Monday, October 12, 2009

"Open Source is Really About Documentation" and many other things...

Interesting post "Open Source Is Really About Documentation – Twisted vs. Tornado", which is summarized by the author as:
if the documentation for an open source project sucks, nobody but the most hardcore developers will use it.
I'll give a different summary: Developing good software is less about developing and more about many other things: documentation, maintaining stability, good release practices, good patches, etc.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Google Docs for Proposals - not quite there yet

As an experiment, I tried to use Google Docs for a proposal I'm working on. Unfortunately, while I really like Google Docs for a lot of things I do, it fell short in a few critical areas in terms of proposals. So looks like I'm sticking with MS-Word for proposals for now.

The short-comings are:
  1. Outline mode: MS-Word has outline mode, which lets you move whole sections of your document around via drag'n'drop which I found critical for getting the basic structure of the document in order. With Google Docs you can cut'n'paste sections, but it's hard to get the structure, especially when considering short-coming #2 which is...
  2. Outline numbering: While Google Docs does support having a table of contents, it doesn't support outline numbering of sections. (I did find this bookmarklet which will do it for you, but you have to run it every time you change the sections.)
  3. Image captions: While MS-Word makes me want to pull my hair out at times when it comes to image placement and Google Docs has a nice drag it where you want it interface, it has no support for image captions.
  4. Bibliography and Citations: Again, MS-Word is far from great, but Google Docs has no support. Though it looks like you can post-process this (see second paper below).
In searching for information on this, I did run across a couple of interesting papers on this topic:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Simple Dollar Time Management Post

I ran across a good post on time management on the Simple Dollar blog today. Reading it, I found it captures what I found worked well for me. What follows are the tips it suggests and my variants of them.

I've just capturing the titles here, please do read the full article for a lot more than what I have below. The Simple Dollar is an interesting blog, focusing on financial and productivity issues.

The tips...

Avoid multitasking like the plague.
This is unavoidable at times, but I strongly agree.

Keep a notebook/PDA with you and write down your thoughts.
Like the author, I use EverNote from my iPhone or Mac. Though if I'm really in a hurry and I'll just send myself an email or jot it on my notepad, and then copy it into EverNote when I have a few minutes.

Keep an “inbox” and process it once or twice a day.
Just like the author I keep both an online inbox (a combination of my email inbox and EverNote) and a written inbox on a notepad on my desk. At the start of my day I process the online inbox, creating my to-do list (more about this in a moment) and at the end of my day I process the written one, moving any items still undone to my online inbox, meaning all my to-dos are online and available from anywhere (home, on travel, etc.) when I leave work.

Keep a project list - and focus on it at least an hour a day.

I also keep this list in EverNote. Certainly I hope to find at least an hour every day to work on stuff in it (if I don't that means I'm in meetings all day :-/).

Keep a SHORT to-do list for each day - four items, max.

At the start of my day, I review my inbox and project list and I select what I'm going to work on for the day. I limit myself to 2-3 large items that I know will take a chunk of interrupt-free time (typically writing or planning), and then I have a half dozen or so small items that will just take a couple minutes each (e.g. send an email, order something, set up a meeting, make a quick decision, have a quick chat with someone). Whenever I get time to work, I pick a item based on the length of time I have - if I just have a few minutes between meetings, I do one or more small items, if it's longer than say 15 minutes, I pick a large item and work on it. I like to have a number of large items in case I get blocked on one or reach a point where it just needs to percolate, then I can switch to another one and make good use of any interrupt-free time.

Check email only twice a day.

I fail badly here. What happens to me is that when I start thinking about something, my hand just seems to wander my mouse over to my email applications and check it. I don't know I could get away with just twice a day, but certainly checking less would help me keep more focused at times. Maybe I should try shutting down my email application as the author suggests...

File things once a day.

I'm lucky - I deal with very little physical paper in my work, so I find I only need to do this weekly. I have a Friday routine where I go through a weekly maintenance of filing paperwork and checking deferred tasks and pending stuff.

Start your day with your major creative or thought-intensive task.

Agreed. I have two peaks in my productivity - first thing in the morning and after about three in the afternoon. Post lunch is definitely my low point - I've learned to use this time to read through old email, read papers, and other stuff that doesn't require peak brain power.

Take lots of microbreaks (or at least switch to very different tasks regularly).

I can't say I have found these to help with energy lulls. I do find that making time for brief unstructured conversations with colleagues is often beneficial. Many good ideas and problems have been solved walking to the coffee shop.

Don’t overwork.

Obviously it is unavoidable at times, but I do find at times taking a break revives one and it worth it in the long run. Sometimes this means 15 minutes during a late night push. Other times it means taking an evening off during a really busy stretch spanning a week or more. And when you do this, you have to make yourself OK with it - if you are feeling guilty when you do it, it just is not effective since your mind never gets into a relaxed state.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I miss Sandy...

Don't worry, no one passed away. Sandy isn't a person.

A little background. It all started with me reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. And while I'm not a religious GTD follower, I did take away one concept that has served me well. That is to have a system that gets things out of my brain so I don't have to worry about remembering them. It is very empowering to just know I have a system with which I won't forget things. I find it very stress relieving, letting me concentrate more fully on other things.

What does this mean in practice? Well, my todos fall into a few categories. Some have an obvious time they have to be done, like a meeting or a vet appointment for our dogs. There is a while array of calendar services out there with configurable reminders so that I can be emailed or SMS'ed to remind me. I like Google Calendar and it works well for these.

The next category of todo items is the "someday" category. These todos don't have any hard deadline, but when I have free time, it's nice to have them listed so that I don't have to try to remember them, they are just in front of me. Examples include writing a blog entry, cleaning up some source code I was playing with, or investigating a new technology. Really any sort of task list application works for these, but I found it is nice to have the same application for these todos as for the final cateogory.

The final category of todos is the most tricky, it's the "must be done by" group. For example, a report that has to be written by next Friday, a paper read before a meeting three weeks from now, or a phone call made before the weekend. I include in this category repeating housekeeping tasks like watering the plants in my office every week and checking up on a task I delegated.

These todos don't have a specific time they must be done, just a due date. Sometimes one can schedule them and put them on a calendar like an appointment, but often they take much longer than any single block of time I can schedule. And they are flexible, so I don't want to block out a time I could be using to meet with someone.

What I want with this category of "due by" todos is something that will start pestering me when the due date approaches, where the lead time is configurable depending on the amount of time I need to do the item. If I think it will take me three days to do the task, I'd like the pestering to start a week ahead of time so I know I can find time. If it's a 5 minute task, a day will do.

OK, so back to the title of this post and Sandy. IWantSandy, or Sandy for short, was an online service that offered a service which provided this todo list and reminder functionality. I could enter todos and tell her (yes, I will use the feminine pronouns for Sandy) to bug me when the date approached or not associate a date with "someday" todos. She had a great email interface, allowing me to add items by email and use email to mark them as done. This worked well with email, around which a lot of my work life revolves.

Well, last December, Sandy left me (OK, technically, the web site shut down) and I was forced to find an alternative. First, I tried Remember the Milk, but it just didn't work for me. Here's why:
  1. It didn't let me configure how far ahead of time I should get reminded about something. It always uses 3 days before the event. This was too long for some todos and not long enough for others.
  2. If I have multiple events on the same day, I would get them collectively in one email. I really use my email inbox as a short-term todo list for each day and I found not having a separate email for each todo just didn't work for me.
  3. The web interface was flashy, web 2.0, but it was too flashy. For example, one has to hover over an todo to have a menu appear to edit it and if one wasn't careful in how one then moved the mouse to that menu, it would disappear before one got there. I felt like I was playing a video game trying to use it.
I moved on and tried EverNote next. And I have to say as a note taker and organizer, EverNote rocks! It has native clients for the Mac and for the iPhone, my two primary work devices, and a decent web interface for everything else. (As much as I like web-based services that be accessed from anywhere, they still cannot beat a good, well-written native client.) If you are reading this and can't understand why one would be exciting over a note organizing application, you should give EverNote a try.

EverNote also allows you to upload pictures and then recognized text in the pictures so you can search on it, something I haven't really used yet, but just seems cool! So far I've been happy with the free version, though if I continue to like it as much as I do now, I'll probably support it by upgrading to the pay verison.

But EverNote has one big short-coming for my todo management needs - it doesn't do reminders! One cannot associate a due date with an item and get email reminders. Alas.

For the moment, I'm using PingMe for this functionality. It offers nice functionality for setting reminders - offering one time or a "pester" mode, which causes it to keep reminding me, at a configurable interval, until I tell it I've done something. The interface is web-based, and nice and clean.

So I'm currently using two services - EverNote for "someday" items and PingMe for "due by" items. It's livable. Somethimes a item moves from one category to the other, which is a pain.

Which brings me back to my title: I miss Sandy. Both EverNote and PingMe do their thing better than Sandy did, but she was a good combination of both and I have yet to find her equal as a reminder assistant.

Thanks for listening.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Why Blog?

I recently ran across Richard Bejtlich's post on Why blog? and I asked myself that question. I currently run three different blogs focused on different things and found that while there are some similar reasons for all three, there are some different reasons.

Primarily I agree with Richard's first reason Blogging organizes thoughts. I find the process of collecting and expressing my thoughts enjoyable. My job requires me to do this constantly, but usually under time pressure, so it's nice to have an opportunity to do this at my pace.

Another reason I do it is because I have a desire to share what I've learned. It drives me nuts to think that I've just spent an hour figuring something out that someone else already had or that someone else may be fated to repeat my efforts. This is a big motivation for my Ubuntu experiences blog. It is a diary of my system administration experiences on my home network. I started it for my own benefit so that I could later remember what the heck I did and decided to put it online so that others could hopefully benefit. Based on the amount of traffic and comments it gets, I'm happy with how it is going.

Security Unwrapped is my attempt to atone for my profession's failure to really make computer security understandable usable. My goal is to make computer security understandable for my mother (hi mom!) It consists of my pointing our stories and articles I think achieve that as well as my own writings to try to take aspects of computer security and explain them in simple terms. This writing is by far the most work of the three blogs, I wish I could do more of this, but it takes time and inspiration.

The third (and final for the moment) blog is Honestly, I started this because I had stuff I wanted to blog about (like this) that is out of scope of my other two blogs, so I intentionally scoped it as a catch-all. Tying it back to Richard's post, it's probably most accurately described by Blogging captures and shares thoughts.

Well, that's that. Thanks for listening. Happy blogging.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Getting rid of the gas mower: My year with the Neutron 6.2

(Updated Jan 4, 2009: I looked up out property map and our yard is actually 140' x 95', so a little larger than I guessed. Plus I mow some "commons" that I neglected to include, so I updated the amount I mow with a battery charge.)

Update Jan 31, 2009: Fixed broken image link.

I hate gas mowers with a passion. For years, I used a reel mower, but as part of a compromise with the wife when bought our house together, we got a gas mower.

But, about a year ago, I saw a compromise to the compromise in a cordless electric mower and we got a Neuton CE 6.2 Battery-Powered Mower.

Neutron Mower

After one year of using this mower, I'm very happy with it and wanted to share my experiences.

The pros:
  • It is quiet. We're not talking whisper here, but compared to a gas mower, it's a pleasure to the ears.
  • It just starts. Press the button and it runs. No messing with pulling a rope, clogged spark plugs, bad gas, tune-ups or any of that other small gas engine fun.
  • Speaking of gas, it doesn't use any. No having to buy gas, haul it around or store it. (Ditto for oil.)
  • It's light. Easy to turn and push.
  • No pollution. (Ok, somewhere someone makes the electricity I understand, but I gotta think/hope/believe it's done much more cleanly than a gas mower, which is just a air-born carbon factory as far as I'm concerned.)
The only real con is our big concern when we bought it, and that was "would a single battery charge be enough to do the whole yard?" The answer is "usually." Our yard is about (updated) 140'x95' plus another ~20'x95' of commons I mow  (which google tells me is about .38 acres). It's typical central Illinois flat, with a average assortment of landscaping and a garden. On a normal mow, it will do the whole yard on one battery charge. But, if I've let the grass get particularly thick and I have to go slow, it won't quite do it on one charge. So for those times, we bought an extra battery.

Only other thing to relate: late in the Summer, it suddenly stopped working one day while I was mowing. It has a thermal cutoff, and I figured that had tripped, but I checked and it hadn't. Poking around a little further I found the holder for the cutoff itself had melted. I email neuton, explained what had happened and to their credit, they shipped me a replacement board no questions asked. It was a new version of the board, so I'm hoping it was a problem they addressed.

(I have to admit, I'm not sure how someone without aptitude would have actually gone about swapping the boards, it wasn't rocket science, but did require disassembling and reassembling the mower - about 20-25 minutes of using a screwdriver, and disconnecting and reconnecting wiring).

The only other thing to mention is that it's not self-propelled. Fine by me (remember, I'm used to the reel mower), especially since it is so much lighter than a gas mower.

All together I'm very happy with it and wouldn't go back