Internet, I wish I knew how to quit you


The reason why our professors are so accomplished is that they didn’t have the Internet distracting them when they were grad students.
– [paraphrased] Navin Sivanandam, some years ago. (Nav has recently wrote a curiously relevant op-ed piece recently.)

Professor Gordon Watts wasn’t the only one `roughing it‘ without an Internet connection at home this summer. Seven weeks after I arrived to my new university, I finally got around to setting up my in-room connection. I don’t think I’ve gone that long without the Internet since — well, rest assured it was probably on the order of half of my lifetime ago. (Seriously, we’re talking 9.6 kbps and connections that needed telephones.)

What was the delay? The short story is that I was careful to arrange a summer arrival with the Physics Department and my college, but didn’t realize that I needed to arrange this separately with the Graduate School. (Such is the nature of collegiate universities, everything needs to be done three times.) Sorting this out took a bit of time, but everyone was really helpful and now here I am.

I had an Internet connection at work, which allowed me to keep up with e-mails and the arXiv regularly. The experience of not being `wired’ at home, however, was refreshing. A summary of the things I’ve done—and intend to continue to do—to fill the unsettlingly large amount of time I found myself with:

  • Instead of staying at home, I spent more time in the graduate pub making new friends.
  • Learned how to cook a few staple dishes, mostly by trial-and-error 🙂
  • Went through some non-physics summer reading… though at some point I decided that Hollowood’s lecture notes on Renormalization would fill the void left by Harry Potter
  • I’ve had time to follow Jon Shock’s advice and start going through a book to do `all the problems.’ I’m starting with Cheng and Li’s Problem book, partially because they have solutions which keep me from getting discouraged if I’m confused. I’ve started a dedicated notebook for my own solutions.
  • I’ve started learning modern Greek in my spare time. (Hey, I already know the alphabet.) I usually try to pick up bits of other languages from my friends, but at this rate I’ll never develop a “gentleman’s” vocabulary from them. 🙂
  • Started writing pen-and-paper letters and post cards… but since the post office is a bit far I never get around to purchasing stamps. Note to people younger than me: try this some time, others will appreciate a nice snail-mail note written in your handwriting.
  • I’ve become embarassingly good at the only entertainment I have on my computer, a shareware game called Snood.

What really opened my eyes, however, were the things that I stopped doing. I stopped caring about the latest webisode or online comic. I stopped feeling like I was `wasting time’ if I wasn’t juggling multiple chores at the keyboard. I stopped doing many things at once and did many things one at a time.

A lot of people in my generation are obsessive-compulsive online multi-taskers. Why just check e-mail when you can also check RSS-feeds? Why just check feeds when you can also listen to NPR/BBC? And why just listen when you can also actively look up topics in Wikipedia or discuss them in forums? And why not also do some real-time instant messaging with friends? You get the idea. Three hours later, you finally finish that e-mail that you started with, but now there are five other tabbed windows calling for your attention.

In fact, it’s often difficult for me to sit down and just watch a DVD. I feel like I’m not doing enough, as if I could adequately split my attention by skimming the online news while keeping one eye on the film. And so I multitask. I used to do the same thing with television, dinner, and math homework. Back then, it used to work.

My big epiphany during the past few net-less weeks, however, is that often it just doesn’t work. I’ve suprised myself with how much I can do by forcing myself to single-task. Sure, I have to give up the constant updates on everything, but simple tasks get finished quickly and harder tasks get the benefit of my entire attention.

Of course, this isn’t rocket science (or M-theory, or fluid dynamics, …), it’s common sense. But this is more common sense if you’re old enough to remember a time when answering a phone call meant being tethered to within a meter of your telephone jack and actually focusing on the coversation you were having. (For younger readers: a telephone jack is like an analog ethernet jack used before cell phones were invented.) These days one can innocently start sifting through the daily arXiv delivery, only to be distracted by a new informative blog post on Higgs detection, and then you’re off clicking on suggested review papers, online lectures, and the whole kit and caboodle. And that’s just “work related.”

The task for 21st century graduate students is to figure out how to make this work for them. The bottleneck for `keeping up’ with research is no longer physically going to a library and picking up the latest journals. These days, ePrints, online talks, blogs, Wikipedia have put all sorts of information at our fingertips — the problem for researchers is to organize and process this information effectively. This is something like trying to drink out of a firehose without having your head blow up.

(As far as the non-work stuff, just be sure to use moderation. If you’re like me, just learn to sit back and enjoy the movie without Wikipedia-ing every reference you didn’t understand.)


The first day that I got my in-room connection set up I immediately ignored my own advice and overdosed on all of the webisodes, blogs, summer school lectures, etc. that had accumulated over the past seven weeks. The physics gods then punished me by taking away my connection in the office… though people tell me that this is because today was a bank holiday, go figure. (Nature works in mysterious ways, indeed.)

4 Responses to “Internet, I wish I knew how to quit you”

  1. So here I am, wirelessly connected in my home – checking email, finalizing semester’s schedule, checking prices of books, adding interesting hyperlinks to my Temporary Favorites list – and reading a terrific post about freedom from the internet! This is an issue that I find myself laughing out loud about as I watch hours of intense web surfing roll by … How do these guys do it?

  2. I regularly take myself out of the office because the lure of the internet and the ease of jumping from one paper to another without ever really reading the details is just too great. Sitting in a cafe with a printer paper and a pen is generally so much more productive.

    I’m really intrigued to know how the problem solving course goes. Cheng and Li is a great book and definitely a good one to go through in detail. There’s a similar book full of questions on relativity which are well above the basic level you would learn in most undergraduate courses.

    Hollowood’s notes are also superb. I wish he would write a full book on QFT. It may just be me but I think his explanations are very very clear.

  3. 3 Mark

    I think this sums up the situation quite succinctly… Clearly the internet is to this generation what the tv was to the previous, but now it stares at us temptingly all day long!

  4. 4 denise

    I was thinking about this recently, well more about how people did research and things without current computers. How did people keep in touch over the miles, they actually used the phone and wrote letters instead of email?! How did people write their thesis, they had to use a typewritter?! They didn’t have LaTeX? How were you to edit it? What? Retype it all again?! I guess without these sort of conveniences people were forced to really focus on something while doing it… oh ADD culture where have you gone wrong? The one good thing is that I don’t have internet at home anymore, so I’ll be learning to spend more time doing stuff in my local spacetime region.

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