These are strange and different times

Returning to form or so it goes takes a bit of effort. Any return to form without effort would inherently discount the journey. Shifting back without a bit of effort might just be acceptable right now. These are strange and different times. This will be the 9th day in a row of posting something to the weblog. That streak is starting to feel a little bit more normal. Every day my thoughts have started to get back into a more orderly form that can be turned quickly into prose. That is the key element in turning the corner and engaging in a bit of writing. Not only is clearing your mind enough to not do anything is a skill, but also allowing your stream of consciousness to spill out onto the screen as prose is also a skill. Transforming thoughts almost directly into keystrokes in an effortless way is the hallmark of being in the writing pocket and that feels like something that happens from practice. 

This weekend I have spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly election data can tell us about the state of civil society and the general degree of civility at large. Within the world of an election the universe being examined could be all voters or it could be all people that could vote. Some of the best insights available could be about the people who take no action and choose to sit out of the election process. My first response to that investigation into that phenomenon was a simple series of thoughts about how maybe they did not know it was election day. It is entirely possible for a lot of people that government is a thing that stands separate from the routines of daily life and voting by proxy stands separately from everyday life. Certainly some places have moved to mail in ballots and have made it much easier to vote. Other places have gone the other way and made it much harder to participate in the voting process. Now we are starting to get somewhere in the analysis. Three potential reasons have jumped out: 1) being unaware, 2) easily ignored, or 3) it was very hard. That set of thoughts certainly expresses a continuum of sorts that could be expressed as some kind of Likert scale.   

My initial analysis has started at the congressional district level. My assumption is that I can reasonably roll up my congressional based model to the state level and use a bit of a convoluted transform to get to a national outcome. Within a national election model just using the general sentiment would express a popular vote based outcome and that would not work all the time. Sometimes it would yield the correct result, but other times it might yield a false positive within a condition where having the most votes at a national level is not aligned to the outcome. That is a scenario that political scientists will be writing about for years to come. Social scientists in general will be studying that and how it influences both civility and civil society for decades. Seriously, that is not an understatement. Our beliefs in how democracy functions are a very important part of how we engage in a social contract to participate in the normative routines that allow daily life to function as well as it does. Maybe this watershed event that is occurring now will create some type of shared experience that will help people better relate to each other, strengthening the very social fabric that protects democracy. 

I’m really starting to think that these are truly strange and different times. The lens in which we see the world and how we interact with things is changing every day as we experience a new normal way to interact with people. A new normal way to visit stores to go about the routines that allow daily life to occur. We all have to figure out how to make meals on a daily basis. Eating is a shared and common experience across all of humanity. It is one of those things that should be a commonly shared experience like voting for those that have reached a certain age. Outside of politics people generally do a lot of similar things every day. All those things could be modeled and sentiment analysis could be produced to figure out preferences based on those things. Somewhere inside of that universe of possible analysis a small slice of things exist that my research is focusing on right now. That is where my research is dialing into understanding voter sentiment and preference within elections. At this point, I’m very focused on the key factor of participation and the sentiment around why a large portion of voters are opting out of the process that literally guarantees the stability of our daily routines. 

Given that I’m on my 9th day in a row of posting it might be a good time to mention that most of my writing is created and posted without any real editing or revision. My routine is generally to sit down and write until the writing is done and then post it online before starting a new session of writing. My time is not normally spent on the same passage of prose engaging in rework and editing to produce a perfect product. What you are reading right now is really just how the thoughts translated from my head to the keyboard. For better or worse that is generally how this weblog works and how prose is created to be published here. Some of it is grammatically correct and free of atrocious typos and some of it is very clearly not clear at all and free of errors. One of the things that I do a lot is leave out a word that otherwise brings the flow of a sentence together. Some of that is just a weird thinking and typing problem where a word gets left out of a sentence. If you want back and read it, then you would immediately notice it and fill in the missing word. Most of the time that does not impact the meaning of what is being presented it just creates a less than ideal situation for the reader who is wondering why proofreading was set aside or ignored. Please don’t wonder about it. I just elected not to spend my time editing the prose being created. Yeah —- that is questionable. 

Sometimes I wonder if maybe every Sunday I should swing back and edit the last 7 days of work and just leave a note at the end of the post that it was edited. Most of the time that thought occurs and is discarded. You can tell that analysis about discarding editing is accurate based on scrolling back a day, a week, or even a month to see it was not implemented. For the most part that type of effort is probably not going to be an active part of my routines. If it has not taken root in the last 20 years, then it is unlikely to start happening without some real effort to change my routine. As an analog to that lack of action on the editing front, trying to figure out why citizen participation in elections has been gradually declining is probably similar. It is something I could do with a little time and effort, but I just elect not to do it over and over again. You can kind of get a feel for where my head is at the moment and what is at the forefront of my considerations as I dive into this area of analysis. 

A desire to know more

Day after day my note taking intraday has been questionable. I used to be able to remember the list of things that happened every day and quickly turn those into readable prose. Adventure was enough to detail, but the day to day muddling through became harder and hard to describe. Year after year that has become more and more completely and totally true. It went from a shadow on my memory to a near wall around happenings. Taking notes is easy enough and I have both Google Recorder and Google Keep ready to keep track of anything that stands out enough to be noted down. Maybe that is the crux of the problem and that some things are not standing out and becoming memorable. Time is passing and things are being done, but those things do not meet a certain threshold to be memorable. Even being present in the moment is not enough to turn the corner on that one and set the foundation for something solid enough to report on or even something that deserves deeper consideration. 

Interrupted. Coffee. 

Primarily, the word processing program I’m using for writing is Google Docs. I have a subscription to the latest Microsoft Word, but I keep going back to Google Docs and that has been the case for some time. Given that I create a new word processing document every day to begin my writing journey it is easy to look at the file extensions and figure out what has been used. At this exact moment in time, I do not remember exactly why the switch happened. At the moment, it is more of a sustained habit than a data driven poignant choice of one over the other. Maybe that argument is equal to the one above about my intraday note taking. I don’t really know why my note taking or creation of things slowed and maybe it is just more of a habit and no other real value should be ascribed to it. 

This cup of coffee is growing on me in terms of my appreciation of it as each sip gets consumed. Right now my Warren Zevon radio station on Pandora is pretty much doing everything, but playing any Zevon. It might be better to grab a record from the shelf and let something spin this morning in a more analog fashion. My record collection has now grown larger than 50 vinyl discs being stored on the shelf. That is an easy metric to know since the dust bags covering most of them came in a package of 50 sleeves. That means the last few on the shelf are abriding that first batch of dust protectors. It was probably time to plan ahead and buy some more awhile ago and maybe that is something that will happen today. It will take a little bit of hunting around to get the same brand of dust protection sleeves.

These are indeed strange times. People are trying to figure out how to get back to the routines of the past. I’m trying to figure out how to have better and more productive routines. Most of my time over the last few years has been spent in this office where I am writing right now and working on managing my desire to know more vs. my need to create more prose. Part of that is just focusing my efforts on making contributions to society in general. My method of giving back has been contributions to the academy and conducting research. Over the years my efforts to give back and share my research methods have been sporadic and should have been better. That is easier to right down than to really accept or understand. Saying that my academic contributions should have been greater in frequency is probably the quintessential scholarly lemment. In these strange times my efforts to take one step forward at a time and work toward a trajectory of making contributions is at least easier to understand and manage. 

This cup of coffee is now half gone and my thoughts are beginning to get a little more focused. Strangely enough it took more than a page of meandrous writing to get to this point in the daily writing journey. Sometimes getting to this point in the journey never arrives. The question really is what to do with this moment of self aware pontification. Perhaps the endless string of Bruce Springsteen songs playing will provide some council on what happens next. Some musicians have a proven history of recording album after album. That is similar to writing every day, but somewhat different. My writing efforts are typically created and exist until the next iteration. For better or worse most songs are written in a different way. They are not created from start to finish and then performed again in a slightly different way to see what happens. The iterative format is mostly replaced with editing, collaboration, and rework. Very rarely do I ever spend the time to work and rework a paragraph or section of something to that type of quality and or desired outcome. Something that is going to get published might receive that type of attention. 

Now that I’m sitting and thinking about that last paragraph, maybe the goal for this year is to get to that point of editing on a few things. Getting to the point of publication where that type of effort will be required is probably the desired outcome. It will be a crowded field of ideas this year. My interest in elections is shared by a wide array of thinkers, researchers, and actively publishing academics. That means the models and corresponding academic publications will need to be excellent to crowd out all the other things people are trying to publish. I’m not really worried about that. My efforts are always developed from scratch and coded up to do what I want them to do making it easier to share something unique with the world. That last sentence is not a piece of prose I’m very happy with at the moment. I’m going to leave it, but this paragraph is a clear example of something that could be rewritten to be better. Perhaps a little bit of editing and rework would have made this missive way better. 

A bit of meandrous writing

Over the last two days the weblog picked up a lot more traffic than usual. I’m going to attribute that to posting on a more regular basis. It did not look like the posts were being read in order. That was a very curious thing that caught my attention. All the content here shared a common writer, but the topics being covered vary widely. I updated the “About Nels” page to suggest that new readers start with my 40th birthday weblog post. That was the post where I realized that my ability to carry a narrative thread along the way with me from post to post was lacking. Telling a really good sustained story day after day is a skill. Perhaps it is a skill that I need to learn to better master along the journey of daily writing. Getting back into the swing of writing has taken some time and things have been going well enough. I’m not talking about a solid 5 single spaced pages a day of productivity, but things are getting back to normal. 

Throughout this Memorial Day weekend I’m going to spend some time reflecting to commemorate and I’m going to work on understanding how to build infographics. My base election prediction model is pretty simplistic and should be really easy to turn into a series of graphics, but those graphics would not be interactive. My ability to build graphics is generally geared toward putting them in academic publications that are very static and not designed to be a living thing that people could tinker with and enjoy. Perhaps that is the beautiful and lasting contribution of Jupyter notebooks to the social sciences space. You can share the chart creation to others for the purposes of both replication and extension. Somebody could take and tinker with what was done to produce something interesting. That is where my time will be spent at the intersection of building out my base election prediction models in some Jupyter notebooks and working toward sharing those on GitHub along the way for others to be able to work with going forward. 

One of my intellectual hobbies over the years has been trying to extend sentiment analysis to electoral prediction in ways using bots. Most of that effort was not micro-targeted; it was very macro level analysis based on tracking news media down to see sentiment assuming that sentiment was passed along to readers. One of the things that this last election cycle identified in the modeling is that the transitive property of sentiment has become weaker as a factor in any model and that political sentiment has become highly sticky. The assumption of sticky political sentiment creates a much different election modeling algorithm. We will see if it is effective in November. The trajectory of my academic work will be focused in this area for the rest of the year. I feel that is a solid place to put my efforts right now. Other researchers are focusing their attention on other things in this time of quarantine. This is where my attention will be focused and hopefully it will help me both learn better interactive infographic creation skills and it will help me share a project based on election modeling. I’m going to build all my forecasting and projection models from the ground up so they are easy to review, modify, and replicate.

Interrupted. Coffee. 

Today instead of listening to my Warren Zevon station on Pandora I decided to let a few of my YouTube subscription videos play. This does pull my attention in and out of writing in a different way than what happens during the course of only listening to music. For the most part listening to music while I write helps me focus and the music is sort of in the background and the writing is in the forefront of my attention. Watching YouTube videos tends to pull my attention from one side of the screen where the video is playing and back to the other side of the screen where I am writing. This is an entirely different setup on my Google Pixelbook Go where the screen size does not really support split screen efforts. This Dell UltraSharp 38 inch curved monitor has worked really well. The specific model I received on March 11, 2019 was the U3818DW. I’m using the built in KVM and could simply plug in my Pixelbook via USB Type-C, but my Corsair Cube works well enough for writing that is not required. 

Whoa —- my thoughts just wondered way off topic. Given that this is a stream of consciousness based writing session that is particularly surprising. I really should be listening to music instead of watching videos about guitars and traveling. If you were wondering about my YouTube journey, then let me explain it for you. It pretty much falls into three categories: 1) technology related things, 2) guitar gear, and 3) travel content.    

Muddling iterations

This new writing strategy of spending the start of my day working on a weblog post seems to be working. Initially the data seems somewhat mixed based on the variation of size between the posts, but every day had one. Writing every day and sustaining that practice is the key to this endeavor being successful. Coming out of this quarantine with some solid perspective and maybe learning something would be good. It was for most folks and I’m sure this happened to other people. No words would appear. My will to write was gone. Every spark of creativity had burned out and all that remained was enough strength to do the things that needed to be done on a daily basis. What ended up getting left behind was my daily writing routine. Some type of after action review is going to be needed on that one to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. It was not a very good experience. My method of advancing thoughts is to write them down and iterate. Perhaps the best way to say it is that all of this is a series of muddling iterations. None of it included much science to it or even a definable and repeatable routine. 

Today happens to be Friday. This weekend happens to be Memorial Day weekend. Now is a weird time to be able to go outside and properly commemorate Memorial Day. Well —- appreciation of that hit the forefront of my thoughts and held on for just a minute. It took me just a second to get back into the writing groove. I started to really think about the strangeness of the times right now. Retrospective considerations of how we got here are important parts of piecing together an understanding of the now and the path forward. My Pandora internet radio station is streaming my Warren Zevon Radio station. Typically on Memorial Day weekend I have demurred from Zevon to Bruce Spingsteen. Maybe that is a logical move or maybe it is just something that I have done. We will do our best to actively commemorate Memorial Day. 

Rewriting that last paragraph would probably be a good idea, but I’m going to let it stand. Now is not the time to second guess the creation of any prose. Maybe later after things are back on track to a high output productivity based daily writing routine. Right now it is better to press forward and engage in some writing until I have content that a few cycles of iteration are possible. Sometimes the simple act of typing on the keyboard creates a writing rhythm. That happens as the act of thinking and typing cross together into something like thinking out loud. Over the years of my academic training that has been an outcome of all that effort. I tend to do my deepest thinking by writing and sketching out ideas. Even the act of that muddling past the first expression to create and rethink what is benign produced is a method toward iteration. I’m trying really hard not to write the work tinkering. That seems like the exact wrong word to put on the page. Iterating on ideas to improve them is more noble and a better use of time. Simply tinkering with words on a page seems like a lesser act that might be happening right now during the creation of this paragraph. 

My intellectual aim at the moment is to begin down the path of a trajectory that builds toward something this weekend with the time that I have available. At present, my time is being invested back into creating and working on election models. All of that content will get posted on my GitHub and shared back out for the purpose of replication by other social scientists. Perhaps that is my attempt to allow them to iterate and expand my research in unexpected ways. That is the greatest part about contributing to academics or research in general. The thing you put in may change or be used in ways that are beyond the initial creation set down to paper and shared with others. That is how things get advanced beyond the contributions of a single person. In some ways that is why academics work toward advancing things. Not only does it open the door to different possible futures, but also it is a rewarding intellectual exercise. 

Interrupted. Work.

Working routines and planning

Some of my routines are completely planned out. Every work day I put on a dress shirt. My current collection includes 10 of these shirts from the same brand in different colors. They get worn in the order they come out of the dryer and returned to a hanger. Once a week they get gently washed five at a time and returned to hangers. That creates some change in the order, but requires no real effort to think about which one is going to be worn on any given day. It took a little bit to find dress shirts that could be washed instead of having to be dry cleaned, but that is a barrier that can be overcome with a little searching tag instructions. Consider the heart of why that routine is planned out. Zero thought goes into what I’m going to wear for the day. All the thought that was going to go into that planning endeavor is long since invested. Those few minutes regained every should be a gift to help get things done. I’m not entirely sure that every minute is managed properly toward walking down the path to a perfect possible future. 

Working out the best way to manage my daily routines and planning for the future is a large part of what drives my days forward. Figuring out how to execute the plan and removing the little things that crop up along the way is really how it goes on a daily basis. From a purely academic perspective, I know that every year has 4 quarters built into it and that every quarter of the year should be devoted to writing a paper. A published paper is a unit of contribution to the academy. Some contributions are a lot more meaningful than other ones, but trying to put 4 contributions into the academy jar a year greatly improves the odds that one of them will be lasting and meaningful. Being a pure judge of history in the moment to know which paper at the time will have the academic strength of a giant’s shoulders to facilitate other work being done to advance it would require a working crystal ball of prediction. Most academic authors with a working crystal ball might use it for other less noble endeavors than predicting the long term work of a contribution to the academy at large.   

You might be wondering how exactly my dress shirt routine is helping contribute to grand academic endeavors. As a stand alone project it did nothing more than free up some time that could be banked toward something useful. Banking a little bit of time every day toward the march to a perfect possible future is where the contribution ends up being meaningful. We bring things together and get ready to move forward. Our perception of the moment gears us toward planting a seed of action instead of generally running forward and hoping the direction is true and correctly chosen. That is why during the focus we have on the moment when an action is being selected it is so important to be present in that moment and drive toward a meaningful path. Procrastination and the fear of self censorship stand as pressures against taking that next step forward, but those are known enemies of the pursuit of meaningful contributions. Sometimes they win from time to time, but they have to be understood and mitigated via the introduction of the best possible working routines and the introduction of solid planning efforts that help keep a trajectory toward the future. 

Interrupted. Work.