We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Personal

Habit forming

I find that habits are best made and broken in sets. If I want to form a new habit, I’ll try to get rid of an old one at the same time. I don’t know why this works, but it seems to. Perhaps I only have room in my head for a certain number of habits, so if I want a new one, then an old one has to go. I’m sure some combinations are better than others.

I’m currently working on changing some habits, including:

  • Start exercising, swimming three times per week
  • Stop drinking alcohol entirely
  • Start a consistent flossing routine

I’m thinking of adding a reading habit to the set, but it’s going well so far and I don’t want to overdo it. I feel good, and am forming a new routine.

The flossing is definitely the hardest of the three. I hate pretty much everything about flossing. It also unbalances the set, so that I have a net gain of one habit. Maybe that’s the real reason, and if I broke another habit, it would get easier.

Does anyone else have this experience? What sort of tricks do you employ to help you change your behavior?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 23, 2010 at 20:14

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Finishing books

Having invested in some introspection into my reading habits, I made up my mind to dial down my consumption of bite-sized nuggets of online information, and finish a few books. That’s where my bottleneck has been for the past year or so. Not in selecting books, not in acquiring books, and not in starting books either. I identify promising books, I buy them, I start reading them, and at some point, I put them down and never pick them back up again.

Until now. Over the weekend, I finished two books. I started reading both in 2009, and they each required my sustained attention for a period measured in hours in order to finish them.

Taking a tip from Dustin, I decided to try alternating between fiction and non-fiction.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

This was the first book I had read by Tom Robbins, and I am in no hurry to read any more. It certainly wasn’t without merit: its themes were clever and artfully interwoven, and the prose elicited a silent chuckle now and again. It was mainly the characters which failed to earn my devotion. They spoke and behaved in ways I found awkward at best, and problematic at worst. Race, gender, sexuality and culture each endured some abuse on the wrong end of a pervasive white male heteronormative American gaze.

I really wanted to like Priscilla, who showed early promise as a smart, self-reliant individual, whose haplessness was balanced by a strong will and sense of adventure. Unfortunately, by the later chapters, she was revealed as yet another vacant vessel yearning to be filled by a man. She’s even the steward of a symbolic, nearly empty perfume bottle throughout the book. Yes, really.

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Of the books I’ve read on management, this one is perhaps the most outrageously reductionist. Many management books are like this, to a degree. They take the impossibly complex problem domain of getting people to work together, break it down into manageable problems with tidy labels, and prescribe methods for solving them (which are hopefully appropriate for at least some of the reader’s circumstances).

Managing Humans takes this approach to a new level, drawing neat boxes around such gestalts as companies, roles, teams and people, and assigning them Proper Nouns. Many of these bear a similarity to concepts which have been defined, used and tested elsewhere, such as psychological types, but the text makes no effort to link them to his own. Despite being a self-described collection of “tales”, it’s structured like a textbook, ostensibly imparting nuggets of managerial wisdom acquired through lessons learned in the Real World (so pay attention!). However, as far as I can tell, the author’s experience is limited to a string of companies of a very specific type: Silicon Valley software startups in the “dot com” era.

Lopp (also known as Rands) does have substantial insight into this problem domain, though, and does an entertaining job of illustrating the patterns which have worked for him. If you can disregard the oracular tone, grit your teeth through the gender stereotyping, and add an implicit preface that this is (sometimes highly) context-sensitive advice, this book can be appreciated for what it actually is: a coherent, witty and thorough exposition of how one particular manager does their job.

I got some good ideas out of this book, and would recommend it to someone working in certain circumstances, but as with Robbins, I’m not planning to track down further work by the same author.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 21, 2010 at 16:00

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How to decide what to read (and what not to read)?

Like you, dear Internet readers, I have no shortage of reading material. I have ready access to more engaging, high quality, informative and relevant information than I can possibly digest. Every day, I have to choose what to read, and what to pass by. This seems like an important thing to do well, and I wonder if I do a good enough job of it. This is just one example of a larger breadth/depth problem, but I’m finding the general problem difficult to stomach, so I’m focusing on reading for the moment.

These are my primary sources of reading material on a day-to-day basis:

  • Email – I read everything which is addressed to me personally. I don’t reply to all of it, and my reply time can vary greatly, but I am able to keep up with reading it, and I consider it important to do so. I am still subscribed to a selection of mailing lists, but I find them increasingly awkward to manage. There are a few which I scan on a daily basis, but most of them I process in batches when I’m offline and traveling. I’m subscribed to far fewer mailing lists than I was five years ago, though I feel they are still the most effective online discussion facility available. I find myself doing more and more discussing in real-time on IRC and by phone rather than by email.
  • Blogs – I subscribe to a few big aggregators and a random sampling of individual blogs. Most of them I scan rather than read. I do most of this offline, while in transit, and so I don’t tend to follow links unless they’re promising enough to save for later. I’ve recently stopped trying to “keep up” (scan every post) on most of them, and instead just “sample” whatever is current at the time. It feels like turning on a television, flipping through all of the channels, and turning it off again. Even when I do find something which I feel is worth reading, it’s hard for me to focus my attention after a long session of scanning. I do find a lot of good stuff this way, but I’m pretty dissatisfied with the overall experience. I never feel like I’m looking in the right places.
  • Shared links – I share my own links publicly, and follow those shared by friends and acquaintances. I do this with multiple groups of people who don’t connect directly, and pass items back and forth between those groups. I place an increasingly high priority on reading items which are shared by people I know, more than on trying to follow the original sources, because the signal-to-noise ratio is so good: my personal network acts as a pretty good filter for what will interest me. I have the nagging feeling that I need to maintain a balance here, though. If I read mostly what other people are sending me, I feel like I’m living in a bubble of like-minded people and fear that I’ll lose perspective.
  • News – I read hardly any “proper” news. I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, and generally don’t read the online versions either. I do read articles which are shared by people in my network. Traditional media never seems to have the right scope for me. There may be particular journalists, or particular topics I’d like to follow, but news outlets simply don’t group their content in a way which fits my mind.
  • Books – Remember these? My diet of books has shrunk drastically since I started reading more online media. Devoting my full attention to a book just doesn’t feel as energizing as it used to. I hesitate at the prospect of sinking so many hours into a book, only to decide that it wasn’t worthwhile, or worse, to forget what I learned as I’m bombarded by bite-sized, digestible tidbits from the Internet. I feel sad about losing the joy of reading I once had, and want to find a way to reintegrate books into my regular diet.

How do you decide what to read, and what not to read? How does your experience differ between your primary information sources? How have you tried to improve?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 12, 2010 at 19:35

Ten TED talks I took in today

Starting about a year ago, I started following the release of videos from TED events. If one looked interesting, I would download the video to watch later. In this way, I accumulated a substantial collection of talks which I never managed to watch.

I spent a Saturday evening working my way through the list. These are my favorites out of this batch.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 25, 2010 at 01:25

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Breadth and depth

I’ve always felt a little bit odd when people seem to yearn for “simpler times”: before telecommunications, before mass production…these fragments of an imagined past seem a tantalizing contrast to the present. For myself, I’m more often eagerly embracing the latest technology, learning how to use it to positive effect, and sometimes find it difficult to relate to this point of view.

I can certainly understand feeling nostalgic for an earlier part of one’s own life, a particularly enjoyable time, perhaps embellished further through remembrance. But what of periods which ended well before we were born, of which we have no first-hand experience?  Do we truly believe that our lives would have been better in another age?  Is this even a meaningful comparison?

Can we even compare our own experiences of childhood to our adult life?  Certainly, the world was a different place, but then, so were we.  Do we even remember what it was like for us?  Can an adult mind still relate with the experience of youth deeply enough to compare it with the present?  Similarly, it puzzles me that some parents seem to want future generations to repeat their experiences.  Shouldn’t we want them to make the most of their world, rather than trying to make it like ours?

I encounter these attitudes regularly when talking with people about technology, some of whom seem to feel that technology is depriving them of something.  I find this puzzling, since most of the time, I see technology as offering more choice.  At least, I used to find it puzzling, until I considered how more choice makes us less happy.  It also seems that we adjust to being happy with our circumstances.  This process can take some time, though, and if things are changing too rapidly, we may continue to feel dissatisfied until our expectations “catch up” with us.  We can also feel this way if we adapt too quickly, as we may take our world for granted.  It all seems to indicate that they are having trouble coping with changes in our environment.

Or, perhaps, the critics are right, and technology is corrupting our virtue.  I decided to take up this position myself to see if I could better understand it.  What better way to explore the question than through baseless conjecture thought experiments?  Here’s food for thought:

Thanks to advances in communications technology, we have immediate access to the people in our lives, wherever they are.  This enables us to maintain a certain level of social connection with people we never see in person, and therefore our social circles can be presumed to be much larger than they were in the past.  However, we have not been similarly blessed with more time to devote to these relationships, and so the average amount of time available for each of our “friends” is reduced.  The natural equilibrium in such a system might be to have a large number of relatively shallow relationships, rather than fewer, deeper ones.

A similar effect could be imagined for information.  With instantaneous access to a vast breadth of information, all similarly presented, we can lose sight of important differences between sources.  With so much unfiltered information, it all starts to look the same.  Is one point of view really worth more than another?  Do we even take the time to understand whose point of view it is?  It is all too easy to seize the first answer which presents itself, or worse, the most popular one.  We’re exposed to a lot more information, but are not yet equipped with a proportionally better ability to process it.

These patterns point to a common trend of increasing breadth over depth.  If such a trend does exist in technology, what effect is it having on us?  Is it a progressive trend, or will we eventually regain balance and see it reversed?  Personally, I am confident in the capacity of the human system to adapt and maintain order. The fact that people can sense an imbalance is an indication that we are healthy, and will in time find ways to cope with the change. We may not know what the solutions will look like, but we are already looking for them. Perhaps some aspects of our life will be temporarily worsened until we find them, but I believe the solutions lie ahead of us, not behind us.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 6, 2010 at 12:21

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Cognitive time travel through reminder lists

Making a list

Credit: guinnessgurl/pamelaadam

I make a lot of lists: lists of things to do, things to talk to someone about, things to write, and mistakes never to repeat. I use them to keep track of various aspects of my life, and to help me to “shift gears” to a new task or project by filling my mind with the work at hand.

List-keeping is generally regarded as boring administrative work, something only important to compulsive organizers. When a writer wants to portray a character as meticulous and dull, they need only brand them as a list-maker, with eyes bespectacled from years of squinting over their lists.

The reality of list-keeping is much more exciting: reminder lists are a mechanism for cognitive time travel. They allow us to transport information from the time when it occurs to us, to a time in the future when it will actually be useful. Like a wormhole, they connect distant points in spacetime (though unfortunately only in one direction, as in the Stargate universe).

Throughout my day, I will remember things I need to do, though not right away: an article which looks interesting, or someone I need to remember to call. Putting these items on a list frees my mind to keep going with whatever I’m doing, knowing that the idea is not lost. A common scenario for me is that I’m riding the tube, reading RSS feeds offline on my Android phone using NewsRob, and come across something I want to explore further. There is as yet no wireless service on the tube, so I can’t do anything but read, but I can send myself an email using K-9 which will be delivered later. At the other end of the wormhole, when I’m back online, I receive the email (usually at my computer) and pick up where I left off.

Traveling through time in your head may not be as exciting as flitting about in a TARDIS, but it is much more accessible, and genuinely rewarding.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 19, 2010 at 11:25

Optimizing my social network

I’ve been working to better organize my online social network so as to make it more useful to me and to the people I know.

I use each social networking tool in a different way, and tailor the content and my connections accordingly. I don’t connect with all of the same people everywhere. I am particularly annoyed by social networks which abuse the word “friend” to mean something wholly different than it means in the rest of society. If I’m not someone’s “friend” on a certain website, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like them. It just means that the information I exchange with them fits better somewhere else.

Here is the arrangement I’ve ended up with:

  • If you just want to hear bits and pieces about what I’m up to, you can follow me on identi.ca, Twitter or FriendFeed. My identi.ca and Twitter feeds have the same content, though I check @-replies on identi.ca more often.
  • If you’re interested in the topics I write about in more detail, you can subscribe to my blog.
  • If you want to follow what I’m reading online, you can subscribe to my Google Reader feed.
  • If (and only if) we’ve worked together (i.e. we have worked cooperatively on a project, team, problem, workshop, class, etc.), then I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn. LinkedIn also syndicates my blog and Twitter.
  • If you know me “in real life” and want to share your Facebook content with me, you can connect with me on Facebook. I try to limit this to a manageable number of connections, and will periodically drop connections where the content is not of much interest to me so that my feed remains useful. Don’t take it personally (see the start of this post). Virtually everything I post on my Facebook account is just syndicated from other public sources above anyway. I no longer publish any personal content to Facebook due to their bizarre policies around this.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 18, 2010 at 17:28

Fix broken Android permissions by re-installing apps

I run the CyanogenMod derivative of Android on my G1, and somehow managed to get it into a state where it had withdrawn the security permissions from my installed applications. I think this happened when I attempted to upgrade the 1GB microSD to a 4GB one, but the phone failed to boot.

I first noticed the problem when trying to refresh in NewsRob would hang the application, and adb logcat showed:

W/dalvikvm( 540): threadid=3: thread exiting with uncaught exception (group=0x4001e170)
E/NewsRob ( 540): Caught the following exception:
E/NewsRob ( 540): java.lang.SecurityException: Neither user 10039 nor current process has android.permission.WAKE_LOCK.

NewsRob clearly had had this permission before, to prevent the phone from sleeping during a sync. The Manage Applications screen still showed that it did (“System tools: prevent phone from sleeping”). Watching adb logcat while the phone was booting showed what was going on, and that many other applications had the same problem:

W/PackageManager( 138): Not granting permission android.permission.INTERNET to package com.newsrob because it was previously installed without
W/PackageManager( 138): Not granting permission android.permission.WAKE_LOCK to package com.newsrob because it was previously installed without
W/PackageManager( 138): Not granting permission android.permission.ACCESS_NETWORK_STATE to package com.newsrob because it was previously installed without
W/PackageManager( 138): Not granting permission android.permission.VIBRATE to package com.newsrob because it was previously installed without
W/PackageManager( 138): Not granting permission android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE to package com.newsrob because it was previously installed without

/data/system/packages.xml, which seems to record which applications are installed and which permissions they have, showed:

<package name="com.newsrob" codePath="/data/app/com.newsrob.apk" system="false" ts="1264200476000" version="353" userId="10039" installer="com.google.android.feedback">
<sigs count="1">
<cert index="25" key="..." />
<perms />

i.e. the permissions block was empty. It should have looked more like this:

<item name="android.permission.VIBRATE" />
<item name="android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE" />
<item name="android.permission.ACCESS_NETWORK_STATE" />
<item name="android.permission.WAKE_LOCK" />
<item name="android.permission.INTERNET" />

I tried manually hacking it, and also moving and replacing the .apk file on the phone, but packages.xml always returned to this state. Maybe it’s not the master copy of that data.

What finally fixed it for me was to re-install the applications using the package manager, by running:

cd /data/app
for app in *.apk; do pm install -r $app; done

I hadn’t known about the pm command until then, and discovered it by accident when invoking an adb command told me about it. The phone chugged along for quite a while, but eventually re-installed all of the applications, and the problem was fixed.

Web searches showed that I was not the only person to find themselves in this predicament, and did not reveal an obvious solution, so I’m documenting mine here.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 31, 2010 at 12:28

Airplane etiquette


As I have most recently observed on my recent flights to New Zealand for linux.conf.au, it seems that many of my fellow travelers are unaware of this simple rule:

When standing up from your seat, do not use the back of the seat in front of you as a handhold unless this is a physical necessity for you. This is very disturbing to the person sitting there, who may be trying to sleep. Instead, bring your own seat forward and use the armrests.

Yes, I’m talking to you, 61J.

That is all.

Love, Matt

Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 16, 2010 at 20:49

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What “Britainthinks” of sexism

Photo of a billboard reading "Career women make bad mothers"
As I left the office yesterday, I passed a billboard at a bus stop near the Canonical office. In large, capital letters, it read “Career women make bad mothers”. It invites readers to “have their say” on a website called “Britainthinks!”, which I won’t dignify with a link. I say it stinks. Who on earth thought this would be acceptable?

Apparently, more than a few people took notice, as The Guardian reports that the ad will be withdrawn. According to the article, a representative from the agency responsible offered a non-apology, saying that “they were intended to spark a debate, and did not represent the opinion of the agency or the campaign organisers.” Whose opinion was it, then, and how did it end up all over London? (I saw a larger format version of the same billboard in a different location today) What must the meeting have been like where this originated? “Well, we thought about debating whether rich white men are poisoning the Earth, but decided it was better to go after working mothers instead. Sound good?”

This reminds me a bit of the BBC’s recent screwup, where they attempted to “spark debate” about whether gay people should be executed(!?), and then defended their actions as intentionally polarizing. The common pattern is disregard for the rights of a class of people, followed by blind excuses and justification. It’s no coincidence that the target groups are routinely subject to harassment by more privileged folk.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 9, 2010 at 21:42

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