Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Habit Tracking  §

Good habits + good balance = happiness?So the tension between getting pressing things done and getting important things done (no, the two do not always coincide, though there is inevitably some overlap) has led me to the little nook of task management known as “habit tracking.” In habit trackers, rather than entering items on a to-do list to be checked off as they are completed, you make a list of “habits” you’d prefer to adopt (work on dissertation 30 minutes every day, eat an apple every day, etc.) and mark your successes and failures, day after day. Some habit trackers (including the one I’m using) also have options to maintain state information, i.e. “current mood,” that stays at its current setting until you change it, and they also aggregate this as data over time, and correlate it to the first body of data.

For the first few days of this week, it worked alarmingly well in the one area just mentioned—getting me to work on my dissertation every day. For the first time in over a year, I have made substantial academic progress once again on my own (rather than someone else’s) work, despite being incredibly overloaded. I have been almost giddy with excitement.

Today, however, the task list forced the habit tracker out of my day while I struggled to keep up with promises I’ve already made to far too many people to do far too many things. The tension is back; there are the things that matter, and then there are the things that I’ve promised to do. Though the promises often seem necessary in any number of ways that I can rationalize, I wonder if it’s time for me to stop promising so many people so many things.

I need to invest more time in the future and less time in the present.

The only problem is that it’s unclear to me whether I can maintain current earnings levels without maintaining current promise levels. I guess this is what they call the treadmill.

As an aside, posting here is one of the habits I’m tracking, and the basic reason why I’m sitting here writing this right now rather than going to bed. There’s a fine line between silly self-domination and transcendental self-liberation.

Symptoms, Rain, Ticks  §

The most ridiculously, impossibly busy semester ever is winding rapidly to a close, so of course we all picked the last two weeks to become ill, then desperately ill, then voice-losingly, intolerably, unbreathably, lay-in-bed-and-feel-like-lead ill. Neither my wife or I can take time off of work. Neither one of us can afford to fall or get behind, and more importantly, neither one of us is allowed to take any time off of work.

But when all was said and done we both spent most of this passing week sitting at home all day nursing a stomach full of various symptom-suppressing drugs and trying to ensure that our young child gets enough steam to cough like crazy at controlled intervals in a frenzied attempt to keep her from coughing like crazy at uncontrolled intervals and in so doing covering the floor with her breakfast, then her lunch, then her dinner…

It has been, in short, a hell of a week during what has been a hell of a semester and while there is a distinct slice of heaven going on here in that we can afford to life and we are a family and we are together and our beautiful daughter has the sweetest temperament ever, there has also been a great deal of hell floating about these last few months.

This year has passed in an impossible flash of wild activity and flailing about trying (and failing) to keep up with the barest requirements of personal, professional, medical, and economic life. We will miss the first year of our daughter’s life once it’s passed, never to return. We won’t miss the parallel year we spent feeling spent, inadequate, and hopelessly outclassed by circumstance.

— § —

Meanwhile, though I should have spent this weekend catching up on my umpteen million responsibilities and the work that has gone undone over the course of the week, the aforementioned circumstances afforded me enough time for reflection to have lead me to another kind of weekend. For the first time in probably half a year, I actually sat down and spent a substantive chunk of time working on my own degree. Imagine that. There’s a great deal more time to be spent before I even really get started, but it’s an incredible and long-overdue step in the right direction to have found the fortitude to spent one afternoon working on my Ph.D. this year.

— § —

Apropos of that train of thought, I’m giving Scrivener a shout out here. I’ve spent so much time over the last few months buried in DevonThink and transitioning away from Evernote that I’d never really had a chance to experiment with this much heralded software package that I’d licensed after a very favorable first impression nearly a year ago just after transitioning to Mac OS.

Scrivener is really amazing. My early small experiments and tests and uses really didn’t do it justice. Now that I start to toss research and notes and index cards and outline fragments into it for a much larger project like a dissertation or dissertation proposal, the power and versatility of the application (also now at version 2.0, which I hadn’t yet looked at since the upgrade came down the wire) is remarkable. One almost doesn’t need DevonThink or Evernote if one has Scrivener. In fact, I’m not sure the “almost” qualifier is even needed.

And with the Dropbox synchronization features that apparently appeared in version 2.0, the thing is now better suited to iPad productivity than either DevonThink or Evernote. It’s an amazing, insightful piece of work and a masterful user interface from a small software company, and damn near reason enough, all by itself, to switch to Mac OS from Windows if you are a professional writer or researcher of any kind at all. It’s that good.

— § —

Had dinner from the local “Tex-Mexican” shop tonight, one called “Fresca Tortilla.” In the grand tradition of street-level New York eateries, it was of course run by an army of skinny Chinese guys cooking up a very inexpensive storm with bare metal and basic ingredients. But it was good food and good value and really unassailable on any reasonable count.

It’s hard to imagine an environment in which anyone but the Chinese cook things for the middle-class public. The Chinese seem to me these days to be the short order cooks to the world, in addition to the iPhone-makers, green-energy-leaders, and up-and-comers.

— § —

In the grand tradition of Ph.D. pursuits, I begin to tire of my chosen academic discipline and of my chosen profession. I’ve begun to be consumed by the desire to read critiques of the university as a concept or as an existing system, whether on the subway or when laying in bed at night. Most recently I’ve been reading Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins and like all the rest, it is resonating strongly with me.

I don’t know where that leaves me as a would-be professor.

— § —

I’ve been dreaming of grade school lately.

My wife and I were talking today about the weather in Oregon since it was raining here.

I recently discovered the two-sided Velcro that comes on a roll and is better than any kind of tape.

I don’t like big desks as a rule, but sometimes I do miss the bigger one that I used to have.

Because my newest neon clock has a switch, the neon is rarely on.

I can’t really remember what life was like before our daughter.

I haven’t bought any music for myself in years and I haven’t listened to any in months.

Time for bed. Yes, at 7:37 PM. While the getting is good.

— § —

Why am I not writing?

Can I even still write?

Not a dissertation, not a one-off “big project” with a small audience, devoid of passion and purpose, but rather writing. Writing.

I am a writer and I can write. When passion is present and the cause is just I can, in fact, use words well. I can do so in ways that are useful, laudable, beneficial to others and perhaps even to society at large.

There is a role that I could play—were it somehow structurally possible for me to actually write.

Unfortunately, however, writing as a craft is significantly more speculative than other types of work. Research, proposal writing, contracting, all of these are time-intensive. Time is what we in the middle class do not have.

It has been suggested that a leap of faith is required, but writing on spec is not the sort of thing that you do once you’re well into middle age with a family, nor is self-publishing. People toss that out rather blithely: “Why don’t you just self-publish?” This as though it is the publishing alone that is time consuming, the writing rather an easy matter (“Just let it flow like a stream! How long can it possibly take?”) and thus easily dismissable.

In fact, there are three hundred million people in this nation and there are likely many hundreds of millions of wasted lives—talents waiting forever to emerge, to be put to use for the betterment of society even as their owners toil in alienated labor as interchangeable parts in the great fleece-the-population machine for the betterment of the several dozen citizens in the More Valuable Classes.

But I digress. Every now and then, when someone compliments me effusively on some small piece of writing that I’ve done for an audience of several whose importance is even smaller than that in the grand scheme of things, saying that they’re surprised…I think to myself, “Well, yes. I’m actually a writer. Or rather, I was once. Before the six meatgrindering, market-driven books that beat it mostly out of me, and the academic career that has largely finished what the books started. Once upon a time, god damn it, I could actually make desirable things with words.”

What a waste some parts of life can seem, if you allow yourself to stop and smell the roses, rather than passing willfully on through, as though you have somewhere to be.

And after all, in this economy, it’s just about all you can ask for if you do have somewhere to be.

Good, Bad, Ugly  §

To get a Ph.D. I am fighting the market and finances, the school at which I’m studying, the faculty employed there, and my family. This is what they mean when they say that as a Ph.D. student you will feel lonely and as though it is “you against the world” at times.

Only it’s not “at times” and it’s not “you’ll feel.”

It’s all the time, and it is you against the world, because a Ph.D. is the kind of project that family and bill collectors see as a frivolous luxury indulgence, and whatever identity and individuality you have is something that the Ph.D. granting people see as a threat to their own livelihood and specialness, so they, too, really wish you ill as a Ph.D. student.

It is a war, on behalf of some idealistic vision of knowledge, against all of society, all of your social networks, all of economic reality, and every subsystem of each of these. It is you fighting on behalf of a religion against the entire forces of darkness.

— § —

On other notes, better ones:

On NYC mechanic services: If you live in the New York City area and certainly if you life in western Queens and you don’t take your car to TM&T (that somehow answers the phone as “T and M” when you call) on Northern Boulevard and 42nd or so, then you are a fool. These guys are the best, most honest mechanics in New York City. And what’s more, they are proper mechanics, not technicians of the sort that are so common today and that are being chucked out by trade schools at an alarming rate. Technicians all do the same thing: (1) plug car into computer, (2) read code number from screen, (3) refer to dealer/manufacturer book for that code and replace whatever assembly is listed there, charging you $$$$$ in the process and often fixing nothing (“Oh, a new code! Guess we’ll replace some other part! Oh, a new code again!” and so on). Mechanics, on the other hand, like the guys at TM&T, actually inspect parts, apply tools to them, clean and tighten things, bend and weld things, and generally make things work.

Every time I’ve gone to TM&T I’ve been very pleased when I left. Every time I’ve gone to another NYC mechanic I’ve been tremendously dissatisfied, and I’ve tried about four others. And I’ve had TM&T do real work, things like replacing rack and pinion units and rewiring. And here’s the real rub: the most expensive bill I’ve ever had from TM&T is less than the least expensive bill I’ve ever had from another NYC mechanic. Don’t be put off by the fact that these guys are so swamped it takes than 20 minutes to answer the phone. There’s a reason they’re so damned popular.

On SquareTrade: I’ve been buying SquareTrade warranties for a while now whilst also crossing my fingers, not knowing whether their service actually lived up to the hype or whether I was blowing my money away like so many soap bubbles by a four-year-old. Well, now I know. SquareTrade is awesome. My LiveScribe Pulse pen, nearly two years old, decided to develop serious screen issues, not as a result of physical damage, but (most likely) some soldering or component defect that left it full of swaths of bright light where there should be none and utter blackness where information ought to have been readable. So I filed a claim with LiveScribe. They ruled on the claim without even having seen the device, sent a return label for UPS by email, then sent me reimbursement for the purchase price the moment the UPS label showed in the tracking system as having been sent. They didn’t wait until it arrived and they had a chance to test it out against my complaint. They didn’t even wait just until it arrived to see whether I’d sent a bag of rocks or a rubber chicken (I hadn’t). They just sent the money, electronically, right away based on my claim and the receipt that they had on file. I was able to log right back onto Amazon.com and buy a replacement with the cash immediately. A fabulous service.

— § —

Yes, I am getting Ph.D. student burnout. But it’s not just about the Ph.D. That’s the sad thing. It’s really about all of society, the disconnection from family and friends, etc. When you hear the discussions you always assume it’s because people just can’t handle the workload or just can’t stand to be in front of an audience of students any longer, but at least in my case, it’s about being too weary to continue to defend your choice to get a Ph.D. in the face of all the forces in society that just don’t value it. It’s nothing to do with the academic or intellectual requirements and/or your own work ethic and everything to do with feeling like you’re tired of offending people, of being the contrarian, and so on.

Desperate Days  §

All in? Backed by what?This has been one of the worst weeks of my life.

Every time in my life I’ve felt like this before now, it had to do with a breakup, a loss, a move, some sort of structural devastation, some sort of drastic change that had occurred that had been desperately unwanted, often completely unexpected.

There is nothing like that this time. Everything is the same. Everything is far too “the same.” Everything is the same as it ever was, only—as is the case week after week—slightly moreso. There are no abandonments, no deaths, just failure and fear everywhere I look. Everything paints a picture of dread, of the dozen or so ways in which it can all come crumbling down, in which I am on the verge of devastating loss, not just for myself, but for everyone I love. And everywhere I look I see failure—the failures to live up to my responsibilities, even as they pile higher and higher toward the sky.

Every part of my body hurts. I am underslept and overtense, my blood pressure is no doubt through the roof and I don’t think I’ve felt as completely unhealthy, as completely spent in my entire life as I do now. I feel as though I may die of old age and general “giving out” at any moment.

Those around me are trying to be supportive by taking “little picture” positions and giving me advice. I should rest more, organize my work this way or that one, shift the way I do things 24 degrees or 48 degrees to the right or left. Nobody but me is caught in the big picture of the thing; the way in which I am simply too scarce a resource to go around, in which there is nothing out there but demands on Aron from all quarters, and with good reason, since they are all from people to whom I have willingly obliged myself and that are now depending on me.

I did it in the name of trying to create for myself and my family the life that we want. I now see that it is better to think small, to understand the ways in which one cannot be anything, cannot be a success, cannot get ahead, cannot jump a class, should not aspire, should not want, should not need in this life and in this society, structured the way that it is.

You are either born a Rockefeller or a nobody. You should learn your place and never, ever, ever try to change it. To think or do otherwise is to invite misery, failure, early death, etc.