I am standing in front of a dusty door with the words “WynerBlog”on it…

I try the door knob and the room is unlocked. I walk in and find old posts covered with dust and a general air of abandonment. I peer around and think… this could actually be a useful space. Just need some sweeping and cleaning up and some new content.

Then I realize I have to prep a final exam. Carefully thread my way back out of the room. As I leave, I take the bandana out of my back pocket and wipe the dust off the door. Hope I get back here soon, I think. I shut the door and head back outside.

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A hybrid workflow for grading and commenting on papers

Just grading some papers and find myself using a combination of digital and paper methods that seems to work pretty well:

I print out the papers and add my comments in pen as I read them. Perhaps some of this is habit but I find it very efficient to work this way. Even the best digital annotation tools I have used do not have the fluid interface that a pen on paper has. And there is something about paper and ink that invites informal scribbling which is a way to give some additional visual feedback about the passages I find most interesting.

I enter grades into the online gradebook. At BU’s school of management we use Sakai (an open source courseware system).

And (this is the new part): then I scan the papers and email the digital version back to the student. This works well in my current course which has a small enrollment. Not sure if this would be as efficient for a larger class. But this is what I like about it: I don’t have to remember to hand out the papers in class and I don’t need to take class time for that. If someone is absent I don’t have a paper floating around in my briefcase and possibly vanishing into a large pile of other stuff. And if somehow a paper gets lost I always have the scanned copy to go back to.

This hybrid approach echoes something I read recently (can’t remember where) which is that digital v. paper is not an either/or. Something can be stored longterm in digital form but still get printed out when paper suits better.

There is, of course, the issue of the environmental cost of using paper in this way. Yes, I recycle but avoiding the printout entirely would be even better. But in this case the value of paper in my grading process is enough to keep me in this hybrid mode. At least for now.

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Obstacles to automating my workflow

I’ve always been intrigued (obsessed with?) software that automates small chunks of my daily workflow.

TextExpander on the Mac and ActiveWords on Windows can generate big chunks of text from a few keystrokes. I can generate a standard response to a student question or directions to my office or just today’s date by typing a few characters.

Macro programs like Keyboard Maestro (Mac) can automate more complex sequences like automatically opening several applications and executing some menu commands in each. When I found myself needing to manually copy data from a spreadsheet into fields on a webpage I was able to use Keyboard Maestro to automate the copying, switching applications, tabbing through fields, and pasting in text to make the process bearable.

Scripting tools like AppleScript and
Automator (Mac) or AutoIt and AutoHotkey (Windows) can allow such automations to be tightly controlled using a programming language. Automator in particular makes it very easy to quickly automate something like combining multiple pdfs into one big document or resizing a bunch of images.

I have played with these programs with varying degrees of success but I find several obstacles to gaining the benefits from these tools:

  1. Taking the time and carving out the mental space to identify what can be automated. Most of the time I focus on doing whatever needs to be done. In the heat of the moment I need to put my full attention on the doing; its hard to step back and notice patterns that can be automated.

  2. Taking the time and energy to set up the automations. Setting up a shortcut for my name or address or a frequently repeated phrase is easy. Setting up a macro to move data out of one program and into another can be quite involved. Doing that kind of meta-work can be very appealing, especially when I am looking to escape doing the actual work in favor of the fun and challenge of setting up a new system for (eventually) doing that work more efficiently. Typically what draws me in is not the many high-yield but unexciting automations but the intriguing ones that can soak up a lot of time with little to show for it. So I have the experience repeatedly that meta-work is not the huge productivity booster I want to convince myself it is, and I wind up leaving undone the many little tweaks that would have a big impact.

  3. Training myself to actually use the shortcuts. It takes effort to learn these shortcuts. The ones I use all the time are easier to learn because the next opportunity to practice the shortcut comes up quickly. Such is the case with shortcuts for my name, phone numbers, email addresses, the date, and the time. I have enough opportunity to type these on a daily basis that it is easy to develop new habits. On the other hand I have shortcuts for words I use a lot in my writing, to save some time typing, but some of these I just don’t use often enough to reach the critical threshold of having them set in my mind. In a sense, setting up automations and shortcuts is like creating my own private language for doing my work. I then have to learn this new language and gain fluency with it.

Taken together the obstacles above mean that there are some opportunities for streamlining my work that I should be taking advantage of, but don’t. In future posts I hope to explore how to tap some of these opportunities as well as some of the non-obvious benefits of this kind of automation.

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The MS-MBA Program

I do a lot of my teaching in the MS-MBA program at Boston University’s School of Management (SMG). The program offers students the chance to get an MBA and a Master’s Degree in Information Systems during the same two year time frame as a regular MBA program. This is accomplished by having students take a number of additional courses, many of which are offered as intensives. For example, students take 8 credits worth of technology courses at the start of the summer between their first and second year. I will probably say more in another post about these intensives which I have had a big hand in developing, but for now I want to say a word or two about why I think this is an interesting and useful program.

The MS-MBA program was championed by SMG former dean Lou Lataif and I always liked the way he described it. Rather than framing it as a “high tech” or “techno” MBA, aimed at students who need to understand technology in order to be in the technology space, Dean Lataif always made the argument that a deeper understanding of technology was part of an emerging skill set for 21st century managers. The idea is that you need to understand technology not to run a technology company or be an IT specialist but to be a better manager.

I will have more to say about this in future posts but in the meantime I can say that it is an interesting challenge to teach in this program in that students have a high expectation that the technology they teach will be managerially relevant. A ground rule I set in my classes is that students are welcome to challenge me to tie the technical material I am teaching to managerial concerns at any point in the discussion. Given that at various moments I am teaching binary arithmetic, virtual memory management, and basic programming this can lead to some interesting discussions, but ones that I actually relish since this challenge leads to making some useful connections.

For example, a discussion of binary arithmetic seems as far removed from a manager’s world as one can imagine, but it is part of a broader discussion about how information is represented and how a choice of representation has implications for what you can do with information and at what cost. This leads in turn to a reflection about the importance of managers having a shared language for describing and sharing the information they use in their work. While this latter information is at a much higher level than ones and zeros, some of the underlying principles we uncover in talking about bits show up at this higher level.

I look forward to exploring some of the content we explore in the MS-MBA program in future posts.

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Solving a minor OS X Firewall annoyance

For some time now Keynote has been prompting me to decide whether to allow or deny incoming connections.  This prompt is courtesy of the Mac’s Application Firewall, which wants to make sure I allow incoming traffic from the internet only to those apps which require it.  What is supposed to happen is you have to answer this question once to establish your policy for a given app and then the Firewall implements the policy going forward and you don’t get asked again.  But with Keynote I get asked every time.

I found some relevant discussions on Apple’s support site, but they applied to an earlier version of the Firewall so I couldn’t really implement them.  I tried various settings on the Firewall.  Tried deleting Keynote from the list of approved applications.  Tried adding Keynote manually.  Tried blocking connections to Keynote.  Nothing seemed to work in that I kept getting those pesky prompts.

I ran the Console app (which monitors various system messages on the Mac) and observed that Keynote was reported as listening for incoming traffic.  And when I went to Keynote’s preferences I was reminded of why Keynote is asking the system to let it listen for incoming connections:  I had enabled the option to use my iPhone as a remote control for Keynote.  Now, as it turns out, I don’t actually use that feature.  I find that I like the ritual of walking over to the laptop during the talk to click the advance button.  It keeps me moving.  It suits my style.

So I disabled the feature in the Keynote settings and now (it seems) the Firewall prompts have gone away.

So problem solved, after a fashion.

I would rather understand and resolve the underlying issue with the Firewall but I really don’t have time to dig into that right now and if it turns out that turning off a feature I don’t use solves the problem, then I’ll consider that good enough.

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Teaching Web Analytics

I am teaching a brief session on web analytics tomorrow and am going to use a demo site I set up early this semester, so I am going to post the link to it here (and then click on it). Here goes:

http://is323homework1demo.wordpress.com/

I have done this on Facebook and Twitter. Now off to tumblr.

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Getting ready for Hurricane Irene

Bought some strong rope to lash down the firewood and some duct tape on general principles. The backup-power-for-gadgets accessories arrive from Amazon tomorrow (Saturday) which gives me 12 hours to get them charged before the rain begins to fall.

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Using the thematic framework

I have created “geothematic” — a child theme of the thematic framework — as a first step in learning about rolling my own WordPress theme. Actual content? Maybe someday. But now I have a theme with its own CSS file. Progress!

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I am still here…

and still thinking about someday posting something on this blog.  Don’t give up!

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Experimenting with the layout of the blog, content next?

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Still circling around this blog trying to figure out what to do with it. In the meantime I am exploring WordPress and experimenting with layouts.

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