Do as I say I'm going to do, not as I do

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 22/07/2013 - 11:56am in

The good news, I think, is that I have a cold, I think, and not some exotic lethargic illness, probably. The bad news is I'm still non-optimally organised.

I had known all along that there was one assignment due in week five and three in week six. I knew that I should therefore at least start the other three before completing the first. I had a colour-coded chart to tell me this, with arrows and everything. I don't even have to tell you that it's the end of week five, and I'm only just starting three assignments simultaneously, do I? This is where the weekly planner is supposed to support the session planner, and I have yet to sort that out. Urgent and important, I would say.

I've also just returned from a meeting with a web development client for whom I owe work. I have two major non-domestic extra-curricular obligations: this project and the one day a week volunteering at the Men's Resource Centre. Which of these is important? Both. Which is urgent? The web development project. I'm going to have to tell the Men's Resource Centre they can't count on me till the end of this session.

One of the many asinine aphorisms from the productivity course I did a few years ago was "You don't find time; you make it." Really? Out of what? (You can't get the wood, you know.) The key insight for me from the chapter from Covey (1996) on our reading list was that the above should be reframed as "You don't find time; you take time from something else." And this often means saying "no" to somebody. This may be painful, but not as painful as eventually disappointing absolutely everybody, yourself included.

Getting Organised, Part II

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/07/2013 - 3:57pm in

Tutor Mike has had a major win. I have talked about my suspicion of schedules, and the anxiety I feel when thinking about more than one task at once. Assignment 1 for Managing your Study, in fact for the course as a whole, was to put together a weekly planner and a session planner. And to do them both in Microsoft Word.

We'll take the last one first: Session planner. Useless, I thought. This is a single-session course. There are barely more than half a dozen deadlines or exams, and they're all listed in the Unit Information Guides and a good few other places besides. Who needs this?

Still, concluding that the main purpose of the assignment was just to do the assignment, I duly marked in my deadlines on a table, colour-coded them, and put in some big arrows for good measure. The result is kind of a Gantt chart rotated 90° clockwise, with the vertical axis denoting time, the units of study along the horizontal.

Then I found that having done this, whenever I wanted to recall which assignments were due when, I went for the PDF I'd made of this Word document before any other source of the same information. Last weekend I thought hang it all, I'll print it out and carry it with me. Education: 1; Matthew still to score.

The weekly planner is a bit more problematic. I already have a perfectly fine calendar, which I've adjusted to spit out a plain text file of the next week's worth of commitments. I print this out on Monday morning, fold it up and put it in my pocket, using the reverse side for task-related notes over the course ofthe week, like a proper GTD hipster.

But the point of the weekly planner is not just to put in your fixed, non-negotiable commitments (classes, appointments, etc.), but also to fill every other hour of the day with negotiable commitments, even if it's just "cuddle cats". If it's important to you, it should be on there somewhere.

Initially I rebelled against this too, thinking it a ludicrous degree of obsessive over-planning, but then I appplied an IT analogy. The negotiable commitments are just default values. If I sit down to study unit EDU10446, and realise that my next assignment for EDU10445 is soon due, I can bump the one in favour of the other, in the expectation that it will all even out in the end (more or less). Having a default activity for any given time just means you don't spend half an hour deciding what to do before realising you don't have time to do it any more and you should have started half an hour ago.

In Covey-speak, about which I shall say more later, you are scheduling for Quandrant II (non-urgent, important), while allowing for Quadrant I (urgent, important) activities (Covey, 2006).

So whither Just One Thing™? Well, it turns out that Just One Thing™ is granular. It applies to hours as well as days. When you sit down (or get up) to do one of your scheduled activities, what exactly do you choose to do? Doesn't matter; just do one thing, and then you're off the hook. If it's study, just open a book for the relevant topic and read a chapter. Likely you'll find something in there that you can use in an essay, or reminds you of the next thing you can do, and you're away. Or not, in which case make yourself a sandwich and feel good about having done one thing instead of nothing.

Now there is no way on Earth I am going to manually compile a colour-coded weekly planner in Microsoft Word (or even a freedom-respecting equivalent), every week for the next three and a half years. I am going to have to build something in Drupal, to pull in my appointments from my existing personal calendar, and allocate the free space around them. I shall shedule this task in my weekly planner retrospectively, once it is complete.

A Glitch

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 4:17pm in

I crashed yesterday. It's the second time I've crashed in five weeks at Uni.

The first time was on my day without classses in the first week. I'd done four days straight of cycling, and just couldn't get up the next day for volunteering at the Mens' Recource Centre. They are always very careful to emphasise how valued a part of the team I am there, but I'm under no illusions that I'm an indispensible part of the team, so no big deal. I put it all down to going a bit too hard a bit too soon on the bike.

Yesterday I had no such excuse. I haven't been on the bike in weeks. Barely even gone for a walk further than the Bowling Club. The night before, my friend Paul called as I was winding down for bed. We talked for a bit too long, then I had to wind down all over again, and probably had a glass or two more wine-based product than I otherwise would have. However I had the requisite number of hours sleep, and had not had enough to drink to be hungover, so - cursing Paul mildly for my sleepiness but not thinking anything more of it - I drove off to class. I was more tired than I was comfortable being behind the wheel, but confident that a bit off caffeine would soon put things right. I was wrong about that.

Ever feel so tired that you feel sick? Again, I stress not hungover; I know what that condition feels like and have become expert at titrating my alcohol dosage to avoid it. My body was just refusing to work, and was begging for a nice lie down on the floor, and was prepared to make me vomit if necessary to get it. I managed to make it to the end of my last class for the day, and abandoned any plans  for further study in favour of the perilous drive home. There should be a breath test for exhaustion.

I am worried that I may have found how much exertion my 42-year-old body can take, and that it's really not very much at all.

Okay. Take stock. Yes, I know regular consumption of not quite enough alcohol to cause a hangover is bad in the long term. And yes, I have been working from home and not exercising for a decade.

But on the other hand, what I have been asking of my body (after that first week at least), isn't any more demanding than the average clerical job. I've known more than enough fat, florid, middle-aged, middle-rung executives who weren't in the habit of passing out mid-meeting to know that I should be able to cope with this.

I suppose all I can do is keep an eye on the situation and mention it to my GP. Make an appointment ahead of schedule if it happens again.

I could stop drinking althogether. Ah, now that's the spirit! Nothing like a bit of absurd levity to lighten the mood. Cheers! [*slurp*]

Getting Organised

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 3:29pm in

We were warned during O' Week that most students find university study much less structured than what we were used to. I suppose I'm one of the exceptions to that rule. My expectation, borne out by experience so far at least, was that scheduled classes and set deadlines would be a blessed relief from the degree of self management required in self-employment. It even compares favourably to the constant stress and uncertaintainty of unemployment.

That said, I know that keeping on top of things will be a challenge. Fundamentally, I would prefer to live day to day directed by whim. I've lived like that in the past and found it quite satisfying. However this isn't now a viable modus vivendi (Like that? Latin, that is. Dead posh.) for a number of reasons:

  • I'm partially responsible for the welfare of a spouse and three cats. I can't go off on a whim in case the latter decide to gang up on the former. It's bad enough being only outnumbered three to two.
  • I'm dead broke. Whims typically cost money.
  • Building up a good whim requires a certain degree of stimulous from the environment, and I live in Coffs Harbour, possibly the least stimulating environment in the country, outside of Canberra.
  • I wouldn't mind actually achieving something useful before I kick the bucket.

As noted last week (ahem), I had little reason to worry about being efficiently productive during school, and much of my past employment history has been in undemanding dirty-white-collar jobs. I've been sent on more than my share of courses which promised huge productivity gains from nothing more than a humourous video featuring John Cleese paying his alimony, a Powerpoint presentation, a trust exercise or two, bad orange juice, bad coffee, and platters of little sandwich triangles.

I even regrettably paid a substantial amount of money for a course in Coffs which shall remain nameless involving acronyms, slogans, inspirational aphorisms, bewildering exercises disturbingly reminiscent of the time I thought it would be a jolly lark to take a Scientology personality test, and endless CDs of an American man with a smile in his voice congratulating me on how well I was doing, the remarkable improvement in my productivity, and observing what a great idea it would be to do another course. It was a cult, not an educational, or even a training, course.

There's only on personal productivity strategy that has ever worked for me, and - for not quite the first time - I shall let the Internet in on the secret: It's called Just One Thing™.

My first problem in trying (and gradually failing) to run a business was actually doing work. No matter how trivial the project I was embarking upon was in reality, when I sat down in front of the computer in the morning it seemed overwhelming. Too often, the temptation was to say "Oh, well. Because of [insert excuse here], there's not much point in trying to get anything done today. Tomorrow will be different." And of course it never was. Part of the problem was that all the advice I'd received to date encouraged practices like slicing up your day into ten minute intervals and scheduling what you plan to achieve in each. This is totally inappropriate for a job which is mostly creative problem solving, where each problem is likely to be quite unlike any one you've solved before, and getting your head around what you're planning to do takes half an hour by itself. What you end up doing is planning to achieve far more than you ever could in a day, and ending the day inevitably berating yourself for abject failure, even if you've achieved quite a lot.

Eventually it dawned on me that the alternative to inevitable failure (or not trying), was to lower the bar for success. Start the day by saying "I don't have to work miracles. I merely have to do Just One Thing™." At minimum what you'll have done is one thing, which is preferable to going back to bed, curling into the foetal position and gently sobbing for a day. What is more likely, at least if you are a nerd, is that Just One Thing™ will lead to the next thing, and the next, and before you know it you'll have your nose stuck in the tram line and be well on your way to the terminal.

So Just One Thing™ is a form of self-deception, but it works for me. Well, I should qualify that by saying that it's improved things over the past few years. Will it be enough to get me through a minimum three and a half years of study? Almost certainly not.

Friday, 12 July 2013 - 5:09pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 12/07/2013 - 5:09pm

In the time we've lived in Sawtell, we've only visited the Chinese restaurant at the top of the hill once, and my dear lady wife was so unimpressed that we haven't been back. Personally I can't recall having any strong feelings about the meal at all, which suggests it was fine but not spectacular. I've heard other people rave about this restaurant. Though as I say I can't remember, I would hazard a guess that the food would have to be more authentically Chinese than Nelson's cheerfully anglicised fare at the Sawtell Bowling Club. Which made me think that perhaps this is why my beloved was so unimpressed.

Perhaps there's a cuisine authenticity uncanny valley.

Perhaps my other half (whose best friend in high school was from Chinese-born restaurant-owning parents, and who therefore had ample opportunity to acquaint herself with the real thing from an early age) can accept shopping mall food court sweet and sour pork in the spirit in which it is intended, but finds something that falls just shy of authentic just a little ick.

I'm that way with doner kebabs. I have no idea whether it's authentic or not, but my gold standard for kebabs is Western Sydney. Perhaps it's just authentic Western Sydney.

I'm as happy as anybody, especially after consuming a few refreshing beverages, to have a few slivers of lukewarm mechanically-retrieved animal product with some squishy wet tomato slices, sweaty yellowing lettuce, and a generous squirt of Master Foods™ chilli sauce, wrapped in supermarket-grade lebanese bread, and pressed in a big jaffle iron until the bits that should be soft are crunchy and vice versa. But that is a whole different species of food experience to the crackling, glistening hunks of tender lamb, sliced from a blazing rotisserie with well-practiced ease, dropped still sizzling into fresh-baked bread, with lashings of tabouli and hummous, and a drizzle of garlic yoghurt sauce home-made that morning.

There is no shredded canary-yellow cheddar cheese to be found here. Ask for barbecue sauce and the proprietor would probably grab you by the lapels, haul you over the counter, out the back, and into a garbage skip. Quite rightly.

Needless to say, there is nothing like this to be had in Coffs Harbour. So the best kebab joints in town are if anything more disappointing than the worst. Just a little more appreciation of the sanctity of their craft would make all the difference. I really want to suggest to the staff that they have a work's outing to Auburn, but I'm too much of a coward. Emotions run high when it comes to food.

My Brilliant Educational History

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 1:25pm in

One of my tutors for this session asked us this week to reflect on how in school we were almost certainly berated by our teachers for being stupid. I can't recall that ever happening to me, although I can recall being berated for being smart.

My parents were (and are) very much children of the 50s, and terms like "validation", "self-esteem", and so on were foreign to them, as indeed they were to me until quite recently. Consequently, expressions of parental approval were mainly confined to reacting to displays of cleverness on my part. (If you know me, this will explain a lot.) So initially, I seized on school as just another opportunity to impress authority figures with how bright I was, and bask in their approval.

At about the age of ten, this congenial arrangement started to fall apart for a number of reasons. For the first time, I had a teacher (whose name mercifully escapes me) who, even to a ten year old, was clearly a buffoon. Also the satisfaction to be had from correctly completing pointless exercises was starting to wane. Although I am a remarkably vain person, being congratulated by an idiot for a wholly worthless achievement just isn't terribly motivating.

So I stopped bothering. No homework was done, save for the concoction of elaborate excuses as to why homework wasn't done. Precious little work was done in class. I became a master daydreamer. The odd thing was that this had absolutely zero effect on my academic performance. In first grade, at the age of six, I was placed in the top class, and I remained in the top class throughout primary school and high school, with one single brief blip.

If I recall correctly, it was in year nine that my reluctance to complete work became such a scandal that for one subject - chemistry - I was put down into the second highest class.

"What are you doing here, Davo?" boomed Mr. Riley as he entered class on the first day, "You don't belong here!"

Even with the self-obsessed gormlessness of a teenaged male, I knew that he was scolding me for the laziness which he held to be the sole reason I was not in the top class. However it didn't occur to me until recently that he was also sending a message to the rest of the class: "Look at this guy; he doesn't even bother to do any work and still he's better than you." No wonder I was such a popular target for playground beatings. I was put back in the top class for Chemistry the following term, after no particular show of effort on my part.

What struck me most (aside from the beatings) was the difference in the quality of education given to the top class versus the one below. There was no expectation that the kids one rung down could (or perhaps should) perform at the same level as their more privileged peers. With rare exception, no amount of disengagement could drop you from the top class, and conversely no amount of work could elevate you into it. Grading children in this way was clearly not a measure of performance, or even aptitude; it was simply a way of allocating educational resources to produce a batch of children 20% of whom were ready for higher education and/or managerial jobs, and 80% of whom were content (or at least resigned) to be manual labourers or factory fodder. I don't imagine things have changed much since the 1980s. Not for the better, anyway.

Throughout school, I was always assured that if I just kept my head down and did as I was told, the next stage would be more rewarding. Sure primary school was all rote learning and busy work, but at high school I'd be in my element. Then okay, junior high school isn't so great, but senior high school is an altogether different kettle of fish. Then, just wait till you get to university!

By the end of it I no longer entertained any thought of going to university. What's the point if I can't join Footlights and hang out with Peter Cook and the Pythons and Douglas Adams? It's the 1980s, for heaven's sake; even the best universities in Australia are little more than fancy vocational training colleges, anyway.

Later I realised that some of my peers who were hardly any less cynical than myself had done something rather clever. They'd actually learnt some of the things I'd haughtily dismissed. They'd learnt the maths and chemistry that were rapidly becoming irritating gaps in my knowledge. They'd acquired the second language that I'd started to wish I had. They knew the system wasn't what it pretended to be, but had seized something valuable from it regardless.

Twenty-five years later, I'm starting to feel that I may be approaching the level of maturity of those children. I may be, as m'colleague rightly says, on the shittiest campus of the shittiest university in the country (or near enough to it), but I'm going to see what I can do with it. To quote Douglas Adams, "It's either that or back to the dole queue on Monday".

Thursday, 4 July 2013 - 6:21pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 04/07/2013 - 6:21pm

What? The NBN has only one button, albeit a jolly big red one? Do we all get a go on it?

"Local households are signing up at world leading rates"? No wonder it's falling behind schedule; the NBN was only supposed to cover Australia. When did we start extending it to the rest of the world? That's the worst case of scope creep I've ever seen in an IT project.

Still, I can feel my game changing already, as the economic benefits flow almost as inevitably as the high definition hardcore pornography. Although I do hear a lot of people around Coffs Harbour are demanding their money back. Apparently their fax machines are no faster at all.

A Modest Macroeconomic Proposal

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 17/06/2013 - 8:57pm

No country likes to have a trade deficit. In fact every country would like to have a trade surplus. The problem is you can't have even one country in surplus without one or more other countries being in deficit to the value of that surplus. The answer?

Colonise Mars!

Every country on Earth could sell stuff to Mars, and provided we don't make the mistake of buying anything off the Martians in return, every country on Earth could be running a trade surplus. Obviously it can't be trade in tangible items because of the prohibitive shipping cost, so it would be mostly copyright and patent licences, permission to show various registered trademarks in motion pictures, et cetera.

Now one presumptive flaw in this plan presents itself: If the Martians aren't selling anything, how can they afford to buy anything? Answer: We lend them the money! So now every country on Earth is also in monetary surplus!

Don't we then have to get that money back eventually? Good question. You would think so, wouldn't you? Unfortunately those unproductive, profligate Martians (I blame the climate; it makes one sluggish) have blundered into a credit crisis. What fools we were to have ever trusted them with our money! Clearly they have been frittering it away on wasteful social programs, public holidays, excessively long toilet breaks, and so on, while every nation on Earth has been making the tough choices that sound economics demands.

The only solution to this is to impose conditions on the Martians that will make it possible for them, in time, to repay the debt: slash social spending, smaller workforces, longer hours, timed locks on lavatory doors… These are the sorts of measures necessary to restore confidence in the Martian economy, and convince investors on Earth to lend them more money, so we can keep this racket going.

Hold on, I hear you cry, won't this impose terrible suffering on blameless human beings, for no reason other than the perpetuation of a wholly misguided and irrational accounting fraud?

Obviously under the conditions of this plan we can't send any actual human beings to Mars. The Martians would only exist on paper. What kind of sadist do you take me for?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013 - 11:33am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 11/06/2013 - 11:33am

I'm getting drawn into arguments on Hugh Saddleton's blog. This way madness lies:

“Is it that the NBN should be cancelled [...]?”

Too late for that. Most likely we will have to complement it with municipal mesh WiFi to make up for it’s deliberate deficiencies. I’m sure Paul can help there.

“[...] how could we run our own email servers, web servers etc, and who’s going to pay for it?”

We’d run our own servers the same way we run our own cars. Don’t know about you, but I know how to fill up the petrol tank, the tires, and the thing that squirts water on the windscreen, and that’s the extent of my automotive expertise. As computer systems and network services become more integrated with our daily lives, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have as many system administrators, programmers, etc. in Coffs Harbour as we have auto mechanics. How much better for the local economy to meet those needs here, instead of sending money out of the LGA, and usually out of the country?

For under $100, and rapidly falling, you can get little (around 10cm x 10cm) computers that plug into your wall socket, and consume negligible amounts of power. They do ethernet, WiFi, etc, and have specs comparable to mid-range commercial hosting plans for web, email, etc. services. So that’s a one-off $100 for hardware resources instead of hundreds of dollars per year at a commercial hosting service in the US (generally much more in Australia), and all the software required is available free (as in freedom, and as in cost).

“Will we need fibre broadband to do this?”

As I said, routing all traffic through a small number of Points Of Interconnect is a significant inefficiency, but the big problem is that even the NBN plans from ISPs are still throttling upstream traffic (data from you to the outside world) to a fraction of the speed of downstream traffic (data from Facebook, YouTube, et. al. to you). This seems harmless if you assume that our place on the Internet is that of passive consumers of services delivered by a handful of multinational corporations. It also allows ISPs to do market segmentation; delivering “enterprise” upstream speeds at a ridiculous premium over their real value.

You may be able to get away with running a web and email server for a small business on one of the pricier plans for plebs, but voice or video are out of the question. You can readily understand why Telstra and Optus would not want us running our own phone services. Also, since email and web hosting (not to mention landline and mobile phone services) are often part of telco-ISP “bundles” (or “horizontal integration” as a regulator might put it), you can also see why they wouldn’t want those services becoming cottage industries or DIY.

“Matthew, as you are someone who hosts websites”

Actually, I don’t. My hosting provider is in the US, where bandwidth is cheap and plentiful. Which is my point. It’s ludicrous and totally unnecessary for organisations in Coffs Harbour to communicate with their clients (mostly in Coffs Harbour) via a server farm on the other side of the world.

“[...] and makes his living from the internet”

I have never made anything anybody could reasonably call “a living” from the Internet. I live in Coffs Harbour, where work isn’t valued unless it’s done in a flouro vest and safety shoes.

“When the internet goes down, as it does from time to time, who would I call?”

With a redundant packet-switching network (as the Internet, but not the NBN, is designed to be), there is no single point of failure to go down. Say there’s only one cable between Sawtell and Coffs and someone slices through it with a backhoe. The network can see that that link is down and route traffic through Kempsey, Armidale, Glen Innes, Grafton, and thence Coffs until the shorter route is repaired. Unless the cable that’s cut, or the router that’s blown, is the one between you and the kerb, there’s always another route; unlike the NBN, where there’s effectively one line between you and the nearest junction box, one line between that and the next junction box upstream, and so on to the Point Of Interconnect to the real Internet.

My NBN Rant: Short Version

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 08/06/2013 - 2:34pm

(You don't want to hear the long version.)

On practically every issue that matter, there is no "other side" in mainstream politics. The NBN has been designed by economists for the benefit of Telcos, with the objective of preserving the current broken status quo of Internet connectivity. The debate over "fibre to the home" conceals the fact that neither party has any intention of delivering "Internet to the home".

Communication between two people in Coffs Harbour will still be routed via Sydney and/or Brisbane, because that's where the Telcos' tollgates (Points Of Interconnect, in the NBN jargon) are situated. If we had street-level routing, as we would if the NBN adopted the obvious solution of providing a packet-switching Internet Protocol network, where would the Telcos put their tollgates? For that matter what useful purpose would the Telcos serve? Wouldn't they be redundant if the network in my street was the same as the network anywhere else in the world and there was no "out there" out there to pay a premium for access to? How much waste could we get rid of if we could run our own email servers, web servers, Voice over IP, social networking, etc. from the computers sitting on our desks?

The NBN is not designed to extend the Internet to where we live and work, it is designed to allow (the eventually privatised) NBN Co to sell the Telcos access to us. (As a side-benefit, it provides a one-stop-shop for censorship and spying as well.)

Neither party disagrees with this objective; they have a minor tactical disagreement on the means of reaching it.