Knowing when to stop

This evening, while having dinner with an old friend, I recounted one of the most valuable — and memorable — pieces of advice I have ever received was from Dorothy Duff Brown in her disseration writing workshop. I wrote about my debt to her on my blog in 2013, specifically:

Decide as a matter of personal discipline (and sanity) when to stop working each day, rather than on when to begin. After all, writing a dissertation is a process of guilt management.

Dr. Jim Miller (Michigan State University) very helpfully expanded on Dorothy Duff Brown’s advice about being rigorous about when to stop:

Examine your life situation and establish a realistic daily work schedule to which you can be faithful. Once you have drawn up this schedule, try to be faithful to it. One strategy that will help you in this is to carefully regulate what hour daily you will stop working on “the big project”. It is easier to control the stopping time each day than the starting time. As anyone soon learns who begins writing a dissertation, getting started each day requires considerable dithering, self-negotiation, and other mental gymnastics—all of which take time. The Muse, it seems, is easier going than coming. For this reason it is surprisingly true for most people that getting a firm control over the stopping time establishes much better control over the starting time. If you know, for instance, that you must stop at a certain hour, you are more likely to get cracking on the work in order to accomplish what must be done by quitting time. Many people make a serious mistake by viewing their quitting times as flexible, usually well into the night. In such cases, time wasted during the day comes out of other time slots, like family interactions and sleep. A steady diet of this abuse usually leads to serious problems—in self image, if nothing else. Try quantifying how you spend your time, at least by periodic samplings. Adjust your pattern according to what you discover from the data. If you are scientific about how you manage your time, you will do much better in the long run.

An astute reader can surmise that I’m better at quoting than applying this advice, given how I’m posting at such a late hour today. But I like to think that remembering good advice is the first step to living it.

Watch how you treat that Inbox

As I wrote in Tuning up the Evernote/GTD machinery, I am refining the way I apply the GTD system. I just listened to the abridged audio edition of Getting Things Done which I borrowed from my local library. (I was pleasantly surprised by how well the abridged audio version served as a review the essentials of the book without contributing to an overwhelming workload).

There are a few tips that I’m concentrating on applying in the next week, especially as I spend a big part of tomorrow on a big cleanup of my apartment and desk.

  • Be especially diligent in note everything that I have yet to process in my Evernote Inbox
  • When I work through my Inbox:
    • focus on one item at a time
    • do not put an item back into the Inbox — force myself to decide what to do with the item

Wish me luck.

“Death Action Matrix” 14 years later

Last week, I wrote about the centrality of weekly rest in my life. Sundays are precious as days for rest, restoration, and contemplation. In that spirit, I will recycle “Death Action Matrix”, an essay I wrote in 2003 (when I was 36 years old) about how contemplating own death could be a possible organizing frame for determining my priorities on various timescales. Even though I often come revisit the ideas I wrote then, I will confess that it’s been a very long time since I actually managed to construct a “death action matrix” in the 14 years since I came up with the formulation. Maybe it’s not such a good idea after all — yet it’s one that has stayed with me all these years. I will quote my essay here, hoping that my 2017 readers will find it thought-provoking and perhaps action-inducing.

On the afternoon of Saturday, April 21, 2001, while hanging out at the bookstore of the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, I came across Wayne Muller’s How Then, Shall We Live?: Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives by Wayne Muller. For whatever reason, one question stood above the others, riveting my attention for the rest of my day-long retreat. That question was How shall I live, knowing I will die? The other three questions (Who am I? What do I love? What is my gift to the family on the earth?) are undoubtedly significant and weighty ones — but they just didn’t speak immediately to my situation. I suppose that I wasn’t surprised by those questions whereas I had honestly never seriously asked myself How shall I live, knowing I will die?

Always a sucker for a good question, especially a profound and new one, I formulated a methodology for tackling How shall I live, knowing I will die? To make the question more concrete — and therefore more susceptible to my type of analysis — I supposed that I knew exactly how much time I had to live and asked how would I then live the rest of those days. I tried to be more specific and made that time period one of the following: a day, a week, a month, 6 months, a year, two years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 70 years. To help me think about what I was going to do given that I was going to live another day or another 20 years, I turned to the list of life roles I was carrying around in my head as a way of partitioning my life at any given time.

I thus converted the question How shall I live, knowing I will die? to a series of questions of the form “If I knew I had only X (time period) left, what would I do in life role Y?” Some examples were: “If I knew I had only a week left to live, what I would do as a son?” and “If I knew I had only two more years to live, what I would do as a board member of Westminster House?” I organized my questions into a two dimensional matrix (with time-to-death on one axis and my life roles on the other)– a spreadsheet that I fondly called a “death action matrix”.

The answers I came up with that day were dramatic, deep, and revealing — and flowed directly out of the breakdown of the question. The prospect of death — even hypothetical death — turns out to be acidly clarifying. If I have little time left to live, most of what preoccupies me and seems so important would instantly be reduced to nothingness. I loveed my work profoundly, but when I asked myself the question “f I have a week to live, what would I do with my job?”, I answered without hesitation that I wouldn’t be spending any time on my favorite project. I would, however, want to say good-bye to my co-workers. Since I was quickly axing various roles I played for cases of a short life expectancy (it’s easy to quit my beloved committees when I think I’m going to die in a month!), I was intrigued by the question “how much time do I assume to have in this life (implicitly, most likely) to make a certain activity “worth my time”? For example, how many years would I want to have left for me to consider getting married or having children? If I knew that death was impending for me, would I stop blogging?

As I looked at the answers on my death action matrix spreadsheet, a central theme emerged — the most important thing in my life, in the face of death, was being at peace with the prospect of meeting my God, Judge, and Maker and letting my family and close friends know how much I loved them. I would add today that I also want to know how much I was loved. The question that raised by my matrix were “Do those close to me know how much I love them? And how do I let them know?”

In spite of the insights that came forth that day, I was too easily sidetracked by the realization that the central assumption of my exercise was merely hypothetical. Most of use do not know the exact day we will die. Furthermore, death is usually not like getting on a plane at a pre-assigned time, leaving us active to the very moment of departure. I kept pondering how I could sustain a life lived a daily intensity that I imagined that imminent death would prompt. Funny, how I don’t wonder about that point any more.

Given my own analysis, I continued to wonder a lot about how others would answer the question How shall I live, knowing I will die? On that grim morning of September 11 — five months later — I got a partial answer when I learned about the many last-minute love-filled emails or phone calls to husbands, wives, children, friends, or mothers that poured forth from those who knew they were at their end. Few of those who died that day would have parsed the question of how to live into a two-dimensional matrix, but it seems that nearly all of us need to love and be loved as we confront our own death.

Organizing your digital stuff for the VERY long term

How do you organize your digital stuff so that it makes sense for not only yourself but to others, even if you are incapacitated or after you die? I am trying to solve this question for myself, finding it an incredibly interesting and challenging question whose answers would be useful to many others. I don’t yet know the answers but I can tell you about a number of things that I think are related in some fundamental ways but whose connections.

I’m excited to work through the Nolo book Get It Together – Organize Your Estate Plan Documents. The book promises to teach us to “organize your records so your family won’t have to.” After looking through the table of contents, I’m impressed by the breadth of topics covered in the book.

Taking care of the varied types of digital documentation found on typical computers and online accounts is beyond the scope of the book. To jumpstart my study of digital estate planning, I just started studying Joe Kissell’s book Take Control of Your Digital Legacy. I recommend watching an interview with Kissell as a accessible introduction to the challenges in digital estate planning. I wholeheartedly agree with Kissell’s argument that organizing your digital estate is useful not only for those who come after you but also for the present day. It’s much easier to do organizational work when the payoff is not so abstract.

I suspect that digital estate planning has some non-trivial overlap with emergency planning. If you have minutes to evacuate your house because of a fire or earthquake, how do you make sure that you can still access the most important pieces of information if you can’t grab your computer? I’ve been assembling a USB key for my keychain: What should I store on it? how do I keep it up to date? How should I encrypt it? How do I make sure that those who need access to it can read it? The following articles hint at the relevant issues:

Maybe it’s time for me to watch the videos from Personal Digital Archiving (PDA) 2017 | Stanford Libraries:

As the centrality of personal digital archives and the ubiquity of digital content grows, librarians, archivists, scholars, students, activists, and those who fill the role of the “family IT person,” have to deal with how to best select, preserve, and manage digital material. PDA 2017 seeks to host a discussion across domains focusing on how to best manage personal digital material, be it at a large institution or in a home office.

If the videos prove useful for digital estate planning, I might make it a point to head to Houston in April 2018 for Personal Digital Archiving 2018 | University of Houston Libraries.

Supporting seniors in their technology use

I would like to learn a lot more about how to help older adults and seniors to make the best use of their computers and digital technology. In addition to providing occasional technical support to some older friends and family members, I have helped seniors with using their computers, tablets, and phones for phone banking and text banking. I really like hanging out and working with seniors. (I’ve been a volunteer with Tele-Care, a program in which we make calls to those who “live alone, are homebound, disabled, or convalescing from an illness, especially if you are retired, widowed, or a senior citizen,”)

I’m starting to research the challenges faced in particular by seniors and the marketplace of solutions and solution providers in the East Bay and beyond. I’d like to systematize my knowledge of computing practices for older adults. I’m also keen on making sure that computers stay a central part of my own life as I age. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned so far.

Looking for an accessible introduction to the topic of elder computing, I turned to Spark with Nora Young on CBC Radio, specifically the segment on Elder tech (audio on YouTube). Some of the issues identified on the episode were:

Now that I’m a member of the AARP myself, I wondered about technology resources available by the organization:

What books are geared towards seniors and computing. A quick search of Safari books turned up such books as:

I’ve started looking at potential volunteer gigs to work with seniors in the East Bay:

Learning BigQuery + Google Sheets II

For use with BigQuery, there is an associated collection of quite useful public datasets. If you ever want to use any of these datasets, you should know how how data is contained in each because Google charges by the amount of data processed. If you’re learning how to use BigQuery, start with smaller datasets so that mistakes will cost a lot less money and time.

I wrote some Google Apps Script code to compile spreadsheet of all the tables in the public BigQuery datasets. Tables range from 0 bytes to 7.5 terabytes in size. Here’s a histogram of total database size of Google BigQuery public datasets (log scale):

Histogram of total database size of Google BigQuery public datasets (log scale)

There’s a lot more to say; in the days to come, I will unpack this thumbnail sketch of my computation and lay out possible future directions.

Hanging out with others interested in productivity hacks

Tonight I attended the session Productivity Hacks for the Digital Age, sponsored by Evernote at the San Francisco campus of General Assembly. I was happy to talk briefly with Joshua Zerkel, the Director of Global Customer Education & the Evernote Community. I quickly asked him whether there would be a niche for productivity consultants who are also able to develop software integrations or for Evernote trainers focused on helping seniors. Joshua provided some good encouraging tips.

Two organizations that I learned tonight:

Learning BigQuery + Google Sheets I

I went down the road of studying BigQuery and Google Sheets, inspired by a suggestion from Michael Manoochehri:

a powerful and lucrative integration is BigQuery/Google Sheets via Apps Script. Some of our customers use this combo for report generation once we (Switchboard) provide foundational data in BigQuery

What is BigQuery?  |  BigQuery  |  Google Cloud Platform:

What is BigQuery?

Storing and querying massive datasets can be time consuming and expensive without the right hardware and infrastructure. Google BigQuery is an enterprise data warehouse that solves this problem by enabling super-fast SQL queries using the processing power of Google’s infrastructure. Simply move your data into BigQuery and let us handle the hard work. You can control access to both the project and your data based on your business needs, such as giving others the ability to view or query your data.

What have I done so far and what are the next steps?

As a learning exercise, I’m using Apps Script to write out data about all the public datasets into a Google Sheet and creating a visualization of the datasets: BigQuery Learning (public view with Google account). Most of the code in the project is borrowed from the sample tutorial code listed BigQuery Service  |  Apps Script  |  Google Developers. When I run the sample code, whose core functionality is in the SQL query:

'SELECT TOP(word, 300) AS word, COUNT(*) AS word_count ' +
      'FROM publicdata:samples.shakespeare WHERE LENGTH(word) > 10;'

Roughly translated into plain English, this query says: Compute the 300 most common words whose length is greather than 10 (and the number of times the word occurs) in the public Shakespeare corpus. The rest of the code then stores that list in a Google Sheet. Here are the top ten words:

word    word_count
counterfeit 28
remembrance 24
countenance 24
acquaintance    23
satisfaction    20
entertainment   20
displeasure 20
sovereignty 19
imagination 19
disposition 19

Of the many public data sets to play with, I’ve chosen the Shakespeare data set, not only because it is used in the Google tutorials, but is small (and therefore you’re less likely to spend too much money accidentally doing an inefficient query).

I wrote a non-trivial query on the database to calculate the number of words in each of the corpora: Shakespeare corpora by descending word count.

Does the BigQuery API provide access to saved queries? That is, can list my saved queries, read the content of my queries, write saved queries and even run them? (The last function is, on second thoughts, such a big deal since there is already functionality I know in the API to run queries.)

 /* list corpora by descending total number of words */
  SUM(word_count) AS num_words
  corpus, corpus_date
  num_words DESC

From the query interface, you can see a number of options for what to do with the output of the query, including:

  • download as CSV
  • download as JSON
  • Save as Table
  • Save as Google Sheets

Big Query: list corpora by descending total number of words

After dipping my toes into using BigQuery on public data sets, I wanted to learn more about the data sets themselves that Google has made available. And not surprising, you can use BigQuery to learn about the data sets. Stay tuned for a write up on what I learned.