Newer, faster, better!

For some time—actually since the time this blog was created—I’ve been dissatisfied about the speed with which the pages load. My main site page,, and its associated straight-html pages loaded fine, but anything associated with the blog always seemed… slow. Pages would take 10-20 seconds to load, which is a really long time in web-land, and especially when you’re trying to write, say, a blog post, and this delay happens each time you save or preview the post. I went a few rounds with DreamHost, but each time they said connectivity to my site was fine. Now WordPress, which is what my blog runs on, uses a database to store all of the blog content. I started to wonder if maybe the database host was the slow factor. I contacted DreamHost again. This time, I got:

It looks like the server you’re on is a bit loadier than we usually like for older servers like yours and that is likely causing a good portion of the slowness. I can offer to move you to one of our newer servers that are generally better balanced and more closely monitored if you like.

After deliberating for all of 0.5 seconds, I replied in the affirmative. They replied almost instantly, got me moved, and so far nothing has broken—and all on a Saturday, too! The difference is like night and day! I don’t know if you as readers can tell, but for me it’s a huge speed improvement (about 1-3 seconds load time now). And good timing, too, to speed things up right before I head to Mars; posting mission updates will be a lot less effort. And, bonus: I learned a new word, “loadier.” Thank you, DreamHost!

Finally, I added links from each individual post page to the “previous” and “next” entry in the blog (something I had been missing for a while). Enjoy!

Productivity in Writing

I’ve tackled a few large writing projects over the past few years. Because I am a geek, I wrote a script that tallied the number of words I’d written every 15 minutes during each project. Because I am a scientist, I’ve analyzed the results and determined that, in each case, very different behavior is evident.

Among other things, writing my dissertation in 2001-2002 was an exercise in pure, undiluted focus. For several months, I did little but wake up, eat, write, sleep, repeat and repeat and repeat.

There are some gaps in November and December due to working on job applications and otherwise being distracted. The gap in February occurred when I fell victim to some horrible contagion that had me flat on my back for days, stole my voice, and forced me to reschedule a job interview. But from March to mid-May, it was smooth sailing. As my deadline approached, you can see the slope increasing until, near the end of May, I submitted the dissertation to my committee members for their review. I defended in June, made some revisions, and finally Phinished in July.

However, that smooth exponential behavior was not observed while working on my Master’s thesis in 2008:

Progress occurred in a very discontinuous way, because this time I was fitting writing time around my work schedule, mostly on weekends. I learned first-hand how hard it is to write a large document when each time you return to it, you have to invest significant effort in re-acquiring your train of thought. (The large gap in late May cannot, however, be blamed on work, and was instead due to a fabulous trip to Japan.) Writing also had to compete with coursework for my attention until early May. But it wasn’t only the time constraints that slowed me down. My job already involves a lot of technical writing, and I often found that at the end of the day the writing part of me felt drained dry, with little left over for more technical composition. Sure, the dissertation was much longer than the thesis… but sometimes it felt like writing the thesis took even more determination and willpower to bring it into being.

It’s interesting to contrast both of these to my productivity during November 2006, in which I tackled a work of fiction. National Novel Writing Month challenges you to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Now, my dissertation was just over 50,000 words, so I knew it was theoretically possible–except that I’d had much more than a month to write it. Of course, writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, unfettered by factual reporting and experimental results. Since the goal is to produce a certain number of words, rather than a coherent document about a research project, it’s much easier to break it down into equally sized daily word count targets, which we see reflected in the plot:

This one is much better fit by a linear trend than an exponential one, indicating almost no procrastination that would otherwise necessitate a final push. But “procrastination” is a deceptive term. Exponential productivity in writing a thesis or dissertation is not necessarily a result of procrastination; you can’t really split up the final goal into tiny daily chunks because it’s hard (or impossible) to define what the final product should look like until you’re already there. Outlines are helpful, but no one can predict how many words it will take to address each point you need to make. Overall, I learned that if the goal is raw, regular productivity, then I can meet it, at least for a month (even working around a full-time job and the hardest class I ever took at USC!). On the other hand, if I’m attempting thoughtful, substantial, technical composition, then I do best with solid uninterrupted chunks of time. This definitely isn’t a place where I can work wonders while multitasking!

“O let not Time deceive you”

Last semester, I joked that I’d somehow gotten ahold of a virtual Time-Turner, since I was taking a class at USC that occurred at the same time I was teaching at Cal State LA, on Thursday evenings. This was possible since I was taking the class through the Distance Education Network, and therefore could view the 2.5-hour lecture on my computer at a later date (usually the weekend).

Santa sometimes has a funny sense of humor, and this Christmas he brought me (among many other wonderful things) an actual Time-Turner. And yet — while it was pretty cool to be able to turn time last semester, unlike Hermione I didn’t actually end up with any more hours in the week. By the end of the term, I was aching for a break. So I held my Time-Turner and realized that, rather than a symbol of incentive for double-booking, really it was more of a warning — a caution against that kind of stacked-up crazy schedule.

But did I heed the warning of the Time-Turner? No. By the time January rolled around, I’d already committed to an even crazier term: working, teaching an entirely new class at Cal State LA, taking yet another class at USC, all the while trying to write a Master’s thesis so I can graduate this spring. None of them are technically overlapping in time, but (just as when the Time-Turner let me spread things out) all together it’s still a gradually suffocating weight.

Thank goodness my teaching duties end with the winter quarter at Cal State LA. As of March 15, I’ll have one less thing to occupy my energies. And if I ever propose this sort of schedule again in the future, someone kindly strangle me with the Time-Turner’s chain.

Why my reach must exceed my grasp

It has nothing to do with heaven.

I’ve observed that I persistently fill any available time with new adventures and activities. It’s not that I don’t like being alone, or idle, in itself. But sometimes I take on a bit more than I can handle, and something doesn’t get done, and I’m disappointed. So the question is, why do I keep doing this? Why not just sit back with a reasonable status quo and let it tick along?

The answer seems to be that I need to be challenged. It’s not just that I like to be challenged. I need to be pushed. Courses often give you this push, forcing you to spend hours working on homework or preparing for exams. Deadlines at work provide pushes, too. But in the absence of that sort of external force, I cannot resist imposing my own push on myself. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I go further than I thought I could, or achieve more, even when there is risk of failure — perhaps even more so when there is risk of failure. And sometimes I do fail (or at least dissolve into a puddle of stress). But somehow I keep coming back for more.

I sometimes despair at this tendency, since it seems inevitably to ratchet up my stress level. But I think I can at least articulate why I do it, and little self-knowledge goes a long way.

I’m constantly worrying away at my boundaries. How high can I jump? How fast can I run? How many degrees can I get? I like to live right at the edge of my capability, right at my limits. I like to know that there are limits. I like to be pushed to exceed those limits — and maybe even to expand the limits in the process. In taking on more commitments, maybe I’ll be forced to find ways to be more efficient, which will extend my time-reach. Maybe I’ll find more ways to trade money for time. Maybe I’ll learn the tricks needed to run faster, jump higher. Some core part of my being rejects a static existence, a single fixed optimum that solves “enough” of what’s out there. What’s existence for, if not to continually get better?

It’s time for bed. I’m off to slay dragons in my sleep.

How to speed up Adobe Reader

Courtesy LifeHacker, I came across this great Adobe Reader tip to reduce the lethargy with which it starts up:

To remove this ‘feature’, simply navigate to your %Program Files%\Adobe\Reader 8.0\reader\plug_ins folder, and rename (delete, copy elsewhere) the ‘accessability.api’ file.

Translated into Mac-friendly coordinates, we have:

To remove this ‘feature’, simply navigate to /Applications/Adobe Reader/Adobe Reader, and rename (delete, copy elsewhere) the Accessibility.acroplugin/ directory.

What this “fixes” is Reader’s need to index the whole document so that it can, among other things, read it out loud to you. No thanks, Adobe!

I can confirm that Reader now loads in half the time it was taking before. Preview is still my PDF reader of choice, since it’s so lightweight and lightning-fast, but now it’s at least worth keeping Reader around “just in case.”

The same source notes that Adobe may have improved the program on its own for version 8.1, so this hack may not be necessary in the future.

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