Blogging

Blogging is hard, but worth the effort

Lately, with the freedom of the summer holidays, I’ve tried to make a habit of updating my blog on a regular basis. And the longer I go, the harder it seems to get; either the ideas dry up, or I don’t feel comfortable publishing what I’ve written.

Thankfully, though, these aren’t challenges unique to me. One of the obstacles, I’ve come to learn, is something called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ Although it doesn’t apply directly to blogging, the idea could be extended to say that, inherently, we as writers assume that everyone else knows what we know, and therefore tell ourselves that whatever we’re writing is common knowledge that everyone will have already read.

Hearing other writers allude to this phenomenon, and the need to block it out, has been greatly reassuring.

Another challenge with writing a blog is the question of quality. Knowing that your writing is going to be accessible by a large proportion of the world’s population can be daunting, especially when most of what’s published online these days can never really be erased.

Some wise words from blogger and programmer Steve Yegge comforted me on this front:

“People aren’t going to hold you to some exacting standard; they’re not going to demand that every blog entry you write be interesting or useful. Nobody can insist that you blog with regularity — blogs aren’t bowel movements, although certainly some of my entries have shared a certain family resemblance to them. But people are pretty forgiving, on the whole.”

— Steve Yegge, You Should Write Blogs

None of this is to say that you should publish everything and anything that ever occurs to you; it still pays to run each idea through a quick mental filter before publishing. Is this offensive? Fair? Does it sound snarky?

Being able to publish freely and openly on the internet is a huge privilege, if you think about it. Once upon a time, to have your voice heard by more than your own social circle, required sending a letter to the paper, thereby subjecting yourself to the whims of the editor, or becoming sufficiently esteemed to write a column of your own.

In closing, another quotation from Steve Yegge:

“That’s a key thing to realize about blogging: you can’t please everyone, and you won’t please everyone, so focus on making yourself happy. The rest will just happen naturally.”

Is Nine-to-five Really the Best Way to Work?

I’ve been working on a number of different web design and development projects over the past week, and during my attempts to get work done, I’ve come to realise just how little discipline and consistency I have when it comes to work. Despite intentions of working from 9 until 5 and then calling it a day, I frequently find that I work for a couple of hours in the morning, take a break, work a couple more hours, have dinner, watch the news, and then, realising that it’s getting on, do a bit more work before bed (which is invariably at a later time than I intend).

Yet, the conventional wisdom in our society still seems to maintain that nine-to-five, with two days off at the weekend, is the optimal way to get work done. Partly, I suspect, it has something to do with the nature of the work in question: creative work, such as designing websites or writing an article, requires motivation that perhaps more menial or repetitive tasks do not. But a large proportion of our work force engage in tasks that would not be classified as menial, and which demand attentiveness and focus in order to produce the best possible output.

We often hear statistics about how little time people who work in offices actually spend working, and how much time they instead spend browsing Trade Me, social media sites, and I suspect travel websites too. I think we’re supposed to react with shock, and feel ashamed about our collective lack of discipline and integrity – but the fact that so many of us do it surely points to a different truth.

Maybe our current work culture, in which sitting at a desk for a prescribed number of hours is thought to produce the greatest outcomes, is rather more counter-productive than we think.

None of these questions are remotely new, of course. I know many companies, especially those in the tech space, have challenged such long-held assumptions. But many others, to my knowledge, have not. If you have any thoughts to add on the topic, please leave a comment below!

Handwritten notes are more effective than typed ones

Taking notes on the computer is detrimental to learning, and it’s not just because of Facebook, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles […] Even when all distractions are eliminated, handwritten notes are still dramatically more effective at helping students retain information, according to the study.

Boston.com

This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Reflecting on my high school career, note-taking was one area in which I could still do with a lot of improvement. It is difficult during class to resist the urge to take notes verbatim, mainly because it requires less effort at the time, but this new research gives me no excuse to continue doing so.

When you consider the reduced distraction and increased retention of summarised hand-written notes, versus verbatim typed up notes, it logically makes sense to stick with the old ways, even though the progressive side of me wants to embrace the power of modern technology.

In saying that, I will be studying Computer Science in 2015, and as a result I may require a laptop on hand if I ever want to try out a piece of code or take advantage of a proper text editor. Which method of note-taking is most effective, therefore, may depend on the circumstances.

But in general, for subjects that are word-intensive, I’m inclined to agree with the science that hand-written is the more productive method.

Unroll.Me

Email Protips: Roll it up

If you, like me, have subscribed to one too many email newsletters in your time (or a hundred too many, in my case) you’ll probably feel like email is a bit of a burden. Every time you login to your email and check your inbox, there’s another half a dozen or so emails that you have to mentally process. And if you receive email notifications on your phone, or have a habit of instinctively checking your email every ten minutes, then the steady drip of emails is most likely a menace to your productivity.

You’re probably aware by now of the cost of constantly switching tasks – returning to the original task takes, on average, upwards of 20 minutes, following an interruption such as checking your inbox. Dropping everything every time you receive a new email is inefficient, and another obstacle to getting your best work done.

There are numerous tips and techniques out there to help improve your email management, and I would suggest you try a few to find out what works best for you. Today, however, I would like to share with you a free tool that seeks to address the issue I opened with – namely, keeping tabs on your email newsletter subscriptions. That tool is Unroll.me.

Before I give you a quick rundown of how it works, I should note that Unroll.me currently only supports the following email clients: Outlook.com (including Hotmail, MSN, & Windows Live), Gmail, Google Apps, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, and iCloud. I say only, but these email clients probably cater for the majority of email users today.

Unroll.me calls itself “the easiest way to manage your inbox. Unsubscribe from unwanted email subscriptions, discover new ones and organize them all in one place.” The way it works it that, once you’ve signed up, Unroll.me connects with your email client, scans your existing emails, and then intelligently compiles a list of your existing email subscriptions. From there, you can quickly sort through your subscriptions, and decide whether to add them to your rollup (more on that next), unsubscribe entirely, or keep them in your inbox as usual.

The way the rollup works is that you first add a subscription to your rollup – some of my favourites include NextDraft, Brookings Brief and the monthly Icehouse newsletter – and then whenever you receive a newsletter from one of those sources, it doesn’t appear in your inbox, but instead is added to your rollup, which you can choose to receive in the morning, afternoon or evening. I, for example, receive a rollup every morning, at 7:00am.

The rollup, pictured below, shows a short snippet from each newsletter, and you can click the view link to read the entire thing if you choose. This way, you can quickly scan your emails to find what’s relevant, without having to manually mark each one as ‘read’ if you’re an adherent to the Inbox Zero philosophy like myself. Although they skip your inbox, Unroll.me doesn’t delete your emails, but stored them in an ‘Unroll.me’ folder in your email client, so you can still search for them if necessary, for example, if you want to forward a newsletter to a friend.

Unroll.me Rollup

Daily Rollup email

That’s Unroll.me in a nutshell. Their website has a whole lot more information, and I suggest you read the section on Security if you’re a bit concerned about a third-party reading your emails. I’ve found the service really reliable, and as  Gmail user, at least I know I can always revoke access if I decide I don’t need it any more, or have concerns about privacy.

With a well-designed interface, and slick daily email, Unroll.me has become one of those tools that quietly makes every day a little bit more pleasant, and a tad more productive. It’s not the only tactic that I use for managing email, however. More tips to follow soon!

STS-116_spacewalk_1

Savagery and Kindness

As New Zealanders, we have a great deal to be proud of. That is not to say that New Zealand isn’t without fault, but then again, neither is any other country. I’ve noticed an inclination among some people my age, and other ages too, to remark cynically about our country, and indeed the world in general. People who criticise New Zealand’s literature, politics and people. Again, we shouldn’t be blind to the issues affecting society, but I doubt if pessimism will get us very far.

Thankfully, my high school studies in 2014 provided an effective counter-weight to this cynicism, and helped to remind me why our history and culture is something worthy of our pride – or dare I say it, patriotism.

This sense of pride has only been reaffirmed by my reading of the Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand. I will write more about this in future blog posts as I get further through its 526 pages, suffice it to say that, for the considerable tumult that our country has experienced, equally there have been many moments that New Zealander’s today have reason to cherish. To quote one extract from King’s history that is complimentary to Maori and Pakeha alike:

Cook’s view of Maori, in turn, was that they were ‘of a Brave, Noble, Open and benevolent disposition …’ Like his crew, Anne Salmond notes, Cook was affected by his encounters with Maori, ‘surprised [by their] sexuality, infuriated by their attitudes to property, and shocked by … cannibalism.’ But he was never in any doubt that they, like the Europeans they confronted, befriended and even wept over, were fully human – on each side there was ‘savagery and kindness, generosity and greed, intelligent curiosity and stupidity.’

Perhaps not the most inspiring insight to be gleaned from New Zealand’s past – Parihaka would be a far better contender for that title – Cook’s early encounters with Maori nonetheless remind us that when people from different backgrounds, with different cultural norms, co-operate rather than squabble, good things can happen. And for that, I think we can be at least somewhat hopeful about the future.

eat-your-zipcode

Questioning the virtues of ‘buying local’

“[It occurs to me that] the many “Progressives” who extol the alleged ethical virtues of ‘buying local’ have much more in common than they realize not only with the many conservatives who extol the alleged ethical virtues of restricting immigration, but also with (the fortunately fast-falling number of) racists who extol the alleged ethical virtues of minimizing contact with people of ‘other’ ethnicities.”

— Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek

In spite of the prevailing notion, there is nothing inherently virtuous about ‘buying local’. In fact, as Boudreaux argues, making purchasing decisions based on geography alone is not dissimilar to excluding or discriminating against people based on ethnicity. I would also add that buying local is not, as some assert, inherently better for the environment.

The operative word here being “inherently”. There are, of course, instances when it makes perfect sense to buy locally made produce, for example when the negative externalities of shipping a product from overseas outweigh the reduced efficiency of produce grown locally. As another commenter points out, it also makes sense to buy locally grown produce when the quality is higher than that of the imported produce.

For a more in-depth primer on the questionable virtues ‘buying local,’ I recommend Freakonomics’ article The Inefficiency of Local Food. If we are to meet the rising global demand for food — in the next 50 years, experts estimate that the global food system likely needs to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years combined — then we need to focus on efficiency, and we should only prioritise locally grown produce when it best fulfils that objective. Otherwise, costs will rise, famine increase, and the environment suffer more than any of those factors need to.

Photo Source

Reserve Bank of New Zealand

Rogernomics and the Issue of Inequality

Last week, I made a few remarks on the life of David Lange, after just finishing his autobiography, My Life, so it’s only natural that I should follow it up with something about social justice, an area in which the policies of the Fourth Labour Government have long been faulted.

Although Lange doesn’t admit to so much in his autobiography, an obituary written by the Guardian in the wake of his death, in 2005, notes that, “after he ceased being prime minister, he often seemed a rather lost soul, troubled by the human consequences of the economic policies of his government.” Lange himself also mentions in passing in the book that, around 1989, when he fell out once and for all with Douglas and his Cabinet, he became dependent on alcohol to the point that he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.

Although such personal issues are a poor proxy of the wider implications on society of Lange’s time as Prime Minister, they do indicate the extent to which he felt guilty for the changes which he presided over. When a figure as intelligent as Lange feels so visibly guilty for his own actions as leader, it suggests that the issue is one worth contemplating.

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