by Rob Kolstad
Dr. Rob Kolstad has long served as editor of ;login:. He is also head coach of the USENIX-sponsored USA Computing Olympiad.
Are you a list maker? I guess I am.
I'm packing this week to depart on a ten-day scuba trip on Sunday. I'll be living on a boat and travelling far enough from port that forgetting an important item (e.g., a mask) would have a dramatic negative impact on my trip.
Having done this for 20 years, I now have a packing list with 118 items on it. I've used this list for the better part of a decade and I know that I can survive the trip if I just do what it says. Of course, I will probably still wait until the last minute to pack. I hate packing.
I also make "procedural lists." I have two lists for running the regional science fair. By scrupulously following the directions (e.g., "order the blue certificates on February 1"), I know that I have a good shot at making the science fair succeed. I tweak this list only slightly on an annual basis.
I use lists as stress-reducers. Once I know they work, I can feel confident that the "details" are taken care of and that I can concentrate on the task at hand instead of multiplexing a big-picture worry ("Do I have enough . . . ?" for example).
You can make lists a number of ways. For my packing lists, I do the best I can and then itemize the things I've packed. As I go through the trip (or event, or whatever), I augment the list. As I hear what other people have on their lists, I judiciously plagiarize their best ideas.
As for procedural lists, they require a bit more discipline, especially for events that happen just once a year (like a science fair). When I am to run such an event, I keep an extra window open with nothing but a vi of the procedural file. Each time I take a step (check a file, call someone, write a letter, etc.), I record it.
When running the event from the list, I allow myself only to execute instructions on the list (which means I edit the list in realtime to add forgotten instructions). About one pass of realtime execution and the list is a guaranteed stress reducer for the future.
I worked with a conference organizer whose lists ran to 150 pages per conference! This makes sense to me, since conferences have a huge number of details that must be tracked.
I found out that some people eschew lists. I lent some equipment to one traveller who failed to return some of it. Why? "It's just not their style," replied a friend. "They don't think that way." What a surprise! I had no idea that people enjoy the challenges that result from trying to solve anticipatable problems in realtime. I gave that up years ago way too much stress when one is already maxed out!
I like lists, though they do strike me as being somewhat anal-retentive. I'll continue to use them as stress reducers. I just hope I'm not pushing myself too much toward being one of the automatons that Bill Joy fears so much in his Wired article.