Blog

About News and Soapboxes

I know I’m becoming more of an old fart because I can’t stand news
anymore. Particularly news on my phone. I don’t have cable TV, but I’m
sure it’s the same crap there as well.

I’m not sure when I stopped reading the New York Times briefs, but I’m
pretty sure it was a couple of months after Trump became the
president. In a way, everything else became mute afterward,
as if a loud fire truck passed me by and my ears are still
ringing.

It’s not just news about Trump though, even though it seems the man
routinely occupies half of my news feed, no matter how I filter
it. It’s everything else as well. Everyone seems to be so whiny, every
fart in the wind becomes days-long obsessions.

Google has a new news app and with it, I get full coverage of whatever
main story I don’t care about. Google seems to pretty accurate with
its other predictions about me, so I checked without logging in. Sure
enough, the same stories show regardless: Trump and Russia. Colbert
wants to know about… Trump and Russia. Putin news. Oh, look, Amazon
Prime day and people whining saying how it’s not what it used to be
(was it ever anything good?) and that’s it, the rest of the articles
are on repeat for the next half a page (this is where I can insert an
old-man joke: “back in my day, we called this above the fold..!)

If this sounds like a general Trump rant, that’s part of the point I’m
afraid. He’s everywhere. And it’s not that I can’t stand the guy
(if that’s not obvious by now), it’s that I can’t escape news
about him. “GUESS WHAT THE CLOWN IN CHIEF DID TODAY!!” No
thanks. Don’t care. There was a time when I look into the daily
briefing by the times, and I got quick bullet points of different
things. Not today. It’s a repeat loop.

So what do I read? Here’s a look at my Pocket feed:

  1. An Introduction to Static Sites Generators
  2. Vintage NYC Photography: C.K.G. Biullings'[sic] Mansion in Fort Tryon Park
  3. “Who here actually likes Emacs-the-editor (as opposed to Emacs-the-LispM), and why? – (this one is a Reddit post)
  4. Who owns the space under cities? The attempt to map the earth beneath us
  5. How to take your PC audio experience to 11

I admit none of this is “news.” So what? I’m sure there
is news happening in these areas all the time.

Not that I’m against reading news that other people consider
important. This is the only way to step out of the echo chamber and
listen to what’s going on. But it doesn’t feel that’s happening
anymore. It’s like the main news outlet gave up just like I did.

I’m wondering how do other people that feel like me read the news? How
do they do it? Do they, or did everyone give up? How long must
we sing this song?

Org-mode at Work

If I haven’t made this clear yet, my job doesn’t let me sit down in
front of a computer for long periods of time. Even if I do, there are
constant interruptions that make long streaks of productivity rare.

Outside of the office, my mind is often wondering in different
directions. I think I have ADD. I’ve been thinking of having myself
tested several times. I can’t sit still in one place for more than 10
minutes unless I’m highly engaged in something. If I force it, the
mental exhaustion is powerful enough to knock me asleep where I
sit. The hyper focus is there too: I can work on Emacs hours at a
time, learning how to debug, then actually debug, then write about it in my
Wiki. There are other signs too: I forget or confuse dates and days
often. All are perfect reason to continue and working on my Org life.

The classic Org-mode scenario of working with one computer, one init file,
and a few org files just doesn’t cut it in my case. As a matter of
fact, the “gateway drug” that led me to Org and Emacs was Orgzly, an
Org-mode app I got for my phone. At the time, Orgzly seemed like a decent
bullet-point / task list app and nothing more.

Now, things are more complex. I have 3 main org files spread over 4
different devices: WorkMac (main work computer), DerHedwig (my home
desktop), Pigwidgeon (my pixel 2), and a nameless (for now) MacBook
Air in case I need to work for long periods away from WorkMac at work.

Sync is crucial. But so is the security of our files at work and my
own privacy. Dropbox, for example, is out of the question. Without
it, I can’t use my work iPhone for org stuff. I never liked it anyway.

Fortunately, there’s Syncthing and TRAMP. I use both. When I’m at work
and need to check my personal projects, I SSH back home with TRAMP. I
do this because I don’t want my personal stuff synced to WorkMac. Both
WorkMac and DerHedwig are connected to Pigwidgeon. Syncthing is
lightning-fast for the small, simple org files, as long as I take care of
it. I can save a file on WorkMac and grab my phone in the other room
for the details I just entered, and they’re there. Still, there’s a
lot of complexity with Syncthing that can cause a mess (partially my
fault due to VPN usage and forgetting Emacs open with my files at
home). I’m still monitoring Syncthing and its shenanigans closely.

My setup is as follows:

I have an org file called OhSnap (tradition dating back to the days of
Evernote), which is what it sounds like. Throughout my day, I dump any
thoughts I have in this little org file, easily accessible through
Orgzly. I have a widget on Pigwidgeon’s home screen that takes me
directly to to this file. I often use my phone’s dictation ability to
record what I have to say. Dictating notes on the phone alone is worth
the hassle: because of Syncthing, any thoughts can get captured as
fast as I can say them.

Then on my computers, WorkMac or DerHedwig, I open OhSnap up and
refile what needs to be refiled. I use Capture on both of these
computers, but I find that the feature is nearly useless to me at this point, since I capture almost everything on the phone where I can’t use a complicated template anyway. If I need to take a picture, which is often enough (for a picture of an error message or a note) there’s another go around.

For work, I use Office Lens  on my phone: Microsoft’s OneDrive is the only cloud service that is approved by my workplace. For personal usage, I use
Google Photos, which is somewhat more convenient. In both cases, I
create a link and share it to a note I create in OhSnap. I gave up on
attachments a while back, realizing that by the time I download and
attach an image, I might as well just quickly link to it online,
where it’s easier to share in case I need to anway. If I ever lose an
image, the file names are all basically timestamps which I can match
up with the entries I take with Orgzly, which records the time I enter
a note. This is a simple, yet pretty affective system.

OhSnap items get sorted to both my personal and work org files. On the
personal file, which is more organized, I have the following headers: quick
tasks, projects, should do, routines, and life of others. Most are
pretty self explanatory. Life of others is a place to keep events
happening in the life of, well, others, that I want to see on my
agenda. For work, which is still work in progress, I have “tickets”
header for the tickets I need to resolve, and projects. I am still
figuring out the difference since with work, almost every ticket can
quickly become a project anyway. The sheer load of the tickets make
it impossible to schedule anything because I will get overwhlemed
within an hour. As a matter of fact, I gave up on trying to capture
everything in Org, and instead decided I’m capturing only what I’m
actively working on. I can have 5 new urgent emails, 30 tickets to look at, and constant walk-ins – but only a fraction of those get into Org. These are the ones I’m really taking care of at the moment. This is a somewhat new experience, and so far, I like it.

Another key trivial feature I recently came up with is to use the same
keywords for my three main org files. This is mostly so Orgzly can
“understand” them no matter which org file I open. These keywords are
Todo, Active, Waiting, Done, and Cancelled. On my personal org file,
only Quick Tasks or broken down tasks in projects (third level
headings) get keywords. If I want to work on something from Should Do,
I refile it to Quick Tasks or Projects. If something from the life of
others requires my attention and I get involved, again, it gets
refiled as a project or a task. My routines get keywords (OK I lied)
only if they are habits. Routines are never big projects.

I try to sort through my OhSnap file at least twice a day, in the
morning and after work. I’m still working out on keeping things
simple, which is not always easy. Sometimes I forget I already opened
an item in projects, and capture it again in OhSnap, for
example. Lately, I started using categories with my personal log,
which helps when I view my agenda. This opens a new world of
organization when it comes to kind of activities I want to do, and
filter through them (for example, I have a family category to see when
it’s time to text my sister, or when my mother is planning to come
over, etc.) I just recently learned to filter my agenda and search for
these categories specifically. At work, for example, this allows me to
quickly hide personal categories while I’m still connected to my
personal files (which is crucial because of OhSnap).

My biggest challange at this point is to figure out a workflow at work
that would enabaled me to keep my head above the water and remain
oranized. This is hardly only an Org-mode task though.

Second Week With Emacs – What Happened?

As I was writing about my second week in Emacs last weekend (has it
really been this long?) I reached a familiar stop. It was when I
reached a conflict with something at work. In retro-respect, it was
nothing too serious. most of the “stuck” happened in my mind.

Like probably many others, I do my share of venting about work
situations. There are many ridiculous, absurd situations, as there are
in any other large company. I’m a strong believer that humor, and
sarcasm to a degree, are important in any workplace. If you don’t learn
to laugh and shrug off some of the bull, well, you’re going to sink
under the pile of shit, right?

When I blog, I try to steer away from such events since they’re
usually not important, and/or readable outside of my immediate work
environment. Sometimes though, one of those conflicts is an important part of something I’m already discussing publicly. Take Emacs, for example, and how I use it. This was supposed to be the topic of my second week summary.

For now, I’m still not sure how to resolve these situations. On one
hand, I don’t want to ignore what I want to say, because it’s
important to the general discussion. On the other, I don’t want to
cause conflict.

By the way, this raises a point about my pseudonym usage. In the past,
my personal life would be considered controversial in my work
environment and my (then) career path. It was the main reason to start
using an alias. Some social environments I was part of at the time
behooved people to use pseudonyms for protection and sometimes
dramatization.

Since then a few changes in my career path, the general level of
acceptance in society in large and my own lifestyle contributed to me
not hiding as much as using the alias as a source of inspiration and a
level of habit. This is a privilege I realize I gained over time –
many others still do not have this privilege. I hope they do one day.

Working With Emacs: First Week

My first day with OrgMode after two weeks of intense learning. Overall, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be.

<2018-06-11 Mon>

 
My first day with Org Mode after two weeks of intense learning. All things considered, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be. I was lucky not to have too much on my plate today, taking care of only four different cases.
 
Due to Dropbox syncing issues between beorg and WorkMac, I lost time trying to improvise. This was especially frustrating because it happened when I was working away from WorkMac, and I didn’t have the information I need. I am not sure if the problem is with the app or not, Emacs does save fine to Dropbox.
 
Another conclusion from today: learn how to build a template for Capture. Right now I’m typing headers manually (by typing ** since M-RTN doesn’t seem to work, not sure why). I can see this will get out of hand soon. Org-mode has Capture exactly for that: to enter a note quickly, from a template, and then continue to do other things. Templates are in LISP though, and LISP was what got me stuck this weekend. I should learn from more simple examples.
 
Finally, I should look into properties. Seems like these could be very useful, especially when I want to search later. Things like computer names, clients, the problem category, etc. could be fantastic. Again, something to use in Capture templates.
 
The weird issue of today: I changed the ellipses Org-mode comes with to down arrow. This works fine at home on Linux. But on WorkMac, there’s an underline under the arrow down symbol. Not sure why. When I change back from string to default, the ellipses do not have this problem.

<2018-06-13 Wed>

 
I have a new format and it works well. Each project I’m working on (each ticket in my work day) gets a header with a title that is meaningful to me. I then add sub-headers using a datestamp (C-u C-c .) and describe what I did in reverse chronological order. Org-mode is smart: pressing M-RTN at the end of the line (completely at the end, after the ellipses), will open a new header directly under the one I’m on. Do the same thing at the very beginning of the line, it creates a new header on top. This last thing allows me to work in reverse order as I mentioned. The newest timestamp is always the first header. It’s like a short micro-blog taking place during my workday.
 
Before Org-mode, attachments worried me. Coming from Onenote at work, I’m used to the iPhone app: snap pictures and add them into the note. In Org-mode, this is a non-issue with Dropbox and Office Lens. After “sharing” into “save to Dropbox” on the iPhone (it makes sense if you’re an iPhone user), I upload images to Dropbox. Later, it’s pretty simple to attach (C-c C-a) images to the time-stamp header I mentioned earlier. I don’t bother changing the names of the images, which is something I’ve done before. The files are named by date and hour by default, making it very easy to locate and attach in Org-mode later. The only annoyance with attachments: Emacs opens them inside a window, not the system default. I much prefer Preview on WorkMac, where I can annotate right away if I need to. The picture in the window is 100% zoomed in, which is not very convenient. A workaround, for now, is to open the folder for the attachment, and double-click the file. It works for now, even though feels somewhat “ugly.”

<2018-06-14 Thu>

 
Time to test Helm again (at home) and Ivy (at work). Immediately, I noticed a change in my ability to find commands (M-x) and looking stuff up. I spend much less time inside the browser reading through the Emacs Wiki or the Manual. Browsing through files makes more sense now. Opening recent files is my newest favorite command since I can auto-complete now thanks to Helm and Ivy.
 
As I’m writing these lines, I’m thinking to myself, this is fun. I can really get used to writing posts in Emacs. It never accrued to me how much visual clutter is in the way, even with the so-called “minimalist” apps. The problem is that there’s a particular app for every thing. Emacs is a powerhouse which I can use for many things, so the interface is the same. This helps with focus and flow in a way I didn’t think of before. It’s starting to be comforting to be in an environment I’m spending more and more time in.

<2018-06-15 Fri>

 
This is the conclusion of my first week with Emacs (and Org-mode) at work. As if by queue, today was a good example of a high-volume day. A test to see if my new system holds in place in face of improvisation and fast thinking.
 
Working in helpdesk environment means potential for constant interruptions. There are several people on the team who need my attention for different things. There are different managers who have can have conflicting instructions. There are clients (users) coming through the door asking for help. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the phone, working on a project, or trying to have lunch: the next interruption is a heart bit away.
 
Our workflow requires we use a web interface to work with tickets constantly. In a way, out entire workday depends on that single unyielding tab in a browser. With the first client coming up, I had to use the website to search for details in ticket tab. I updated a few details and made a mental note to add the information in my new Org-mode work journal. But as I was working on the laptop, a co-worker came up with questions which required my attention. That co-worker was shadowed by another client who answered one of my emails for a follow-up. All these cases required that I look into tickets and update them, away from Org-mode.
 
I didn’t like fact that I couldn’t use my new tool to do work, at least not at the moment. I had the information for some of the tickets in front of me, but not those I needed to work on at the moment. The web interface is limited both by design and lack of configurations. It’s a tool that supposed to help me stay organized, but instead, it’s another task of its own. Some manager at some point decided to get this platform. This decision, which must be at least a few years old, dictates what productivity means to me today. How odd.

<2018-06-16 Sat>

 
Finally, a couple of thoughts about how to improve my experience next week, based on notes I took at work and at home.
 
  1. Agenda: learn how to use it well, especially as a search tool to highlights tags and dates. (examples: look up everything that has to do with ticket number :###:. Look up all the different things I worked on last Tuesday.)
  2. Photos in an external program: have images open in default system app, or better yet, a specific one.
  3. “Archive” system: Copying everything I’ve done during the week + attachments to a different location, off of Dropbox. I purchased an SD and SD readers as an experiment as a cheap location to store information

Captain’s Log, 20180515.2332

I should probably be in bed at this point. But I’m sure as shit there were a lot of things I wanted to write down – I just got distracted by Battletech which I was obsessed with Saturday and Sunday (I must have put 6 or 8 hours into this game).

After I checked my Wiki this morning, and after thinking about it again this weekend, realized that it’s good shit (duh) and that I should probably read in it as much as I write in it. The purpose of the wiki was (and is) to retain information so I can retrieve it again as needed. The journal is a place which is flexible and is available anywhere, anytime, to write my thoughts down. I shouldn’t think about it. Ideally, my journal will be a constant mind dump of everything I’m thinking about, and the wiki is its bigger brother, more mature and calculative and will tell me what I was thinking about and how it was done it months (and years) from now.

As such, if you take this philosophy to heart, the journal (whatever the concept “journal” is, a folder with files, just the journal file itself, the folder with the files plus Google Keep for quick thoughts… these all can be covered under “journal.”) is immediate and always available.

I was thinking about having a USB flash drive again vs Syncthing too. Syncthing is pretty good, but has its issues syncing here and there. The USB is encrypted, which makes it a bit of a hassle to open where I use it (unless I use a portable app, problem solved?), and of course I run the risk of losing it or the USB flash-drive gets damaged.

But I think I just realized what the solution is: if I run my own Linux form a USB (with consistency) it means I can have syncthing on it, and that’s the ultimate thing: when I use it, it connects and syncs automatically withing moments, when I don’t, I don’t.

Edit: um, not really, because I have to boot the other machine to work from USB and that kind of defeats the purpose of multitasking quickly.

Captain’s Log: 20180514.1521

At work. There was a mess this morning that turned itself into a project and I want to quickly capture some of this down to help in the future.

Last Friday, had to finish helping coworker backing up a lab  (9 devices total). Each one of these had a few terabytes of info and took between an hour to four to finish. With two My Passport Externals, we couldn’t do a whole bunch. Was late, decided to go home for the weekend (was at work 11 hours at that point).

Today, walked in to finish this work. Was a mess because turned out there were laptops involved too, not just lab desktops. Between another IT guy at their department and thinking what the hell I’m supposed to do with this project (these are their personal laptops) this quickly became a mess: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I didn’t know how to do it.

Manager helped me figure this out by defining the part he knew about. He didn’t know about the desktops or about the fact that they also used Dropbox in the middle of all of this, but he did know I need to get people and names, so he showed me how an excel sheet would look like. Standing there and thinking “how do I explain this is not the main issue I was having (Dropbox),” I got confidence in the part he did know. As he was looking people names up in his email and gathering information, a plan started forming in my head as to how to do that part – the part we were just talking about. I was able to think of it as a whole part inside of the rest of the undefinable mess.

This takes me back to a favorite, important quote:

..from somewhere back in my youth, heard Prof say, ‘Manuel, when faced with a problem you do not understand, do any part of it you do understand. Then look at it again.’

He had been teaching me something he himself didn’t understand all that well. Something in maths. But had taught me something far more important: A basic principle.

— The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Dude. That’s the motherfucking thing. If there’s is a thing, this is it. This it the tip of the knife that cuts it all. You deal with something you don’t get. what parts of it do you get first? how do you define them? OK, what does it tell you about what’s left? OK, so can you divide these into main chunks? And then you have actionable items. And when you have these, you have motivation and less mess on your hands to work with, and chances are better to solve the whole thing. If you still can’t, at least you can look for a solution for something more definable and communicate it better than just flailing your arms around in frustration running out the door. Ya.

Revolt (2017) – Review

This weekend, I felt like watching a simple, brainless sci-fi-ish movie with post-apocalyptic vibes. I landed on Revolt (2017). It didn’t didn’tdisappoint by being disasspointing.

In a Nutshell:

Aliens invade earth. Kill all. Man survives somehow. wakes up in jail, fights way out. Finds woman sidekick. They kick ass (the man more so, because of course). — Spoiler censored — . Man kills aliens. Happy-ish ending.

The Good

  • Simple and easy to enjoy. Don’t come in expecting much, don’t leave disappointed.
  • The woman is a sidekick, but she still kicks ass. Maybe we’re making progress if “I’m a man, hear me roar” movies like these have the woman actually killing bad guys.

The Bad

  • Rambo Syndrome: Man can shoot 3 – 4 people in a second, even though they all have guns aimed at him. Leaves without a scratch. The only time he gets injured is when he falls at some point. Oh ok, and the alien got him. Once. Because otherwise we won’t have a story.
  • I said man because the woman is just, you know, a regular soldier who actually gets hurt (and almost raped) defending herself. But she’s a medic, so that’s OK. So while she doesn’t really need saving, she’s still just a “perk” for our soldier boy who could take everyone single-hand but needs to have some human romantic side and protect the woman.
  • Go Army! – This movie has US army propaganda written all over it. The solider is an American, so of course he kicks ass, of course he can speak three different African dialects, of course he’s all about going back to his base and save his friends while being a gentleman toward the woman.

Conclusion:

If you’re OK watching a glorified US army commercial with a flat plot and cheezy old-fashioned ideas about gender roles, you’ll be just fine. Or, if you just like to get angry at such things by stupid movies (I fall into this category sometimes) that’s fine too. Just don’t come here expecting something good and you’ll be just fine.

Taking Work (Notes) Personally

Yesterday I started to copy the most complex wiki project category at my job into my private wiki. Computer imaging and setup. It wasn’t easy to convince myself to do it. I opened MojoTwo (My Wiki’s name) twice and closed it. Reading in my journal helped. I decided that at the very least, there’s no harm in copying this information down since I can always delete it. It’s no more a waste of a time than playing Hearthstone or Company of Heroes again. It felt good writing in the wiki again, to adding images and organizing things the way I want them to be. Even now, in its draft-like state, my wiki article already looks good. Better than the scattered mess on our work wiki.
 
Part of me worries that I’ll get into trouble. What if I’m recording information that can’t be saved outside of work? What if boss becomes pissed somehow? But at the end, I have to remember that articles like these are what landed me the job where I am today, to begin with. It was articles likes these, about the scripts I created and shortcuts and the like. The images, explanations, and organization I put into all this is work that I’ve done. I can take notes and create a better platform – for me. I guess the boss would say, “why not put this effort into our wiki and show off what you’ve done?” My answer would be because I have restricted access and I can’t do what I want. What makes sense to me would most likely not make sense to you.
 
Besides, who said it won’t go into the work wiki? Why not? having my personal notes does not mean I can’t contribute to another place. Isn’t it what I’m doing through my blogs anyway?

The Return To Innocence

Last Saturday evening a closed a big cycle. I sat down to DM a game of Dungeons and Dragons for the first time in about 20 years. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to this childhood hobby again all this time. Perhaps because it was in a different country and a different life. Perhaps because it represented my dorky adolescence, which I fought against growing up. Perhaps because I was too busy moving around and survive in New York. I tried to play as a character in someone else’s word already recently, but DMing has always been my place.

My game setting was also different than what I’m used to. This time, I was an adult. The character playing in my world, Gedd, was hill dwarf paladin, played by a 10 year old. Dirk, a human cleric, was played by his 40 year old father. For about two hours, I took the two on a journey into a fantasy world I created in bits and pieces for months. I learned a couple of things.

First, Kids have no problem sinking into the game. Hell, I was 3 years Gedd’s senior when I started playing. While Gedd’s host was somewhat shy, I was surprised to see good teamwork and enthusiasm. Even when he missed a blow or got hit by an enemy, he enjoyed the description and took in the atmosphere. I found common ground with the kid. This doesn’t happen often: I usually stay away from anyone who isn’t allowed to drink coffee or beer. There’s something natural to me when I communicate as a DM and not as the “adult,” he as a player, not as a “kid.” I was his DM, and he was my player.

The second thing I learned: man, do I have to get my shit together. It was a mess.

I figured I’d jump right to the game with a general idea. I had the campaign planned out with some background, monsters and NPCs. As far as the game mechanics though, chaos was everywhere.

The worse thing was that I knew very little about my PCs. They didn’t even choose names yet. The spells, skills, equipment – it was all a mess of “do you remember…” “What was that thing that…” and “I’m a healer, don’t I have this thing that…”.

Then there was the issue of NPCs and monsters. I knew what NPCs I want in general, but I didn’t prepare them well. With no cards for stats, I had to search on my laptop during the game for basic things like AC classes and weapons. I didn’t even think of names beforehand. Back when I played as a kid and there was no Internet (yes, yes…) I would improvise so much our heads would spin. Maybe I should have done this here, too.

Third, there was storytelling, or lack of. As much as I don’t have issues coming up with details, I had problems with delivery. I’m naturally quiet, and it was hard for me to get into the DM boots. The story felt flat and boring coming out of my mouth. I realized I have to roleplay as much as my players do, coming to think of it, even more so. I didn’t come prepared for that. I underestimated the importance of being a DM, not just acting as one.

Finally, the biggest issue of them all: When to play. This has been my biggest problem for the last two years (ever since I bought the 5e books as an adult). Finding friends to play with is not always easy, even though it seems DnD folks are definitely around. While I could always try role20 or go to a local store to find people, I rather not. There’s something about being with people I know and those they bring with them. To me, part of the magic has always been about what’s going on around the table. The break in the middle to order pizza. the chats between meetings. Comparing real life situations to ability rolls and saving throws at work. As a person who seldom socialize in groups bigger than two, this game was always a natural social outlet — and I miss it. As an adult, I need to find time between friends with families and a demanding job that requires I go to bed at little-kid times.