Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hope and science.

Photo by Cayusa (Bart). {Flickr photostream}

For myself and for many others, yesterday marked the not only the end of the Bush Administration and eight years of failed policies and politics that I mostly disagreed with (the HIV/AIDS program in Africa is one of the few, overlooked succeseses of George W. Bush), but also the hopes for redemption and renewal with the inauguration of Barack Hussain Obama to the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth.  

This election was special, yes, for all the reasons I'm sure you've read in a million other blogs and news articles, but also, on a personal note, because it was the first election I voted in while living outside of the United States.  And I witnessed first hand how people from all over - even here in powerful European Union nations - look to America for leadership and, yes, for hope.  

I started voting when President Clinton was in office but never have I seen such thirst and fervor for change, such high hopes, aspiriations and perhaps expectations placed on the back of one man.  

And while many cynics have prognosticated that this Presidency is bound to disappointment and failure precisely because no one person can hope to live up to such high expectations, I, for one, feel that these dreams can fuel "The Push" that Tavis Smiley commented is necessary to propel the President to become a Great President and achieve great things.

I hope it is not hubris to say that in some ways, I think that people who have not had the desire, the opportunity, or the education and the training to do science and engineering look to us scientists and engineers for leadership and hope when it comes to national and global policies that touch upon our respective research disciplines.

Science must not be political, but politics should be part of the scientist's life.  

Our logical and evidence-based investigations into and our intuitive understanding of scale-spanning phenemona from the smallest mechanisms of biology to the grandest nature of the physical universe puts us in a unique position to elucidate and explain in lay terms to the general public and to policy makers how and why certain things work the way that they do, and why some things should be different.

So often, I've seen friends and colleagues perpetuate a sort of isolationism, blaming politics and politicians for bad policies but not doing anything about it, resigning themselves to simply concentrating on surviving in their little corner of the world.  

Yes, "it is the politicians' job" to sort out these things, but we, in addition to being scientists and engineers, are citizens of our communities, of our nations and of the world.  Simply complaining about it all the time really is just a waste of energy.  

We have to weigh our desires for change against the sweat and tears that it might require, and then, if we so choose, work to create the change that we want to see.  It won't be easy and may require untold sacrifice, but if it's what you want, then the journey will be worth it whether you succeed or not.

I hope.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The New Year and Getting Things Done

Photo by Meredith Farmer. {Flickr photostream}

Well, we are well into the new year and usually it is just about now, two weeks in, that one's resolve to keep new years resolutions starts to be tested in earnest. That's why I prefer instead to make many, smaller, actionable resolutions on a smaller time scale. So instead of resolving to exercise more in the new year, I promise myself that I will go to the gym or the yoga studio at least two times next week. With a bit of persistence and discipline and constant resolution making, this can become part of the normal routine in which it feels weird not do to what one set out to accomplish.

In theory...

Unfortunately for me, this type of self-motivation and goal-setting seems to work only for things that I really, really enjoy, and not-so-pleasurable things that need to be done at work or at home always seem to be put by the wayside, languishing in the hidden corners of my mind. Yet these unfinished tasks do get they revenge, so to speak, as with each passing day of undone-ness, their numbers and power gather in strength and manifest themselves as stress and anxiety over what things I haven't finished and what tasks I've forgotten about.

Which is why I was very pleased to come across "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. It's an organizational system that has been around for quite some time now and has achieved a cult status amongst some practitioners that rivals the Cult of Mac. And although I haven't read the book yet -- I have too many other things I want to finish first! -- I've come across enough summaries and discussions of it on the web to have gotten the general idea of the system.

The general hypothesis is that we have too many things in our mind to keep track of, and that all this clutter impedes our ability to get things done. So if we could get all this "stuff" out of our mental buffer and onto paper, index cards, a computer notebook, whatever, then we could free up our mind for actually doing these tasks.

For those of a computer science mindset, this might be akin to moving all the "keeping track of stuff" processes and data from active memory to the hard drive so that there is more memory for "getting stuff done" processes.

The actual implementation of this in real life is quite mechanical and algorithmic, which suits me quite well as that is my normal approach to work anyway, but I can imagine it to be quite foreign to people who are of a more intuitive mindset. Still though, if things aren't getting done, this might be a nice approach to try.

I'll save the actual details of my implementation of GTD for a later post. Suffice to say that it seems to work better for me than my previous approach, as I organize tasks and projects in Outlook, OneNote and MindManager. I'll also let you know how I'm getting on with this system, if it's actually increasing my productivity or just adding overhead.

On that note, here are two thoughts that I think are useful counterpoints against blind adoption of anything without a clear intention in mind:

My problem (or maybe just the way I feel) is that a lot of people (myself included) get so caught up in the tools, that we loose track of what the end results should be. Maybe it's the tools that I've used, but I don't feel that they promote anything other than collecting and organizing "stuff".

- unknown, 43 Folders group, Google Groups

We can get a lot of stuff done with to-do lists, and they are a very helpful tool, but using the lists alone will leave us feeling unfulfilled because we end up chasing after a never ending to-do list and forget to live our lives.

- Tina Su, "How to Design Your Ideal Life,"

I think the key insight for me is that GTD is meant to be a tool for achieving what you want, rather than the answer to the meaning of life, a lifestyle or even a solution to procrastination. Like many things, change must begin with oneself and we must initiate, take responsibility for, and see through to the best of our abilities and desires the change we hope to achieve. There really doesn't seem to be a substitute to good old fashioned hard work. (Believe me, I've looked really, really hard!)

I know I have been guilty of sometimes being more fascinated with the tools rather than what I could create with them. Keeping that in mind, we'll see how I progress with GTD in getting my research done.

Anyway, hope everyone is well and Happy New Year!