Old-world skillz

Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time
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I do not know how Michael Leddy finds so many great items for his Orange Crate Art blog. I was struck by his link to this column by The Providence Journal's Mark Pantinkin on certain specialized life skills we (of a certain generation) accrued growing up that aren't needed in this day and age. There's a hint of grumpy old man in his tone, but not too much.

Some of the skills on Pantinkin's list overlaps with mine: the high-beam toggle on the floor, the rotary dial phone, threading the film in the camera, using coat hangars (and aluminum foil!) to improve TV reception, and dropping the phonograph needle on a turning record.

My own modest list would include:

  • Black and white darkroom skills, especially threading the film, in the dark, onto wire reels that I then dumped into the fixative. If the film touched itself along that spiral, the outcome was just ugly.
  • Using a pencil to re-wind slack cassette tape onto its spool.
  • Affixing labels to 3.5-inch floppy disks.
  • Creatively naming computer files within the 8.3 scheme.
  • Using a proportion wheel to size photos for a newspaper page -- and keeping your distance from the hot wax machine.
  • Inking and running my dad's offset printing presses, and then running the pages through the collator, folding machine, and stapler. I can still hear and feel the loud, mechanical rhythm and sounds of those machines.

But that said, some skills have not passed away from this ever-progressing world:

  • The Frugal Liz prefers her $20 Whirley-Pop over any microwave popcorn.
  • I still write letters and cards to my friends, and Simpsons stamps are preferred.
  • Banjo strings still go on by hand one peg at a time.
  • A safety pin keeps paired socks together in the wash.
  • The Sunday funnies, even in their sadly depleted state (the News & Observer only has 4 pages of strips run really small), still make fun birthday gift wrapping in a pinch.
  • We still have two-stroke lawnmower engines, shoelaces, eyeglass screws, and other physical artifacts of the daily world that will require specialized skills for a while yet.

I would add, though, a few new skills I've picked up:

  • Working with blog software
  • Using Snopes.com to sniff out urban myths forwarded to me by well-meaning people
  • Navigating Gmail using the keyboard shortcuts only
  • Seeing Netflix movies over my wi-fi connection (instant gratification -- though I do miss the Mom and Pop video stores)
  • And, alas, becoming better than I want to be at troubleshooting Windows and Macintosh computers
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Nirvana, or something like it

My friend Rani left me the following intriguing comment:

Mike - would love to know how the life/school/work balance (or juggle rather) is going. Have you been able to obtain equilibrium at all? What about nirvana?

I was going to reply as a blog post that night but spent too much time working on an assignment. (Cue the irony strings.) I wish I had something pithy to impart, as I have no coherent thoughts on this, so I'm afraid I bejabbered a long and rambling discourse to her in an email. But this is what I do, so we must perforce accept what we do not wish to change since it has worked pretty well for us so far.

Anyway, I've taken that long and rambling discourse to her and tried to pull out the nuggets to create a letter to myself. If anything, it's a snapshot of where I am today.

  • I agree with my friends Rani and Cara that balance is a myth. Instead, as Cara said, the best you can do is to achieve integration of all your facets every day, no matter how brief those episodes may be. Work, life, family, self-care, meditation -- cram it all into one day. There's just what needs to be done now, today, but thinking also about what will I be glad I did a month from now, a year from now. Flipping back and forth between the detail and the big picture instead of being stuck in one mode for too long.
  • I work with a personal coach. One of his favorite sayings is "life is every moment." Meaning, of course, that nirvana is every moment. Right now, as I'm writing this, is IT and it deserves my full attention and as much of me as I can bring to it.No, I don't hit that moment every time, but I remember another saying (that's all I do, is remember things, I never think of anything original to say on my own), a Zen one, "Try, try, for a thousand years." Lately, I'm working on focusing my attention on one thing a time without trying to keep up with all my RSS feeds, email, etc. simultaneously. I find that when I can focus for an hour or so on a single project (work or school), I get more done and derive more satisfaction from it.
  • I feel very fortunate to be doing all this work at this point in my life. I've got good time management habits, I understand and am more friendly with my thinking and creative processes so that I'm not fighting them as often, my health is good (I don't get enough sleep, though), and I've been hacking my mind for the last two years with my coach, so that I'm not as plagued by self-doubt or anxiety as I used to be.This month, for example, is a train wreck. It's the end of the fiscal year for our customer, so I have about 5 documents due, I have to make a presentation at the end of the month on a project I've not touched for 2 months, I have major homework assignments (they don't tend to be hard, but they take a lot of time), monthly reports will take 2-3 days to write, etc.

    Funnily enough, I'm not paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Instead, I'm looking at it all rather coolly (if a little frazzledly) and calculating when I have time to get things done, what's the highest priority, where can I slack off, when can I sleep late, etc. I turned in an assignment a week early so I could work unfettered on the assignment for my other class, focus on my work projects, and free up an evening so Liz and I could attend a concert (meaning, no homework time that night!).

    That kind of thing. Starting early, giving myself time.

  • My mgr and I have noticed that when we focus on schoolwork, our day job suffers, and vice versa. So it sloshes back and forth between the two.
  • One of my coach's points is that, when we decide what our territory is, we then have to decide 1) what are the costs and 2) are we willing to pay the price for it. In my case, that has meant lots more communication with Liz so she knows the state of my mind and emotions, ensuring that she understands why I don't have time to do stuff like go to the movies. Our current rule is that we can have one outing per weekend -- it can be out to lunch, or lunch and a movie, or seeing friends for dinner -- but the rest of the weekend is for me to do homework and reading.
  • I am keeping up my banjo lessons with my teacher (who doubles as another coach, in a way). I only have time to practice for about 10-15 minutes/day, in the morning, in between getting home from work and starting my evening studies, or in between study sessions, but I think it's good for me. It gives my brain and hands different work to do and is a good mental break. Also, since I don't have my fiction writing as an outlet, this keeps me in touch with my creative, performing self.
  • My coach says that it isn't good to work for hours at a time; it's analogous to stretching a rubber band at full tension without relaxing it. If you work at full tension for too long, you'll snap. So you absolutely need to build in relaxation time where you don't think about work or assignments. For me, last weekend, it meant watching Doctor Who episodes on my MacBook.
  • I also spent this past summer not doing any schoolwork. Instead, I made a conscious decision that Liz and I would spend more time together. So we took a tap dancing class at 9th Street Dance, we started entertaining more on the back porch, we sat on the porch after work or before bedtime and talked about our lives and our plans. We both knew once the fall semester started, that I would not have that kind of loose time anymore. So I tried to compensate for that beforehand. And fortunately, she's very understanding. She knows that I'm fully stretched working full-time and doing school; and we both know that this is a temporary condition, and not forever. (Well maybe -- I'm thinking about getting a PhD.)
  • Every Sunday morning, we go for a 30-min walk in the neighborhood and talk about the week, what's coming up, etc. (Well, she talks because she's a lark, and I stare at the ground because I'm an owl, and owls don't like the morningses.) I also, when I can, read to Liz before she goes to sleep or we sit on the porch and have supper. Time to just sit and mull things over is very important.You know, little everyday things like that do take time away from my studies, but it's those little everyday things that we tend to remember and cherish the most. Little kindnesses. (Remember that Japanese movie, "Afterlife"?)

    Also, Liz was there before the degree, Liz will be there after the degree. Praise be to the Liz.

  • My systems analysis teacher's law was, "Never fall in love with anything -- system, process, gadget -- that cannot say 'I love you' in the morning."
  • So if there's an answer to Rani's vague and open-ended question, it's that I work at it every day and every week. Wednesday, for example, is an early and late day. I try to get to work by 7:30 so I can log my 9hrs by 4:30, so I can get to my class by 5:30, and then get home about 8:45 at night. I see Liz briefly in the morning and briefly again late at night. I call her about 4:30 to see how her day has gone (I try to call her from work once a day).At the office, I endeavor to get ahead on my work projects so that I'm not the bottleneck (my personal metric is that I want to be so organized and efficient at work that I scare people). In class, I just listen to the lecture, take notes, and jabber as I am wont to do. I focus on work, school, and home to varying proportions, as needed.
  • When possible for my manager and me, school comes first. It's finite, it's directed short-term assignments, and paying the price now yields a bigger payoff later. But, school doesn't pay the bills yet. So there are times we have to focus on the day job, take work home, catch up on the weekends, etc.
  • Every day, I try not to think about completing everything all at once, but can I at least feel on top of things for today? (That's a Mark Forster idea.) I went to bed late Sunday night, but I felt on top of things Monday morning. That feeling never lasts, of course, but sometimes I'm surprised at how little I really need to do to feel on top of things.
  • Talk about equilibrium -- see the movie "Man On Wire". Fabulous!

Mark Hurst's "Bit Literacy"

Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload attacks a problem that, of all people, my Alexander Technique therapist mentioned to me today. She said that evolution has granted our bodies numerous ways to deal with few or no calories, but no way -- except obesity -- to deal with too many calories. Likewise, our brains are adapted to recognize patterns and intuit deductions from minimal information, and it does this unconsciously and automatically. But our brains can’t naturally accommodate too much information and it can stun our brains into paralysis. "Information overload" is the conventional term for this condition.

Hurst’s book is an attempt in this Web 2.0 age of Lifehackery and GTD’ing to advise on his own methods of stemming the flow of information so as to decrease the sense of overwhelm.

Various reviews I found on the web marvel that this young guy -- and an MIT computer science grad, to boot -- has a seemingly curmudgeonly attitude to applications and computer habits: he uses older versions of Mac apps, he eschews Web 2.0 services, he trusts in text files and recommends copying emails you want to save into text files you store on your own hard drive.

This is the kind of book I would push on a relative or person older than me who’s not computer-literate and doesn’t quite know what to do with or how to handle the files they compile on their PC. It’s bad enough that most PC/Mac owners inevitably become their own sysadmins; it’s insult to injury that their computers don’t automatically read minds and track all the info they find interesting and keep their files and photos nice and orderly without significant manual intervention.

I was irked a bit by some of Hurst's assumptions that drive this book's messages. But even as an old computer hand, I learned -- re-learned, actually -- some good lessons and reminders regarding file-naming, directory organization, and being responsible for the bits I invite into my life.

What follows are various thoughts, criticisms, and observations about the book. For more information on Hurst, visit his web site, Good Experience, or subscribe to his sensibly formatted newsletter.

  • 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.
  • Hurst prefers the bits (i.e., electronically captured and shared data) over paper. Paper requires energy to produce and transport, it doesn’t scale, and it can’t capture the instant arrival and transformation of bits. Paper is old-fashioned and simply can’t keep up with the flow.
  • I disagree with all of Hurst’s opinions about paper. In regards to the energy needed to produce paper--exactly how many nuclear-, hydro-, or coal-powered plants are needed to produce the electricity for you to read these words? If paper isn’t a good repository for to-dos or information, then maybe it’s because people didn’t learn good habits on how to use them? If the bits are so wonderful, our use of paper should have naturally declined. Instead, we need Hurst’s book to tell us how to use the bits--just as many people for many years taught knowledge workers how to use and file paper. So maybe it isn't the medium that's at fault here.
  • As for the inability of paper to transform bits on the fly--if the goal is to transform an email into a to-do, then I phrase the to-do in my head (which is the hardest part of the task, incidentally--I’m continually re-learning how to phrase a to-do so it’s actionable), write down the task in my paper diary for whatever day I need to do it, and then delete the email or file it for reference. The to-do is thus ready for me to tackle when I'm ready to do it, and since I use my paper diary daily, I don't have to worry that I'll forget to do it. A paper diary well-used -- I prefer Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow system -- is to me superior to all the electronic tools I’ve tried.
  • I think paper is not the disadvantage. Nor are excessive bits. The disadvantage is that people haven’t decided what information is really important to them and then been schooled in how to use either method effectively. Paper and electronic methods for handling info exist and either one will work fine. But if you think that everything is important or that you may need this information “someday,” then you do curse yourself into being a custodian of huge wodges of information for a long time and that is a thankless task.
  • Hurst’s contempt for paper is oddly reflected in his self-published book's contempt for the niceties of book design, thus impairing a good reading experience. The paragraphs are separated by a blank line (drafted in a text file, no doubt) instead of more visually attractive line spacings. And--this is what really annoyed me--there’s no friggin’ index! How am I expected to find the reference to the reformatted New York Times article links? Or to the Macintosh apps he recommends? The table of contents is no help. Guess I’ll have to thumb through the book until I find the footnote on page 177 that lists them all -- but then, how will I remember them? Write them down? On PAPER??  A simple back-of-the-book index is an example of a sensible device to navigate paper-based information, exactly the kind of device that Hurst doesn’t acknowledge existing.
  • As for handling to-dos, I tried his Gootodo service and it just didn’t mesh with how I process my tasks using my paper diary and Forster’s DIT system. I agree with the school of thought that says writing things down by hand engages parts of the brain that typing doesn’t. Forster describes how the simple act of writing down an idea that occurs to you, rather than acting on it when you get it, automatically puts distance between you and the task, allowing you to think more clearly about what actually needs to be done. Deferring a task is also possible with Gootodo, of course, but I'd offer this as an example of, if you know what you want to accomplish, then either digital or paper methods should work fine.
  • It sounds like I’m anti-Hurst, but I’m not. I agree that users need to take responsibility for their “stuff,” and I’ve hit on my own file- and folder-naming strategies, similar to Hurst's, that enable me to store and scan efficiently, based on my own needs. My own flirtations with various proprietary applications like Lotus Agenda, Infoselect, and Evernote have taught me that I accumulate way more info than I ever need (”just in case”), that that info never survives intact when transformed, and that I hardly ever need that info anyway. As a result, I’m saving more stuff in txt or rtf files (usually procedures or projects I'm pursuing at the time), I’m stockpiling bookmarks in Delicious, and I'm squirreling stuff web pages or other information away using a Gmail REF label. I don't perceive that storing them causes a cognitive burden on me. Although the bits are not truly "gone," were I to lose them, I wouldn’t be sad.
  • I liked his description of how the best way to save photo files. Very good and sensible advice. I was doing something similar but tweaked my layout to match his rules. Although it's curious that his book doesn't address ways to save and access downloaded music or video files, which are surely as ubiquitous as digital photos. Perhaps, as a Mac Man, he uses iTunes, which handles a lot of that for him. For myself, I use Media Monkey on my PC to handle that chore, and I prefer a directory-based layout as the foundation layer for any music apps.
  • On maintaining a media diet, I agree with his statement that "an unbounded bitstream tends toward irrelevance." Alas, I still maintain too many RSS feeds, but hardly any hard-copy publications. For my RSS feeds, I have a single must-read folder, a second read-when-I-have-a-moment folder, and the rest are all optional. As with many of Hurst's other suggestions, the aim is to control the limited resource that is your time and attention; being profligate with your energy and focus on digital snack-food doesn't help your cause.
  • His chapters on file formats, naming, and storing files are what I wish I'd had when I started using PCs lo those many years ago.
  • I very much  agree with his advice to find a "bit lever," which is essentially a global AutoCorrect app that will expand abbreviations to full words, phrases, paragraphs, URLs, etc. I'd also suggest a good clipboard management program. For Windows, the best is ClipMate; I haven't found a great one for the Mac, but am evaluating CopyPaste Pro. I also like having a macro program around; for the PC, I've used Macro Express for years, but ActiveWords looks good, too. As for managing passwords, I've relied on Roboform on Windows, but haven't really investigated such apps for the Mac.
  • Hurst advocates the Dvorak keyboard layout, which I pick up and put down two or three times a year. When I'm in a crunch, I usually return to Qwerty and stay there.
  • For the index: page 151 lists the programs he recommends for specifying frequently used folders and directories. I have to tip my hat to him for recommending FileBox eXtender for Windows, which I've been pretty happy with so far.
  • For screenshots: SnagIt on the PC. For backups to the cloud: JungleDisk and the Amazon S3 service.
  • Disagree about not using Excel as a database. It works quite well as a flat-file database. If you want to keep a simple list of names and addresses, a text file or Excel is preferred over a database program.
  • Most of Hurst's recommendations, though, he would probably consider small potatoes compared to his bigger vision of re-tooling users for the future as he describes it: more bits, more proprietary file formats or protections (like DRM), more social software and the implication of every bit being tracked and stored somewhere for someone to process. I think there will always be a need for strong opinions on "here's how you should do it" because many of us simply don't have the time or take the time to think through all the implications of the tools we're directed to use. These bit-level tactics will always be needed and will always need re-tooling for the next wave of technology that washes over us.
  • I think, in addition to Hurst's prescriptions, the real key will be in people deciding what they want to do with the technology, with the bits, with their digital tools. If they haven't decided what's really important to them (which is the problem addressed by Hurst's "media diet" chapter), then they'll need all the help they can get to stay on top of it. If they've decided what's of interest to them and their lives and work, then--like Donald Knuth and Alan Lightman--they can choose to eschew email and other bit-processors totally, and get on with what they were put on Earth to do.

Update 08/06/2012

I have been using Hurst's Goodtodo web service for about a year now and have woven it into my daily/weekly task management. It works great as a future reminder system. I may blog later about how my always evolving system, which includes Goodtodo, works nowadays.

Information Architect

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

What interested me:

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

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