My wife and I are fortunate to be able to work from home. I started working from home Wednesday of last week, and initially found the transition to be manageable. Thanks to my wife’s discipline, we were keeping our normal sleep schedules, and we are able to maintain our normal working routine from the safety of home.
One thing that really threw me this weekend was when I allowed myself the permission to completely relax my schedule. Because of the pandemic, a lot of my pressing obligations and scheduled social time have been put on hold, meaning I have more free time than is typical. During the work week last week, I kept up with work and tending to things around the house, but by the weekend I decided to jump into playing video games, reading, and podcast listening. I also enjoyed a few beers Friday and Saturday nights while exploring the Borderlands, so going to bed before midnight was quickly forgotten.
This had two interesting consequences. First, by Sunday I physically felt bad. Not sick, but my body felt sluggish, I was tired, I had a headache, and my motivation was sapped. While I didn’t drink to excess, I did wonder aloud to my wife if what I was feeling was a low-grade hangover from my general poor choices over the weekend.
The (amusing) second consequence was that my wife remarked that she now sees why I impose schedules and routines on my daily life. She normally encourages me to relax and play games, but this is the first time in a long time that she has seen me proactively partake in games. It was a little like a crash-and-burn by Sunday night – I don’t do moderation very well and her mock-horror was a good reminder of that.
In reflecting on the last few days of the self-isolation, I have learned that it’s important for me to keep regular routines and impose discipline on my otherwise chaotic whims. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but this weekend helped to reinforce why I prefer keeping routines and habits active. Like a child, I crave structure.
I apologize for the late post this week. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head, but given the updates, I felt this ramble-post was a better attempt to capture some of the zeitgeist, rather than my usual attempt to feign some sort of authority on whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish on this site. Maybe I’ll rant another time about the scummy people who are profiteering through the COVID-19 scare.
Most of the information circulating concerns how an individual can help protect themselves from contracting the virus. Obviously this information is spread around not to protect any one individual, but because it’s the government’s attempt to flatten the curve and ease the economic and public health downsides to the current behaviours of people, from clogging up emergency rooms with sniffles to wholesale runs on items in the grocery store.
I’m not entirely sure what I should write about this week. It’s pretty hard to form a coherent thought when the majority of my bandwidth is occupied with keeping up with the shifting narrative around what’s going on. Thanks to technology, information (or misinformation) spreads quickly, and we are seeing multiple updates per day as a result. At my place of employment, they took the unprecedented step of shutting down face-to-face curriculum delivery. Unlike the faculty strike from Fall 2017, the College is working to keep the educational process running. While it may be that in the School of Engineering it can be impossible to replicate lab or shop time, the majority of faculty are working hard to translate their delivery to an online format.
So far, our employer has done a good job, in my opinion, with taking prudent steps to a.) keep people meaningfully occupied in their work so that no one has to lose their salary, and b.) do its part to stop the spread of the virus. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be better, but given the circumstances they’ve done a good job.
I’ve been thinking about the purpose of social isolation as a pandemic response. As I said above, the point is less about protecting oneself and is instead about protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. If we’ve learned anything from countries around the world that are going through the worst right now, it’s that it becomes impossible to protect our vulnerable when there is a shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals are having to triage patients to focus on saving those who can be saved, who have the highest chances of recovering.
It is because of this that I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “brother’s keeper.” It’s not necessarily enough that governments or citizens remain mindful about the well-being of our vulnerable populations. Oftentimes while we are focusing on immediate dangers before us, we tend to not anticipate higher-order consequences of our policies or decisions.
Closing schools is great in theory – children are rabid spreaders of contagions, whether they are actually symptomatic or not, which means they infect their parents (some of whom are front line medical workers). But when we close schools, you have second order consequences that parents struggle with childcare, or children living in poverty lose access to food that is supplied at school.
When you close borders, you stop carriers of the virus from entry. But it also means that our international students (who are in some cases being vacated from post-secondary residences as school’s work to limit social contact among students) have no where to go. Airports are limiting international travel and the cost of purchasing tickets are skyrocketing. By them being in a foreign country, these students are vulnerable and caught in difficult positions on how to keep themselves safe.
By shutting down public spaces, you are helping to keep people from accidentally infecting each other. But when you close down businesses such as restaurants, you cut off people from the economic means they need to support themselves. Sure, the government is offering assistance to persons and businesses alike, but that will provide little comfort to people who can neither travel for groceries, nor pay for the supplies they need.
And let’s not forget what panic purchasing is doing to our supply chain – leaving store shelves cleared out of supplies, which means folks like the elderly are left without.
The hardest part I’m finding in all of this is the feeling of being powerless. You can’t control other people, and so you are forced to anticipate their moves to ensure you won’t be left without. But it’s this kind of thinking that leads to more drastic measures being taken. The virus also makes you feel powerless because you feel like an invisible stalker is coming for you – you don’t know who will be the final vector that leads to you. And you aren’t totally sure if our ritualistic hand-washing and hand-sanitizing is actually keeping us safe, or merely providing comfort. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t be sure you’re doing everything you can; you always feel like there is more you could be doing.
This reminds me of the story of the tinfoil house and pink dragons. A person covers their house in tinfoil, and when asked about it they say it keeps the pink dragons away. When asked if it works, the person shrugs and says “I don’t know, but I haven’t been attacked yet.” Of course, asking “if it works” is the wrong question here because there are no pink dragons. But as Taleb tells us in his book about Black Swans, there are always those highly unprobable events with massive downsides that we don’t see coming. Public policy and budgets are created to deal with clear and present dangers, and those policies and budgets are eroded when it’s felt that the money is not being allocated optimally. Therefore, you run into problems where you are never sure if the resources you spend to prevent something actually works – it’s really hard to prove causality in something that never happens.
Instead, we often are left to scramble to try and get ahead of trouble when we are already flat-footed, which means that our vision narrows as we focus on the fires in front of us that needs to be put out. Fighting fires is great (even heroic at times), but often the measures we take to deal with crisis have unanticipated second-order consequences that become difficult to deal with.
I’m not sure how to deal with this, but it makes me wonder about being my brother’s keeper, and what I can do to protect them.
I’ve hit a couple of milestones recently. For instance, last week I hit a nice big milestone in Duolingo when I hit 600 consistent days of doing lessons.
I wouldn’t say I’m particularly fluent in German, but during my trip in October of last year, I was able to follow some of the conversation going on around me and put into practice the lessons given by the app. I was able to manage thanks to small, consistent daily micro-lessons that expanded my vocabulary a bit at a time.
Something similar happened for this blog as well. From time to time I check-in on the site’s stats and analytics. I don’t have any plans or intentions to seek monetization, so I only check in on things out of a sense of curiosity rather than seeking optimization. I originally set up this blog as an exercise to see if I could keep a consistent weekly writing schedule. At the time, I had the aspirations to go back to school to become a paramedic, and so I also had intended to use this blog to apply the concepts I was learning to help me reinforce my learning. I’ve sinceabandoned that path, and so the blog largely remains a project to force me to come up with something to post on a weekly schedule.
I was looking at the stats last week and felt a sense of satisfaction for hitting a couple of milestones. First, it appears that I have not missed a weekly post in the last three years (I might be late posting, but I still get something up). Also, I’m happy to see that overall my words per post are trending upwards, though I hope this means I’m providing more meaningful, nuanced posts rather than just being verbose.
Then, I decided to check on how many words I had written for this blog.
Avg Words per Post
As it turns out, I had written the rough equivalent of a book in the four years I’ve been at this. Beyond the urge to create something and a desire to force myself to “write more,” the steady drip of a weekly schedule has now pooled into a large body of words.
I take a lot of inspiration from Seth Godin, and I learned from him the value of consistently showing up and putting in the work. It’s not about creating high quality giant pieces of work from fiat, but instead the slow, plodding, steady work of creating a little bit at a time. When you look back, you see the vast distance you’ve covered by forcing yourself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Not everything is going to be good – in fact, most of it will suck. But, over time you get better at the work, and sometimes you can find the good stuff emerging from the mediocre.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.
While reading a post from A Learning A Day, I thought I’d keep the irony train rolling by linking to Rohan’s linked post from Derek Sivers about the perceived need to quote an idea’s source. Specifically, I wanted to respond to this point:
2. School teaches us to reference. But we’re not trying to impress a teacher anymore. And every unnecessary fact dilutes our point.
I often reflect on the learning objectives I expect to achieve in a course lesson while teaching. I try to parse out the meaningful things I want students to learn from rote procedural tasks that don’t serve a purpose. The last thing I want to do is to reinforce the wrong lesson or derive the wrong conclusion from a student’s performance (e.g. did a student do well on a test because they understood the material, or because they are good at taking tests?).
Derek’s point above about references is well-taken and got me thinking: why do I want students to cite their sources? I brainstormed a few reasons and listed them below with comments.
I want a student to be mindful of their research process (procedure).
Having gone through writing my master’s thesis, it’s easy to lose track of references and citations if you don’t stay on top of it. This isn’t super relevant to most assignment learning objectives, but it’s a good practice to have before launching into a bigger endeavor or capstone project.
I want a student to critically examine their own knowledge (what do they believe to be true facts, where did that fact come from, and why do they think it’s true).
I’m not sure if making students cite their sources achieves this aim on its own, but I suppose I could use citation requirements to help guide them through this process.
I want a student to be mindful of idea ownership and give credit to people who have done work.
I’ve used this mostly in plagiarism cases where students copied work and submitted it as their own. I try to distinguish between sloppy citing and outright theft, and I remind students that they shouldn’t get marks for work they didn’t do. I’m still undecided if this is a rule of the academy or a legitimate thing to prevent fraudulently passing work off as your own in the future. This point, though, is mostly relevant in academic contexts as opposed to Derek’s notes about doing this during conversations.
I want an easy way to see if the student did the work.
This is a trick I’ve developed to see whether a student giving me their opinion is right by chance, or if they have informed their opinion by doing the course reading. The same result could be gained if students inserted relevant information without citations, but the citations help to highlight this when I’m reading through their submission. In other words, it makes my job easier.
I want to reinforce good academic writing habits.
Using references is part of what it means to write academically, and is used as part of the integrity process. This is only a good reason if my objective is to teach/reinforce academic writing for students.
This is the way it has always been done.
More cynically, requiring citations is part of the tradition, and who am I to question it? It’s not a good reason to require it, but it is what it is. I won’t included in the list to the left, but a more sadistic version of this is “I had to do it, so you have to (go through this rite of passage) too!”
I want to remain consistent with departmental policies and culture.
Whether written or unstated, most departments adhere to some level of standards. This was less the case for me in undergrad and it depended largely on the preferences of the prof. By the time of my thesis, I ended up developing a hybrid referencing system that did not strictly follow any of the major citation methods. I received no comments from anyone who reviewed my thesis on my citation practices.
It’s important to trace an idea’s lineage as much as possible to spot fabrication.
If you are going to insert facts or conclusions into your work, it’s important to point to where you found them. Without a citation or an adequate way of accounting for how you know what you purport to know, it’s possible that the information is made up. Being able to trace these things helps, albeit this is more useful from a scholarship point of view, as I suspect a lay-reader isn’t concerned with checking a text for factual accuracy and instead takes it on authorial authority.
Related – to see if a student is able to either properly reference work, or at the very least charitably restate ideas without dropping important content from the idea.
This perhaps falls under sloppy citation practices, but on occasion students will misunderstand a piece of text and paraphrase or summarize information incorrectly. Knowing where the student is drawing their source from can have pedagogical merit if you take the time to compare the student’s work with the source and discuss the divergence.
Related – when an author cites their sources, a reader can use the bibliography of sources for further reading.
This is perhaps more for book nerds, but I love having references to be able to learn more for things that pique my interest. This is, however, not the context Derek is referencing when he discusses giving citations during a normal conversation. If Derek’s conversation partner was interested and want to know more, I’m sure they would ask Derek for more information.
More abstractly, knowledge and academics is a web of mutually reinforcing facts, so academic writing is an extension of that reality.
This one is a bit of a stretch as to why a student who is not adding to a body of knowledge is required to rigorously cite their sources in a pedagogical exercise, but I include this more epistemological point to try and be exhaustive.
It’s a symbolic representation that the student (in most contexts) is not generating new or novel work/insights that creates new knowledge, but instead is remixing ideas from other sources.
I think this is a good reminder of what the goal of the assignment should be (students are often far too ambitious in what they think they can reasonably achieve in x-number of pages), but I wouldn’t consider this to be an adequate reason to insist on proper citations.
Like other skills, the act of referencing needs to be practiced.
I’m sympathetic to this, but as Derek is implying, you should be practicing skills that transfer into other domains or that you will need. In most instances, outside of school you don’t need to cite sources.
Citing references is part of the argumentation process. In order to build a successful argument, you must clearly express and state your premises, which includes any premises taken from the work of others (either their premises or their conclusions).
I’m also sympathetic to this as I think everyone should keep in mind that arguments need to be made to help convey ideas. It shows the logical chain from premise to conclusion and seeks to make the implicit explicit, and the unstated stated.
Other than a subset of the reasons above, a strict requirement for citations is often unnecessarily enforced in the classroom, and is almost never required outside of the academic setting. I think there are some good pedagogical reasons to have students go through the effort to cite their sources, but you should be intentional when teaching as to when those cases apply. For instance, I am less strict about my students citing sources and instead I look for them to directly apply material from the course in their assignments (instead of giving me their opinions).
I enjoyed Derek’s point about how citing sources is a common trope in pop non-fiction, which sounds like a convergence on my ideas concerning animated bibliographies, or Ryan Holiday’s “15 academic studies” comment from a few weeks back. Maybe Derek’s right – we should have more courage to integrate knowledge into our existing schema and be prepared to state things as facts instead of citing our sources. I’m not sure I’m prepared to abandon the practice wholesale, but it has given me something to chew on.
While on our honeymoon, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber and received an excellent tour from the town’s tourism bureau. Our guide was a local (born and raised), and was a fantastic wealth of knowledge. Among the sites we visited was St. James’s Church.
While standing in awe of the church’s medieval design, our tour guide noted that the church’s construction started in 1311, and the final product wasn’t completed until 1484, 173 years later. The church was built in stages, with the first one spanning 1311-1322, then 1373-1436, and the final portion lasting from 1453-1471. It required the work and vision of four master-builders to see the project through to completion, and our guide remarked on what it might have been like for the first builders to start a project for their town that they knew they’d never see the completion of.
That has stuck with me since returning home. It reminds me of a Greek proverb (“Society grows great when men plant trees under whose shade they’ll never sit”), but seeing the results of this in the form of the church was deeply moving.
Our timescales are often limited in scope, and the rapid changes in technology have only accelerated our perceptions of change. I’m listening to Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “Thank You for Being Late,” and he remarked that prior to the last century it would take about 100 years for innovation to change society enough for people to feel the difference in their everyday lives. Now, that scale is measured in mere years for the developed world. I often take for granted how much things have changed over my life so far and I lose a sense of perspective in my sometime seeming doldrum existence.
I can barely imagine what it’s like starting a project like St. James’s Church knowing that not only will I not see the project’s completion, but that no one alive who will have seen it will likely have known me either. Everyone who had known me while alive would also have slipped away in the sands of time. Our tour guide mentioned that there were four builders who oversaw the project, and we only know the name of the last one. All that remains is that name and the building to persist through time.
At least in the case of buildings and churches, it’s easy to see how the final product will be used and valued by the future. I think it’s harder to have the same faith of vision (pun somewhat intended) for a project that’s less well-defined as a public good, where not only will the thing be of use to future-people, but it will outlast you, everyone who ever knew you, and likely everyone who knew your children.
It’s been some time since I’ve had to commute on the bus. As a student, the bus was my main mode of getting around town (and the occasional trip home), but in my post-student days, I’ve been privledged to have a vehicle of my own to commute in.
A few weeks back, I carpooled to Hamilton with my wife so that I could attend an ethics workshop at McMaster University. After my business was done on campus, I took the bus from campus to her place of work.
I greeted the driver as I embarked the bus, paid my fare, and took a seat. Instead of getting lost in whatever was on my phone, I took the opportunity to watch the streets as we drove by and listen to the sounds of the bus.
I was startled when I realized that I had forgotten that regular bus-riders always thank the driver when disembarking. It was something I did back in my student days, and I was glad to see that not much had changed in the 5-7 years since I regularly rode the bus.
Given that I had forgotten this little gesture of appreciation and kindness, I wanted to take a moment in this otherwise dull blog to commit it to memory and share the sentiment.
Last week I shouted from the rooftops about reaching zero unread messages in my inbox. This feels like a good opportunity to geek out a bit on some cool digital tools I use for my process flow. Below are a handful of applications and services I use to keep on top of things, which supplement any physical systems I use to stay organized (like my notebook, for example). None of the referenced products below are sponsors and I have no business ties with them.
I was introduced to Boomerang for Gmail a few years back and made use of their free tier for quite some time. However, last year I made the jump to unlock some additional functionality and allow me to boomerang more messages per month.
Seamlessly integrated into Gmail, Boomerang allows me to kick messages out of my inbox and set to return at a predetermined time. You may have noted in a caption that I mentioned “boomeranged messages;” this is what I was referencing. If I have messages that I want to come back to, but I don’t want them to clutter my inbox, I use Boomerang to remove them temporarily without me forgetting about it. Boomerang has other features, such as being able to append notes to myself or asking a message to return if no one responds within a certain time frame. All in all, a great little service that doesn’t cost much for the year.
I use both Evernote (free) and OneNote (Enterprise). I don’t really have a preference one way or the other at the moment, but I tend to use Evernote for personal items (saving notes, planning blog posts, etc.) where I use OneNote for Board work and my main job. I was urged to go paperless by my boss, so I slowly adopted the services and moved away from extra notebooks and loose papers on my desk. Especially within OneNote, I can use the attach document feature to put “print outs” of documents within a notebook page, then use my tablet’s stylus to annotate the document with handwritten notes.
Speaking of embedding print outs, I started using Scanbot for Android to capture paper documents and port them into my digital notes. I like Scanbot over the regular camera because the AI recognizes the page and will use algorithms to digitally morph distortions of the page. Instead of requiring perfect lighting and standing perfectly over the page, I can capture documents on camera and Scanbot flattens out and crops the image for me. I’ve also found it handy for taking pictures of overhead presentation slides, and whiteboard writing.
Pushbullet has a lot of features for pushing documents across devices, but I mostly use it as a way of preventing myself from always looking at my phone. Instead, I can avoid temptation and quickly reply to text messages from my wife before jumping back into my task. I know myself well enough that picking up my phone is inviting a trip down the rabbit hole of distraction, so Pushbullet really helps keep my monkey brain in check. (Note: if you’re wondering about how I avoid distractions on my computer, I use the StayFocusd extension to block website during certain hours of the day)
Month over month, I will have lots of To Do items that are left incomplete. I used to copy them over manually to the next notebook, but over time the list grew. Out of laziness, I started porting those tasks over to Trello for longer term storage. Yes, I should either discard those items I’m not doing or clearing my plate by completing the tasks. However, there are items that are not urgent and not important enough to do at the time. Instead, I’ve set up a kanban board that allows me to move tasks from a pool to an active list, then to a complete, abandon, or hold list, depending on the status of the task. It’s a handy way of keeping on top of tasks that are not immediately pressing and allows me to use my notebook for day-to-day pressing concerns.
There are a few other tools I’m trying out, such as Toggl, RescueTime, Microsoft Teams, and Notion, but I’ll save those for a future post.
The five-ish tools above are a few things that makes it easy for me to keep on top of several process flows for work, my personal projects, and my volunteer work. Without them, I would be drowning in trying to keep everything fresh in my mind. Let me know what kind of tools you use (digital or analogue) in the comments below. I’m always interested in learning what different people have set up for themselves.
For as much as I read about productivity and “tactics,” I’m not all that organized, in my opinion. I am forced to keep track of a lot of threads in my projects by necessity of having too much on my plate, so I make use of notebooks and applications to sort, categorize, and remind myself of things. This includes my email inboxes – if something is unread, it means I haven’t tended to it yet and need to circle back.
From time to time I hack away at my unread messages, but items will sit there for long stretches during peak deadline times.
Last week, however, I hit inbox zero for my main account for the first time in a loooooong time.
I honestly don’t remember the last time I hit zero messages in my inbox. It’s been a long slow process of setting up filters on messages to get rid of promotions cluttering my inbox (which I started setting up in January). I was tired of having to constantly decide whether I wanted to open promotional messages or auto-delete. I didn’t want to block or unsubscribe from them all since I still used the promotions on occasion, but the constant, daily deluge of 30+ messages was draining.
I don’t really subscribe to the inbox zero system per se, but when I finally cleared the last message kicking around, I stared at my empty inbox in confusion. It was weird to see. And I feel a slight motivation to keep on top of clearing emails. When a number pops up in the tab, an itching anxiety kicks in to get rid of it as soon as possible.
I feel odd celebrating something like this. I know rationally that clearing emails isn’t really a marker of productivity. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to celebrate those times when you feel a modicum of control over your life and work (even if it’s an illusion set up by my capitalist overlords… /s).