Weekly review: Week ending May 22, 2015

Almost 26 hours of playing video games this week – Ni No Kuni is such an engaging option for my fuzzy brain. Some thoughts and conversations, though, so I didn’t vegetate the entire time. =)

Planning to take it easy over the next couple of weeks: games, drawing, writing, some code…

2015-05-25a Week ending 2015-05-22 -- index card #journal #weekly

output

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (20.1h – 11%)
    • Earn (7.8h – 38% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (10.0h – 49% of Business)
      • Drawing (8.9h)
      • Paperwork (1.1h)
        • Calculate deductions
        • Transfer money for salary
        • Write and deposit cheque
        • Remit deductions
        • File payroll in Quickbooks
    • Connect (2.3h – 11% of Business)
      • Chat with Michael Crogan about Emacs
      • Chat with Ab Velasco about Quantified Self talk
  • Relationships (10.7h – 6%)
    • Work on personal project
  • Discretionary – Productive (9.9h – 5%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Make a list of all my TFSA contributions
    • Verify Jen’s public key by calling
    • Review Createspace
    • Add to my TFSA
    • Writing (2.9h)
  • Discretionary – Play (25.7h – 15%)
  • Personal routines (22.5h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (21.4h – 12%)
  • Sleep (57.6h – 34% – average of 8.2 per day)

Building tools for my future self

I was thinking about steps towards personal digital assistants. In a separate thread, I was also thinking about the psychology of aging. In a third thread, I was thinking about projects I might want to build to help me learn more. It makes sense to bring all these threads together: thinking of systems I can build to improve the quality of life I’ll enjoy in the future.

I think this might be a better fit for my experimental learning than either a hypothetical market or specific people. After all, I’ll always have a future self who could benefit. (And if I don’t, I’ll be past caring!) If the things I build along the way turn out to be useful for others, all the better.

Anyway, I was thinking about the kind of simple, deterministic, idiosyncratic assistant I could build to make life a teensy bit better in the medium term and the long term.

I could start with a text box interface on a webpage, then move to alternative inputs like dictation or neuro-integration(!) when that becomes reliable. It would be great to have some kind of offline buffering, too.

In terms of logic, I could start with stateless well-defined responses, add synonyms, support conversational interfaces, use weighted factors, add feedback mechanisms, and then eventually reach proactive notification and action. Inferences would be awesome, but I don’t have to wait for them to be sorted out. Ditto for program generation and adaptation.

In terms of sensing and acting, I can start with existing APIs and tools, write specific adapters for other sites, push into the physical world with sensors and actuators, use context and probability to simplify, and then take advantage of improvements in fields like computer vision or biometric analysis as other people build and commoditize cool tech.

But first, it starts with building a simple tool. Hmm, maybe a little thing that suggests what to do next (and coincidentally makes it easy to track)…

What it’s like to work with data

How did I learn to work with data?

I learned the basics of SQL in high school, I think. In university, I got most of my kicks from the extracurricular projects I worked on because doing so let me hang out with interesting people. As those people graduated, I moved to handling those systems on my own. Blogging have me another reason to explore data analysis, since I was curious about my stats. Eventually, with Quantified Self, I started collecting and scraping my own data.

I do a lot of data analysis and report creation as part of my social business consulting. It has deepened my appreciation of database indexes, subqueries, common table expressions, recursive queries, caching tables, arrays, partitioned queries, string manipulation with regular expressions, and visualization tools. I’d love to get together with other social business data geeks so that we could swap analysis questions and techniques, but we’d need to get approval for sharing data or set up a sanitization protocol that my clients would be comfortable with. We’re doing some pretty cool stuff.
What is it like when my clients ask me data questions, or when I think of a question I’d like to explore?
I start by thinking of whether we have the data to answer that question, or how I can collect the data we need. I think about whether there are similar questions that are easier to answer. Then I start thinking about how to bring everything together: which tables, which joins, which conditions. Sometimes I have to use subqueries to combine the data. I’m getting into the habit of using common table expressions to make those easier to read. I feel satisfied when I can connect everything in a way that makes sense to me. I also like seeing the common threads among different questions, and turning those insights into parameterized reports.
Sometimes the first report I make fits the situation perfectly. Other times, we go back and forth a little to figure out what the real question is. I really appreciate it when other people help me sanity-check the numbers, because I occasionally overlook things. I’d like to get better at catching those errors.
Once the report settles down, I can think about the performance. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding an index or creating a table that caches complex calculations. Other times, I might need to modify the presentation or the question a little.
In addition to making my reports more reliable, I’d like to get better at visualizing the data so that people can get an intuitive feel for what’s going on.
I also want to get better at making inferences based on the data, especially when it comes to teasing out time-delayed or multivariate factors. I think my data sets are usually too small for things like that, though.
Anyway, that’s what it’s like to enjoy crunching the numbers. I love being able to do it, and I like exploring the kinds of questions that people imagine. =)

Fuzzy brain; also Ni No Kuni

Low energy both physically and mentally today, but I managed to squeeze in a 90-minute walk that included the library and the supermarket, so my walking streak continues. I can feel the fuzziness start to encroach, so ah well. Time to indulge a little. Aside from the walk and the usual chores, in fact, I spent practically the entire day playing Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

I like playing role-playing games, particularly ones that are forgiving enough to let you restart or change your mind if a battle’s too much for you. I enjoy watching the story unfold, and I like slowly getting the hang of the battle system and character development.

I prefer turn-based games like Persona 4 Golden where you have a little time to review the situation and think about what you’re going to do. But Ni no Kuni is such a pretty game – gorgeous visuals and sound (Studio Ghibli! the Tokyo Philharmonic!) – that I’m working on getting the hang of the real-time battle system. I expect the game to take me a while, though. This is good, because I happen to have said while.

There are many things I could do with my time, and I’m sure they’ll rise higher on my list after I settle in. There’ll be time enough for other things.

Mapping knowledge

I chatted with someone about maps and personal knowledge management, so I thought I’d write an extended reflection.

2015-05-13e Mapping knowledge for yourself and others -- index card #mapping #pkm #sharing

2015-05-13e Mapping knowledge for yourself and others – index card #mapping #pkm #sharing

Mapping is useful for myself and for others. For managing my own learning:

  • Scope: What’s included, and what’s not? How does this relate to other things I’ve learned or I’m learning?
  • Landmarks and destinations: Role models, motivation, tracking progress…
  • Main path, detours: How do you get from A to B? Are there interesting places in the neighbourhood?
  • Here there be dragons, places under construction: Managing appropriate difficulty; tracking areas to explore or revisit

When helping other people learn, mapping lets me:

  • Define scope: Define a manageable chunk, and link to related maps: zooming in, zooming out, going to other places
  • Provide landmarks
  • Main path, detours: Organize a reasonable path (particularly based on someone’s interests) and nice detours
  • Here there be dragons / construction: Warn newbies, encourage intermediate/advanced exploration

So here’s my current workflow:

2015-05-13f Mapping what I know -- index card #workflow #blogging #index-cards #mapping #pkm

2015-05-13f Mapping what I know – index card #workflow #blogging #index-cards #mapping #pkm

2015-05-08c Managing my structured information -- index card #pkm #knowledge #sharing

2015-05-08c Managing my structured information – index card #pkm #knowledge #sharing

Using index cards, outlines, and chunks seems to be working well for me in terms of current thinking, although I haven’t been turning my attention to organizing, fleshing out knowledge, and filling in gaps.

Here are some notes from 2013 on mapping forwards (plans) and backwards (guides for other people). I’ve figured out ways around some of the challenges I encountered before:

  • Rough categorization of blog posts: I’ve written some Emacs Lisp code to help me update my blog post index monthly.
  • Hundreds of sketches with few links: Now I have more than a thousand sketches! But that’s okay, I have metadata in the filename, integration in my outline, and eventual chunking into blog posts.
  • Duplicate metadata entry, no synchronization: Tags in the filename and a NodeJS script that sets the same tags on Flickr upload, yay
  • No clear picture of follow-up questions, ideas, or actions: Outline still needs work; maybe also a quick way to review open sketches?
  • No clear role models: Found historical and contemporary ones, yay!

Mostly I’ve been focusing on little explorations rather than map-making. It’s like collecting nature specimens so that I can start to classify them, since you don’t see that order until later. Sometimes I look back and retrace my path. That’s when I can try to figure out where things are and how people might go a little faster or in a better order. Other times, when I’m looking forward, I’m trying to see what’s close by and how to get there. I remind myself of the landmarks in the distance, too, and what progress might look like. But I can only walk the routes until I reach a height that lets me review the paths ahead, so sometimes it’s just the accumulation of steps…

2015-05-12d What do I want to get from my blog archive, looking back twenty years from now -- index card #blogging #pkm #archive

2015-05-12d What do I want to get from my blog archive, looking back twenty years from now – index card #blogging #pkm #archive

2015-05-12e What do I want from my archive of index cards -- index card #pkm #archive #drawing #index-cards

2015-05-12e What do I want from my archive of index cards – index card #pkm #archive #drawing #index-cards

What do I want instead of or in addition to advice roundups?

I occasionally get requests for advice to include in an “expert roundup.” It’s one of those quick content generation / search-engine optimization techniques, and often goes something like this:

  1. Cold-email a bunch of famous and not-so-famous people who likely have opinions on something.
  2. Ask them for a quick answer to a simple question. Famous people probably already have soundbites ready to go, so it’s easy for them to reply.
  3. Reach out to more people and name-drop the famous people who have already responded.
  4. Other people feel flattered to be included in that kind of company, and add their own perspectives.
  5. Paste and format the quotes, add pictures or relevant stock images, and use a list-type headline.

If you’re lucky, those people will drop by your blog, read other posts, and maybe even comment or subscribe. If you’re really lucky, they’ll link to your post (“Look! I’m featured over here!”), which is good for broadening your audience and improving your reputation with search engines. Besides, your other readers will be able to read a post that indirectly demonstrates your social capital (“I got Bigname Expert to reply to me”) while possibly offering something to think about. (Although I don’t think it’s really the lack of advice that holds people back…)

On the plus side, at least an e-mail-based soundbite survey requires a little bit more effort than making a grab-bag of quotes harvested from one of the categories of those popular quotation marks (often misattributed and almost never with source links). So there’s something to be said for that. I still prefer posts that have more of the self infused into them, though, whether they’re the products of personal research and interpretation or (better yet) personal experience and insight.

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice -- index card #blogging #advice #sharing

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice – index card #blogging #advice #sharing

But it’s much easier to write the first two types of posts rather than the third and fourth type of post. It takes less time. It seems less self-centred. It’s more generally applicable. You could even write books following that formula.

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me -- index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me – index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

And if I think about it from the reader’s perspective, I can actually work to extract a little bit of value from stuff like that. Sometimes, when reading lists or blog posts, I come across an interesting name for a concept I’ve been having a hard time defining or expressing. The keywords help me search more. Other times, a short paragraph is enough to get me considering a different perspective, or thinking about the difference between what it says and what I want to say. Pithy sayings get me thinking about what makes something a memorable maxim. Noticing a collection of intriguing thoughts from one person can lead me to dig up more details on that person. And then there’s always the satisfaction of finding unexpected resonance or an authority you can enlist on your side (the more ancient, the better)…

Still, I want to see people apply the ideas and share their experiences. I want people to share what they struggled with and how they adapted things to fit their situation. Sure, it’s interesting to hear what Aristotle’s purported to have said (although that collection certainly does not include “Excellennce, then, is not an act, but a habit” – that’s Will Durant ccommenting on Aristotle), but it’s also interesting–possibly even more so–to hear what thoughts people distill from their own lives.

Most advice (especially for generic audiences) sounds pretty straightforward. Things like: Spend less than you earn. Live mindfully. Get rid of unnecessary tasks and things. But the challenge of change is hardly ever about hearing these things, is it? I think, if we want to make it easier for people to grow, it’s better to help people flesh out who they want to be, feel they can become that, and see how they can set themselves up for success and appreciate their progress.

A reflection on reading advice: I notice that I’ve grown to like books that dig into personal experience (especially if they avoid the trap of generalization) and books that interpret results from large research studies, but I feel less enlightened by books that rely on anecdotes (cherry-picked, possibly even modified). Since it seems pretty difficult to nail down reliable effects in psychological studies and it’s tempting to cherry-pick research too, that probably indicates that I should dig deeper into finding people with similarly open, experimental approaches to life, which probably means focusing on blogs rather than books. Hmm…

So that’s what I’ve been thinking as a reader. On the other side of the page, as a writer and a learner, what do I think about sharing advice?

Writing from my own life, I realize that I can hardly generalize from my life to other people’s lives: no “You should do this”, but rather, “This seems to work pretty well for me. You might want to consider it, but maybe something else will work even better for you. If so, I’d love to hear about that!” So I don’t have much in the way of generic advice that I can contribute to these advice round-ups.

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at -- index card #advice #yeahbut #different

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at – index card #advice #yeahbut #different

In fact, thinking about some of the things I do that people have both expressed an interest in doing and have struggled with – even when I’m talking one-on-one with people who are half-open to the idea, it’s difficult to help them get over that first hump. Blogging, Emacs, tracking, mindsets… There’s some kind of an activation threshold. People tell me that sometimes hearing from people like me or others about what it’s like helps them resolve to go for it, but that’s not the majority of the push. Anyway, once people get past that, I like swapping notes: not really as a teacher, but as a peer.

Mm. Trade-off, but I think I can deal with it. I can write as a way to bring out the people who resonate. I can skip doling out advice until much later (if at all). Questions from other people are good ways to prompt further reflection, and ongoing blog relationships with people who post their thoughts are even better. It might take time to build that, but it’ll probably be interesting!