little big distinctions

Friday, December 4th, 2009

and to continue our series in: “use your blog as a personal repository of memories, and let others read it and not read it as they will,” i present, a chat snapshot of me and erik, fly on the wall perspective.
Feel free to skim or click on through if you are not amused by semantic tomfoolery.


geek out a little more, please

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

over the weekend i took some much needed time to start figuring out how to wrap my mind around the question of what next, and in order to do so i sat down with a piece of paper and started making lists. what are my priorities right now? what regular expenses do i know that i have for at least the near future? what potential sources of income do i have that satisfy the latter while still furthering the former? what steps do i need to take to make those sources viable?

this was a very good exercise. i ended up with a couple interesting ideas and have some tangible things to work on, so i’ll talk more about how those things unfold as they move along. right now, though, i want to take a minute to talk about making lists, because it really is one of the most powerful activities i know, and for some reason i realize this a few times a year and yet still never discipline myself to just sit down and do it with any consistency or regularity.

i know it’s obvious but lately i’ve been really struck by the idea that all these things i know would make my life better but still don’t do? like exercising more or eating better or not letting the dishes pile up or drinking more water? it’s not laziness that keeps me from biting the bullet. it’s guilt. for some reason i think that, if i was really built for such endeavors, i would be doing them already. and maybe one day i will just wake up and figure out what’s holding me up and never look back. like it’s a matter of triggering some secret internal switch, rather than admitting that the only switch to flip is the one that makes me devote energy to looking for switches when the lights are already on.

anyway, when it comes to listmaking, a big hurdle for me is that i have grandiose visions. you see, i happen to believe that computers are enabling an evolutionary shift in our ability to classify and manipulate information. i believe that we are on the cusp of being able to think Better, and figuring out what that means and how i can help it along is the reason i meddle in these things we call HCI and design. i know in my gut that listmaking is a part of the picture, and so i find it very difficult to sit down in front of a piece of paper or a computer screen without coming up with a host of ideas that get me really excited but which i have neither the time nor the ability to implement before dinner, which frustrates the meddlesome intermediary step of writing down what i need at the grocery store.

this is incredibly lame, since i will never get to the point where i can build the tools i want until i get over myself and manage my ideas with the tools i have, so i just need to shut up and knuckle down, which is what i told myself this weekend. then the topic came up yesterday as well, when i sat down with the lists i had made and tried to decide where to take them next, and it was in the midst of this thinking, while on a blogroll break, that i tripped over something i have encountered in the past but never given much thought, and that is the world of text-only to-do management.

the to-do market in web 2.0 land is pretty intense. the good folks over at 37 signals offer tadalist, which suffers a bit because in some ways it’s just an attempt to get you to spring for their not-free content management apps, and it kinda shows. more excitingly, there are remember the milk and gubb, both of which have their devotees and each of which has different strengths and weaknesses. and some folks just hack their way through the to-do jungle using various elements of the googlesphere.

but nobody gets it Just Right for goldilocks, so she keeps trying out new chairs…

meanwhile, back in web 1.9, some geeks staunchly defend the practice of keeping their to-do list in a .txt file, and pundits scratch their heads, because how can you have gradients and rounded corners with a freakin’ .txt file?! avert thine eyes!

said pundits sometimes cough uncomfortably, however, when it is mentioned that one person who is not above this approach is marissa mayer, director of consumer products at google, which always makes its way into interviews somewhere. apparently she has sections for each person she deals with and, i don’t know, different projects and stuff, and she sits down every day and figures out what to do based on some sort of magical system that is never really discussed directly. kind of like pagerank! :)

this factoid has always made me go “huh…” without really inspiring me to jump on board. i mean, i can See the advantages of a digital dumping ground to a paper one because i could theoRetically cut and paste and not have to rip out scribble-filled pages, but… that is a world where theory and practice will never meet, folks. it and the world where i could theoRetically go on a 5-mile run before breakfast every day can meet up for martinis and trade wisecracks, and i’ll just keep living here in the land of things i actually care to focus energy upon.

anyway, what i realized today (with more “duh” than “huh”) is that i have been a bit dense. my inner computer geek has been making up for a lot of lost time over the past few years, and i predict that it has still not reached its mature state, but i still sometimes fall prey to the fallacy of forgetting that my power to sic the computer on a given chunk of information is independent from the existence of buttons and dropdown menus. and in this case that means that i forgot just how much one can do with text if one is not afeared of the command line…

so yeah, geek alert #FFFF00 (yellow), k?

gina trapani at lifehacker, who spearheads a little community called todo.txt, builds her system around a plain ‘ol .txt file full of lines like this:

p:blog @home @computer @offline write about list management

where p:____ denotes a project and the “@____”s denote the contexts in which the task might come up, an approach that is in line with the rhetoric of productivity guru david allen, who founded and leads the cult of GTD (Getting Things Done).

GTDisms aside for the moment, you can see the basic idea of a list with tasks and categories, and with a bit of grit this list can be updated directly from the command line like this:

echo '@store @grocery @cooking lemons' >> todo.txt

and knowledge can be intelligently extracted from said list like this:

grep @grocery todo.txt

which spits back the whole line “@store @grocery @cooking lemons”, along with any other lines that have @grocery in them. a bit wonky, but i am nevertheless empowered to fight scurvy with deliciousness, so i might best think twice before turning up my nose at such an offering.

and presto!
you slice it, you dice it, you email it to yourself, you add categories on the fly, and that mess of a .txt file starts to feel “interactive” pretty quick.

there is actually a pre-written script package at todo.txt that makes it so you can just say stuff like:

add @store milk
list @store

and also archive and complete items without getting too wacky.

so that’s handy, and with a few basic scripting skills of your own, you are well on the way towards the sort of testing and tweaking that i haven’t been able to find the patience for when it comes to paper or learning to play nice with someone else’s API.

and all while giving the inner geek a little playtime and not relying on someone’s flashy website that might go down because cats are in ur serverz.

i expect that david, as my personal grep evangelist and “what you UI people always seem to forget is that building top-notch UI’s takes energy” foil, will be absolutely ecstatic over this post once he returns from his current mission to decrease international ignorance of the glory of bryce and zion, and to all this i say, work well done, /_\.

but it’s all in the name of expending that energy more efficiently later.
or something…

i know this is all rather rambly, but i think what i’m saying is that i realized, in thinking about all of this, that it is important to grant that it is possible to overlook the experimental value of old skool hackery in the pursuit of the user experience. we design heads get in this place where, just because we wouldn’t be caught dead releasing something into the wild, we think there is nothing to learn from it. in our hurry to put things before the user early and often, we limit the scope of the questions we are able to ask, and in doing this we are in danger of distancing ourselves too much from the creative potential of a good raw geekout.

this is touchy, because i am not at all saying that we should back down from the cause of user-centered design, nor am i saying that all designers need to be computer geeks. i’m just saying that we should remember that the point is to expand the computing family tree, and we don’t do that by severing the roots, or by telling the people who want to climb up a mountain the hard way that they are silly for not taking the new paved trail.

every trail has a different view, after all, and sometimes we have goals other than just getting to the top as quickly as possible.

ok, too much metaphorical meandering.

i’ll read this later and see if it makes any damn sense, and in the meantime, i’ll take a crack at organizing my life from the command line, so that you don’t have to.