Monthly Archives: March 2010

foia, the world’s worst possible search engine

In celebration of Sunshine Week, my story on just how awful the FOIA process is.  It would be easier and more profitable to lurk in hallways and root around in dumpsters.


discardia runs 20 Mar 2010 – 14 Apr 2010

The season of discardia is upon us again.  

It's time to unsubscribe from mailing lists, take out the trash, empty out your pockets, weigh your inbox and reduce its weight, clean out the cupboards and more.

It's also time for me to stop even pretending that I can follow everything that have at one time been interested in and let some things that fascinate me slip by the wayside for a while, so that in some future I can come back to them and be surprised by how much progress has been made since I was gone.

My one purchase for this discardia season is going to be a digital scale, so that I can give a number to just how much crud I have sitting in front of me and measure the progress of removing it.  

heave ho, 

finding buckets to refill regularly

Much of the writing I do these days has tags but not much in the way of categories. There are a few very broad categories that things can go into, but not much in the way of narrow ones, and the world of tags means that you can always think up one more new tag to apply rather than revisiting an old one.

In some ways I miss the regular reinforcement obtained by the reminders that I've written on items in a category previously in the past.  This blog has a "garlic mustard" tag, which signals that I should write about that at least once a year; without that reminder, somehow I might miss that opportunity to refresh that annual recipe opportunity.   The category list is long, but finite, and it's idiosyncratic to reflect some peculiar sense of evolved focus.

Tags are much harder, especially in a world of tags shared across a team.  There are enough variant spellings and punctuation in an 8000 unit tag cloud to make it tough to see which of those tags are most useful.  Perhaps I can carve out 20 or 30 to make my own, items to revisit repeatedly, but the system as a system does not constrain me as such.

It's very useful to have a bucket that can be usefully refilled periodically.  At the cycle of once per year, the cumulative knowledge of paczki rituals or cudighi recipes makes each successive year easier.  Monthly rituals leave room to breathe between attempts, and weekly cycles build up a substantial body of work in just a year.  

In many ways this is the mindless mindfulness approach to sustained productivity; don't decide what of 1000s of things you might do, simply have one picked for you and then go at it with a strict deadline to get you to where you need to go until the next time.  The effort can be impromptu and doesn't require much explicit preparation, since you've primed the pump with previous work.  

Meaningless indicators of progress

It's important to have tasks that provide unambiguous signals that you are making progress, even though individually those tasks do not seem significant.

Think of mindless mindfulness that lets you go diligently through a text and correct each of the small flaws that you notice. None of the flaws are burdensome, but there is need to accumulate evidence of care for a level of detail. Deep thought is not needed to do the work, but when it's missing the lack is noted.

Progress is a hard thing to measure with any degree of certainty.  "Increase the n" is one typical useful task, as though by heaping on one more of whatever it is that you are counting you can get one measure closer to ultimate success.  "Decrease the n" is the other task, which generally for me is the Sisyphian task of emptying the inbox or washing the dishes.  You're never really done, and the only progress you note is that something happened today.

The meaningless indicator of progress can simply be the recognition that you have hit some temporary and attainable local high point to the day, and that even if tomorrow brings you back to a spot where you need to do more, you at least did what you needed to do today.  Shining the sink is the domestic equivalent of inbox zero; yes, there still may be more to do tomorrow, but at least for today you're at the bottom of what needs to be done.


I'm gaining an ever increasing appreciation for copy editors, and the thankless task of reading things before publishing them, saying "huh?", and rewriting until you understand it.

The lyrics to "Increase the N" are from Science Creative Quarterly 4.

For "decrease the n", I refer you to Discardia.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to empty his email inbox each day, only to find it full the next day.  See Doug Mann, The Electronic Myth of Sisyphus, 2006.

Shining the sink is from FlyLady.  She recommends car wax in step 8.

Needless words were omitted by the editor.

Related articles

Cartoon: Sisyphus and the Giant Football
A Sisyphean Task
The Myth
WWSD: What Would Sisyphus Do? (How to Find Happiness in the Struggles of Life)