In search of a better tool…

I like citation managers. Their utility was impressed upon me when writing my M.Sc. thesis many moons ago. “What a time-saver,” I thought. And I was right.

However, I have an overwhelming desire to now use a merged citation manager and PDF annotation software. This started in about 2008 or 2009 with Zotero, but didn’t really take hold until Mendeley.

Mendeley looks polished, Mendeley lets you share libraries with collaborators, Mendeley has a lot of promise… And then one discovers that Mendeley lacks sorting search results. Lacks back-tracing and connecting citations to each other (something that Zotero permits). Lacks some very basic functions that are quickly becoming useful to me. And the support portal is just terrible; it’s where posts go to die. And there are two such portals: one geared toward support, and the other geared toward support.

However, quite recently, a fellow sufferer there pointed me to Qiqqa. Qiqqa isn’t nearly as polished-looking as Mendeley, but there’s an awful lot going on under the hood. I can automatically link citations to each other within Qiqqa. I can see other publications that one article’s authors have written. I can even do a kind of automated clustering analysis to see what broad domains and topics I’m looking at, and which articles fall into these categories.

It is incredible, and I might just take my money I was going to put toward Sente and buy a Premium membership to Qiqqa. I find the Sente forums two kinds of bad: first, they appear largely unmonitored, and a few questions I have asked have been left to rot; second, what might appear to be a private email to their support staff is actually a public post out on the support site–which can be disastrous. I would, however, rather pay a one-off license fee (Sente’s model) than an ongoing subscription fee (Qiqqa’s model, and Sente’s model for increased space). I appreciate the fact that Qiqqa is passing on Amazon cloud costs to the users of the cloud–and I actually think this aspect of pricing is more than reasonable–but I wish I could have a Premium-level experience, sans cloud syncing, for a fixed fee.

If you’re looking for a better tool, you could do an awful lot worse than Qiqqa. The time I do have invested in it suggests that there is powerful magic here.

I have a short overview of my own tool-use on my technology page, but what tools do you use? What aspects of each are most important and well-polished?


Confessions of a PhDumpling

Have any of you had success with weight loss while eating the elephant? Are there any secrets, or is it month after month of chipping away? Please share your experience in the comments section!

Over my tenure in graduate school, I have put on weight steadily. Each new circle of ghoulish hell has marked itself on me, and clothed me, out of necessity, in fat.

I wasn’t always fat. I always was heavy, certainly, but martial arts as a child and wrestling as a teenager kept me fit. I wallowed along for six post-wrestling years until two things happened. I broke my coccyx and slipped a couple of discs in my back in an accident, and I nearly blinded a friend playing racquetball. These two events convinced me that sports–racquetball, at least–were no longer options.

I have looked, once again, into tracking and logging “health and fitness” data[1]. While food is practically fixed by circumstance, exercise and sleep are not. I would like to change these health contributors I can, and be aware of those I cannot. Yet this is problematic. When I start tracking food, I historically get very anxious and end up eating between 800 and 1200 calories a day; not nearly enough. Because of this, and because this time the foods from which I may choose are largely out of my hands, a technically mediated solution to increase exercise is in order.

Academia has shifted my thinking over the years, shifted it from pull-the-trigger-and-barrel-onward to decision-by-committee. However, this is cumbersome, this is lengthy, this is seldom a happy event for all involved. Therefore, rather than wait for the perfect set-up, I am leaning toward starting as soon as possible. Simplify. There are two sides to this equation: input (food I shove into my face) and output (food I metabolically burn off). I will track eating via self-report, but technology can help me report activity.

I seek to do a couple of things:

  1. “Gamify” lumbering around more and plodding up stairs;
  2. Having an external force–in this case, both a display and a human besides myself–prod me to lumber and plod more.

It probably won’t be graceful. It probably won’t be glamorous. But hopefully this can serve as a reminder that little things, done often and routinely, yield big results.

On the technology side of the fence, here is my proposed setup:

With either the Fitbit Aria WiFi scale or the Withings WiFi Body scale (or the next revision, the Withings Body Analyzer scale), my interaction with all this data consists only of tracking food, exercise, and water[2] via the MyFitnessPal phone app. As it can recognize bar-codes, food entry is simple. I already track my daily water consumption, and I don’t plan on getting back into extensive weight-training[3], so the technical side of this transition should be simple enough.

If I am in a good place in the Fall (which means I’m seeing progress in both weight loss and academic status), I’ll probably buy the upcoming Core 2 armband (more details from their press release) for my birthday.

[1] What spurred this latest bout of activity was seeing my girlfriend’s incredible success with The Primal Diet, and my desire to buy her something fantastic for her birthday. This thing (Der Wunderbox!) would track her steps taken and stairs climbed, and evolve into our shared interest in the Fitbit One. And, of course, outliving graduate school.
[2] As described here, this is the supported way to integrate Fitbit and MyFitnessPal.
[3] Extensive here meaning working hard with weights over 5-7 days a week. I do, however, plan to work to muscle failure 3 times a week. If I can actually do this twice a week, it would be beneficial, as it would raise my BMR. Good question from a friend of mine.

Being Intelligent is Not Fun

I have written about Impostor Syndrome and its impact on graduate students, and I’ve been thinking about it. I split the original post into its published form as well as a couple short drafts to turn into future posts. I get to develop the idea further, and you get to see activity on the blog. This is “low-hanging fruit,” and this is something that graduate school has told me is great to harvest (although I think it offensive).

To bring the title to bear, being intelligent is not fun, nor does it provide protection against petty attacks from mundane people (or mundane attacks from petty people). This will come as no surprise to anyone who has actually been through a graduate program in the USA–graduate school here, rather than an Arena of Ideas, is an Arena of Obsequiousness. Fealty to one’s liege, which continues post-graduate school to include fealty to one’s funding agency/agencies. Moreover, intelligence isn’t what graduate school measures, develops, or fosters, and intelligence doesn’t provide total insulation against impostor syndrome as it plays out in graduate school.

I have future book-writing plans, so I won’t say much more than this here. Suffice it to say, when one’s liege is a lazy, self-absorbed idiot, being intelligent and an intellectual is a liability.

The closest I have come to falling victim to impostor syndrome (outside of comparing myself with the person that ought exist) was when a faculty member said I was one of the smartest people in the building. I respected him as a deep and agile thinker, so I was stunned. When I parried by pointing out that I was swimming with weak and half-dead fish, he interrupted me. He told me that, no, he meant in the building. Faculty, staff, students, administration. Everyone.

I was terrified. I felt like I’d somehow sold him a bill of goods about who I am and my abilities. I felt like a fraud and like I had willfully defrauded him somehow. In hindsight, he was trying to warn me, and I missed it. Petty people in mid-career don’t like to be confronted with the fact that others who have not even begun their careers can quite capably out-maneuver them intellectually. In hindsight, I gather that several insecure people must have been worried that I would eclipse them and their work. The truth of the matter was that, no, I wanted to do my work, but this made no difference.

And now I close with a rare moral, as this is a cautionary tale: being the smartest person in a particular room–or building, even–does not insulate you from the petty whims of others. Quite the contrary, it has been my direct experience that, in the American Public University system, being intelligent and an intellectual paints a huge target on your back while also isolating you from the rest of the graduate student body and experience. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog; in graduate school, everyone knows you’re an intellectual, and they will try to destroy this.

Impostor Syndrome & The Dunning–Kruger Effect

I have heard that graduate students suffer from Impostor Syndrome. I suppose that I do, too, but not in the traditional fashion.

Apparently, many graduate students decide that they do not deserve to attend the university, they think a mistake was made and that they are impostors. They believe that faculty are brilliant and untouchable and that their peers are highly intelligent and motivated. And that, somehow, these faculty and fellow students are correctly placed. I never felt this going through my graduate program, as the coursework was simple, as were most of my “peers.” My complaint, and its reception, mirrored an exchange between Lisa Simpson and Principal Skinner. Indeed, it looks like most of my peers made it through their programs under the Dunning–Kruger effect, and sucked faculty into this vortex of self-promotion and -delusion. And they were successful.

I have written earlier about my intense dislike of bio-sketches. When confronted with the blank page and the task of defining myself–and impressively!–it feels so ridiculous and artificial that it overwhelms me. It is when I am confronted with my own vision of who I ought to be that I feel truly inadequate. Furthermore, that person is not me. He has more hair, more hope, more support, less weight. He is significantly happier than I and has sufficient funds to be a “regular” at one or two places. Or to buy a cup of coffee. His major professor supports him and is interested in the work he does–or at least returns emails, phone calls, and text messages. He also isn’t quagmired and stalled under the crushing misconception that earning a PhD requires a lifetime of research and successful inquiry.

God, I envy that guy. He has, while not everything, enough. He has been given a fair shake and has made the best of it. And he is able to capture this in writing–he writes about himself fluidly, simply, and with praise. I suppose that, while I’m here, I should point out that he is also in sync with his time and place.

I hate that asshole.

Bio-sketches are Vile (CVs and Résumés, too)

Bio-sketches distinctly upset me. “Write something about yourself” takes on a new and terrible dimension when wooing and explaining what you do and why people should listen. I have always hated the “first-day” exercises where the professor encourages students to “share something” about themselves. I think that I eventually developed a “name-rank-serial number” approach to this. Interested parties can visit with me socially, as I would with them, after the class session.

I so upset by bio-sketches primarily because I strive to shed philosophical notions of ego. In this vein, “I” dislike seeing “I” so much, but there is little that may be done for it–other than writing flabby passive-voice sentences like this. I can help others, then temporarily embracing ego and identity as necessary artifacts and side-effects of language is the price I must pay. I hate the chest-thumping that sometimes seems mandatory in academia. I dislike the binding of self–and the defining of self–that seems requisite.

In the past, I tried to write a bio-sketch. However, I have never written one to satisfaction. I am not the smartest person I know, but this is by design–after all, who wants dopey friends? So I must write something that is the academic equivalent of, “I’m a genius,” and I just cannot bring myself to do it, or to write anything that doesn’t sound either forced or rehearsed. At this point, I’d settle for, “I’m reasonable” or “I’m approachable” or even “I’m thoroughly pissed at some people now and I’m going to remedy this,” though this last one probably isn’t recommended for press. I’d settle for these things because it would mean that I had moved beyond, “I’m burned out,” “I’m exhausted,” “I’m out of hope.”

This inability to write a good–or passable–bio-sketch, I think, comes down to Integrity. I am not comfortable outlining what I “do,” as I “do” quite a few things, none of which are terribly interesting to academic journal readers. And when I start to think about what it is that I have done academically, the obvious accomplishment is being four years ahead of other publication with respect to an idea I developed and implemented in my MS thesis. But that sounds too self-congratulatory and smug to me (even here, even now, I feel the need to point out that I’m stating fact. I learned things, wrote some software, taught something interesting at my defense; good times.), so I don’t write about that.

I have to wonder: do people really believe the things they write about themselves, especially when the copy is studded with self-congratulatory and -aggrandizing text? Is it indeed the case that who we are is what we tell others about ourselves? I think not, favoring a shared-dialogue view, but the only logical explanation that appears to me is that people who write self-congratulatory prose about themselves must believe that who they are is who they describe.

Time [Mis-]Management & Tracking

I like to track time over projects.

I also like to think of very large projects as software–both require iterative attention, laborious meetings, extensive “back-end” work, and administrative oversight. The dissertation-as-software model doesn’t seem popular, though, so I am using tools in somewhat new ways.

Here are some graphics I made over a year ago (oof) to effectively draw a red, “you are here” X on the map.

Curiosity & Focus

Attention is a tricky, slippery thing to study. Worse, at times, to mindfully direct. I have the unfortunate distinction of having many interests. In the academic world, this quickly becomes debilitating and paralyzing. It am not inattentive, but rather live in a state that is both hyper-attentive and all-encompassing. This state of continuous physiological arousal is wearing, and erodes the soul.

Energy–having physical and mental stamina enough to complete the task at hand–is a necessary but insufficient condition of completion. To this end, Robert Peters writes about scope in Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a Ph.D. An incorrectly scoped project can quickly overwhelm both author and work, and sap energy away from both.

And this is an excellent point that Peters makes very clear. Contrasting with the approach books like Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis, which coach writers to touch the manuscript every day to increase its bulk (for later revision), Peters spends more time with the reader talking about scope and illustrates with his own nearly-derailed dissertation.

In short, filling pages with words are necessary, but dangerous if the project is over-scoped. In fact, the common traits of the very best faculty members with whom I have worked was knowing where to focus (and with which words), and when to stop (project scope).

I am trying to improve my focus via the Pomodoro technique. The mechanical actions prime me to the fact that I have a block of time within which I must attend almost exclusively to X, after which I may do Y (e.g. checking email). In short, it releases me from the worry of not doing Y by making time for it upon the completion of X. At least, it should release me from this worry. It is difficult for me not to find connections in and between everything, and I blame James Burke’s Connections (it’s a tremendous read well-worth the time) for this, but do not begrudge it him.

What techniques, if any, do you use to remove the guilt of not doing Y while trying to attend to X?