words with kitchen

thoughts and ramblings of a pedal powered geek

Pomodoro or Something Like It

Several years ago I heard about the Pomodoro technique. At the time I was working for DreamHost and was really struggling with staying on task and such, and sorta flailing for something to work and make me more productive. That struggle continues to this day.

When I was very young, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and put on medicine. I have been off of that medicine for a long time as my doctors said I had “outgrown” it. I’m not so sure about that anymore, as I have noticed that I am still extremely susceptible to distractions.

For instance, I’ll go and quickly check twitter to see what’s going on. Then, because I’m already in that context, I’ll check my email on my phone. I’m currently looking for work, so staying on top of incoming emails is important! And of course I can’t not look at how my my Neko Atsume cats are doing. And for some reason lately I’ve taken to looking at Facebook. With facebook at least I mostly check to see if there have been any new notifications (comments on my ‘posts’, likes, whatever), but since I’m in an active private group now I’ve been keeping tabs on that. By the time I get through all of that, I go back to twitter “just one more time” and lo and behold, more tweets! And then I’m back to my email … the cycle continues.

Last week after discussion with my therapist, I decided I needed to really get on top of being productive with the time off that I currently have. I’ve been off work for almost 2 months now, and looking for work, but I’m not going to lie and say I’ve been burning the midnight oil in my job search. And that’s actually fine. I was so burnt out from my previous job that I needed the time to myself to relax, to decompress, to right myself again and recover. That is literally the reason I left my job, because I felt like I couldn’t make that recovery while continuing to work there, as the environment was just too triggering for me.

However, I’ve been just wasting time. Spending hours going back and forth between various things just literally wasting time. And not in any sort of cathartic, theraputic, or productive way. Totally devoid of any function.

With the sheer amount of things I want to achieve in my life, this wasting of time, and my recognition of it as such was really bringing me down. And of course when I get down, I start feeling bad about being down, and that cycle drags me in as well.

Enter: the pomodoro technique.

I decided that I wanted to get productive. I would wake up ‘in the morning’, and do my morning routine, then figure out 3 things I wanted to do for the day. I’d then sit down, set a timer, and start working on them. After the timer was up, stop, take a break, go again.

Except I would often either “work through the timer” and keep going, eventually getting distracted and realizing that hours have passed. Or I would fail to set a timer for when my “break” was over, or I’d start working on a task where a timer doesn’t make too much sense, or whatever. I’d get maybe 2 intervals in and that would basically be that for the day.

I’ll admit, those intervals were great, and I managed to get some stuff done, but it didn’t quite do what I was hoping.

One of the treatment methods my therapist uses is called Mindfulness. My former therapist used mindfulness as well, and I’ve been slowly working on mindful meditation and working my way through Search Inside Yourself. The problem I’ve had with mindfulness is, ironically, not being mindful enough to remember to be mindful. Something I’ve considered doing is putting a post-it on my monitor, or a sign on my wall, or something that just says “be mindful”. That way, I’d see it from time to time and it’ll be the external trigger I need to remember to be mindful. Eventually, I would hopefully be able to do away with the crutch and just be mindful all the time, but at least this would get me stared.

With that in mind, and trying to adopt pomodoro at least for the time being, I’ve begun setting timers, not to tell me when to stop working, but just to ‘wake me up’. Especially if I know I’m heading down a path full of distractions, like intentionally checking email or twitter, setting a timer to break the cycle may be able to help. I would rather keep hitting snooze on a timer when I’ve got my head buried in a project even if I’m not going to stop working on it, than spend 5 minutes working on it and the next several hours just mindlessly wasting time.

During the course of writing this post I had to reset my timer several times. I’m hoping that eventually, along with my “be mindful” post-it (which I am now actually going to do), I’ll be able to do away with the “stop being distracted” timer, and either move to proper pomodoro, or maybe something entirely different. But at least I won’t be just outright wasting so much time. Funemployment is great, so long as it’s fun. I’d like to start having fun.

My Unsubscribe Policy

Email marketing has come a long way since I first started using email. Back in the day, it was conventional wisdom that you never click unsubscribe, because that just lets the spammers know they have a legit email address. Nowadays, however, it is my recommendation that you always click unsubscribe, even if it is a spammer, because honestly they don’t really care, and the folks who are doing legit email marketing stuff will remove you from their lists. Spam report button feedback loops have gotten sophisticated to the point that mailers have to pay attention to their spam reports because if they get too many they can start being impacted in their ability to send mail.

However, not all unsubscribe buttons are created equal. I have a grading system which I’ve put into place to judge the quality of a mailer’s unsubscribe link, and based on that grade, I decide whether or not I’m going to proceed through the process or if I’m going to just report the email as spam.

Grading

I use letter grades because it’s simple. And also allows for an unsubscribe link with a few minor annoyances to still receive a pretty passing grade. A+, A, A-, B+, etc. Each unsubscribe starts with an A by default. Any failing grades are marked as spam.

Criteria

These are the criteria I use to grade each unsubscribe experience. Each one has varying degrees of penalty, and some are instant fails.

Clicks

Each and every unsubscribe link gets 1 free click. A lot of unsubscribe links ask you to confirm your unsubscribe, and that’s totally fine. It’s a better user experience to have an extra click than to have to somehow resubscribe if you accidentally unsubscribe.

For every other click after that, it’s a third of a letter grade penalty.

An example of this is a site that has multiple mailing lists, and it wants you to confirm which ones you want to unsubscribe from. Extra annoying is that sometimes the boxes are checked, and leaving them checked and clicking means that you continue to receive the mails. Extra extra annoying is that sometimes you have to uncheck all of the boxes and click (the “update preferences” style) or check all of the boxes and click (the “unsubscribe me from these” style)

Typing

The absolute last thing I want to do is to type in my email address to unsubscribe. The site should already know my email address. It should know this because it’s either directly embedded in the unsubscribe url, or because it’s somehow encoded into the url, or referenced via a unique identifier which is encoded in the url. Because of this, there are varying penalties surrounding

If the unsubscribe link doesn’t contain any information which could be used to look up my email address, and the site asks me for my email address, it’s a full letter grade off.

If it does, or should (because the url contains information which should be able to identify me and my email address) know my email address and forces me to enter one, that’s 2 full letter grades off.

If the site goes as far as to present me my own email address, and asks me to type it in anyways, I take 3 full letter grades off.

Note that a form asking for my email address and already filled in with my email address that functions just fine receives no penalty. I have no problem with sites which allow me to unsubscribe someone else.

3 weeks later

For every day past greater than 1 the unsubscribe link says it may take to stop receiving emails, I remove a third of a letter grade. I understand that mailings are often already prepped, ready to roll, and out the door in advance. However, generating the actual email list is the easy part, and it’s not difficult to quickly cleanse the list of last minute unsubscribes just prior to sending. It should not take 7-10 business days for emails to stop coming. It’s not like someone is hand-typing my email address into every mailing, and if there is, then I definitely don’t want to receive the emails anymore.

Instant F

If any of the following occurs, the unsubscribe link receives an instant fail, and the message is immediately marked as spam.

No unsubscribe link

Obviously, if there is no unsubscribe link, and I don’t want the email, it will be marked as spam.

Extra trick question

This is a variant of the “update preferences” style from above, except that it automatically has all of the boxes checked, even for things you aren’t subscribed to. If you screw up and don’t check the boxes properly, you could end up being on more or different lists from this company. This is a hard one to judge objectively, as I from an initial contact perspective, I don’t know what all I was signed up for. This is more of a “if I catch you doing this” sort of thing. I have a feeling it’s a lot more prevalent than it should be.

Log in

If the unsubscribe link takes me to a login page, or if the email itself suggests I log in somewhere and update my email preferences, it is an immediate fail. Often I am trying to unsubscribe from emails from a service I am no longer a user of. Perhaps I don’t even know my credentials anymore (rarer nowadays, due to 1Password). The last thing I want to do is try to guess my credentials, or jump through a bunch of hoops to reset my password, just to unsubscribe from emails. Log in? Nah. I’ll just report as spam.

Second chance? Nope

If I receive emails after 24 hours or after the stated number of days on the unsubscribe page, then I wasn’t unsubscribed. The email will be immediately marked as spam.

Six Months Car Free

A little over six months ago, I sold my car.

Holy shit, right? I mean, I live in Los Angeles, the most car centric city in the world. How can I possibly survive without a car?

Pretty easily, it turns out.

Since this is the first time since I was 16 years old that I don’t own a car, I had to re-learn some things. I had to untrain some habits. I had to make some sacrifices. I had to be willing to spend money I previously would have scoffed at to do some things.

All in all, though, I’ve saved a lot of money, I’ve saved a lot of stress, and I’ve significantly reduced my environmental footprint.

Old habits die hard

One of the reasons I decided I wanted to get rid of my car in the first place is because while I have been using my bike as my primary method of commuting for many years, I felt like I was using my car too much.

Too much?

I would wake up in the morning and instead of riding to work, I’d just drive. Sit through traffic for an hour, spend $10 to park at the office, sit through another hour of traffic. And why? Because I woke up, felt lazy, and drove instead of riding. Not because it was snowing, raining, 120 degrees in the shade, 40 degrees in the sun. No. This is LA, none of those conditions exist except occasionally the 120 in the shade one, but even that’s rare.

I would ride my bike all the way home from work — about a 22 mile ride — then hop in my car and drive 3 blocks to the grocery store I passed on the way home.

I would hop in my car to run to a local restaurant to get food.

I would hop in my car to take my dog to the vet.

I would hop in my car to go buy pet supplies.

Do you see the pattern here?

Most of the time I was spending in my car was for things I didn’t actually need a car for. I wasn’t driving long distances or with large loads (frequently, anyways). I was just driving because it was convenient, and I was being lazy.

After I got rid of my car, this urge to just hop in and go do X, Y, or Z took some time to go away, and honestly for the first few days I was thinking “oh my what have I done”. Fortunately, like any conditioned behavior, it can be changed, and was, and now I rarely think about getting in a car, unless I know that’s the best or only way to go about things.

Surrogates

I had actually decided I wanted to get rid of my car quite some time back, but thought I would need to move before I could do so. In my brain, I needed to be near a ZipCar before I could get rid of my car, because when I travel I board my dog, and driving is really the only way to get to my boarder. After several months of that, I decided I was being silly and struck it from the list of blockers. They aren’t super convenient to my current location, but they aren’t impossibly far away, either, and the slightly inconvenient might actually be a plus, as it keeps me from using them constantly.

Fortunately, both Uber and Lyft have pretty good coverage in the valley, so I can use those for getting around when I don’t want to take my bike.

And of course, my trusty bicycle has since become truly my primary method of transportation. The more I ride it, the more I realize I need to put some more investment into it, like new wheels and a new saddle at the very least, but it gets me from point A to point B so I can’t complain too much!

The downsides

There are of course some downsides.

It’s a lot more time consuming for me to get large distances around the city. For instance, my friends are scattered all over the place, from Pasadena to Culver City to the Arts District, to wherever. If I want to do something after work, that’s fine, but I have to go home to take care of my dog first, and then I’m an hour to get back downtown and another hour to get home! Oof!

I turn into a pumpkin at midnight. LA Metro stops running shortly after midnight, so if I’m on the wrong side of the hill, I have a very long ride ahead of me to get home. I don’t count buses because the daytime buses are unreliable enough, especially with a bike, so I won’t bank on a bus being convenient or able to take me with my bike. This, along with the 2 hour round trip time to downtown, means that I have very little time in the evenings to actually do anything.

For both of those problems, though, I see them as simply problems with where I live, and where I want to do things, rather than problems with not having a car. If I lived closer to downtown, the round trip issue would be significantly less. If I lived in, say, Highland Park, Pasadena is only a short hop away on the Gold Line. If I lived in either of those places, then getting stuck riding home because the trains have stopped is less of a problem, because it’s a direct route home rather than having to ride around the Santa Monica Mountains.

What about money?

I was a bit worried at first that I might end up spending way more money not owning a car than owning one. Between ubers, lyfts, zipcars, and such I’d spend WAY more than I would just owning a car. This has turned out to be far from the case. I haven’t tracked it closely (I’m tracking the next 6 months closely, though, for sure), but for the past 6 months I’d say I’ve spent no more than $200/mo on average, and that’s a pretty high estimate. At first, one might scoff at a $40 uber home from Highland Park. And a $35 zipcar to take my dog to the boarder. $60 in ubers in one night just to go to a show in Hollywood!

However, add them all up and they’re still way less than my monthly payment and insurance was on my car, not even counting gas, maintenance, etc. And other than the zipcars, I’m not even the one driving! I can just kick back and check out!

This leads me to one of the other major reasons I got rid of my car: I no longer have any excuse whatsoever, at all, ever, none, zip, zilch, nada. For driving intoxicated. Which, if you factor in just the direct financial costs of a DUI, makes nearly any dollar amount spent on alternative transportation look like a drop in the bucket. Not even considering worse things than getting a DUI. But when you’ve god a $600/mo car/insurance payment, spending $80 to roundtrip to a party somewhere seems excessive, right?

In hindsight?

If I had it to do it all over again I would actually have sold my car sooner than I did. The amount of times I’ve really needed a car since I sold mine made me realize that car ownership just isn’t for me anymore. I can totally get by without a car of my own, even if I need one from time to time, I don’t need to own one. In so many ways it’s actually quite freeing to not have a car. I can get one when I need one, but when I don’t it’s not burdening me in any way!

What now?

I have to admit. I recently rented a Mercedes C250 ZipCar and it was really an overall quite pleasant experience. I miss driving, and I sure as hell miss driving a manual transmission (ZipCar doesn’t seem to have any manuals in the US, which is sad but makes sense). And I know that, while I can use a ZipCar to satisfy that “must drive” urge, the lack of manual transmission will always leave me wanting for more. After 5 years of driving a manual, driving an automatic is frustrating. It’s always in the wrong freaking gear! And those “auto stick” transmissions are mostly crap as well, especially the one I had on the C250.

What does this mean? Am I getting a car?! Probably not. I’ve had the thought several times that after I move to Portland I’ll probably get another car. So I can get out of the city and into the beautiful countryside a bit. Because in my brain, paying $80/day for a zipcar every weekend adds up really fast. But not realizing that I probably won’t use a zipcar every weekend, and then there are other options than ZipCar.

I probably will end up with another car some day. But it’s probably going to be like an old Jeep I can go offroading with, or like an older bmw convertible I can blast canyons with, or whatever. Pure pleasure car. I’ll work on it myself. I’ll pay cash for it. I’ll drive it into the ground.

We’ll see what I have to say on the matter in another 6 months, though ;)

One Year Smoke Free

Saturday night at about 1am was the first anniversary of me being smoke free! Woo!

It was pretty rough for the first several weeks, but overall it’s been a breeze. Thankfully, I had some help from the fine folks at /r/stopsmoking who both helped me get started and helped keep me going when the cravings got pretty bad.

The biggest realization I had which made it really easy for me to quit was the fact that the only enjoyment I was getting out of smoking was relief from the withdrawal symptoms. I wasn’t actually enjoying smoking most of the time. Sure, there may have been times where it felt good or it enhanced a particularly pleasurable sitation (and those are the triggers which have been the worst to deal with) but for the most part I didn’t actually enjoy it, it’s just something I did.

If you’re considering quitting, I highly recommend it, of course. I’m here if you need any help with it or someone to vent to if the cravings are getting bad!

Farewell Pandora

I’ve been a Pandora user for about as long as they’ve been around, and a paying subscriber to the Pandora One service for about as long as that has been around. Sadly, my time with them has come to an end. I’m moving on to iTunes Radio now for my music streaming needs. Here’s why.

Native Client

For years I’ve been begging for a native Pandora client for OSX. I don’t like chewing up a browser tab to listen to music, and frequently Pandora would decide to use up a lot of memory requiring me to kill my browser, which may have had lots of important things going on that I needed. They did come out with their “Pandora One” player, which is an Adobe Air app, but it required installing yet more Adobe junk and even then it didn’t look very good or work well (for instance, the OSX-style command-arrow shortcuts for highlighting text didn’t work).

For a brief period I tried just using my phone for Pandora, as they have a native iOS client, but then I don’t hear any of my computer’s sounds (many of which are alerting me to things which require my attention) and I drain my battery just listening to music.

iTunes Radio, being integrated into iTunes itself means it’s effectively a native client on any iTunes supported platform. This might be a problem if you don’t like iTunes, but I use iTunes for my music, so it’s acceptable to me.

Sound Quality

For a long time I’ve also been asking Pandora what I can do to get better sound quality. I’m a bit sensitive to high amounts of compression and even with a paid subscription to the Pandora One service which provides higher quality audio, I could still frequently hear compression artifacts, sometimes making the song un-listenable.

iTunes seems to be streaming 256kbps AAC, which is actually pretty good compression and is the same level of audio quality as the music they sell through the iTunes Store and the music that comes through via iTunes Match, so you’re not compromising audio quality.

Price

Of course price is a factor. iTunes radio and Pandora are both free services, but they’re also ad supported. Since I can’t stomach ads, I pay, and I’m fine with that. Pandora is $36/year, iTunes Radio goes ad-free if you pay for iTunes Match service, which is $25/year. Sure, it’s not breaking the bank, and if Pandora was on-par with iTunes radio I wouldn’t complain about the extra $11/year, but it is a factor!

Summary

There are other things I like about iTunes Radio more than Pandora, but for all I know Pandora has had those features as well forever, so I won’t mention them. My requirements for a Pandora-like service are pretty light, mostly I just use it as background music, so I don’t really deep-dive into the features they offer, but for what I do use, I find iTunes Radio to be a better service. Time will tell if iTunes Radio’s recommendation engine will provide more variety with less maintenance than Pandora (I felt like Pandora required a lot of maintenance on my stations to prevent hearing the same dozen songs repeatedly) but the native client and audio quality is enough for me to jump ship.

Farewell, Pandora. I’ll miss you. I hope you come back swinging and win me back. I really do!

NationBuilder!

Tomorrow I start my new job as a Systems Engineer at NationBuilder!

NationBuilder is connecting leaders with their communities, and enabling anyone to be able to become a leader. Key features of the platform are a CMS, CRM, and messaging.

I’m really excited to get started as they have a lot of interesting technical infrastructure and plenty of challenges to overcome.

BTC Exchange Gets Raided

While talking on IRC earlier, this article came up in the channel.

Now, normally I avoid reading about bitcoin, simply because I am too late in the game to really do any mining and don’t feel like making an investment, but the fact that an exchange was seized was of interest to me.

From TFA:

The warrant claims Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles did not disclose he operated a financial transfer site when he opened a new bank account for the business. Money transmitting services, according to Gawker, are required to register with the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen).

I find this interesting, mostly because of the implications here. If a USD->BTC and BTC->USD exchange is considered a money transmitting business, then BTC is now considered money by the DHS. As it stands with BTC not being recognized as currency, then the operation of this business is no different than an online gift-swapping marketplace and the DHS has no grounds to take action. For instance, if I buy a gift, give it to you, and you sell it, is that a money transfer? If not, then why would that be any different with BTC? Unless BTC were money. But does any government want to set that precedent right now?

Later on in the article is this gem:

“Literally, it allows buyers and users to sell illegal drugs online, including heroin, cocaine, and meth, and users do sell by hiding their identity through a program that makes them virtually untraceable,” Schumer said during a 2011 news conference. “It’s a certifiable one-stop shop for illegal drugs that represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen. It’s more brazen than anything else by light years.”

This is like saying bittorrent is for piracy and should be banned. Bittorrent is a general purpose file transfer protocol. Some people use it for piracy. Some people have also been known to use FTP, HTTP, SMTP and even DNS for piracy. What this quote is describing is most likely the online black market known as “Silk Road”. Silk road is to bitcoin as the pirate bay is to bittorrent. At best this statement is fear mongering and sensationalizing and propaganda. At worst, it’s downright libelous. Do they not think people buy drugs over the internet with USD? A PayPal account, a prepaid credit card, and someone to buy from are all you need to buy drugs online anonymously. Or what about buying some WoW gold and giving it to someone in game in exchange for some drugs? Is Blizzard registered as a money transfer service? Or would IGE be the one who’d have to be registered? I’d even wager to say that WoW gold is a more secure (in the “I’ll be able to keep it” sense, not the “it won’t fluctuate in value” sense) than BTC, and much easier to come by with many more users!

I get that governments are afraid of BTC. I can understand it, and even to a degree sympathize with them. I’m a hard working, tax paying, law abiding American. I may not enjoy paying my taxes, but I do so because I realize that government can’t operate without income, and I rely on the services the government provides for my daily life. But please don’t use silly arguments like this to try to discount a budding alternative currency.

I’m not a BTC user. I like a lot of the concepts surrounding BTC, but as much as it purports to be “secure”, “anonymous”, etc., I see too many flaws with the system to be willing to invest much money or time into it. I could write a whole post about my concerns, but at the very least I’m concerned with wallet theft, and that’s enough to stop me from using it in a serious fashion.

I am, however, very interested in the outcome of this action. The DHS has made a very bold move here, and whatever happens will set a precedent, so they have to be very careful moving forward.

Now where’s my popcorn popper?

Python Experimentation

I’ve been a perl user for about 10 years, but recently I decided I should start learning another language. Not that I don’t like perl or anything, but I wanted to branch out and learn something new. After doing some quick research and listening to my gut, I decided python would be my language of choice.

I’m an interactive learner. I can read a book on a language, tool, whatever, but if I’m not actually using it my knowledge retention is quite low. Fortunately, I’ve also been getting into logstash lately, and have some real needs which I can use python to fill.

So far I have 2 projects I’m working on: peabody which I’ve already written about, and now pipestash which I’m hoping to use for shipping apache log messages over to pipestash.

I’m not just venturing into unknown territory with python as the unknown territory, I’m trying to learn some more general programming strategies as well. Pipestash makes use of a queue and multiple processes (thanks to python’s multiprocessing module) and talks to a redis server. Peabody makes use of multiple file descriptors and polling and also a redis output. I might even throw some of my new multiprocessing knowledge into peabody, so instead of using select on multiple file descriptors, I might use 2 threads, one to read stdout and one to read stderr, which should simplify the code a bit and make it easier for my brain to work!

I’d like to get to the point where I’m as proficient with python as I am with perl, and actually where I’m much more proficient. It’s going to be a long, interesting journey!

SCaLE 11x

This weekend I’m attending SCaLE 11x. I’ve been to the conference a few times in the past and it’s always been a good time and excellent opportunity for networking and learning.

If you’re going to be there and want to meet up for a beer or something, drop me an email and we’ll meet up!

I’ll also be at the PGP key signing party Saturday night, let’s meet up and swap signatures!

The End of an Era

You may have noticed some downtime on the site this last week. Sorry about that.

The site used to be hosted on my old machine I had from when I was working for DreamHost. Sadly, it had to be moved from one datacenter to the other and it didn’t survive. And, considering I don’t work there anymore, replacement hardware was not readily available.

Fortunately, the hard drives were fine, so I was able to recover them. I still need to extract the data from them and get the rest of my sites online, but getting my blog back up was my top priority.

I’ve currently got the site up and running at Linode. I chose them because they have a great reputation, static IPs, IPv6 adresses, and aren’t overly expensive (this 512MB vps is $20/mo). I’d like to get back to a dedicated / colocated machine at some point, but for now this should suffice. I don’t need a lot of space, I don’t need a lot of cpu power, so why not just go with something easy?

Also, let this be a lesson for you: my dns remained functional because about a year ago I bought a BitFolk VPS to run my offsite dns for me. BitFolk has been really great, their mailing list is active and knowledgeable, their staff friendly, prompt and also knowledgeable and I can VPN through it to watch BBC.

Anywho, sorry for the outage. I hope to have everything back up and running in another day or so. For now, I’m off to bed!