Moving a Course Online

Courses are cancelled for the rest of the semester, and colleges and universities are expected to provide students with a distance completion option online. Watching how that rolls out and seeing what it entails in my own classes has been revealing.

On a more global level, crisis has shown various powers-that-be for what they are. I’m thinking specifically of the contrast between the many teachers unions that have stepped forward to exert power by offering to help make things work better (without sacrificing teachers) and the very different approach of the few that have grubbed for power by trying to provoke the failure of administrators who are as overwhelmed by the pandemic as the rest of us. The details of how that’s played out on the ground is insider baseball and not interesting to outsiders. But my point is simply that crisis reveals character, and these are insights to be held onto for later.

On a more personal level, transforming a face-to-face course into something that can be given online in a compressed timeframe has been more involved and more complex that I would have imagined possible. I fully expected it to be difficult — just setting up and explaining how to use communication channels that are manageable with 120+ students reaching out every few days is daunting — but today as I was working, I started flipping through one of the legal pads I use for my realtime note taking looking for an idea I remembered jotting down. I flipped and flipped and flipped through iteration after iteration of inadequate idea after undeveloped idea until finally, suddenly, I found myself at the front page of the pad: I’d forgotten work had begun in a different pad. As I stood up to fetch the pad I needed from my other table I felt as if my labor was being gauged by page count: I hadn’t expected creating online materials to be a two-pad problem!

Now, after a few days of work, I feel like I’m nearly ready to send out documents, thankfully, and just in time: courses start back tomorrow. (Are my colleagues? I hope so. Whether they are or not, I’m confident they’ll manage.)

In my case — and this feels like yet another Tinderbox plug — the fact that I’d been playing in my course file early in term and had decided to track how each activity either taught, practiced or evaluated a ministerial objective proved to be a godsend. As I entered this information, it really could not have seemed more pointless: these basic governmental requirements are so basic that they take care of themselves in most courses. But in the current situation, being able to see plainly what had already been taught and evaluated allowed me to very quickly identify what remained to be done. If this information hadn’t already been readily visible in the links of my course map, the rabbit holes I would have fallen into and the herrings (red) I would have chased as I tried to figure out how to plan the abbreviated final weeks of the semester are quite literally innumerable. 

Earthquakes. Frogs. What next?

The Beav and I were shaken awake this morning by an earthquake. No damage and not that strong — only 3.6 — but it was enough to make me begin to think apocalyptically when my brother sent me a photo, taken on his walk around the neighbourhood, of five desiccated frogs caught seemingly mid-leap on the sidewalk outside his house.

Busy-work During the Pandemic

One week into Québec’s various lock-down measures, people have gotten past the dull smothering shock of the first days and have used the days that followed to hone their anxiety to a fine edge. Some are now eager and ready to swing it around in the world. Of the ways I see this happening, those I find the most fascinating (read: distressing) are the frantic efforts to force work colleagues who seldom meet face-to-face to video conference or have long interactive Google doc style discussions about how we are going to proceed with our work while in isolation.

It all feels like a deeply anxious effort by people to insist to themselves (knowingly or not) that there’s no need to be anxious because their work lives are proceeding normally thanks to an exciting, vaguely macho, taking-charge-of-events move toward using “modern” tools. (“Never waste a crisis!”) It also feels like an effort to enlist others into participating in and thus becoming complicit with a performance of “move along, nothing to see here.”

I sound unsympathetic toward these people, but I’m not. I understand that they are just stressed and looking for a productive way to put their attention elsewhere. But the simple truth is that things aren’t normal and pretending they are — to yourself or for others — is unhealthy. We don’t know how things will develop and pretending we do in order to be busy will probably waste effort and nurse anxiety. In a worst case, it could even create new problems that we’ll have to work around or fix later. 

When I think of the people I love who are spread across Québec, the States and even Europe and who are either physically vulnerable or have very little capacity to survive long financial hardship, I’m afraid and feel genuine dread. It takes effort on my part to set those feelings in their place, to text or call to check in, and then to accept all the other things I can’t do to change or fix their situations. But I don’t really have another choice: pretending I’m not feeling what I feel doesn’t help and neither does making believe I’m helping more than I am. 

I recognize that most people aren’t introverted and don’t, therefore, have “social distancing” as part of their standard coping-with-stress toolkit. They rely on “fighting at meetings,” “running around,” or “bossing people” for that, and in normal circumstances, the world’s stacked in their favour, rewarding them for behaviour that is essentially self-care. But for now the tables are turned. For now, accepting things as they are, finding quiet ways to deal with stress and loneliness, and waiting for the right moment to act are the best ways to cope. They also seem like better ways of getting through all of this un- (or at least minimally) harmed. 

And if you still need some “action” in order to be okay? Volunteer.

Process is Part of the Project

Québec’s response to the pandemic seems to be working. This is great news, but it’s also a sign that over the next few weeks there will likely be more of the quarantines and shutdowns that are keeping the pace of new infection so low. With this in mind, yesterday I decided to try to get some work done.

The dull anxiety of the past week — low-grade and barely noticeable, but there like a spare battery (remember those?) weighing down your backpack — had deadened my mind too much for serious reading. So I opened up the TBX file I’ve started for my new book project and decided to piddle. 

First off, I knew I wanted some notes that will serve as the starting point for some mini-analysis on early materials. I created them — simple titles with no text— and slipped them into my “To Be Filed” container. I’ll get back to them when my mind’s working better. 

From there, working in outline view:

  • I decided to organize some of the chaos in my initial bibliography. There are a couple topics I need to know more about as context. Book and article notes about them currently clutter my sources container — I can’t see anything else — but I know that they are quickly going to get lost as that container fills up with other things. So I created a note for each of these topics and went through my sources container making links to the notes for each of the sources that speak to those subjects. So I now have single note “index” pointing me toward sources as a starting points for when I’m ready to use them.
  • For the index note on the topic for which I have a lot of reading to do, I organized the list of links into sensible groups and then sequenced the groups in a sensible order. Now I have a reading plan ready when I eventually return to this.
  • As I was organizing the bibliographies, I went back to my mini-analysis note on Miramax and dropped in a couple links for important sources I’d remembered when I ran across them as I was working. I also decided to add a few sentences to the note explaining to myself what my interest in the company was (and wasn’t). Because I risk becoming seriously distracted and want at least some marker for later of what I initially thought it was I was doing. Then I jotted down some basic technical information I had at hand so I’d have it later without looking for it. It probably goes in its own note, but I’ll sort that out later.
  • I looked at some links between films, realized they were pointed in the “wrong way” — not that I’d made a mistake when I made them but that when I made them I’d been thinking badly about what they’d show — so I swapped them around. As I was doing this, I noticed some comments jotted in a few notes about allusions between some films and novels. Sorting out the direction of the mistaken links helped me see how I could formally link the notes for these alluding texts without “just linking everything.” So I made those links.
  • Curious, I selected one of these notes and switched to Hyperbolic view. As I poked around what is still a very limited link network, I noticed that some notes I expected to see there were missing. Switching back to the outline, I added links tying these notes into the network and then switched back to hyperbolic view. Now things were a mess — everything was connecting with everything — but I wasn’t sure how to fix it (or if it’s actually broken). So I left things as-is and went back to my outline.

Suddenly, my phone dings. My brother’s texting. I look at the clock and have been at this for an hour and a half. I scroll through the outline I’m working on. There’s still lots to do and I’m not sure how to go about it. However, things are better than when I opened the file in the sense that I’ve made some headway on clarifying my initial research questions and plans.

So I call it a day.

Outlines and the Terrible Beauty of Maps

After years of relying on map view in my TBX files, I’ve gotten to the point where I generally use outline as my default. The problem I have with maps is that they cue an aesthetic response that overrides other concerns, and I have trouble setting that response aside. A map is either beautiful and this creates a barrier to revision, or it is ugly and making it attractive becomes my priority. If I leave it ugly, then I find it hard to work in the file unless I stop using the map. Outlines short circuits this enormous weak spot in my mental make-up.

So when do I use maps now? Usually only when a file or project has developed to the point where I know what it is and how it’s working. I then create maps that operate either like a publication of key aspects or like an interface for interacting with attributes that change over time. In both cases, attention to aesthetics becomes an asset rather than a distraction because a beautiful map will likely be legible while being dense with information. Colors, shapes, borders, badges, even shadows can be used to communicate content at a glance, and in this context, attention to aesthetics makes them communicate clearly.

What this means in practice is that generally maps are for “reading” my materials, while outline and attribute browser are my work views. And hyperbolic view? I’m intrigued by it and flipping to it more and more, but I haven’t quite wrapped my head around what it does for me yet.

Quarantine Chains

As of today the Beav is officially quarantined because one of his work colleagues has tested positive for COVID. In practical terms, this means he’s to be isolated at home for fourteen days. Me as well? So now we’re both adjusting to the subtle but real distinctions between “social distancing” and “confinement for the greater good.”

I’m such a novice at all this that it never occurred to me that as I came to the end of one quarantine I could find myself immediately in another. Turns out this is absolutely possible and feels a lot like an annoying Boss mechanic in a video game: as soon as you’re free, it chains and you’re pinned again.

Getting News in the Plague

On Anne-Marie Dussault’s 24/60 the other night, a panelist gave advice for getting through the next few weeks. It boiled down giving yourself one hour of (screen) news per day and getting that news from one or two reliable sources that you pick in advance. 

I’ve tried it and think it’s a good idea. I get necessary info in a timely manner without turning quarantine into a rolling trauma.

Movies about Forestalling the End

It occurs to me that one thing that’s strange about the staying in is precisely that the story of staying in doesn’t match my movie narratives. We aren’t all staying home in order to survive an apocalypse. We’re staying home to try to keep that apocalypse in check and maybe even keep it from actually happening. In a sense, we’re asked to save the world by staying home and doing nothing, and the better this strategy of doing nothing works, the less it should look like we needed to do nothing at all.

I don’t think we’re going to hit that particular best-case scenario — things look like they are going to be bad — but still, off the top of my head, I can’t think of movies where this is how hiding away with relatives works. 

Plague Diaries: “Vacation” Begins

Over spring break, I travelled to the States to visit family I hadn’t seen in a long time, some of them quite elderly. COVID-19 was still just “the coronavirus” and didn’t really affect much as I left other than having to say whether I’d traveled to China or not during check-in. Yes, two planes of Canadians had been flown in from a Chinese hot zone and quarantined on a military base in the days before I’d started my trip, but the crisis was still largely confined to Asia: Quebec hadn’t had a single case. But then, soon after I left, COVID-19 broke loose in Europe, then Seattle and after that, the deluge. Florida’s first cases were identified the final days of my trip. 

My selfish fear those last days was that I’d catch a cold or the flu, have fever when I travelled and be forcibly quarantined upon arrival in Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Thankfully that didn’t happen. I stayed healthy, got home and enjoyed a few days of normal.

Normal didn’t last though. Infections in Canada are cropping up everywhere, and Quebec is racing to “flatten the infection curve.” All the daycares, schools, colleges, and universities are closed for at least the next two weeks. Bars and cinemas were just closed as well, and restaurants were ordered to reduce their seating capacity by 50%. People are being told to work from home and to keep their distance from each other when in public. In a complete reversal of public policy, everyone has been asked not to visit elderly friends and family in residence and assisted living homes. And anyone back from abroad — that’s me — is also asked to self-quarantine for fourteen days. 

Thankfully, the language of the reporting and of these announcements has focused on community, civic responsibility and protecting others, not on war or on invasion. This has been a relief and is part of why I have the sense that we’re better prepared here to deal with the crisis than the States are: at least we have a politically viable language for speaking about working cooperatively.

Yet despite everything, there’s still a palpable anxiety in the air, and I saw it in the nervous “is outside wrong?” smiles of the people who, like me, took a short walk in the sun yesterday afternoon. Everyone’s geared up by the endless announcements and the frantic preparations of the past few days, days that have felt like the first ten minutes of a zombie movie even if there are no helicopters, no cars rushing to get across the bridge before it closes, no soldiers being overrun by infected hordes. The streets are quiet, the first geese are starting to land on the river as they head north, and all we are being asked to do is to sit home and wait things out for two weeks, maybe more.

The disconnect between these simple, pleasant demands and the misery promised by the worst case scenarios has made spending the next two weeks doing one of my favourite things — staying home, doing my own stuff — feel odd and unnatural.

Crosspost: And then there were permalinks

I thought I’d wait to deal with permalinks, but I had an idea while taking a walk and decided to give it a try. Five minutes later they’re done. I always forget how crazy simple HTML export is. The key is to start with nothing and only build the things you understand. Then go from there.

I’m also not messing with an external CSS stylesheet. I just have a CSS note in my TBX file and a line in the page-head element of the templates that pulls that note’s text in as internal CSS for each page on the site. So I have all the advantages of external CSS when I’m working locally, but I don’t have to keep track of a stylesheet on the server. It’s the best of both worlds.

Crosspost: An Earlier Blog Experiment

I tried to run a blog from Tinderbox once before, but in that case, I tried to duplicate the look and functionality of my fairly complicated WordPress set-up. This meant building a TBX file that was a big hairy monster of a machine. I’m proud that I got the thing working, but running it took too much energy, and I wisely retreated to the CMS version of the blog after only a few days, lesson learned.

Crosspost: A New Blog

This is the first post of a new blog experiment that I imagine as a space for micro (and perhaps not so micro) blogging. It is also an experiment in building a simple HTML blog without WordPress or some other CMS operating as middleman. I’m doing all the writing and HTML generation in a Tinderbox file that’s simple but that should be able to grow (or not) as I need it to, unlike the last time I tried something similar.

Ordinary Human Language still exists and I may continue to write there. I haven’t decided yet. That blog began as a place where I posted book and movie logs, built a commonplace book, and eventually, began sharing thoughts about how I use Tinderbox. There’s a lot there. However, the blog is moribund, has been for awhile, and my attempts to bring it back to life haven’t been very successful. In part, the problem appears to be that, for the moment, I’m not very invested in posting the kinds of things that blog grew to focus on. Beyond that, I’m also just tired of having to keep up with WordPress to maintain such a simple site.

So this blog is a new start built up from an empty TBX file composed of: 

  • three template notes,
  • one agent, and
  • one container for post notes.

Things couldn’t be more barebones than this. Yet if you’re reading, it works. And all of it came together in a couple hours this morning.

What’s posted now is very close to the look I have in mind for the blog.The color scheme I’m using is based on Ethan Schoonover’s excellent Solarized. Currently, the blog appears as a single page of posts, which will be fine for a long while because I imagine this as a text-only space. That said I am also exporting posts as individual pages, and eventually, I intend to link to these from the post titles on this page in order to create permalinks. I might also set a cap on the post count for this page and create an archive for the overflow. I’ll see though. Any changes will happen slowly and in response to whims or bursts of inspiration.

New HTML Blog

Started up a new blog this morning. It’s not a replacement for this site. OHL will stay around and I might even post to it if I get over the lull of the past half year. Until then, find me at Speaks at Home.