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Living with Google Calendar

4/06/2007

As soon as I heard the news of Google Calendar I got really interested in the idea. As many other people, noun I found the service quite interesting but with three annoying missing features:

  1. Option to set calendar hours, there I mean start and finish hours for a day. I rarely make appointments at 3 am or 11pm. This makes life easier but one can live — at least for a while — without this being implemented.
  2. Simple to dos, with keywords (tags) and due dates. This one is important but, again, I can wait for this or keep my list somewhere else.
  3. The ‘almost a deal breaker’: lack of synchronisation with desktop clients (iCal in my case). How does one access the bloody calendar without internet access and/or a supported browser?

Spanning Sync has positioned itself almost as the de facto synchronisation product between Google Calendar and iCal. However, I still struggled with its price: USD25 per year or USD65 for a permanent subscription sounded very steep just for syncing; particularly when using Google Calendar is essentially free.

I then tried a couple of other approaches. I tested using Thunderbird + Lightning + Provider. I do not mind using Thunderbird as an email client: I think it is quite good, except for the lack of integration with Address Book in the mac. However, after following a very good description of the setup, I realised that the calendar is synchronised and visible only when there is internet connection, defeating the purpose. I am sure the developers are working in persistence while disconnected, but meanwhile is essentially useless.

Quick note here: Incidentally, if you have problems adding a second calendar, just use your normal login and password for the calendars, rather than the bigcode@group.calendar.google.com set up by default.

After not making progress with Thunderbird, I went for GCALDaemon. After fiddling around with download, permissions, editing configuration files, etc. I managed to make it run. Nevertheless, it crashed and trashed the contents of my online Google Calendar after one hour of use. Good thing that I had a backup. I can’t remember where I read a user commenting that ‘why would you pay for Spanning Sync if there was GCALDaemon’. Short answer: read the previous three sentences.

At some point, one realises that the time invested (or wasted) is certainly worth much more than the syncing service’s cost. So I was ready to pay for Spanning Sync, when one major improvement was announced: mobile browser access (http://mobile.google.com/calendar). I always carry my mobile phone, so if I have coverage (most of the time) I am OK. When visiting Australia last April I could still access Vodafone at domestic prices, making the system viable. However, when roaming in other countries the price to access calendar and email through the phone quickly becomes prohibitive. A good thing is that this type of trip does not happen that often, so I will rely on mobile access for the next couple of months and give the system a proper test.

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The Tyranny of Options

24/05/2007

I like coffee and, public health most days, have a cup of cappuccino, latte or mocha. Always the same size: regular. Always the same type of milk: regular. No cream, sugar or sweetener of any kind. Just coffee, milk and chocolate if we are talking about a mocha. I normally prepare it myself (mocha at home, cappucino with a plunger at work); but some times I feel like having a real espresso, rather than using a plunger and I go to a cafe.

The closest cafe to work is easy to deal with. I just have to order and answer two questions: regular (for size) and to go (as oppossed to have here). Done! Depending on the level of attention span of the dependant I could try to say ‘one regular cappuccino to go’, but that does not always work. In contrast, I can go to the shopping mall and visit Starbucks and get a glimpse of infinity while answering questions that are for the ‘grande mocha, double shot, vanilla syrup, light soy milk, fat free cream’ crowd. Probably there should be two lines: no options paying cash, bells and whistles paying with a credit card. Imagine the extra time available for actually drinking the coffee while reading a book!

How many service or product interactions would benefit from the same streamlining? Not long ago, Joel Spolsky wrote an essay (or may be a rant) about the start button in windows, which I could not agree any more about. Normally, when I finish working with my mac laptop I close the lid and that’s it. Later I open the lid and there I have my computer, in the same state as when I closed it. Simple. I know, there are other options for turning it off — particularly if one is not going to use it for a while — but I use that less than 1 in 10 times. So, why bother with interrupting my easy flow with options? May be computers should have an advanced preference somewhere, that would make available all sort of options that I do not need, including: the ones for the start menu, the overwrite key in the wordprocessor, the popup windows for updates of operating system, F12 for dashboard junk in OS X, etc. Life would be simpler this way.

If I know what I want — which is often the case — I do not want options: they are distractions that waste my time and I feel grumpy about it. The default state may not be perfect, but I can live with it. If I do not know what I want — well, I am not perfect — I would like to be exposed to only few options, say two, so it is easy to make a decision. Once I have more decisions to make, I can guide the process to a much more customised solution; however, I am not any happier and I keep thinking that I may have chosen the wrong combination of traits.

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My Approach to Presentations

23/05/2007

I give a fair number of presentations per year, remedy some to university students (in classes from 6 to 90 students), rx some to people from industry (in groups from 4 to 20), and others in conferences (100+ people). Despite that I have stage fear for most activities (and I could not save my life by acting) I have to admit that I do enjoy giving presentations (a lot, really, well, most of the time).

Once in a while I like visiting Presentation Zen, which is one of the best resources providing a critical appreciation of different presentation styles and tools. I guess that one of the typical mistakes is to accept one ‘style’ or method as THE absolute truth. I believe that a ‘horses for courses’ approach works best and will shamelessly borrow from different methods as I see fit. Aiming to make clear to myself what works and what doesn’t I decided to write down a few notes about my experience giving presentations. I want to make something clear: this is what works for me that does not pretend to be a one size fits all recipe.

Although many comments on this post refer to presentations using slideware (either Keynote of PowerPoint) it is important to remember that they are only support tools. When giving a presentation one is basically selling an idea (or product) to the audience. One is acting as an intermediary between the idea and the audience, and success will be measured by how people buy (understand, learn, adopt, take ownership) the idea. These people may be students, customers, clients, etc but the elements are essentially the same: the idea, the presenter and the audience. No, PowerPoint is not on the list.

The resources that I use the most are:

  1. Analogy, presenting new concepts relating them to something familiar to the audience. This is an excellent way of presenting complex topics, although it requires some care to avoid stretching the analogy too far and misleading the audience.
  2. Humour, using a lighthearted approach to my topic. I am not talking about the typical opening joke, but of finding ways of making the presentation memorable through the use of interesting associations, the occasional joke and showing that one is having a good time presenting.
  3. Images, lots of them. In my experience, diagrams work better than bullet points and good quality pictures make the presentation stand out. I use some of my own pictures (photography is one of my hobbies), istockphoto, flickr and a few Getty stock photos too.
  4. Slides for questions that I am expecting. At the end of my presentation I normally insert a blank slide followed by two or three slides that explain questions that I think may arise from my presentation. I have rarely used them, but when I have they have been a real bonus.

Things that I avoid:

  1. I avoid as much as possible breaking thoughts on bullet lists. There are very few cases where I think that they are really useful, but diagrams tend to take their place in my presentations.
  2. Corporate templates with logos on every slide, which are a distraction and take too much space. I use Keynote’s ‘Modern Portfolio’ template because it is quite neutral and I can adapt it to many different types of presentations.
  3. Complex transitions, flying objects, etc. However, some times I use transitions for only a few slides just to show off the mac to my colleagues ;-) .
  4. Compressing and dragging/dropping figures, because they are the first casualty when running the presentation in a Windows machine. This is the typical ‘quicktime and a TIFF/JPEG decompressor are needed…’ placeholder instead of the picture.
  5. Equations, unless they really add value. In my job I have to use fairly advanced numerical and statistical approaches, but I always keep in mind that the concepts (rather than the formulas) are what really matter to my audience. I leave the equations for publications in professional journals and endorse the ‘Look Ma, no equations’ approach for presentations.
  6. Using too many slides: I tend to use between 12 to 18 slides for a 45 minutes presentation. I know, some people like Guy Kawasaki advocate ten as the optimum, but once you count overlapping objects he is probably close to 15. I have seen excellent presentations with 50 slides, mostly pictures and diagrams, but one really needs to be an excellent speaker to pull that one off. If in doubt, drop the slide from your deck (another use for those slides is point 4 on my list of resources).
  7. Overestimating the audience: even if you are in a room full of experts they want to hear a good story showing that one knows where the topic is coming from. I first read this advice in ‘A Ph.D. is not enough: a guide to survival in science’ by Peter Feibelman.

Handouts

Considering the way I prepare my slides, there is no much point on using them as handouts for the lecture. I tend to prepare a handout starting from my notes for the presentation or the presentation notes from a well written handout. I avoid like the pest preparing a deck of slides without having something written first. The length of my handouts varies from two to six pages, depending on the audience and the complexity of the topic.

A typical question is when do you hand out the notes? It depends. If I am talking to students that I will see again over several lectures I will give the handouts either at the start of the lecture or even several days before. On the contrary, when I am giving presentations that are completely self-contained (not part of a course) I tell the audience that I will hand out the notes at the end. I do this to ensure their full attention, particularly considering that I may not see them ever again.

In case you are using a mac

When I am teaching I can always use my own laptop. However, in meetings with industry, conferences and the like all presenters usually have to put their presentations in a machine running windows. For these cases I usually have two additional versions of my presentation exported from Keynote: PowerPoint and PDF. I always test the PowerPoint version in my windows box and if I am not satisfied with its appearance I will use the PDF version. In many projectors, presentations look better using PDF rather than PowerPoint (and there are no problems with missing pictures). Still, Keynote is much better than any of the alternatives with its presenter screen displaying current and next slide, notes (with a few key points to remember) and a clock. No need to mention the remote control that now comes with mac computers…

Odds and ends

I always take with me a cheap ($3) laser pointer that was given to me ten years ago; I have been in many meetings where the pointer runs out of battery. My laptop battery is fully charged before presenting (just in case). I carry copies of my presentation and handouts in a USB disk and, when travelling from work, I also load copies of the files in my web server. If talking to industry I take printed copies of the handouts in good quality paper (with a yellow shade, like Moleskine paper). It is a bit more expensive, but I think it is $10 well spent.

Most times I do not practice my presentation, but I only read my presentation notes a couple of times and go over the slide desk a few times trying to remember key points for each slide. I do not memorise the notes, but try to convey the yeast of them. Thus, if I give the same presentation twice there is a fair amount of variation between versions. I think this is a good thing and I always think of it as a jazz performance: the core is the same, but there is a good amount of improvisation. Anyway, I try to know the presentation material quite well, so I can give my talk even if all audiovisual material fails (it has happened before!). I never apologise if things don’t go perfectly, except if I arrived a bit late by some delay outside my control (this has happened only a couple of times).

Finally, I smile. A lot. I walk quite a bit looking at different persons in the audience as if I were talking only to them. This helps them to pay attention and to me to gauge how I am doing on keeping them awake and interested on the topic. I always tell myself ‘remember to have fun’ before presenting.

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Sending large files

9/08/2006

After playing for a little while, view
I managed to connect my Macbook Pro to the internet using my mobile phone via bluetooth. I have a small Samsung ZV10 and my service provider is Vodafone New Zealand. The steps are quite simple:

  • Click the bluetooth icon in the topbar and select ‘setup bluetooth device…’.
  • Check that the phone is running bluetooth and that is discoverable (Under settings, practitioner
    connectivity).
  • Select mobile phone in the list of available devices.
  • The computer will search and—we hope—find your mobile phone.
  • The computer will generate a numeric passkey that has to be keyed in and accepted in the phone.
  • Select ‘Access the Internet with your phone’s data connection’ in the next menu.
  • The settings to connect to Vodafone in New Zealand are:
    • username: vodafone.
    • password: vodafone.
    • GPRS CID string: *99#
    • Modem script: Vodafone VC701SI

This explanation is based on the excellent—and illustrated—version by Pukupi.

After using the Macbook Pro for a few more weeks, this
I have been settling on my final software selection:

  • Quicksilver: which is a great launcher and keeps learning about my preferences. Additional plugins installed: del.icio.us, help dictionary, firefox and iphoto.
  • Office: well, I do exchange a lot of documents with colleagues and friends that use the Windows version. In general works quite well, although compatibility is not perfect. My main issues have been spreadsheets containing lots of VBA or embedded Activex controls and compressed graphics in PowerPoint, which show that puzzling ‘QuickTime and a TIFF/JPEG decompressor are required to view this picture’ message. In addition, Microsoft has not released a Universal binary for Office, and will not do it until they have the next version available, whenever that is.
  • Thunderbird: after trying Mail.app and Entourage, my experience was disappointment with how unreliable Mail.app was (missing emails and crappy IMAP support) and found Entourage too big and clunky.
  • Firefox and Camino: Firefox is a great browser, but it feels a bit un-Macintosh. Camino uses the same engine, but with a nicer interface. I like the ability of closing the tabs just next to their names (a la Safari). However, it does not have (yet) incremental search, which is something that I love in Firefox (PS 2006-06-29. It is possible to have a close button in the tabs of Firefox through the use of the Tab X add-on. PS 2006-06-30. Bob Cantoni points out ‘to close Firefox tabs, just middle-click on the tab to close it; i.e., click the scroll wheel’).
  • R: a great cross-platform (and free) statistical software. I do most exploratory analysis using it, and only go to SAS, using Parallels (see below), when strictly necessary for working with other people.
  • Parallels: allows running windows and I currently use it only to run SAS. It still feels a bit slow, but for writing and prototyping SAS code is good enough. I bought the pre-release copy at US$50.
  • Copywrite: I normally become very easily distracted when using a word processor to write. All the options, fonts and formats become a real nightmare. Enter Copywrite, which is a simple writer’s editor. It allows only basic formatting, so it is very good for the first couple of drafts.
  • Devonthink: after reading Merlin Mann’s comment on 43 folders, I decided to give it a try. I am quite tempted to use it in a continuous basis. It is a good brain dump, where I can put all odds and ends that I normally loose. The current version still has some bugs and missing features, like that the full screen editor works only for plain text and that changing the colours of text may have effects on other parts of the program. Anyway, searching and connecting notes seems to work quite well. I still think that Copywrite’s full screen editor is much better and less distractive. PS 2006-06-30: I have decided to wait until the next version before buying Devonthink: still too buggy for my taste.
  • Writeroom: I just started testing this great full screen writing system. Just write there, no need to save. If I want something a bit more complex, I can type using Markdown and convert it to HTML using Humane.Text service. PS 2006-06-30. Jers Novel Writer is another writing program that supports full screen mode and that deserves a try.
  • TeXShop a highly polished LaTeX distribution, that I am using for writing lectures notes for STAT220 (Biometry I).

Sharing printers in a mixed network

I can not remember another time when I have been using so many computers in such a regular basis. My main work machine is Mastropiero1 (Macbook Pro 15”), although there is an exception for simulation work, where I use Nutcracker (a.k.a. Black Box, a generic 3GHz, Windows XP machine, which just happens not to be beige). In addition, at home I also use Happy Meal2, a Power PC Mac Mini that acts as back up and has the printer connected. Last—and certainly least—I keep Beige Box (a generic 1GHz Windows XP machine) still functional at home, just in case we need some extra simulation capability when time is not an issue.

Last weekend, we bought another cheap windows laptop for Plus Tree, our consulting arm. It is a Compaq Presario V2000, temporarily named Lucrezia Borgia3.

Given that the printer is attached to Happy Meal and that we some times need to access it from either Mastropiero or Lucrezia Borgia using wi-fi, we:

  • Shared the printer (using System Preferences, Sharing), which works for any Mac computer in the network, including Mastropiero.
  • Allowed access from Windows machines—like Lucrezia Borgia—installing Bonjour for Windows, which has a handy ‘Bonjour Printer Wizard’. Use the Wizard and the printer is now available to Windows too. Piece of cake!

Incidentally, after using the Compaq laptop for a while, I can say that it feels as warm as the Macbook Pro on the top surface. The exception is the part above the function keys in the MBP, which is bloody hot.

P.S. 2006-06-30. Welcome to 43 folders’ readers. Five hundred visits in two days; not bad for a small sidebar link.

1 Homage to the (in)famous composer so many times presented by Les Luthiers (and English article in Wikipedia).

2 Its volume is actually a bit smaller than a MacDonald’s Happy Meal box.

3 Obvious reference to this Renaissance woman.

It has been a log time without writing about research. New country, click new city, unhealthy new job. In addition, thumb
consulting and professional service. Last but not least, family and friends come first: the end result is very little time to blog and even less for writing about research.

So, what am I doing at the moment? Simple, trying to figure out areas where I am not hitting diminishing returns too quickly. For example, estimating two hundred variance components is too rich, if we can do the job with ten. The practical return from all the additional works tends to zero: we are not making much of a difference. So, what’s the point? Yes, I can publish that, but who cares?

From a practical point of view, the real issue for me is on what is affecting competitiveness in a big way. Forestry is a long term endeavour, and the longer the rotation the higher the risk. From that point of view, extending rotation because radiata pine wood quality is not good enough borders on the stupid. Doh, of course is crappy wood; answers:

  1. Use something else or is there life beyond radiata pine?
  2. Select and breed for trees that have decent (I do not mean good) quality.

So, what are my current obsessions?

  • Profitable shorter rotations. What are the limiting factors (hint: crappy wood quality, small size pieces and scale of the operations) to make this happen?.
  • Very early selection of adequate trees. Notice emphasis: selection does not to be perfect to be useful. Adequate selections at age two is much better than good selections at age ten years.
  • Why do trees grow the way they do in wood properties? Why do trees choose different strategies that have such dramatic differences in wood quality?
  • Rapid turn-over breeding strategies. Are we still taking fifteen years for a breeding cycle? It is 2006! Can’t we do any better?

There is an obvious quantitative void in my obsessions, I know. But I am going back to attempting to understand some basic processes before I embark in more number cruncing. Despite of this, I am also interested (but not obsessed) in the following problems:

  • Simulation of breeding strategies. I have a project working on this topic starting in October this year.
  • Mate allocation and population structure. Trying to show that we can get rid of sublines and other artificial groupings when using sensible mating policies.
  • Large scale genetic evaluation: how simple is simple enough? My way to help having frequent genetic evaluations.

What else? I am involved in a couple of three projects with students, dealing with wood quality, breeding or both. I have a new Ph.D. student starting in August on the interaction of economics and breeding. Ah, I almost forgot: there is a large number of lectures coming my way, better look busy…

I ordered a 20” monitor from Dell New Zealand. The price was good (NZD 749), stomach
so I just took the plunge. After over two weeks of waiting I sent them an email and—given that I did not get a reply—gave them a phone call.

The phone call was plagued with noise, troche echo and stuttering sound. That together with the forced pseudo American accent gave away that there was something suspicious about the call centre. Just to confirm my suspicions I asked ‘where is your call centre located?’ Answer: Malaysia.

According to customer service, a courier did go to my office, nobody was there so he left a card. This would be the first time that a courier notice disappears from my post, because I never found any card. I then asked them to deliver it tomorrow, but Dell could not because it was too little time in advance. I said that I could contact the courier and pick it up myself. Well, customer service did not have a phone number—or even the name of the company—delivering the monitor. Hardly surprising if I was dealing with someone in Malaysia. They could not provide me with a delivery time for next week either, so I was supposed to patiently wait the whole day (between 9am and 5pm) for the courier. It sucks and I am seriously thinking about asking for a refund.

After my phone call I finally received an email from my first contact with customer service:

We apologize for the delay in delivery and attention. Kindly advise if you have not received the order.

Should you require further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Once again thank you for your feedback and it is indeed a great pleasure serving you.

Have a pleasant day!

How about ‘canned answer’ to describe their reply? It sucks3.

P.S. 2006-07-21: I received a couple of phone calls from Dell, again with an incredibly bad sound quality. Customer service informed me that they have been again a day ago delivering the screen and that nobody was there to receive it. I asked her to read the delivery address: the street was correct, but with the wrong number.

P.S. 2006-07-22: I received an email from Dell in reply to one of my complaints:

I sincerely apologized for the experience that you had been through. Proper coaching has been done on the agent for further improvement.

and later

I had asked one of my senior agents to contact you in regards to the re-delivery of the order. Apparently, the order has went futile and thus, we need to re-arrange another delivery for you.

Yes, my order has went futile.

P.S. 2006-07-24. Still waiting. I have left two messages in the 0800 number I was given to contact the ‘senior agent’, because nobody answered the phone.

I am not alone in my trouble: a search for ‘Dell customer service problem’ returns about 2.8 million hits in Yahoo and 19.9 million hits in Google.

P.S. 2006-07-30. Dell sent the order to the University Warehouse rather than the School of Forestry. Of course nobody knew about me in the warehouse, so the order was rejected. Finally Dell gave me the name and phone number of the courier, who informed me that they sent the monitor back to Dell. I then called back Dell to cancel my order. Now, I am just waiting to get my money back in my credit card. One month lost due to Dell NZ.

P.S. 2006-08-01. I received a call from Dell, saying that they would credit my card after I returned the monitor. I patiently explained that it was physically impossible to return something that I have never received. Are these guys smoking pot?

P.S. 2006-08-02. Another call from ‘someone organising the refund but not working for Dell’ (how can that be?) that wanted to confirm the address of delivery and if I knew a ‘Paul’ who could have received the monitor. No Pauls and I want my money back immediately.

Better I continue listening to Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish. by Captain Beefheart. It makes a lot more sense than Dell.

P.S. 2006-08-06. Today my internet banking statement showed that Dell credited back my card. In summary, I lent the cost of the monitor to Dell for one month (on top of my time writing emails and calling them on the phone) interest free. Result: I will never buy a Dell product (or recommend them) for the rest of my life.

I started working with a Spanish speaker Ph.D. student. One of the topics of conversation is the (always long) list of things that do not make sense in English if taken in a literal way. For example:

  • To have a heart condition: everyone has a condition (good or bad).
  • It is a quality product: good or bad?
  • You have an accent: doh, page
    you too.
  • He has an attitude: everyone has one.
  • So on and so forth, page
    you get the idea.

Of course any language has a fair share of inconsistencies, case
strange turns of phrase or grammatical weirdness. Some classic Spanish cultural issues:

  • One takes a decision instead of making one, as if there is a limited set of decisions available (for which I am not responsible).
  • The use of reflexive as in ‘el vaso se cayó’ (the glass fell by itself). So, it is the glass’s fault not mine for dropping it.

The latter example puts the locus of control on the object not the person, so there is an issue of personal responsibility (or lack of it). This used to be a big difference, but English is catching up if not through language but via the legal system. Think of ‘tort law’ and ‘frivolous lawsuits’.

Just another day in language’s terra nulla.

Most of the time I work with small files, prostate
mostly text, shop even if they have a fair amount of equations. Equations are not a big deal, see
particularly if I am using LaTeX (with TeXShop in the mac or MikTeX in PCs). Nevertheless, some times I have to deliver presentations or—in this particular case—receive someone else’s presentation for my classes.

If I am producing teaching material I use Keynote, which is a sucker for file size (my main pet hate with it), but it looks great. I can go for Keynote because I am using my Macbook Pro. If I am giving a presentation to industry I normally have to put my presentation in to someone else’s computer, so I go for PowerPoint (and do not use any compressed images), to avoid errors.

Anyway, this time I was supposed to receive a PowerPoint file from a guest lecturer, so I could print copies of the presentation for the students. The problem was that the presentation was 16MB (not big for these days, mostly pictures), and the university has an attachment limit of 6MB. Google mail has a limit of 10MB and I wanted to avoid taking time for the guest lecturer partitioning his presentation in to 5MB chunks.

I tried using Mediamax, which allows anonymous uploads to registered users. It did not work that well, because the files would take several hours to show up in my Mediamax file manager. Then we tried with a much simpler solution: Mailbigfile. This worked flawlessly, I immediately received an email with a web address from where to download the files and the interface was quite clean. There were only a few text ads to support the service. Simple, reliable and free: what else do I need? In some cases encryption could be a concern, but they do offer a ‘pro’ encrypted version for USD18 a year. That aside, I do not need hosting big files in a permanent basis, so Mailbigfile has spot on features for me.

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Dumping internet (almost)

14/03/2006

What follows is the last post, buy information pills for now, in Quantum Forest. It is also the first one in the ‘yet to be named’ (codename conuco) new place. I just need to get rid of all the ballast, rescue what I still like from here and then nuke the place.

Very few things last forever. Forever used to mean a hundred or a thousand years—even the universe had a beginning and will have an end; today it could mean three, five years. One of the reasons things last so long (or so little) is the need for self-consistency.

Consistency can be good when we are true to our best, but it can be a drag when we want to become better. I have to break now with over six years of ‘backward compatibility’, which means starting over. Elizabeth Bishop wrote:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

The art of losing, the art of letting go, the art of dharma practice aren’t hard to understand, but one needs a life (or two) to master them. Starting over is the first step of the life to master.

One of our latest acquisitions is a Breville bread machine. Two weeks ago we stopped buying bread and have been happily making at home. Is it cheaper? I wouldn’t say so if one considers the capital cost, troche
energy and raw materials. However, cheap
waking up with nice bread smell from the kitchen is great and trying new recipes is a lot of fun.

I think that this part of a post by DruBlood summarises the feeling:

OK, I know I’m supposed to have some sort of cosmic experience while kneading bread, but I don’t. I never have. The breadmachine does all that work for me and I still get to eat warm homemade bread in the morning. It counts as homemade. It does! Just because it’s easy and convenient does not mean that it’s not homemade. Who invented this fucking thing anyway? I cannot live without it or my crockpot. I do not own a microwave… but please do not take my breadmachine.

What a coincidence! We also got a crockpot (slow cooker) and have been using it a lot. However, I love my microwave oven too!

P.S. 2006-03-06. This morning I woke up to the smell of a delicious almond poppy seed bread. Scrumptious!

I decided to revise my old post on using a Palm for GTD. There have been a few changes during the last year or so, pathopsychology
which justified a closer look at what I was doing:

  • I changed jobs (and country), so I’m not stuck using that lousy Groupwise collaboration software anymore. Given that I work at a university, I can use whatever I want, and I have Outlook in my PC and Entourage in my Mac.
  • There has been a real explosion of new applications that promise a nirvana for GTD freaks and ease of collaboration.

Firstly, do I need an ‘AJAX based’ collaboration suite to keep my to-do list? Most likely not, a piece of paper will do. Actually, this is my permanent struggle:

  • I prefer paper over electronic form for writing. I am a slow typer and using a stylus in a Palm is very slow. However, there are two things that are easier electronically: updating information (rescheduling or changing contact details, for example) and reminders (alarms). The first problem has a simple solution: write with pencil and carry an eraser. The second one is the crux of my complications: I forget to check my paper diaries and reminders are the key to my survival. Thus, a service will be interesting to me only if it has reminders.
  • I want synchronisation. I want to avoid duplication of effort as much as possible. There is no point on wasting time writing down appointments in different systems, which relates to the next point.
  • I want consolidation or ‘one page to rule them all’. One of the main tenets of GTD is to keep only one system. Although there are several examples of ‘hacks’ to connect a number of of different tools to organise activities, I believe that in most cases they are just a bloody waste of time.
  • The system has to be simple: I do not want fifty lists of things, endless configuration and tweaking. It has to ‘just work’.

Thus, my current work flow now has Outlook/Entourage that synchronises with my Palm Tungsten T3, which I carry with me all the time. The Palm just acts as a diary with alarms. The only added software is still Agendus Pro (which I have not bother on upgrading) and Bonsai (which I have not used for a while, but that I will try again).

So now there is synchronisation and consolidation (Outlook/Entourage and the Palm are mirror copies), I can carry this thing with me (the Palm) and if the Palm dies (as it did during the weekend for some strange reason) there is always the chance to check my items through internet, either using the Microsoft Exchange or connecting to my computers using Remote Desktop Client.

Back to internet services

Anyway, with my current system out of the way, I want to explain why I did not go for an internet service. The main reason is because I need to keep things easily accesible for when I am offline. Yes, I could try to access some of these services via my mobile phone, but it would cost a fortune to see things in a very small screen. In addition, a lot of the AJAXy interface would not work. Most services do not allow for synchronisation with a PDA.

There are also other issues like: Can I trust the data to the company? Will it go belly up in the next three months? Can I save or export my data in another format, so I’m not stuck using an unreadable mess?

If the programs or services promise to deliver collaboration features:

  • Does my dad know about it? Would he use it without me spending more than five minutes explaining how to do it? For example, Skype passes this test.
  • Does it require that all parties install or use the same web site? Yes? Discard the service, unless the economic advantage and features make it a must have. Skype comes to mind again.

Another question, Can I run it under my control? I always prefer something that I can install in my server over some ‘hosted by a start-up solution’. Yes, I am a bit paranoid about losing my data, but shit happens and one learns.

Finally, do not believe all the hype. 37 signals may be the poster child for that amorfous web 2.0 label. However, I do not think that their programs are of much use, and I rather prefer the software delivered by other companies. I mentioned writely (the equivalent to 37’s writeboard) before. There is also Zoho Planner, which is certainly nicer than any other web planner that I have seen. So, if you are interested in web software shop around.

PS 2006-03-17. In another example of reducing complexity, Rui Carmo got really excited about using Tracks for GTD. A week later he dumped the whole thing for Outlook and Citrix. The latter to allow for crossplatform access.

I started browsing the web near the end of 1994, viagra
at a mind blowing speed of 8.6 Kbps. That is almost 12 years of web sites, news, changing tech, bad writing, etc. It woud be fair to say that internet has been my main time waster for over a decade.

Having an interest in personal productivity, GTD and the works, and maintaining such a time waster are completely incompatible things. Thus, it is time to dump the old habit and move on. I am stopping all non-essential use of the net, which includes everything but:

  • Search of professional information (e.g., scientific papers or class materials).
  • Maintaining the ASReml cookbook, which is the software that I use for genetic evaluation.
  • Basic blogging using a blog client (most likely Azure talking to Textpattern—yes, I want to use my Palm for this—using XML-RPC through a plugin) to keep documenting work related issues and my family informed on what is in my head. The use of a client is mostly to avoid being online as much as possible, although it has the advantages of being able to autosave what I am writing at the moment.

Will it work? I hope so, because I have so many things to do that I need the extra time. Will I miss the web? You bet—particularly at the beginning—but I can not possibly fit the rest of my plans with my current usage.

PS 2006-03-14: Azure wanted my Palm to be connected to internet just to set up a blog profile. Too much to ask just to try it: not worth it, so I deleted the program. I may just use a text editor to write the posts.

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Overkill and back to basics

9/03/2006

What follows is the last post, buy information pills for now, in Quantum Forest. It is also the first one in the ‘yet to be named’ (codename conuco) new place. I just need to get rid of all the ballast, rescue what I still like from here and then nuke the place.

Very few things last forever. Forever used to mean a hundred or a thousand years—even the universe had a beginning and will have an end; today it could mean three, five years. One of the reasons things last so long (or so little) is the need for self-consistency.

Consistency can be good when we are true to our best, but it can be a drag when we want to become better. I have to break now with over six years of ‘backward compatibility’, which means starting over. Elizabeth Bishop wrote:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

The art of losing, the art of letting go, the art of dharma practice aren’t hard to understand, but one needs a life (or two) to master them. Starting over is the first step of the life to master.

One of our latest acquisitions is a Breville bread machine. Two weeks ago we stopped buying bread and have been happily making at home. Is it cheaper? I wouldn’t say so if one considers the capital cost, troche
energy and raw materials. However, cheap
waking up with nice bread smell from the kitchen is great and trying new recipes is a lot of fun.

I think that this part of a post by DruBlood summarises the feeling:

OK, I know I’m supposed to have some sort of cosmic experience while kneading bread, but I don’t. I never have. The breadmachine does all that work for me and I still get to eat warm homemade bread in the morning. It counts as homemade. It does! Just because it’s easy and convenient does not mean that it’s not homemade. Who invented this fucking thing anyway? I cannot live without it or my crockpot. I do not own a microwave… but please do not take my breadmachine.

What a coincidence! We also got a crockpot (slow cooker) and have been using it a lot. However, I love my microwave oven too!

P.S. 2006-03-06. This morning I woke up to the smell of a delicious almond poppy seed bread. Scrumptious!

I decided to revise my old post on using a Palm for GTD. There have been a few changes during the last year or so, pathopsychology
which justified a closer look at what I was doing:

  • I changed jobs (and country), so I’m not stuck using that lousy Groupwise collaboration software anymore. Given that I work at a university, I can use whatever I want, and I have Outlook in my PC and Entourage in my Mac.
  • There has been a real explosion of new applications that promise a nirvana for GTD freaks and ease of collaboration.

Firstly, do I need an ‘AJAX based’ collaboration suite to keep my to-do list? Most likely not, a piece of paper will do. Actually, this is my permanent struggle:

  • I prefer paper over electronic form for writing. I am a slow typer and using a stylus in a Palm is very slow. However, there are two things that are easier electronically: updating information (rescheduling or changing contact details, for example) and reminders (alarms). The first problem has a simple solution: write with pencil and carry an eraser. The second one is the crux of my complications: I forget to check my paper diaries and reminders are the key to my survival. Thus, a service will be interesting to me only if it has reminders.
  • I want synchronisation. I want to avoid duplication of effort as much as possible. There is no point on wasting time writing down appointments in different systems, which relates to the next point.
  • I want consolidation or ‘one page to rule them all’. One of the main tenets of GTD is to keep only one system. Although there are several examples of ‘hacks’ to connect a number of of different tools to organise activities, I believe that in most cases they are just a bloody waste of time.
  • The system has to be simple: I do not want fifty lists of things, endless configuration and tweaking. It has to ‘just work’.

Thus, my current work flow now has Outlook/Entourage that synchronises with my Palm Tungsten T3, which I carry with me all the time. The Palm just acts as a diary with alarms. The only added software is still Agendus Pro (which I have not bother on upgrading) and Bonsai (which I have not used for a while, but that I will try again).

So now there is synchronisation and consolidation (Outlook/Entourage and the Palm are mirror copies), I can carry this thing with me (the Palm) and if the Palm dies (as it did during the weekend for some strange reason) there is always the chance to check my items through internet, either using the Microsoft Exchange or connecting to my computers using Remote Desktop Client.

Back to internet services

Anyway, with my current system out of the way, I want to explain why I did not go for an internet service. The main reason is because I need to keep things easily accesible for when I am offline. Yes, I could try to access some of these services via my mobile phone, but it would cost a fortune to see things in a very small screen. In addition, a lot of the AJAXy interface would not work. Most services do not allow for synchronisation with a PDA.

There are also other issues like: Can I trust the data to the company? Will it go belly up in the next three months? Can I save or export my data in another format, so I’m not stuck using an unreadable mess?

If the programs or services promise to deliver collaboration features:

  • Does my dad know about it? Would he use it without me spending more than five minutes explaining how to do it? For example, Skype passes this test.
  • Does it require that all parties install or use the same web site? Yes? Discard the service, unless the economic advantage and features make it a must have. Skype comes to mind again.

Another question, Can I run it under my control? I always prefer something that I can install in my server over some ‘hosted by a start-up solution’. Yes, I am a bit paranoid about losing my data, but shit happens and one learns.

Finally, do not believe all the hype. 37 signals may be the poster child for that amorfous web 2.0 label. However, I do not think that their programs are of much use, and I rather prefer the software delivered by other companies. I mentioned writely (the equivalent to 37’s writeboard) before. There is also Zoho Planner, which is certainly nicer than any other web planner that I have seen. So, if you are interested in web software shop around.

PS 2006-03-17. In another example of reducing complexity, Rui Carmo got really excited about using Tracks for GTD. A week later he dumped the whole thing for Outlook and Citrix. The latter to allow for crossplatform access.

Filed in productivity, software No Comments

Idea fishing, idea growing

1/02/2006

This month I started working for the School of Forestry, sale
University of Canterbury, therapist
where I am supposed to teach, supervise and research all sort of nifty things. One of the things with research is that one needs constant change and permanent challenges. For a while I stepped outside research because I was feeling tired, but I then got back the love for the trade.

Last week I read a transcription of a very inspirational presentation by the late Richard Hamming (via Paul Graham): You and your research. In two parts of the presentation Hamming presents summaries of his experience. First:

Let me summarize. You’ve got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur’s ‘Luck favors the prepared mind’. I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years—great thoughts only—means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed ‘this’ and yet had spent all week marching in ‘that’ direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy.

At the end of the talk, he stated:

If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven’t got enough manpower to move into a direction when that’s exactly what you need to do? I say again that I have seen, as I studied the history, the successful scientist changed the viewpoint and what was a defect became an asset.

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don’t succeed are: they don’t work on important problems, they don’t become emotionally involved, they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I’ve told you how easy it is; furthermore I’ve told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!

In a non-completely unrelated post Robert Fripp explains (via Scobleizer):

We should not expect good work to be acknowledged; and where it is, we should not expect it to be welcomed. Rather, the strength of a creative impulse is measured by the strength of opposition it meets.

It is not often that one is exposed to a really motivational text, which is really uplifting compared to the ‘teamwork rocks’ lame posters that one finds in most companies. I have been talking with a few people trying to, first, determine what are the ‘big issues’ in my area and, second, what would be steps toward tackling them. I am trying to combine two strategies: fishing for ideas that I can extend until they become a real contribution and, more importantly, growing new ideas into something useful.

Filed in miscellanea, productivity, quotes No Comments

From New Zealand again

25/11/2005

This post is about people “saving time” doing the wrong things. The whole ‘life hacks’ area has become much more visible since the presentation by Danny O’Brien on 11 February 2004, visit this
who presented results of interviews with highly productive hackers (notes of the presentation taken by Cory Doctorow). There was a second presentation (notes by Cory again). This has spawned a number of sites treating more or less seriously; for example, Sildenafil
43 folders and Life Hacker.

Originally, the idea was very simple. These ‘high achievers’ all use mainly one application (and one file to keep EVERYTHING). This can be a combination of text file + editor, a private blog or wiki, etc. There are a few scripts using data from that file (if text) or RSS feed (if blog or wiki) to keep things synchronised. Now, how come that this concept has been expanded to cover such a diverse array of approaches?

First, different things work for different people—fair enough. However, the main problem seems to be that people have been developing all sorts of hacks for the wrong reasons. An example of the first approach is the Hipster PDA. Why bother with big electronic files if there is a simpler, low-tech approach (more about this later). Another example would be this article on dealing with email overload. The second approach, however, implies just a simple waste of time. Some examples:

  • Why do you need to worry about how to organise thousands of RSS feeds? That is clearly too much information, unless your job description is ‘to summarise thousands of feeds per day’.
  • The last few weeks there have been plenty of people worried about watching too much TV, so there are ‘life hacks’ to reduce time seating watching TV, movies, Tivo, etc. Just turn off the bloody box! Easy. There are some people clearly using too much disposable income for getting more ways to be distracted.
  • And anything iPod (in its many incarnations) related.

Let’s go back to simple and important problems and drop the fluff. Talking about fluff, I put in that category most online approaches to keep your life sane (e.g., Backpack). They imply constant connection to internet, which at least for now it is not possible, unless you are a completely urban-being with your rear permanently glued to a chair in front of a computer.

After a false start, health system
I am again putting some of my bookmarks in del.icio.us. I will probably add the tags (newish term for old-fashion keywords) to blog posts too.

Playing with cream

Paul Ford’s comments on Amish computing certainly hit a soft spot on me. I do miss Wordperfect 5.1! It was back to simpler times when using computers was certainly much more productive for me. Multitasking is a nice feature to have when strictly necessary, for sale but not all the time.

Next year I need to spend a fair amount of time writing lectures and I am certainly tempted to ‘going back to basics’. Most of the text that I need to prepare is not highly complex, generic
so I am thinking of writing at least the first drafts in text files with a simple markup. The most humanly readable markup is probably Markdown. Once the text is in Markdown it can be easily converted into html (e.g. using the Markdown dingus, and adding the ‘html’ and ‘body’ tags to get a complete page) and from there to other formats like LaTeX or MSWord. If I decide to go for a longer document probably LaTeX would be the way to go.

I have been playing with Cream, the VIM mode for dumb users like me (another distraction). I hope to slowly learn a few tricks at a time to become a more proficient VIM user, but that is not a real priority. It is a really nice editor mode!

I installed the vim-latex suite, which seems to add pretty good latex support to VIM/Cream, but it seems to override some of the Cream configurations (e.g., F9 is not code folfing/unfolding anymore). It seems to be a matter of getting used to that though. Anyway, I will not need it for the first version of the documents.

Making more changes to Tim’s site

We have had a few problems to have the PDF file of Tim’s book indexed by search engines. My theory is that engines aren’t very happy with Textpattern’s internal links (of type http://mysite.com/file_downloads/2) for a PDF file. Today we changed it to something more explicit like http://mysite.com/bookfiles/file.pdf. Actually, the story was not as simple as that. When first trying to use the new code we ran into a ‘missing page’ problem, which I traced back to a problem with the .htaccess file. I dropped a <IfModule mod_rewrite.c> condition from the file, leaving it like below and it just works.


RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} -f [OR]
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} -d
RewriteRule ^(.+) - [PT,L]
RewriteRule ^(.*) index.php

A few years ago I obtained my Australian citizenship and simultaneously—at least in theory—I lost my Chilean one. Last September the Chilean congress approved law No 20050 (PDF version in Spanish) reforming 54 aspects of the constitution including:

  • Recovery of citizenship and accepting the principle of ‘ius sanguinis’ (acquisition of citizenship through descent—textually, bronchitis
    by right of blood). This would give my son access to Chilean citizenship.
  • Elimination of designated (non-elected) and lifetime senators.
  • Reduction of the presidential period from six to four years.
  • The president can now remove commanders in chief of the military and security forces, approved
    without requiring the consent of any external authorities.
  • The National Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Nacional) has its role greatly reduced, Myocarditis
    minimising its interference in public affairs.

Finally, after fifteen years of recovering democracy (year and a half after a famous plebiscite), there are substantial changes to the political system eliminating several of the vestiges (but not all) of a dictatorial system.

I got you! This post is not about the end of forestry activity in Tasmania, viagra 60mg
but about the end of the Forestry in Tasmania web pages. After two years compiling materials and hand formatting HTML I have decided to stop updating the sub domain. The fact that I am leaving Tasmania at the end of the year—so I will not have time to keep up to date with what is going on—is just the straw that broke… you know.

I still need to decide what to do with the site; either I will leave it unchanged for posterity’s sake or pull the plug and delete the whole thing. Over these last two years I have received a fair amount of abuse and a few examples of praise for keeping the site and trying to present a ‘fair view’ of environmental discussion in Tasmania. However, ailment whatever tries to pass as debate is so low quality that it is easy to get disheartened with what one reads in the media.

Will I start a ‘forestry in New Zealand’ page? I doubt it; my role will be completely different and forestry activity over there is much less contentious. I rather spend some time learning Maori—I am quite keen about this—and practicing the haka with Orlando.

This post started as a question to myself: Why did it take me so long to start caring about economics? Only last year, resuscitator
at age 37, sales I felt the urge to start reading about economics and its relationship with society. Before that, anaemia
I used to have this primordial (to use H.P. Lovecraft’s language) reaction towards economics, particularly its free market variants.

I think that one of the major ‘whack on the head’ moments was realising that claiming an admirable objective is completely different from achieving it. That, in addition to the realisation that many good intentioned policies actually achieved opposite effects was enough to decide start reading about economics and ‘classical liberal’ approaches. The last part of my excuse is that I was first exposed to free market principles under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

I still believe that imposing economic change without political freedom is wrong, and costed me years of rejecting open economies. The problem is this: an unelected government (a dictatorship to be honest) pushes for economic reform. Because I disagree in principle with a dictatorship and the lack of freedom, I will tend to oppose most policies, even reasonable ones. At some point this includes supporting the opposite of economic freedom, well, sort of. Chile represents a funny free market, an economic system that for many years lacked transparency.

An interesting feature of this dicothomy between ‘market freedom’ and ‘political freedom’ is the attitude towards democracy in Latin America. The Economist published the results of The Latinobarómetro poll, and even in countries like Chile—that has had major economic growth—around 50% of people are still ‘not very satisfied’ or ‘not at all satisfied’ with the way democracy works (see Figure 3 in the linked document). So, why are people still struggling to come to terms with a freer system? I would venture that there are at least two important reasons:

  • The extreme level of inequality1 still present in society. By the way, I do not believe that one of the reasons for this is the presence of a capitalist system but that the system is not truly capitalist2 yet. The major issues would be: the existence of a small number of people restricting a proper access to a market economy for the rest of the population, and lack of property rights, with a substantial proportion of transactions in an informal economy3; namely Hernando de Soto’s dead capital argument.
  • The feeling that there is a ‘restricted version’ of democracy, where there are still groups of people (e.g., higher ranks of the military, very rich people) who are beyond the reach of the legal system. That is, a feeling of lack of justice and unfairness, which I think is being corrected, albeit very slowly.

Is a future of free market and democracy possible for developing countries? I believe so, particularly if we are talking about ‘real capitalism’, with more responsible politicians and business people, as well as a preoccupation for the unintended consequences of electoral promises. May be there are too many ‘ifs’ in the previous sentence, but the experience of countries like Venezuela4—devastated by demagogy and government/business inbreeding—may be a good reminder for personal and social responsibility.

Footnotes

1 I do not think that the mere existence of inequality is in itself an issue (I do not mind about the existence of multimillionaires). The problem is when there is still a large proportion of people that has little hope for the future, as is still the case in many Latin American countries.

2 This is well put by Johan Norberg in his In defence of global capitalism book. By capitalism he means (PDF 112KB):

…the liberal market economy, with its free competition based on the right of using one’s property, the freedom to negotiate, to conclude agreements and to start up business activities. What I am defending, then, is individual liberty in the economy. Capitalists are dangerous when, instead of capitalist ownership, they join forces with the government. If the state is a dictatorship the enterprises can actually be a party to human rights violations, as for example in the case of a number of western oil companies in African states. By the same token, capitalists frequenting the corridors of political power in search of benefits and privileges are not capitalists either. On the contrary, they are a threat to the free market and as such must be criticised and counteracted. It often happens that businessmen want to play politics and politicians want to play at being businessmen. This is not a market economy, it is a mixed economy in which entrepreneurs and politicians have confused their roles. Free capitalism exists when politicians pursue liberal policies and entrepreneurs do business.

3 This problem is also linked to environmental degradation.

4 I am not ‘just picking’ on Venezuela. I lived five years in the country and have very good memories of its people and landscape.

P.S. 2005-11-10: Johan Norberg emailed me saying that ‘I’m sure I would also have shared your attitude had I experienced that’.

I was writing a Python prototype of DogSim, discount
an inheritance (sense Mendel) mode simulator, tadalafil happily coding and brushing up my Python coding. I usually listen to energetic music while coding, dentist
and this time was the Red Hot Chili Peppers turn. First was Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, then ‘Californication’ and then ‘By the way’ (my least favourite album). But no, wait a minute: ‘By the way’ would not play at all in my laptop. Tried again, and the disk was not recognised. What was going on? Quick Google search and then discovered that the Australian released CD had ‘copy protection’ that would not allow it to be played in a computer.

I understand that artists may not like someone making a million copies of their CDs and selling them for a profit. But from there to denying a legal user the possibility to play a CD in a computer… that is way over the top. Over ninety percent of my listening is in my computer while working, the other ten percent is listening children’s music in the car. So, what happens when I am faced with that situation? Well, I just have to circumvent the protection, so I can make a copy of the CD that plays in my computer to listen to the bloody thing, so I can justify spending the money in an overpriced piece of plastic.

My web search found a reference to IsoBuster, a data recovery software that mounts the CD and ‘shows you all the tracks and sessions located on the media, combined with all file-systems that are present’. So it gets around the typical double table of contents problem that renders CDs unplayable in a computer. Then one can copy the music contents to the hard drive and then back to another CD. The funny thing is that I did not manage to mount ‘By the way’ in my crammy Matshita UJ-820S CD drive—so I need to try in my desktop computer—but I managed to get a copy of the enhanced version of Portishead’s Live: Roseland NYC. The latter has given me grief for many years, always trying to use its special player to play in the computer, not letting me do any other thing.

What is the point of the whole exercise? Commercial piracy will not be deterred by some lame form of protection, but end users will be really annoyed. May be music companies should read Cory Doctorow’s presentation on digital rights management.

P.S. By the way, a lot of this copy protection issues are completely side stepped in my mac.

Last week I had my fourth trip to New Zealand in less than a year. Apart from almost being fined NZD200 for forgetting to declare a pair of boots in my luggage (I got away with a warning about the dangers of soil attached to boots) and missing my domestic connection the trip was OK. Air New Zealand is upgrading its planes in the Melbourne-Auckland route, visit web
and this time I flew in a Boeing 777-200 with an ‘on-demand’ entertainment system. It is nice to be able to pause the movie (any of the 40 ones available) if one wants to go to the loo.

And the perils of presentations

Every time one goes to meetings PowerPoint makes its appearance, troche
and one gets endless bullet points, people reading slides (the teleprompter approach), chart junk and obvious recycling of old presentations. It really annoys me when someone is going over dozens of slides skipping the ones that are not useful for the current presentation.

I do enjoy presenting and most of the time spent quite a bit of time thinking and preparing:

  • Who are the members of the audience and what do they know about the topic?
  • What is my core message and the best way to deliver it?
  • Then I write a little ‘script’—which is also the basis for the handout—and then I create some slides. By the way, when I say handout is not that ‘cute’ printout of your slides, but text actually written to support the presentation. This time was 9 slides for a half an hour presentation.
  • I always remember something that I read in A Ph.D. is not enough by Peter Feibelman: ‘never overestimate your audience’ (page 28). I read that as always provide some context so even people that have little idea about the topic can get something of my presentation.
  • I do not use a specific style for all slides (like, for example, the Takahashi Method of few large words, or the Kawasaki method, although I use few slides), but I combine them. I use as little text as possible, almost never in bullet point form, tend to use good quality pictures (taken by myself, from istockphoto or, if lucky, I get a freebie from stock.xchn). I do use simple diagrams and sometimes one or two slides with just one number or word.

A good resource for presentations—not necessarily PowerPoint— is Presentation Zen.

Filed in miscellanea, productivity, travel No Comments

The wrong life hacks

24/10/2005

This post is about people “saving time” doing the wrong things. The whole ‘life hacks’ area has become much more visible since the presentation by Danny O’Brien on 11 February 2004, visit this
who presented results of interviews with highly productive hackers (notes of the presentation taken by Cory Doctorow). There was a second presentation (notes by Cory again). This has spawned a number of sites treating more or less seriously; for example, Sildenafil
43 folders and Life Hacker.

Originally, the idea was very simple. These ‘high achievers’ all use mainly one application (and one file to keep EVERYTHING). This can be a combination of text file + editor, a private blog or wiki, etc. There are a few scripts using data from that file (if text) or RSS feed (if blog or wiki) to keep things synchronised. Now, how come that this concept has been expanded to cover such a diverse array of approaches?

First, different things work for different people—fair enough. However, the main problem seems to be that people have been developing all sorts of hacks for the wrong reasons. An example of the first approach is the Hipster PDA. Why bother with big electronic files if there is a simpler, low-tech approach (more about this later). Another example would be this article on dealing with email overload. The second approach, however, implies just a simple waste of time. Some examples:

  • Why do you need to worry about how to organise thousands of RSS feeds? That is clearly too much information, unless your job description is ‘to summarise thousands of feeds per day’.
  • The last few weeks there have been plenty of people worried about watching too much TV, so there are ‘life hacks’ to reduce time seating watching TV, movies, Tivo, etc. Just turn off the bloody box! Easy. There are some people clearly using too much disposable income for getting more ways to be distracted.
  • And anything iPod (in its many incarnations) related.

Let’s go back to simple and important problems and drop the fluff. Talking about fluff, I put in that category most online approaches to keep your life sane (e.g., Backpack). They imply constant connection to internet, which at least for now it is not possible, unless you are a completely urban-being with your rear permanently glued to a chair in front of a computer.

Filed in productivity, web No Comments

Ticking boxes

4/08/2005

While some parts of my work are quite exciting, this
other parts are, ambulance
say, uninspiring. I call the latter ‘compliance statistics’. This means that there is no much interest in the final result, nor there is a need for actually getting a specific value: the aim is ticking as many boxes as possible. Yes, we calculated the power to detect X. Yes, there is a protocol to assess Y. If one ticks enough boxes the result is a good evaluation, certification, or other types of not very useful tokens.

In just another example of serendipity, I visited Paul Graham’s site and just found him complaining about similar issues. He rants about the way work is organised and how work is evaluated:

…the reason most employees work fixed hours is that the company can’t measure their productivity.

If you could measure how much work people did, many companies wouldn’t need any fixed workday. You could just say: this is what you have to do. Do it whenever you like, wherever you like. If your work requires you to talk to other people in the company, then you may need to be here a certain amount. Otherwise we don’t care.

and

Per capita, large organizations accomplish very little. And yet all those people have to be on site at least eight hours a day. When so much time goes in one end and so little achievement comes out the other, something has to give. And meetings are the main mechanism for taking up the slack.

Meetings are like an opiate with a network effect. So is email, on a smaller scale. And in addition to the direct cost in time, there’s the cost in fragmentation—breaking people’s day up into bits too small to be useful.

I find very interesting that someone may question the time I spend working in this—particularly considering the important ramifications of this type of work—and prefers me spending my time ‘ticking boxes’. The problem comes at the time of evaluation, when time spent doing important things count very little when compared to all those little ticks people think are a measure of productivity.

I would say that, in many cases, tick-compliance is a cost without any useful return: people feel that they are measuring progress but in reality are making me take time off from producing real value and not letting me work as an amateur.

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