ebooks versus dead tree books

For a long time, I avoided ebooks. Partly because reading on a monitor was just weird to me. Partly because I really like the feel and smell of physical books. Partly because having a dead tree version of manuals was important in outages. Partly because I don’t have to worry about DRM. Partly because I enjoy the look of a shelf full of books.

It wasn’t until my oldest child was born that I started getting into ebooks. The aspect ratio of my phone or tablet made long-form reading a lot easier than the “sideways” monitor setup. The real selling point was that the backlight was a lot easier to manage than a small reading light, particularly when trying to get a resistant child to fall asleep.

Still, my consumption habits are better suited for physical books. One of my favorite ways to get books is to peruse the discard shelf at the local library. I’ll pick up books that seem interesting. If they are, I’ll keep them. If they’re not, I’ll send them off to Goodwill. Digital media doesn’t (yet) have a similar paradigm.

On the one hand, that makes sense. Digital copies are cheap to the point of being basically free. Who needs to discard an ebook when you can just copy it? Of course, authors and publishers argue that such a model completely eliminates the commercial value of their work. I am very sympathetic to that, although there’s certainly room to make copyright law more consumer-friendly.

Slowly, I’ve begun adding to my ebook collection, generally when O’Reilly has their Day Against DRM sale. I’ll still prefer physical books for the most part, if nothing else because it’s easier to get them autographed. A conversion to more ebooks is probably inevitable, particularly once publishers realize that ebooks are cheaper to produce and adjust the prices downward accordingly.

RIP Paul

I swear this won’t become a theme (or at least I hope it won’t), but the world got a little bit darker today. My friend Paul Birkhimer passed away this morning after a a brief battle with cancer. Paul was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the end of May. It was aggressive, but it did not dampen his spirits.

I’m not sure Paul’s spirits were dampenable. I didn’t know him half as well as I would have liked, but he always seemed to be the most cheerful person in the room. His cheer was a quiet one, subtle. He wasn’t bombastic in a way that turned people off, but an even, slow-burning cheer.

I first met Paul because his wife Suzanne of my undergraduate department’s Assistant Head. I’d seem him at department functions and thought he was a pretty fun guy, but I couldn’t remember his name. I called him “Mister Sue” until I learned his name. I don’t remember if I ever told him that or not, but I’m sure he would have gotten a kick out of it.

Paul faced cancer exactly how Paul would: with humor, with faith, and with the love of countless family and friends from all over. Would that we were all a little more like Paul.

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


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.

Why I blog

I started this blog in January of 2008. Initially the posts were infrequent and poorly-written (as opposed to now when they are frequent and poorly-written). At the time I had a LiveJournal account that I regularly updated, but felt like I wanted to separate personal and technical content. Seven-plus years later, I haven’t logged into my LiveJournal account in years but Blog Fiasco is still going strong.

I was but a young sysadmin at the time, and this blog was an opportunity to share things I learned. Mostly for my own benefit, but I figured if it was new to me, maybe it would be new to someone else, too. As I started training our student technicians, I starting writing blog posts as a way to plan lessons for them. These days, the posts are less technical and more opinionated. That’s not really a change in me so much as a change in my focus.

In all of the years I’ve been writing this blog, I have made exactly zero dollars from it. That’s fine. Despite the half-hearted Amazon ads and the occasional affiliate link I toss in a post, I’m not here to make money (though I certainly wouldn’t object to it). Mostly I write for my own benefit. Occasionally, I hope that my bloggery will make me well-respected throughout the land. There’s still time for that.

It isn’t just that I enjoy writing. Every so often, a post will turn out to be really helpful to people. Less often, they will tell me that, and it makes me feel good. For example, back when GEMPAK was much more difficult to install than it is today, I spent several hours getting it to compile. I wrote a post, mostly so that when it came time to build it again, I’d already have the steps written down for me. Much to my surprise, people found it, and found it useful. In the comments, readers were even helping each other.

More recently, I finally got around to enabling site statistics. I was really surprised when I saw that another post from 2010 was still getting regular page views. I described how I hunted down and solved a problem with printing. As recently as 2014, people were still finding it useful enough to leave nice comments. Since I enabled site statistics, that page gets an average of six views a day. It doesn’t sound like much, but I’m generally getting 20 or so on days I don’t post, sot hat’s a sizeable contribution.

Another great thing about site stats is finding out that a quote has become very popular. One of my earliest posts used “reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life” as the title. I had never heard the quote before, but I wanted a title and I searched for quotes about reading. From May 14 through June 14 (the first month I had site stats on), the post got a total of 10 views. It’s had 33 more since then (and probably more than that by the time this post publishes). Either someone famous repeated the quote, or it’s being used in a freshman literature assignment.

I don’t always write here, either. I used to write for the local newspaper, basically as a public service. I’ve been a conference blogger for the LISA Conference for a few years, and have really enjoyed the experience. I would not have had the opportunity were it not for this blog. Lately I’ve also been contributing my company blog and to opensource.com. Now I just need to start monetizing all of these words. Maybe next year…

Kids these days

A while ago, I heard about a website called Class 120. The service is designed to allow parents, coaches, and the like to see when college students are going to class. It uses the student’s smartphone location and class schedule to determine if the student attended the class or not. When I first heard of this, I rolled my eyes. I suspect many others have a similar reaction.

But the more I think about it, the less objectionable it seems. Going off to college is often the first time a teenager has real independence. It’s unreasonable to expect them all to do well with no experience. A little bit of passive supervision might be just what it takes to turn a $20,000 waste of a year into something more immediately useful. Sure, it could be a crutch, but sometimes crutches are necessary.

Speaking for myself, something like this might have been really useful in 2001. My first year as an undergraduate was pretty lousy academically, in part because I missed a lot of class. I learned my lesson eventually, but at the cost of effectively a wasted year. People have various ways to motivate themselves, some intrinsic, some extrinsic. Who am I to judge?

Unlimited vacation policies, burnout, etc.

Recently, my company switched from a traditional vacation model to a minimum vacation model. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially the unlimited vacation model practiced by Netflix and others, with the additional requirement of taking a defined minimum of time off each year. It’s been a bit of an adjustment for me, since I’m used to the traditional model. Vacation was something to be carefully rationed (although at my previous employer, I tended to over-ration). Now it’s simply a matter of making sure my work is getting done and that there’s someone to cover for me when I’m out.

I’m writing this at 41,000 feet on my way to present at a conference [ed note: it is being published the day after it was written]. I’m secretly glad that the WiFi apparently does not work over the open ocean (I presume due to political/regulatory reasons). Now, don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite things to do when I fly is to watch myself on FlightAware, but in this case it’s a blessing to be disconnected. If a WiFi connection were available, it would be much harder to avoid checking my work email.

It took me a year and a half at my job before I convinced myself to turn off email sync after hours. Even though I rarely worked on emails that came in after hours, I felt like it was important that I know what was going on. After several weekends of work due to various projects, I’d had enough. The mental strain became too much. At first, I’d still manually check my mail a time of two, but now I don’t even do that much.

This is due in part to the fact that the main project that was keeping me busy has had most of the kinks worked out and is working pretty well. It also helps that there’s another vendor managing the operations, so I only get brought in when there’s an issue with software we support. Still, there are several customers where I’m the main point of contact, and the idea of being away for a week fills me with a sense of “oh god, what will I come back to on Monday?”

i’ve written before about burnout, but I thought it might be time to revisit the topic. When I wrote previously, I was outgrowing my first professional role. In the years since, burnout has taken a new form for me. Since I wrote the last post, two kids have come into my life. In addition, I’ve gone from a slow-paced academic environment to a small private sector company which claims several Fortune 100 companies as clients. Life is different now, and my perception of burnout has changed.

I don’t necessarily mind working long hours on interesting problems. There are still days when it’s hard to put my pencil down and go home (metaphorically, since I work from a spare bedroom in our house). But now that I have have kids, I’ve come to realize that when I used to feel burnt out, I was really feeling bored. Burnout is more represented by the impact on my family life.

I know I need to take time off, even if it’s just to sit around the house with my family. It’s just hard to do knowing that I’m the first — and sometimes last — line of support. But I’m adjusting (slowly), and I’m part of a great team, so that helps. Maybe one of these days, I’ll be able to check my email at the beginning of the work day without bracing myself.

Lessons and perspective from fast food

I started working in fast food when I turned 16 and needed to fund my habit of aimlessly driving around the backroads. I ended up spending five and a half years in the industry (the last few of which were only when I was home from college), advancing from a meat patty thermodynamic technician to crew trainer to floor supervisor. In the end, I was effectively a shift manager. I supervised the store’s training and safety programs.

It’s should be no surprise that I learned a lot about myself and about leadership during that time. Even a decade on, stories from my fast food days come up in job interviews and similar conversations. As a result of my time in fast food, I’ve learned to be very patient and forgiving with those who work in the service sector. I’ve also learned some lessons that are more generally applicable.

Problems are often not the fault of the person you’re talking to. This is a lesson for service customers more than service providers, but most providers are customers to. In fast food, when your order is wrong it’s sometimes the fault of the counter staff putting the wrong sandwich in the bag, but sometimes it’s the fault of the grill staff for making it wrong. In any case, it’s rarely the result of malice or even incompetence. People, especially overworked and under-engaged people, will make mistakes. This holds true for customer service staff at most companies, particularly large ones where the tier 1 staff are temps or outsourced. (That doesn’t imply that actual malice or incompetence should be acceptable.)

Sometimes the best way to deal with a  poor performer is to give them responsibility. One story I’m fond of telling involves a crew member who was, in many ways, the stereotypical teenage fast food worker. He was smart, but lazy, and didn’t much care for authority. The fact that I was only a year older than him made it particularly hard for me to give him orders. He’d been working for a few months and was good at it when he applied himself, so the trick was to get him to do that. After a little bit of fumbling around, I found the trick. I started spending more time away from the grill area and more time up front, and I made it clear that he was in charge of the grill. I gave him some autonomy, but I also held him accountable. Lo and behold, his behavior improved. He also started taking opportunities to teach new employees the tricks of the trade. He could have let the authority go to his head, but instead he acted like an adult because he was being treated like an adult.

Don’t nitpick behavior, but don’t put up with crap. The standing philosophy on my shifts was “don’t make life hard for me and I won’t make life hard for you.” I didn’t like bossing people around (in part because they were either old enough to be my grandmother or because they were 16 and all the bossing in the world wasn’t going to have any effect). If people were doing their jobs well, I put up with some good-natured shenanigans (the exceptions being food safety, physical safety, and customer satisfaction). One time a fellow supervisor had written up a crew member for a really trivial infraction. I went to her file later and tore it up. This person was a good worker and harping on her for minor issues was only going to drive her away. By the same token, I came in from taking the garbage out one night to find two normally good workers having a fight with the sink sprayer. They were both sent home right away (granted one of them was off in 10 minutes anyway).

Spread the unpleasant work around, and be willing to do some yourself. Some of the managers and supervisors liked to make the same people do the unpleasant tasks all the time. I hated that approach because it just seemed to reinforce bad behavior. The people who made my life unpleasant certainly came up in the rotation more often, but everyone had to clean restrooms, empty grease traps, etc. Including me. I didn’t try to make a show of it, but I wanted the people who I worked with to see that I wasn’t using my position to avoid doing things I didn’t want to do. And if I’m being completely honest, there was something I enjoyed about emptying the grease traps (except when I’d lose my grip and pour them into my shoe).

Don’t be a jerk. I won’t delude myself into thinking I was universally loved. I know I wasn’t, and I’m okay with that. But for the most part, I think I was pretty well-liked among the crew and management because I wasn’t a jerk. I took my job seriously (perhaps too seriously at times), but I was flexible enough to try to work with people the way they needed to be worked with. I tried to make work fun and cooperative, because working in fast food sucks and anything that can make it less sucky benefits workers and customers alike.


Being a good troubleshooter

Not too long ago, my friend Andy said “I think that’s how i convince so many people I’m decent at being a sysadmin, I just look at logs.” It was a statement that really struck a chord with me. On the one hand, I feel like I’ve had a pretty successful career so far, and if I haven’t been excellent, I’ve at least been sufficiently competent. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I have a lot of the experience that “everyone” has. I’ve never run email servers, I’ve only done trivial DNS and DHCP setups, and so on.

In my current job, I work with some really smart people, few of whom have much if any sysadmin experience. Andy and I, because of our sysadmin background, have become the go-to guys for sysadmin questions. It’s a role I enjoy, particularly when I’m able to solve a problem. Sometimes it’s because I have direct experience with the issue, but more often than not, it’s because I know how to poke around until I find the answer.

There are many skills required for successful systems administration. Troubleshooting is high on the list. The ability to troubleshoot new and unusual problems is particularly helpful. I’ve found my own troubleshooting abilities to depend on the ability to build off of previous (if unrelated) experience and being able to piece together disjointed clues. It’s sort of like being a detective and also a human “big data” system.

Fishing for clues in log files is great, too, if you can find the needle in the haystack. But what seems to separate the good troubleshooters from the bad that I’ve known is intellectual curiosity. Not just asking what happened, but finding out why. Being willing to ask questions and learn about unfamiliar areas instead of immediately deferring to those more knowledgeable builds a strong skill base.

Of course, without Google, we’d all be out of luck.