Thursday, February 26, 2009

learn to share, or, we all forgot kindergarten

I went to Pecha Kucha Boston last night, which is totally awesome. I highly recommend finding/starting one in your city. It's 20 slides X 20 seconds, so if something is boring, fear not, it will be over soon! Plus it's fun to watch the speaker get flustered cause their slides are blipping along. Yay emax for organizing!

Anyway, there was one talk that I haven't been able to get out of my head. Robin Chase from GoLoco gave a talk about sharing. What is totally awesome is that by just trying to find her name right now, I found out she was the former CEO of Zipcar! Her talk totally mentioned them and now I know she really knows what she's talking about.

Anyway, she believes that sharing is integral to sustainability. And I totally agree with her. I don't own a toolkit, so I usually borrow my roommate's hammer when I want to hang a photo. It's annoying to go find him every time I need his hammer, but it would be more annoying to buy one. What I realized is that we probably don't even need a hammer per house -- we could survive with a hammer per 4 houses or a hammer per block. How often are you using your hammer? Would it kill you to have to wait a couple of hours for one? How much stuff could you get rid of if you knew you could borrow it, no problem, from a neighbor?

Our culture has way too much stuff -- everything is all about getting your own, new things. That "new car smell". Old mattresses have bedbugs. I want a new computer so I know there's nothing wrong with it. Thrift stores are gross. Ew, eating food out of a dumpster is disgusting (sometimes, it's not!)

We don't need all this new stuff! There's so much out there to reuse. The problem is figuring out a way to share, and to distribute ownership responsibilities fairly. My car is sitting in SF right now, unused. Why should I ship it to Boston when there are already so many cars here, and I don't even need one all the time? I've been using Zipcar, but it's kind of pricey, and not good for regular, short trips. I would like to let other people use my car in SF, but dealing with the insurance is a hassle. And what happens if something breaks? How do we figure out who should pay for repairs? Similar problems pop up with me leveraging other people's cars in Boston. I get that slimey feeling asking to borrow someone's car.

The other day I was walking down 6th street in Cambridge, freezing, and I found myself wishing I could hitchhike a ride with one of the people driving down the street past me (warm and snug in their cars), to MIT. Maybe I could set up a regular arrangement -- they drop me off at MIT (3 minute drive, 18 minute cold freezing walk) and I could make them coffee. Or a bagel. I would totally bring someone a bagel every morning if they'd drive me to school (I make good coffee too).

Food for thought. I want to live in a community where we all have less stuff!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Too Many Mediums

I am having a problem with blogging vs. Twitter. I keep having all these little thoughts which I think to twitter, but then I realize I have too much to say, and I should do a blog post instead. Which I never do unless I am seriously procrastinating (as I am now). Also, I suspect way more people read my twitters than my blog.

I have decided the solution is to do more short blog posts, so I can capture more ideas and feel less pressure to write essays. Or maybe try Tumblr. I see the point of it now.

In other news, I woke up early this morning and set aside several hours to work on research in a coffee shop. So far I have successfully cleaned out my inbox, discovered Luis von Ahn's blog, email-debated to a granularity of 1 degree the appropriate setting for the heat in our apartment with my roommate, and read several New York Times articles.

I think I'm going to have to implement some advisor-moderated deadlines so I'm scared into doing work.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chef Neha

Awesome Indian food I made with Becca, Nikhil, and Zoe. We made Paneer Makhni, Delicious Spicy Chickpeas, and Raita. A feast! Indian food is so hard! I had no idea! You have to buy and measure about a million spices. My mom makes it look so easy.

Posted by Picasa

Productivity Porn

Hi, my name is Neha, and I'm an addict.

I'm obsessed with productivity and organization. I have been reading Lifehacker since it started. I tried GTD. I own a moleskine. I love todo lists, gadgets to put my todo lists places, and methods for integrating my todo lists with all walks of life.

I probably do spend too much time playing with productivity methods and software, but I've learned to treat that as fun-time as opposed to work-time. Accepting the fact that reorganizing all the stuff I had to do was not work helped a lot. It's just my hobby! It makes me happy.

So here's a brief (hopefully) post on what's working for me right now.

0. My Restrictions

I work on several computers. I have tried a few different services for syncing folders on the file system, but none of them have been awesome. Also, I end up using 4 different notebooks, and none really has all my information in it. I hate carrying around a heavy bag, and I'm a girl so sometimes I just don't have room for a notepad. Thus, I must keep most of my life online so its always accessible.

I have an iPhone which I love, but I also believe that paper is a very necessary part of life, and I will never solely use a Palm/iPhone/Blackberry for entering information. It blows. I believe these gadgets are mainly for read-only access to your information anywhere.

1. Task Management: Remember the Milk

I love this little company. They created a cute, flexible task manager and they had things like keyboard shortcuts before anybody had keyboard shortcuts. They integrated with GMail and Google Calendar. They supported Google Gears. They're awesome people, and they keep developing and improving a great product. The reason I love this is because of keyboard shortcuts (kill the mouse!) and its integration with GMail, which is basically where I live. It's easy to create tasks from emails and see your tasks in GMail, and they offer you a bazillion ways to customize your lists, create persistent smart searches, tag, annotate, etc.

I have the following lists:

  • Repeating/Deferred Where my repeated tasks go, like paying rent or moving money from my bank account to Vanguard. I will forget to pay rent without this!
  • Someday Where I keep crazy long term things like learning a musical instrument.
  • All Tasks By Date A smart list of every single task, prioritized first by priority and second by date due. Tasks without due dates are at the end. I usually always look at this list, but lately it's gotten so long I've created the following two:
  • Home tag:house OR tag:errands OR location:home. House stuff, like laundry or hanging curtains.
  • Work (tag:hmk OR tag:work) AND (dueWithin:"3 days" OR dueBefore:today). All my work (homework, google, etc) that's pressing.
I can happily add GMail email urls or regular ones to the list, and I can check this on my phone. I'm just starting to use tagging and location (I only use extra features when I need them -- I like to start simple first) and it's helpful to only see the tasks I can do in a certain place.

2. Thinking

I like to scrawl in regular sized college-rule spiral notebooks with a gel pen. This helps me think. Never underestimate the clarity that comes from writing things down! One of my math teachers in high school said that the bigger you write, the better you think. It changed me -- before that I tried to solve problems by writing small within the lines. Now I use the back of discarded printouts. Never feel like you have to type things into a computer (only one way of input!) or just keep everything in your head. I have several notebooks in different places for this, because I find that I usually don't even need to refer back to what I've written, and don't. Sometime I scrawl rough schedules for the day or todo lists, which I transfer back.

3. Brain Dump/Research

Two kinds of research: MIT research and personal research.

I generally use paper, directories/text files, emacs, and git for MIT research. I've started trying out Zotero, but I'm not sure how to use it yet. I keep a big stack of papers on my desk and I carry a few at a time in a usually unsuccessful attempt to get myself to read them. I hate reading on a computer screen. One of my classes is trying to get us to use this in-house online note-taking tool, but I find it cumbersome. However, it's an amazing job considering it was built by a single grad student!

For personal research (like buying stuff or organizing vacations) I tend to use Microsoft OneNote. I had to buy it, and it's only on one machine which runs Windows, but it's just so darn useful for capturing web information. It would probably be even better if I used Outlook (yuck). I've tried EverNote but it's not the same. I was using Google Notebook for a while till it died.

4. Scheduling Time

Google Calendar is my life. One of my classes has a GCal feed, and I love that they did that. I put all events in Google Calendar, hard or not. My only issue is that I have two -- one for work and one for personal/school use. I can't just share the work one with my personal calendar, which is annoying, so I often end up duplicating events to my personal calendar if they are important, since while in school I rarely look at my work calendar. My dad uses Google Calendar too so I can see when he's in town for visiting.

I have got all these calendars 2-way syncing to my iPhone, which is fantastic (much nicer than the web interface). I used to use NuevaSync. There are many options.

5. Browser

I use both Firefox and Chrome. Chrome is faster but only Firefox works with my MIT certificates and has useful extensions. I look forward to this being fixed with Chrome!

Given that I use several different browsers, I use Foxmarks to keep my bookmarks in sync (I don't do this with Chrome, obviously). I've tried to use things like delicious a million times but I just never end up going back to look at the things I've tagged. I keep a toolbar of shortcuts in all my Firefoxes and bookmark sites that I want to check out later -- I still have the problem of looking at things I've bookmarked, so if the page is involved with something I want to do I usually add it as a task in RTM. Also, my open Chrome/Firefox windows tend to be a list of tabs representings things I want to look at/do. I've tried to get better about closing tabs if I already have tasks associated with them (like homework for a class -- I end up leaving my class tabs open) because they add mental anxiety. This is all about learning to trust your system.

6. Classes

I have a notebook per class, and usually I'm very good about taking notes. Everything for a class goes into that notebook, except rough drafts of problem sets (too much paper). I don't usually go back and read them, but the act of taking the notes in class forces me to listen and helps me learn. Most of my other class stuff is online -- I have backed up directories for each class which store problem sets and assignments. I use LaTex for problem sets, but I solve problems on paper first. I don't keep the paper.

My biggest unsolved problem is unifying my computer usage outside of Firefox. I have cygwin installed on my windows laptop, which is ok, and I can ssh into my MIT machines, but it's hard to know where to install programs (like NLTK, which I need for one of my classes). What I have now works ok but isn't perfect.

There you go! I hope that this was useful to someone and wasn't just me procrastinating another hour with my productivity hobby. I might do a follow-up post on workflow that's more GMail focused.

Update on research: I spent this afternoon procrastinating by really setting up bibtex. I use latex for all paper writing, and a bunch of people i know here just keep a giant bibtex file of everything they've ever read, using the annote field to hold notes. I have a simple latex file that then generates the bibliography with notes.

I can't really slice and dice it, but i think i can order it in different ways using \bibliographystyle in latex, and i can emacs search it. Cal Newport also has an idea using Excel.