Making my own “net for catching days”

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern. — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I haven’t actually read The Writing Life before. I found this quotation (and many others from the same book) in a Brain Pickings post from 2013. Maria Popova, the brain behind Brain Pickings, has her own quote-worthy moment when she describes The Writing Life as being about, partly, “the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not.”

I struggle between those two poles regularly. “Struggle” is probably inadequate. I feel like a humanoid pinball ricocheting between them! On the one hand, I get things done pretty efficiently at work and at school; I don’t like procrastinating, and I prefer regular routines (I even go so far as meal-planning). On the other hand, no one has mastered the art of the slothful day like I have, and I often feel like certain private hobbies of mine — ahem, harp-playing at the moment — fall by the wayside as soon as something else comes up.

I try not to feel much guilt about any of that, but it would be nice to “catch my days” and “defend them from chaos and whim”! (Being a nerd, I immediately imagine a stalwart schedule errant waving a tiny sword in the face of all chaos and whim.)

So for this week’s blog, I’m taking a page from Dillard’s book (and Popova’s blog). I decided to try out the weekly schedule template that we recommend in-house:

My weekly schedule
My weekly schedule. Take that, chaos and whim!

Slick, huh?

Want one of your own?

The steps to make one of these are pretty easy:

  1. Include all your fixed commitments. For me, that includes work, class, and taking Millie out for herculean amounts of exercise (at least for me). The schedule’s earliest block starts at 8:30am, but I get up at around 7:20am to take Millie out for thirty minutes and get ready for work.
  2. Include health activities. Millie takes care of all my cardio, but I’ve recently re-discovered rock climbing so I’ve started going there on some evenings. I also love to cook so I give myself lots of time for that — but since I just cook for myself, I also end up with lots of leftovers, so major cooking nights only happen every other night or so. I also generally like going to bed at around 10:30pm on most nights. (Millie just goes out for a quick bathroom break before bed so I didn’t bother putting that in the schedule.)
  3. Include all regular homework hours. I have about one assignment in my class every two weeks, pretty short readings, and I committed to writing review notes every weekend.
  4. Include all flex commitments and down time! I scheduled in my weekly meal planning and grocery-shopping, but apart from that, I just left a lot of empty space to schedule as I see fit. Things like laundry, friends, Skype, phonecalls, housecleaning, general doggy errands like nail-clipping and baths, probably lots of things I’m forgetting.

When I help a student make a schedule like this, the process often helps them feel a greater sense of control over their workload and their self-care. Once the schedule is complete, they can take a step back and evaluate whether they are over-committed or whether they truly do have enough time to finish everything they need to while still feeling like a human being. A lot of people prefer building schedules on their phones these days, which is fine, but I think there’s something extra soothing about writing everything out on paper and then colour-coding. (That may just be me.)

Looking at my own attempt here, though, I’m not sure that this schedule is a realistic portrayal of any one specific week. It might be because, for me, every week is pretty dramatically different due to the nature of my job; for example, my parents have Millie right now because I’m working most nights next week while we interview candidates for the volunteer program. Many students who use this weekly schedule create a new one each week, which allows them to make those changes as needed.

Generally I prefer not to schedule everything out hour-by-hour like that. What I have found works best for me, at least outside of crunch times, is to prioritize what needs to get done every week (on top of the obvious things like walking Millie or going to work). The interesting thing I’ve found is that this list has evolved to include really important self-care activities I’ve learned about myself over the years, too:

  • Do homework and review notes by Sunday night
  • Plan meals and buy groceries every weekend
  • Have a good conversation with a friend at least once every three days
  • Do one super-fun and exciting thing per week
  • Be at home, on average, for three of five school nights (to hang out with the hell hound)
  • Save at least 30 minutes before bed to read

This list doesn’t sound like much. I suspect a lot of it comes from the fact that my current job is so social during the day that, being a secret introvert, I often feel burnt-out in the evening. It’s so tempting to just stay in and veg — especially when the weather is really icy and cold out, since I don’t have a car.

However, when I don’t have a nice and chewy conversation with a non-work friend for more than a couple days in a row, I start feeling pretty blah. The same thing happens if I don’t raise my heart rate a couple times per week doing something more active.

And for those of you who care more about “productivity” than “presence,” my productivity always dramatically decreases when I’m feeling blah, too. So taking care of my own wellbeing and connection with others actually improves my ability to do homework and review notes, too!

(I actually dislike thinking about wellness in terms of how productive it’ll make you, but that’s a blog for another day.)

Even if an hour-by-hour weekly schedule isn’t for you, I encourage you to think about a) how you currently, actually spend your days, and b) reflect on whether you can or should make any changes to that routine, based on your mood or how satisfied you are with your work. You may find it helpful, like I do, to have an honest-to-goodness checklist of “things you must to to feel happy and fulfilled in your life” and then just work your way down that list each week. I find that if I don’t have a little checklist like that to remind myself of what’s important, I spend an awful lot of time feeling vaguely unhappy and then self-medicating in the evenings with some good ol’ Netflix … which really doesn’t help matters.

I realize that my artistic talent, at least when it comes to creating schedules, isn’t too great, so I want to leave you with a much more beautiful way to think about time. (Imagine how much time you’d need to make one of these puppies!) Here is the Visconti Book of Hours from the late fourteenth century:

Hours of Gian Galeazzo Visconti
Hours of Gian Galeazzo Visconti

Common ground between English literature and computing

Richard Brautigan with a typewriter
Richard Brautigan. Read on for a treat.

While I’m a computer science student these days, that doesn’t mean I’m any less of a bookworm. After finishing Here’s Looking at Euclid (2011 and the best math book ever), I picked up John Markoff’s Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots (2015).

Machines of Loving Grace is “a sweeping history of the complicated and evolving relationship between humans and computers” (from the book flap). It’s a little drier than Here’s Looking at Euclid, but I enjoy learning about the early history of computing so it’s not too bad.

But this isn’t a book review.

Instead, I was recently struck by a passage I encountered in a chapter called “Walking Away,” about a computer scientist named Terry Winograd. Now a professor of computer science at Stanford, Winograd started as a researcher in artificial intelligence — only to abandon that field for “intelligence augmentation,” or human-centered computing, instead (Markoff’s favourite thing to talk about is the chasm between these two competing branches of computer science). Before that happened, though, Winograd developed an influential system called SHRDLU that could respond to typed commands in natural language.

Markoff’s description of SHRDLU sounded eerily familiar to me:

[SHRDLU] was an early effort at disambiguation, a thorny problem for natural language processing even today. For example, in the sentence “he put the glass on the table and it broke,” does “it” refer to the glass or the table? Without more context, neither a human nor an AI program could decide. –Markoff, p. 176

After a minute or two of thinking, I realized why this sounded so familiar — I’ve taught pronoun disambiguation before! Occasionally the Writing Centre needs my help in delivering writing workshops, and last term I taught 5 or 6 workshops to English 100 students at Queen’s on how to write effective papers. Pronoun disambiguation was a major topic, and effective writers avoid it like the plague (much like they are supposed to avoid cliches).

I’ve long wondered if somehow my background in English literature is directly contributing to my success so far in computer science classes, and maybe this is a clue. I think that when people learn how to write well — clearly, unambiguously articulate their ideas to a specific audience — those skills can pretty easily transfer to writing computer programs. My guess is that the same students who struggle with communicating their thoughts in writing will likely struggle with programming, too — and students who have learned to program well, or write well, should be able to translate those skills into clear writing or programming, respectively.

Weirdly, this is the second time in two days that I’ve encountered this idea. A friend of mine in the computer science program recently directed me to How to Design Programs. Check out this bit from the preface:

… [P]rogram design teaches the same analytical reading and writing skills as English. Even the smallest design tasks are formulated as word problems. Without critical reading skills, you cannot design programs that solve the problem and match its specifications. Conversely, program design methods force you to articulate their thoughts in proper and precise English. Indeed, our observations suggests that if you truly absorb the design recipe, you will develop your articulation skills more than anything else. “Preface” from How to Design Programs

I completely agree, and this echoes my rambling conversations that I’ve had with other writing consultants at my work and some of the STEM educators I met at the Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing conference this past January. While STEM educators worry about teaching STEM, and writing and rhetoric educators worry about teaching writing and rhetoric, I am looking incredulously at each side and wondering “Why the heck aren’t these instructors talking to each other more?”

Perhaps none of this comes as a surprise to you. I’m glad if that’s the case. Yet I have spoken to so many arts and humanities students (English literature and beyond) who don’t think they can learn computer science, and it seems to me that many computer science students share disdain for ‘fluffy,’ non-computer science or mathematics topics. (I’m not as certain of the latter since I don’t know as many computer science students, but that has been my experience in working with some engineering students, for example).

In reality, though, the fields seem to foster the same skills — the ability to read and understand texts, and to articulate your ideas with precision!

I am definitely not an expert in any of this. I don’t teach computer science, and I don’t teach writing (well, sometimes I teach writing, but not usually). These are just my impressions, and maybe there are some amazing organizations already doing this kind of work of which I’m just unaware. But I do wonder …

How many students are missing out on some really exciting breadth and knowledge because they think they’re incapable, or that the other field is irrelevant or too different from what they’re used to? Also, are STEM or writing instructors missing out on some valuable insights from each other, because they too assume the practices are too different? Is there a way to tie together clear writing skills with good program design? Wouldn’t it be awesome if more of our computer scientists could write and read as effectively as our English majors, and if more of our English majors knew how to program and think like a computer scientist?

I’ll leave you with the poem that gave Markoff’s book its title. I think this is Richard Brautigan’s most famous poem — a lot of different things are named after it — and it’s so, so good.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

When perfectionism gets in the way of your ambitions

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.Anne Lammott, Bird by Bird

Recently some coworkers found out I have a blog and asked for the link — and I was weirdly shy about it! (Hello, coworkers.) This is the first site I’ve made in about a decade that required writing any code. On one level I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here so far, but on another level, I know I could have done so much better so could you please just not look at this site until I’m ready … (Picture me muttering that very quickly under my breath, because that’s basically how it happened at work.)

I’m an occasional perfectionist. There, I said it. Mostly I’ve learned to control the perfectionist monster (more on that for another day), but when it comes to public performance — harp-playing, creative writing, and, yes, designing websites — I am still awfully shy. But maybe it’s better to be upfront and own the fact that this is totally a work-in-progress, I have lots to learn, and that doesn’t mean I’m not capable.

Easier said than done.

But in the interest of transparency, I’ll share the many items on my website to-do list. I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get around to solving these, but maybe you can help me?

  • Put a cute, itty-bitty search icon in the social media menu that, when clicked, has a little drop-down search bar come up. I figured out how to make this work except for how to center the search icon next to the rest of the social media menu.
  • Fix the Gravatar icon in the Comments section the does a funky thing when you hover over it. Whaaaat?
  • Fix the main navigation menu so that the links will break onto the next line when you shrink the screen (right now, the main menu always stays on one line, so there is an annoying scroll-bar when the screen shrinks).
  • Fix the way numbered lists look. The numbers spill way into the left, and it looks awkward.
  • Maybe pull out the post meta-data so that it sits to the left of the post title in a pretty way.
  • Use featured images somehow. I don’t know where or how. But I feel like that’s a thing I should have.

I’ll get around to asking these questions on … I don’t even know where I’d ask these questions yet. Stack Overflow? Is there a WordPress support community out there? There must be. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Lynda.com can only help me so much.