Brian's Waste of Time

Sun, 15 Feb 2009

My Personal IT

I am asked questions about parts of this a lot, so I I figured I'd give a rundown of my personal IT setup. I think of it as a personal IT system as the sum is actually more than the parts, and when someone asks what I use for email, or keeping track of things, or phone numbers, or... well, whatever, my answer is always includes an explanation of how it what I use interacts with what else I use. I'll try to keep the explanations geared towards non-technical folks.


At the center of your personal IT system is email. You need to have a primary email address on a domain you own with your mail stored somewhere secure, portable, and with plenty of storage. I use, and highly recommend, Google Apps, Premier. It costs $50/year (per person, which matters if you are setting it up for your family, for instance) and is worth every penny. The webmail interface is the best available, and you can use any email client (outlook, apple mail, thunderbird, etc) you like with it, if you prefer those.

The reasons for GMail (as part of google apps) are that Google is now hosting your data, backing it up, providing a good web based client, providing decent search on it, and providing an SLA on it. That they provide an SLA is a big deal, even if it isn't that great an SLA (99% uptime when I signed up). In addition to this (yes, there is more) other things I use integrate nicely with it, we will see these though, shortly.

Let me re-emphasize the need to own the domain your email is on. You need to be able to change where your email is hosted, or how it is handled at times. If your email is delivered to a domain you do not own, you are at the mercy of the owner to do it for you. In general, this means you will need to get a new email address. I am sure you have gone through the ritual of sending out "please use this new email address for me" messages, and have been on the receiving end of "does this email address still work?" messages. End it, buy a domain and use it for your email. I like for handling domains purchases, personally. There are cheaper options, but you are not looking for cheap here, you are looking for reliable and trustworthy.


My wife finally got tired of being my calendar, so I started using the calendar part of Google Apps. It actually works really well, and, to be honest, I am glad I switched from having her remind me of things to using it. I haven't used as many calendaring tools as email tools, but of Notes, Exchange, Zimbra, and Google Calendar, Google Calendar is the clear winner for personal IT.

It hooks cleanly into GMail, which we are already using, supports multiple calendars, sharing (including full scheduing control, though I haven't managed to get my wife to take advantage of this yet), will send email and SMS reminders (SMS reninders are big for me), and other things I use hook into it nicely. Win!

There is the free version, but this comes as part of the Google Apps Premier Edition already mentioned, so I would just go ahead and make use of that one -- it will be all wired up for use with your email, so will make life easier, which is the point.

TODO Tracking

For a long time I just used a notebook and recopied my lists every day to the new day's page. I hated it, but the fact that I carried my notebook (my externalized memory as I put it, or his brain as my father calls his) everywhere decided this one for me.

When I got my iPhone, this changed. I tried out a variety of iPhone apps (there are probably more TODO variant iPhone apps than anything else), and settled on Appigo's Todo app (somewhere around $10). I actually liked Cultured Code's Things iPhone app more for entry and general use, but Todo won out because it syncs with Remember te Milk, which is the second half of my TODO setup.

Remember the Milk (RTM) is basically a web based TODO list app. I think RTM is much more complicated than it needs to be (it seems to fall prey to the Getting Things Done over-complicated-lists craze), but you can ignore three quarters of it, and it rocks. Again, the data is backed up by them, they provide a decent web interface, and it hooks nicely into Quicksilver (a desktop app for macs which is magical), and more importantly for me, Todo on my phone. You need a Pro account ($25/year) to sync.

The combination of good iphone interface, syncing, and web access are very important for me. As I have now joined the blackberry-wielding hordes who store their memories in their phone, I need to make sure I can get those memories back if the phone goes away, isn't working, or whatever. The web is pretty ubiquitous (and if the web goes way for an extended time, I have much bigger problems).

It bears mentioning that Remember the Milk has its own, free, iPhone app which is quite good and you could probably go with just that. The interactions with Todo (and actually, Things even more so) just roll off my fingers faster, so I use it. If Things adds the ability to sync with RTM I will reevaluate switching to it.

Remember the Milk has very nice integration with Google Calendar, though setting it up when you use Google Calendar On Your Own Domain (the premier edition setup I suggested) is not as smooth as it should be, yet. It also has a decent (basically usable) plugin which you can put in GMail, or a few other places.

IM and SMS

I lump these together, but they don't really belong together. I use SMS, it is handy. Not much more to say. I use Adium (on the mac) for IM, and Meebo for ad hoc (ie, someone else's computer) for IM over the web. I also use Meebo (via the web!) for IM on my phone. Meebo's iphone client is better than any of the regular iPhone IM apps I have tried. Both of these are free (yea!).

A nice thing to note, part of the aforementioned google apps is GTalk (Google's IM network, which is mostly compliant with a standard for IM called XMPP). This means you have a GTalk account with your email, which is handy. Making GTalk work with other XMPP things is generaly more work than it is worth, though, unfortunately.

In Conclusion

There are other things I use, but these really form the heart of my externalized brain at this point. The key pinciples which drove the setup were that I wanted everything to be internet accessible, externally hosted (so I cannot forget to make backups), and play well with the other pieces. I am very happy to pay for good service, and in the case of Google Apps, am glad I can (as they sometimes have "oops, we deleted your account" issues with the free ones (google is not alone in this, yahoo, hotmail, and everyone else I know of do this too with their free offerings at times).

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Sun, 28 Dec 2008

Lazy Web: Blog Software

I'm using a customized blosxom at the moment, and it has served me well (particularly the static generation part) but it has been increasingly grating on me. Enough so that the grating has contributed to my hiatus from blogging, and I want to remedy this. So, I am looking for what to replace it with.

I want to find something that represents posts as text, plain html is fine, I do that with blosxom, but some other structur that accomodates formatting and code snippets is also fine.

I want to be able to write incrementally, in emacs, and have in-progress stuff in a VCS -- git, svn, whatever, I don't care that much, but offline access to the whole shebang is worth preferring one of the dvcs varieties.. I would love for publishing to be just merging to a published branch.

It should generate static content -- that is static html, atom, whatever else it generates.

Comments are part of the content, and frankly, I want to be notified of them by IM or email. I really don't want to outsource comments either.

It needs to run on a pretty old, pretty low powered, kind of crufty unix like server.

I don't need to port any existing entries to it -- a nice thing about static text is that it doesn't go away -- everything on this incarnation can, and will, stay exactly where it is.

So, what is shiny?

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Wed, 05 Nov 2008

Obama Wins!


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Thu, 17 Apr 2008

My Favorite Bash Completion

As I got hit with a meme about command line stuff, I figured I'd share an update to my favorite bash completion:

SSH_COMPLETE=( $(cut -f1 -d' ' ~/.ssh/known_hosts |\
                 tr ',' '\n' |\
                 sort -u |\
                 grep -e '[:alpha:]') )
complete -o default -W "${SSH_COMPLETE[*]}" ssh

If you ssh directly to IP addresses very often, you might want to leave off the last grep -e.

Not going to tag anyone, but if you have a favorite completion, please share! (I suggest not in a comment on this post as my comment system does not preserve any formatting).

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That History Thing

bakert tagged me, so:

brianm@binky:~$ history | awk {'print $2'} | sort | uniq -c | sort -k1 -rn | head
 164 svn
  52 cd
  42 ssh
  32 sudo
  22 git
  16 ls
  16 for
  14 echo
  13 man
  10 curl

Sadly, I only seem to keep a 500 line .history -- need to fix that.

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Mon, 14 Jan 2008

My Current Pen Hack

It came up in a different context, so thought I would post :-) If you trim a tiny smidge from the butt end of a uni-ball Signo 207 refill it fits very nicely into the Pilot G2 Pro body. The G2 Pro body is my favorite everyday pen body, but the G2 cartridges (what do you call them when they include the ball, anyway?) tend to be uneven and even blotchy on me compared to the 207s. So, a couple seconds with a pocketknife and I have the best of both worlds!

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Thu, 03 Jan 2008

Goal: Learn Emacs in 2008

Right now I am functional enough in emacs to do basic things, like write this blog post, but I use too many OS X-isms, like splat-z for undo, and I need to turn those off and learn emacs properly :-)

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Mon, 10 Dec 2007


Reminder to myself to try out Sup.

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Wed, 19 Sep 2007


So, Mint won the TC40 contesty thing. Looks neat and all, Quicken but web based. I go to take a look and the first thing it wants is my login/pass for my bank's website. Umh. I don't care if my brother runs that site. No.

On the other hand, I see why the business model shows so much promise. If things go south they can dump all their users' money into an offshore account and head south themselves.

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Tue, 21 Aug 2007

Ah, the Mechanical Turk...

Forget commons-validator, just use the mechanical turk to validate credit cards.


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Sat, 18 Aug 2007

Fussy Baby + The Free Sound Project == Better

Ian is awesome, just a bit... sensitive :-) White noise helps to soothe him, a lot. While poking around for some good white noise I stumbled across The Freesound Project. It is great. Aside from wonderful rain sounds and whatnot for Ian, this is amazingly soothing to me. You just don't get them out here naturally.

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Wed, 11 Jul 2007

What Does It Take to Own Me?

Om, while talking about Ning, reiterated a commonly held idea I kind of disagree with:

you can't move your users with you, basically handing over your community to the company

If I use your site, I don't think having my email address actually means very much. Heck, for any non-transactional web based app, it probably will never be used except for things which land in the spam bucket. This is triply true for anything community-centric.

I am a member of lots of online communities, ranging from things like Honorable Players (one of the longer running gaming clans around, even if I don't have time to play anymore), to Apache (whom you probably know if you read this blog), to LtU (despite the fact I am 90% lurker there) to The Order of the Stick (not the fan community, just a daily visit and something I am attached to). I think only Apache has a working email addy for me, but most of the HP folks probably have one that will wend some path to my inbox.

More importantly, if any one of them were to move, say to Codehaus in the case of a subset of the Apache community, I would just follow the community, not the person who knows my email address or has the domain a community I love happens to be using right now.

For a business, being able to uniquely identify you far and away trumps having your email address. The ad networks nailed this one. Having an email can even be a liability -- people make throwaways and you wind up mucking up your internal metrics because folks are afraid you'll sell their email address to those dastardly spammers (not a useful business model anymore) or something worse. So, you can uniquely identify people -- all this takes, in practice, is a cookie. If someone wants something more resilient they can trade the cookie for a login/passcode combo so they can get a tighter grip on their cookie. If they want you to tell them when interesting things happen they can give you an email address. Asking for the email addy then lets you provide me an additional service, it is the opposite of "having my email address makes me your user."

An example of some folks who seem to very much get it: Meebo. You can go and start IM'ing through them without ever creating an account. It works fine (shockingly well for a web app doing what it does, actually). If you use it enough you tend to create an account just so you don't have to keep logging into multiple IM services through them. They have a ferociously loyal community and... they could pick up and move to, erase the user database, blog about it in a couple places, and aside from a couple clicks of confusion, not miss a beat.

I suspect the knee-jerk reaction to say "if you don't have their email you don't own them" comes from the Dark Days of Internet Advertising when it amounted to getting the company announcements or having a point of contact for the Sales Guy. Now... heck, you are better off forcing them back to your site to see ads, actually. Heh :-)

As a thought experiment, what would I lose if I stopped using personal email? To qualify -- I need to use it internally at work, I need to use it for open source stuff, and I probably need it to handle receipts for some internet purchases. Instead of having complex rules I go to straight white-listing. I can still sign up for any service which thinks they need an email to own me -- mailinator solves that nicely. I am still in touch with friends and family -- we use IM and this magical device called a "telephone" -- you probably have one built into your SMS/Camera device. I would stop getting those annoying chain letters. I would stop being contacted by recruiters who think I am perfect for this .Net contracting position requiring two years experience and a CS degree. Actually, scanning my last-week-archive the only thing I would have missed out on is the Adequate Guinea Pig. This deserves thought :-)

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Wed, 20 Jun 2007

News From the Ass...

It would behoove us all to test what our sites look like in all popular browsers...

... with tabs enabled :-)

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Tue, 19 Jun 2007

Best meme ev4r!!!1!

My name is Brian and I love lolcats.

It gets bonus points for making the jump into newspapers!

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Thu, 08 Feb 2007

Anneal with a Transverse Field via a Tunable Flux Capacitor

My head just exploded.

I have to wonder if it is a hoax, though, with someone named Geordi (okay, Geordie) saying, "We fix the temperature and anneal with a transverse field (equivalently by opening and closing windows for the qubits to tunnel)," and, "via a tunable flux transformer."

This is so freaking cool, last I had heard getting more than four qubits was "really freaking hard." If they have 16 in a portable demo, and plan on a thousand in the next couple years, ka-wow. As my friend Steve puts it, though, "What kind of frame rate can I expect from Quake 3?"

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Sat, 03 Feb 2007

Blogging Enjoyably

I was at the other end of Henri's IM conversation and I think he is right. It has felt like article writing lately, which is a borkaged mindset. Thanks for wise thought ;-)

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Tue, 09 Jan 2007

Mercurial For Documents (on Mac)

Apple's iWork apps work bloody nicely, but they have a vicious flaw in the '06 version -- they delete stuff inside the archive, such as .svn directories. This sucks, really badly, and means that if you use Keynote or Pages, and are paranoid about versioning (like a lot of folks) things, and like svn, you have gnashed for a while.

Anyway, I switched to using Mercurial for these docs. The main reason I like it for my docs directory is that it has a built-in concept of adding and removing things as needed. You can have a simple script like:

cd ~/Documents
/opt/local/bin/hg remove --after
/opt/local/bin/hg add
/opt/local/bin/hg commit -m "Commit docs from WorkFlow Script Thing"

Which does the ~right thing with regard to these broken archive things. I haven't haven't figured out the right way to do Pages and Keynote plugins/wrappers/magic to automatically do revisions on saving docs, when those docs are in the right directory, yet, but it is coming :-)

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Fri, 29 Dec 2006

Apple Support Woes

Apple chose not to fix a problem today, so I am falling back to the last resort of the consumer, warning others about a vendor. Back in August I sent my PowerBook back to Apple to have the "lower memory slot doesn't work" problem fixed, which is pretty common in this laptop. Anyway, they sent it back with a note saying "problem fixed by removing 3rd party memory." At least they were kind enough to put the two gigs of third party memory in a ziplock back and send it back. I do wonder what "fixed" means in the case where it won't boot without memory. In the long process of proving there was a problem over the phone, I put in the original 512 megs (2x256) and verified for the support person that it didn't work then either. Guess I screwed up by putting the two gigs back in to send it to Apple. Despite the report saying all they did was remove the memory, it looks like they replaced the motherboard as well, as it works now when I put that evil 3rd memory back in ;-)

Oh yeah, while they had it they replaced the battery as well (at least they did according to another note they sent back with it), as it was subject to their exploding battery recall. That is the root of the problem which leads to this post. They replaced the battery with a bum one which won't accept a charge. It won't even start charging.

So, I call Apple to see about getting a replacement battery. First person I talk to says no problem, but he needs to get a code to do it because it is not within the first year of my owning the computer. He goes about trying to get the code. Hold hold hold. He has to hand me off to a specialist. The specialist pulls up the report from August and says they didn't do anything but remove the third party memory. I point out they also replaced the battery (without my asking them to), or at least so it says on the note I got back from them. He drops the subject and says that they only replace batteries within a year of the purchase of the computer or 90 days of purchase of the battery, and he won't make an exception in my case. I am, apparently, welcome to write a letter to Apple about this, and maybe someone will do something about it.

So, Apple, here is a note explaining the problem. I figure this is more useful than a letter sent to Cupertino as at least it warns other folks about the level of support Apple is providing.

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Tue, 19 Dec 2006


As I have been tagged by both Paul and Gianugo I better start playing! Five pieces of trivia about myself:

  1. The most peaceful times I have known were when I was working as a canoeing guide in the Adirondacks and I'd get up an hour before anyone else to drink mint chamomile tea while watching the fog burn off a lake.
  2. I love baking chocolate chip cookies. I'll make several dozen and not even eat any sometimes.
  3. My dream job as a teenager was to be a sailboat test driver.
  4. Children are generally afraid of me when I first meet them. My wife thinks it is the beard.
  5. I've never actually written a Session or Entity EJB which made it into production.

Now, to pass the buck, how about we hear from Robert, Torsten, Gus, Jon, and Shane.

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Fri, 15 Dec 2006


Just found Steve's How the Public School System Crushes Souls via Reddit. I wrote a long response, but have since deleted it. It amounts to more or less what he expressed, just different details. As I imagine a majority of the folks who will bother to read this did, I learned the system well enough to work it and come out smelling like roses on paper, at least.

After all this, before changing careers into programmery stuff, I actually took the idealistic teacher route. Sadly, teachers are beaten down in a very similar manner to the students. Fresh out of grad school, with absurd student loan debt and a $10 or $12 per hour teaching job (when you take a North Carolina teacher's salary against actual hours worked), administrative support verging on antagonistic, and explicit instructions that my sole goal was to teach the five paragraph essay (10th grade's mandatory test) I concluded that I had to get the hell out. It is easier to leave the system as a teacher though, which most folks with any talent eventually do. You feel a bit guilty, administrators and other teachers definitely play the "you shouldn't care about the money, you are serving a higher purpose" card. Again, you don't need another hellish description of what teaching is like, there are plenty out there on the intertron.

There are innumerable reasons and explanations for the craptastic state of the mandatory system of daycare and conditioning we call education. My favorite, and probably one of the more accurate, is that it is a purposeful design dating back to Plato. I don't exactly agree with John Gatto's assertions, but he does trace a reasonable history. For whatever reason, I think we can, and should, achieve more.

The practical side of me thinks there is a lot of wealth to be created in providing a better education. The legal and political climate in the US makes this a somewhat unattractive market, but that might be able to be worked into a viable barrier to entry for competition. Who knows. An interesting approach would be company schools. For someone like GOOG, with a bumper crop of smart thirty-somethings who can retire as their kids approach the school years, access to a good education becomes a very powerful employee retention policy. Heck, it also lets them start recruiting amongst a fertile pool of talent very early, but that might be too long a plan for a publicly traded company to commit resources to. Actually, there is a business plan here...

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