Sunday Selection 2012-04-28

Around the Web

Minecraft, Scrolls, 0x10c: The past, present and future of Mojang as seen through Notch’s eyes. I’m not much of a gamer, but I do like making cool stuff and I love reading about people who are making amazing, beautiful things. Notch is the creator of Minecraft and the anticipated 0x10c and this interview is full of interesting tidbits.

The Terrifying Reality of Long-term Employment As a recent college graduate who has chosen the temporary sanctuary of the ivory tower, the job market is something I can afford to avoid, but it’s still something at the back of my mind. The state of the current market makes me wonder if we need to rethink jobs and value structures in an age where long-term stability is increasingly rare.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On. I usually don’t write about current events, partially because I’m never quite sure what to say, and partially because I’d rather not add to the noise if I don’t have something useful to say. That being said, I’m all too happy to point in the direction of people who I think are actually making level-headed and rational comments about the current state of affairs. Bruce Schneier is certainly one of those people and I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if people like him were in charge of our security.

Software

Capsule: The Developer’s Code Journal. I find that keeping a record of things I’ve done through the day is very useful. It’s a good estimator of where my time went through the day, and an empty log is a sign that things didn’t go quite right.  I normally have a text file on my phone that I just dump everything into. Capsule looks like an interesting solution for programmers (both teams and individuals) to keep a quick and dirty log of what they’ve been up to. I’m probably going to put it on my Linode for a week and give it a try.

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Sunday Selection 2012-12-09

Around the Web

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Academia

As my third semester as a PhD student draws to an end, I’m starting to think about what to do in the long term: what kind of a career I want to have, what kind of problems I want to focus on, etc. This piece is an interesting look at how research in computer science can coexist with making an impact in the real world today.

Trouble at Code School

I’ve been a Teaching Assistant for two semesters, but I haven’t really been on the front lines of teaching students. That being said, from what little experience I have introducing newcomers to programming that both teaching and learning beginning programming is no easy task. Luckily, with the growth of education-based startups and the resurgence in academic CS programs we’ll probably see interesting approaches in the near future.

GitHub vs Skyrim

Giles Bowkett manages to come up with interesting perspectives on a regular basis. This article talks about about GitHub and Skyrim and how the way they encourage team dynamics may lay the foundation for a new way of organizing companies and teams. Perhaps the most insightful idea is that the very definition of an office or workspace is not only changing, but gradually becoming irrelevant as work becomes increasingly distributed.

From the Bookshelf

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

I first read this book years ago in school and it was probably the first book to show me that you can fill a life with equal parts work and fun. This book probably played an important, though subconscious part in my decision to stay in academia for the time being. Even if you’re not a scientist or and academic, this book is worth reading and learning from. Life is supposed to be fun.

Salvaging Dead Time and Procrastiworking

The last few weeks have been another continuous episode of “too much to do, too little time”. Graduate school is a very interesting environment from a work and productivity standpoint. On the one hand I don’t really have a fixed schedule (outside of a few hours of class a week) and can work whenever I want. I also live close to campus so commuting isn’t a issue. However distractions abound. I’m not meeting with professors on as regular a basis as I was, but there are still lots of talks, colloquia and seminars that I find really interesting and want to go see. It’s very easy to have the day be perforated by lots of little things and never get anything done. However, there’s one trick that I’ve learned that in the past week or so that can mitigate this fragmentation and helps me get things done: salvaging dead time.

Salvaging Dead Time

I currently have a class that runs from 10:10am to 11:25am. Then I go to a lunchtime talk at noon. Taking out the 5 minutes or so to get back to my office that leaves about half an hour that would normally be wasted on Hacker News or Twitter. As a graduate student I need to have pretty long blocks of time to sit, think and get work done. Thirty minutes generally isn’t a lot of time to get brain-work done and hence this would be “dead time” – time that is just lost.

However half an hour is more than enough time to knock off errands. Today I filed two helpdesk tickets, processed email down to inbox zero, paid my power bill and wrote out my rent check. Not only did I get actual work done (and a little high from crossing them off my checklist) it means I don’t have to take out time for them later. I don’t have to devote separate time chunks to errands later and I can allocate that time to actual research work. I think that counts as an all-round win.

Procrastiworking

While knocking off errands works great to salvage small blocks of dead time (up to about half-an-hour) sometimes there are sometimes larger blocks of 1-2 hours that also needs salvaging. This generally happens around dinner – I don’t have a fixed dinner time. Hence there’s often this awkward state where I won’t be having dinner till a little later, but don’t have anything planned before. Normally that time would evaporate into nothingness, but I’ve been trying out a different technique to salvage it.

While an hour isn’t enough time to do real research work, it definitely is enough to do some programming exercises or go through a few more pages of Real World Haskell. Earlier this week I decided to finally sit down and learn Haskell seriously. I’m familiar enough with Haskell at the moment that I can get up and running in a few minutes. Doing exercises is challenging enough that it takes brain work and requires thinking and learning. However at the same I don’t feel bad about leaving in the middle for dinner (I can generally finish the program I’m working on before leaving). This is classic procrastiworking: I’m slacking off on what I really should be doing (research) but instead of digesting Twitter I’m doing something beneficial.

There’s also a small matter of me being lazy and using dead time as an excuse for slacking off. Even though I know I could use an hour for programming exercises I’m tempted to slack off anyway. I’ve been trying to use procrastiworking for that too. I start off doing something that is really not work: like updating all my git repos or cleaning up my Emacs config. But once that’s over, since I’m already at the computer in a terminal, dealing with scripts and code I just quietly move myself over to a Haskell file and start hacking. It helps if I leave an unfinished function that I can then fill in (or a TODO note).

In Conclusion

Salvaging dead time and procrastiworking isn’t a catch-all solution for time management but I’ve found that it works great for the small blocks of time that I would have been wasting otherwise. Of course, you can’t fill in the blanks unless you have things to fill them with. Personally I use OmniFocus to keep a list of errands that I can go through in sequence. I also have a “project” for the longer blocks – working on Haskell – that easily decomposes into blocks of just a few minutes in length that can be taken up and put down without too much buildup. Finally I hope that in this case practive makes perfect and I get better at making use of dead time the more I consciously do it.