The daily review
The last couple weeks I tried to reinvent Shuff from the philosophical ground up. During this week I came upon a much simpler solution that works fine for me right now. I didn’t even have to code anything!
To recap: Shuff allowed me to track the amount of time spent doing some things, but that doesn’t actually reflect my progress in various dimensions that I consider important. I struggled to think about how to assess that progress in other ways. The solution I came up with is to make a quick assessment of the state of things once per day. I created a Shuff task called “daily review” that I make sure to run through every day before bed and record in a spreadsheet. So far it hasn’t been a problem to follow through with that. I’ll explain some of my choices for what to track, though they’ll probably be evolving over time:
- Learning Chinese: Right now my biggest concern is getting through the Heisig characters, so I’m tracking my number of written characters learned on Skritter, which is easily found on my progress page. I could do something like beeminder with this data since it should be increasing at a constant rate.
- Eating healthy: By eating mostly paleo/primal, I don’t care so much about calories, or even tracking weight. Instead, I’m just trying to get myself to eat more home-cooked meals, so I put smiley faces for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I do that. In addition, I’m trying to make sure I eat enough protein, so I have a quick calculator spreadsheet and record an estimate. This usually results in me scarfing down something right before bed, but I’m becoming more aware how much I need to eat during the day.
- Getting crap done: A huge problem using Shuff is that my generic to-do list doesn’t get emptied. Meanwhile, I do pretty well about clearing my inbox, but since the two go hand-in-hand, I record both my number of inbox items and my to-do list count each day. So far the to-do list has only gone up, but now at least the problem is more salient. Getting both down to zero might make it more tempting to keep them there.
- Keeping my house in shape: At first I tried record the cleanliness state of each of the main rooms (kitchen, living room, bedroom), but that was depressing. Instead, I’m taking a smaller step: recording whether I’ve done at least one “clean up” Shuff task that day.
- Being a good researcher: I’m still thinking about this one. I haven’t found a good way to quantify anything. So for now, I’m doing some simple qualitative tracking: an idea, an accomplishment, and something random from each day.
- Getting sleep/getting away from the computer/not abusing the daily review: Something that already happens is to start doing the daily review before bed and then try to improve some of the categories. Which is good. Except that it’s bedtime. So I also have an “time I went offline” column to put some pressure against doing that too much.
It remains to be seen how much this tracking can improve the issues I had with Shuff, and whether I can continue to do it consistently. There are other things I care about that aren’t being tracked, but I can continue thinking about them.
Living by a principle
I’ve mentioned Bret Victor several times already on this blog. He has a great talk about the principle he lives by and why he encourages others to think about living by one of their own. His principle is to give creators an immediate connection to what they’re building. He goes on with amazing demo after amazing demo, showing ways to make changes in code (or circuit diagrams, or animation) instantly visible and arguing that some discoveries that could never happen before are enabled by this connection. His principle applied to math would be that manipulating algebraic symbols does not give one an immediate connection to the result desired. I’d have to agree with that much!
The way he describes this idea of living by a principle is that one sees a problem in the world, perhaps one that is taken for granted by most people. He says he found his principle by looking for a theme in some of the work he’d done. In other words, it’s not something that comes right away, or comes easily.
I don’t know whether I’m ready for a principle of my own yet. In academia we call this a research statement, though some are more specific than others. One theme that I see in my work is the idea of making processes that are hidden more visible. Shuff is an embodiment of the process of choosing what to do. Some of my ideas for learning tools are about exposing the problem solving process in math problems, or revealing the patterns and vocabulary being learned while studying a video. By materializing these processes, we can better understand and manipulate them.
One commonality between Victor’s principle and the one I describe here is that they are controversial according to what I’ve been reading for a course I’m taking, Design Perspectives in HCI. Design typically recognizes a strict separation between the design process and the implementation of the artifact (Goel & Pirolli, 1992). But Victor is saying the designer should be able to immediately see the result of his whims! Maybe he is talking bringing computer tools closer to sketching, what some designers seem to consider the best we can do (e.g. Purgathofer, 2006). But I think we need to start thinking about a shift, where designers can see the real impact of their design instantly — a merge of sketch and implementation.
My principle relies on the notion that determining a concrete process for activities is both possible and worthwhile. The field of design has struggled with this issue for a long time, with Simon, 1996 attempting to define design as searching a state space, and many retaliating against the idea that design can possibly be captured be any formal model (see Schon, 1983, Jones, 1992). My thinking is: a sufficiently abstract model could be conceived that would describe any [design] activity. More specific ones are more interesting and useful but decrease the number of instances they describe. Searching for the model that strikes the right balance is challenging but can be rewarding (as illustrated by my musing on Shuff).
- I’m learning how to do qualitative research for my new research project. Creswell, 2007 describes five types of qualitative research: biography, phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, and case study. Our research methods course uses contextual inquiry (holtzblatt1993contextual), and I think that fits best with my research. The book has a strongly business-consulting — as opposed to scientific — perspective, so I’m attempting to find and apply of the scientific perspectives from other fields. I also realized that there may be a much easier source of data: online communities. Apparently this is called netnography in the marketing world (Kozinets, 2002).
- Sean “Day ” Plott’s episode on eliminating assumptions is not Starcraft-centered and thus worth watching for anyone. In spirit of my principle, I’m still thinking about a good process for applying his advice.
- The future of citation management, reference sharing, journal clubs, research as we know it… it’s coming!