Benjamin Franklin: the grandfather of personal productivity?

August 28th, 2009 by james

A few years ago I visited the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. We spent most of our time poking around the beautiful gardens, enjoying the Californian sun. But the Library collection is pretty remarkable too and it holds copies of the Gutenberg bible, Audubon’s bird drawings, early Shakespeare editions and – a definite highlight – Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

I’m not sure why I suddenly remembered this now, almost four years later, but when he wasn’t experimenting with electricity and founding countries, Franklin was also a bit of a productivity guru. Check out this extract from Chapter 8 of his autobiography (click for bigger):

Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule

He was pretty keen on everything having its own allocated time, supporting what he called the virtue of Order. He never seemed to be quite satisfied with the progress he made (bit hard on himself really) but the interesting thing, I think, is that you can see him actively reflecting on his progress and acknowledging its benefit. Check out these extracts:

I enter’d upon the Execution of this Plan for Self Examination, and continu’d it with occasional Intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of Faults than I had imagined, but I had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish.

And later:

In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it

So there you go: Benjamin Franklin, the grandfather of personal productivity c. 1791. As if he hadn’t done enough already!

Literate programming for talks: Beamer, Sweave and LaTeX

August 25th, 2009 by james

The summer conference season is slowly drawing to a close and we can all put our feet up, right? After all, the papers are done and presented and it’s a least a couple of months before organizers want your abstracts for next year. But before you kick back and relax, it’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on how things have gone and what you might want to do differently next year.

I gave a couple of talks this summer and while they went well, I wasn’t happy with the behind-the-scenes workflow. Some problems:

  • Creating figures in one piece of software, exporting to the right image format, inserting them into PowerPoint, discovering that you made a mistake, re-doing the figures…
  • Trying to shoe-horn a nice story about the results into 10 tight slides
  • PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint – having to use someone else’s PowerPoint template, ugly text and math, big files, etc.

A lot of these issues can be fixed using tips here on the site. Outlining your talks for example helps get away from the staccato style of PowerPoint and as commenters have pointed out here, there are lots of ways to mix slides and narrative in one source file. But I want to go step further and show how you can combine narrative, slides and content (i.e. figure creation) in one file.

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Nascent: Igor – a Google Wave robot to manage your references

August 20th, 2009 by jose

Looks like the Connotea team is on the right track. Instead of trying to bolt something to insert references into word, they are trying to go straight to wave.

We have blogged before about what a good integration between references and writing tools should look like, and quite honestly, Igor looks like it’s really getting it in terms of agility. You can specify a few terms and it disambiguates that into the reference you need. Looks smarter than the approach that endnote/bibTeX/zotero/Mendeley use. It only works for the online reference managers citeUlike and Connotea, though.

I’m not sure the references are portable, i.e., if I copy/paste a chunk of text with references, they come along to wherever I paste it to (it must be another wave, in this case). Endnote/bibTeX get this right, although they depend on a local file that you would have to send along.

As things stand, I think wave has a very good chance of becoming _the_ platform for collaborative scientific writing. You may have to convince your collaborators to try it (and some must have been put off by Google Docs, which is clearly not ready for science), but it could be very motivating to see their writing grow next to yours in real time.

Since wave is a lot more open than Google Docs it would not surprise me to see robots coming up to mend the deficiencies that make Docs unfit for papers: no tables, crossrefs, footnotes, equations, etc. Wave gives you versioning for free, which was another pain point of scientific collaboration.

from on .

Graham’s insight: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

August 20th, 2009 by jose

This single Graham’s post explains more about productivity than most entire blogs on the topic out there. It was a revelation to me. Any day that has more than two non-clustered events  becomes wasteful automatically. It’s like your mind can anticipate the futility of trying to get in the zone only to get kicked out of it by a meeting. This also explains why the typical ‘maker’ (a postdoc, or grad student working close to the data) tends to gravitate towards late nights work stunts, whereas professors rarely do. In fact, one big difference between professors and grad students is the number of meetings they have to endure… Can you be a maker and a professor? If so how do you do it?

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

Study Hacks on Rethinking What Impresses Employers and being a hyperspecialist

August 18th, 2009 by jose

Cal Newport says people think that the more hard things they do, the more impressive they’ll be to potential employers. He calls this the diligence hypothesis. This is a leitmotiv in his blogging.

However, this trend of getting (and looking!) as busy as possible is not exclusive to undergrads (his audience). I don’t know any academic that doesn’t look stressed. We mostly hoard more tasks that they can realistically accomplish. But academics love their jobs (or so legend has it), whereas most people don’t. People who have day jobs say their long-term strategy for dealing with no life is to amass enough wealth to have more freedom of time to be able to do  things they love. We try to do the opposite: a job we love that invades every corner of our lives.

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