Tag Archives: software

Overchoice

Earlier this week, I completed a work project that I had been managing for more than two years. 937 days from my first meeting to rollout to be precise. Any software project like this has a tail, but it felt good to actually have the thing completed and out in the world. The good feeling came more from the former than the latter, I think.

Whenever I finish a big project, I go through a list of things that I have accumulated over that period of time–personal projects and other things that I have put off doing for a lack of time. This inevitably leads to a period in which I flutter randomly between items on my list, wanting to do all of them at once, and not making progress on any of them. Alvin Toffler called this “overchoice.” I’ve also heard it referred to as “analysis paralysis” but I think I like overchoice better because it accurately describes the feelings it raises in me.

Software projects tend to have crunch periods as you get closer to rollout. It’s hard to describe what’s involved in these intense periods of work to people not involved in software rollout. I often think of these periods as the loathsome part of moving where all of the big stuff–furniture, televisions, books, etc.–is packed away and ready to move and all that’s left is the stuff in the kitchen drawers, the top shelves of closets, and the attic. It always seems to take longer to deal with that stuff than everything else put together. It makes for long hours and over the last month or so, 60 hours weeks were not unheard of. (My peak was 68-1/2 hours in one week.)

It meant that no only was this weekend a 3-day holiday weekend, but it was my first days with no work (weekends included) since sometime in May. I would have an entire 3 days off–what would I do with my time?

More often than not, we are on vacation this week. We’ve spent many Fourth of July weekends in small town coastal Maine. Two years ago, we spent our Fourth in Nashville, Tennessee as part of a 10-day road trip we took. This year, things are different. We are home for the weekend and while Virginia is doing alright compared with many states, people are still appropriately cautious and so things are a little subdued. I thought this would be a perfect time to flip through my list of personal projects and figure out what I wanted to work on. I took care of a few of the smaller ones (WD-40 the sliding glass door, replace a few lightbulbs around the house) and then looked at the two big projects I have been ignoring for some time–in many cases–years.

  1. A unified way for capturing notes and annotations from my reading. You’d think that by now, we’d have a standardized system that allowed us to highlight and annotate any text we find in electronic form, whether a Kindle book, a magazine , newspaper, website, etc. No such standard exists and, indeed, some tools, like Kindle, make it particularly difficult to programmatically extract your notes and highlights. I’ve thought about ways of building a system for myself that would do that–a kind of standardized digital commonplace book.
  2. A personal digital archive of all of my papers (digital and actual). A lot of this is in Evernote and I haven’t ruled out building a curated archive in Evernote. But I’m not fond of the way Evernote currently presents this data, so I thought I’d investigate what it would take to build a local searchable archive myself.

I got to thinking about both these projects this week. The ideas began to fly, and I began messing around with some of the technology I planned to use to implement these systems. I spent hours testing out little concepts here and there. At the end of the day, however, I’d made no real progress and I was worn out and frustrated. Two things occurred to me:

  1. I had a serious case of overchoice. In addition to the two projects above, I am teaching myself some new technology required to implement these projects the way I want, which itself spawns off many little sub-projects. And there were other smaller things on my list that I was ignoring.
  2. There was one project I was avoiding. Steven Pressfield would call this losing out to resistance. I was focusing on other things in order to avoid the one thing I should be doing: writing.

Once I realized what I was doing, I felt better. I’d make my focus writing. It’s not that I don’t want to do the other projects, but that I want to write and have been avoiding it because it sometimes is hard to do. It is certainly harder (for me at least) than managing a complicated software project. But it is also much more satisfying. I have worried about my writing lately: the stories that I have been writing or want to write are not the kind of stories I used to write. I no longer think of the science fiction magazines as the right market for me–but I don’t know what the right market is. I worry about the lack of writing I’ve done here on the blog, and whether or not what I do write is of interest to anyone but me. Recent comments and emails have perked me up on this concern and that makes me happy.

Knowing that my big rollout would happen at the end of June, I told myself that beginning on July 1, I’d beginning writing in earnest again. I’d try to write every day and see what I could manage to produce over the second half of the year. July 1st and 2nd drifted by without a word from my at the keyboard. Finally, on July 3, this post is my return to the world of writing. I’m pretty sure I have the capacity and energy to be prolific over the next 6 months. The question is: will what I write be any good?

For that we’ll have to wait and see.

Evernote

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I am beginning to play around with Evernote as a tool to store all of my notes and to-do lists in the cloud and have everything easily searchable and at my fingertips no matter where I am. So far, I’m pretty impressed, and it’s no surprise, since Evernote was one of the 25 best applications in MacWorld this year.  (Scrivener 2.0 was another.) A while back I mentioned how I have gone paperless at work and in 2011, I plan on doing the same at home. Evernote Premium (which is what I am using) goes a long way to making this possible. I can upload PDFs and their content is searchable, even if the notes in them are handwritten. I can tag notes and provide all kinds of meta-data to improve the searching. I can clip articles from the web and store them. There are lots of nice features and plug-ins. I’m still in the early experimental stages but once I get going with this, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Why Microsoft is brilliant

I have a ton of documents to work on today in preparation for a design review this afternoon. Most of the documents are Visio documents (for those not familiar with Visio, it’s a Microsoft tool for creating specific types of drawings, database diagrams, flowcharts, UML, etc.). Several documents are in Word and a few are in Excel. Whenever I open these documents, I feel dismally antiquated. I feel like one of those fellows still using a TV remote control that’s connected to the TV by a wire. Why?

Because each time I open Word or Excel or Visio, I see the following flash on my screen:

Visio 2003
Word 2003
Excel 2003

Yes, I am using a product that is nearly 5 years old to develop plans for cutting-edge software. Sure, it’s just a naming convention, but it’s a brilliant naming convention on Microsoft’s part. Each time I see that 2003 flash on the screen, I am reminded just how far behind the curve I really am. It’s like making fun of an ad for Cialis while knowing full well that you take the drug every day. It reminds you of the technological impotency with which you are forced to live because the company is slow to upgrade to Office 2007.

But why do I feel I have to be on the latest and greatest? Because Microsoft was genius enough to label their software the same way model year cars are labeled, so that I would feel compelled to have the newest model the moment it arrived on the showroom floor.

That I don’t have the latest and greatest makes me feel like I’m not keeping up with the Jones’, that I’m not with it, that I’m a dinosaur.

God bless Microsoft and their brilliant marketing scheme!

Extra line breaks removed

Microsoft Outlook has had, for several versions now, a feature whereby it will remove “extra” line breaks when displaying messages. I have no idea why it does this. It seems to serve no purpose. Here we are at a point in the history of our planet when forests are disappearing, when ice caps are shrinking, when animals like tigers are on the verge of extinction. And Microsoft Outlook is doing its part by “conserving” extra line breaks.

Microsoft programmers: line breaks are digital. You can make as many of them as you want without harming the environment (directly). There is no need to conserve them. Be free with them. Be generous. Stop trying to reformat my email messages!!

Thank you.

(Ha! I’ve just “wasted” three line breaks. So there!)

Bookpedia

For several years, I have managed my book collection using Booxter for the Macintosh. It has been a great program, but there were also a few limitations that bothered me: (1) a lack of more advanced but common fields (such as awards); (2) no custom fields for tracking information not captured by the system; (3) no good way to maintain data integrity; (4) limited export to web features.

Today, I found a great Mac-based book collection software called Bookpedia. I spent 10 minutes reading through it’s feature list and bought the $18 license on the spot. It’s got everything that Booxter has, plus everything that I want that Booxter is missing. You can built customized export templates. It’s even got a feature to assign a book in your collection a unique ID, something very useful if exporting the data and manipulating it programmatically. It’s also got lots of great visual stats. It even has a template for exporting your lists to an iPhone.

Overall, I’m very impressed with it. I’ve imported my Booxter library (which is several months out of date, which is one of the reasons I was looking into this to begin with) and I really like the features.

Scrivner

I came across this cool writing program called Scrivner, which I am trying for 30 days to see how well it really works. I was interested in it because it has the index card “story-boarding” feature built in. (I use index cards extensively for my stories.) It focuses on content and it exports to various manuscript formats easily.

I’ve got two stories that I’m working on which I am going to try and finish within the next 30 days and I am going to use Scrivner for both. If it works out well, then I’ll license a copy.

Geeks I admire

Working in the computer world, as I have for the last 13 years, and specifically within the world of software development, one becomes familiar with a subculture of people whose notoriety is limited to hardened geeks. These people have affected (usually for the better) the world of computer science in positive ways, sometimes revolutionizing entire technologies or industries. At heart, they are geeks, and I thought it would be interested to list those geeks I admire.

Read the list

BBEdit upgrade

I finally got around to buying the upgrade to BBEdit 8.5.1 this afternoon. For owners of BBEdit 8.2.x, the upgrade was only $30. I’ve skimmed it since downloading it and I have to say that it is the best upgrade I’ve seen since I’ve owned BBEdit. In fact…

It is now at the point where I would consider moving all of my writing to BBEdit, and in fact, use BBEdit for everything that I can, except email (I like Mail.app). The new interface is nice and clean, and they’ve added two key features which will make the switch easier:

  1. Soft line wraps can be turned on in the preferences now
  2. It’s got “check spelling as you type” which is very useful to me

Some background on word processing:

I’ve always been a fan of text editors over word processors. If you don’t know the difference, don’t worry too much about it. In high school I used WordPerfect and in college, I switched to Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS, which is to this day my favorite all-time word processor. When I started my job, I learned vi and emacs, and I came to really appreciate emacs (it’s an acquired taste–and another great thing about BBEdit is it’s emacs emulation mode so I don’t have to learn new keystrokes). I’ve never been fully comfortable with more recent versions of Word or other word processors because the emphasis seems much more on format than on content and managing text.

I like text editors because the data is stored as plain text and can be manipulated by various other programs easily. I also like editing raw HTML and editors like BBEdit make this very easy. BBEdit integrates seamlessly with CVS revision control software. And with its new capabilities, I think it has everything I need to make the switch. Back when I used Word 5.5, it has a simple macro language which I made extensive use of. I had macros for lecture notes, for stories, for just about everything. BBEdit is scriptable, but also supplies tons of Automator functions, which means I can automate a lot of my text manipulation.

I would even use it for taking notes in meetings, because my “meta” note-taking markups are easily readable by a script that could, say, capture action items. Unfortunately, BBEdit is only made for the Macintosh and I don’t use my Mac at work. It seems strange that there appears to be nothing that compares on the PC. (I use Visual SlickEdit at work, but that lacks many useful features that BBEdit has.)

The toughest thing will be formatting stories. There are very specific manuscript formats and this is where Microsoft Word is useful. I can see two options. If I really want to move away from Word, I can write a script that converts my text manuscript to LaTeX and generate PDFs in manuscript format. Or I can do some automator stuff, combined with Word macros to have Word format my text file in manuscript format.

I’m looking forward to skimming the new user guide to see what other new features are available.

The Model

I don’t use Quicken or Microsoft Money for keeping track of my finances. Since 1997, I use some software that I developed myself and which I call “The Model” for doing this and it has worked very well for me in all of that time.

I am about to start down the road of doing the first major revision to this software in several years, adding in some new features and making some efficiency enhancments.

Details on the history of this software

“Next generation”

“Next generation” is a phrase that annoys me. I am reading the documentation to some new software (yes, I actually read the documentation) that I want to use and in the first sentence the software is described as “an innovative, next generation application…”

What exactly does “next generation” mean? I’d like to see “this generation” and “next generation” applications side-by-side in order to see the differences better.

Indeterminite and stateless

Those were the watchwords of my day at work today. One of the projects on which I am working involves integrating two systems that don’t talk to each other. One system is an off-the-shelf meeting room reservation system; the other product is a tasking application–a helpdesk trouble ticket system. Integration went pretty well, until a few weeks ago when I found it difficult to update the tasking system when a meeting room changed in the meeting system. The reason for this is that only viable method for doing this is through an “indeterminate” or “stateless” mechanism.

Today, I more or less caved in and went with a simpler solution. It’s a little more painful for people who will be servicing the tasks creating by the system, and it is certainly a tactical solution, but it will work.

And yet, I feel defeated. There should be a way of making this work the way I want it to work, but I can’t get enough information about how the meeting application works to figure out what that way is. I’ve read through thousands of lines of their code–it is literally scattered about my office–but I just can’t figure it out. As a completist, I feel frustrated. As someone who is working toward building a system that all people who use it will be happy with, I feel like I’ve let some people down. But given budget constraints and time limits, there’s not much more I can do at this point.

I’m going to try finishing up “The Graveyard Shift” tonight. But I need to relax, wind down a bit first.