Seduced by Productivity

I feel that I’ve been seduced by productivity. 

It’s been a gradual process. It began when I discovered GTD. At the time I was swamped with work. I constantly felt there was something else more important that I should be doing. GTD reassured me that I wasn’t neglecting anything, it organised my life. You can implement GTD with a pen and paper. I used Emacs.

That’s where the seduction began. You see, Emacs is just too useful. You can use it for everything, and for years I did. I used Emacs for everything from writing novels to reminding me to chase people for returns at work. It was my calendar, my project planner, my note taking system, everything. 

But slowly I started to introduce other applications into my workflow. Like most people, I spend a lot of my time away from my desktop computer and so I had gradually moved some of my work onto Evernote and Todoist: apps that work well in a web browser or an a mobile phone.   

I spent most of 2020 at my desk: it will probably be the last year that I use Emacs for everything. Emacs remains a powerful, flexible tool that I will use for many aspects of my writing, tech and personal life, however despite such excellent applications as Orgzly and Beorg (both of which I use), there’s no getting away from the fact that Emacs works best as a desktop application.   

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Evernote for years. I currently love it and the direction it’s going, but therein lies the problem. Like Emacs, Evernote is getting just too useful.

I’ve heard it said that before there were washing machines and vacuum cleaners people were content to wash and clean much less frequently. New technology made these tasks easier and so people did them more often.

It’s the same with tools like Emacs and Evernote and Todoist. They mean I can be more productive, and so I am.

But since when did being productive become my primary aim?

Productivity tools mean I can be a more productive writer, but I didn’t start writing because I wanted to be productive. I started because I enjoyed writing, because I had something to say. Over the years I found I was writing because my todo list told me to.

Yes, I want to be more efficient, yes, I don’t want to forget things, but why should productivity be my principle goal? I can understand that it’s my boss’s aim for me to be more productive, but why should it be mine? 

I had a revelation a few months ago about my writing regime. I wrote about it here, and what I said there still holds true. 

I continue to use Emacs, Evernote, Todoist, but now I try to use them to improve my work life balance. I use them to try and maximize enjoyment of what I’m doing. Yes, I frequently forget this and slip back into old habits, but I’m getting the hang of a new way of working.

It’s much more satisfying.

Educational Research

Why not do your own educational research? It’s easier than you might think. Just follow the steps below.

1: Choose a hypothesis.

This is the hardest bit. You could try something obvious such as you get better with practice. You could also try to demonstrate something that is patently ridiculous, for example, sniffing oranges improves grades. To be honest, it makes no difference what you decide on, someone will believe it.

I’m going to choose an obvious hypothesis as it will make it harder for someone to disagree with my conclusions.

Hypothesis: students get better at something when they practice it.

2: Find some Citations

Use this random name generator https://www.behindthename.com/random/ to find some authors to cite. Here are three I generated as an example

Bradford Jamison Elliott, Geoffrey Maitland Roach, Teresa Dorean Robbins

3: Graphs and Charts

Research looks more convincing with a graph or chart. I’m going to create a cycle chart. Educational researchers love cycle charts. Here’s one I knocked up using Graphviz.

Dissatisfaction -> practice -> improvement -> testing

4: Test your Hypothesis

Split one of your classes in two halves. Test your hypothesis on one half, leave the other as a control group. If you don’t get the results you want, just ignore some of the students or swap them around between groups.

5: You’re going to need an Acronym

Think of a word. Some good words to use the basis for your acronym are VECTOR, INSPIRE and RAISE

I chose ERIC, as my friend is called Eric. Eric could stand for

Expectations, Rewards, Involvement and Consequences.

That looks a bit boring, so here it is rewritten as a flowchart:

6: It must be true, I read it on a blog

Publish your research on your blog and then tweet what you’ve done. Retweet other people’s research in the hope that they return the favour.

bliss

I ripped my CD’s in the noughties.  Now they’re sat in the attic awaiting the collapse of civilisation. When the electricity stops working I can at least look at the covers and remember what music used to sound like.

In the meantime I can enjoy listening to my music wherever I like. Since I digitised my collection, however, I’ve never managed to keep it tidy.  I’ve tried various software to sort out my folders, eventually settling on Picard and Emacs. The trouble is, the collection always seems to grow faster than my attempts to tidy it.  

This weekend I gave up trying to manage it myself and installed bliss.  bliss audits your music collection according to a set of rules that you choose and then fixes any problems it finds.

By way of introduction, bliss fixes your cover artwork.  The software is very flexible, you can choose whether to embed the art into the individual music files, keep it separate or both, for example.

Here’s a picture of it in action:

Scanning Albums

You can choose from alternate covers if you want to match the art in your original collection.

Alertnate covers

Finding lost artwork is only the beginning. You can apply rules to do such things as fix genre or sort out your folder structure. Fixes can be applied manually or automatically, as below:

Fixing Genres

I’ve wasted a lot of time over the past few days just watching it work:

Scanning in action

What’s the catch? Well, not a catch as such, but you have to pay for bliss. It comes with 100 fixes, so that’s a 100 pieces of cover art installed for example.

11 Fixes left

You can buy more fixes but for a large collection you’re going to end up spending £59 or equivalent for unlimited fixes, and let’s face it, if you don’t have a large collection, you’re not going to need the software.

Is it worth it?  As a writer I believe that people should be paid for their creative endeavours however, full disclosure, bliss offer a the license free to people who blog about the software. But even if they didn’t, I’d pay the money.

Fifteen years of trying and failing to tidy my collection have proven to me it’s not going to happen any other way.

Find out more here: https://www.blisshq.com

12 Mince Pies

I’m not a superstitious person.  I walk under ladders and on the cracks in pavements.  I don’t knock on wood, I don’t throw salt over my shoulder and I can never remember whether black cats are good or bad luck.

About the only superstition I follow is one my mother told me when I was a child: that if you eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas you’ll have good luck for the following year.  I only follow that superstition because I like mince pies and I’ve been pretty conscientious about maintaining it for that reason. In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever not eaten 12 mince pies over the Christmas season was last year, when I had the flu and I didn’t really feel like eating anything.

You may be pleased to know I made damn sure that I ate 12 mince pies this year.

You’re welcome.

My New Writing Regime

I have a new writing regime.

For years I used to head in Manchester city centre to write in coffee shops and the Portico Library. Nothing unusual about that, many writers do the same.

But then lock down came and I found myself sat at my computer doing the day job for hours on end. Writing took a back seat: the last thing I wanted to do in the evening was to go back to the keyboard. I needed to find a new way to work.

I think I’ve found it.

Now, when it’s a writing day, I put my notebook and iPad into my backpack and set off walking. If I get an idea I record it on my phone using Speechnotes. When I’m ready to write I find somewhere to sit, be it a cafe, bench, pub or a convenient rock, and begin to write on my iPad. I repeat the process until I’ve done at least 500 words and then I go home.  The system seems to be working.

Not only that, it’s made me realise something.

I’ve now been a professional writer for twenty something years. During that time I was always in a hurry to get somewhere to write a story. It’s only recently occurred to me that when I read other people’s stories I stop and look at the scenery.

So that’s my new regime. I find I’m spending less time on the writing and more time on enjoying the scenery. Does it make me a better writer? I don’t know. I’m certainly a more relaxed one.

Forks

Here is my pile of forks. The forks live on a shelf above my desk at work.

Every time I get a take away meal from the restaurant I take a metal fork with me. 

I always used to take my metal fork back to the restaurant when I finished my meal. This is because I am the sort of person who likes to keep things tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. But it was also partly because it just seemed the right thing to do.

And then there was a notice in the staff bulletin saying that staff must return their cutlery to the canteen after their meals.  It listed the number of knives and forks in the canteen on a day to day basis and pointed out that the number was falling.  Staff were instructed to return their cutlery immediately.

Quite naturally, I began to hoard forks.

I know that not returning the forks is childish. I’m also aware that the pile of forks is upsetting me. I’d much prefer them to be back in their natural environment: basking in the cutlery tray. 

But most of all I’m really irritated at being instructed to do something I was planning to do anyway.

That’s why I have a pile of forks.

The Undecidable Blues

I wrote the following lyrics years ago, when I was doing my Maths degree. My friend, occasional collaborator and Dream London crimelord, John “Daddio” Clarke, has put them to music: listen here

The Undecidable Blues
by Tony Ballantyne

Woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
I said I woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
The fact that I can't prove them is one of those persistent aggravations

My baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I said my baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I ask her to explain herself but my baby is immovable

The way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
You know the way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
I say it's axiomatic: that my baby is a mystery

I said: "Baby won’t you tell me, you don't give me no clues
I’m riven by uncertainty, I don’t know how to choose"

I've got them Gödel's incompleteness theorem blues

John Daddio Clarke and the Cyprus Rodeo Blues Sisters sing The Undecidable Blues: listen here

The Pointless Rules of English

I wasn’t really taught grammar at school.  Not in English lessons, anyway.    A friend who knows about such things explained that this was actually good practice, that English is not an inflected language, and that grammar is best taught when studying an inflected language such as German.

I think they’re probably right.  I seem to have absorbed the rules of grammar from somewhere, I rarely get corrected by sub editors.

So I approached this book with a certain amount of suspicion.  Yes, I’m interested in linguistics (as many coders are), but no, I’m not interested in the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative mood.

Or so I thought.

I can’t remember enjoying a book so much in ages

This would be a good book to dip into, but as I’m the sort of person who reads everything from beginning to end (including, when I was a child, a dictionary) I did just that.

And why not?  Everything from coordinate adjectives to the vowel quadrilateral is explained clearly and simply.  There are lots of top tips and random language facts to think about.  The book even manages to squeeze in a brief history of language itself.

Not only that, the book is funny.  Genuinely funny. Who’d have thought a passage on contrastive focus duplication could be so amusing?  I even finally learned how to capitalise properly, something I’ve always been rather ashamed to admit I couldn’t do.

Oh yes, and I rather suspect this may be the first book on linguistics to feature Droylsden market.

The chances are if you’re reading this blog you’re either into coding or writing.  I’m recommending this book to both techy types and writers.  So much so that its now number seven on my list of Six Books Every Writer Should Read.

The Pointless Rules of English by M. Amelia Eikli and Lindsey Williams

How I was fooled by Student Loans

I must admit, the government had me completely fooled over student loans.

Yes, I was annoyed that my children are still going to be saddled with massive debts, despite my wife and I saving up for them to go to college since they were born.

Yes, I was annoyed that people who had enjoyed free education voted to make their children pay for the same privilege just so they could pay a little less tax. (To be fair, some people did vote Liberal in the mistaken belief that they were opposing loans)

And yes, It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that terms and conditions have been  changed so that the interest rate charged is now higher than the rate for regular loans

No, I was sufficiently cynical to have foreseen all this.

What astonishes me was how gullible I was in swallowing the government’s reason for imposing the loans.  I really thought it was because more people were going to college.  I seem to remember that was the line trotted out by Brown, Osborne, Clegg et al.    

How stupid can you be.  No, it was another accounting dodge.  Of course it was.  You can read it about in this article on the BBC News Website.

The full article is well worth a read, but the following quotation sums it up

Under the current arrangements, money lent to students for tuition fees and living costs does not show up as a negative in the public finances.

Ah! And now it all makes sense.

I’m pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one fooled.  Committee chairman and former Conservative minister Lord Forsyth was also shocked.

“I had not understood that by moving to a system of funding through loans, because of the accounting methods of the Treasury, it was possible for George Osborne [then chancellor] to appear to increase funding for higher education by £3bn but at the same time cut his deficit by £3.8bn.”

And that’s not the worst part:

Outstanding student loan debts are £118bn and rising – but when it comes to the public finances and the deficit, the cost of student loans is invisible.

In terms of the government’s reporting of its finances, the cost is kicked down the road and won’t appear until debts begin to be written off after 30 years.

So not only are we sending our young people into debt – my children among them – but just about the time they’ve finished paying it off  they get saddled with this cost as well?

I  tell you what, someone in government really hates kids.

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