Proofreading using a text-to-speech engine

I do my proofreading using a text-to-speech engine. Sometimes, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to create a document or a blog post. Other times I type it out. But either way, I like to have the computer read it back to me (NaturallySpeaking makes this very convenient). Listening to someone (or a computer) read my words out loud helps me catch things that I would otherwise miss. Sentences that sound great in my head sound awkward on being read out loud. Hearing them lets me catch awkward and incoherent sentences. More importantly, I hear typographical errors and incorrect words even when I don’t see them.

This was one of the most frustrating things in writing papers in graduate school: I would write something, submit it for review, and discover that there were little errors that really hurt my credibility. For instance, I would repeat repeat a word. I did proofread. I read through my documents carefully. I even read them out loud to myself. And yet, I would read the sentences as I had intended to write them and not as I had actually written them.

I had an experience with a student that showed just how insidious this could be. There was a question on my test that the student asked about. Part of the lab course was on safety and most of the safety questions on the test were very easy.

55.  What can reduce the probability of accidents?

A. use the largest quantity of material possible to accomplish the goal of the experiment

B. when possible, substitute a more hazardous chemical for a less hazardous one

C. skip planning the experiment and “wing it”

D. anticipate the possible consequences of the work you do in the laboratory

The student asked, “aren’t B and D both good answers?”

I asked him to read answer B again. He read it out loud to me as written. And yet he processed it mentally to mean the opposite of the written statement. Nobody would intentionally use a more dangerous substance instead of a safer alternative (that’s why B is a wrong answer). It’s so obviously not something that anyone would want to do, that the mind balks at reading it that way. In fact, the student read the words in the correct order but processed the meaning in the opposite order.

My point is not the student was at all foolish. In fact, he was very sensible: his mind refused to accept that anyone would be so stupid as to do this stupid thing. Here’s the problem: if one is proofreading, or taking a test, and looking for wrong things, it is not an advantage to read things this way. The task is to look for the incoherent statements. If we subconsciously substitute in coherent statements (instead of reading literally) then we will not be able to find the incoherent statements.

This is a great reason to use a text-to-speech engine. It seems like when I hear the words read to me, I am not reading them in my own voice in my head. As a consequence, I seem to be a great deal more critical. And in proofreading, that is key to success.

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Review of Brain.fm

I have been experimenting with Brain.fm. I am finding it very helpful. It has a lifetime subscription option that I bought through the Boing Boing store. I don’t know how long that offer will be available, but with the discount through Boing Boing the price was less than a year of headspace.

Currently, it works through the web, the mobile web, and an iPhone app.  I don’t have an iPhone (I am a dedicated android user despite the consequences). I think they might have an android app coming soon. It works fine on the chrome browser on my phone and Kindle fire. I tend to prefer browser apps over dedicated apps anyway.

 Brain.fm for meditation:

After a year of headspace, I feel like I have the routine down. Brain.fm has very nice 15 and 30 minute meditation options that do seem to calm my brain and make meditation easier.

 Brain.fm for focus:

Most of the time I am using Brain.fm for focus. It’s hard to say how much is the placebo effect, but overall I feel more focused when I’m using it. I find it easier to not procrastinate.  We will see if it helps me to grade papers and edit my backlog of publications. I need a little bit of help because at four in the morning I am not at all motivated to do real work.

 Brain.fm for sleep:

I’ve also used it to go to sleep. I find it very difficult to sleep with headphones in, so it’s more to help me relax in preparation for sleep.  It works really well for that.

Procrastination of the good to achieve the best

To overcome procrastination I’m going to “eat the frog” as my first task in my day. When I get into the lab at 4 in the morning, I usually start with some reading. First, I read the blogs (bad habit). Then I read a journal article (much better). During the election I was hopeless. I barely read science. I’m on a bit of a blog detox these days and my reading habits are much improved.

This week I’ve been getting in first thing and trying to troubleshoot an experiment. I’m frustrated with it, and a little obsessed. In one way, that makes me productive. We’re making progress. In another way, it’s procrastination because I’m putting off editing and grading (which I hate).

Virtuous procrastination is when you are doing something really Quadrant 2 in order to procrastinate something that is Quadrant 1 or 3.

Still, my commitments are going to overwhelm me if I don’t get on it. I think I need to get in and devote time (two pomodoro, perhaps) to the things I least want to do. I need to eat the frog. It will likely make my day less stressful overall.

 

How I organize my life

Here’s the short, short version of three books on productivity: Getting Things Done, Scrum and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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When I try to hold a long list of obligations in my head, I feel very stressed. Each time something comes up that needs my attention, I log it in a central, trusted location called a “bucket.” For my bucket, I use “remember the milk” which as an app and a website. They sync  up so I always have access to the same list through my phone or my PC. I have built a very reliable habit of always putting every “to do” item in RTM. For the most part, that means I don’t have that “wasn’t I supposed to reply to someone about something?” feeling. That’s very important to my sanity.

At least once a week, I purge the to-do list in RTM. I take the tasks in my list and sort them by 2 distinctions: Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important. Urgency is obvious. If a to-do item has a deadline or feels pressing, it’s urgent. Importance is relative to my goals. I ask “is this necessary to move me closer to my goals?” and if it is, it’s important. Things that are not important get deleted. This is critical and it’s the hardest for me. I want to do it all, but I can’t, so I have to choose.

 

If items are urgent and important (“Quadrant I”) I do them immediately or (if they will take too long) I break them down into sub-tasks. Anything that has a deadline goes into Google Calendar. Anything that just requires an email (or the equivalent), I do immediately. If items are not urgent, but are important (“Quadrant II”) they are ones that require special focus. These are the things that will never happen unless I make them happen. These go on the Scrum Board.

 

The Scrum Board has 3 categories: Backlog, Doing and Done. It’s a simplified system relative to real scrum methodology. It’s just for me and not for my whole team. I use different colors of sticky notes to represent different “sprints.” So, I’ll be working on orange sticky notes (current sprint) while accumulating green sticky notes (next sprint) in the backlog. I work on one color until they are done.  Then I discard everything in the “Done” column. That helps me balance my priorities and projects.

 

I also have a daily routine that doesn’t go on the board or the bucket. Those are things like meditation, working out, and blogging. If I do it every day, I don’t keep it in the queue. It’s distracting.

Writing breakdown: brainstorm, sleep, write, edit, repeat

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Based on some of the writing tips on medium.com, I separated my writing routine into three steps: brainstorm, write, edit. It was amazing how easy it was to write in the morning when I had the topic all picked out from the day before. There are some great writer communities on medium.com.

The workflow looks like this: at the end of the day I write down a specific writing topic that I want to cover the next day. That might be something political, a tip for students, or something I’ve built in the lab. It might be a summary of an article I’ve read. When I get into work the next morning, it’s easy to write about a topic if I already have it picked out (if I try to brainstorm and then write, I get caught in endless brainstorming). Once I’m done with a short piece like this, I edit. Editing is easier with a text-to-speech engine. I have a hard time reading my own work critically. Listening to my own work critically is relatively easy. I find that I can hear when a paragraph works. Over the course of the day I look for something I would like to write about tomorrow.

So there you go: if you want to write regularly, try separating your brainstorming and your writing.

Meditation and pleasure reading help me stop procrastination

I try to take 15 minutes to meditate every morning. The old proverb goes: “If you have enough time, you should meditate 15 minutes each day. If you don’t have enough time, then meditate for 30 minutes.” I laughed the first time I heard that, but I think it’s 100% true. The days I don’t meditate or the days I’m most distracted and most prone to procrastinate. The days I’m most stressed and anxious, the days I feel like I have the least time are also the days when I am most prone to procrastinate. Coincidence? I think not. Meditation helps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the more important it is to take the 15 minutes. Or even 10 (like this youtube video). I used the Headspace program for a year and I do recommend it, but once I had it down it was not much harder to do with a free app like the Insight Timer.

The second method is pleasure reading. I’m a lifelong reader of science fiction. I love it. But aside from pleasure, this gives me a real method for reducing my stress and anxiety. Some activities just postpone my anxiety for a short time. So, reading a political or economic article is interesting. It’s a diversion from an important but anxiety-provoking activity. But when the article is done I don’t feel any less anxiety; if anything I feel more. The deadline is a little closer. Kira Newman over at Tech.co expresses her anxiety as a graph, and I think that’s useful.

Procrastinators (like me) don’t want to work until there is a crisis. Strangely, once the crisis hits, I start to work hard and the anxiety goes down. That’s the central paradox of procrastination: crisis = less anxiety. 2016-11-08-05_58_36-krita

This is why a longer timeline for a project may not produce better results or less stress. The longer timeline means that there is room for denial and inertia. The worst thing is an infinite or undefined deadline because anxiety can increase without bounds. 2016-11-08-05_58_47-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

This is also why diversions or “breaks” are dangerous: they put off the crisis that will help get things started and get the anxiety under control. Tim Urban calls this urge to divert the “instant gratification monkey.” 2016-11-08-05_58_48-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

Isn’t pleasure reading another break? I think “procrastination breaks” are attempts to reduce the anxiety the same way that eating snack food is an attempt to reduce hunger. The bad habit would be to wallow in anxiety, divert, wallow, divert, endlessly. Like someone who feels hungry, eats candy, and then immediately feels hungry again. It’s a bad cycle. The answer is not to stop eating, but to eat the right thing: an actual, satisfying meal. Reading is the right thing for me. It’s still not easy to get started without a crisis, but it’s easier without the ever present desire to divert.

 

Fun reading list this year: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, Ash by Melinda Lo, A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Memory by Linda Nagata, The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and even a non-sci-fi book called That’s Not How You Wash A Squirrel By David Thorne

Why I’m glad I didn’t publish that review

I wrote a negative book review a while ago of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfus. I stopped reading two thirds through and got a refund. But I never published the review and I’m glad for that. People love that book. Tastes in literature are not subject of some great, objective truth. If my tastes are weird, that doesn’t invalidate someone another person’s.

 I was mad because I wanted to love the book. I wanted to get the joy that many other reviewers reported that they had. I was jealous that others had enjoyed a work in a way I couldn’t.

I’m really happy that I didn’t write that angry review. It’s unlikely that the author would have read it, but I wrote it to hurt him. I’ve read things about that author that would have made me ashamed to hurt him. He’s a creative person who has been a friend to other creative and kind people. I like his friends’ work. He’s friends with the guys at penny arcade and Jenny Lawson over at thebloggess and the Greens. Maybe at another point in my life, I would have liked his book, too.

Bad reviews have their place, but I feel like it’s tempting to let out all the vitriol out online. I wonder why that is? There’s Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, and that does ring true. It’s a part of the problem. When Alanah Pearce got inappropriate messages from gamers, she told their moms. I think that proves the point: if people thought their moms were reading over their shoulder, most would probably think twice before making rape threats.

But I think it was equally important that I lacked a perception of the identity of that author. It wasn’t just that I was anonymous. That author wasn’t a person to me. He was a name on a book that I was mad at. I don’t know how we resolve that.

I’m glad I kept it to myself.