Monthly Archives: April 2005

Dan Gillmor’s “We The Media” now on Google Print

Google Print now has a number of full text books online, completely searchable. One example is Dan Gillmor‘s We The Media – “grassroots journalism by the people, for the people”.

Dan noted on Skype that there are a few ads here and there (on the book synposis page, for instance) but that the main text of the book is ad-free.

One quirk of Google Print is that not all of the books that are online are available in their entirety. For instance, the color plates of birds in the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America will often come back as “page not available”. Fortunately there are enough bird books out there that you’re likely to come up with something as a hit when you search, or simply turn to regular google when you need to see a vireo.

account of a fire in Ypsilanti

There is a good account of the recent fire in Ypsilanti from someone who lives in a nearby apartment complex (too nearby for his comfort). Noted in the report – a report better by far than that of the Ann Arbor News, which didn’t have any at the scene to cover the action – is the observation that the nearest hydrant to the fire wasn’t working and the next closest was hooked up wrong to the fire engine so that there was a kink in the hose.

The Ypsi blogging crowd has much more of a civic bent to it than the Ann Arbor crowd, or so it seems – probably because Ypsilanti is relatively weak on alternative news media. Running an alternative paper in a small market is an expensive and risky proposition, but you can get a few bloggers going to city council meetings and talking to each other about what they see and have an outsized impact.

linear processes at work

This is the opposite of the comments on shuffle, for balance.

Sometimes you need to have a complete list of all the things you need to do listed in some nice linear list, which you go down in an orderly way one at a time until the list is complete.

Note however that your email inbox is a lousy place to manage such an orderly complete list, since relatively random things are going to arrive and get you out of the flow of working your way down that list. For that reason alone – never mind the presence of time-sucking occupational spam – it’s better to keep your nice linear checklists out of your inboxes. This is reason enough to something radical to stay out of your inbox all day – if you just spent all your time answering the top of the stack you’d get thrashed around badly.

A big risk in having a linear process is getting the wrong things on the todo list, and thus spending good concentrated time doing the wrong task. This is especially risky when you have a lot of people involved in a process and when one person goes heads-down to finish something – the wrong thing. Regular check-ins and pairing on tasks helps a lot to reduce isolation.

marginally useful things

One of the challenges posed by structured procrastination is accumulating an list of marginally useful things to do at any point, so that if you are putting off that urgent and important (not really) top task you can chip away at a large library of actually socially useful activities.

From a getting things done perspective, this could be thought of as having a wide range of tasks and goals and actions ready in mind for when you don't have the right level of focus or attention to take on the top of the stack. This hopefully leaves a little time for pursuing great weird ideas at the same time that your energy and attention is not completely stuck on some grinding task.

We have time at home every night at dinner time, and I've taken to always having a piece of paper and a pen handy at the table so that I can write down the usually short list of household chores that come up during the day that I can do at a quiet time at night. It's remarkably useful to have a short check-in daily about what's going on, how was your day – now I would love to be able to do the same thing at breakfast-time before Saul goes to school but I'm low-functioning in the mornings and usually don't have the diurnal rhythms synced right to be alert at 7:30am when he's bouncing out of bed.

In a house with two young boys and especially with all of the baggage that baby Jonathan brings with him, plus the utter mess that older brother Saul can manage to create in not too long, the thing that always comes to mind when nothing else makes sense is to clean up. When in doubt, clean. There's always something to tidy or put away, it makes the place brighter, and it's work that Deb doesn't have to do. The big advantage of cleaning is that it is never a task that goes away, and the more you do it the more you see there is to do.

I have started to keep a simple "todo.txt" style todo list, this has started to accumulate over time and I now have a few scripts that make it easy to create tasks from the command line, delete out the ones already done, search for related tasks and most importantly generate a random thing to do. Like all approaches to randomness, you don't want to shuffle your entire life, but it's quite helpful to get something plucked out of the middle of the list at an odd 15 minutes when you're not concentrating anyway and wipe out something you're been meaning to do for a long time.

The key then is generating tasks that are actually attainable, not so huge that they can't be done in a 15 minute attention span because of course you might not get more than a few of those during the day, and that are tagged appropriately so that you can easily winnow out the "coffee shop" tasks when you're at a coffee shop and wipe out one or two of those handy enough. For instance, I have a standing coffee shop task to take a picture of the bulletin board and post it somewhere online – e.g to the What's on the bulletin board at Cafe Ambrosia? weblog – not that in any sense is that small photographic essay a huge contribution to anything, but it picks up a tiny bit of marginal use to one or two or three people, just enough to keep someone in particular in mind.

Another of the marginally useful things I am keeping up with is remembering birthdays. How do you keep track of birthdays? I've been squirreling away dates as I hear them, putting them into iCal with the help of iCal birthday shifter, and then routinely making phone calls to people on their day to keep a little bit better track of where they are in their lives. It's almost a bit of a hobby now collecting those dates, and people are generally pretty happy to get a call or a note on their birthday (mine is Dec. 8 if you're keeping score).

When faced with the choice of sending a note to someone who I'm trying to keep in mind, I think about how much email people get and how many people are buried in it and spend their online time deleting it. This prompts me to realize that I have a well-practiced marginally useful habit to send a postcard when I'm travelling to everyone who I've seen along the course of a day, and it makes me wonder whether I shouldn't extend that courtesy to the routine interactions with people I see in town over the course of a day. Compare for instance the reaction you'd get from people if they knew that every time they saw you they'd get a personal notecard reminding them of the day with a cool picture on the back, that much better than a dry hastily composed email. Postcards are so marginal that a good exercise of using them has to be a great hack compared to grinding out so many email messages.

UPDATE 5/7/2013: Fix link to "structured procrastination", which now goes to

tired but basically happy

I like staying up late at night, writing or reading or catching up on correspondence. It’s quiet, for the most part, especially since baby Jonathan has started to sleep a lot better at night than he had been. It gets late, I start to feel tired but basically happy, and lots of things start becoming possible to get done because there isn’t a constant stream of interruptions getting in the way of sustained concentration. It’s like the thin layer of tiredness makes it easier to not listen to the barrage of incoming email that makes you stupid – and not a little less, the frequency of the email is much less.

When I’m tired I’m not always happy – the opposite to me of happy late nights is cranky and grumpy mornings before coffee.

A good way to get tired but basically happy is to have a full day of activity and action. This happens for me most often when there’s a lot of travel planned and I need to plot out down to the minute what I will be doing and how I’ll get from place to place over the span of many hours and miles. I’m a fan of the idea that you should prepare a detailed itinerary for a trip, and often the act of planning it out to that level stretches out the day hours in either direction from where it normally lands. By the end of the day you know that you have done everything on a full plate and don’t need to do anything more.

I don’t get enough physical exercise, given the number of hours I spend sitting in front of a keyboard either actively getting things done or engaging in structured procrastination to avoid getting some things done at the benefit of getting other things done. There are days though when some combination of good fortune gives me long walks in town, hikes in some favorite places like Parker Mill Park, or just walks around the block with baby Jonathan, chasing his older brother Saul on his green bicycle. My goal for the year is to walk 10000 steps a day, which is not hard in theory if you just put the time in but sometimes just doesn’t get done. I find quite regularly on days that I can walk 10000+ steps (about 5 miles) I am better tired out at the end of the day, and 12000 or even 15000 in a day gives a proper sense of being tired but basically happy.

library card

The library card I have from the Ann Arbor District Library is a continuing source of insight and joy. It makes me happy to use the card when I walk inside the downtown main library, and happier still that it gets used regularly.

I run across a lot of books in the course of the things I do, and more often than not they’re the sort of books I want to read and peruse but not own. Something I run into on the net references a long-forgotten author not on the best seller lists, and I itch to read a little more. A friend quotes from a favorite book and I need to see more of that author. Or something random comes up in my own shuffle through my memory and a long-forgotten text comes to mind.

My personal library is bigger than the bookshelves I have to hold them, and until the day comes when I can expand out my shelves I need to have regular access to good libraries. Indeed, the library cataloging and shelving is often more reliable than my own – there are some books that I have which I know I still own but can’t find without digging quite a bit for them. Good online reserves and regular visits to the library make sure that no book is more than a couple of days away.

One of the most wonderful things about the Ann Arbor library card is that it gives access to a very good online interlibrary loan system called MiLE. With MiLE you can get books from research libraries in the area for three weeks, delivered to the reserves desk, without ever going through the stacks. It’s great for the more obscure and academic titles on my reading lists and also good for that bit of obscure fiction or poetry that didn’t make it into the budget in Ann Arbor one year but did make it to Milford or Allen Park for some reason.

My son Saul has a library card now, his Nana got it for him on a recent visit. We are still working through the details of that, since he doesn’t really have a perfect notion that you have to return books and videos to the library promptly, and since he doesn’t see the mechanics of the renewal process online it’s a bit of a mystery to him. Our library sends renewal notices by email – Saul will ask “Papa, what’s email?” How lucky to be so young not to know email yet.

When I was a kid in Ishpeming I had a library card good for the children’s room only at the Carnegie Library. This let me check out books from the downstairs room full of storybooks, but didn’t give me free roaming access to the main library stacks. That was a curious old library with lots of what seemed like out of date books and a strong sense of dust in the main stacks. The kids room though was very active and good for browsing and playing. I recall being part of a crowd of sixth graders from the middle school who visited the library for lunch and were noisy enough that we were threatened with being banned from the library – that thought put me on the straight and narrow quite rapidly.

My library card has a big long string of digits on the front – I have it memorized.