Four things

I got tagged (thanks, Matt). Drum roll, please. . . . .

Four jobs I’ve had in my life:
1. Pizza delivery driver for Pizza Hut
2. Grader of state-wide standardized writing tests for public school students in North Carolina
3. Manager of campus coffeeshop / music venue
4. Frozen yogurt shop attendant (fired)

Four movies I can watch over and over
1. Apocalypse Now
2. Boogie Nights
3. Election
4. Anchorman

Four TV shows I love to watch
1. The Daily Show
2. American Idol
3. American Experience
4. Trading Spouses (total trash TV — I love it!)

Four places I’ve been on vacation
1. Thailand
2. Hawaii
3. Vancouver, BC
4. Mexico

Four of my favorite dishes
1. Pat-Ke-Mao, super-spicy Thai noodles, #13 on the Plearn lunch menu (PDF)
2. Seared ahi tuna with wasabi/mustard dipping sauce
3. a burrito in the Mission
4. a home-grilled Niman Ranch burger

Four websites I visit daily
1. Bloglines
2. (especially this time of year for college basketball scores)
3. SFGate
4. Flickr

Four places I would rather be right now
1. Rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms
2. Yosemite
3. Hawaii
4. Tilden Park (Berkeley)

Four bloggers I am tagging
1. Ed Ho
2. Matthew Rothenberg
3. Mike Dunn
4. Greg Tyree

Thunderbird on the Mac: delete key doesn't work!

I recently started using Thunderbird on the Mac (after using for a couple of years) and it’s great and all, but why doesn’t one of the delete keys work? On the Apple keyboard I have, there are two delete keys: one under F13 and one below the “help” button. I didn’t realize it until I started using Thunderbird, but I always use the latter key (the one below “help”) when I want to delete e-mail. That delete key doesn’t work in Thunderbird on the Mac. Other people have noticed — it’s not just me.

I’m one of the odd people who uses a Mac keyboard for his PC — I like the Apple keyboard and I switch between a Mac and PC via a KVM switch, so it makes sense to stick to a single keyboard. And guess what? The delete key on my Apple keyboard that doesn’t work on Thunderbird for the Mac actually works on Thunderbird for Windows.

Go figure.

Whatever happened to wireless electricity?

Marc Abramowitz recently pointed to Splashpower, a wireless electricity company that supposedly has a working product. The term “wireless electricity” means just what it sounds like — electricity delivered without wires. Wikipedia has a little background on Splashpower with some details on how it all works.

The funny thing is that in November 2003 (in my old InfoWorld blog), I pointed out something similar from a company named MobileWise (a company whose home page is now blank). I never actually saw MobileWise’s product in action, though it seemed legit. Here’s an old story that mentions both Splashpower and MobileWise (“Another start-up, MobileWise, has been developing a similar technology and has announced that Acer plans to release notebooks and handhelds incorporating it in the first half of 2003.” Hmmm — not sure if they shipped).

I’m a geek and hang out with a lot of geeks, so I think I would have seen this wondrous technology at some point if it actually existed. That being said, I have just one burning question: can this wireless electricity power the ignition on my personal jet pack? (heh heh)

Working with the "beginner's mind"

From the excellent Presentation Zen blog (which is always filled with immediately useful advice on delivering compelling presentations), here’s a post that references the concept of “the beginner’s mind,” a term that was unfamiliar to me until now, but one that describes an approach that seems to be common among people I most enjoy working with (especially when coupled with the ability and determination to execute on ideas):

Zen teachings often speak to the idea of the “beginner’s mind.” Like a child, one who approaches life with a “beginner’s mind” is fresh, enthusiastic in approach and open to the vast possibilities before them. One who possesses a “beginner’s mind” is not burdened by old habits or obsessed about “the way things are done around here” or with the way things could have or should have been. When we approach new challenges as true “beginners” (even if we are seasoned adults) we need not be saddled with fear of failure or of making mistakes. As children, Tiger Woods and Yo Yo Ma (and many others less known) made thousands of mistakes along their path to greatness. With an open mind and childlike optimism about what we can become, learning and improvement can be quite remarkable.

I work with a lot of people who fit this description these days — it’s a great way to live.

Email inbox management in a new job (or how I learned to stop worrying and love 5100+ messages)

My blog has been fairly silent over the past several days because in addition to my usual job, I’m spending a lot of time getting things organized. In the past two years, I’ve had a lot going on in both my personal and professional lives, and it was time to take a breath and tie up some loose ends. I decided to join the Getting Things Done (or GTD) cult, so I bought the book last weekend, read it, and starting organizing things based on those general principles. More on my larger GTD experience in a later post — it’s in my “defer” folder (inside GTD geek joke, and not a very funny one at that).

Among many other things, this means cleaning out my e-mail inbox, and it’s a mess. Only 22 weeks into my job at Yahoo!, I’m looking at an inbox with 5100+ e-mails, since I have deleted absolutely nothing since I started — and that leads to the point I want to make about getting organized in a new job. It might be GTD heresy, but in a new job, I think you should let your inbox fill up for the first 4-6 months. You should probably set up a filing system that is just enough to keep you from going insane, but don’t delete anything. Then, 4-6 months later, when you’ve really begun to make sense of your role, the organization, and how it all works, spend a few days churning through that old inbox and doing some filing.

That’s what I’m doing, and I’m finding e-mails on topics that were inscrutable to me in my first couple of months, but are now immensely valuable. I’m finding e-mails from people who I’ve gotten to know, but didn’t know when I received the e-mails. I’m finding informational e-mails from HR and Finance that didn’t make sense when I got them, and now do. I’m finding e-mail threads about projects that were just one in an overall soup of projects, but are now very specifically pertinent to what I’m doing now.

Bottom line: it’s very tempting to walk into a new job with a fresh start and use it as an opportunity to keep your inbox clean and manageable from Day One. Don’t do it. Any job worth having is messy and unclear in the first few months, so embrace the mess and let your inbox fill up without guilt. Just be sure to schedule a massive inbox cleanup 4-6 months into the new gig.

Update: My inbox is now empty. Zero messages in my inbox. That doesn’t mean I’ve followed up on everything, but now I know exactly what to follow up on and I’ve got an absolutely killer filing system in place.

Irony and digital music

So I’m sitting at home trying to organize various things (mostly computer-related) and I’ve been sitting at the computer for hours using Yahoo! Music Engine and dutifully rating various artists/songs and seeing what it spits back at me as recommended music. It’s doing a pretty good job, I have to say. When you’re going about your work and Sonic Youth‘s “Teenage Riot” comes on, you’re doing just fine (for music geeks of a certain age, such songs are a sacrament, an enduring part of the canon for head-nodding indie rock boys who aren’t predisposed to dancing).

Just a minute ago, I was startled to hear “GET OFF THE INTERNET!!” blaring from my speakers, which turned out to be a Le Tigre song (lyrics). Le Tigre has never been one of my favorites but has always been on my radar (saw them open for Beck recently). “Get Off the Internet” is a catchy song. . . I gave it 3 out of 4 stars.

Get off the Internet? I don’t think so. . . but there’s something deliciously ironic about this song bubbling up in the first place.

Unix as literature

Updated a dead link from this article in the archives – 12/09/2010

Every now and then, I wonder to myself, “How in the world did I go from being an English major with PhD aspirations to a total computer geek who enjoys writing code, toying with Apache configs, etc?” In those moments of self-reflection, I’m always reminded of Thomas Scoville’s excellent essay, “The Elements of Style: Unix as Literature.” In the essay, Scoville explains why in his experience, a surprising proportion of Unix geeks have literary backgrounds of some sort (and read the whole thing — this is just a small quote. There are also some nice digs at Microsoft.):

The common thread was wordsmithing; a suspiciously high proportion of my UNIX colleagues had already developed, in some prior career, a comfort and fluency with text and printed words. They were adept readers and writers, and UNIX played handily to those strengths. UNIX was, in some sense, literature to them. Suddenly the overrepresentation of polyglots, liberal-arts types, and voracious readers in the UNIX community didn’t seem so mysterious, and pointed the way to a deeper issue: in a world increasingly dominated by image culture (TV, movies, .jpg files), UNIX remains rooted in the culture of the word.

This makes some sense to me. I wasn’t always a “technologist,” though I’ve always been handy with computers. My brother and I ran a successful lawn mowing business when we were kids, and we used a computerized billing system on a Kaypro my dad bought us in the early 80s. Our clients were pretty blown away that two neighborhood kids delivered such sophisticated monthly statements.

From the lawn-mowing geek period, fast forward to the summer of 1993. I was an English major at Duke coming off a really successful semester. I had published an article in a campus journal (with a dense title something like “Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and the Creation of a Subversive Moral Universe” — I actually scanned the letter they sent me (PDF) several years ago) and had placed in the annual English department writing contest for a paper I had written about Kingsley Amis‘ novel Lucky Jim and a relatively obscure novel of the same period, Hurry on Down by John Wain. I was already picking out the appropriate tweed jackets and preparing myself for a career in the ivory tower. Anything related to computers was the furthest thing from my mind. I graduated in December 1993 and went to work in the research library at a newspaper that happened to be a really early arrival on the web (back when Yahoo! could be found at!).

By the spring of 1994, you would have found me neck-deep in Unix books, writing Perl code, cranking out HTML, running a gopher, and hanging out on USENET. It wasn’t long before I was writing Sybase database-backed web apps using sybperl (before the Perl DBI made it unnecessary). I went through a brief period of writing apps with Tcl/Tk, too. I dumped the idea of the literature PhD, and never looked back (which means I can read, but not have to write papers about it).

The post from Joyce Park in the O’Reilly Radar “Burn In” series of posts really resonated with me. Though marriage had nothing to do with it in my case, I followed a similar path from relative disengagement with computers to total immersion. I think Thomas Scoville’s essay gives us some hints as to how that happens (and I’m glad it did!)