Category Archives: sharing

Figuring out what to read by figuring out what you want to become or make or do

If you know what you want to do, you can figure out what you need to read to get there.

This tip might be obvious to other people, but I’m not used to planning my reading so that the books are aligned with an overall goal.

I make lots of learning plans, with various degrees of following through. Those plans tend to go out the window when I browse through the monthly new release lists on the library website or come across mentions from bibliographies and blog posts.

Books are my equivalent of impulse purchases at the supermarket checkout, the pull of slot machines, the intrigue of Kinder eggs. I think that’s how I resist temptations like that. The library is where I let that impulse out to play.

We’ve checked out more than 400 books from the library this year. I’ve skimmed through most of them, although I’ve taken notes from a much smaller collection.

Since there’s such a trove of free resources I can go through, I find it difficult to spend on books. Before last week, the last time I bought a book was November 2013. I suspect this is silly. The cost of a book is almost always less than the cost of taking the author out to lunch for discussion and brain-picking (and that’s pretty much Not Going to Happen anyway). It’s certainly less than the cost of figuring things out myself.

My reluctance often comes from an uncertainty about whether there’ll be enough in the book, or whether it’ll be the same concepts I’ve already read about, just given new clothes. I have to remember that I can get more out of a book than what the author put into it. A book isn’t just a collection of insights. It’s a list of questions to explore. It’s a bibliography. It’s a link in the conversation and a shorthand for concepts. It’s an education on writing style and organization. It’s sketchnoting practice and raw material for blog posts. It’s fuel for connection.

Phrased that way, books are a bargain. Even not particularly good ones. Hmm. Maybe I should take the “Connection” part of my budget – the part that I’m supposed to be forcing myself to use for taking people out to coffee or lunch, the part that I never end up using all that much anyway – and experiment with using it for books.

I’m more comfortable when I use my money deliberately, so I also want to be deliberate about the books I buy. All books are bought – some with money, but all with time. This requires a plan, and this requires follow-through.

There are holes in the way I learn from books, the pipeline from acquisition to reading to notes to action to review. I want to become a better reader. My inner cheapskate says: practise on free books. But money can be a useful form of commitment too.

Anyway. A plan. It seems logical to decide on what I should proactively seek out and read by thinking about what I want to do. It also seems logical to require proof of my learning through writing blog posts and resources and maybe even books, the way students focus on final projects and consultants are measured by deliverables.

Here are some ideas for things I want to create out of what I want to learn:

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take many forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on http://planet.emacsen.org/)
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making
  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning
  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people’s way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I’m learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work
  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who’ve already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making
  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it’s something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests – scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Hmm. I’ve done literature reviews before, collecting quotes and references and connecting things to each other. I can do that again. It doesn’t mean giving up my impulse reads, my openness to serendipity and surprise. It simply means choosing something I want to learn more about and then taking it all in, with more awareness and less evaluation, so that I can get a sense of the whole. This will help me find the things that have already been written so that I don’t have to write them again. This will help me collect different approaches and ideas so that I can springboard off them.

I like books with references more than I like books without them. Books with few references feel like they float unanchored. I recognize ideas but feel weird about the lack of attribution. There are no links where I can explore a concept in depth. On the other hand, too many references and quotes make a book feel like a pastiche with little added, a collection of quotes glued together with bubblegum and string. A good balance makes a book feel like it builds on what has gone before while adding something new. I want to write books and resources like that, and if I’m going to do so, I need notes so that I can trace ideas back to where people can learn more about them, and so I can make sense of that conversation as a whole. Deliberate study helps with that.

What topics will you read about in 2015, and why? What are the changes you want to make in yourself, what are the resources you can build for others, and what books can you build on to get there?

Possibly related:

Building a better time machine

I’ve written before about how a blog is like a time machine, reflecting on my growth as a speaker or looking back over the past decade. It’s wonderful having all these notes. I often find myself referring to things from years ago – many of the technical posts are still useful, surprisingly – and then I bump into other memories nearby.

What can I do now to build a better time machine for me to use in another ten years or more? How can I tweak what I’m sharing and how I’m sharing it so that I can make the most of it? Let me think about how this has worked in the past, so that I can build on what’s been working well.

People like the tech posts, the workflow posts, the reflection posts where they recognize something they’ve been thinking about themselves. So those are all good. I also like point-in-time descriptions to help me remember what it was like. Maybe I’ll take those process journal entries and copy them in periodically so that they’re available somewhere.

I wonder: what other people have learned about writing for their futures? Here’s a snippet from Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014):

p98. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, [Joan] Didion describes what her notebook isn’t. It isn’t “an accurate factual record” because our recollection of an event might be vastly different from someone else’.s It isn’t to “dutifully record a day’s events” because that task inevitably becomes boring, and such a record conveys little or no meaning. Nor should we necessarily expect that we might one day open our notebooks and find “a forgotten account” of an event we can pluck for our work.

Instead, Didion believes that the notebook’s value lies in its record of “How it felt to be me” at a particular time. This, she says, is the notebook’s truth. Although we might imagine using it to fix our impressions of others, instead, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” of the notebook. Part of a writer’s education is “to keep on noding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Reading our notebooks helps us to keep in touch with those past selves, and a record of “How it felt to be me” can be extraordinarily useful in writing memoir, creating fictional characacters, or writing poetry.

p100. Didion remarks on the fact that we change over time but that we forget the people we were: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” she says. Without a notebook record, these selves are lost to us. For a writer, “keeping in touch” with our past selves is helpful. … As Didion reminds us, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

So, maybe the occasional snapshot of “How it felt to be me,” a way to remember that there are selves to remember. Otherwise the time blurs.

From that essay of Joan Didion:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

I think that might be part of it, a little bit of that worry (not a lot, but it’s there, lurking in the background) that I might forget (no, will!) large chunks of my life, because even last month is a little fuzzy without notes and last year gets condensed into a few highlights. But no, that isn’t quite it either, since I don’t really hang on to the memories tightly even with my notes and my archive; I don’t reread, I don’t memorize.

Ah. I think this is it: my blog lets my past selves connect with other people who are looking for this stuff here and now (or in the future, as the case may be). So even if I am a different self–focused on other projects, learning about other interests–those past selves are there to nod at other people and share a little of what we’ve learned along the way. Mostly I leave things as snippets and blog posts, but on occasion, I consolidate things into summaries and documents – a clearer guide, a past self updated with a little present knowledge.

Hmm…

Sketchnote Army Interview: Sacha Chua

Mauro Toselli sent me a few questions for the Sketchnote Army blog, which has been running a series on featured sketchnoters. Naturally, I decided to sketch my answers. ;)

2014-12-04 Sketchnote Army Interview - Sacha Chua

2014-12-04 Sketchnote Army Interview – Sacha Chua

If you’re curious, you can check out some of these relevant blog posts:

Thinking about word counts and chunks

I was talking to Frank Chen about blogging, and he mentioned that he’s experimenting with word count goals. That made me realize that I don’t pay much attention to word count when I write, and that I tend to write shorter posts. I think in terms of chunks of ideas. I write each post so that it covers one idea, either something I want to share or something I want to learn. Sometimes I cover a little more ground, if I can chunk the sub-ideas enough to hold them in my brain at the same time. Sketches help me a lot when it comes to developing thoughts further.

I rarely write larger posts that bring lots of things together. I guess it’s because I tend to write about:

  • things I’ve just learned: publishing small chunks helps me get my notes out faster
  • things I’m figuring out: nibbling away at questions helps me make sense of them
  • answers to specific questions: small chunks and clear titles makes it easier for me to find things and share links later

What are some examples of longer posts and resources I’ve worked on?

  • There’s How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs, which I published as a four-part weekly series and also as a single file.
  • There’s the No Excuses Guide to Blogging, which I published as a PDF/EPUB/MOBI. I linked the source blog posts into a series so that people coming across the posts in the archives can still navigate between them.
  • I post presentations like The Shy Connector as slides and a full blog post. That said, I usually try to keep my presentations to about 10-15 minutes anyway, so the resulting posts are not enormous.
  • Interviews or videos with transcripts can get really long because I talk quickly. For example, this Emacs Chat with John Wiegley is pretty long. I’ve experimented with breaking transcripts up into logical segments, but keeping the entire transcript together seems to make more sense to me.

What would it be like to experiment with longer posts that cover more ground? Based on the blogs I like reading, I think it might mean writing more thorough guides like the ones on Mastering Emacs – things that people would bookmark and refer to a few times.

Organized guides help beginners a lot because they don’t get lost trying to figure out the next step. They can keep scrolling down. On the flip side, it might take a bit more work to make long guides friendlier for intermediate and advanced users: a table of contents, links to alternative paths or related content, closer and more coherent discussion…

Hmm. I feel a little odd about drafting a long resource (takes time to write and takes time to read), and deep-linking into part of a blog post can be a little difficult.

I think I like working with short chunks that I can link to or assemble into different pieces. Maybe I’ll spend a little more time planning outlines and series of related posts so that I can link posts together and fill in the gaps. For now, I’ll leave the ultimate-guide-writing to other people who are better at linear organization (or to future Sacha when she writes books).

Onward to better writing and sharing!

Keeping a process journal

I post a lot of notes on my blog, and I keep more snippets in my personal files so that I can learn from them and turn them into blog posts later. There’s something still missing here, though, something I can tweak. Reading Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014), I recognized part of what was missing in her description of process journals. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

p82. In Steinbeck’s April 9, 1951, entry, written as he composed East of Eden, he evaluates his desk’s new surface, determines how to keep his pencil drafts from smudging, figures when it’s best to do his laundry, plans his week’s work, determines to try to write somewhat more, assesses his energy level, discusses his fear of interruptions derailing his work, pledges maintaining his focus to complete the work by managing his work in his journal.

… Here we see Steinbeck deliberately managing his work before he begins the labor of writing. He evaluates his tools–his desk and pencils–shapes his day, sketches the new scene, deals with his emotions, summarizes and evaluates his progress, and figures how to move his work forward. And Steinbeck engaged in this process each day.

(Oh! I love writers Have Thought About Stuff. It’s like the way programmers also tend to apply tools and systems to more than just programming… Come to think of it, I wonder how geeks of other persuasions end up applying their geekdoms to the rest of life!)

Anyway: a place to clear your thoughts, a deliberate reflection on processes and practices, and perhaps a way to browse through those entries in chronological order or based on context… My blog is a little like that, but there’s so much more stuff than I publish on it and it will continue to be like that if I insist on keeping to my mostly-one-post-a-day limit and scheduling things in advance.

I’ve been keeping a small journal–just a few keywords per day, scribbled into a paper notebook shortly before going to bed–for the past three months. It’s amazing how that’s enough to help me get back to those days, remembering more details than I could without them.

Org Mode for Emacs has built-in support for quickly capturing notes and organizing them in an outline by date. I think I’ll use that for at least quick memories, since those make sense in a timeline, and then I’ll keep the larger notes in a topic-focused outline. Technically, I’m using a computer, so I should be able to organize things both ways: using tags and links to connect items by topic, and using Org’s log view to view things by date.

It would be good to start with this kind of deliberate, constant improvement in a few areas of my life:

  • Web development: I’d like to learn more about design, and also developing better code
  • Writing: I can pay more attention to the questions I formulate and how I explore them
  • Cooking: Hmm, more notes on how we make the recipes and what the cooking process is like?

If I make Fridays the days I focus on harvesting my notes from the previous week and plan some ideas for the next one, that would fit in nicely with reviewing this process journal and seeing what I can build on the next week. (I’m still going to post random snippets during the week, probably… =) )

Publishing WordPress thumbnail images using Emacs and Org2Blog

I often include large images in my blog posts since I use sketches as another way to think out loud. I’d gotten used to using the WordPress web interface to drag and drop them into the relevant section of the page. I write most text in Emacs/Org Mode/Org2Blog because of the better outlining and writing tools, and then I used sacha/org-copy-region-as-html (which you can grab from my Emacs configuration) to copy the HTML markup and paste it into WordPress. Of course, I use Emacs for source-code heavy posts that make the most of its syntax formatting support.

Someone asked me recently about how to post and update blog posts with images through Org2blog, and if I had any recommendations for workflow. I’d dropped Windows Live Writer since it was flaking out on me and the WordPress web interface had improved a lot, but before recommending just using WordPress to add images, I was curious about whether I could improve my blogging workflow by digging into Org Mode and Org2Blog further.

It turns out (like it usually does in the Emacs world) that someone had already solved the problem, and I just didn’t have the updated version. Although the upstream version of Org2Blog didn’t yet have the thumbnail code, searching for “org2blog wordpress thumbnail” led me to cpbotha’s Github issue and pull request. Punchagan’s version had some changes that were a little bit ahead of cpbotha’s, so I dusted off my ancient org2blog repository, cloned it onto my computer, and issued the following commands:

git remote add upstream https://github.com/punchagan/org2blog
git pull upstream master
git remote add cpbotha https://github.com/cpbotha/org2blog.git
git pull cpbotha image-thumbnail

and tested it out on a blog post I’d already drafted in Org. It took me a little while to remember that the file URLs didn’t like ~, so I specified a relative path to the image instead. But then it all worked, yay! A quick git push later, and my Github repository was up to date again.

So now I’m back to running a Git version of org2blog instead of the one that I had installed using the built-in packaging system. The way I make it work is that I have this near the beginning of my Emacs configuration:

;; This sets up the load path so that we can override it
(package-initialize nil)
;; Override the packages with the git version of Org and other packages
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/contrib/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/code/org2blog")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/Dropbox/2014/presentations/org-reveal")
;; Load the rest of the packages
(package-initialize t)
(setq package-enable-at-startup nil)

This allows me to mostly use the packages and to satisfy dependencies, but override some of the load paths as needed.

Hope that helps someone else!