Monthly Archives: December 2012

Deciding which one thing to do can be harder than getting that one thing done.

Yesterday was a day of careful attention to small details.

I'm particularly proud, in a peculiar way, of the effort that I made to unclog a slow drain in the bathtub. This particular drain has been draining slowly for months, and it's stumped me before. I've tried boiling water, a plastic drain snake, baking soda and vinegar, and a plunger, and none of it worked.

The key bit which I didn't use before was a screwdriver. The particular tub in question has an overflow hatch which holds the drain plug lifter, and by using a screwdriver I was able to disassemble that hatch and remove a gizmo and then, once all the pieces were apart, I could use the plastic drain snake to get at the hair clog. (Ew.) About ten minutes after starting work on the project today, the drain ran free. Hooray!

How hard can it be to clear a drain? Well, the challenge is to have the right combination of the time to work on it, the necessary tools, the insight as to what all you might try new that you hadn't tried before, and a determination not to allow a temporary setback to slow you down. Don't have a screwdriver? A quarter and a vise grip make an adequate substitute. That fancy drain snake you tried before didn't work out so well? Visit the hardware store and see what other designs there are.

What makes this project different from most is that it had been waiting months to complete, months where I stood in the shower with the water accumulating wondering how I was going to fix the problem, months where various other attempts to fix didn't work out so well.

I suppose that a lot of problems we run into look like this. The head on approach with a simple set of tools fails to fix the problem, we're frustrated by the results, and then the situation languishes for a long time without any headway. Some day you look at the problem with fresh eyes and get an aha! insight that transforms the issue from one thing into something completely different, and the fresh attack hits the transformed problem and it clears up quickly.

The unsuccessful problem-solving of the day was a friend's snow blower, which had sat for an entire winter last year unused and thus we think has bad gas in the tank. The obvious approaches of trying the electric starter and the pull starter failed to result in the motor catching, and so the best guess is that draining the gas tank and refilling with fresh fuel will be the right way to solve the problem. This of course transforms the problem from "start the snowblower" to "refill the gas tank of the snowblower" and assumes that all of the starter motors work just fine and they do seem to.

I really should be able to tackle more straightforward tasks head on. There's a temptation to write down the task before addressing it, and then turning the written down task into something which is a subject of some endless refinement. So often it would be easier just to decide to tackle something and do it than to sort through an infinite list of possible tasks saying "no, not now, later" over and over again. It is not always obvious which things are straightforward and which will take hours or weeks of work.

Often the best way to get something done is to simply say that you're not going to stop until it's complete, sit down, get comfortable in working on it, and then grind through the problem until it has reached a single satisfactory answer. Deciding which one thing to do can be harder than getting that one thing done.



Some reflection on use of Github as an issue tracker, two weeks in

Two weeks ago, I started using Github as an issue tracker to keep track of things that I intend to do. So far so good. According to its tally, I've closed 139 issues and have 88 open issues. Here's some reflection on that use.

I started up with Github in part because I have an infatuation with new technologies for self-organization, and this was the latest in a series of attempts to get my life in order. I've tried systems on paper, a bunch of electronic systems, various gizmos, you name it I've probably either done it or considered it. There's a piece of me that expects that this is a temporary enthusiasm and that I'll be printing out some of this before I close my Github account down. But while that temporary enthusiasm lasts, it's been a pretty good run.

I've tried to work the process in parallel with an "inbox zero" approach of getting tasks out of my inbox and into my issue tracker. At the moment the inbox is down to five, and it's probably ten minutes work to get it back to zero. It's been nice not having an infinite inbox to plow through, and often that has meant that when there's a quick answer to something that I can dash it off and get back to zero status for a while. That feels good.

As I've used the system what has evolved into a routine is labeling each task, so that everything has a proper color code. "Housekeeping" is bright yellow, "finance" is green, "connect" is blue, and so forth. Obtaining sensible and non-overlapping categories is a challenge, and that will probably continue to evolve slowly over time. An item can be in more than one category and it's easy to switch categories so there's no burden of getting it wrong permanently.

The goal in these categories is to identify some kind of balance among all of the various things I'm trying to take on and not to let any one part of my efforts get out of line with the others. For example, earlier this week I noticed that the "finance" category had 11 outstanding tasks and 2 completed tasks, whereas the "connect" category had twice as many completed tasks as outstanding. If things are going to pile up in my life, I want them to pile up evenly, and it's always reasonable to look at the category with the most tasks and do a quick review and see if there's anything easy to lop off.

A memorable success in this ongoing struggle to keep things in order is the ongoing task of cleaning the basement, which somehow went from being tidy to being a mess over the last few years, and which is inhabited by way too much in the way of dead electronics. A whole string of tech support tasks were gated behind being able to get a good backup of my Mac, and in the process of cleaning the basement I realized that I had a Firewire cable entangled in amongst dozens of old and useless power adapters. A bit of cable unsnagging and I was able to plow through half a dozen system upgrade issues that had piled up, all dependent on one another.

Github has a remote access application to its issue tracker from mobile devices, so at least in theory I should be able to manage the list from my smart phone. Alas, issue #1 is "get a new smart phone", since my elderly Blackberry is more of a dumb phone than anything these days. The Android app is serviceable if a bit clunky feeling, and I'll see how the iPhone/iPad app compares. In practice it's not 100% necessary to sync up with tasks the instant they come to mind or are completed, and paper still comes in handy when compiling the short list of things to do next or brainstorming new ideas that might eventually get done.

Of course I haven't done everything I set out to do; no one could. What I figure is that there's some happy number somewhere more than 100 and less than 150 of things that I might want to do or need to do soonish, and that if I set my mind to it I can write down enough stuff so that there's always something easy to pick from that is useful. The harder tasks (that new phone, and all of the choices around it) gravitate to the bottom of the list, and you can sort through the bottom just as easily as you can sort through the top. I'm not convinced that this is the only way or even the best way to feel like I'm staying on top of the world, but it's really nice and reassuring that I can look at the "closed issues" list and say "yes, I did that".

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Technology upgrades are a tedious but necessary task

Technology upgrades are a tedious but necessary task.

I'm going through this now, with an upgrade from Mac OS 10.5.8 to Mac OS 10.6.8 on my black MacBook. The world decided in its infinite wisdom that 10.5 was too old to keep supporting, and so quite a bit of software was starting to break. The promise is that 10.6.x will last a bit longer and keep my old 2008 vintage system running for a while longer.

Upgrades are always fraught with peril. In this case, it involved sticking a DVD in the drive, clicking a few times, and then waiting 45 minutes for the system to emerge in newly upgraded status. When you do something like that there's a lot of faith you have to have that the people who put together the shiny DVD got every last thing right, that they didn't forget to check some bit somewhere which in your case would turn your computer into a puddle of slag. I know that at some level it's an irrational fear, yet I've bricked my share of hardware in my time and I've known the process of operating system upgrades to involve long late-night patching sessions to get everything to work.

There was no puddle of slag at the end of my upgrade, just a computer that looked about the same as it did before with no huge obvious changes, just a few cosmetic bits and the promise of future compatibility.

I'm told that the typical Android phone that's sold never gets an operating system upgrade from the vendor, and that the usual upgrade path is either to install a completely unsupported hacked up new software load or to scrap the phone and start afresh with new hardware. I haven't lived in that world yet so I don't have the experience of others to go through, just the general sense that unless you're willing to delve into the details of Cyanogenmod that you should be prepared to get a new phone every time your contract runs out.

Compared to operating system upgrades, application upgrades are relatively easy and low worry. With most consumer software that's going through a rev cycle, these days you select "upgrade" from within the app and it magically replaces itself with a slightly newer version. This time I needed to update Chrome, and I had to descend to the operating system and delete one file to make the automated process work just fine.

The other task in my grand system upgrade effort has been to try to get BlueStacks running. This is an app that runs Android apps on Mac OS X. It's in beta, so I have some reason to understand when things don't go instantly right, but I tried it out anyway and the install failed to come up with a working system within the amount of time I was willing to throw at it.

Just because I have part of a 10.6 upgrade done doesn't mean that the whole thing is ready. The CD ships with 10.6.3, and you have to download a gigabyte-plus combo update to get to 10.6.8. The first time I did this the download was corrupted (?) so I tried again with success. I don't understand why, just enough to hit the "yes" button, and to type the error message exactly into Google when the error happens in the hopes that someone else has seen exactly the same problem.

What did we do before error messages could be looked up with such precision? Well, for one thing, there was usually some source code lying around so that you could read just what the context was for the error. If there was no source code to be had, then Usenet was sure to have someone who had seen the same failure mode. Google searching for failures just distributes out the task to a broader audience than ever, but there's still the basic issue that when something goes wrong you have to rely on the goodness of people who are willing to air their systems difficulties in public in the hopes of righting them again.

Keeping a system running with current software is an ongoing job. I ended up only being able to do it after digging through a rats-nest tangle of cables in my basement, emerging victorious with a Firewire cable that allowed me to back up the Mac to the point where I was confident enough that I could insert the DVD, click "Yes", and hope that someone in Cupertino tested every combination of equipment that one single updater was supposed to work on.


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Gaming and intermittent reinforcement as ways of countering dropout in online systems

Badges750 words has a system of point scoring that lets you keep track of how vigorously you have been pursuing your writing goals. This is very similar to the kinds of other daily projects I have been involved in like various pedometer games with goals of daily walking activity or language learning that prompts you for daily use.

Working on something every single day is hard. There are only so many hours in a day, and the commitment to do one thing at the exclusion of something else is a big one. This gives system designers an extra challenge – they need not only to engage you while you're working on the system, but also to give you enough fond memories of the system while you're away from it that you'll voluntarily come back to it day after day.

Part of the challenge is to minimize the friction involved in getting back to something day after day. If you have to go through an elaborate login sequence, it will be all that much harder to want to get involved. Any time wasted in the process is not just a few extra seconds one time but a daily commitment to spend that time, over and over again. Good daily systems have a minimum of rough edges and very little to get in the way of that habit.

There's an element of gaming in 750 words, the process of accumulating a score and badges that reflect progress that can only be achieved over a long period of daily commitment. Until you get three days in a row in, your system icon is an unformed egg, and the number of people who stay in egg state and never graduate to the next level (a turkey) is substantial. As you grow through the effort of daily activity there are opportunities to decorate your account with more and more bling, status markers that give everyone else a chance to recognize you and distinguish your account from all of the others.

Naturally, one good way to get added status is to pay for it. Gaming a system quickly leads to monetizing it, since you have a social feedback mechanism that allows people to recognize not just diligence as a sign of their specialness but also the willingness to shake loose some coin in appreciation. So the pattern is simple: build a game that you play for a few minutes each day, reward frequent players with visible signs of their progress, and encourage the devoted ones to add an additional reward that's easy to purchase and distinctively visible.

I've been motivated by online games before, but then got to the point where I had to give up on them because the time commitment wasn't worth the effort spent getting bits of online flair. I appreciated the feedback and liked leveling up but just couldn't commit beyond a certain level to care more about the whole thing. DuoLingo, for instance, was great for a while (and I got to level 11 in German, woo) but at some point it got to be too much.

There's a lot of dropout in massively online open courses (MOOCs, as they are called). Hundreds of thousands of people will start something, but only a few thousand will finish. It's very easy to start a multi-day project, but the commitment to come back day after day to finish it is an order of magnitude more exceptional.

The alternative to games within systems as a method for reinforcement is to use external rewards from other people. Linda Diane Feldt has talked about how wonderful it is to have used the Android app CardioTrainer to log her workouts. It simply keeps a record of what you have done and records it to Facebook, and doesn't appear to have an internally exceptional set of elaborate games to prompt you along. What the Facebook connection offers is an opportunity for other people to provide intermittent reinforcement, the random and unexpected "yay" for a good workout that isn't pre-programmed into the system but comes heartfelt from other people.

This is only my second day into 750 words, and I'm not yet at a point to judge it. I like accumulating points as much as anyone, and I like that I can spend a small chunk of time writing instead of playing some other online game and that the result of the effort will be tracked and calculated and commented on favorably, at least by a machine. From time to time I expect to cut and paste these lovely long essays into my weblog after they get a round of edits, and it's from that effort that I look for the intermittent reinforcement that will most likely keep me going – not that the "turkey" badge isn't motivating to get through the first week, just that in the long haul the real rewards come from other people.

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750 Words – a writing environment for a daily writing exercise

This system has you writing 750 words each day.

I've already written 750 words today, a long essay on blogging, forgetting, and remembrance. It was pretty good, and I was pretty happy with it. At one point it was 830 words but I cut it down to size, removing a paragraph and tightening up a few phrases.

The goal of the 750 words site is to get you into a habit of writing that many words each and every day. It's not necessary to publish them, but simply to get them down onto the screen. The technique is similar to the "morning pages" of The Artist's Way, but instead of pen and paper you type. By typing for long enough you get over the initial hurdle of getting anything down and instead start to get into a groove of reflection, introspection, creativity and insight. Or so that's the thought.

I'm not certain that I can keep up with this over the long haul, but it's an appealing construct to have a simple-minded goal that's more productive than the alternative of playing solitaire, Flood It, or Sudoku. A Sudoku game eats up 20 minutes, which should be enough time to crank out most of a 750 word essay.

Hitting a precise word count improves my prose. I write something that's too long, and then use some extra time to omit needless words until the total is the correct size. "Fill the input box exactly" is the mantra, and it serves two masters. First, it allows you to write quickly knowing full well that there will be words to cut when you're done. Second, it keeps the editorial role in abeyance until the whole piece has been worked to the end. It's better to cut words only when there are too many of them.

The 750 Words writing environment is spare. There's no formatting, no linking, no permalinks to worry about and no readers. It's just you on the page, typing away madly with the word count goal at the bottom right hand corner. Writer's block is the only barrier, and since there's no expectation of publication it doesn't even have to come out precisely right. Just keep typing until you are done with filling up the box.

I started to try to write an index to Vacuum as an exercise in organization, and what I found was that the tools I have for rereading the that text are too weak. What I really want to do is download the whole stinking mess and put it into some kind of file system that I can grep through. What words did I use, and when? Have I usefully repeated myself? Is there some clever phrase that gets used too much? All of that is easy enough to construct with the right text analysis environment, but very hard with just Google's searching tools at my disposal.

Organizing a word hoard, especially an exceptionally varied one, is very hard work. I have a shelf full of paper notebooks dating back to the 1990s with words in them that perhaps deserve to be unearthed and reanimated for the net, but it's so hard to know without a very laborious process of reading through them one page at a time, puzzling out the inscriptions and deciding which would have been better forgotten. I know there's interesting work there mixed in with the sketches and the odd lists of people to call.

Twenty words to go.

In conclusion, 750 words is a system which encourages you to write 750 words of disposable throwaway prose every day. If it turns out that you can reuse some of it, so much the better! I think this essay might have about 400 useful words in it, and I'll try to pull them out for Vacuum.

I ended up throwing away two whole paragraphs from the original edit of this essay, so the word count is only about 650. The time to edit the whole thing was almost as long as the time to write it.


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Blogging, memory and forgetting

750 words on blogging, memory and forgetting

I've been blogging for a long time, and writing online for longer than that – 27 years of typing. In the process, a lot of it has been saved, and a lot of it has been discarded. I'm luckier than most to have a complete set of my writing since 2003 all in Typepad. Heaven help anyone who wrote seriously on Prodigy or Compuserve or Facebook and tried to save any of it permanently.

With over 2,000 posts in this Typepad installation I started to try to do an index. My writing here was ranged from recipes for semolina pudding to weather maps of Australia to accounts of a peanut processing plant in Texas. No single index is going to make any sense for all of that.

Even though I've read a lot, and written a lot, I've most likely forgetten most of what I've ever written down. The temporary focus on a temporary enthusiasm carries through for a while and then gets discarded, saved but not readily at hand. After years of cumulative writing, what's there is not a single coherent whole ready to be sculpted into a neat linear narrative, but instead the sometimes interesting and sometimes fragmentary open notebook of a life lived near the keyboard.

Does writing help the memory? Certainly by writing things down you can cause them to be pinned down into a single tangible format that can be referred to later, and if you refer back to them often enough the transient interest becomes something concrete. There's a lot to be said for putting words down on paper so that they can be edited and refined so that there's something very particular that they say.

What is our memory these days? With the ubiquity of the Google and its all-seeing maw fed with the writings of our time, the strategy to memorize something may simply be to write it down in a place where it can be Googled and then search to refer back to it when it's needed. 

Indeed, Google’s maw is infinite and it will undoubtedly attempt someday to put every book ever written in every language into its digital coffers. – Warren Adler

Feeding Google is hardly a part-time task, and I feel a need to feed Twitter which is equally hungry to capture the short form version of contemporary accounts of our existence. Twitter is threatening to disgorge for our own personal use the collected record of our Twitter stream – every sandwich you ever ate, every time you complained about squeaky brakes on the bus, every poorly edited grumpy text mashed into the input box – and somehow certainly that will enter our personal memory space as well.

"Forgetting is as important as remembering" – Brian Eno

This process of accumulating digital reminders of what we once experienced is occasionally punctuated by digital loss. There's the sudden catastrophic loss of the online system that dies with your words left stranded on it, or the hard drive that craters before all of the backups are done. There's also the slow loss of unfindability where the words or pictures still are somewhere, but you've forgotten the magic incantation that will bring them onto the screen. I've stranded some text of my own creation, hidden in the grand archives of the University, inaccessible to me or to anyone else because they are student records and thus off limits because of FERPA. No matter, I have remembered a few of them.

Pop tarts and auto parts. – Michael Joyce

Every once in a long time, the words that you wrote long ago resurface. I wrote to Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 asking about home page design, and our correspondence was recently quoted in The Atlantic online. Aside from proving that I was there way back when, it reminded me that finding things online is an ongoing struggle, and that our puny screens and keyboards routinely fail us when looking for the answer to a complicated problem or to give us access to what we know is not very far away. The particular question was on home page design, and I know little more about it now than I did 20 years ago.

By writing I remember, and I throw a few more words into the big soup that try to draw on from time to time to recall what I am and what I know. I've forgetten more than I've ever remembered, and it's good to go rummaging through the word hoard to see what can be unearthed.

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Ubiquity, focus, and isolation as success factors for Internet socialiability

My friend Pete Kaminski suggests (on a private Facebook forum) that there are two reasons that Facebook has taken a big chunk of our online social time – "ubiquity", which is the character of providing global communications at scale, and "focus", which is the ability to narrow your personal interest discussions down to a small set of topics. For all of its other charms, Facebook provides both of those, imperfectly of course but well enough that it can serve as a does-everything social platform for lots of people.

In addition to ubiquity and focus, I'd like to suggest a third axis of utility for social media – "isolation". It's the notion that you can go somewhere online and do something special that's unlike anything else on the net, and that because of this the rules that have accreted over time about expected behavior are different.

As an example, I have an account on Pinterest that I use nearly exclusively for collecting maps. I don't follow all of my friends there, and I don't expect that people will follow me just because they are my friends. Similarly, a few friends have Plurk accounts in a little circle where no one expects that anyone else will read what they write and where there is a decided element of silliness that would not play on Facebook.

I think we all need a little corner of the net to call our own. Facebook ranks very low on the isolation scale and so it will not appeal to those who are looking for a quiet corner to express themselves. A lightly trafficked wiki, your own blog, or the carefully walled off corner of an interest-specific forum can all have that isolation factor that lets us be sociable but not to the entire world all at once.

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