February 1, 2008

Notes along the way

February 1, 2008 - Categories: life

The subway floor is slick with muddy footprints. It’s crowded, so I sandwich my backpack between my feet and take out the Treo that W- lent me. If I write quickly I’ll finish this before I get to Don Mills.


I kept my head down while walking so that the snow wouldn’t get on my glasses.  This meant that all I could see was the snow in front of me barely indented by the footprints of other people on their morning trek to the subway station. I had some portable sunshine – an inspiring podcast about writing.


These are my morning pages, I guess. Stretching exercises to warm up my brain and limber up for an interesting day. There’s so much to write about. I’ll write about yesterday.


I spent yesterday morning at one of my clients, integrating the wiki I made with a wiki that another team had put together. I joined a working meeting and shared what I knew. Things are going well.

In the afternoon, I prepared for the second part of a workshop for Web 2.0 brainstorming and planning. My team members  were happy to let me take the lead in organizing the information and creating slides.  I enjoyed creating a spreadsheet that organized the ideas from our brainstorming session. The spreadsheet made it easy to evaluate the ideas as well. We’ll see how well that goes!

End result: I’m in charge of practically everything on the second day of the workshop. :) This will be fun.


When I checked my personal mail, I found an acceptance letter for an article proposal I’d sent to Linux Journal. (I have warm and fuzzy feelings about Linux Journal because that’s how W- first heard about me.)

With so many extracurricular writing projects on the horizon, I realized that I needed to do more than play on my DS during commutes. I’ve tried writing on the DS before, but I didn’t like tapping ideas out on an onscreen keyboard because that meant that one hand would be doing all the work. W- had an old Treo 270 that he no longer used, and it had a thumbboard. Now all I had to do was figure out the best way to use it to write.

I tried different outlining programs, but I wasn’t happy with any of them. I was looking for in-place editing, a quick way to add nodes, and drag-and-drop reorganization. Most outlining programs for the Palm separate editing the outline from editing the nodes. Bonsai looked promising, but my Microsoft Windows XP kept blue-screening whenever I tried to transfer it over. So it’s back to the built-in MemoPad, which should be fine for now.

So far, so good. I plan to use the Palm to outline, and occasionally to write blog posts like this. My voice recorder is always around my neck, so once I’ve fleshed out my outline, I can talk it through. I have earphones too, so I can review my braindump and write down interesting points. This involves my ear in the editing process.

Oops, I forgot the index cards. I had volunteered to bring index cards just in case they’re useful for the prioritization of ideas. That’s okay, we’ll make do.


As W- expected, the meeting was cancelled due to the storm. Aaron Kim called me on my cellphone just as I was looking for the right bus at the Don Mills subway station.  Jennifer’s cellphone charger went kaboom, so there’s no way to get in touch with her right now. I’ll drop by the Innovation Centre and see if it’s worth staying there, or if I should just work at home. I didn’t pack lunch, but I brought some granola bars. If Bernie and Jen are there, then it’s worth working on Drupal next to them. If not, I’ll go home.

I’ve been working on my outlines, so I don’t feel that my commute has been a total wash. :) It’s surprisingly easy to work on a speech or article outline using just a flat text file. I still want Org on the Palm, though. Maybe Emacs on the Zaurus?


Why not work on my laptop?

I don’t always have a seat, and the laptop is a little too big and heavy for me to feel comfortable about pulling it out anywhere. It’s the convenience factor, I guess. I’ll try it on the trip down Yonge to see if it’s easier than I think. If so, then I’ll take the Palm sync cable with me so that I can work either way.


Oh, look at that, I’ve hit the 4K limit on MemoPad. See? Writing is easy. You just think out loud.


Actually, no, I think I’ll head straight home. Healthier food. :)

xkcd: Real programmers use Emacs

February 1, 2008 - Categories: emacs

From xkcd

Thanks to Jean-Francois Arsenault!

Two tweaks = a great writing day

February 1, 2008 - Categories: writing

This was a very good writing day. I wrote 2256 words for my book, Wicked Cool Emacs, filling in the section on using Planner to take notes. I braindumped some stories from yesterday and today in an 847-word blog post, and I also sketched the outlines of my upcoming presentations and articles. All of that was extracurricular work in addition to e-mails, instant messages, meetings, wikis, and spreadsheets. Yes, it was a very good writing day, and I think I’ll finish this chapter by the 7th, somehow managing to finish a chapter a month despite everything else that’s going on.

What did I do differently? I tried two things:

Using a PDA to write during my commute: the thumb board made all the difference. Tapping tiny keys on a virtual screen or even scrawling in handwriting or graffiti was too slow for me. It made me think too much about input, and I got distracted from what I want to say. On the other hand, I found it easy to type while thinking about what I want to say. I didn’t feel slowed down by the technology.

I spent most of my commute writing blog posts and outlining my upcoming presentations and articles. I was surprised to find that a flat file was good enough for organizing my outline. I thought that I would need an outline or mind mapping program, but all the programs I tried took too much effort to get ideas into the system. Palm’s built-in memo pad did quite well, although I ran into the 4 kB limit about halfway through my commute and I had to start a new note.

I also ended up draining the battery because I hadn’t dimmed the backlight, but that just meant that I could play on my DS with a clear conscience.

Tracking the number of words remaining: Early in the writing process, I set up Emacs to show a running total of the number of words in my draft. The first version of the quote showed the total number of words, and the second version of the quote showed the difference between a baseline and the current number of words. This was useful for seeing how much I’d written since I reset the baseline. Today, I flipped it around. Instead of showing me how many words I’d written, Emacs showed me how many words I still had to write, starting at 2000 and counting down. I don’t know if that’s a key change, but I admit that it was fun seeing the number inch down. Maybe it’s the computer science geek in me, but I find it easier to test if something is zero then to test if something is equal to another number.

Hmm. One of these days, I might even hook my word counter into some kind of automatic status notification to the outside world so that people can find out how I’m doing. Maybe it would automatically tweet when I reach 50%, 75%, and 100% of my quota. Not that anyone really needs to know, but I think it would be fun.

I didn’t look into doing word counts on the Palm, but I don’t think I’ll need it. I think of the Palm as a way to work on outlines and jot quick thoughts. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d written so much, though.

End result: another section in the book, another step closer to the end of my third chapter, and a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. I may be getting the hang of this writing thing.

I’m looking forward to joining the writing group that Leigh Honeywell is thinking of starting up. I’d happily head out into the snow for an afternoon of writing at the Linux Caffe. Of course, I won’t be able to do speech recognition, but I think the company will more than make up for it. And who knows? If I bring my voice recorder along, I can use it to capture my demos to other people and transcribe those into my computer afterwards.

Kaizen: relentless improvement. Yes, even for creative processes like writing… =)

Juggling; paperwork

February 1, 2008 - Categories: work

All of this is extracurricular work. My day job is going well, too. One of the challenges than figuring out right now is how to do my best at all the different projects that I’m working on. I want to make sure that each client is happy with the work I do, and that when I am working on the project, our expectations are aligned and people feel that their goals are as important to me as their goals are to them. I get a little anxious when my schedule is uncertain, but with a little bit of initiative and planning, I’m sure I’ll work things out.

I’ve also submitted an application for an emergency visa applicant to the US consulate. There are couple of exciting work-related opportunities that I would love to be part of. I can’t talk about them yet, but if they do go through, you’ll know. It’s a bit of a pain to not be able to travel freely, but hey, that’s life!