Archive for ‘News & Information’

February 14th, 2012

Getting Shit Done

It’s taken a few years, but I can now pinpoint the single biggest obstacle to getting shit done—and I am ready to reveal my secret.

In writing this, I think it is important to say that I consider myself generally to be an organized person. My bills get paid on time, client goals and projects are accomplished, and my consumption of a diverse range of media sources continues to enliven and enrich my life. I am a devoted user of Evernote, the single best note-taking and information-tracking tool I have found, and at the same time I also love my old-fashioned jotter, which fits in a pocket and doesn’t require any batteries (and can be “recharged” with Post-It notes, which are both thinner and cheaper than the index card inserts it comes with). While I am not formally a follower of David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” movement, I admire the concept and track some of the information sources in related spheres, such as Lifehacker.

However, my understanding of the impact of all these things on my life—together with two small children and a working spouse with her own set of needs and demands—has started to crystallize a little differently of late. In a pre-digital age, daily life could produce enough junk to overwhelm, just on its own. With email, the web, social media tools, and more options for tracking content and ideas and tasks than one can shake a stick at, “overwhelmed” can seen like an underwhelming description.

Fundamentally, though, I am not convinced that the volume of relevant information is that much greater than it ever was; the problem is determining relevance quickly—and then moving on. Thus, the single biggest challenge to efficiency? Procrastination.

For me, what I have noticed (in particular since my July 2009 about-face and decision to embrace Facebook and Twitter) is that there are two consistent—and generally well-meaning—procrastination zones that create problems, one as information is coming in, and the other as I’m pushing it out.

To address the problem in the first zone requires focus a heavier focus on relevance, and an effort to control (or curtail) digressions. This is the area where Facebook and Twitter can cause mayhem, along with all the things one needs to do for work (if not properly organized) or at home (like the non-tax-related papers one encounters on the way to doing one’s taxes).

The second zone demands a high-intensity focus on information management, managing both the flow of materials and the (rapidly proliferating) new toys tools to help get things done. For instance, I have been contemplating switching my meetings to a psychiatrist-style 50-minute hour, (or a 25 minute half-hour) in order to guarantee time between activities, during which I can write down or assign tasks, file papers, respond to email, etc. It’s the delaying of these small tasks that often create larger and more complicated tasks hours or days later.

There is no doubt that sometimes procrastination and digression can be beneficial; it is during this time that the stimulation of creativity and free associations can help solve problems or come up with new ideas. But digressions in the digital age seem are much worse, it seems: it’s too easy never to turn things off, to keep going, link by link, from dawn to dusk and back again.

And that’s fine, as long as it isn’t stopping you from doing what you need to do.

April 3rd, 2011

Flights of Fancy

Time Magazine recently ran an article encouraging readers to think of airports as small cities. From Beijing to Dubai, the last decade or two has seen mammoth new airports built in expectant hotspots. (Although the US has generally lagged in building new airports or rehabilitating older ones, part of our multi-generational failure to invest in our own infrastructure.) Airplane orders are sometimes looked at as a sign of economic health, given the average cost per passenger jet (upwards of $300 million for a Boeing 747) and the broad supply chain of manufacturing needs and services that go into building each one. Orders are up so recent indicators suggest that, indeed, things are improving in our economy.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago as I sat with a colleague at the airport in Buffalo, New York, waiting for my flight back to JFK. Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, the fault this time was not with the airline (JetBlue, which was generally strong on service and on its communication around the delays) or with weather in Buffalo. It was raining and windy in New York, and JFK was suffering from a range of unspecified delays, which meant that my 6:30pm flight didn’t leave until 11pm, and didn’t land until 1:30am. The only good thing about the situation was that flying into JFK meant we were able to get home: the flights into LaGuardia airport were all canceled.

If you live virtually anywhere in the United States, you will know that 2010-2011 has been an especially rough winter. The eastern states, from north to south, were hammered with snow, causing numerous kinds of shutdowns. So was the Midwest. There was even snow in San Francisco, definitely not the norm there. While “winter” is technically over, and temperatures in New York are a bit warmer, this only means that what would be snow has been replaced by a lot of rain. Much of this can be attributed to global warming, and specifically to the environmental impact of having a few percentage points more moisture in the air than we did a decade ago. More moisture in the air means more moisture that’s likely to come down in the form of rain or snow. And if the pattern of more rain or snow—more in frequency and more in volume—continues, it means we won’t be flying as much as we think we will in the future.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a database of flights, including those that were canceled. As you can see from these two charts, cancellations in January 2011 from two airlines at two airports were significantly higher than in the previous four Januaries: for USAirways, a high of 140 in 2011, compared with only 68 canceled flights the year before; for American Airlines, 95 cancellations in 2011, compared with a previous high of 30 in 2008. (I chose USAirways and American Airlines based on an awareness of their frequency of flights from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports respectively. I selected LGA and JFK because they are my two local airports.) Sorry, you’ll have to click to see the charts at full size.

Sure, it’s possible January 2011 was an anomaly, the weather-and-airline-traffic equivalent of an earthquake. Only time will tell. But if this past winter’s weather continues as the norm, we may need to reevaluate our expectations about the role of air travel in the global economy, not to mention as a means of getting around. Perhaps there will be some environmental benefits as a result, though one gets the sense sometimes that it may be too late to reverse the damage.

March 8th, 2011

For Lester

I’m not much for euphemisms about death. People don’t pass (either on or away); they die. I think the man I’m about to eulogize would have agreed with me.

Not that Lester Mazor (1936-2011) was above a good euphemism when it suited his purposes. Lester was, among other things, a master of subtle language–of making direct statements that also embraced a particularly enigmatic psychic space that made it hard to tell what he really thought. As a person, his views on humanitarianism, justice, equality, and power were all crystal clear. (He was for the first three of those, and generally skeptical of the latter.) As a teacher–and he was a master teacher–he managed to cloak his own views in ways that forced his students to think, to confront their own (mis)perceptions and prejudices, and to dig a little deeper.

I first met Lester when a friend convinced me to go to a “Law Lunch” that Lester and some of his students had organized in one of the Master’s Houses on the Hampshire College campus; the speaker was someone from Eastern (then Soviet) Europe. “Law Lunch” was definitely a euphemism. There was lunch, that was literally true. But “law” was part of it only insofar as a discussion of what it was like to live under totalitarian rule is actually about “the law.” As a professor of law and legal philosophy, with an interest in Eastern European culture, politics, and history, Lester knew what he was doing. He made the the system at Hampshire work for him, and he used it to attract and build out programs and student participants across the spectrum of his and their mutual interests.

For me, that event was a hook from which I couldn’t wriggle off. Through one vehicle or another, he introduced me to people who remain friends to this day, all while pushing–sometimes gently, sometimes less so–towards the intellectual and academic areas needed to help us grow. When a friend and I expressed an interest in Kafka–an outgrowth of a reading for some other class with him–he encouraged us to teach our own class on it, and taught us how to learn even more in the process. When the study of Dead White European Males seemed in danger of being overthrown completely, Lester helped some of us organize the “DWEM Sem.” Then by co-teaching it with us, he stirred in all the radicalism needed to keep the conversation lively and the academics sharp and relevant.

This was all during an era of turmoil, the last great moment of revolution before the one we’re in now, from the reunification of his beloved Berlin, to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Iraq war, and the election of the first Baby Boomer president. Through all of that, Lester remained a stabilizing force, that rare kind of person with whom you can study history as it’s being made. And now, as then, it makes me mindful–amidst the exhilaration of freedom–of the ways in which justice can be brushed aside. Lester was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t in it for the fervor.

There’s something euphemistic about the term “memorial service,” too; I’m not sure what Lester would have thought of that one. Calm and sometimes paternal, I had seen him cry and I knew his larger-than-life exterior was a container for a larger-then-life heart. Still, I think he would have readily signed on to the idea that we do these things–memorials, public eulogies, remembrances of those just … passed–for ourselves more than for the dead. And if I’d ever said I’d write such a thing about him when he was gone, no doubt he’d have shrugged his shoulders and given me one of his little “hmm-mmms” that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside, and then suggest that I check both Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Norman O. Brown‘s “Life Against Death.”

I have mine right here, Lester, and Brown quotes Jespersen quite clearly: “Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts.” Consider this my song.

October 7th, 2010

Are You Ubuntu Experienced?

Ever used Linux? Well, I have. Thanks to Ubuntu, I have rescued two old laptops from the clutches of Windows. Of the two machines, one is a virtual miracle, the other a solid improvement.

A few years ago, my brother bought a small (10″) Sony Vaio to use for travel and keep around the house for easy internet access. It was a popular model machine for many years, in the ultralight laptop category before the full-on arrival of the “netbook.” Except that it also came with one built-in deficit: Windows Vista. This brand new machine took several minutes to boot-up each time it was used, to say nothing of the other hassles with that now-discontinued operating system. Less than a year after buying it, he gave it to my mother. Because of it size, my mother found it great for traveling, except if she actually had to use it. It wound up with me.

My initial thought was: perhaps I can find a way to make this work. In short order, I discovered that the answer was no. Despite different system tweaks, stripping the machine of unnecessary programs, and the installation of newer, faster firewall and anti-virus software, it only got slower and slower: it took close to 10 minutes to boot up, only 18 months after purchase. The Vaio sat in the corner for a while, until one day I had an idea.

A little research (thanks, Lifehacker!) directed me to Ubuntu as an easy-to-install, easy-to-use version of Linux. The installation process was simple, and once it was up and running the Ubuntu interface felt very familiar, like an inverted, slightly more organized version of Windows. I discovered that Ubuntu has, by default, many of the same tools that Apple includes on their Macs, and of which I have become quite fond—such as the ability to use multiple desktops. I copied over a number of word processing templates, and that all worked fine: Ubuntu comes loaded with, the same office suite I have been using for years. I moved a selection of music over, and the built-in Rhythmbox music player lined them up and played them back perfectly. Firefox browser? Pre-installed. DropBox, for file syncing? Available and easy to load. XMind, for mind- and process-mapping? Available and easy to load. In fact, the only things I haven’t been able to do are install Evernote (because there’s no Linux version) and figure out how to get the VPN to work, for a better connection to my office’s server—and that is hardly a deal breaker.

Best of all: it’s fast, light, and trouble-free. The Vaio now takes under 30 seconds to boot-up fully, including login time. Ubuntu runs very efficiently in terms of memory demands, which means it not only loads fast but continues to run fast when I’m using it—and makes efficient use of the machine’s power systems, with the battery running for for more than 6 hours. And it has never crashed on me, not once.

Given the stellar example of the Vaio, I decided to apply the same approach to my old Fujitsu P5020 “Lifebook.” This computer, running Windows XP, had served me very well for more than 6 years—but with each new Windows service pack release, and the bulking-up of Norton’s antivirus and firewall programs, began to run ever more slowly. Something about one of the updates also affected the wireless card, so the computer would periodically crash whenever the WiFi was on. It is too old to run Ubuntu’s current release, but I installed Ubuntu’s 9.10 release—and now this computer also works like new.

I am still a Mac person; I love my MacBook Pro and have no plans to leave it behind. No do I have any intention of going back to PC land. But these ultra-small, ultra-light machines are useful in a number of situations where I don’t need to bring the MacBook with me. And there is definitely value in having recycled and saved two old computers. If you have an old machine lying around, dead as a result of impenetrable operating system failures, let Linux save the day: try Ubuntu.