Monthly Archives: January 2007

Post-Katrina Paranoia

There’s a change in my ways of thinking that occurred because of my experiences with Katrina. I know that it has happened to others as well.

It’s not quite post-traumatic stress disorder, maybe a step below. I notice it in little things. For instance…

I had a safe deposit box in the Chase at the corner of Carrollton and Claiborne (in New Orleans). It was just below shoulder level for me, probably some 5 feet or so above the ground. The water got up to about 3 feet in that area. Contrary to my expectations, the vault was not watertight, or was not closed before the flood (I think it was the former). I never went back into that bank — Chase pulled the boxes from all of their flooded safes and put them in a warehouse, where people could go get their boxes. As soon as I walked in, my eyes went wide.

All of the box units (probably 10 boxes across by 20 or 30 high) had distinct lines on them. Above the lines, the units looked normal. Below, they looked awful. They were dirty and terribly rusted. I had to sign something before accessing my box, acknowledging that I might find… undesirable stuff in my box. Luckily, as I noted above, mine was out of the reach of the flood waters.

When I got a new safe deposit box here in Baltimore, I made sure it was as high as possible. It’s almost entirely irrational. This part of town is high up on a hill, and it’s not ever likely to flood.

But it can’t hurt.

I was already paranoid about offsite and portable backups of computer data before the hurricane. That partly saved my ass, but I’ve noticed that others are now becoming more careful about backups as well.

I don’t want to buy stuff. I moved an average of once every two months from April 2005 to August 2006. I want all of my stuff to fit in a U-Haul van (not a truck, the plumber/carpenter/etc type utility van). Every time I think about buying something, I can’t help but think about the fact that it might disappear due to some disaster or another. Even though my stuff is insured, why go through the bother of acquiring things if I’m just going to have to replace them later?

This is also irrational — massive natural disasters, and even catastrophic house fires do not happen very often to a single person. If this were really a hindrance, I’d work to overcome my irrationality. Since it lines up with my budget and desire for minimalism, I’m not fighting it much. If something gets really inconvenient not to have, I’ll buy it.

There are other things, here and there. As I mentioned in an old post, Katrina gave me a good solid reminder about impermanence. Other Katrina survivors (and I use the term loosely), have you noticed similar tendencies in your own thinking?

Closed-Access Journals on the PR Offensive

I’ve talked in the past about the problem of access to journals. It varies drastically between institutions. Here at JHU, our access is pretty good. However, I’d say it was better, and certainly more convenient, at Washington University in St.Louis. But really, it shouldn’t matter what institution you’re affiliated with. Peer-reviewed research, and especially government funded peer-reviewed research, should be widely and freely available, from the internet, preferably in PDF format.

I’m not saying that anyone has to really give it away. Costs can be shifted around. However, for the sake of scientific review, collaboration, and progress, anyone should be able to access the papers. There’s already an extensive movement toward this standard. The Public Library of Science publishes several open-access journals, and carries out some advocacy of open-access publishing.

This, like the ability of bands to sell and promote their own music without the RIAA, is a threat to the traditional publishing industry. Nature recently published a brief article on the efforts of Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society to counteract open-access promotion with their own PR. They’ve hired an expert on the PR-offensive to advise them in this effort. His advice allegedly includes tidbits like this:

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as “Public access equals government censorship”. He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and “paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles”.

Do you see what’s going on here? Simple, but bald-faced lies, repeated often. Peer review is not at all limited to “traditional publishing models.” PLoS is a great counterexample. Also, public access is not government censorship, especially if taxpayer dollars paid for the research. I’d call that getting what you pay for. The argument is that,

“When any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity’s interests.”

I mean, read that. Should a funding agency pay to disseminate everyone else’s work? Clearly these guys have hired an expert on crafting statements that seem reasonable but are actually quite deceptive and misleading. Based on the quotes from the involved publishers, they’re already drinking the kool-aid, or doing a good job of pretending to do so.

This issue has been covered and extensively discussed on Slashdot.

Using your RSS aggregator as an Inbox

It occurred to me this past weekend that I use my RSS aggregator like an inbox. I have long since quit categorizing my feeds. Rather, I just view them as a “river of news”, reading them in the order in which they arrive. This isn’t really interesting.

What is is how I process them. As I mentioned in my post on using the Firefox bookmark bar, when I see something I want to read, I drag it into my Action folder. More specifically, I read as if I were processing an inbox:

  • I first decide whether I want to read something or not, based on the headline and glancing over the body text.
  • If I don’t want to read the item I just skip it. It gets marked read when I’m done with the batch of 10.
  • If I am interested in the item then I decide if it’ll be a quick read (i.e. < 2 minutes). If so, I read it.
  • If I want to read it but it’s too long, then it gets dragged to the Action folder to be read at a later date.

I suspect my 2+ years of GTD practice led to the unconscious development of this processing strategy. It seems to work pretty well — it allows me to catch up on a lot of items without actually having to read and dwell on all of them.

A walk to work (2007-01-19)

I’m going to go out for drinks after work, and then who knows what, so I decide to walk rather than bike — I don’t want to have to worry about the bike’s whereabouts. The wind is also 20-25 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 45. I’d rather not be knocked over while riding. Rather than my usual mountain bike shoes with cleats, I lace up my running shoes. My walking shoes live at work, you see.

It’s getting rather cold here, and I’m afraid that combined with the wind, the temperatures might make my ears hurt, so I bring my headband. I put on my jacket, slip my iPod on the pocket, and step out the front door, locking it behind me.

I look south, to the people waiting for the bus along North Avenue, to the KFC that’s still closed at this hour. Morning commuters rush down St.Paul in front of me, mostly cars with the occasional bicyclist interloper. Typically my bike ride takes me up Charles Street, but there’s a clinic there where I’ve gathered that people go for free psychiatric treatment. At this time of the morning, there will be a lot of them on the sidewalk. I decide to walk up St.Paul instead, at least until I get to 25th street, beyond the clinic.

The walk up is uneventful. Once I pass Safeway and reach 25th street, I turn toward Charles. Reaching it, I cross 25th and then continue to head north toward campus.

I hear a loud rumble and the earth shakes.

This has happened to me before. The first time, I thought it was a stampede of people (from where?) or a huge truck coming up the road. However, by this time I know that it’s a train passing underneath the street. When I’m racing down St.Paul on my bicycle, I never have more than a few seconds to look over at it before I’m past, and I should watch traffic anyway. However, today I am on foot, so I amble over through an overgrown parking lot full of litter, and look through the wrought iron fence.

The train runs beneath the streets for several hundred feet in either direction, but here I am able to peer down into a one-block-long skylight, a gap where the train can breathe, only about three times its width. Car after car rolls directly beneath me, and some part of me entertains the (self-destructive) thought of trying to hop the fence and catch a ride on the train.

I’d probably break my leg falling, just before my head smacked into the top of the tunnel.

Instead, I just watch. Many of the cars are refrigerated. I wonder how they are powered? I look for indications that they draw from dynamos on the wheels, but am unable to see from my perspective. Perhaps they carry gasoline and generators. Regardless, they have “Satellite controlled module” written on them, and I imagine these cars rolling across the western plains, open to the sky and able to receive commands from someone in a far-off control center. They don’t seem to have dishes of any kind. I wonder how they get the signal.

I watch, and watch, and recall that trains can be as long as three miles. I wonder if I have enough time to watch three miles of train roll through at that speed. I don’t wonder long, because shortly thereafter the last car rolled away, and I carried on toward lab.

On reaching campus, my road forks. There is a building, called Garland Hall around which I must walk. We also walk around one side or the other of this building every day on the way to lunch. It has a raised, walled off apron around it with an opening on either end. These openings are not in the middle on either side, and so I’ve always wondered whether it’s the same distance around either way.

I start pacing from one entrance around using my marching band steps (consistently eight steps to five yards). I don’t count the sides of the building, because the path is the same length on either side. In the end, I find out that one way is 15 yards longer. Now, if I’m in a hurry, I take the shorter way.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice to take the long way to work.

My solution to multi-outcome project tracking in iCal / Palm OS / Wiki(s)

Getting Things Done is generally platform agnostic, with perhaps a slight bias toward paper. As such, people have implemented it any number of ways. I doubt any two people have the same methods. This leaves some gray areas, one of which is how to associate Next Actions with projects. It has plagued me since I started. Yesterday, after I sat down to brainstorm, I finally put the last piece in the puzzle and got the whole picture.

As a quick review, in GTD, a Next Action is the very next physical thing that needs to be done to accomplish a desired outcome. If one, and ONLY one action is required, then the action can stand on its own. However, if the action requires two or more physical actions to complete, it becomes a project.

Project is a loaded word. It can mean a vast number of things, and the differences have a big impact on how the next actions are associated and recorded. I’ve been re-reading GTD, and it’s a good thing, as it reminded me of a very useful detail: Next actions should advance toward desired outcomes.

My solution involves these three key things. I have slightly re-defined projects to make this all sane and self-consistent:

  1. Desired outcome – Something that needs to Get Done. It can require one or more Next Actions, but it should not require parallel next actions. It may only require sequential Next Actions. Should be past or present tense.
  2. Next Actions – these are the atoms of the system, in that they are the smallest singular and cohesive component. Again, these must be physical or pseudo-physical (i.e. Search for X on google). Given a desired outcome, a Next Action is the next physical action that you would do to pursue that outcome.
  3. Projects – Projects are collections of desired outcomes that must occur either serially or in parallel. Typically for me a project will be an experiment, where say, there are a few Desired Outcomes involved in experiment set-up, which can be worked on in parallel, and Desired Outcomes such as “Parameter Foo experiments run” and “Parameter bar experiments run”, but the experiments can’t be started until the set-up outcomes have been accomplished.

This begs for an example, because it’s a little complex in words. I’m working on setting my old desktop linux box up as a new MythTV DVR for recording shows and cutting out commercials. I’ll use that project. It’s a “Project” as defined above. Here’s the list of desired outcomes I’ve outlined so far, as I have it on my wiki project page:

Snapshot of wiki page with outcomes listed

The first Desired Outcome, “Needed software listed” has been completed. I couldn’t do the rest until it had been completed. Once I finished it, I moved on to two items that can be done in parallel: “Software installed” and “TV recording works”. TV recording does depend somewhat on the software being installed, but first I have to splice the cable from the modem so that it goes to both my computer and the modem. I could also order and set up a remote, but I haven’t started that yet. The last desired outcome, “Jason notified I’m paying for cable” won’t happen until I actually get the box working — why pay for something I’m not using?

Wikis are too cumbersome to update continually with next actions, especially if it means you later have to copy each next action out and keep it in sync with iCal manually. I tried that for a while, and it really bogged me down. Wikis are, however, useful for tracking the higher-level, slower-changing aspects of a project, such as its Desired Outcomes.

So, now we have parallel outcomes, and you can see how that would occur, as well as how a multi-outcome project is organized. How does this go in the system? I have synthesized the PigPog method, which only works for serial-action or serial-outcome projects, with a suggestion based on one of David Allen’s clients does.

Any outcome that requires more than one step is listed with its associated project. If it’s not part of a project, it goes:

Some next action >> Desired outcome

However, if it’s part of a multi-outcome project, it becomes:

Project Name – Some next action >> Desired outcome

Basically, this should be all you need. Think about the desired outcome: when you finish the current next action, will you automatically know what comes next? If so, you’re done. If not, you might want to add notes on future next actions to the “notes” section of the task.

Despite some of its other issues, iCal has a very nice search feature. The little search bar is always at the bottom. If you want to check on the current outcomes/next actions associated with a project, you can just type the project name in:

Screenshot of search for project-related outcomes and next actions
Note the “mythtv” in the search box in the lower right.

This is a lot of writing, and I feel like this still might be unclear. Is there anything that seems particularly confusing?