Saturday, October 25, 2014

Red Hill fire tower hike

Fire towerThe hike up to the Red Hill fire tower is short - less than two miles each way - and although it is somewhat steep, it has little in the way of rocky climbs. I was surprised, then, to have it entirely to myself on what started out as a sunny Sunday.

It was colder than the previous day, with temperatures in the 30s. As I climbed out of the car, I was half in clouds and half in sun with what looked suspiciously like snowflakes falling around me. This mixed weather would continue for the rest of the hike.

Upon my arrival at the top, I was greeted with what was definitely snow. Looking at the first photo, you might not believe it. Even from the fire tower, one direction showed mostly blue skies, but the other showed what we see in the second photo.

Tower viewsOn summer weekends, a volunteer stays at the tower and opens the top to visitors. The volunteer season lasts through Columbus Day, so I had just missed it by one week. Nevertheless, you can still walk up the stairs and look around, which is where the second photo was taken. I didn't hang around long up there due to wind and cold. The top steps were even getting icy and slippery. I turned around and went back down the mountain. Of course, when I was about two-thirds of the way down, the cloud system blew out to bother another mountain, and the sun shone down through the trees. But that's part of hiking - you get the vagaries of weather.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hiking the Burroughs Range

TrailThree Catskills 3500 peaks in one hike - how very efficient! And how daunting!

Because this hike was with the Catskills 3500 Club, and there were multiple cars, it was a shuttle. We began hiking at one end of the Burroughs range and finished at the other, doing nearly ten miles in the process. There were okay views from Slide and Cornell, and an excellent view at the top of Wittenberg. Along the way, of course, were plenty of rocks, but the trail was still easier than the Devil’s Path, where the peaks I did this summer are located.
As you can see, the leaves were at their peak at lower elevations. We started in mixed forest, mostly beech and maple. Higher up, it became mostly beech, and then there was a thin layer of birch. All along there had been occasional balsam stands, but at the highest elevations, they dominated.

RocksPlenty of rocks kept the terrain interesting. The fallen leaves on top of rock terrain meant keeping a close eye on one's footing, but that's an inevitable part of fall hiking. Unfortunately, the day was mostly gray, and we had a short bout of rain midway through. It wasn't enough to make us miserable, but it was enough that the views we had were not as spectacular as, I am told they can be. The photo below shows the view from Witternberg, with clouds hanging above the fall colors.

Top of WittenbergWe encountered many other hikers and backpackers on the trail, including a few that were not prepared for what they were doing. One hiker had firewood strapped to her backpack; I really hope she was just carrying extra weight for training purposes, because otherwise it was a real coals-to-Newcastle situation. Then there was the group that had made it a mile from the parking lot before setting up camp in exhaustion, unable to make it the three or so miles to the shelter. They were carrying heavy equipment in duffle bags. Okay, people, I'm not saying you need to buy the latest, most expensive equipment at REI, but ... maybe next time try hauling your equipage around the block first?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Walt Whitman birthplace and trail

Equestrian trail
After three years in the city, I felt it was finally time to experience Long Island - having been assured that Brooklyn and Queens do not count. The proper way to do this would undoubtedly involve a beach house in the summertime, but it's October, and I don't have that many friends who are beach house types.*

Instead I headed out to the center of the island to visit the birthplace of Walt Whitman and a nearby park named in honor of the same. I took the Long Island Railroad to Hicksville and then tried to catch the N79 bus, which dropped off passengers and then disappeared. It appeared I could either pony up for a taxi or wait an hour for the next bus; not filled with confidence in the Nassau Inter County Express (it's NICE!), I chose the taxi.

At the birthplace, I learned that Whitman loved having his photo taken; no doubt he would be all about the selfie today. The museum tour is self-guided, but the house tour is docent-led, which meant that I had a private tour - business was slow. The tour guide was very sweet and knowledgeable, and I had ample opportunity to admire Whitman's father's carpentry.

The Hero of Canton TownFrom there, it was a short walk to the park, which has a trail bearing Whitman's name. While his family moved to Brooklyn when he was relatively young, he spent summers back on Long Island visiting family and definitely walked those woods. I found the park itself to be rather uninteresting - pretty because there were trees and it was a nice sunny day, but not worth writing poetry about. I tried in vain to channel some Whitworthian enthusiasm.

The high point of the trip was Jayne's Hill - and that's not attitude, that's altitude. Long Island tops out at 401 feet above sea, commemorated with the scenic boulder in the lower photo. 

Afterwards, I walked past the birthplace to the mall, which was upscale and boring, but it was also the site of the bus stop. This time, a bus did appear, and my return trip was uneventful.

So that was Long Island.

* I have friends who live at the beach, which is a very different proposition.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time Management III: Research and writing

Disclaimer: This is the part of time management I don’t have down yet. With research and writing, the few externally imposed deadlines are for near-complete projects, such as conference proposals. Unlike grading, which is naturally breaks down into single-assignment bites, research projects must be artificially chunked. The actual doing of the work then reveals flaws in my original estimates and plans.

No doubt it helps to be part of a research juggernaut - to have grad students looking to you for assignments, to have funders with reporting deadlines, to have senior faculty not-so-subtly pressuring you. Those of us at teaching-oriented institutions (or in teaching roles at research-oriented institutions) have nothing but our own willpower to go on, and vey few of us have much of that.

I’ve found that scheduling research and writing the way I do grading is not as successful. I’ve poked around at various kinds of scheduling and productivity software, but none of it seems to be set up in ways that I find helpful. (There are even a surprising number of sticker-chart apps for kids, but they are all premised on earning some sum of points, rather than on due dates. They are also ugly. Where is the Lisa Frank reward app?) I suspect Gantt charts might be ideal, but they don’t integrate with calendar apps well.

At the moment, I am playing with using BusyCal’s To Do list. BusyCal is much like the basic calendar that comes with the Mac OS, except it seems to work better and isn’t quite as ugly. To dos keep my calendar less cluttered than adding them to each day (they appear in a sidebar) while still being visible.

It’s been helpful thus far with tasks easily chunked down into small enough bits, such as “write blog posts.” The challenge of breaking down larger projects is still there: “Write article” is just too much, and I certainly won’t accomplish it in one afternoon. How much progress should I be satisfied with in one session? But breaking some of these projects down into tasks ignores any dependencies, bringing me back to Gantt charting …

I’m working on it. I’ll keep on trying with the to dos for a while, at least, and see if that improves my work flow and rate.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time management II: Tomato timing

This summer I found myself in the position of having to write nearly 1000 50-word article summaries. It’s a task that sounds interesting enough until you’ve written several dozen of them! (This was for our forthcoming book, which you will surely want to buy for all your friends and family.) The problem is primarily that the task seems endless and it is unvarying. And I was on deadline.

I found the answer in the Pomodoro technique. It’s pretty simple:

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work diligently. When the timer goes off, mark an “x” on a piece of paper and set your timer for a five-minute break. Repeat. When you have four x’s, take a slightly longer break, 20-30 minutes.

This sounds like a lot of breaks, but those 25 minutes are solid work. Even I can go without Facebook for 25 minutes. As a result, I was able to work longer hours than I otherwise would have been able to.

I’ve been able to carry that technique with me into the school year. It doesn’t work for everything - classes and meetings being prime examples. But for grading, checking email, etc., it’s effective at keeping me on-task. I can work at most anything for only 25 minutes.

The x’s also help, not unlike stickers.

There are apps that will auto-time you, but it’s recommended you set the timer by hand each time. I guess it’s a way of taking ownership over what you are doing. I can’t vouch for that, not having used an app for comparison. One slight deviation I do make is that while one is supposed to stop work the moment the timer sounds, I take a few extra seconds to save any electronic work. You can imagine for yourself why that might be a sound idea.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Time management I: Grading

I’m now in my fourth year of teaching … and I’m finally beginning to get a grip on this time management business. This is a fairly typical problem for new professors. Faculty members have plenty of immediate demands on their time (show up for class, respond to this urgent email), and it’s easy for less deadline-driven work such as grading and research to slide - particularly research.

My institution does not have a high research requirement, and I’m still working through the problem of fitting it in. My current technique is to wait until there is a deadline, a strategy we all know to be perilous. I have, however, finally figured out how to keep up with grading, a not insignificant problem for anyone teaching five classes without a TA.

In the end, there are two techniques that have worked for me, although I they many not work for everyone. First, at the beginning of the semester I put each assignment to be graded on my schedule. Each assignment is supposed to be graded within a week of being turned in, but I can’t grade too much on one day, or at all on any day with a heavy teaching load. This kind of planning balances my workload and insures no assignment is forgotten. Second, I have a wall calendar, and every time I finish grading an assignment, I get a sticker on that day.

Yes, I said sticker. As in, the way we motivate pre-schoolers to do their chores and use the potty.

It works for me because it makes me visibly accountable. Realistically, my colleagues aren’t checking up on me, but they could if they wanted to. And while I could draw x’s instead, stickers are more attractive. Right now, I have sparkly stars. It’s much cheaper than rewarding myself with a latte.

In the past, I’ve tried other things with less success. For example, I tried a policy of grading one assignment every day. That didn’t work so well on busy days. I tried a whiteboard with a list of to-be-graded assignments, which was only moderately successful: The list tended to get too long and too discouraging.

Grading, of course, is only one part of my job. Next up: Taming the endless task.