National Night Out

In Durham, about 90 neighborhoods have signed up to participate. Police officers are scheduled to drop by as many of the neighborhood events as possible. In our case, Morehead Hill used to have an annual potluck and we've folded that tradition into the annual NNO event. Other neighborhoods will have ice cream socials, games, music, and so on.

When I researched my master's paper, one interesting tidbidlet I noted from a criminal justice study was that one way to reduce crime in the community was to have a neighborhood get-together at least once a year. That face-to-face social time was enough for neighbors to meet and recognize each other, refresh connections, and so on. There's something about actually seeing people, getting to know the "regulars," that helps everyone.

The study also noted the interesting fact that meeting more often than once a year did not significantly reduce crime in the neighborhood. It's a small investment of time and energy that has the potential to yield outsized results.

I could easily extend this post to details of how I'm treating this year's event differently from last year, working with volunteers, and the kind of volunteer job I realized I'm best suited for -- we may even get rained out tonight! How am I coping with that?!?-- but I shall reserve those details for a later post of ghastly length and inordinate self-absorption.

On being an information packrat - Part II

Stratego

(As with all of the posts in this series, I have culled these bits and pieces from many different sources. All of the sources I used for reference are collected at the end of the first post in this series.)

One of the statistics I remember from school is that only 2% of the books in a huge university reference library are ever checked out. Likewise, you will only ever reference 2% of all the files you keep. Now, that 2% will be different for everyone. So surely it’s safer to keep the other 98% too, just in case. Right?

Of all the sites I scoured, web developer Adam Kayce's post on information management was the most sensible, level-headed, and universal. The punchline: You don't need as much as you think. A lesson he learned on his path was that he could let go of things that no longer served him, knowing that he could replace them later because, as he says, we always have what we need when we need it.

What I like about this philosophy is that it's gentle: it's about letting go rather than acquiring, and it comes from a place of abundance. Holding on to information because you're afraid you won't have it later is a scarcity mentality, which keeps you playing small. A better, bigger stance to take is to acknowledge that you have all you need right now and, if you do need something, you can easily lay hands on it whenever you want.

A Slashdot thread on this topic yielded this gem of a comment:

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Letting go of what you don't need is a key idea that is also echoed in Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy, a book I reviewed in a previous post. A key paragraph from my review:

Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization–do, delegate, defer, or delete–Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.

The just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality is too big of an issue to cover here, but suffice to say: lose the just-in-case thinking. Just-in-time will work for me 80 percent of the time, and in building a system, I want to solve the frequent, most annoying problems first. The exceptions and special cases that make up the remaining 20 percent can be dealt with as they arise. (Nothing stops a good-enough solution in its tracks faster than trying to solve all the exceptions at the outset.)

The just-in-time position is also expressed in the Extreme Programming precept of You Aren't Gonna Need It:

"Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them."

Even if you're totally, totally, totally sure that you'll need a feature later on, don't implement it now. Usually, it'll turn out either a) you don't need it after all, or b) what you actually need is quite different from what you foresaw needing earlier.

One of the phrases that pops up on the interwebs for this type of subject is the Bright Shiny Object syndrome. That page, that link, that YouTube video -- each is a siren's call to click, watch, read, listen, absorb, engage automatically, without even thinking. It's a common experience that someone begins a web session searching for a specific piece of information and then looks up an hour later blinking like they've just emerged into daylight from a dark movie theatre.

I want to draw a line (however crooked) between the fascination I have for the web's bright shiny objects and meditation. Meditation is defined as many things, but one of its purposes is to demonstrate to you – through experience – that you will always have bright shiny objects flashing through your consciousness: memories, ideas, conversations, voices, songs, desires, hunger, images, an itch on your knee, the dog barking next door, etc. One of meditation’s goals is to show you that you can detach yourself from that parade of imagery and noise -- that you are not that parade -- and that you will be OK if you let the parade pass by without comment, without attachment, without engagement.

It may well be a stretch to say that browsing the web is a meditation, but I certainly spend a lot of time doing it and I do fall into a trancelike state staring at the screen. Let's say, for the sake of experiment, that web-browsing is like meditating. Would that change the nature of how I surf the web? How I interact with links on web pages, how I spend my time and attention? It's something for me to think about some more.

In the next post, I'll review several different tactics and tips for managing information that I found in my informal researching. Stay tuned, infovores!

 

 

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Many of you are doing a splendid job getting clear on what you wish to create. You are stepping into your role of co-creator with mindfulness and excitement. This is, of course, wonderful, but what many of you are not realizing is that you are still supporting obstacles for yourself with the negative speech habits you developed long ago. Why not take a day to be very aware of your self talk? Are you always “sick and tired”? Your I AM statements define you and carry far more power than you realize. Remember the universe will always answer yes to what you proclaim about yourselves! How about self talk that says, “I am magnificent!” “I am shifting with grace and ease.” “I am lovingly supported and honoured in all of my endeavours.” “I accept!” “I am whole and happy and healthy.” “I am shining brilliantly with beauty and love.” Again, this is not about puffing oneself up with ego. This is merely changing your I AM statements to truly reflect who you really are. ~Archangel Gabriel

On being an information packrat

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Bookshelves - WGA05755

Lord Peter Wimsey remarked that "Books...are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)

I don't, like my father, collect tools, nails, screws, etc., nor clothes and knick-knacks like my mother. But information? I'm a sucker for it.

And when the digital age arrived, I used lots -- LOTS -- of software to help collect, corral, and bend to my will all of the loose, scattered, random information whizzing past my ears in the belief that by squirrelling all the squibs and squidlets and atomic particles of data into cozy, well-behaved compartments -- THEN -- I would be in control of everything that mattered to me. I used Lotus Agenda, AskSam, InfoSelect, Ecco Pro, Zoot, and others in my Windows-using years, sometimes Word's document map feature, and I did the same when I used a Mac. One of the first apps I bought when I started the PhD program was Devonthink Pro. (Nowadays, I rely on nvAlt, a fork of Notational Velocity -- but I digress.)

And it wasn't just software: I kept journals off and on for years and stacked them on my shelves also. I taught myself NoteScript so I could take notes even faster. All the drafts of every short story I ever wrote. And on and on.

Why? Well, isn't it obvious? I might need it one day! What more reason does any hoarder need?

Every now and then the system would get shaken up and I'd notice something: so much of that information I was hoarding really didn't age well. In one of my upgrades from one computer to another, I exported my InfoSelect database to a Word file and I kept that file nearby. I probably opened it only once or twice in the years after that; it vaporized into the informatic ether years ago. When I read my old journals, I was astonished at how useless they were to my present self -- I didn't need to relive all that high-dudgeoned emotional thrashing about in the pea soup of my soul. The stuff I culled were good bits of advice or quotes or other such things I'd copied out from my reading or what people had told me. And I'm talking probably less than 0.00001% of the whole.

So all of this information I had kept -- and let's be honest, that I'm keeping now -- has ultimately very little value to me.

What in the world drove such compulsion to document every fleeting idea or datum that passed my eyeballs? I skim-read a few Krishnamurti books many years ago, and the big idea I grokked from them was his opinion that most all the neurotic, self-defeating behavior we gut ourselves with comes from fear.

Let's start with that as our hypothesis: If fear is at the core of this behavior, then fear of what? Being left out (something I felt strongly in my adolescent years, but that does not apply to me now). A fear of missing out on something potentially wonderful, potentially useful, potentially life-changing. The fear, perhaps, that someone else knows something that I don't and that I need, even if I don't know it yet.

This might explain why I capture stuff and then read it once or, sometimes, don't read it at all. Simply knowing it's in my personal deep-freeze is enough to give me enough comfort. (Insert here analogy to dragons hoarding treasure and virgins -- two commodities for which dragons have no possible use.)

There is also, I think, a fear of looking foolish, of not having the answer if I were to be called on. Wedded to that was my self-image forged from my various jobs as the information-maven, the guy who could find anything online, the tech writer who could retrieve that email or half-forgotten file that earned me kudos and made me look like a hero and earned me the unofficial title of "team librarian." At my current job, it is certainly the case that we are often asked to pull 5-year-old files out of the air with no warning and could we send it later that afternoon, please? With part of my self-image at work hinging on my ability to lay my hands on a file or email, on providing an answer, it became even more important to be organized, to have the info at the ready.

I think, I hope, I have slowed this compulsion somewhat. I hope I am more selective. There's a reason to keep some online information you really need; web sites and PDFs and other resources do go away; the Internet is not a library, after all.

And although i kind of cherish the image of being an information packrat, there are severe downsides. No, I don't have huge piles of data teetering over me and threatening to crush me. But there is a psychic cost. Judith Culpepper (a writer otherwise unknown to me) makes the excellent point that when everything is important, then nothing is important: "The extra, useless data cloaks the useful bits both physically and mentally. Physically, the sheer volume of clutter [that] too much information produces hides everything." Because every day brings fresh onslaughts of information, there is no possible way to absorb any of it. So, she concludes, "The only answer is to hoard more. Hoarding feeds on itself, pushing focus out of the way in the quest to appease the almighty 'might [need someday]'."

Oh my Lord, does that sound familiar! Well, then, the answer must be to catalog, organize, codify this mass of undigestible data, right? But even that is a fool's mission, as Culpepper explains: "Then you waste time cataloguing, sorting, and otherwise tending to too much useless data. Buying binders and other organizing tools often seems warranted. Great. Now it's sucking time and money." The data is managing you, instead of vice versa. I have a huge Devonthink pile of web pages, PDFs, and other stuff that I attempted to sort out into alphabetically organized topical groups earlier this year. Except I never finished organizing the pile. So it's like a room I've framed in and I'll get to the drywall someday. Maybe.

Culpepper makes another really sharp insight. Namely, that managing this mass of trivia ultimately steals focus from all parts of your life.

Each piece demands attention. Consequently, the day becomes divided into small sections spent pursuing wildly divergent paths. Admittedly, each is of interest. However, too much time spent poring over tidbits pushes out time for prolonged study. Suddenly, you aren't truly good at anything. Possessing few skills beyond hoarding, any skills mastered are likely to be trivial, picked up accidentally in the course of flitting amongst the clutter. The information controls now; it decides how to spend time. You have no goals. The lure of too much information pulls away from them, makes them impossible to achieve.

The goal, in fact, is now to manage the information rather than putting the information to use in a way that would benefit a specific objective. I am now the host organism through which the information parasite propagates itself.

And I detect also in Culpepper's description of flitting from one shiny object to the next the spectre of boredom, that dread modern disease.

I'm not saying "Don't obsess." Good golly, I am a Fred Astaire freak and love scarfing up any new bit of info on the man and his art. Another friend loves his Harley-Davidson, another studies how to improve his billiards game. Part of the fun of a hobby or pastime is learning more about it. But those are contained and specific interests, and they refresh rather than deplete. And, as I said, there are situations, such as at my workplace, where organizing and managing information is vital to my success.

So what can one do to find some sort of balance? How can I manage my information managing? I'll look at some ideas in the next post.

References

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

Steve Donoghue wrote what I thought was the best tribute to Vidal; it was graceful, heartfelt, lyrical. And absolutely the most gorgeous photo of the young Vidal I’ve ever seen. Though I will take him to task on Gore’s “abandoning his country”; Vidal always maintained US residence and lived in the US for the last decade or so. And America was a huge theme of his life and much of his work.

English: Portrait of Gore Vidal by Juan F. Bastos

The NY Times had a mostly factually accurate obit but marred with lots of snarky asides and uncalled-for digs. The funniest part of the Times obit was this marvelous correction:

Correction: August 1, 2012. An earlier version misstated the term Mr. Vidal called William F. Buckley in a debate. It was crypto-Nazi, not crypto-fascist.

I am so glad we got that cleared up.

The line in Steve’s tribute that resonated with me was his line that, with Vidal’s passing, “The 20th Century is over.” To think of a time when a man of letters could live by his pen and be a public intellectual – it boggles my mind. Vidal, Mailer, Vonnegut are the first names that leap to mind, and they evoke a time and place that seem almost as distant and quaint as Dickens’ London.

I have to agree with most of the chattering classes that Vidal’s essays are what I would come back to, again and again. To read them is to have Vidal whispering in my ear – the voice and cadence and rhythm of his prose is part of what makes them so seductive to me.

I always preferred his literary essays and reminiscences over his political essays. I respect that it was part of Vidal’s personality and commitment to his country and what he felt were his responsibilities to be involved in the cut and thrust of current politics, and he had to settle for a Cassandra role rather than that of a lawmaker and politician (a role he probably would have preferred – what a soapbox!).  But I think his political writing will age more quickly than his literary ones, and we will have to see whether his political assessments will hold up over the next 20 years. I think they won’t. I think he landed several heavy punches on the influence of money and television on politics, and his skeptical and hectoring voice will be missed from the daily debate, but I have real doubts about his conspiracy theories and his isolationism.

Of the novels, I read the American Chronicles series in order and while entertaining I won’t go back to them. Two Sisters is probably the novel I remember the most and the one I’m most inclined to want to keep for re-reading; an odd melange of script, fiction, and memoir, playing on themes he toyed with throughout his fiction. Julian was also very good and I have Creation waiting on the shelf. I’ve never been interested in the “inventions” – Duluth, Myra Breckinridge – but I should give them a try.

One of his observations I come back to often was his idea of what was at the center of the culture. In pre-literate times, it was poetry. Then prose and novels were at the center, and pushed poetry to the margins. Then radio and movies were at the center, pushing novels away, and poetry further away. Then television. All the while, poetry and the novel were pushed further away from what might be called the mainstream. I wonder now if there are multiple centers or if there is no center – the center cannot hold.

Of all the forms he worked in, I would suggest that the interview offers the most visceral thrill of undiluted Vidal. Like Harlan Ellison and Stephen Fry, Vidal seemed most at home in a chair with a camera pointed at his face. Being prodded by random questions elicited that voice and those opinions that people like me love going back to again and again.

Arts and Letters Daily has a good roundup of obits and articles on Vidal. Search on Vidal’s name to find the entry.

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On starting before you're ready

When I first got the idea to restart the blogging, my first thought was: “No, don’t start this Monday, start next Monday.” It felt like the safe option: give myself time to scope out other blogging tools, come up with a list of topics,develop a workflow, etc.

Start

And then the second, more challenging voice of The Coach came in: “Why wait? Start tomorrow. Just get started. If you wait till you’re ready, you’ll never be ready.” And I knew that starting before I felt I was ready was the wiser course.

Now, were I starting a military campaign or PR blitz, yes, sure, plan to the nth degree and get your ducks in a row, etc. But for a personal project like this, starting before I was ready meant I had to eschew the perfectionism, set up some quick ground rules to prevent myself from putting up higher and higher barriers (I’ve now reduced my first draft writing time to 15 minutes to inspire faster writing and shorter drafts), and just dive in.

My banjo teacher, who is also a spiritual teacher, said one time that “The perfection is in the doing.” It’s so easy for me to forget that, to get hung up on the result or the desired outcome before I’ve taken a single step.

One of the great teachings of Constructive Living for me was that you cannot control the results, you can only control your behavior. So starting – and starting imperfectly – is better than not starting. Starting is in your control. Once I started, I discovered in the doing several little tricks that would not have occurred to me had I relied only on planning. And even if I had planned everything to a faretheewell, I’d have had to adjust my plan based on what I discovered as I was doing. So the better course of action was to fire-ready-aim-fire.

So start the diet today, start exercising today, start writing today. Starting – and starting again fresh tomorrow – is always in your control.

 

 

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Daily Message ~ Tuesday July 31, 2012

Many people would like to change their lives and begin living more authentically but they don’t know where to start. All that is required is heartfelt gratitude for what you would like more of in your life, and heartfelt surrender of the rest. This is the formula to shift any situation into forward movement and empowered change. ~Archangel Gabriel


Daily Message ~ Tuesday July 31, 2012

On using timers and timeboxing

Mark Forster recommended the use of timers in his book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. It sort of starts with the idea of timeboxing, a demarcated bit of time within which you choose to work on a specific task. A teacher may set aside 45 minutes to grade papers, say, and then take a 15-minute break. The teacher has timeboxed that task for 45 minutes and included a break, since if she simply sat and plowed through all of the papers in a single setting her brain would curdle and the last papers in the pile would have less of her focus and attention than did the first papers.

Italiano: Autore: Francesco Cirillo rilasciata...

Forster recommended various ways to attack high-resistance tasks using a timer and timeboxing. One that I remember was to set a timer for 5 minutes with a one-minute break, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, etc. Focusing on the high-resistance task (or even a list of tasks) is easier when you agree with yourself to focus for only five minutes. Oftentimes that can be enough to get the ball rolling, and I find myself wanting to continue past the appointed time. It’s important, though, to STOP what you’re doing when the timer goes off. Your agreement with your mind is that you’ll only work when the timer is active and then you’ll take a break; your mind needs to know it can trust you. It’s how you can get it on your side.

Forster had several other patterns in his book (one of them was a 5-10-15-20-25-30-25-20-15-10-5 sequence), all with the intention to help you get through the initial chaos of a high-resistance project or task and to ease you into doing the work you need to get done. Also, in these seemingly small margins of time, you will actually accumulate several hours worth of work. Oftentimes, just getting started is the hardest thing, and little tricks like this can be tremendously useful for just that purpose.

In recent years, the Pomodoro Technique has held sway and it’s the one I tend to use the most often at home and at the office. It’s kind of boggling to imagine that the simple idea of a 25-minute timebox has spawned web sites, apps, blog posts, ebooks, etc. In the old days, that probably would have been 2 pages in a chapter of any decent time management book.

An interesting twist on the timebox is the decremental timebox system (hat tip to a poster at Mark Forster’s FV forum for the link). I’ve not used it much yet, but it’s a rather fascinating idea.

I use two timers. At the office, I use the Time Timer, which is nicely visual and utters a little beep at the end of a session. (If I’m away from my desk when the timer goes off, I prefer the timer not drone on loudly for several seconds, thereby annoying my cubemates.) At home, I use the Datexx Miracle Time Cube (which is a winner simply for the name alone). It only offers 5-15-30-60 minute intervals, but it’s dead easy to use and fun, which otherwise, why bother?

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