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Neo-Victorian #AcWriMo: week 3

Week three is up, and my #AcWriMo/#NaNoWriMo project is on-track at 36,500 words and counting.

I spent a fair amount of time this week tinkering around with Scalar to try to improve the styling, and I’m increasingly sceptical of the merits of Scalar for digital publishing. It might be useful for people without the time or inclination to produce something independently, but the Scalar 2 interface is currently poor. In the end, I abandoned it and reverted the whole piece back to Scalar 1 in order to get something that was more manageable. In Scalar 2, for example, it proved difficult to change the background colour (because it overlays its grey-and-white page over the top of it) or right-align any text without it intervening into the space left for the annotation tab. The whole structure seems to be under-developed at the moment, so reverting felt like the right thing to do.

I also had to go through the pieces already posted in order to deal with html that followed me from Scrivener. I haven’t used Scrivener for quite a long time, as it didn’t really suit my PhD writing process. Although I still like the organisational structure it gives for chapters and other pieces, which works well for creative projects, for future chapters I’m going to take things first through Atom and do some marking up there, as the Scalar HTML content pane isn’t very friendly for larger pieces (this is one of the few points where the Scalar 2 interface had the upperhand).

In terms of the writing itself, the story is finally branching out from the original, so the amount of creative work required has increased substantially. There’s quite a lot of research to be done, but I’m looking forward to getting the story substantially completed this week, and then getting to work on the framing and final touches. Only 10 days left!


Neo-Vic DH writing project: week 1

Week 1 of NaNoWriMo is now complete, and as I mentioned in my planning post, I’m using the month as an opportunity to pursue a digital humanities, neo-Victorian project that I’ve had on my mind rather a while: an intertextual, part-epistolary rewriting of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun in the style of Oscar Wilde.

NaNo has been going pretty well this week. I’m on target, in terms of word count, so I thought that I would take a little time last weekend to think about the digital presentation of the piece. My aim from the beginning was to use Scalar to present the project as a whole, setting up multiple paths through the content that would otherwise be common fare in a new critical edition.

It took me two attempts to put up the content that I had already produced (some letters, some chapters, and some editorial commentary). The first attempt I made on my own, existing Scalar account. However, as I began to think through how I might use hypothes.is to present editorial inventions like explanatory footnotes, it occurred to me that the project itself might be better presented by the ‘editor’ (my meta-narratorial invention). A quick gmail account later, and I was starting all over again on a new Scalar account.

In terms of the experience using Scalar itself, I will say that it is pretty non-intuitive, and as yet the product is not the most attractive. The individual pages themselves (in the “basic” Scalar 2 layout) resemble the pages that I’m used to working on via COVE’s annotation.studio site. There is something off about the way that text is arranged on the white of the “page” that isn’t quite as I would like, although it does at least make space for the bulk of the annotation bar in the margin, when that’s activated. I’m fully willing to accept that this is in part a personal failing, and that a little more work will lead to me improving it.

The other challenge, which I quickly overcame when I started from scratch, was the need to have a fairly strong visualisation of the content ahead of time. Setting up pages and paths was something that I played around with quite a bit before I identified that I wanted at least three distinct paths: the novel itself (let’s face it, many readers skip the critical apparatus of a scholarly edition anyway!); the correspondence itself; and an arrangement in chronological order of when sections were written (i.e. letters and chapters intermixed). Initially, I wanted to have an “editorial” path too, using the comment type in Scalar to present the editor’s “footnotes”. However, it seemed difficult to position those with the same sort of accuracy as I wanted, interlinking words, sentences and paragraphs with the commentary, and that’s when I decided to employ hypothes.is instead.

The result, I suspect, is going to resemble quite closely the vision for annotated editions on COVE, but with multiple routes through the material. In a way, I’m slightly disappointed by that outcome, as it might imply a lack of imagination on my part! However, I do take heart from the fact that, despite quite a different set of intentions, I’ve come to use a lot of similar apparatus, as it suggests that COVE is making the best, most intuitive use of the range of tools at digital humanists’ disposal.

Because I’m not quite persuaded by the pages’ appearance yet—I need to think more about what media, if any, I want to embed, and their layouts may therefore change—I don’t want to make the project public just yet, although I will try to do that in a week or so. In the meantime, here’s a Scalar visualisation of the content and paths that I’ve uploaded so far!


Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE

I have been working on various parts of NAVSA‘s Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE) for six months now, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the experience, as well as on how COVE might serve educators in the future.


To diarise or not to diarise, that is the question

Wired has published a gently critical article about Timeful, Google’s recent acquisition, and the very premise of a calendar that not only logs formal appointments, but draws together your personal and professional meetings, tasks and goals into a time-efficient daily schedule based on your instructions.

To me, it sounds like an excellent idea, but Kyle VanHemert’s (@KVanHemert) article warns that “We quickly get into some weird territory” with the prospect of apps gaining control over not only our actions but also our behaviours. I thought it would be worth exploring the rhetorical questions he raises at the end of the piece:

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid? Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

VanHemert wrote about Timeful back in September 2014, when he asked “How much scheduling is too much?”, although the feedback from Timeful’s user testing was apparently in favour of ‘more app’ rather than less.

On the one hand, I share the implicit concerns about the social and leisure aspects of life all becoming structured around or mediated by technology. On the other hand, VanHemert’s latest article has a dismissive undercurrent that seems to belittle those who aren’t superhuman, who can’t keep on top of everything through sheer willpower while spontaneously producing perfect ‘quality time’ moments with friends and family.

I don’t use Timeful (although I’ve now downloaded it, so I can test it out myself). However, for about two years I have been using a set of calendars and various to-do list apps to achieve the same goal as the app from Jacob Bank, Yoav Shoham (@YShoham) and Dan Ariely (@DanAriely, whose Predictably Irrational I enjoyed, but sadly didn’t get around to reviewing). I have a group that (right now) looks something like this:

Of these apps, I use three daily: Balanced, Wunderlist and Calendar.

  • I use Balanced as a gentle reminder for regular health/wellness activities that I have a lot of time flexibility about doing (e.g. running and yoga). It’s freemium, so I only have five items on my list, but it suits me well for this small niche, and I like the gentle nature of its reminders.
  • I use Wunderlist to-do lists (in the app and browser version) for work and PhD tasks, but also for personal activities, like a monthly reminder to do online banking, and, yes, although this might fill VanHemert with horror, my list includes reminders to call relatives or speak to people.
  • I have (as a second calendar in my work exchange account, no less), a ‘health and wellbeing’ calendar that marks out when I aim to be in bed, mealtimes, the days when I plan to do long runs, etc.

These apps and diarised items are cues for me to be mindful of my goals, aide memoires that draw me back from the next work/academic task. Timeful’s punning name puts mindfulness up high on its list of values, and I appreciate that. It is an invitation to use the tools available to help me, but not to abdicate responsibility. If decision-making, even about trivial matters, is fatiguing, then why shouldn’t we use these technological prompts?

So let’s return to VanHemert’s questions.

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? 

It means I am according social activities — and personal goals — the same respect and attention as more professional and academic ones. By doing so, I prevent my professional and academic diarising from slowly flooding out from the 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday ‘work window’ by granting other times of the week parity of esteem and using them in the calendar accordingly. They are not simply ‘free space’ into which my work can spill.

Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? 

This question is leading. It clearly privileges spontaneity as a valuable trait in and of itself, setting it in opposition to the verb ‘schedule’. But unscheduled does not necessarily equal better, more enjoyable, or more valuable to the individual.

So let’s focus instead on leisure. This, one can certainly schedule. Think about the lunch-hour. I have had colleagues who, despite being very senior and very busy within an organisation, always eat lunch between 1-2pm. They use the time to decompress, meet more junior colleagues, socialise. They are protecting that time for themselves. Sometimes the conversation might be boring, and perhaps they would have better spent that leisure hour at their desk instead. But they don’t, because the principle of having an hour for colleagues and oneself is more important.

Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid?

This is another leading — and loaded — question. Making time for quality family time is not inherently bad. It’s not about setting a reminder. It’s about carving out and protecting time. I set reminders to call my family because otherwise I might not remember until my brother is putting his baby to bed, and then either I would interrupt him (and her), or he and I wouldn’t speak to one another.

I include such things in my to-do because I value them and they are time-sensitive. I am not embarrassed about diarising them. The damage done by missing moments of connection is far worse than being seen to rely on to-do lists.

Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

I work full-time (until recently commuting between two countries to do so), am doing my PhD part-time, have great relationships with my friends and family, and my partner and I just got married (co-organising a fairly large wedding in a city where neither of us live). I think my life is pretty delightfully jam-packed. If Timeful can make it even better than my combination of tactics and apps, then all the better, and Slate’s reporting of the possible future for Timeful within Google is very promising!

Acwri tools (old and new)

I’m rather relieved that in the deepest recesses of August, I have finally found enough time to escape from work, decompress, and get properly stuck into PhD work ahead of the autumn term. As an ‘off-campus’ part-time student, I will be working on my own over and above the usual experience of a PhD student. Whilst that was true of my MA too, a PhD is rather different in scale and scope. At the moment I’m not anxious about it, but I am conscious of needing to do some groundwork now to make the most efficient use of the resources I have — included my own time — later.

Some of this is practical. I have yet to quite figure out how I’ll address my library needs (membership of The London Library is a luxury I don’t think I will be able to continue to afford, quite literally; on the other hand, the university campus is several hours away by train…). I have yet to have a detailed conversation with my supervisors about exactly what they will expect from me in terms of ‘face time’. I know that work commitments mean that I will struggle to do very much in the autumn, so I hope that I’m on the right track in terms of my preliminary work this summer.

Some of this is also exciting, though. I have an opportunity now to try to set up a process that will serve me well over the next few years, particularly in terms of writing tools:

  1. I’m still using Scrivener, which I used for my MA, but I’m finally starting to make better use of its tools because I’ve had a moment to think clearly about structure. I have folders for all of my readings: primary (fiction); primary (non-fiction); ‘pre-primary’; and secondary. I have a serious number of sub-folders for each author and specific works, within which I have PDFs, imported webpages, links to sound files (for references to lectures by Foucault, etc.) and jpegs of related paintings and sculptures. Being able to include the PDFs means that I can now do a lot of my readings from within Scrivener, making it even more of a one-stop-shop. 
  2. I have finally gotten to the stage where I feel like Zotero will be helpful. It is a bit clunky, and it is harder to organise citations in the same way that I can organise texts in Scrivener. Given that I’m working with a lot of obscure texts, I’m finding that even when I have ISBN numbers, they don’t necessarily exist in the databases that Zotero uses, so I’m entering a lot of things manually. I know it’ll be a kludge and still take me a long time to clean up the bibliography, but I think it’s going to be more efficient than trying to keep my bibliography up-to-date any other way. 
  3. I also have a new to-do list keeper: Wunderlist. I have a work, research and personal to-do list, and the app syncs across all of my devices, including my laptop. It’s a much more efficient system than typing out a to-do list in Evernote! It also allows me to structure my time more successfully than blocking out chunks of time on my calendar, which I do at work, but which I find to not be a very responsive or flexible structure.

The layered and multimedia nature of my Scrivener project has also led me to wonder whether I should think about producing a digital thesis.

One of the academics I follow on Twitter (Lee Skallerup, @readywriting) tweet about an interesting new authoring tool, Scalar, which aims to provide a platform for writers (academic and not) to create interactive, multimedia publications. It is pretty new, and the website is not fantastic at the moment (resemblances to Wikipedia are striking). Still, I think it is pretty interesting. My thesis will focus on how aesthetic responses to art-objects are coded in poetry and prose fiction, and it would seem logical to try to produce something that can juxtapose the written art-objects I am analysing with images of the art-objects to which the authors are responding. Given how effective Scrivener is as a tool for collecting my sources and structuring my thinking, however, I suspect that any Scalar project would be more of a restructuring of a finished thesis, which misses the point… Still, I’m giving it some thought!

Running with apps: MapMyRun vs Fitbit

I always said that I hated running. When I used to row back at university (and this is starting to feel like a long time ago now), we used to have to do runs as part of our cross-training, and I hated them with a passion. In fact, it was part of why I stopped rowing.

But just like how I used to hate mushrooms and tomatoes and red meat, and now I will happily eat them, about two months ago, I thought I would give running another chance. In part, it was because one of my colleagues, who had previously shared my loathing of running, had taken it up and seemed to love it. In part, it was because I got Runners’ World free with an edition of Women’s Health, and everyone seemed so darned enthusiastic in it!

So I put on my ratty old trainers and clung to my iPhone with a sense of paranoia and off I went. And you know, it wasn’t so bad after all. I did not die. So I went off to Runners Need and bought an iPhone arm holster and a better pair of trainers, and added running to my life.

I only do short runs (5-6k max!), but it’s been rather a pleasant addition over all. It gave me a good reason to get up early and enjoy the sunshine of Athens’ coast when I was there a few weeks ago. But one of the things I struggled with a bit was coordinating all of the apps.

I wear my FitBit One when I run (strongly recommended generally), as well as using the MapMyRun app whenever I’m able to use 3G, and the iBrainWave app on the “active” setting, because science (maybe?). That’s quite a few apps to coordinate, plus remembering to turn on the activity tracker function on my One at the same time as starting the MapMyRun workout (at least it starts the music itself!).

I quite like MapMyRun (MMR), and when I’ve been abroad and not able to use the GPS, I’ve found their online route-tracking function very useful, but I don’t use the food tracking, as I already have MyFitnessPal for that! I also find the app a bit clunky to use. It is constantly advertising MVP, which offers a lot of analysis (like cadence or heart rate) that I don’t feel I need yet. I’m just not that serious a runner, and the advertising keeps getting in the way. Besides which, I have gotten a bit frustrated with the “challenges” feature. Companies offer prizes for those who complete a certain number of workouts of a certain length over the course of a limited period. It’s supposed to be a competitive motivational feature, and it’s a very good idea, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Runs that I’ve done aren’t being registered by the challenges, even though as far as I could tell they complied with the rules.

So I was starting to get frustrated. Imagine my excitement, then, when a FitBit app update turned up on my phone that offered a MMR function!

I tried the FitBit app tracking today on my morning run. It took a bit of checking through the settings to turn on the pacing narration (it uses Siri’s voice, so I chose to change that too) and make sure that the right playlist was queued up. The app was a bit hesitant about my GPS availability when I was standing outside about to start, as it was still connected (weakly) to my wifi, but overall, it seemed to work very well.

The map it’s produced is of just as good quality as the MMR map. The workout log is already in my activities section in FitBit without any need to turn the tracker on, which is very handy. On the few occasions that I forgot to do that whilst using MMR, it was a bit of a pain to get the timings exactly right to record the workout after-the-fact (MMR doesn’t give actual start/end times).  The way that the run is displayed on the FitBit website is very useful; it shows splits in a visual way (the MMR app didn’t, although it announced them during the run), which is already bringing home to me more powerfully what I already sort of knew: I’m a bit crap with pacing.

There were some downsides, though. There is no feature to log a run on a map on the FitBit website, in the same way that one can on the MMR site. Fingers crossed that that additional functionality will come with time. Also, the narrated pacing information is the same as from MMR, but the app doesn’t lower the volume of the music that’s playing whilst it’s being given. Therefore, I had to guess that I’d hit 2k by the fact that the rather loud song that was playing at the time was garbled for 20 seconds. Next time, I will turn the narration volume to loud, versus medium, but then I suspect I may suffer with it being shouted in my ear!

Overall, when I can use 3G, I will be using the FitBit app’s tracking facility for now, versus MMR, but I’ll still be using MMR’s online map-my-route feature in order to get some additional data about the distance and terrain for runs without 3G.

As always, it seems that no one bit of tech will do everything!

Pomodoro technique and health and wellbeing

Along with using the Fitbit, I have also taken to reading some fitness mags. Not all, not all, I promise, and many bits still bewilder me!

One of the articles in Women’s Health really did hit home for me as an “office worker”: the one claiming that for every two hours spent sitting, we lose 44 minutes of our lifespan. You can read a version of the article online (clearer, actually, than the article I read in the UK version of the magazine!), or the NHS online page about “sitting disease” (ugh! Awful name…) and recent research.

This got me thinking about how long I spend sitting at my desk each and every day, particularly when I have lunch at my desk. Plus, at home, I will sit watching DVDs or reading for long periods of time, meaning that even though I might walk my 10,000 steps every day and do yoga/strength work-outs, I’m still sedentary for almost the whole day.

As a remedy, I downloaded StandApp, which is free and sets an interval timer for you (at 15, 30, 60, or 120 minutes) before alerting you to take a five-minute standing break, even giving you a little workout to do too, if you’re so inclined. I thought that this might be quite intrusive, but actually, it was the push I needed to start implementing the Pomodoro technique properly into my working life.

Pomodoro traditionally recommends working on a specific task for 25-minute blocks of time before taking a short break. This fits pretty well with what StandApp offers, and I’ve started using 30-minute blocks wherever I can, with breaks every 60 minutes as the absolute max (barring hideous meetings, when I at least try to dash out for a “bathroom break” every hour!).

I already have a to-do list system (a monthly list with tasks allocated per day and crossed off when completed), but had never actually made the commitment to breaking up my tasks and working day so consciously before. Knowing that taking the five-minute break every 30-60 minutes does my health good is therefore a valuable incentive for me to change the way I work for the better too, and I’ve even started using it during academic work at home, particularly reading. I find that my mind will naturally begin to wander every 20-30 minutes or so, especially when I’m reading something very dense or challenging (I’m looking at you, Lacan and Zizek!), so just standing up and getting the blood flowing again, allowing my mind to wander for a minute or two and digest what I’ve managed to get through, is working surprisingly well!

I am still struggling a little with the temptation simply to take my laptop with me when I stand (e.g. at my breakfast bar or kitchen table) and continue working, but I think by trying to combine both Pomodoro and a more healthy attitude to my sedentary working habits, I can get the mental benefit of taking standing breaks, as well as the physical.