Weekly Head Voices #80: There can be only one.

Week 31 of 2014, which was otherwise pretty uneventful except for bunches of hard work, ended with a trip up to the West Coast to go see the flowers.

YES PEOPLE SPRING IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER!

I made you a photo of this ominous looking Portal To Soooooomething:

These look like the gates to some far-off fantasy plane. Instead, it’s the Geelbek Restaurant in the West Coast National Park, which does serve mysteriously delicious chocolate cake.

Just so you don’t think it was overcast and non-Springy everywhere, I can assure you that those funny clouds were only over the respawning portal. Everywhere else it looked like this 360 degree photosphere I made for you (hey, we live in the future, I can show you 360 degree pannable photos; go on, pan and zoom with your mouse, or just wave your hands if you have your VR helmet on):

(I made the photosphere at the Grootvlei Guest Farm – On the Dunes House.)

Because clever people told me so, or more probably because I misunderstood them, I thought that I needed to do my Big Thinking Tasks (BTIs, for example trying to get the architecture of a new system down) in the morning. However, by the time afternoon came around, I would be too tired to take care of the MITs (Most Irritating Tasks, usually admin), and hence would postpone them till the day after, when they would just get postponed again, ad infinitum.

I recently started taking care of a few MITs first thing in the morning. This way, I actually get them done, and the BTIs still (mostly) fit.

Just to clarify things, MITs are also used by zenhabits, except there they call them Most Important Tasks. Whoops. For the sake of exposition, and to make everything more muddy, let’s call them zMITs, and my MITs iMITs (“i” is for irritating, as in iPhone, iPad, and so forth). In any case, zMITs are also to be done first thing in the morning, and at least one of the zMITs should advance your goals, let’s call it the zOMG.

Putting all of this together, I should probably start off my day by taking care of my zOMG, then a few iMITs, some zMITs and then finally the BTIs. YEAH!

I’m going through a little reading revival. After finishing Remote last week, I’m time-slicing between the following books at the moment:

  • PostgreSQL: Up and Running – I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there is just so much wow in Postgres. I’m currently using the text analysis functionality, and noticing that my SQL needs some advancing, hence the book.
  • A Tour of C++ by Bjarne Stroustroup – Everybody’s talking about C++11 and C++14. I was curious about the newer features, and Dr Stroustroup seems to know his way around the language. (In my hobby projects, C++ and Lua are playing an increasingly important role.)
  • Programming in Scala – I don’t have serious plans with this at the moment, but felt I needed to be sufficiently informed to have vigorous arguments about its utility.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – fascinating book about how the human brain functions in two parts: fast, efficient and intuitive, vs. slow, energy-heavy and rational.
  • The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini – another fascinating book about how exactly humans influence each other.

I’m all out of fiction at the moment. If you have recommendations of so-called Hard SF and/or Space Opera, I’m all ears!

Talking about Science Fiction, I ran into this marvellous clip showcasing the awesome products of Clinical Graphics:

Damnit I’m so proud of Dr Krekel and his team!

Weekly Head Voices #69: No sugar added.

This time, the head voices are echoing the span of time ending strictly on Sunday, April 27 at 23:59.

I have to break my rule and reach through past the start of that week however. On Wednesday April 16 I had quite a heavy sugar crash. After about 12 cups of coffee, each with a spoon of sugar (as per usual), some chocolates from the Stone Three sweetie jar during lunch ,and two giant coconut crunches at about TU Delft sugar fix time (yes children, I do my best to commemorate the sugar fix, even at 11000 km distance from you), my energy levels dropped through the floor and no amount of coffee could get them close to normal again.

That’s when I decided to stop taking sugar.

On Thursday April 17 I went cold turkey. I’m not taking any table sugar at all, no cookies or sweets (ARGH), and I’m even steering clear of breakfast cereals. Pretty boring, I know. After more than a week of completely unscientific N=1 case “study” experience, I can report that:

  • It took some getting used to my coffee without any sugar.
  • NO MORE  COOKIES. ARGH ARGH ARGH. COME CLOSER SO I CAN BITE YOU.
  • My perceived energy levels seem significantly more stable, and I remain all energetic until late at night. Sometimes I don’t sleep, because I run around in the neighbourhood making growling noises. Sometimes I wake up, miles away from home, with all kinds of gunk under my finger nails. Oh well.

On the topic of quitting, let’s talk about all of those lists we love so much. You should really go read Noeska’s presentation on Productivity, Project Management and Other Important Stuff in her latest status update blog post. Besides all of the Getting Things Done and Pull Yourself Together tools and systems she presents, I was happy to see her talk about the dangers of productivity tools on slide 23, and especially the “doing the right things vs doing things right” dilemma.

You see, I’ve been thinking much about this lately. Usually when I’m doing the most valuable and important things (designing and building new products, learning new programming languages, coming up with brand new ideas for artefacts to build) my email inbox starts overflowing and my todo system (currently todoist, which I do like) stagnates (my todoist karma is currently ZERO. I’m at KARMA ZERO damnit!!). Conversely, when I’m almost at inbox zero and my todoist is under control, it feels great, but I’m tired because I’ve spent all of that time taking care of a bunch of emails and mostly urgent but almost no important tasks.

Some people I’ve chatted with are hardcore enough to make the classification between important and urgent in their lists. However, when I see that list of tasks, my OCDs take over and I go into 100% reactive mode. NO ROOM FOR CREATIVITY.

I’m still thinking about how to solve this problem. I do think that the lists and the systems are really important, because some things do really need doing at certain points in time. For now, I’m still picking the three (or two, or one) most important things to do per day (see Noeska’s presentation, also see pro tip #2 in this 2011 post of mine). Also, what does work remarkably well for me, is maintaining a daily “done” or “I did it” list. Go read this, you can thank me later.

After all of that, the weekend took us to Vaalvlei, a picturesque wine farm just outside of Stanford:

Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.
Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.

Here we were treated to a super-exclusive wine tasting of the Vaalvlei Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Shiraz Reserve, 2011 Shiraz, Shiraz port, and the top TOP secret Shiraz cognac right from the cask (don’t tell anyone, ok?):

Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting
Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting

I can report that these hand-crafted wines and the cognac were all beautiful, but I trust that my friend De Wijnrecensent (aka the Tall Philisophical Neighbour! all secrets are revealed on this blog.) will have more to say about this in a few months time.

Enjoy the rest of the week kids!

On the importance of taking notes. [Weekly Head Voices #38]

Post summary: Part one is about friends graduating from Evil School, part two is rather short mentioning vague bits of good news and part three is 100% time management and productivity boosting goodness! Feel free to skip, skim or reorder!

One

On Thursday, February 10, 2011, my dear friend Mister Krekel graduated from Evil School after years of hard work and evil-doing, and will henceforth go through life as the formidable Doctor Krekel. Please do watch out.

Evil School. (Photo by the talented fpixel.wordpress.com.)

The joyous transition took place in the Evil School’s Academiegebouw in Leiden, and this time yours truly (I’m referring to me in a round-about fashion) even had the great honour of playing a part in the formal proceedings. If you’re curious as to what exactly this ritual constitutes, see this previous edition of the WHV on the graduation of another terribly evil colleague. I believe that the bunch of us now constitute a bona fide Axis of Evil. No, the evil jokes can unfortunately not stop yet.

The Party was held in a secret cafe nearby. You will notice that I’ve capitalised Party, as it was not your average run of the mill Evil School graduation affair, but a social event of note. Here in Holland, the PhD defence and graduation are a combined affair, and so the whole day is dedicated to just one person. It is actually very special: People take time off from work, sometimes even temporarily put aside their differences, and travel from all over to attend the festivities. It’s like a wedding, except that there’s only one of you. I can only recommend it very highly. At the Party, everyone had clearly read the memo, and they were there with that singular goal in mind: Celebrate the freshly minted Evil Doctor. Presents were given, speeches were held, photos were shown, beer was imbibed and, flying in the face of all advice concerning the mixing of alcohol, cameras and social networking, the best evil photographer in town, who’s coincidentally also in Evil School, took the most amazing photos that you should be able to see on Facebook if you’re one of the privileged few to belong to The Network, also known as The Friends of the Axis of Evil.

Two

On the good news front, you’ll see (or not) on the list of EuroVis 2011 conditional accepts, that a paper by cool colleagues from far away, to which I contributed a small part, has been conditionally accepted, and hence has a significant chance of being presented at said event in Bergen, Norway (May 31 to June 3). We also have plans to submit a poster (or two), so there’s an even more significant chance that I will make an appearance at this fantastic conference! We’re also cooking up various odds and ends that will hopefully crystallise sufficiently by the end of March to be submissible for VisWeek 2011. Cross yer fingers.

Three

Today’s backyard time management section is in fact more about planning than it is about notes. However, my Pro-Tips involve combining them in an easy to implement productivity booster. When people start out in research, one of the first bits of advice they get is keeping some kind of lab journal. I think this advice applies to more than just research: If you do any kind of independent or project work, jotting down your activities, thoughts and results during the day is useful in helping to structure your thought processes, and also very helpful when you have to backtrack a complex multi-day procedure. During my Ph.D., I filled a number of real cardboard-and-paper books with notes. More recently, I’ve started using Google Documents for the same purpose. Besides all the other advantages, having to document explicitly your work output keeps you productive and on your toes.

Pro Tip #1: Keep a lab journal, even if you don’t work in a lab.

I’ve mentioned before that my resolutions for 2011 included more concrete planning. This has manifested in a work-in-progress planning for the whole year, including milestones, awards won, and so forth, but much more practically, it has manifested in a little lab-journal-compatible trick. Every morning when I sit down to begin the day, I spend a few minutes thinking and then start the day’s journal entry by writing down, as concretely as possible, the tasks that I plan to complete by the end of the day. This also ensures that I spend effort on the important things, and not only on the urgent things. So, that brings us to:

Pro Tip #2: At the start of each day, write down in your lab journal exactly and concretely what you plan to accomplish by the end of that day.

These pro tips appear to be quite straight-forward, but together they help one to focus, and to keep tabs on one’s effective productivity. In other words, just being terribly busy the whole day gets you nothing; the trick is being terribly busy in all the right directions.

P.S.

Somebody is clearly pushing the boundaries of awesomeness… cowboys AND aliens!

Time does wait for electronic true love [Weekly Head Voices #30]

I probably shouldn’t be spending deadline-chasing time writing this post, but I can’t not, you know? I do have some Sunday pomodoros behind me, so the FNSF (and other involved parties) will probably not mind too much. Also, to shave off a few more seconds, I’ll temporarily switch to the Swimgeek Quick Update-style bullet list.

Before the first bullet however, you really have to see the DTV Shredder in action, the vehicle I’ve decided to equip my evil footsoldiers with, right after I manage to purchase a suitable volcanic island and install my evil lair:

(found via engadget.)

Here come the bullets:

  • Due to the completion of the TI 1100-a project by the end of the previous week, I was expecting this week to be of the more relaxed persuasion. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that a number of deadlines were simply in stealth mode, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Colour me surprised.
  • The extremely resourceful  / capable individual (ERCI) mentioned in WHV #3 and #9 completed his M.Sc. under the entertaining supervision of the FSNF and myself, defended his thesis (title: Integrated Visual Analysis for Heterogeneous Datasets in Cohort Studies — Application to Neuropsychiatric SLE) this past week, and managed to acquire his whole degree Cum Laude. Congratulations Ir. ERCI, we hope to see much more of you during the coming years *wink wink*!
  • It turns out that combining a Goretex raincoat, a Senz aerodynamic storm-proof umbrella (truly awesome tech, designed by a TU Delft spinoff) and a set of RainLegs (you look like the missing fifth member of the Village People, but your legs remain dry) results in a pretty effective counter-measure against the soul-demolishing Dutch Autumn rain, if one is able to live with wet feet. A Facebook friend with some serious tropical storm experience also recommended a pair of those big Timberland boots, a suggestion that for some or other reason resonated with me, and not only because it would solve my wet feet problem. He meant these really pretty yellow boots with the macho-looking soles:
These are the Timberland boots you were looking for.
  • On Thursday, my Kindle DX Graphite was delivered by the friendly UPS dude. It was love at first sight (with the Kindle and not the UPS dude), and since then my feelings have only deepened. You see, the Kindle DX embodies the fusion of two of my greatest fetishes: Reading and high-tech gadgets. Ostensibly I bought it to try paperlessify my academic review work (papers, student theses, proposals, all printed out numerous times and finally thrown out for recycling) and as soon as firmware 3.0 has been released for the KDX Graphite and I get some time I’ll write a critical blog post concerning its performance in this role, but for now I’m just euphoric with the thing as general reading platform. Calibre, once you get used to its idiosyncrasies, is fantastic as a cross-platform library manager.
  • Specific events of the past week, as well as interesting conversations with the FSNF and others, have again pointed out that terminal over-booking might be necessarily associated with a post-Ph.D. academic career. During your Ph.D., you have the exquisite luxury of focusing on one (perhaps three) important things for extended periods of time. Thereafter, right after the defence-afterglow has subsided, if you decide to stay in academia, your calendar and task-manager explode in a messy deluge of meetings, administration and forced work during the evenings and weekends, because this is the only way to get more than half of your stuff done. I have it from trustworthy sources that this only gets worse the further along you get in your career. As I’ve invested heavily in optimising my own time utilisation and efficiency, and now have a strategy that, although there’s significant room for improvement, doesn’t work too badly, I’m planning to put together The Great Academic Time Management Post. If you already disagree with this or with what you think the contents of the post might turn out to be, please vent in the comments!

That’s it for this episode. My big red pomodoro timer is looking at me in a decidedly unfriendly way… The rest of you have a great week!