From MFA to MSIS

In talking to a friend, he remembered that this graduate school adventure started in early 2005, when I investigated getting an MFA in Creative Writing. The next thing he knew, I was at UNC working my ass off on a MSIS degree. How I got here from there went this way, in short steps and occasional large leaps:

  • I'd been dabbling and playing with creative writing for 20 years, and thought, in early 2005, that I wanted to commit myself to it, go back to school, read a lot, write a lot, and see if I had any talent. I felt it was time. I'd always told myself I'd never go back to school unless it was for something I was interested in; I'd never get a degree just to qualify myself for a job.
  • I talked to the head of NCSU's creative writing department about the program's various requirements and so on. I went so far as to revise some old stories, compile them, and send them to him for review. Never heard back.
  • Background to early 2005: I'd been unemployed for most of 2004, and was only an hourly worker at a tech-writing company. As much as I wanted to go to school and study writing, I realized that I didn't have the money to go back to school and that, after getting the MFA, I'd be back where I was at the start: working technical writing jobs that were increasingly unsatisfying and becoming more uncertain of the career's value as time wore on. Also, my career path had kept me on the traditional side of tech writing, away from XML, DITA, structured authoring, and so on. I was aging out.
  • I felt, consequently (and here's Leap One), that I needed to solidify my career options for at least the next 5-8 years. This meant eschewing an MFA and focusing on a degree that would provide me with a more promising and interesting career. But I didn't know what that would be. However, the wheels of higher education were now in motion, in my mind and imagination if nowhere else.
  • Eventually, in June 2005, I got a job that provided a steady income, dependable benefits (much needed at that time), and a place where I could lick my wounds after a wounding 18 months of illness, layoffs, and deep uncertainty.
  • To satisfy my writing needs, I searched out and joined a writer's group in early 2006, and stayed with them till September 2007, when school demands overtook me. That involvement was enough to get me to revising old stories, write some new ones, think about my creative process, and hone my critiquing skills.
  • A local RTP group on Lifehackery started up and I somehow heard of it, and went to a dinner meeting, where we introduced ourselves around, and talked about our productivity compulsions. One of the fellows was Abe Crystal, who said he was a PhD student at UNC in Information Science. Information wha? What's that? (Cue: Leap Two.)
  • I must have done some research because I fixated on attending UNC, getting a master's in IS, and collecting advice from whoever I could. I received excellent advice from a friend of a co-worker, who had graduated with an LS degree from UNC, and I followed her advice to the letter. (I really should post that advice sometime.) By June of 2006, I was a continuing ed student taking my first class, studying for the GRE, and wrestling with UNC's byzantine and antiquated graduate admissions process.
  • More background: My manager was entering school in the Fall of 2006 to get an MBA, and he urged me to take advantage of our company's tuition reimbursement program. That, and he wanted someone else to go through the pain with him of working full-time while going to school.
  • By the Spring of 2007, I was enrolled in UNC's SILS program. My manager urged me, quite rightly, to take two classes at a time. "You're gonna be old when you graduate, Mike, you need to get in as many classes as you can," he said. Well, setting aside the fact that I'll be old anyway, he was right. I'll probably write another post sometime on why taking two classes at a time is good for me.

Today, in April 2008, I've nearly finished with 24 hours of a 48-hour Master's of Science in Information Science degree. I've not written a short story in a year or so. And I'm barely reading anything that doesn't have eleventy-million citations to its name.  I have another 4 semesters to go.

Best decision I've made in a long long time

Halving, doubling, and Virginia Woolf

When I am asked, "Why did you decide to go back to school?" or "How in the world can you work a full-time job and take two classes at the same time?", I can often provide at least 43 separate answers. That is the blessing and curse of my loquacious gift, which makes essay-writing easy but a succinct answer impossible.

I have a couple of good reasons I toss out about why I prefer taking two classes at a time: I often find points of unexpected connection between the classes, which I wouldn't find were I taking them one at a time; I'm going to be old by the time I get this degree, so let's hurry it up; I find the pressure of the second class provides time/energy constraints that force me to think creatively about my schedule, priorities; and so on.

Those are all nice, quantitative answers. But there's another, bigger reason that also goes to the heart of why I came back to school in the first place. I can't remember where I read it, but it's a quote by Virginia Woolf that goes approximately thusly:

After the age of forty, a novelist must either halve her output or double it.

For whatever reason, that quote and its idea has stuck with me. If you've published or written a lot in your early career, Woolf's advice is to slow the output and create fewer, denser works. But if you've thought more than you've written, then you need to use your remaining time to better advantage.

When I look at my last 25 years or so, I see that my output has been low. Others who look at my life may disagree, but for me, emotionally, I think I could have done more. Probably lots of people feel that way about their own lives.

So, one of my reasons for going back to school was to boost my output and make as much of the time and energy left to me as I can. Yes, I'm racing around like a maniac, I'm frequently overwhelmed, and my task diary is a paper-based super-collider of conflicting tasks, projects, and personal obligations. But--and here's the punchline-- I'm learning, writing, and producing a quantity and variety of material that, in my opinion, dwarfs what I have tried to attempt to do on my own over the last 10 years. And since I have the energy and the stamina now to take it all on, I want to make the most of this time and this opportunity.

Speed Networking

The SILS Alumni Association held a speed networking event earlier this week. It’s the second one I attended and, although fewer students showed up this year than last year, I thought it went very well.The “mentors” – either SILS alums or local folks working in the IS/LS domains who have ties to SILS – sat inside a U-shaped line of tables, while the students moved from chair to chair every 3 minutes at the ring of Pavlov’s bell. Here are some thoughts on what I liked about it and why I think the experience was valuable.

  • It gets you talking to people. We’re not, after all, the business or performing arts school. We’re mostly a group of introverts, some of us more sociable than others, granted, but it’s tough to get us talking to strangers. A 3-minute speed-networking event with the emphasis on communication and fact-finding levels the playing field wonderfully and I think gets people talking with an urgency they wouldn’t have at a polite meet’n’greet.
  • You learn to start marketing yourself. With only 3 minutes total, I had to hone my spiel to something quick so that we could actually discover whether we had much to say to each other. It took me about 4 or 5 tries to get this right, and even then, I tweaked it based on the feedback I received. Unnatural, perhaps, but is a job interview more natural? The only way to get better is to practice, and this event provided that.
  • You learn some basic chat skills. See “talking to people” above. Because I’m IS (Information Science), and the majority of mentors there were LS (Library Science), I’d sometimes fall back to standard questions: “Tell me about your library,” “What kind of work do you do,” that kind of thing, to make them feel OK about talking to to an obvious interloper. Alas, I was flummoxed when, just as I was finishing my screed, the young woman I was talking to smiled and asked, “Do you like working with children?” Ah, a children’s librarian! We both laughed but I’m embarrassed to say I never recovered my aplomb and fum-fuh’d till the bell rang.
  • Overview of the local field and the profession generally. By talking to lots of people working at different places, it’s possible to gauge the health of the local market and get peoples’ takes on the profession as a whole. Will there be jobs available when I eventually graduate? Where’s the demand? What are some of the problems they’re having to figure out? You can absorb very quickly a range of job descriptions and experiences. I also could feel myself, as I talked to folks, get excited or a little bored by the subject matter of the conversation. With no time to indulge in the deep thinking we INTJs like to wallow in, I reacted honestly to the subjects I’m more naturally interested in. (And yes, I am separating the message from the messenger here, not confusing one with the other.)
  • It’s encouraging to be encouraged. I do feel doubt occasionally about why I’m at school sometimes, as I entered it on a leap of faith, with no assurance of what I’d be doing with this degree when I finally got it. But several people reassured me that the skills I’ve acquired over the last 20 years, added to my education and interests, will help me when I eventually move into whatever field I choose. Made me feel much better about my choice.

Prototyping; GUIdebook

Found some interesting or otherwise time-passable things on the web related to prototyping and our discussion on Wednesday. A List Apart runs deep-dish articles on web design. This article shows how paper is good for tabbed interfaces, widgets, and usability testing. He also suggests keeping a glue stick handy.

Pen-based low-fi vs hi-fi; use while keeping the above paper prototypes in mind.

  • Sketching with a Sharpie - (37signals) - “Ballpoints and fine tips just don’t fill the page like a Sharpie does. Fine tips invite you to draw while Sharpies invite you to just to get your concepts out into big bold shapes and lines. When you sketch with a thin tip you tend to draw at a higher resolution and worry a bit too much about making things look good. Sharpies encourage you to ignore details early on.”

A neat idea if you want to keep your prototypes looking rough.

  • Napkin Look & Feel - “The Napkin Look & Feel is a pluggable Java look and feel that looks like it was scrawled on a napkin. … Often when people see a GUI mock-up, or a complete GUI without full functionality, they assume that the code behind it is working. … So the idea is to create a complete look and feel that can be used while the thing is not done which will convey an emotional message to match the rational one. As pieces of the work are done, the GUI for those pieces can be switched to use the “formal” (final) look and feel, allowing someone looking at demos over time to see the progress of the entire system reflected in the expression of the GUI.”

This is a really good post that links to Napkin and other sources to express what we heard in class, namely, the more “done” the prototype looks, the more finished the client expects the entire application it to.

The SILK project grew out of someone’s dissertation research. The current public release of Denim runs on Mac, Win, and *nix.

  • DUB - DENIM and SILK - Research - “Through a study of web site design practice, we observed that web site designers design sites at different levels of refinement – site map, storyboard, and individual page – and that designers sketch at all levels during the early stages of design. However, existing web design tools do not support these tasks very well. Informed by these observations, we created DENIM, a system that helps web site designers in the early stages of design. DENIM supports sketching input, allows design at different refinement levels, and unifies the levels through zooming.”

Referred to in the List Apart article, this is a neat site that shows the evolution of OS and application GUIs from their inception to today. It has sections for splash screens, icons, the tutorials that were included to help us learn how to click with a mouse, and a timeline showing the slow progress of GUIs from the Lisa and GEOS on up to Leopard. The site appears to have run out of gas around 2005 or so. I have personal experience of GEOS (Commodore 64 & PC), Amiga, DOS 3-5, Windows 3.x, Mac (mid-80s-early 90s), and OS/2.

Links: file-naming conventions

I remember reading a columnist in one of the Ziff-Davis mags, back in the mid-90s, lamenting the busting of the old 8.3 file-naming conventions that DOS imposed. With the new Win95 long filenames-with-spaces convention, he predicted that people would actually lose more files than find them again. He used as an example their production process, in which every directory name and every character in a filename carried a specific meaning in the workflow. That kind of discipline ensured that everyone knew what state the files were in. With longer filenames, he was afraid that users would be mainly writing reminders to themselves rather than helping out the next worker on the production line.

Reading the identifiers article reminded me of a blog posting, and that led me to other postings related to how folks name files. The people commenting are mainly graphic designers and web designers, whose work involves tracking lots of little individual files that collectively make up a single job.

This is from the developers' point of view. Read the original post but skim the comments to get an idea of what developers have to consider when creating files the users will depend on. The Old Joel on Software Forum - Restrictions on # of files in a Windows Directory?

E: if it is problematic to have several thousand separate directory entries in one directory, I could envision a directory structure in which the all user IDs ending in '0' go to a directory called c:userdata, user IDs ending in '1' go to a directory called c:userdata1, etc. Or use more digits from the end of the user ID for greater granularity: c:userdata00, c:userdata01, etc.

Vox Populi: Best practices for file naming | 43 Folders

But, just so I don’t lose you, do give me your best tips in comments: What are your favorite current conventions for naming files? How does your team show iterations and versions? Do you rely more on Folder organization than file names in your work? How have Spotlight, Quicksilver, and the like changed the way you think about this stuff?

My god, there are 86 comments on this thread and many of them are detailed and illustrated....

...and then gets in on the fun. There are some some commenters who say "don't include the date in the filename" as that info is already captured with the file and you can sort on that info in most file managers. I include the date because I often share my documents with others and the date in the filename is the quickest way for them to discern whether they have the latest copy. Ask the Readers: Filing naming conventions? Another very long posting that inspired the 43folders post above. It's interesting to note that, for designers, they all have certain types of info they want captured in the filename, such as the client name and draft iteration. But where they put that info depends, probably, on who set up the system first, tradition, etc. What Do I Know - File Naming / Organization Methods?

Only 4 comments in this one, but they have good detail and pretty much mirror the other postings. Read this one to get a flavor of the longer screeds. File Naming and Archiving | 43 Folders

A single post detailing another designer's setup at his workplace. Use a boilerplate folder setup and consistent, meaningful names | 43 Folders

Jumping the gun on a MacBook?

Although UNC requires incoming freshmen to buy a laptop computer, and although some SILS classes require a laptop (I'm thinking here of the database or programming courses), by and large, I've found that I haven't really needed a laptop on campus. I prefer taking notes by hand on paper, and the campus is lousy with workstations where I can check my email, which is what most people do anyway. Most of my homework and papers I prefer to write on my home PC, simply because it's already customized for my peculiar needs. Nevertheless, since I entered the program, I felt a burning urgency to purchase a laptop--I'm falling behind! All the other kids have a laptop! I'm feeling left out!--and took advantage of a pretty good deal at the campus computer store to buy a black MacBook with the eerie glowing ghost-apple on the lid. I added an extra gig of RAM and donated the printer that came with it to a charitable organization. So, no worries there.

I also bought several of the Take Control ebooks to learn some more about the Mac. I tried out various backpacks, briefcases, and sheathes. I bought a Bluetooth mouse. I dedicated a spot to it on my desk where it sits and recharges.

And where it still sits, mostly unused. It's a fine machine, but I just haven't needed to use it.

The new MacBooks are now arriving with Leopard, which means that's another expense I'll have when I decide to upgrade the OS. Fortunately, I've bought no other software to install on it, so the hard drive and OS are still pristine, making the upgrade easier, I should think. Thinking more calmly now, I should have waited to buy till Leopard was pre-installed on all MacBooks.

It's clear to me now, looking back, that I had induced a panic state in myself over this issue and reason's sweet song would ne'er enter my ear. I took out a loan from the bank in order to pay for both my spring semester tuition and the MacBook, so paying that back every week is a constant reminder of getting too far ahead of myself.

Update: I wrote the above over a couple of days last week. This past Saturday, I decided to reinstall XP on my home PC, after dithering on that decision for a while. The reinstall went fine--except that Windows couldn't see the second internal hard drive, which holds all of my install files for my other software. I verified that the BIOS could see the drive but XP remained willfully blind. I schlepped the PC to Intrex (where I'd bought the PC in 2006 or so) for them to diagnose and (I hope) fix.

I didn't enter a panic state on this snafu, interestingly enough. I took the precautions of backing up my volatile data to my external USB drive and to the cloud, so they're accessible if I need them.

And, need I say, I had a laptop--an underused MacBook on which I could check my mail, finish my homework assignment due on the following Monday, and store info on my paper that's due in 2 weeks. Funny how these things work out.

Addendum:  Back up those drivers, kids! And print out your Device Manager settings! I should have inserted the motherboard CD and installed the RAID and sound drivers; that's why Windows couldn't see the second internal hard drive. OK, that goes on the master checklist for reinstalling Windows...

Drafting scenarios and stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • Gruen, D., Rauch, T., Redpath, S., & Ruettinger, S. (2002). The use of stories in user experience design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 14(3&4), 503-534.
  • Head, A. J. (2003). Personas: setting the stage for building usable information sites. Online, 27(4), 14-21.

<<In class, we wrote sample story/scenarios, and I refer to a great story written by a classmate about a guy at a party who is covertly listening to his music while grudgingly assisting his wife with hosting a house party.>>

I thought the story about the guy at the party trying to hide the earphone was great--it worked as a complete vignette, the character had a secret (which puts the reader on his side), and it has a nice curlicue at the end. It's complete in itself but could fit nicely inside a larger story about this character.

OK, now *that* I would consider a story, more so than the scenarios we read in the IBMers' paper.

I've been writing short stories off and on since college and did a couple of NaNoWriMo stints, so here's what I think about the narrative devices used to create stories that could be used for scenarios.

CHARACTERS. Some of the best ways to create a character include starting with an archetype (the Scrooge type, the strong and silent type, the talkative type, the Type A type), someone you know, or a fictional character you know really well. As you write and spend time with the character, you'll get to know them better and their own personality emerges, especially as you put them in difficult situations.

You can create an amalgam character or persona, but one person that has many different kinds of tags (like the primary persona in the Personas article we read) can seem a little unreal to me, very manufactured. At that point, I think you're checking stuff off a list rather than creating an imaginary character that *seems* real, which is the goal of fiction. I'd suggest starting simple and then adding stuff as it feels right.

One of the age-old questions to ask about a character to get your imagination primed, is to ask yourself what the character eats for breakfast. This is also a good opening question to loosen up interview subjects, BTW.

PLOT. The IBMers don't talk about the mechanics of plotting, which is one of the toughest jobs in story-writing. A story's theme is what the story's about; the story's plot is this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened.

Samuel R. Delany has a technique he calls "thickening the plot," in which the writer describes the setting in detail and gets the character interacting with it. So in the party story, we see the character moving around the house, taking things to the kitchen, anything to disengage himself from the party. People trying to talk to him, him turning to hide the earpiece, all help to thicken the plot and ratchet the tension that he'll be discovered.

RACHETING THE TENSION. In the party story, the tension is, "Will he be discovered?" There's no such tension in the IBM stories because, really, what's at stake for the characters? Nothing much. Particularly, that last story iteration they did was all Star Trek technobabble, there were too many characters (so no one person a reader could care about), and there was really no tension or emotion. (I'd say this is a danger of stories in the IBM method, in which lots of people start using the story as a dumping ground for their ideas and you start losing the main thread.)

But tugging on heartstrings isn't what scenarios are supposed to do; they're mainly of use to engage your imagination so you see the whole problem space, not just a little piece of it. (The other advantage being they get the picture and expectations from inside your head into someone else's head.)

The best IBM story was the one where the guy was installing software at 3 a.m. because the workers would be coming to do their jobs in a few hours. A ticking-bomb deadline is tried and true. I'd say that even the Madeline scenario <<a scenario provided by the professor, of someone using a health-care information system>> could use a ticking-bomb urgency, if the waiting room is crowded, people are being processed quickly, and the subject needs to hurry up so he can get back to work.

GOALS AND OBSTACLES. This is plot. An interesting character in an interesting situation creates the plot naturally without too much intervention. In the case of scenarios, we could introduce massive power failures, ice storms, zombies, etc. but they don't really help us with our purpose, which is to design a good user experience. (Another case where stories diverge from scenarios.) I would call scenarios not stories but soap operas: just one damn thing after another, until the fadeout.

That said, yes, the protagonist wants something and is frustrated by a stupid UI, a deadline, ice storm, zombies, etc. which means that something has to be at stake for him or her, and there have to be consequences for failure. In the party story, the husband gambled with multiple consequences of being discovered, which is what made it entertaining (another difference from scenarios: scenarios don't have to be entertaining, though they're more fun to read if they are). In the Madeline scenario, what are the consequences of not understanding the UI? Will I feel sorry for that character if they can't get the video working?

Here endeth another of my verbose postings. Carry on.

Article critiques: scenarios, stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • Go, K., & Carroll, J.M. (2004). The blind men and the elephant: Views of scenario-based system design. interactions, 11(6), 44-53.
  • Gruen, D., Rauch, T., Redpath, S., & Ruettinger, S. (2002). The use of stories in user experience design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 14(3&4), 503-534.

I thought the best thing about the Go and Carroll article was their listing of differences between scenarios and specifications (though it would have worked better as a table than as text) and their review of the literature surrounding the techniques. I also liked the breakdown of strategy/requirements/HCI planning to year/day/moments. Apart from those squibs, I thought the article was unbelievably dry and unimaginative (which is odd, considering they're talking about the importance of imagination in creating scenarios); for one thing, they introduce the "blind men and the elephant" story in the lead without following it up in the rest of the article. Do scenarios help us see the elephant? Or do they only show us pieces? By the end of the article, we don't know and the authors haven't told us. (I wonder if the editor made them tack it on.)

The Gruen, et al., article by the IBMers I thought was more interesting and meaty; they seemed really in love with their new tool which seemed to have united disparate stakeholders within IBM as well as their clients. I also thought it was interesting how the stories could be decomposed for other audiences as well, down to the design, marketing, and documentation materials. They don't attempt to speculate as to *why* they think stories unite audiences with differing needs, but I'd guess that we're simply trained, from childhood onward, to think in terms of linear narrative. A page of prose describing someone solving a problem is easier to read and understand than a functional specification document, which requires a specialist to draft. Stories don't require specialists.

Their descriptions of its use made it seem like a silver bullet, and I would have liked to know what, if any, limitations they encountered. How do they control their stories, to keep them from becoming distended or unbalanced when descriptions get too specific?

I'd also say that what they're calling stories are not stories, but extended scenarios that use narrative devices like character, setting, plot, etc. The chief characteristic of a story is that the character is different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Their example scenarios don't have that quality; they're more like Star Trek problem stories: Picard is trapped on the holodeck--how do we get him out? No character in such stories really learns about himself or his life. The interest is mainly in seeing people spew technobabble and race against the clock.

Likewise, the IBM scenarios attempt to trap someone in a problem and watch them squirm to get out. The interest is in watching this particular character squirm (would a different character behave differently in the same situation?) and noting the details of what they do to solve their problem.

Keeping Found Things Found

A web site focused on collecting and managing personal information, from the U of Washington I-School, with some help from Msft. I haven't compared their publications list with our syllabus to see if there's any overlap.

Keeping Found Things Found

"The classic problem of information retrieval, simply put, is to help people find the relatively small number of things they are looking for (books, articles, web pages, CDs, etc.) from a very large set of possibilities. This classic problem has been studied in many variations and has been addressed through a rich diversity of information retrieval tools and techniques. A follow-on problem also exists which has received relatively less study: once found, how are things organized for re-access and re-use later on?"

How is it possible? More on email

The readings that prompted these postings were:

Lehikoinen, Juha, Antti Aaltonen, Pertti Huuskonen, and Ilkka Salminen. Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2007. [48-51, 84-94, 127-157]

Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

The following response was to a question about whether a high number of emails are seen as a sign of prestige or importance.

Both of my managers receive upwards of 50-100 emails a day, depending on the crisis du jour. It's more a sign that their world is probably wider than mine and that they have more responsibilities (and more corporate spam to filter out). Both would love to have fewer emails to plow through; sometimes the job feels like it's managing email rather than getting work done.

Piles of unprocessed emails stresses both of them out. So it's not a badge of manhood for them.

One of my managers has been there for 10+ years, and he's a filer; his folder hierarchy is like baroque stained-glass in its intricacy. But for our clients and others on the team who don't file, they know that he *does* file; hence, he's usually the go-to guy for "do you have a copy of that email?" His ability to file and find stuff means they don't have to (and he now has this reputation to live up to, so that adds to his stress). [Update: after backing up his emails to a CD, he deleted about 10,000 emails from his account, some dating back to 2004. And remember, he deleted lots of email too.]

I remember reading somewhere that our brains have a 'doing' function and a 'thinking' function. The trick is, that they don't work at the same time. Reacting to email is a satisfying 'doing' activity, so most people probably don't think too much about how to file something so they can find it later; they're too concerned with taking care of business now. Sometimes we'll think ahead and plan an elaborate system to process our emails, but when we start doing it, the system is awkward or cumbersome; I'd class making folders and filing as a system that some people find cumbersome.

Another part of the issue may be the just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality. A lot of us filers and packrats like to hold on to things just in case we'll need them; but 80% of our files are never seen again. 20% I'll access regularly, but that 20% is different for every user, which is why filing still winds up becoming a personal matter, even in a business setting.

I wonder if things would be different if we asked people to create their own filing systems as if someone else would be using them next year. Would they then take a little more time to create folders, to make life a little easier for the next person? They may be able to create just enough metadata for us to get by.

In what ways are your own personal information management practices similar to or different from those described in the two readings?I'm one of those unfortunates who believes there must be one true way to do anything; as a result, I keep shifting things around and never have a stable setup. My wife, OTOH, doesn't seem to have this email: My email strategies for work and personal are different. In general, I'm more organized than the article subjects, partly because my role in the team is be the unofficial archivist and because experience with our customers has shown that I'm better at keeping these records than they are.

At work, my strategies shift and vary based on the work I'm doing and the tools I'm using. I used Outlook differently from Lotus Notes, for example. In general, I find myself dumbing down the email interfaces so they're as simple to use as possible. I tend to create folders for each project I'm involved with and emails go there. Because we have storage restrictions, I will archive emails (usually emails with big attachments) to a separate database on my hard drive; I have an agent set up to archive mails over 6 months old. For the database on my hard drive, I have full-text indexing turned on as this lets me search inside PDFs, Word files, etc. (Can't do this with my active email database.)

After attempting to segregate mails by project AND fiscal year, I decided last year to keep all project-related emails in one project folder and be done with it. (Notes lets you keep a file in more than one folder, basically a shortcut to the email, but I rarely use that.) I rarely think about metadata or context; like the article subjects, I'm concerned with the next deadline or commitment and long-term storage and access isn't part of my everyday thinking.

We've found that it's best after a project is over or some disaster has happened, to draft a Word file that summarizes the incident, what we did, our rationale, important facts, etc. It helps to draw everything together in one place in a coherent narrative. Often, important meetings or phone calls are not documented elsewhere, and they sometimes need to be captured. I then email it to as many people as request to see it (safety in numbers; in case I delete my copy, someone else may have it); I also save it to our Notes document database on the network where it's backed up and available for others to see.

[Aside: It strikes me that the Notes article is all about jumbled collections of individual items--call them 'words.' The Symbian developers are creating a framework to turn individual words into 'phrases' with simple grammar -- "is part of," "was taken on," "is used by," and so on. But there's no technological way to turn those phrases into any meaningful sentences or a narrative, except in the mind of the user.]

My personal mail is kept in Gmail, with minimal labels (I don't use multiple tags). I find the searches powerful enough that I only use labels for short-term personal projects.

Previously, I used Yahoo mail for several years; I archived all of that mail to my hard drive in 2006, and have gone back to it less than 10 times, I'd say. I just haven't needed to. I use Copernic Desktop Search to scour files for keywords if I can't find a particular document.

My files are organized primarily by directory name, but I have duplicates that have built up over time, and haven't figured out a strategy to deal with them. I depend on the directory and file names to provide whatever context I need to figure out what they are. I may append keywords to filenames, but not often.

My photos are organized in directory folders by year, then by month, then by subjects. Music files are organized in directory folders by genre, artist, etc. I don't really trust Picasa or iTunes or MediaMonkey to organize these things for me because their organization tends to be proprietary and require much organizational fiddling by myself, whereas they can all read the files in my directories, which I can arrange once and then forget about it.

I tend to think hierarchically and alphabetically, so that's how I tend to arrange my files on disk; I fall back to Copernic when I just can't find it by scanning folder and file names.


I'm starting my third official semester as a graduate student but there are still a few nuts I haven't cracked yet. I'm starting to wonder if they're worth cracking or if I'm just worrying too much.

What I've been doing

Note-taking strategy. For both reading and classroom lectures, I still have (I think) a shockingly lazy attitude to note-taking. One of the issues is that this curriculum relies more on project-work than tests; I've only had one major test so far in about 6 classes. For the rest, class participation and assignments provide the grade. So notes are best used for specific assignments, as potentially interesting "just-in-case" reminders, or pearls of wisdom. I also note any books or authors the professors recommend.

I've tried mindmaps, Cornell notetaking, blank sketchbooks, and looseleaf. None of them have really done the trick. I was in awe of a fellow student's rigorously maintained class notes using Microsoft OneNote, in which she kept all of her class notes since starting her degree, making them instantly searchable and sensibly organized. She also kept all of her citations in her RefWorks area, so that when it came time to write any paper, she could search through her accumulated references for keywords of interest. Made me feel like a proper novice. After I described her methods, my advisor said, "Hm. She needs to be studied."

(I later learned that this student was a high-scorer on the GRE Quantitative, and that made me feel better. As I was a high-scorer on the Verbal, my brain is just naturally wired differently.)

As with most notetaking, though, I think it's the act of writing things down that is probably more important than the notes themselves. I have had no need to go back to any of my notes. I am, in fact, more likely to keep the course reading list, as they are fantastic compilations of references I could never dig out on my own. And I have, in fact, gone back to them on occasion.

Researching and Writing Papers. I have a paper coming up and don't really know how to attack it. DTSSTCPW? Zotero? Study Hack's simple or complex paper writing strategies? I wrote two big papers last semester, my first real papers since starting the program. For the first one, I used a modified version of the notetaking for research found here (scroll down to the bullet point, "Use a system"). For the second, I used Zotero.

My file management for the first paper was horrible: I'd actually lost track of PDF'd articles I could have used. I had stacks of paper. My notes following the above advice were OK but not great. I also dug myself into a hole by spending a month trying out stuff like CiteULike, looking at research organization programs, and not doing the effing readings. Can you say "wake-up call"? For my second paper, it was all online research that I saved using Zotero, but I missed the ability to move things around and see everything at once, and I continually lost track of web page titles and stuff. So, not much better.

Reading. If there's anything I can do, it's read. The question is, how closely do I need to read. My 752 class last fall had a heavy reading schedule, with the class time really only focusing on one of the articles, or on a particular aspect of the topic. The reading provided the background and context for the lecture. I found that by mainly skimming through and reading the bits of interest to me, essential phrasings or ideas would stick in my mind long enough to make the in-class connections and make my usual over-the-top verbal contributions, and that tended to be enough.

I'd read something and think, damn, I should blog about that. And never did. Also, I had the feeling that I was really skimming the reading and not really connecting the dots. (This was compounded by rough seas at work and a brutal schedule that left only the minimum amount of time to do my required reading.)

One of the advantages of a college education is, as I read somewhere, you have the opportunity to read profligately. I won't be reading this widely and this quickly again. I need to immerse myself in this literature as the whole field is new to me.

What I'll do this time

For my classroom notes, I use a large ruled Moleskine Cahier notebook. I'm not going to worry about following a particular style of notetaking. I'll just write down stuff that I think is interesting, pertinent to an assignment, or memory-worthy. The key will be to review my notes after class, update them with fresh thoughts, and correct my horrible script so I can decode them later.

The trick in keeping up on the readings is to do some reading every day and, if possible, reduce the number of other tasks and distractions that steal the time that the reading requires. I'm going to use the Moleskine notebook to keep my notes on the assigned readings. By doing this, I can write down my own thoughts and opinions, track what I found most interesting, and I can refer to the notes during class discussions. I like the simplicity of keeping the class and reading notes in the same book.

The nice thing about these notebooks is they're lightweight and I can slip them into a folder or envelope after the semester is over, if I want to keep them.

I'm using a simple 1" 3-ring binder with multiple tabs to segregate my syllabi and assignment sheets. I thought I wanted 2 separate small binders for each class, but decided to have one binder and use the tabs. Fewer things I have to remember to carry.

For in-class stuff, I have Pendaflex file jackets for each class to hold the current week's readings and a standard accordion folder into which I dump the previous weeks' readings. At the end of the semester, I'll sort through the accordion folder to see if there's anything worth keeping and then recycle the rest.

I have a short paper coming up soon, and I'm going to go 100% on Cal Newton's simple version of paper research. I'll fire up a Google Doc and start a continuous revision draft as explained in this article by UK coach and author Mark Forster.

Citations are not fun, but if I write them down correctly once in the approved format, then all I have to do is retype them. No big deal.

And what's your goal again?

The overarching goal is to make my academic life (and thus, my larger life) easier to manage so I can accomplish what I need to do without having to think and re-think and second-guess my strategies every damn day. I have task management systems and processes at work to get me through the workday, and I want similar systems that will help me through these new challenges. The aim is to do as little thinking as possible about how I will do these tasks, so I can spend more time thinking about the tasks.

So my sub-goals are to track incoming information, sift and disburse that info to where it'll do the most good, manage multiple projects, and to do so in as relaxed and easy a manner as I can manage.

More on email overload

Yet more reaction to this article:

Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

From a records management POV, I had these thoughts:

  • People are so overwhelmed when they're in the thick of their email, that they can't discern an immediate difference between the ephemeral and the archive-worthy. (This is even though they describe their jobs as mostly managing email.) For this reason also, we can't depend on them to prune their stash of mails.
  • If the users can't categorize their mails so they can locate them, then records managers will have even less success at helping anyone find them later.
  • If we're faced with having to archive everything, then nothing is of value. You can't find the needle if you keep adding hay to the stack.
  • If we establish retention policies, then we're the only ones who will follow them. I perceive these users as being so busy, that they will think of archiving as someone else's job. They already have too much work to do.
  • The article doesn't address the issue of file attachments (I use Gmail for file storage as much as for communication) or of the corporation owning your email. File attachments are as important as emails these days.
  • Again, it's not mentioned, but users are more likely to hear from corporate IT that their inboxes are taking up too much storage space and that's when they have to purge. At [previous workplaces], we took training now and then on retaining records, but you hear more often that you need to trim down your mailbox size.

Other stray thoughts and babblements:

  • This article was written over 10 years ago, and I wonder what biases or expectations the authors and the users brought to the topic of email and email programs. What were they expecting email programs to do for them?
  • Having used Lotus Notes at various jobs since about 1995 or so, I can testify that its general yuckiness contributed mightily to the users' problems. Although Notes has added buttons to let you copy a mail into a calendar or to-do entry, those are areas of Notes that users I've worked with know very little about, like the Journal or To Do areas. You can make Notes remind you to do things regarding your mail or tasks arising from it, but it requires you to click buttons and takes you away from the inbox, which seems to be everyone's home base. When people leave the inbox pane, Notes is a lot more forbidding and cold, with toolbars and commands appearing that don't have anything to do with email. (Which makes sense--Notes is a document database program with an apparently sophisticated macro programming language, and these toolbars and commands help with database and record manipulation; an email is just another document in the database to Notes, but that's not how users see an email record. I read somewhere that the original developers built the email app originally just to show what could be done with the language; but it turned out that customers wanted emails more than the databases.)
  • That said, Notes STILL doesn't have a threaded message feature as Outlook does and it regularly frustrates me. Add to this annoyance the extra one that [my workplace's] Notes team has turned off full-text indexing, so searches are slow and incomplete, and you can't search within file attachments. I can't say enough bad things about Notes.
  • It would be easy to blame the users for not managing their emails, but the problem also lies with the app developers who either don't listen or are unable to accommodate technical improvements that might make life a little easier for their users.
  • I think these users were not taught good work habits, basically, and probably expected Notes to do the thinking about their work for them (there I go, blaming the user). I doubt any of them had 90 voicemails just sitting there, yet they'd have twice that many emails just sitting there. What is it about the email UI or the promise of email that makes people think their work is done?

On the subject of Gmail Overload, here are two links to how a PR guy uses Gmail as the center of his information universe. These postings include links to other articles in the series where he contorts Gmail into painful positions.

Micro Persuasion: Turn Gmail Into Your Personal Nerve Center

Micro Persuasion: How to Use Gmail as a Business Diary and More Tips

This link is to a guy who thought email was great and now thinks it's bad. THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER

Email overload, content management

As verbose as I am in class, you should read my postings on the Blackboard discussion boards. Oh wait, you can't. Oh wait, you can -- if I re-post them here. It's not as narcissistic and self-involved as it sounds, though it's that, too. I spend goodly bits of time and brain energy writing my posts, and I'm not keen on them disappearing into the digital ether when the class is over. I sometimes also put links to various sites in these mini-essays, so for that reason also, it would be fun to keep them around.

Herewith, a reaction to the following readings:

  • Lehikoinen, Juha, Antti Aaltonen, Pertti Huuskonen, and Ilkka Salminen. Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2007. [48-51, 84-94, 127-157]
  • Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

For the Lotus Notes scenario, I imagine that the lack of standardized practices and behaviors would make the retrieval of important emails very difficult. (Would it make the storage difficult? I don't know.) I believe most of the metadata in the emails would be the obvious stuff, such as the standard To: From:, etc., and the header path information, and so on. These could provide clues.

But the only clue to the content of emails (and perhaps their attachments) would be in the Subject line, which notoriously doesn't change even when the thread of the conversation changes. If the users create folders to hold their mails, then that could perhaps provide a further clue to content, but my project email folders tend to be few and fat, and so a single folder will hold dozens of different conversations and threads related to many different topics, spread over several years.

I'd bet that, if an old mail needed to be accessed, one could locate the file format of the email, see how the sender and receiver information was coded, and then a brute force search on this info would then give you a smaller pile of messages to search through, but it'd still be a pile. Date information may be helpful in locating something specific, if you know about when an event occurred.

I think there are very few emails that sum up the situation of a project or a decision in a coherent narrative. Most emails regarding a decision accrue over time and, without the sender or receiver there, I think it would be difficult to recapture context, motivation, and other crucial information that would help you understand the import of an email message. It would be as difficult for the sender or receiver to piece together as it would an outsider.

I thought the Symbian developers' metadata framework pretty interesting and intriguing, really carrying metadata as far as they could take it. Their focus is on automating the metadata extraction to the fullest extent possible and not depending on the user to do more than take a picture, select a name, send an email, make a call -- the users use their phones instead of managing files. (The Notes users by contrast were on their own in managing their files, content, and metadata.)The associative web of relationships, separating the metadata from the content, and use of meta-metadata I thought was a really clever way to capture, organize, and retrieve context and association from the mass of stuff that users collect on their mobile devices.By kind of taking the user out of the record-keeping loop, their framework enables an outsider to examine the associative links and probably deduce or intuit connections that would not otherwise be possible. The framework connects lots of dots but there still may not be a complete picture; but I think this approach gets you closer to the picture than the scattergun emails do. It would have even more power for the user, because the links and associations may help remind her of circumstances she may have forgotten.One thing we didn't see in the extract was just how the user uses this stuff at their home pc. The writers said that synching files was a tough job, and certainly storage on a mobile device isn't unlimited, so at some point those photos and mp3s have to leave the device and live somewhere else. How are those files and associations then stored on the home PC? Does the home PC have applications that can take advantage of all this rich metadata? Or have the developers in effect created a walled garden in which their framework does everything as designed, but no other technology can work with it? (That's probably not their intent; their architecture probably allows for other developers to tap into the metadata framework; but aging and ill-documented architectures could trap data as easily as aging hardware.)

I was struck reading the last section by how all parts of their metadata framework are in motion. Files on my computer just sit there until I call them up. On this mobile device, opening a file fires off a round of associative metadata linking and updating; it's almost bewildering trying to comprehend all that's going on.

Early in my writing career, I had an assignment to follow around a mohel–the guy who does ritual circumcisions in the Jewish tradition. My subject learned the trade by watching his dad, a renowned figure in the field. One day, father told son he was ready to handle the tools himself. Why now, the son wanted to know. “Most students ask me how much to take off,” the senior explained. “You asked me how much to leave on.”

"No Links Please" drains HREFs, discourages web fiddling

James Clarke – No Links Please!

Here’s a fun one. Our old pal (and the coiner of “life hacks”), Danny O’Brien, passes along an extreme attention aid that might be regarded as the heir apparent to his wonderful “Webolodeon” script for GreaseMonkey.

No Links Please will do its part to keep you from mindlessly surfing the web:

No Links Please! breaks the web by removing hyperlinks from all pages apart from Google. Without the knowledge or temptation of links you are free to devote…

“No Links Please” drains HREFs, discourages web fiddling

Emails as a Game of Life?

Academic Productivity has another great post, this time on the work of Carolin Horn at the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art (a visual designer, BTW, not an information visualization specialist) and her coder Florian Jenett. Using her Apple inbox as her petrie dish, her web page contains wonderful animations of species of hairy microbes that reflect the state of her inbox; spam and email from friends look totally different, while newer, more urgent mail is hairier and quicker. She also describes a grouping function of her project, titled Anymails, and the chains of microbes begin to look like early wormy life forms.

It puts me in mind of John Conway's Game of Life, an artificial life simulation that obeys only a small set of rules yet can exhibit surprisingly varied behaviors. It would be strange to not see rows of text but instead colorful wriggling lifeforms in my inbox. You could make it a game to clear the inbox, or take a cue from the Game of Life, and have a squirming microbe spawn an instant reply.

Carolin has a fascination with the natural world and its possibilities over static user interfaces: one of her other projects is an encyclopedia of the arts represented by different classes of jellyfish.

Building models (info or economic) in your spare time

I enjoyed reading Hal Varian's paper How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time. It succinctly describes how to build a theoretical model for how a system may work, from getting the idea, to testing it out, to improving it. It requires you to have a little ambition and a little less ego. At the end, he summarizes his major points, and it strikes me that this is also a good way for any student or academician in any discipline to grow intellectually and think bigger thoughts.

  • Look for ideas in the world, not in journals.
  • First make your model as simple as possible, then generalize it.
  • Look at the literature later, not sooner.
  • Model your paper after your seminar. (Varian recommends leading a seminar on your model, which forces you to get your ideas in shape so your presentation both educates and entertains your audience.)
  • Stop when you've made your point.

Of course, he goes into greater detail on these and other points, but I really liked the first one: read magazines to get an idea of the ideas and problems that are in the air. That appeals to my pragmatic side.

And since I'm a total software geek, I also enjoyed reading how he uses his computer to write his papers. At the time of the writing (the last update was in 1997) he used UNIX, kept a notes.txt file to contain ideas, thoughts, an outline, and in general used this file similarly to Mark Forster's idea of continuous revision. Only after he's collected ideas for weeks and months does he move to writing a first draft of the paper or chapter. He also uses UNIX's rcs for a revision control system.

Insofar as his idea of writing notes from audience or seminar Q&As, I'd suggest you use either a tape recorder or get a volunteer to write the questions and comments down for you.

Welcome to Eltingville on Adult Swim Video

Welcome to Eltingville, the pilot based on the Eltingville Club strips from Dork, can be seen on the Adult Swim Video site for the next few days. Here’s the pilot, if you are interested.

The viewers have given the episode a rating of 4 out of 10, which is a whole lotta ouch. I looked at a few minutes of it and while it didn’t make me feel overtly proud, it certainly didn’t make me nauseous. I’d give it a 7. Your mileage may vary. Like, a 2 or something.

Yeesh. A goddamned 4 from the…

Welcome to Eltingville on Adult Swim Video

234 - “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”


Take that, Harry Beck. Try as you might, the lines on your Tube map could never be as straight as this.

Beck schematised a transportation system that was completely irregularly laid out to begin with. This map, however, shows how planning ahead would enable not just symmetry, but also better living conditions, or as the map itself states: “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”.

The map was drawn up by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), the father of the garden city movement. Howard believed…

234 - “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”

WIlliam Gaines On "To Tell The Truth" via Classic Television Showbiz

Classic Television Showbiz, a blog run by Kliph Nesteroff, is far and away one of my favorite sites on the World Wide Wasteland. As the name implies, it’s all about that vast wasteland we know and love/loathe called television. More to the point, it’s about old clips from TV, culled from the even vaster wasteland known as Youtube, featuring a bevy of celebrity heavy hitters, also-rans and complete obscurities who polluted the airwaves during, oh, let’s say the 50’s up through the 80’s….

WIlliam Gaines On “To Tell The Truth” via Classic Television Showbiz