How I take notes

I’m not what you call an obsessive note taker, but I have learned over the years that I shouldn’t rely on my memory without some kind of external backup. A while back, I came across an article about how taking notes by hand is better for long-term memory. This immediately made me sad, since all of my serious note-taking is done digitally. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized digital notes are best for me.

I first started taking digital notes late in my undergraduate career. I had a program called “GoBinder” where I could import course notes and slides and comment directly on them, as well as adding my own free-form content. This worked fairly well for more text-based classes, but for meteorology classes with a lot of Greek letters and illustrations, it was a bit of a challenge. I mostly stuck to hand-written notes.

Years later, I went to graduate school. A master’s degree in IT project management is very wordy, so I resumed digital note-taking. Pretty early on, I settled on using Markdown. This allowed me to take notes that looked like text but still have some basic markup so I could highlight important points, make lists, etc. When it was time to study for exams, I would review the notes, and convert them to HTML for more in-depth study and review.

This method worked pretty well for me and had a few added benefits. When doing homework, I could `grep` for a key phrase if I couldn’t remember where to find it. Also, the files were on my SpiderOak account, so they were available to me anywhere. I didn’t have to worry about leaving my notebook at home or spilling coffee on it (at least if I spilled coffee on my laptop, I’d be able to get my files onto a new one).

For me, the portability and searchability are compelling reasons to stick with digital notes. As the article points out, I do find myself doing more transcription when typing than when writing, but that’s a habit I can fix.

RIP Lara

lara

Internet, I want to tell you about my friend Lara Ann Harrison. Lara was a short little bundle of happy. She was a sweet person who was fiercely loyal to her friends. I met her by happy accident. Her older sister was my age. We met at a couple of Model UN conferences and became friends. One day, I called her and we talked for several minutes before I said “you don’t know who this is, do you?” Well it turned out I didn’t know who she was. I wasn’t talking to Kari, I was talking to Lara.

At 17, I didn’t have too many friends who were younger than me, but Lara and I quickly became close friends. I hope I was as good a friend to her as she was to me, but at that point in my life I don’t think it was very likely. At any rate, we lived about 45 minutes away from each other, so we didn’t see each other too often, but we talked a lot on AIM.

I got older and busier and we started talking less. Then she got older and busier and we talked even less than that. The last time I saw her was at least 5 years ago, probably closer to 10 at this point. I don’t remember the last time we talked. We just sort of drifted apart.

I found out earlier this week that Lara died at the far-too-young age of 28. In fact, she died back in January. I missed the news when it first happened, and it was only because Facebook had decided to show me a post that her sister made that I realized she was gone. It’s odd how the Internet has changed the way we interact. Without it, Lara and I would never have become close friends. Without it, I might never have known she left us far too soon.

Working from home

A couple of months ago, Harvard Business Review ran an article about working from home. The article didn’t say telecommuting is the worst, but it did point out some of the productivity and morale benefits of office interactions. After two years of my own working from home experience, I thought I’d reflect on my own opinions.

The thing that has surprised me the most is how much I miss having a commute home. Whether by bus, bike, or car, my trip home took 15-30 minutes. It was my time to switch from work mode to home mode (and if I were riding the bus, watch some Netflix). My commute home now is the two seconds it takes me to stand up and leave the room. If I’ve had a rough day at work, immediately walking into a 4 year old and a 1 year old (and a wife who has been herding them all day) doesn’t allow for much time to reset.

I do sometimes miss the personal interactions with my coworkers. I have a colleague across town, and I see him in person once every few months. On a normal day, the fact that I can work without someone sitting in my office distracting me is a benefit. When I do need to talk something out, coworkers are a video call away. I really only miss physical presence on days when I’m just not feeling very motivated to work.

Actually, it’s about ethics in book reviews

Bruce Schneier shared a story earlier this month about how Amazon is apparently mining information to flag book reviews when the reviewer has a relationship with the author. I write book reviews (though I don’t post them to Amazon), so this seems relevant to my interests. I can see why Amazon would do something like this. People buy books, in part, based on reviews. If Amazon’s reviews are credible, people will be more likely to buy well-reviewed books. Plus: ethics!

The first few purchases would likely be unaffected until the buyer has a chance to form an evaluation of credibility. And even then, how much stock do people put into online reviews of any product or service? I tend to only look at reviews in aggregate, unless the specific reviewer has established credibility.

I hope that my occasional book reviews have established some sort of credibility with my ones of readers. I certainly try to make it clear when I might have a bias (e.g. disclosing stock ownership or a personal friendship). Mostly, though, I’m motivated to give accurate reviews in order to advance my own thought leadership. I’m very self-serving sometimes.

On the whole, I appreciate that Amazon is trying to keep reviews fully-disclosed. I just don’t think they’re doing it very well. If a reviewer has a relationship with the reviewee and it is properly disclosed, there’s no reason to suppress the review.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares in Amazon.

Book review: AWS System Administration

In his forthcoming book, Mike Ryan aims to introduce Amazon Web Services (AWS) to developers and systems administrators. Correctly creating and managing an AWS environment is a cross between development and administration, so anyone coming from a straight admin or dev background would probably miss key components.

Unfortunately, in aiming for two audiences, he produces a book that doesn’t seem to quite satisfy either. The book goes into a lot of unnecessary detail, for example a lot of Postgresql detail in the backup chapter, and a lot of Puppet specifics scattered throughout.

My biggest complaint is the way the book is organized. Basic AWS concepts like regions aren’t introduced in the beginning. Several concepts appear in passing before they are explained. EC2 security groups are lumped into the chapter at IAM roles, but it makes more sense to separate those.

Much of the book focuses on a single example, without a lot of discussion of other use cases. However, the use of auto scaling and Elastic Load Balancers in various cases is very well explained. The use and limitations of IAM roles is excellent as well.

This book could benefit from some reorganization and a more focused audience. With more information about AWS and less on implementation details for specific environments, the second edition could be a valuable resource.

AWS System Administration is scheduled to be released on July 25. It is published by O’Reilly Media.

OSCON speaker interviews

OSCON is rapidly approaching. Over at opensource.com, there’s a series of interviews with OSCON presenters. I interviewed Randi Harper of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, Stormy Peters from Cloud Foundry, and Bradley Kuhn of the Software Freedom Conservancy. Harper will be talking about using open source to tackle online abuse, a subject she has become all-too-familiar with in recent months. Peters is co-presenting with¬†Avni Khatri on the subject of growing a garden of community volunteers. Kuhn’s talk discusses an example of non-litigous GPL enforcement.

All of these talks sound very interesting, so if you’ll be in Portland next week, be sure to check them out.

Book Review: Thinking in Promises

Mark Burgess is one of the smartest people I know, and the thought of reading his books was always a little bit daunting. Would I be able to understand what he was trying to tell me? I can’t speak for the other books, but Thinking in Promises is a very approachable introduction to Promise Theory. Although the approach is often academic, Burgess does an excellent job of keeping the reader engaged through a variety of examples, humor, and stick figure drawings.

Promise theory came from the work of Burgess and others in developing the computer configuration management tool CFEngine. However, the theory itself is broadly applicable to a variety of interactions. Promise theory lies somewhere between the vagueness of management buzzwords and the strict formality of mathematical language.

Contrary to Western norms, Promise Theory works from the bottom up, describing the intended state without consideration of the steps to get there. Promises are made by agents instead of being imposed by an outside actor. Thus, Promise Theory requires autonomy, making it a more apt modeling framework for interactions that involve humans.

Thinking in Promises starts by explaining the fundamental concept of a promise, and how promises are made, accepted, and evaluated. Following chapters expand on these concepts individually. The final chapters discuss systems of promises, which often involve one or more layers of proxies.

Burgess does an excellent job of making the concepts understandable by both technical and non-technical readers. Each chapter concludes with thought exercises intended to guide the reader toward a greater understanding. Most of the examples used in the chapters focus on non-computer interactions like getting a taxi ride.

The book does not promise to change the way I view the world, and it might be hyperbolic for me to say it did. Nonetheless, Thinking in Promises gave me an interesting lens through which to view both computer and human interactions. I recommend it to anyone looking for a way to model systems.

Thinking in Promises is scheduled to be released on July 17. It is published by O’Reilly Media.

New entries in the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame

Radar estimates of wind speed aren’t always the most reliable for a variety of reasons, but on Friday, forecasters in Memphis, TN opted to believe the radar instead of the surface observation. Maybe because the Millington station was reporting a 343 MPH wind gust.

NWS forecasters are public servants dedicated to preserving life and property. It should come as no surprise that they are sometimes moved by uncontrollable bursts of patriotism. Chris Hattings in Riverton, WY felt very Jeffersonian on Independence Day.

Both of these discussions have been added to the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame.