Category Archives: paperless

Pocketing the office, travelling for real, and virtualizing everything else…

Part of the fun about gaining independence is being able to mix travel and work and play in increasingly flexible proportions, who says you have to work from 9-5 at a specific address?   But with the good comes the law of entropy: Stuff breaks!  The more you move, the more things collide… get lost, broken or stolen.  The more you have the more stuff can go wrong.  If this happens to be your beloved ipod, smartphone, or laptop with all your data this can put a serious damper in your …month, or quarter if it all happens at once.  Thankfully, working in the information age we don’t have the same misery as if everything was lost in a fire, earthquake or flood, thanks to the ability of bits to be duplicated, and a global network of cheap data storage, and easy backup.

Synch Happens

This trend started for me about 2 years ago I had 3 PC’s (a notebook, a desktop and a tablet PC), about 7 harddrives, then I did a cost analysis and found that I was spending a fair amount of time just maintaining them (somehow upgrades are never simple as they seem), getting them all internet access, the endless software updates (not just windows), and a surprising one for me: a lionshare getting software to synch back and forth, remembering what has changed, what was on which drive on which machine etc. This is the hidden price of mobility: Synch happens. There are many tools for synchronizing files between machines, some even built into windows, all of them have significant overhead.

Since I do my own IT work I have been out looking for ways to reduce the time I spend maintaining my machines and reduce synching. The answer is pretty simple ruthlessly eliminate devices based on what you are using them for, and reevaluate the true costs of things. I had a desktop I was using as a file server and a movie watching and home automation. Almost all of these are barely used, the 3 machine gigabit network was cool but still was a synch. The movies I could just as easily watch from my laptop, in the end I really just wanted my data.

The desktop with 5 of the 7 drives, filling it’s tower and many cords inflated it’s importance. Since it was an organic growth I never bothered to reinvestigate it’s true worth,  though the cognitive one was easy to spot: 5 drives ranging from 120 to 400GB is a lot to manage! one was temp the other installs, backups of the notebook and laptop drives, the other projects the other 2 music, photo albums that eventually grew so large they couldn’t fit on just one. One one hand a 200GB drive seems like a lot of data, and at the time you bought it for say $200 it was.  But the constant drain of minutes trying to shuffle files to fit on mostly filled drives and remember where things are adds up quickly which if your hourly rate is even $15 adds up to it’s worth quickly….a NEW 200GB drive is about $45. Sadly you can’t just add new drives indefinately, you run out of room (new case $130) and the powersupply can’t handle it ($100-300).  Compare this to a  Hitachi 1TB External drive can be had for around $300 which in my case could fit ALL of the drives in one, and eliminate one PC and related upgrades in the process. It’s book sized small enough to fit easily into a bag…if one dared.

The ends goal for me is one laptop and one PDA/smartphone and something to draw on.  Since I realized a few years ago that laptops mobility outweigh the cost benefits of assembling a desktop I went to a laptop as my primary machine, and haven’t regretted the decision.  As a student in college saving $20-$200 dollars was a big deal and assembling a PC from scratch made sense.  Countless hours of beating against hardware incompatibilities has taught me other wise. Upgrade paths are never as great as they are cracked up to be, as you are battling Moore’s law. A Dual processor won’t be faster than a single processor 2-3 years later, and the various memory, harddrive, power interfaces shift enough that it may as well be a new machine. Opening the case up things start breaking.

So now I have an Dell Latitude I got off ebay for about $1K, the docking station ($40) which allows for a PCI expansion slot, in which I put a nvidia multimonitor card ($50) bringing it up to 4 20″ monitors…the set also cost about $1200 from TigerDirect.com Christmas of 2006. It’s pretty much the best of both worlds for me, portability and massive workspace when home. I have a few high end audio cards (that are also mobile). So I’m not really missing much.  If I played games I think that consoles and renting the cartridges are still probably the best way to go.

Go West Young Man

Since I have basically just this laptop,  I’m about to go on the road for a full month visiting Chicago and Hawaii with my girlfriend. I’ve been working on  reducing this single point of failure.   The 1TB drive has worked out well, and getting everything backed up to the web as I aim to take as little gear with me. Between Amazon’s S3 and globat.net’s cheap hosting it’s very easy to backup pretty much everything I ever have done digitally in multiple places, strongly encrypted, for well under $200 a year. Given the massive amount of digital photos, work, (around 900GB) I’ve done this is cheap insurance.

I’ve had the unfortunate ‘benefit’ of having a few harddrives and a laptop fail in the last few years, which thanks to backups  no important data was lost, but buying a new machine requires reinstalling everything, which allowed me to measure the time it takes to get back up to speed from ground zero.  Around  2 weeks! takes to get all the development tools utilities downloaded, licensesd and setup properly.  Backups generally don’t what you want as all the hardware has changed, and or the new machine has a faster bigger harddrive, it’s not as easy to just drop in and go.

 Virtualization
As such I’m starting to virtualize my machines, meaning running all applications in a virtual PC, which with processors including native virtualization commands is only 4% overhead from the normal machine in many cases. Compared to the week I spend getting setup, the inevitability of having something fail again, having the ability to backup is an easy sell. In some cases the same virtual machine images I’m working on will be the same I upload to Amazon to create highly scalable innovative web apps, or send to others to work on.

This is far different from traditional backups, as the VM image is platform independent, it can be run on Linux, OSX, XP, Vista on different hardware configurations as easily as moving a spreadhsheet file from machine to machine.  To boot almost any operating system can be virtualized, which is great for those of us doing cross platform development and testing.

The latest version of VMWare “ACE’ can run the virtual machine images directly off a thumbdrive, and Flash drives are big and cheap enough for most development needs I’m doing. So in my case if my machine were to die, get stolen or blowup in my travels I could get the complicated development environment running within minutes on any new machine/OS.   So it’s even possible to take all the entire machine with you in your pocket and leave the PC behind if you know your not going to work on the road and have access to a PC/Mac wherever you are going.

Smallest 2GB flash drive I’ve found
http://www.edgetechcorp.com/digital-media/sd-card-flash-drive.asp $60

Smallest 4GB flash drive (I’ve found)
http://www.sony.net/Products/Media/Microvault/usm-h.html
around $60   http://kaanza.com/Shopping/ProductDetail.asp?Productid=400337

or standard sized 4GB if you want an integrated  finger reader for $130
http://www.edgetechcorp.com/usb-flash-drives/biometric-flash-drive.asp

Smallest USB reciever on a notebook mouse.
http://www.everythingusb.com/logitech_vx_nano_notebook_mouse_13017.html
Also checkout the shrinking of the wireless reciever at the bottom:
http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/mice_pointers/mice/devices/3271&cl=us,en

Coherence

Today I’m going to discuss , task list coherence, and internal coherence. Just as a drunk on a street can be babbling in a near foreign language, despite knowing enough english to ask for a dollar, task lists and thoughts too can be incoherent and in that state it’s about as effectual to achieving goals, as being drunk while driving. Coherence is also a type of light, lasers have coherent light, all the waves headed in the same direction, so that laser beam is still a spot even though being shown across a football field. A standard lightbulb on the other hand produces incoherent light that goes everywhere and bounces off everything. We are like that laser beam in that we can only do one thing well at a time, yet often instead of laser like focus on a particular problem we are diffuse and scattered trying to illuminate everything at once and not affecting anything. Tim Ferris has a great line “how would you do it, do it like your life depended on it”.

The real point of making lists

Lists, be it tasks goals or ideas, serve a few purposes, in the end the two most important is task coherence and internal coherence. Task coherence is the more common use, that the list and order of tasks is reflective of the work to be done, and ordered, prioritized and strategized so the velocity of achieving them is relatively smooth, be it putting on underwear before ones pants, or opting not to put on underwear if in a rush to get out the door . Internal coherence is that the same list of priorities and scheduling is held in ones head and accurately reflects the coherent task list, as ideally when out in the real world the subconscious is going to be looking for ways to make that list happen.

Take a grocery list for example: ice cream, bananas, tomatoes, milk, bread, pasta. A priority might be making sure the bread doesn’t get squashed, and ice cream doesn’t melt. Another priority might be making sure that we spend as little time in the store as possible so we can do other things, which leads to path optimization, so getting milk and ice cream when we are in the diary section and bananas and tomatoes in the fruit section, keeping it under 12 so we can get in the express checkout with one bag. This part of the path planning generally needs to happen before you get to the store, and if written down would be a well ordered coherent task list, with a decent memory or some memory tricks, you won’t need the shopping list at all. Contrast this with shopping with my Dad, having gotten a list from my stepmom, who assembled it out of 3 recipes for the eve, with quantities like “1/2 cup of flour”, or 2 eggs. and he generally goes sequentially through the list.. and it can take forever as we spend time criss crossing the store, converting into appropriate quantities, calling my stepmom for clarification (2% or skim?)

Task list/wikis that in particular exhaustive ones that cover ideas from first inception to final creation , or rapid idea storms become incoherent quickly. It’s entropy in action, and can be a full time job maintaining it (anybody who has worked with Microsoft Project is familar with this). However the real power is not in the list, or managing the list, but keeping the list in peoples head. Lists don’t do anything, they are just ideas, they need to be coupled with bodies that understand them to actually do useful work.

Keeping the list of ‘goals’ even if they are simple as shopping ingredients, is critical to smooth progression in goals. Just like in shopping, in searching for things on the list, sometimes you find things you need that never made it onto the list. Like that person in line who becomes your next business partner, after striking up a conversation on the kale salad you just bought. Or that half off Bailey’s for the upcoming holiday party.

Coherence via MindMapping with Pen and Paper

While task lists are useful, one of the best ways to build internal coherence is mind mapping/daisy chaining, this engages visual intelligence (which occupies much of our brain) on everyday problems and make connections in things that would be hidden when dealing with sequential outputs like voice recording and journalling. I’ve tried various mind mapping software, but I have always gone back to using free form paper. There is something about drawing that makes things solid. I usually do a second pass to Shadow Plan for things that need to be tracked that way.

Today I bought 2 paper black bound binders, some highlighters and 2 ballpoint pens, as I’ve filled one binder, used up my highlighters. At first, this completely goes against my ‘go digital’ paperless philosophy, especially since I do own a TabletPC which has several good drawing programs. However I’ve found that the size of surface allows me to connect more dots, a pen I have higher control to detail, and in the end this is more important. Highlighters are great at making some concepts that would be impossible to convey via shading or crosshatching. Keeping the binder to 9×11 and making sure I don’t put to fine of detail means it’s easy to take a digital picture and then rework it when/if that need arises. Frequently it doesn’t.

Just like drawing pictures, I’ve also found that there are 2 modes to approaching it. Sketching without regard to making it pretty or coherent is the way to start, as it’s arrogance unless you have a perfect vision to start with bold solid strokes and expecting them to come out. To reinforce this, I also use black ink so there isn’t the temptation to erase and rework. It amazes me when I do this, despite my ability to draw reasonably clearly, how near illegible my writing becomes, yet the energy conveyed in the strokes, but it doesn’t matter, I find even if I can barely read the writing I know what I meant (though it will be indecipherable to anybody looking over my shoulder). The act of getting it out onto paper, is like creating ripples that like zen like strokes, form ridges in the sand. After a bit and the thought stream dies down, I do a second pass I start with a new sheet and take my time, making it more ordered, and decorating it with more details, this often brings clarity and additional revelations. Overall it doesn’t really take that much time.

Then next day, or if it’s a new subject, or behavioral change a few hours later, I start from a blank page again! A binder with just these drawings is a great way to journal ones progress.

The Morning and Evening Coherence Exercise

Internal coherence means that we KNOW the subject AND the connections/order. This is tricky, everything on that page/list is in our head somewhere, but like that phone number for that first boy/girlfriend sometimes it’s in there but not immediately accessible when we need it, when we are out in the world. In the background while we work, sleep, our subconscious is constantly working out solutions to problems from everything to that shopping list to what we want to eat, and who we want to be in a year. Especially on new problems, tasks, and worse on novel ones like new ideas, or new behaviors, it’s very easy to forget. Especially in ideas, if it were common then it would already be done! So the act of starting from a new blank page is a way to see how much you remember. That you check against the previous page as the ‘answer key’.

For this phase/exercise often I use a combination of LiveJournal and MindMapping. I will start out with a blank page, give myself 5-15 minutes and tell myself to start typing/writing with no regards to order. Sometimes I will seed the thoughstream with nodes like

  • self
  • work
  • finances
  • love
  • friends
  • family
  • health
  • questions
  • todo

asking leading questions as what I’m thinking about in each of those categories, at the end I will check it against the previous entry. And in the case of daily todos mark it done or put a note as to what happened with it.

As a separate exercise (which Peter Drucker recommends) , it’s useful to do something similar to predict ahead what you think you will get done in a day, week, month, year, and then tag it, then after that time period has passed review. Spend some time figuring out what went right, what got you, and why etc.