Too soon old, too late shmart...

...goes the old Yiddish proverb. And it works for the spring semester as well as for real life.

  • Using a simple 1-inch binder and two sets of five tabs were fantastic in helping me organize my two classes' syllabi, assignments, special handouts, and so on. I could carry it with me to work and school, I kept drafts of papers or sections of papers organized, and it just neatened up my work.
  • I also used the DIY Planner Two-Page Per Month calendar to keep at the front of the binder. I recorded due dates here. I also like being able to grok the month at a glance.
  • I used two large Moleskine cahiers as my notebooks for each class. This meant juggling two different notebooks, and I would occasionally pick up the wrong one. Next semester: use a Mead two-subject notebook and be done with it.
  • Some days I took lots of notes in class, other days few to none. Hence, I now have two half-empty Moleskine cahiers. Hence, using the Mead two-subject notebook to keep the damage to one notebook instead of two.
  • At the start of the semester, I also used the notebooks to record my reading notes. I found the notes helpful sometimes, especially as they fixed ideas in my head. However, as the semester ground on, I had less time available to record my thoughts and so that activity slowed and sputtered. Also, it was mainly useful to grasp the heart of what was discussed, note any unusual detail or anecdote, and skim the rest.
  • As always: there's more time at the start of the semester than there is at the end.
  • I've tried using the Little-and-often/ESS method and it worked sometimes. (It's also likely that I implemented these strategies wrongly--ie, not often enough and not little enough--or didn't stick with them long enough.) When I'm starting a paper, I'll also timebox the research task or use the Now Habit's 30 minutes of quality work trick. But I'm still thinking too much about the method and that interferes with doing the work. For example, I started using Cal's research paper database in Excel for an early paper and it was excellent for getting me started. But then I got in a time crunch and I abandoned it. I'm still keeping the idea in my back pocket, though, as it's a killer way to organize bunches of citations.
  • For my last batch of assignments (a UI critique and a paper), I borrowed a leaf from Steve Pavlina: I picked an assignment and just worked full bore on it until it was done. (Go here and scroll down to the "Single Handling" section.) And when it was sufficiently done, I moved on to the next assignment and worked full bore on that until it was sufficiently done. And so on. (By "sufficiently done," I mean "good enough." I like keeping a paper around for a couple of days to cool off, review it, and polish things a little more, add more texture to thicken it, etc. I find this re-reading and polishing takes little time or brain energy.) In fact, I was astonished at how well I took to this method and how quickly I achieved results with it. I got two deliverables done well before the due dates and had an unhurried weekend to finish my taxes and do my readings for the week. It also alleviates the problem I have with setting artificial deadlines which I can see right through; with this method, there are no deadlines, just a sufficiently done project.
  • Start all major projects earlier. Don't wait for later. Be kind to your future self. 'Nuff said.
  • Parking in the deck behind the Post Office is great at 8:30, and it gives me plenty of time to grab a coffee before class. Yay! No more waiting for the bus! I didn't discover this till the middle of the semester. However, it does cost about $3 a pop and uses more gas than taking the bus, so I'll probably use this only now and then.
  • Having the upcoming week's work and readings done by the previous Sunday evening leads to peace and contentment when the week starts, and no rushing about at the last minute.
  • I had two folders for each class that would contain the week's readings; as with the cahier notebooks, I'd sometimes get the folders mixed up. Also, they'd contain more printouts than I really needed for one day's class. I'll fix this with a staggeringly simple tip I glimpsed on a bus passenger's lap one day: Label the folders by day instead of by class. That way, each day's work is pre-sorted, I don't need to think about which folder to take, and badda-bing--Bob's your uncle.
  • When working on an assignment: re-read or maybe even type out precisely the directions, the expectations, requirements, etc. I often go off on a tangent and make the process and the final product more complicated than it needs to be. I frequently re-read my last two assignments with the focus of a Talmudic scholar, ensuring that I was delivering exactly what was asked for and not something other than what was asked for.
  • I tried creating a Google Calendar schedule (like Proto-scholar's) that delineated my commute times, class times, work schedule, etc. I never went back to it. I like my daily planner and 2-page-per-month too much. But a recent idea of Cal's--the auto-pilot schedule--I find gobsmackingly simple and brilliant and why the hell didn't I think of it myself? In fact, Pavlina's "focus on one project at a time" melded nicely with a standard day/time to work on these projects. Making these kinds of decisions ahead of time really reduces the friction of getting this work done. Given that I work full-time in addition to taking two classes, I find it necessary to designate whole evenings to one class or the other. During crunch times, I may institute emergency measures. But I think in the fall, I'll designate general class-work for specific evenings and periods of weekend time, and then work in the special projects as needed.

As I think of more, I'll add more.

Running...out...of...gas...

Is it me, or should the spring semester have ended a week ago? Why are we dragging it out for another three weeks?

I see my fellow students in class and around campus and we're all looking tired. I've done some good work in the latter half of this semester, but it's about put me into an early grave, and we're not done yet. I have a paper due Monday, and two more things to hand in for my other class. The final due date for those is May 5 but my goal is to have everything wrapped up by the end of April.

I'm noticing the classic signs of burnout and exhaustion--it's taking longer for me to do what used to be simple things, short attention span, generally low energy except for what I need to power me through the day. Part of this malaise, no doubt, is due to the fact that I have to make up about 13 hours of lost time at my day job this weekend to make up for the day I spend on campus and going to the eye doctor one afternoon. (Mental note: schedule doctor appointments for first thing in the morning or wait till summer.)

Fitness Functions

[Cross-posted to Cliopatria & Digital History Hacks]

One of the distinctions that applied mathematicians make is between linear and nonlinear problems. In a linear problem, you have a set of…


Fitness Functions

The Mayor's Tongue

Designer info to come (not yet published)

The placement of the apostrophe and the mysterious period after the author’s name are sure to drive a few of you mad, but I think we can ignore those two…


The Mayor’s Tongue

Parenting, Inc.

A good design strategy for alarmist books is to use color to emphasize the important stuff, because, you know, sometimes a 27-word subtitle just doesn’t get your point across.


Parenting, Inc.

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