Friday, 27 February 2009

Don't break the chain!

There is a story attributed to Seinfeld which describes his strategy for writing jokes.  Not very remarkable, one might think, but the point of it is that it's something you need to do little and often.  But such tasks are often the first ones to fall under the table if there's any pressure or lack of time.  Always something more important takes precedence, and a month later you've completely forgotten that you ever used to do this 'writing' thing.

Academic writing is similar.  Due to teaching and admin (and other research) commitments, you rarely have the luxury of a full day free to do nothing but write.  So doing it little and often is really the only way forward.  This then brings us back to the Seinfeld story: how can we make sure to fit the writing in, and not forget about it?

The trick is to introduce some secondary motivation, which is stronger than the motivation required for simply writing something.  In this case you get a big calendar, and every day you do your writing, you mark this on the calendar.  After a few days you start getting a 'chain' of marks on the calendar, and your mission is to keep the chain uninterrupted.  Now the issue is no longer to 'write something', but more like 'don't let the long chain break', and it becomes more and more important the longer the chain is.

You need a clearly defined goal, so that you can be sure when you've done your daily deed.  I set it to at least 200 words; in a week this would give me 1000 words, and roughly 50,000 words in a whole year.  Obviously I won't stop if I can write more than 200, but that is the minimum.  I need to think about how to deal with post-editing, when I basically cut out words, so that should probably be as a period of time, eg half an hour or so.

The next step is to tell everybody.  It's a lot harder to break the chain if people who bump into you on the corridor ask how many links you've got.  And it might give them ideas about trying it themselves!

I started on Monday, and managed to keep up the chain for the whole week (I only count weekdays, not the week-end).  In the process I have produced about 5000 words (not including any blog posts); now where did that time come from?  The answer is, I'm more focused on my work.  Those little periods 'between things' are suddenly no longer wasted, because I always have 'MUST WRITE' at the front of my thoughts.  Just because I don't want to have to tell anybody that I broke the chain.

Monday, 23 February 2009


My initial flurry of posts has abated a bit, and there are two main reasons:

1. I now try to post more regularly on my other blog, but writing posts there takes more time, as it's more research-based.  Basically it involves some programming, testing it out, describing the code, and so on.  Slower, but supposedly higher quality.  And somebody submitted my most recent posting to reddit, which nicely links us to

2. I discovered reddit, which is a bit like social bookmarking site (see delicious): people submit links, in different channels/categories.  You can comment on it, too.  And, here is the good bit, you can vote something up or down–instant peer review.  Of course, if you look at the programming channel and your peers are spotty teenagers who don't appreciate the intricacies of functional programming, you lose out.  Or if you look at politics and everybody else has a different view of the world than you do.  But it's also fun to read what other people think about a site, and you get to read some insightful websites (mainly blogs).

The upshot of this is that I've been doing a lot more reading in the past few days, and I even set up my own reddit channel, about a subject I'm interested in.  I already have 7 other people who subscribed to it...

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Other Blogs

I read some 60-odd blogs, but a lot of them are very low volume (and specialised). In Google Reader I have set up a folder structure to keep at least some order in the list. I'll briefly go through this, as some of the blogs might be interesting for others as well.

Computing is my biggest category. I try to follow current technological trends, and I'm always amazed by the things that one comes across as a side-effect.  Some of the tech bloggers are keen photographers, eg Tim Bray on his ongoing blog.  Elliotte Rusty Harrold (Cafe au Lait Java News and Resources) is an avid birdwatcher.  Tim lives in Vancouver, and often comments on life in Canada; apparently Vancouver is one of the three greatest places in the world, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro being the other two.  Not sure where Birmingham would come in that ranking.

Being a serial procrastinator, GTD & productivity comes a close second.  Instead of Getting Things Done it's easier just to read about it.  The top blogs (both in quality and in volume) are lifehack and lifehacker; a useful low-volume one is Academic Productivity.

For light relief there's humour, with the usual suspect Dilbert, and some other funny web comics, eg PHD Comics, and Basic Instructions.  By subscribing to them as an RSS feed (via I don't even have to go to the sites, and they just pop up in my reader every day.  Very convenient.  And efficient.

And then there's the news: nothing adventurous, only various feeds from the BBC news: Science, Technology, Education (you can select what kind of news you want to get delivered).  And the News from the THE.  What else do you need to know about the world?  Though there seems to be a rather larger overlap with Dilbert than one would have expected...

I would like to see more kinds of feeds, esp from newspapers.  A bit of a bore to still have to go out to different websites in the 21st C; that is really soooo out of date!  It's also a bit inconvenient that the BBC articles only show a one-sentence summary, so that you still have to click on it to read, whereas most other blogs supply the full text.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Multiple Blogs

The web makes it easy to have multiple personalities. I wonder if this has an impact on our mental state... But it's easy to have a set of multiple blogs, and it might even be preferable to having just one which then receives a mixed set of posts. Targeting different audiences might make blogs more 'popular' in the sense that you might be happy to listen to person X talking about some professional topic, but couldn't care less about their cat. So, have two blogs: one for professional stuff, one for personal ramblings.

I started this blog for the Web 2.0 course, and I intend to maintain it as the kind of general, informal L&T blog. It might only be interesting to colleagues or people who know me, just as I only follow some blogs because I know who the people are, and I wouldn't follow them if I didn't. About a year ago I started my first blog, which only had very sporadic posts, as I wanted to avoid being another of those people who just blog because they can, and who think they're so important that everybody in the world needs to know what they're doing. On the other blog I will now only post 'technical' stuff, so its target audience are people who might not know me, but are interested in the subject. This blog here will probably appeal more to people who know me, or are in a similar situation working in HE.

The great thing is, you can choose what to follow. A bit like the difference between going to a lecture and going to the SCR. Either you're predominantly interested in the people and what they do, or you want to hear about their work only.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

RSS or Email?

One possible use of news feeds is information dissemination within the university (or any other institution). At the moment a lot of emails are being sent out, many of which are not that relevant (though I think this has improved over the past few years). Such emails clog up your inbox, and might distract from really important mails that get lost in the deluge of information.

RSS feeds, on the other hand, can be split into different channels according to topics. If I want to get information about research seminars in computer science (I don't get this now, because I'm not affiliated to the department), I simply subscribe to that respective feed. However, I would probably opt out of some research seminars in my own department or school which I then don't have to hear about. By being more selective, I can reduce my exposure to irrelevant information, and save much time while still getting more relevant information than before: by choosing feeds that I'm not in the email-target audience for. A win-win situation.

So what's stopping us? Habit. Lack of knowledge of alternatives. So let's hope many people will go on courses to learn about RSS feeds etc. I don't know what I'd do without Google Reader!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Writing Papers?

(I already mentioned this in the comment of another blog, but I thought this is interesting enough to warrant a short comment here)

While perusing my daily blogs I came across an interesting article on writing academic papers.  Apparently computer science papers nowadays are simply formulaic repetitions of the same stuff several times, and could be a lot shorter, was it not for the tradition of publishing them on paper.

I am rather critical of the current academic publishing model: you do research, write it up, it gets reviewed, rejected, rewritten, then finally published, and then the publisher charges your university to access the paper you spent so much of your work time on.  Who benefits?  The publishers?  Definitely not the academics nor the universities who fund the whole circus.  There are of course incentives, RAE recognition etc, which somewhat introduces a market element to it.  But by the time a paper has been published it might well be out of date already.

My other bugbear is peer review.  It's a bit like Churchill's quote about democracy being the worst system of government except all others.  I don't believe it works, as it promotes conservative mainstream work which is uncontroversial (I'm overgeneralising here a bit) and doesn't threaten anybody's research areas.  Really groundbreaking new stuff usually gets rejected and published only in obscure minor journals.  However, I do accept that publishing everything is also not a feasible option.  I'm stuck for a better alternative.

But blogs replacing academic papers might be an option.  Especially if you can refer to them (in which case they'd need to be non-volatile/persistent), and perhaps rate them.  Or, google-style, blog entries with a lot of links to them get a higher ranking.  Which opens another can of worms, of course.  It might also be a chance for the great leveling tool The Web to work its magic, as everybody and their dog can publish stuff.  But obscure publications would probably not make it into the rankings if usually ignored.  And peer review has not saved us from that, either (see the MMR dispute for one thing).

Any suggestions for improvement welcomed!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Multiple Monitors

My MacBook supports two monitors (showing different things) via its external monitor socket. From my unused office PC I do have a spare screen, and have occasionally used it as a second monitor, but I didn't really think it was all that useful.

One reason for this is that Mac programs have a central menubar at the top of the screen, unlike Windows and other OSes which attach menubars to the respective application windows. It's somewhat of a pain to have to move the mouse to the main screen for a menu item, when your application is actually 30cm to the right.

However, my Heureka-moment came when I tried putting the external screen above my laptop. Now, instead of landscape I work in portrait mode. Much better, as I find it easier to glance up and down as opposed to sideways, especially if the monitors have slightly different resolutions. And the menubar? It's now in the middle of the workplace. Easy to reach from wherever I have the mouse, even though it's not supposed to be the optimum according to some law of UI, which suggests that the edge of the screen was best, as it is easiest to reach with the mouse–no overshooting possible!

I feel much more productive, and was supported in this feeling when watching Randy Pausch's lecture on time management (available for free on iTunesU): he advocated using three monitors (like he did), or at least two. Working on two screens is more like working at a desk, one screen is like the little fold-down table in a plane. And especially when doing stuff with the browser I find it useful, as the browser usually fills the whole screen, and leaves no space for other applications (such as text editors) to work with.

How many screens have you got?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Your personal fitness lecturer

I came across a reference to a book by Randy Pausch, an academic who before dying of cancer wrote a book called 'The Last Lecture', and I found an excerpt on the web ( which I thought was very interesting:

When looking at the 'business model' of Higher Education we shouldn't look at Retail. Students coming to us as customers, paying good money, and getting goods for it (a degree). Instead, it's the Athletic Club metaphor: Students come to University, and for a fee they get access to resources (library) and 'fitness trainers' (lecturers). They still have to put the hours in, lifting books, or nothing will happen. In order to get results, you'll have to work hard, not only depart from your (or your parents') hard earned cash.

This sounds to me a lot more plausible. No longer do I have to have a bad feeling to give a poor student a bad mark, as their tuition fees don't buy them the degree, they buy them the opportunities to study. Obviously I do feel bad because I should enable the student to get a good degree, but if they don't also work for it, it won't work.

Why University is different from School...

For a start, most schools in Birmingham were closed today because of a little bit of snow. Which creates quite a few problems if both parents are working, and the kids can't be dropped off at school. Nursery also closed early. More hassle.

University, on the other hand, goes on. Apparently Bham City University is closed tomorrow, pah! But quite impressively, attendance figures were high today, not more than about two students missing per seminar. Much better than expected. I hope that this was not only because my students are so committed and fit & healthy and keen (which they are), but also because my seminars have such a magnetic-like attraction that they cannot resist wading through the 2 inches of snow to get here.

Starting a new blog...

I believe a new blog is born every 5.3 seconds. Here is another one. The origin is in a course on using Web 2.0 for learning and teaching, and over the next few weeks I hope this will take shape.

There is so much out there in terms of technology, but I am skeptical whether much of it can usefully be applied in enhancing learning and teaching in Higher Education. This is a voyage of discovery, and I have no clue where it will end up.