussions or papers.

Rebecca says the best scholars are specialists in one area but generalists in others. Certainly, if we’re going to make our careers matter in the few decades left to us, it’s up to us to see the associations our work can have in other areas of life: the community, the family, social institutions, and so on. That may mean specializing in what we study and research, but finding ways we can apply it generally to the world.

I see myself as a jack-of-some-trades and have always withheld part of myself from becoming too specialist, but I think now is a good time for me to explore how deeply I can go into a topic and really own it intellectually.

This reminds me two oddball thoughts, just to show where these ramblings can lead:

  • The writer Arnold Bennett once observed, on the issue of free will, that life worked out best for him if he assumed that he alone possessed free will, while everyone around him was predetermined to act as if they couldn’t help themselves. He said it took a lot of stress out of life. So: how would I act differently if I saw everyone around me as specialists but myself as a generalist?
  • The psychologist/philosopher William James, in discussing memory, used the analogy of a bowl full of fishing hooks. You could not pick up only one hook, he said, because they were attached to each other such that lifting up one lifted up a cluster. In the same way, memory is associative: the more things you know, the more connections you can make to new knowledge, and so the more you can remember. In a way, that’s how I see generalists and specialists; generalists can call up a cluster of associations, some useful, some not, and it’s this trait that I’m able to call on as a student. We’re highly distractable, us generalists, but it keeps life interesting.

(originally posted in 2007-11-10, updated for micro.blog)

On actual Halloween night I didn’t even dress up, me and a group of friends just went to Keagan’s where my sister bartends. … Earlier that night I forgot to buy candy so all these little kids were coming to the door looking for candy. All I had handy were airplane bottles of Captain Morgan and some birth control pills — but hey, at least it’s something. I don’t see you giving back to the community.

(404’d)

"I pretended I did"

What I found out on set on other films is, what makes a crew really roll is when the director makes decisions very quickly and very straight. What confuses a crew and actors is when the director is a little bit like, “I’m not sure what to do there.” The minute you’re confused, you lose everybody. But what’s funny is, I didn’t have to push myself too hard—I was never confused. I was always pretty strong and knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and when I didn't—when I had a moment where I didn’t know exactly what to do, I pretended I did. Which made the crew entirely follow me.

My big fat learning experience

I started the fall semester a younger and more idealistic man than I am here at the halfway point (fall break). Still, I survived (and thrived) and things are looking up. September was my transition month from going to grad school to being a grad student: that is, I can say now that if the task or decision before me has nothing to do with 1) my job or 2) school, then its value is marginal and I have to consider whether to spend time/energy on it. (The beauteous Liz, of course, excepted.)

What was so different about this semester?

  • I started with one class that met twice a week, but when I added a second class (on the advice of my advisor), the extra class's workload was such a shock to my organizational systems and my schedule that my legs are still quivering.
  • Last spring, I had two two-hour classes: one met Tuesday morning, one met Monday evening. It was very easy to accommodate my work schedule, my writing group, and still get schoolwork done.
  • This fall, I have two morning classes, each one is 75 minutes. One meets on Mondays-Wednesdays at the relatively decent hour of 9:30 a.m., the other on Tuesdays-Thursdays at a tremendously inconvenient 11 a.m. The latter class means I don't get to work until after 2 p.m. Since I work a mandated 45-hour week (if I work less than 45 hrs, I get paid less), this means staying at the office till 9 or 10 p.m., meaning all that I can do when I get home is have a late supper, unwind, and go to bed. (Unless I have homework due the next morning, but that's another story.)
  • The extra class disrupted my usual commuting and parking habits. I missed one session driving around looking for a parking space. Lesson learned: as much as possible, reduce the randomness of finding a parking space. I was lucky early on in the semester, but the luck didn't hold. So, I was tipped to a park-and-ride lot halfway to Hillsborough, which is further out from campus, but there are always plenty of spaces. However, the extra distance means that I'm now commuting via bus and car about 8 hours a week.
  • The start of the fall semester coincided with the end of the federal fiscal year, and I had a stiff schedule of deliverables to meet with a hard deadline of September 30. Of course, a major 10-15 page paper was also due on September 25. Criminy. And the first half of October was spent helping my team recover from a major project meltdown. So I couldn't sneak any reading or research at the office--when I was at work, I worked. Big blocks of time for schoolwork can only happen on the weekend.
  • The paper was a literature review, which I'd never done before. I got some great advice from my friend and mentor Cassidy and some great tips (especially from Cal Newton's Study Hacks blog) on smart ways to research and write such a paper. The main thing is, it took a lot of time to learn how to manage the overall project, then it took time learning the subject matter, then it took time pulling it all together. I used a vacation day on Sept 24 (my 46th birthday, as it happened) to relax and go over the paper. I discovered to my horror that I'd written an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review. So I totally recast the paper that day and evening (a loverly way to spend a birthday) , got to bed at a decent hour, and succeeded in getting an excellent grade. Note to self: learn RefDesk or Zotero to format citations!
  • Along the way, I learned to make use of the interstices of time available to me. The posts on scheduling time by Cal and Proto-scholar helped me really leverage Google Calendar more and visualize my commitments. I decided to routineize my schedule as much as possible. So, even though my Tue/Thu classes happen later than my Mon/Wed classes, I still rise at the same time every day, get to the bus stop by 8:30 a.m. at the latest, and use the block of time spent on the bus and slurping coffee before class to do my readings for that day or that week. (I always print out the next week's readings on Thursday or Friday.)
  • During my lit review, I fell down the rabbit hole of technology by spending an afternoon messing with CiteULike, which, to be fair, did lead me to some articles that I used, but that I finally saw to be not as useful to me as I had expected. I also spent my first research afternoon tweaking my Windows setup, trying out various programs, etc. Total procrastination monkey. That's when I simplified my methods (remember the Extreme Programming motto, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work"). I will be trying Cal's new method of using Excel as a research database (again, Proto-scholar adds to the conversation) for my current paper, whose themes have been pre-defined by the professor. I'm also trying out Zotero, to see how it does with citation export (though this may violate the "do the simplest thing" principle).

My manager, who's getting his MBA, had a teacher who often repeated the motto, "Don't wish it was easier--wish you were better." I thought of that often during my transition period--I can't change my deadlines, I'm not going to drop the classes, I can't make the buses run faster, I need to maintain my 45-hour work schedule so I can meet my financial obligations.

And so, at some point, I realized that all this meta-thinking and self-management is part of the learning experience. I've had to re-frame a typical workday from 8a-5pm to 12pm-9pm. I have to dedicate some portion of the weekend to making up time I miss from the office, which means getting better at scheduling. I had to drop my writing group and my banjo lessons, so I could focus my disposable time on school. Many of the habits and routines of my old life that I thought immovable I now see as malleable and, in many ways, optional. Liz has been great about taking on some of my old chores and agreeing that some chores (like yardwork) will have to wait for my attention until the semester is over.

I've also discovered that, even with this tough schedule, I like taking 2 classes at a time. I find that jamming together the class readings causes me to see connections that I would miss were I taking each class on its own. There's also the pressure of trying to meet my obligations that obliges me to make faster connections and discover new ways to re-frame current problems or speed up time.

When I eventually signed up for next semester's classes, I picked one 3-hr class that meets on Mondays, and then picked a Monday-Wednesday class that meets in the morning. I've cleared it with my manager that I will be out of the office on Monday but will make up the time on Saturday and throughout the week. It's an unconventional schedule, but I'm living an unconventional life right now, and that's also something I needed to learn.

Overreactions and decisions

The SILS MSIS curriculum requires a master's paper or project and the professors of even the core required classes encourage the students to begin thinking early about likely topics. Fortunately, it's possible to review a database of previous master's papers from SILS graduates so you can gauge the scope and treatment of the topic areas. As a result, I'm always on the prowl for good topics, for others if not for myself (I may have my own gem of a topic, but it's too early to talk about it now). Earlier this year, I ran across the following Schneier on Security blog posting, on the public overreaction to rare risks, in response to the Virginia Tech shootings. It's a sobering testament to how human we are--which is a mixed blessing, in this case.

I was especially struck by the following comment on the post:

As a student of behavioral decision making, I see irrational decisions made on a regular (and unfortunately, in many cases, predictable) basis. And as you alluded to, the reactions to these can often lead to ridiculous policies and unproductive debate over preventing the effects, not the causes. However, there is something so human about these errors that seems to be impossible to overcome. The real next frontier, in my opinion, is to understand these biases better, and to use them (perhaps through policy) to aid in productive, positive decision making.

The world of economics has its own problems with this, since so many of its models assume rational consumers. Define "rational." (Today, I spent a half hour in Circuit City looking at stuff so I could spend a $25 gift certificate, only to find at the counter it was a Best Buy certificate.)

So, in relation to research for a master's paper, think about how much information does a user need to absorb before making a decision? But that topic has surely been done to death. However, even if you take in just enough information, not too much, when would information overrule emotion in the decision-making process? Can it ever? How can you measure the before and after of an emotional (ie, unconscious or reactive) decision? Or could you build an interface or algorithm that either allowed for users' unique mixes of rational/irrational, naive/experienced, emotional/logical, etc. or confronted them with the results of their choices? How to build in bias when the user wants it but leave it out when the user needs it to be left out?

So now listen up. We need to get these boxes the hell out of the warehouse. Meaning, if you are thinking of buying a set of figures, stop thinking, stop thinking immediately, and just do it. Feel, don’t think. Spend, don’t think. Be an American. Spend money you don’t have on something cool you don’t need. It’s only money. You’ll make more. I assure you, you will. But we might not make more of these Chinese-produced plastic hate effigies. Really, now, what would you rather be – safe, sane and sad, or devil-may-carefree and (momentarily) happy? Think about it. No wait, don’t think, stop, just do it!

Advice for a Forty-Odder from a Twenty-Something

At the Kilgour lectures, OCLC President Robert Jordan said some rather challenging things to the assembled SILS throng. As an MBA and business guy, he up front admitted that his ideas might rub people the wrong way (but then, so did Fred Kilgour’s).

One of his ideas that stuck with me was his notion that, since UNC SILS requires a student to take more hours and do more work than comparable programs, it’s reasonable to ask whether the degree will make you more money or give you a chance at a more prestigious institution when you graduate.

That idea rattles around in the back of my brain during my classes, even the fun intellectual ones I take. And then, so do articles like this one by Penelope Trunk, on what to do in college to be more successful in your career. Of course, she’s talking to twenty-somethings rather than forty-odders, but let’s see how much of it I can apply to my situation.

  • Get out of the library. Hm, well, the point of my going to back to school is to get out of the office and spend time in a library (and it is a library school, after all). I have a lot of work and life experience, but I want the education to formalize what I know and give me a framework to learn new things.

  • Get involved on campus. It’s tough to be involved with many school activities because I don’t live on-campus, parking is a joke, and I have to give up the hours I would normally work to be on campus for special events. I read somewhere that being involved in career-oriented organizations–like ACM or ASIS&T–are preferred over school-related ones, given the brief time I have to devote to extracurriculars. Also, although I’m plenty involved with outside groups, I’ve never been asked about such participations in an interview and I don’t put them on my resume. At this stage, I have plenty of career experience that takes precedence.

  • Separate your expectations from those of your parents. I would amend this to include co-workers and friends. I would also amend this to yourself. Some older adults going back to school see the degree as the end-all and that the degree will, on its own, open doors to new opportunity. It won’t. My expectations are that my pursuit of the degree will open the doors–the hours spent studying, reading, thinking, meeting people, and so on. By the time the degree is handed to me on graduation day, I should already have plans in place for what happens the day after.

  • Try new things you aren’t good at. Just going back to school is a big new thing. To me, any other new thing is a little new thing.

  • Make your job search a top priority. Ye-e-es, I agree, to a point. If you hate your job, or don’t have a job, getting a job should be the most important thing. In my case, since I’m already working, I’m more concerned with meeting people affiliated with the school and its mission who are in a position to offer jobs. So I would say that meeting people and expanding my network is a top priority.

  • Take an acting course. I used to act in community theater and in college; it’s a great place for meeting people. I think most people, though, would get more out of an improv comedy course: learning to think on your feet, under pressure, with people watching you, is a great experience to have. I took one at Dirty South Comedy Theater in January 2006 and it was a great experience. I actually felt my brain make new connections and re-shape itself. Bizarre. I’d like to take another course again.

  • Get rid of your perfectionist streak. My goal in school is to get B or better grades so that I can 1) get tuition reimbursement from my employer and 2) not obsess over my schoolwork. As one of my managers drilled into me, “Just give me 80 percent. Your quality level is already high enough that it’ll be better than someone else’s 100 percent.” The key is to balance effort against value: if it’s a paper that only counts 10 points, it’ll get less attention than the presentation worth 30 points. Depend on your teachers/teammates for feedback indicating if the work isn’t good enough.

  • Work your way through college. Heh. Next.

  • Make to-do lists. I’m performing much better in school having spent the last 20 years learning about productivity and efficiency systems. My favorite methodology at the moment is Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow. (Here is Mark’s website, filled to bursting with great and actionable ideas.)

Considering that I’m now juggling a full-time job, family, banjo practice, and school, efficiency and productivity help me keep it all together.

(originally posted 2007-08-19, updated for micro.blog)

A Vegan/Aerobicizer Hits the Wall

From Art de Vany’s web site, ca. 2007:

I ran into a guy at the gym whom I had not seen for a couple of months, maybe more.

He was in the gym hours on end (when I used to see him) doing aerobics. He did so much treadmill work that he constantly limped and had a brace on his foot, sometimes on his knee. He had poor posture from walking slumped over looking at the track or the monitor. Nothing in his work outs addressed his posture and his aerobic work only reinforced it. He worked out every day as far as I could tell because he was always there when I came in.

He was a pure vegetarian. He ate a lot of beans and spinach and always told me how fresh he felt from his food. He had no muscle and was a “fat-skinny” jogger or treadmill addict. Sklnny arms, little legs and a bony back.

I was a bit shocked though to see how his appearance had degraded in the few months since I had last seen him. He had gotten quite thick around the waist, but not anywhere else. Still no muscle and a tired, haggard look and slumped posture. At least he was not limping and had no braces on. Rather than ask him if he had been ill, I just asked how he was doing. He really didn’t answer but he did say he had been gone 2 months working on a cabin.

I don’t want to speculate, but it does seem to me that his diet and training make his fitness vulnerable or brittle. He is poised on a razor’s edge in a sense that any small change in diet or exercise sends him down a steep slope. He quickly loses fitness and his body composition quickly fades if he changes either his diet or his exercise. I doubt that his diet changed. So, it is likely his energy expenditures and particularly his peak expenditures that changed. It was easy to see that his insulin sensitivity had declined because all the new weight was gathered in the abdominal area. Maybe he had an illness or went through a major stress. On the other hand, there is seldom a “cause” for human physiology is so complex it is not possible to trace a major change of this magnitude to a single factor.

What I am driving at is that his approach to diet and fitness left him vulnerable. He has to stay on that treadmill or he falls hard. Even on the treadmill, though he managed his weight, he was on the boundary of good health. Not enough nutrition or rest and doing the wrong sorts of exercise. He looked depleted then and even more so now.

I am sorry to see this happen, but I don’t think I can do anything about it. If there is any lesson here it is to adopt a fitness approach that does not leave you vulnerable to damage, poor nutrition, or unusual stress. If you are on the edge in terms of nutrition (either trying to “bulk up” or lose weight or eating a narrow range of foods) or exercise (over training and doing repetitive work outs), you become vulnerable. You are living on the edge. An easy approach mixing intensity, variety, and great food is more healthful and leaves you poised to adapt to stresses that are bound to occur.


A Vegan/Aerobicizer Hits the Wall

Information Architect

Web Worker Daily posts a mini-profile of Dayna Bateman, an information architect for Fry Inc. Various education qualifications are listed, and hands-on experience (though education can help out there too). I don't find it a surprise that many shopping and interactive sites get it wrong and need help. Those are big projects and it requires a champion (maybe several) inside the company to push for what may be an expensive overhaul of an existing site. Also, if generals are fighting the last war, then retailers are chasing last year's trends.

What interested me:

  • Bateman is working on a master's of science degree in HCI from DePaul ("to formalize what I had learned in the trade"). For someone who's already got deep experience and a reputation in internet retailing, I thought it interesting that she feels the need for a degree. It would be interesting to know whether she wants the degree to provide an academic balance to her resume's real-world experience (she's probably solved problems that haven't occurred to most academics), whether her company encouraged it, or whether she felt she needed a mental change of pace. I'm going at my degree from the opposite direction: I'm hoping to gain some formal knowledge that can help me get experience.
  • Very impressed by her commitment to self-education: keeping up with conferences, surfing and shopping to stay on top of new trends and patterns. She soaks herself in her subject.
  • She predicts that "transactions will become increasingly simplified" as mobile phone use becomes more prevalent. Using a cell phone frees people from being tethered to their PC in order to shop and buy. (And it is all about shop and buy, isn't it?) I'll keep an eye on whether my coursework in the coming years even touches on mobile technology at all.

I'm all for simplification--spare me from having to create an account at every store I want to buy from. However, as someone who uses a Tracfone and practices one-way cell calls (I can call you, but you can't call me because I leave my phone turned off), I feel like a curmudgeonly grandpa snapping at new-fangled progress.