Tweeting to the Void

I've previously written about how I turned off Facebook's news feed. I keep an account with Facebook because people occasionally contact me there. It is also an unfortunate truth that many companies in Jordan (where I live) or in the wider Middle East only have representation on Facebook instead of their own website. (Why they insist on doing this baffles me and is perhaps a topic for a future post).

I have long preferred Twitter as a medium for filtering through or touching -- however obliquely -- things going on at any particular moment. I have no pretensions to actively follow every single tweet to pass through my feed. Rather, it's something I dip into every now and then.

Increasingly in recent months, I found myself growing dissatisfied with the pull it often has on me. It has become something of a truism to state that 'twitter isn't what it once was', but there's less and less long-term benefit in following discussions as and when they happen.

RescueTime tells me that I spent 86 hours and 16 minutes on Twitter in 2017 -- just under quarter of an hour each day. That feels like a lot to me.

ScreenShot 2018-01-25 at 19.13.15.png

Enter 'Tweet to the Void'. This is a Chrome extension. (For Firefox and other browsers, I have to imagine things like this exist.) When I visit, the feed is not visible. All I see is somewhere to post a tweet if that's what I want to do. (There is still some value in posting blogposts and articles there, since I know some people don't use RSS). Of course, I can always turn off the extension with ease, but adding this extra step has effectively neutralised Twitter for me. 

Try it; see how you feel about having something standing in the way of your social media fix. Let me know how you get on.

ClozeMaster: learn words in context

Clozemaster is a service I discovered recently while researching the resource guide for my new book, Master Arabic. Clozemaster is intended to be a next step for students who have mastered some of the basics of their language of study. It teaches the language through a game where you identify the missing word. Here's what one of their tests look like, for example:

You can see that it has a space where a word is blocked out. Four options are available below, from which you have to choose. Of course, number two is the correct option and by clicking it you move onto the next question.

The sentences are taken from a wonderful open-source project called Tatoeba. Tatoeba is a collection of sentences and translations which are curated and gathered through crowd-sourcing.

Clozemaster hooks into the corpus of sentences available in Tatoeba and serves up tests ordered by how commonly the word is found (i.e. its frequency ranking).

If you're wondering why this is useful, it helps to know a little about how we best learn vocabulary. The gold standard of vocabulary acquisition happens through context. You learn the word when it is used in a real sentence or scenario, and where you derive all sorts of clues from the words around it. This is how we learn words when we're growing up, and it's how we continue to learn words and concepts in adulthood.

Clozemaster, therefore, is a great tool for someone who has mastered the basics of grammar in their language of study but who wants to grow their vocabulary further. At that stage, it doesn't help to learn words in isolation like services like Memrise have you doing. Instead, learn through reading, or learn through services like Clozemaster. The service is free and would be ideal for someone who's just finished Duolingo in a particular language (for example).

PhD Tools: Freewriting and Journalling to Think Through your Work

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

A few years back, I read a book with the (intentionally) provocative title, Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day. I was travelling back to Afghanistan from a short stay in Europe, and I was sat in Istanbul airport, waiting for my connecting flight. I remember the moment quite clearly, because a long wait time plus a delay didn't phase me. I was sucked into the book and the idea that the author presented. (There's also another good one along a similar theme: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia.

Basically, she explained how writing for a very short amount of time each day, taking the time to think through whatever was going on with your research, but on paper instead of your head -- was a trick that would really help your work. It's not a new idea, this technique of freewriting. When you take this time, these 15 or 20 minutes, you aren't writing a section of your thesis itself, you're writing almost a note to yourself about how it is going, what you think are important things you  need to consider, whether this is a useful line of inquiry and so on.

Since that day, I've incorporated this kind of writing much more often as a general practice. There's a great service run by all-round make-useful-things-for-everyone-to-benefit-from person Buster Benson called 750Words. It sends you a friendly reminder every day to write 750 words on its site. There's all sorts of gamification and encouragement of writing streaks etc, and while writing the middle sections of my PhD, I would check in to every day at the start of the morning to journal out my current research position and think through whatever problems I was about to face in my work that coming day.

It may feel a bit redundant at times, but I've found the practice really useful. Give it a try. You might find that it works for you.

PhD Tools: Pen and Paper

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

It's worth also talking in general terms about pen and paper. Readers of this blog would be right in considering me as someone who uses many different digital tools. Yet I am also a firm advocate for the use of paper and pen.

I've written before about my use of a four-color pen. This was one of the more useful discoveries of 2015.

Using pen and paper offers the opportunity for slowing down and thinking in different ways about particular problems. Needless to say, pen and paper as a tool is firmly 'distraction-free', perhaps unless you're someone who likes to doodle.

I like working on problems from different perspectives throughout my attempts to tackle whatever complexities arise. For this reason, I'll spend some time outlining, some time free-writing, some time structuring and restructuring things I've already written, some time talking things through with a third-party, and some time making mindmaps or lists of ideas with pen and paper.

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

This cycling through different ways of composition / thinking on paper is something I developed over time, and it was in part a product of my time in Kandahar. Electricity was in limited supply, as was the internet, and some days there would simply be no way to write on a laptop. Sometimes even the laptop wouldn't start because the temperature in our little room on the roof was too hot. So I developed things to do during those downtimes, so that I wasn't completely hampered from working. The interruptions and lack of power was such a prominent feature of life that to allow yourself to be dictated by that would be to never complete anything.

So I would read books or articles on my Kindle. I would make lists in my notebooks. I would make lists of things to look up when the internet or electricity came back. I would make lists of tasks. I would outline sections of whatever I was writing. I would have focused discussions with Felix about a particular section or issue. Pen and Paper was at the centre of all of this, and I took that on to my life when I returned to places with constant streams of electricity and internet connectivity.

I've actually found that I'm the most useful and productive (in a holistic sense) when I'm in that disconnected mode, without the reliance on the internet to look everything up, and forced to just forge ahead with the hard work of thinking.

A particular model for this was the work of Erich Auerbach and his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which he wrote from Istanbul during the Second World War without access to many sources. As Edward Said explains in his Introduction:

"He explains in the concluding chapter of Mimesis that, even had he wanted to, he could not have made use of the available scholarly resources, first of all because he was in wartime Istanbul when the book was written and no Western research libraries were accessible for him to consult, second because had he been able to use references from the extremely voluminous secondary literature, the material would have swamped him and he would never have written the book. Thus along with the primary texts that he had with him, Auerbach relied mainly on memory and what seems like an infallible interpretive skill for elucidating relationships between books and the world they belonged to."

My hunch is that the limitations on his work process, and access to sources, was one of the things that made that book so great.

Pen and paper don't need batteries. So give it a try. Go somewhere new, or somewhere you feel like your energy gets recharged, take a notebook with you and make notes. You can always type them up later on, but for now, just write and think.

PhD Tools: Vitamin-R and the Pomodoro Technique for Getting Going

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

In my last post I mentioned the way I divide my work into timed segments. The ideal timing for me, I felt, was 45 mins on : 15 minutes off. The canonical division, however, is 25 minutes on : 5 minutes off. This is a technique commonly referred to as the Pomodoro Technique (named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, I think). You might find that starting off at 45:15 is too much at the beginning, particularly if you're not used to focused stretches of work, and that you have to slowly work your way up to that ratio, increasing the minutes incrementally.

I like the idea of splitting work into timed units as an alternative to the usual task-based approach. This way, you make sure to take regular breaks, and you develop a healthy appreciation for the fact that some tasks take longer than you were expecting. I used to be someone who would claim to work from 8am-6pm on a particular project. I now realise that that is an illusion. Nobody can concentrate for that long, and the work you'll be producing by the end of that session will most likely be worthless. Far better to have focused core sessions and then be honest about where you're spending your time. Working 8am-6pm day-in-day-out is also a surefire way to burn out from what you're doing.

Another advantage to pomodoros is that they are small enough to appear unthreatening to your emotional lizard brain. Confronted with two options (either working for 25 minutes on a particular problem, or an unboxed task instruction to 'complete this particular task') I know I feel far more comfortable taking a bash at starting to work if I just have to get through 25 minutes. If I place the entire responsibility and expectation of completing a section or a problem from the outset, I'm far more likely to find ways to avoid starting, to procrastinate (even if everything is switched off and I have no access to the internet; it's amazing how creative the mind can be at avoiding hunkering down and tackling a difficult task).

There are many (many) pomodoro timers available online. FWIW, the ones that I've used and found work well for me are: FocusTime, PomoDone (which hooks into Trello boards).

Around the time when I started my routine of 'Four Perfect Hours' each day, I discovered something called Vitamin-R. This is probably overkill for many of you, but if you're inclined to monitor your data and your stats and your progress, then it might be worth exploring.

The programme works on your laptop and your phone (though I almost exclusively used the Mac app) and you set up your time ratios (i.e. my 45 mins on, 15 minutes rest routine). You specify what you'll be doing during the coming 45 minutes. This is useful in forcing you to clarify what you will be doing, since being specific about this makes it likely that you'll make progress instead of just browsing about a bit in your sources and so on. It gives you alerts and alarms at the start and end of your pomodoros, as well as periodic 'tick-tock' noises at random moments to just remind you that this is a period of focused. Some people might find this annoying; I found it useful to occasionally break me out of a daydream or from going down some not-particularly-useful line of approach.

At the end of each session, it asks you how focused you felt while working. This is really useful for building up (over time) a picture of which times of the day are more useful than others in terms of your focus.

One of the charts that Vitamin-R generates

One of the charts that Vitamin-R generates

You can see that my early mornings were generally my core work time. You will usually have an instinctual understanding of this truth, but Vitamin-R allows you to confirm it and to keep track of just how many hours you're spending in 'Deep Work'.

I happened to have a Beeminder goal for 'Deep Work' at the time, and I filled it with data from Vitamin-R. At the end of every day, I'd update it with however many minutes Vitamin-R said I'd tracked as having been devoted to that deep work. That kept me honest, and it was also nice to see the cumulative core hours add up over time.

Here you can see the 187 or so hours I tracked in the first half of 2016

Here you can see the 187 or so hours I tracked in the first half of 2016

Most won't need or want this level of specificity or tracking. Any phone (even a dumb phone') comes with a countdown timer, and that's enough to get started with the pomodoro technique. I recommend it because it encourages regular breaks. If you find this useful, please do let me know. It's always good to hear from others in the 'trenches' of knowledge work.

PhD Tools: Backup Systems for Staving off Sadness

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Having some kind of backup system is essential for all PhD students (and probably anyone else using a computer for writing of one kind or another). The less friction to your backup system, the better. If you have to plug in a USB or Firewire external hard drive in order to start your backup process, you're probably not going to be doing it enough and you're probably going to lose files and data.

I've learnt the hard way how hard drives can fail. A few years ago, I lost roughly a decade's worth of digital photos when my backup system failed. My work files were ok -- because I'd taken steps to check that this was working - but for whatever reason I hadn't taken the same care for my non-work files. Cue sadness.

I use multiple types of backup. Ideally, you'll also use at least two. One should be a regular backup to a hard drive -- something like Apple's Time Machine in conjunction with an external disk -- and the other should be a cloud backup.

I use Backblaze and Spideroak for my cloud backups. You may find it overkill to have two separate systems for storing my backups in the cloud, but space and the services are cheap enough that it's possible. In fact, if I was living somewhere with faster internet I'd probably add in AWS Glacier as an additional backup service.

I also use SuperDuper to make a clone copy of my hard drive. I've been burnt by Apple's Time Machine backup in the past (see above) so I don't use it any more because I lost my trust. But I heard it's better now. Caveat emptor.

Programmes like Scrivener (see earlier blogpost) have built-in auto-backups. Use them, and test them to make sure it's doing what it says it's doing. You don't want to have to find this out after something's gone wrong.

In fact, I encourage you to make a recurring calendar appointment with yourself to stress-test your backup systems once every two or three months. Different scenarios to try out: your hard drive fails; try to get hold of your main PhD working draft from your backup system. Or, another good one, your laptop gets stolen; are you able to access all your files regardless, and eventually (once you replace your computer) restore your system as it was before the theft? Actually do these tests! I've often found that a system that I thought was working properly turns out to be failing in some small but essential way.

Towards the end of the writeup, your paranoia around file failure is likely to be sufficiently intense as to inspire all sorts of manual backup routines. Earlier this year while I was nearing that point myself, I would email myself zipped copies of the scrivener file as well as store copies on Evernote and Google Drive and Dropbox. This, note, in addition to the other backups I had going.

A lot of this is common sense. Backups are important. We all know it. But it's good to have a system that you know and can be confident works. Don't tarry! Take steps to set something up today, even if it's just a background cloud backup service like Backblaze.

PhD Tools: Mellel for Layout and Final Presentation

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Mellel is what I use for the final formatting of documents. It might be overkill for some, but in the case of my PhD, the extra features really saved me some time and headaches.

At first glance, there isn't much to distinguish it from something like or Microsoft Word. Mellel is a word processor. It allows you to format how the text is presented on the page. The level of control over those decisions is what distinguishes Mellel over the free/default alternatives.

For example, styling formatting for certain types of text is easy in Mellel. Want to change the way all headings of a certain level are formatted? Mellel can do this. Want to manage the formatting of Arabic, Pashto and Dari text without worrying that things will come out the wrong direction? Mellel is designed to handle these right-to-left languages and scripts. Want to do things with bibliography formatting and scanning? Mellel plays well with Bookends and the other reference managers. Similarly with things like your Table of Contents: Mellel handles it all with style (literally!).

An alternative to Mellel is Nisus Writer Pro. As far as I can make out there isn't that much difference between the two. Mellel also has a version for iPad so you can work on documents on the go as well.