It’s 5pm somewhere.

Macallan’s Cask Strength is my new favorite liquor.

It’s sort of like soda-syrup is to a soda. It’s the undiluted scotch from the cask. Very concentrated and intense. Simply awesome.

Give it a try if you’re looking for something interesing.


Cool and Obscure Unix tools:

A small rant on “top priority.”

important notice
Please email them directly, high importance.

This was what I asked to do by a coworker. And for a moment I struggled to hold my tongue.

I don’t know why this rubs me the wrong way. I remember seeing the feature of setting an email “priority” flag back in what must have been some ancient version of Eudora, but I recall back then, that I never felt an urge to use it and thought it frivolous.

In the years hence, almost without exception, every email that used a priority flag only used the “highest” setting. I’ve worked with some pople where every email they ever sent was flagged as “highest” priority.

The above image comes out of Microsoft’s Entourage. A red rounded exclamation point. The only in-grid item in red. Nice. I forget what mail client over the years did it, maybe it was Simeon, but one of them would put three red exclamation marks in the priority field for “highest.” Never once has a UI element actually made me feel urgency. Well…except maybe for a BSOD.

And almost equally without deviation, email flagged “highest” priority were either a complete waste of time, or were something I already knew and was working on.

I realize that my sample-set of one is not remotely a basis for any conclusion, but it’s one of those things. I have a passionate momentary hatred of any email flagged as “highest” priority due to it’s abuse.

I can almost use the priority flag as an indicator of technical affluence of a person. Or to put it less nicely: dumb people use it. The people who delete their own files accidentally, who spill coffee in their keyboard, and who lose their mouse on the screen are the people who use the priority setting. The people who should not be working at a tech company.

People always talk about the folks who go “postal” as being quiet and having no reason for flipping out. Trust me, there is always a reason. Send me another email about the corporate photocopying policy flagged “highest” and your might find out.

It only goes to show that the best job advice I have ever heard is: imagine that the guy who will do your job when you leave, and that your coworkers are all dangerous psychopaths with short tempers who will have your home address.

It’s silly, but it makes you think about the other guy and treat them nice. And in the end, it makes the workplace awesome.

Now if I could only hack Exchange to kill that fucking flag.

Small milestones.

This March I crossed a milestone in my finances. For the first time in about 15 years, I have more money saved in various forms than I owe.

It’s been a long dig out. But I’m making headway.

Upcoming concerts!

Who: The Ohlone Wind Orchestra
What: OWO Spring Concert (Concert Flyer)
When: Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 2pm
Where: The Smith Center on the Ohlone College Campus in Fremont, CA.
Why: The OWO is probably the closest to a professional group I have had the privilege of playing in. The spring concerts are usually the best. And we’re running through a monstrously good transcription of Liszt’s Les Preludes and a smoking euphonium soloist on Boccalari’s Fantasia di Concerto.

Who: The Livermore-Amador Symphony
What: Holst’s The Planets and Dale Wolford (Concert webpage)
When: Saturday, May 14, 2011, at 8 p.m. (prelude talk at 7 p.m.)
Where: The Bankhead Theater in Livermore, CA.
Why: Livermore is a great community symphony and they’re tackling some tough works here and also an interesting saxophone guest soloist.

Who: The Ohlone Community Band
What: OCB Spring Concert (Concert flyer)
When: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 7:30PM
Where: The Smith Center on the Ohlone College Campus in Fremont, CA.
Why: We’re playing some fun works you don’t hear often including Slava!, Espana Cani and Relax! that features a Bass Sax. Also, a turn-of-the-century cornet trio feature and other surprises. This is a joint concert with the Ohlone Tuba Ensemble. Word is they have an arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody in their program.

The surprise war on clutter

As some of you may not know, Sue had to make a trip home for a few weeks to take care of her parents. They are now better, and that is all good. But for a while there I had about 5 weeks of time to myself.

Sue and I had been planning on “cleaning that closet” and “straightening up” things for ages. Being alone gave me a chance to think about it.

Clutter, for me anyway, is poisonous. It kills whatever part of my mind is creative. A stack of items does nothing more than remind you that you have work you should have done, and is waiting for you to do. It makes you tired. It makes you depressed.

The conflict, is that creativity is a clutter-generating process. Think of any activity from a good weekend of software crafting to music to drawing to whatever, and there is a nesting process of gathering associated materials and doing stuff, and a detritus of bad ideas and unused scrap.

So for me, the task was to try to make the space clean, but still open to creative clutter.

As I described it to my roommates, the goal was to have the place feel comfortable and clean. And the war was declared that I did not want to see a single cardboard box or bag of stuff in sight.

And it was all going to be a surprise for Sue, so I’d do it right!

The first thing I tackled were the two simplest things I knew from my bachelor days: bedding and pictures.

Bedding and pictures

The easiest way to get your living space half-clean is just making your bed. It’s a huge visual item and gets a great start to things. I did the full-clean: flopped the mattress around, changed all the bedding, bought new bedding, and put away unused stuff.

Pictures. For years I would put off hanging anything or painting anything because I rented a place. Later I figured out: fuck that. It takes 5 minutes to hang up the pictures you own and makes the place look 10x better. I mead a run to the local craft store, picked up frames for things that picked up and spent and evening laying out the walls and workspace.

In one evening, the place looked way better.

Organizing a creative desk

Sue’s desk was the scariest part for me to work on. Dealing with the creative space of someone else is a sure-fire way to get yelled at, so I wanted to tread lightly.

Sue actually has a comfortable nook of a space with two large desks, and a book case. The trouble was, she didn’t have enough space for everything. Neat little stacks of work, magazines, books, pencils, etc were all around. Boxes of paper supplies, etc.

I knew from past experience that Sue is a location-memory person and very visual in how she stores things. Those stacks were important in how and where they were. My goal was to be able to straighten it all, but in a way that you could still comfortably see where it all was.

I spent some time in the local Target before finding their “closet organizer” section. They have these wonderful units that come in various stackable shapes, and sizes. Most of them have open-front shelves of various spacings and would be perfect.

Over time, I bought several that would fit into key spaces and match the woodgrain of her tables and layout. I place the various bits of creative supply in them in a way they stayed grouped, looked neat, but from a simple single visual pass you could quickly find about anything.

I also took the time to upgrade the lighting, repaired the home computer, and got a table for the big printer.

Reducing my own desk

I had been on a quest to reduce my desk footprint in the bedroom even before the job switch a year ago. When that happened, I had taken all my work desk boxes home and essentially had them in and around my home desk. This would not do.

I use my home desk very rarely, and have a small micro-computer on it mostly for the purpose of backing up my remote servers. My goal was to reduce this down to a single chair, microdesk, and the one computer.

It took a lot of de-duping, and turning part of my storage closet into the “desk drawer” of stamps, envelopes, paper and office supplies, but I got there.

The deep recesses of the closet

We have a walk-in closet. And it was cluttered. Partly from bad layout and partly from me having too many music instruments.

Here I went crazy putting up hooks for everything that needed it, buying proper hangers for everything, and also putting shelves into some of the unused “hanging” areas. A lot of very careful stacking, and sorting then happened.

Again Target supplied many clear shoe-box and smaller containers for shoes and other items. As with Sue’s desk, the goal was to be able to see what you were looking for, if at all possible.

New furniture

I actually ended up buying a few things with the idea of getting rid of clutter. In some cases, the clutter is a sign you need a place to put things.

A corner table was bought for the phone and books next to the reading chair. A bench was bought for the foot of the bed that could store the extra blankets. And a large closable CD cabinet was bought to hold all the CDs.

Finishing touches

Several boxes went off to goodwill, several boxes of stuff was mailed to friends.

The last few days were spent sorting the 3 or 4 boxes of misc clutter that was left and getting like items stored in good places.

I also repaired everything that needed it: light bulbs, new fan, better shower head, night lights, etc.

Add some dusting, washing, and vacuuming and that was about all I had time for. The last cardboard box left the room the day when Sue came home.

The reveal

So that was about 5 weeks of most of my spare time outside of work and music. Sue knew there was a “surprise” in the works. But I was majorly nervous that some things might backfire. After-all, messing with someone’s workspace can be a very bad idea. Right before she walked in, I let Sue know that anything could be changed around if she wanted.

It turns out, she loved it. And it seems to be exactly what she needed after several exhausting weeks at home. She came home, and instantly crashed and was comfortable. We’re talking about further painting and decorating ideas on top of what has already been done. And it really does feel like home now.

So this is a heck of a long post about well… cleaning. I know it sounds weird, but try it. Having a clean space can make creativity suddenly flow again. It is awesome.

do { } while ( )

I was going through some papers today and I came across an index card. It was a very important index card at my last job. At my desk there, I had it pinned next to my monitor where I pretty much could not avoid seeing it.

The card is a list of four things:

– One bug
– One email
– One website
– One project

The work of being the lead sysadmin of a moderately sized company is chaotic by nature. While you do have traditional project work, there is a large portion of your job that is interruption based. Everything from down-time to sudden project needs regularly fall into your lap.

This makes the organizational map of your typical business interesting. At one point I had no less than 5 “bosses” with full or dotted lines to me on the org chart.

Normally a lack of clear direction and responsibility is a recipe for business chaos. I made it my goal to work on building good people relationships and building stable enough technology to help calm the chaos. You can’t fix chaos, but over time, you can redirect it, repair it on the edges, and maybe be more ready for it.

So how do you mentally handle a job where on any one day you might have several people giving you “TOP!” priorities that have to be done now? Oh and also, you are told to cut corners? Oh! And while rebuilding systems and recovering from the technical debt of the previous bad admin?

Well. First off, the true empowering moment is when you realize that having multiple bosses means you are the final arbiter of what you do and in what order. And then second, off you build a system to organize your work and stay sane.

So to organize my day, I had to find a way to:

– Optimize my creativity to be best used and most fruitful in my work.
– Handle the interruptions and “fires” to put out.
– Continue to work on long-term projects and issues.
– Work on rebuilding personal relationships between teams in a screwed- up company.
– Have some mental free-time for stress and sanity

This is where my index card came in. It is something I had done normally, but the day I wrote it out and pinned it up, it became a formal order to my day. While at work, I would loop over the actions listed. Here’s what they meant:

One bug

This means: work on an short-term task or issue.

A lot of my work was in the bugtracking system. Any time I ran across something that needed to be done I wouldn’t get to I opened a bug. So these were the identified outstanding tasks for me to do. Any fire du jour was dutifully filed as a bug as well. I probably had 80 or so open bugs at any one time. I think I was the only one who really used the system, but it got me out of trying to remember everything I needed to do. That had a few side effects: I could focus that mental power on other things, I could point my boss at the bug system as a current status, and the bug system retained a history on all issues.

Anyway, my first work block was to pick a bug, and work on it until fixed or as resolved as could be. You’d be surprised how a little nugget of accomplishment would start a work cycle so nicely.

One email

Next item: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

This is all about the soft skills. I know that most geeks run away from soft skills like a cheetah from a salad bar, but they are an important skill. It wasn’t a lone programmer in the corner that put a man on the moon: it was teams of people. Dealing with people, broken people, frustrating people, is a key component of being a good technologist.

Anyway, my goal here was an email of any sort: This could be anything as simple as responding to a query from a random person in the company, to sending out an company-wide update on a project or issue. Sometimes it was just a followup on issues that may have been back burner-ed or forgotten.

The goal here was #1 to be friendly, #2 to be succinct in the first paragraph so the message was understandable in a quick read, but have plenty of detail in the rest of the message in case it was desired, and #3 to use any opportunity to teach.

The person I replaced was a stereotypical arrogant bastard tech-tard who shared nothing and guarded all. In complete contrast, I feel that the more people learn, know and understand, the better a company does. Making your people smarter means two really cool things #1 the company does less dumb things (and makes more money) and #2 you get less pedantic questions to deal with.

I am very proud of how much damage from the previous admin’s attitude I was able to heal and how much I was able to help some people learn and grow. You never reach everyone, and there are always arrogant and selfish assholes. But doing something is far better than nothing.

The odd thing, is this part of my work never once appeared on a tech review of any sort or was ever directed to be done. I just did it as an unspoken part of my job. And in a lot of ways, I think it was my best work.

One Website

Mental break time. I could do something social-web or fun: Surf a website. Read some news. Usually it was tech related. Here was a chance to look for new stuff to teach myself. A mental break time.

One Project

Next up was the longer-arc work. Having been bolstered by the appetizer of two quick completed nuggets of work, and having cleansed the palette with a break, here is the main course: Try to get one bullet item or milestone off of a longer project. These usually were larger issues like automating systems, analyzing and optimizing systems, building new stuff etc. But it’s the real, meaty work.

I was surprised how much this card helped me measure my day and bring a calm to my work I usually didn’t have.

The cycle and order had a nice groove. The quick success, break and long-work cycle put me in a great head-space and I could pound out a lot of work and several cycles in a day.

I could also tell when I had a day where for whatever reasons I couldn’t do this. You do mentally crash and burn if you take “bites” of work that are too big.

If you’re in a similar place, try it yourself. It seems to be a nifty mental trick.

Who watches over youuuuuuuuu

“Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch.”

What if we treated Doctors like we treat Teachers?

I think it’s interesting when you contrast careers. Often it’s very effective when contrasting how we teach musicians and artists versus other careers. This one is a very effective illustration on how we treat teachers. An amazing read:

An Evening with Danny Kaye (and the NY Phil)

Some kind person uploaded the entirety of “An Evening with Danny Kaye” to youtube. It’s a benefit concert from 1981 where he was fooling around and conducting the New York Philharmonic. Among his many talents, he was a decent conductor.

Clicking on this link should start the full playlist and show the whole show:

If you don’t know Danny Kaye, then you’ve missed some amazing laughs, singing, dancing and acting.