Category Archives: School

Drinking from the Firehose

As our first week draws to a close I have realized, quite jarringly, that my existing systems for task and information management are dreadfully inadequate for dealing with this kind of volume. I’ve worked as a professional web designer and developer for five years, in small companies at various levels of authority, and even spent a year or so running my own freelance web design business.

As a web director at my last job, I managed a project for completely overhauling, recoding and migrating the website and commerce engine for the largest windsurfing and kiteboarding shop in the United States. The project launched on budget, and three months ahead of schedule. I know how to manage tasks. I know how to get things done.

But I don’t know how to do this.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree I had a computer. I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t have a cell phone. I had a Palm Pilot, which was a great way to waste a lot of time and maintain an awkward mass in my pocket. I would receive only an email or two a day, mostly from my parents. Students took it as a personal affront when professors would send an email to the class. If a professor were to announce an assignment via email, there would have been riots.

There was no OnCourse. There was no online syllabus. Professors had their personal websites, many of them striking a decidedly GeoCities pose, but it was rare for a class itself to have a website. For handling tasks, it was perfectly manageable to keep everything in a weekly planner. All my readings and all my assignments would arrive in the classroom. This single, unidirectional information stream, this was something I could handle.

I didn’t go to college in 1970. I went to college in 2003.

A lot has changed since then, and I’m not so sure it’s all for the better. The wireless networks are more stable, the average walk-up computer is far more powerful, but the biggest problem I’m experiencing is this relentless onslaught of information, coming at me from every side in every possible medium. My calendar alone is freakish in nature.

My organization and task management has improved since graduating from college, which is good considering that managing a commercial commerce rebuild in a personal weekly planner would have been sheer lunacy. I would argue, however, that managing personal tasks is a far different beast than managing a group project.

After this first week I’ve realized that my weekly planner, the means of personal task organization that I associate with school, may not be the answer to my organizational woes. Fortunately, for the last two years of my life I have been using a casual, stripped-down implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. At its most basic, I attempt to collect every single task that is assigned to me, every single thing that may demand my attention, and localize them all in a single inbox.

These task items range from “water the plants” to “renew health insurance” to “pay rent” to “get an internship”. I will collect tasks in my inbox throughout the day, copying stuff from my email inbox, writing down things from conversation, or things that I need to do that suddenly popped into my head. A couple times a day I will “process” my inbox, whereby I go through all my tasks, get a taste for what needs to be accomplished soon, what can be postponed, and what needs to be broken down into further tasks.

That last point is important. A monumental task like “get an internship” is meaningless until you break it down into near-term achievable components. In this case, I will break down “get an internship” into “finish and print rough draft of resume”, “schedule meeting with career center”, and “begin collecting items for portfolio.” Any die-hard GTD fans out there may chide me for not implementing the full-blown system, and perhaps my life is suffering as a result. Indeed, the sudden increase in task volume has already strained my system.

Ironically, for being a tech-savvy person who’s pursuing a degree with “computer” in its title, I am not easily convinced that technology is always the best solution for a problem. Up until a month ago I kept my entire task list on a series of small legal pads. Historically most GTD applications have been awful, as they focus more on categorizing and organizing tasks rather than actually checking them off.

I’ve recently started using Things, which is the only GTD app that I believe gets it right. It retreats to the background and is open enough, while still organized enough, to adapt to your personal strategy. Plus, the new version of Things will sync with the Things application for your iPhone, so you can have your task list wherever you go. If the movers ever arrive and deliver my primary computer, I’ll be able to set this up.

However, over the last week it has become apparent that I will need to develop a task list where I can quickly and efficiently capture ten times the activity than I was encountering before our program started. With all these new avenues for incoming information, from class to email to websites to blogs to forums to OnCourse, I will need to overhaul my system soon, or it will buckle under its own weight.


Indiana University is as beautiful as all get-out, and I’m as stoked as hell to be here. This morning I meandered through a campus shrouded in fog, weaving between beautiful limestone buildings and cool, soothing forests.

Tiny streams flow across campus, cutting through the soft soil and spilling over the hard layers of native limestone in small waterfalls. There are arching stone bridges and wooden pathways. On these walks, surrounded by towering oaks and maples, I sometimes feel like I’m closer to Ihduhapi than I am to Bloomington. The cicadas and humidity lend credibility to this illusion.

I’m sitting here now in the South Lounge of the Student Union, a confused and sprawling maze that is at any point a museum, study lounge, hotel and food court. The university swag store is in a cathedral, with soaring arched ceilings and thick exposed timbers. On one floor, which so far I have only been able to reach by taking an outside stairway, there is a piece of wood in a glass case that no doubt has some historical significance. Two floors below that is a pool hall and a bowling alley.

South Lounge is an old and ornate room, done up with a squeaky wooden floor and wood paneling, stone arches and chandeliers. Belle and Sebastian echoes softly from the Starbucks next door, and the morning sunlight filters in through a bank of arched windows.

They didn’t get everything right. The hallways of Ballantine Hall smell like must and pee, while the library is a windowless hulking mass that is unaffectionately referred to as the Triscuit. Kate’s building looks like gymnasium.

Nevertheless, it’s all about finding your environment and occupying spaces that inspire you. There’s still plenty more here to explore, and I love what I’ve found so far.

97 Miles to Kentucky

While speaking to some friends recently I realized that I have been unnecessarily vague about our plans for the future. This ambiguity came purely by accident, and it will likely come as a disappointment to know that I have not been subtly manufacturing a story arc of impossible genius. Rather, it’s this damned fracturing of one’s online identity, shattered and cast across a dozen sites in the name of social networking, that’s rendered any loose shard near incomprehensible when considered absent its brethren.

It is in the interest of clarification, and yet still in convolutions such as these, that I write to you now, to let you aware of our current situation.

Indeed, Kate and I have settled on a graduate school. This coming August we will relocate to the bluff country of southern Indiana to attend Indiana University Bloomington. It is in this setting that we will eat at Chick-Fil-A, cultivate our southern drawls, and enjoy glasses of sweet tea that sweat in the late summer heat. Kate will pursue a Master of Public Policy with a focus on environmental issues, and I will be collecting syllables by going after a Master of Science in Human Computer Interaction Design.

My goal, ultimately, is to build kick-ass interfaces that are so beautiful they make people want to cry, perhaps similar to the way this turns me into a blubbering pile of snot every time I watch it. Kate’s goal is to work for a groovy non-profit that advertises in High Country News, perchance entertaining a position that keeps her above the poverty line. Our mutual goal is to move back to the West, the Pacific Northwest in particular, upon finishing our programs. This is not a goal so much as it is a promise.

And while it may be 97 miles to Louisville, it’s only 56 miles to French Lick.


After two weeks of leading a jet-setter lifestyle, crisscrossing the country in economy class, and enjoying only the finest plastic cups of Canada Dry, I have returned home. Ahh, Hood River, where all the postal clerks know my name, I have the EDGE network all to myself, and there are no more than two places to eat in town.

Having flown on no less than eight flights and two different air carriers over the last couple weeks, I feel I am in a position to accurately report on the current state of air travel in our nation. Here’s the gist of it: Fewer flights, packed flights, longer flights. It’s a totally awesome combination, considering that you are free now even from the in-flight burden of consuming a bag of three broken pretzels. As far as I can tell, air carriers are running fewer flights to most destinations, and packing all of their remaining flights to maximum capacity. Every one of my eight flights was completely full, with additional travelers on standby in case of no-shows.

Now, a completely full flight takes a ridiculously long time to plane and deplane, so one would think that this, combined with a record number of delayed flights, would result in a cascading disaster of lateness. Not so! It seems the air carriers have taken into account the additional time it takes to load up all that extra meat, and have padded their schedules accordingly. If the flight before yours takes an abnormally long time to deplane, and your flight takes an abnormally long time to board, you’ll still likely arrive at your destination “on time”, as the travel times between cities have been arbitrarily increased to allow for these delays.

If your flight happens to board quickly, however, it just means more time sitting on the tarmac, waiting for your takeoff window. The good news is, this allows you all sorts of extra time to peruse Sky Mall, which currently features such awesome products as a colon-shaped brownie tray, litter boxes for one-legged cats, and Taylor Fay.

So where, you ask, did I travel during all this? Two weeks ago I had an incredibly early flight out of Portland, so I spent the previous night at the La Quinta near the airport to take advantage of their “Park and Sleep and Fly and Sleep and Park and Fly and Park” program. Thanks to an utterly bizarre celestial alignment I drove to Portland State University that night, and caught up with a Hopkins friend who I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

The following morning I flew from Portland to Dallas, met up with my cohort Jake Ingman, and flew to Austin for the SXSW Interactive design conference. For the next five days we drank obscene amounts of liquor, fed Mark Bixby obscene amounts of bacon, and occasionally talked about interactive design. We also cruised around in RVs and ice cream trucks, got kicked out of bars, rode giant wooden unicorns, and established Awesometown, USA (population: You).

After all that (there is a whole lot more to “that” than mentioned so far) I flew from Austin to Dallas, where I had a five-hour layover until my flight back to Portland. After reaching Portland I didn’t even bother driving back to Hood River, because the following morning I had to catch a flight to Minneapolis. Instead I once again spent the night in a king-sized Tempur-Pedic bed at La Quinta Portland, still confused, drunk and disoriented from SXSW.

I met up with Kate at the Minneapolis airport and we flew to Detroit, an airport that is so utterly dominated by Northwest Airlines that in the baggage claim they have a sign that says, “Lost or damaged baggage? Then fuck you!” We took a shuttle to Enterprise Rent-A-Wreck, who sent us away with a Grand Caravan and five children who needed a ride to soccer practice, and we then drove to Ann Arbor to visit the University of Michigan.

We spent the next four days in Ann Arbor, meeting with our graduate programs and eating Silvio’s Organic Pizza and wandering through cemeteries, until deciding that we just weren’t far enough south and needed to travel to Indiana. We headed back to Detroit and traded in the Grand Caravan for a Chevy Rollerskate, a deathtrap of a car that gets 32 mpg and would likely get lodged under an SUV in a crash, and drove to Bloomington to see what Indiana University is all about.

Indiana University is all about rain and “hoosiers”. We know what rain is, and there is apparently a lot of it. As for the hoosier, no one seems quite sure what to make of that. Fortunately Bloomington is wrought with delicious Thai and Indian food, which is simultaneously foreign and familiar for both Kate and I. Bloomington is also far enough south that McDonald’s has sweet tea on the menu, the student union has a Chick-Fil-A in the basement, and Kate swears that she will pick up a drawl if we happen to go to school there.

The sun shown beautifully on the Red Lobster the day we left Bloomington. Bound for Detroit to catch our evening flight back to Minneapolis, we stopped in Ypsilanti just so we could say we had been there (it’s called the Sufjan effect). From Minneapolis my flight to Portland was delayed, but by that time it was already so late and I had flown so much, that you could have told me our plane was infested with flaming poisonous snakes and tiny clones of Samuel L. Jackson and it still wouldn’t have fazed me.

Upon reaching Portland I took a shuttle to the hotel, thought wistfully of a giant Swedish mattress, but resolved to collect my Subaru and make the dark drive back to Hood River. Eight flights and two weeks later, I stumbled through my front door at two o’clock in the morning.

Rice Balls

We’re done. Kate and I have finished our applications to graduate school, all of our transcripts have been submitted, and our recommenders have completed their assessments of our qualifications. In the end we only applied to three schools, as the fourth school on our list made considerable effort to come across as an arrogant prick. It was as though they were doing us a favor in allowing us to apply to their school, and we should be so lucky that they were taking the time to communicate with us in the first place.

So now after four months on this project, averaging two hours of work every evening of every day, we now wait to hear back. Or at least, some of us are waiting to hear back. Kate was accepted to her program at one of our schools less than a day after submitting her application. I keep telling people that I’m involved in an abusive relationship, and my girlfriend beats me. Not only does she beat me by turning in her applications before me, but she beats me in getting accepted to her schools before me.

In other news, on Friday I finally got my car back from the auto body shop. They were having a hell of a time resetting the error codes in the system, so they had to take an extra day and drive it to the Subaru dealership in The Dalles and have them clear out the codes for good. While they were driving to The Dalles a rock got kicked up by another car, chipping my brand-fucking new windshield, and requiring yet another day of repair. I am becoming increasingly convinced that either my car or that stretch of highway is cursed, and I will never again be able to drive to The Dalles without suffering the consequences.

I went snowboarding at Mount Hood Meadows today, and had a splendid time scouring the mountain for something that was not ice. Conditions were fairly mediocre, as we only have a 50-inch base and we haven’t had a significant snow storm in more than a week. Ice and rocks aside it was great to get on the hill, and even though I loved driving the Ford Focus while my Subaru was in the shop, it’s nice driving a car to Hood that doesn’t leave me feeling terrified. Oh, Ford Focus, it’s sad and alarming how much you have in common with my old Ford Tempo.

There is encouraging news, too, on the knee side of things. I went riding at the mountain last weekend with my friend Joe, and on my second run I took a huge digger right on my knee. While it hurt like crazy I assumed I was just acting the wuss, and so I forced myself to keep riding on it for four more hours. By the time we got to the van it was feeling pretty tender, and I iced it with a ziplock bag of snow for the drive back to Hood River.

When I got home my knee had since swollen to the size of a grapefruit, to the point where I couldn’t even stand and cook dinner. It was all I could do to drop ibuprofen, ice my knee, and sit on the couch watching episodes of The West Wing. The injury has since matured into an impressive bruise that spans my leg, and I no longer look like I have the knee of a World’s Strongest Man.


I yearn for those olden days where we would write at length of such subjects banal, yet of recent my limited mental faculties have been tied up with liquor and graduate statements. Sometimes these two will act in concert with one another, usually to amusing but altogether useless results.

With that noted, allow me a moment to discuss what I have recently discovered as an absolutely worthless writing stratagem, detailed here in an effort to save you from pursuing a similarly fruitless endeavor. Lacking any true and particular clarity of term I shall refer to it as asynchronous writing, much to the amusement of few and the befuddlement of most. Nonetheless, such shall be the topic of question.

Asynchronous writing could be compared similarly to stream-of-consciousness composition, differing only in how it utterly lacks the comparably rigid structure of such mental drivel. You would not be faulted for terming it diarrhea of the mouth, excepting that it is indeed not the mouth from whence the bowels be cleared in this instance. Rather it is a far more efficient transmission taking place directly from brain to paper, or to a Terrible Digital System, bypassing the verbal entirely in favor of the written word.

The result of this process is no shortage of words, lest it be a concern of yours that the asynchronous methodology would lack in producing so much quality offal. Rather, the process creates a limitless trove of precious ideas that are useless when attempting to frame a more coherent composition. This collection is naught but a burlap sack brimming with stray words, that would be best topped off with stones and cast from a bridge. Left to its devices, an asynchronous writing regimen will cycle upon itself, producing drivel ad infinitum and smothering you under its sheer girth.

Even when arbitrarily limited to a hundred pages the system continues its ceaseless recursion, impossibly increasing in complexity within its closed informational system and still producing nothing of value. The only hope is to abandon asynchronous writing in favor of the more traditional synchronous writing, which makes the bold assertion that related words should follow one another in a general succession that facilitates understanding.


As of this weekend, Kate and I are finished with the GRE. Honestly, the only way they could have made this process worse is if they tested us under conditions similar to the short-lived game show The Chamber. After about the third hour of taking the test I was ready for the blasts of cold air, the flame throwers, the electric chair, the occasional boot to the groin, but apparently even the barbarity of Educational Testing Service has limits. I tried to convince Kate that they required you bring them a pint of your own blood on the day of the test, but she didn’t believe me.

We’ve narrowed our selection down to four graduate schools, and with this test out of the way we are finally on the last stretch of the application process. Honestly, applying to graduate school is so time-consuming it’s like having another part-time job, on top of your existing full-time job and your other part-time job. Every evening for the last two months I’ve come home from work, only to dedicate 2-4 hours a night to applications. I find it ironic that polishing up a resume and applying for a great job is a piece of cake, while the process for wanting to give someone else $30,000 a year could be so intensive.