Remember the milk v ThinkingRock

I think that life needs a decent swap algorithm but first we need a way to know what we are doing. In Unix terms I want to do “ps x” to find the processes that are

The GTD approach is to dump a whole list of everything that you need to do and that makes a great place to start. But where to make the dump? A couple of years ago I got on fairly well with a simple little note book; but then it got messy and I stopped. Then I tried the todo list on on an iPaq; but then I switched computers and it wouldn’t sync and I stopped. So this time around I started with the application that seems to be in favour for time management: Remember the milk .

In RTM there are some good features: it embeds in iGoogle desktop, it is easy to use, there are ways to set the different contexts. But I think I might be too much the optimist when filling in the things to do with the result that each day’s todo list becomes dominated by the things I didn’t do on the previous days. I felt that I needed something to hold those items that I need to do after i have done something. So I looked around for something a little bit more sophisticated. What i have found is ThinkingRock.

ThinkingRock seems to take the GTD approach more seriously than other pieces of software and act as a thought organiser rather than time organiser. I have been impressed by the way in which the software goes beyond the actions to include projects – i.e. things that take more than one action. After a few days I remain quite enthusiastic about ThinkingRock as a process gatherer: but it seems less good as a time schedular. I feel that someone out there has probably mashed this into Remember the milk but I can’t see it in a quick scan. It also sits as a main application rather than embedding into other things. But for the moment I think I will use it as my process gatherer.

I now need to find a way to work my process scheduler: this should pick out what needs doing, give it a time slice, up the priority of things I ignore too long, and not be annoying. Mini-spec only as again this time-slice is used up.

By the way following Tony’s advice now running RescueTime so at least I should start to know the applications I spend time using – though not sure if it will help me know why.

OS Life

Following up on my previous post about Life Thrash I have carried on thinking about the parallels between operating systems and life. The two suggestions so far “switch off and on again” and “upgrade to a newer model” are a bit tricky to implement – however a software upgrade does not seem out of the question! Sticking with process control in particular I feel that I am currently running a poor algorithm that loses processes, can fail to complete, and works best when simply just doing one thing (but not necessarily the right thing). In OS terms this is like an old version of DOS and things would be a whole lot better if I was running Unix.

So what is a decent process management system. A quick Google for Unix process management shows that there are likely to be some good guides out there, and I may even see if I still have my lecture notes (in troff) on a CD somewhere, but for the moment I want to just describe it from memory so apologies if there are some mismatches here.

Useful concepts are: processes, priorities, nice, running, sleeping, zombie, time slice. Each thing that can be run is a process, the priority is how much you would like it to run, nice is a way to lower (or raise) that priority. Processes can be running, sleeping waiting their turn to run, or a zombie which is something left around that can’t do anything anymore. Just had a check – I left out stopped, which I think is something that needs to be started again.

The key then is to apply a decent algorithm that gives each process a turn, but while a process is having its turn the priority reduces so that no process will miss out for long. Swapping processes in and out switches the context and the OS will try to do this fast enough so multi-tasking appears to work even though the reality may well be that the machine only has one processor. 

OK well my time slice on this task is now up and I will switch to something else (sleeping). I hope that there is enough here to help me think about how actions in life can also be viewed as processes. I want to explore what can be done to help control these: process lists, contexts, priorities and time slices. I think the answer will look a lot like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and that will be good as that opens up some tools that can be used to help.

Life thrash!

I feel that just as computers suffer from disk thrash when asked to do too much and spend all the time just swapping things in from disk and back again, I am suffering from Life Thrash – switching attention from one thing to another and not completing tasks.

Having recognised this I want to do something about it! I have a Computer Science background and in the past lectured on operating systems and how computers behave and algorithms and tools that made things work better, matched things to memory and resources and gave everything appropriate priority.  I used to like teaching about the Unix (BSD) way to do things and how it assigned what should happen next. 

So this short post (not least as it is past 1am) is a marker that I am going to work on Life Thrash a bit more, play with the tools that help (again!) and see where I go. I said to Will today I needed to post a declaration to get past this and stop “post about Life Thrash” adding to the  multi-tasking load. So I have.

email must go!

I was just nodding with agreement at one of Martin Weller’s posts  about the trouble with eMail and especially limited institution supplied email – then I realised the last thing that I had thought I sent had generated the dreaded over the limit message for me! And as a Firefox user that is it – the message is lost. I had just received an 11Mb attachment (Martin might guess which one) and what is more I cannot even download it for some obscure reason. Given the document is related to Web2.0 ways of learning there is a certain irony.

Email overflowThis cannot be the way to carry on – it is not as if I even want to read the content of most of the messages. Earlier this week Iain Stinson talked about a Computing Service view of developments. In the notes I blogged at the time I didn’t really cover one aspect he touched on which is how students no longer use their email and switch to facebook etc. He said that this meant that computing services in universities needed to plan around students finding other provision, but he added as an aside that this did not apply to staff as organisational rules meant that their activity needed to be tracked and assured. Well the reality is that staff are also finding the better alternatives – like many I also have my ISP and gmail accounts as alternative emails. But more than that there the complete email alternatives such repositories and social networks offering different ways to get the message across. A few posts back I wondered if we were heading towards the end of email. Now I think it is more like a campaign – email most go!

Study Leave – time for thought

I am on “study leave” for 4 weeks. This is what in the Open University we use as a replacement for the concept of a sabbatical but generally taken in smaller chunks. So maybe more like Google’s 20% time for us to bring out the ideas we really want to work on. Last time I took advantage of this for real by spending 4 months going round the world and being a visiting researcher at University of Sydney. This time I am staying put but trying to rebalance all the things I am doing to complete some of the research elements and play down the admin. Not sure that I have got it right yet as I spent all afternoon at work yesterday, but I might be helped today as external email access is down.
Anyway one resolution is more blogging – it has taken me a week to do this one though :-). Hmm – need to get in the right frame of mind, next thing is to put some shelves up!

End of email?

I am not a great blogger – and so one of the things I do is write posts (in a file called psuedoblog) and then I don’t post them! Well under my resolution to post more often I thought I should have a clearout of my psuedoblogs. So this is actually an entry that I wrote some time ago – if you care to work out when there are clues in what follows :-).

I was talking to John Naughton, Tony Hirst and Martin Weller just after they had given a talk about academic blogging. They are much better at it than I am so if they have reflections then read those – just looked and Martin has put his slides on Slideshare and blogged about the session. Anyway what I want to talk about is not their talk (which I missed!) but how we got onto talking about the complete dysfunctionality of email. I had been thinking about this beforehand with my own collection of unread messages, intended responses, copied in messages to me, copied in messages from me (sorry if yours is in that mix by the way!) and feeling that there has to be a better way. Two particular things are getting to me – not knowing who to send replies to and ending the day with messages that I have written and not sent (the peril of having two computers, three screens and far too many windows open at once).

Not sure what the solution is but a hybrid of blogs, email and wiki might be a candidate. My first idea was “” where instead of replying to individuals I would reply publicly to any questions that might warrant it. I then looked and somebody has beaten me to it and registered – and their concept and implementation probably overlaps with my idea. It is a blog with lots and lots of categories. My next idea was the wiki link – I had just pasted an email trail (about how we need to encourage experimentation in the OpenLearn project BTW) into a private wiki area and thought that in my old Unix days I would have been able to automate all that. Set up a pseudo-email, pipe the message through a couple of filters and automatically add to the wiki. Looking around it was not obvious that such a tool exists but that there are some others looking into it.

Google Knowledge

One of the influences on my own thinking has been whether things are really changing or it only seems as if it is! The great power of Google to drag up things from anywhere and everywhere (almost) does seem to have changed the way I think and act, and I believe this is true for others as well. A key to this could be something I called Google Knowledge.

Google Knowledge is when you don’t know something but you know Google does.

This has changed the way we seem to value various kinds of knowledge. One example is web addresses. For a while a useful skill was to be able to remember the most valuable websites and URLs were part of conversations – great care was also needed to keep your own collection of bookmarks up to date and in good order. Now though we care much less about the URLs that are printed on trucks and business cards, if we want to find someone or something we will Google for it. If on the way we get distracted it might well be by a better option.

A more personal example occurs when watching something on TV and trying to remember the name of an actor, or what else they were in. Rather than searching for long lost memories now a quick Google gives the answer. In some ways this is a shame – a colleague at work has deep knowledge of films but is probably being called on far less to solve mysteries about last night’s showings.

So we are ending up as switched on laptop users fetching obscure and distracting knowledge (unless I am still in my Down Time mode). But I think it also impacts on my writing at this very moment. For instance in good academic style maybe I should throw in some references, or link into some examples – however I know you have Google sitting by your side: so just pick out the words that interest you and find your own links!

Hmm – I thought that the previous sentence could be a final point but actually there is a hybrid version I want to mention. Going back into my past again there was a very nice concept of “Smart Content”, which came to me at from work at the BT Labs at Martlesham Heath and an EU project called GUARDIANS (now there is a Google challenge as the web site folded after the project). In Smart Content the idea is that the content you are reading will pop up the latest relevant material. With the power of Google this is much less of a technical challenge that it was a few years ago – but maybe the choice of what to fetch has to be in the hands of the user rather than the content? Any way here is my Smart Content link to Google Knowledge.

Down time

My summer has involved two good traditional get away from it holidays. On the first occasion we stayed in Gites in Brittany and in the second a cottage in Northumberland. What they had in common is no Internet! We had a computer with us but other than backing up pictures from the camera we did not touch it. At home on the otherhand we are a one desktop, three laptops (at least), online games console and wireless broadband sort of family.This means we easily end up watching television with laptops on and connected doing a weird combination of shopping, planning trips, having conversations, watching tv, looking up things to do with what’s on, and even work. I was going to do a post about the opportunities of that sort of life (and I will do next!) but actually the holiday made me see also the advantages of an unconnected life.For example up in Northumberland we went for a trip to Cragside – the first home to be lit by hydroelectric power. To do this we picked up a leaflet, went to the information centre and had a very nice visit there to the grounds. If we had our Internet connection I am sure we would have spent an hour or so the evening before looking up more detailed information, finding alternatives and random distractions, probably for very little gain.So, along with the wonders of connected learning, living and working I think I will make more space for downtime, and leave the computer switched off a bit more! 

The Butterfly Learner: chaotic learning

An idea that I have passed around for ages is how the Butterfly Effect applies to what happens with learners. This well known application of chaos theory to weather prediction says that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan then the way weather systems work means that this could impact on how a hurricane across the other side of the world plays out some months later. This does not mean that we need to go around attacking butterflies but rather that we need to recognise that modelling weather long-term depends on all the details that happen, and so we cannot expect to build perfect predictions. For meterology this meant giving up on trying to build software that goes forwards more than a few days.

[An aside here: having just been on holiday in France and finding it hard to find a decent Meteo forecast on French TV it is obvious that the UK really does have a weather fixation!]

Back to learning. What I have observed repeatedly is that on the teaching side we carefully set up situations where we expect learners to do something and then they do something else. This was probably always true of teaching but online learning seems to emphasise the effect and also make us more worried about the consequences. To give a couple of examples back when I worked at Heriot-Watt University we were trying to work out what was the best way to encourage participation in the course conference (round 1995) – should we enforce posting through assessment or just let things flow. Anyway we changed our assessment rules over a couple of years and had some nice results: assess and get lots of shallow posts, don’t assess and get deeper contributions. But when you actually looked at what happened it was really down to different students acting in different ways, with some deep posts kicking off discussion one year that did not happen the other. At the time I termed this the Finbar Factor after the name of the student involved (who later on became an educational researcher and might well still be out there – so apologies for using your name!).More recently I have seen similar things from year to year with courses where the profile of students was the same and yet each group would have a rather different experience. Even when the same tutor takes on two groups at the same time and does the same thing with each of them I know cases where one takes off and the other doesn’t. I suspect that this happens all the time and recently in a CALRG presentation there was a great example of having split a popular course into two conference areas, I think it was red-group and blue-group with much more heated discussion in the red area!

So if what happens actually depends on some small action by a learner, perhaps we have the Butterfly Learner. Perhaps those who flap their wings a bit more fiercely an change everything.

What applies to conferences I also think applies to material. I made a minor change to a part of my course material from one year to the next bu adding a bullet point. The previous year that aspect (scenario designs in multi-media) had been pretty much skipped across the students on the course. The next it had a real role and came up in what the students where doing.

So maybe there is also the Butterfly Punctuation – minor changes to emphasis also changing everything.

My interest in this strongly links to my interest in Learning Design. At one level it could all be pointless – no matter what you design, what happens in practice could be very different. And certainly trying to code for every possibility starts to look a thankless task. At the other though if we can get a handle on representing designs then maybe we can work out the stable ones and the less stable. I also think that there is a real chance to work on what it means to learn at the edge of chaos, when interesting things happen and there is a lot of dynamic.And what is the butterfly that pushed me to finally write some of this down: see Martin’s post to see that actually this is also an example of responding to the prompt of assessment!