Website, Reboot

General ramblings about web coding, life and other stuff

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Mystery Date Letter

(Inspired by https://reddit.com/r/writingprompts)

Initially it seemed like a hoax, or a terrible joke. The news took several months to figure it out, piece by piece. The envelopes came in slowly over a year or more and no one really took note of it and most people ignored it. Many initially threw them away. An afterthought. After all, there was only some random date printed in perfectly centered, large solid black serif text on high-quality paper. It was delivered in a fine envelope with the owner’s address printed neatly in the same font, but smaller, and a postage stamp from the recipient’s own country. The date was always in the future.

There were rumors, to be sure. Urban legends that seemed to spread faster than normal. Chatting at the proverbial water cooler speculating what the date meant. Even Snopes.com even had a page devoted to it, but the rating was listed as “mixed” and for a long while there was no good information, no consensus and for a while people forgot about it.

But the way the internet works, people began to come together with bits of information and supposition and anecdotal evidence. Websites spring up, forums were opened, even a subreddit, /r/mysterydateletter, was created to discuss and speculate.

It was in these forums, in the news aggregation and analysis that bits and pieces were put together.

An elderly retired wife and grandmother whose husband had just passed away. When caring for a loved one with Alzheimers, many things tend to fall by the wayside. She hadn’t had time to open the envelope and while going through all the old mail after his passing, she opened his envelope. It was the date he died. It made the local news.

The girlfriend of a college man killed in a freak accident while skiing found his letter days later. She posted it on Reddit.

A father who lost his family in a terrible car crash. All their letters had the same date except his. That made the national news.

It was no longer speculation. Data began pouring in. People who had died in the past months had received their letters and when they were discovered again, the date corresponded to the date of their death. Initially most people rejected the theory that the date was the date you were going to die. But the evidence, a deluge pouring in every day was unstoppable and undeniable. A hundred and fifty thousand people die every day across the earth. Even five percent of reports were enough to convince the world that this was real. That suddenly everyone alive between February 2016 and June 2017 knew on exactly what day they were going to die.

That’s when things changed. There was, of course, panic and denial, for sure. Some people ran, trying to outrun and hide from their fate, but they were inevitably found days or weeks later, some with the paper still clutched in their hand. Few people could believe that this was happening. Many wealthy people tried to hire the most expensive and prestigious doctors to be with them on their day, to keep them alive to cheat death. It became an niche industry, for a while, and a lot of doctors became very wealthy themselves. But it was futile.

Things in the world started to change. Wars and conflict continued, yes, but they didn’t seem to have the morbid enthusiasm that they used to have. The news once reported that an entire village in war-torn Africa got letters with the same date. That was before we’d solved the riddle. That was the day their entire village was killed. The news also reported that knowing the date of their death also gave villagers the courage to defeat their would-be murderers and bring peace back to their country. This was repeated again and again. How do you defeat someone that knows they can’t be killed?

Three years on, however, those types of news stories were few and far between. Conflict among warring factions for the myriad of reasons that humans fight among themselves had dropped to an all-time low. Possibly in all of human history there had never been such a quiet period when it comes to strife and war. Even common events, such as deadly car crashes, were replaced as many people chose to spend their last day with family and friends in a sort of “deathday” party.

Instead, people rededicated themselves to creative endeavors. The arts were flourishing. The amount of literature, theater, and music being created was only matched by that of the Renaissance. In three hundred years, science had never made such strides. Fusion energy, quantum computing, and already the first shipments of supplies for the first base on Mars. All within three years!

And those whose dates were near learned to give the remainder of their lives to the rest of the world, to leave a kind and generous mark on the world. Those whose dates were far in the future learned quickly to not live too reckless a life. Terrible injuries could still hold back a long life, but knowing you have seven decades to live gave people the security in knowing they could do much good with their lives.

The world had indeed changed.

You turned off the television after watching the news and smiled. It was full of positive stories coming out of the your city and country and all the good that was happening. There was only a brief 90-minute segment on a plane crash that killed two people. Both had known it would happen, of course, but not how. There’s still an amount of surprise when two healthy people who live in different parts the country have the same date. Usually it’s coincidence, isn’t it?

You get up from the sofa and walk back into your home office. You’ve been thinking lately about what it all means and where it came from and after three and a half years, you still don’t have any real idea.

You open up the filing drawer and the folder named Personal Info and draw out your own letter. Dated and stamped, just like everyone else’s. Once again, probably for the hundredth time, you pull out the letter from the envelope, feel the fine paper under your fingers, unfold it and read it. It hasn’t changed.

The page is still blank.

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The Epic Train Trip

I’ve always loved trains. There something about them that I can’t pin down. Maybe it’s the little boy in me that still has a fascination with big machines. Maybe it’s the romance surrounding trains and train travel. Maybe it’s that I consider trains to be a more civilized form of travel as compared to planes, where I feel like cattle in a tin can, or driving, where it can take many hours of paying attention while driving to get anywhere. So I’ve always had it in my head to take sine dirty of long train trip across the country.

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Last summer, two of my good friends, John and Charlotte, got married. While there, my wife and I ran into an old friend, Kristin, from the JoCo Cruise, who is an avid traveler. I don’t know how we got onto the topic, but I must have mentioned that I wanted to go on a long train ride somewhere, like The Trans-Siberian Railroad. Kristin and I talked in the following weeks and decided that Siberia was a bit much and settled on Canada. It was relatively easy to get to (Toronto or Vancouver, airfare isn’t too bad) and it was a good enough length to not be excessively long: Siberia is seven nights, Canada is four. In March we picked our dates, destination, and booked the train: Toronto to Vancouver in early September. It was a go! My wife wasn’t interested in spending four days on the train, so she would stay home. We, the travelers, asked our newly married friends if they wanted to come along and they said yes, so it was a party! Epic Train Trip Epic Train Trip

As the months went by, I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Toronto to see some friends who live around there and to not have to rush to the train station and to get a chance to see a city that I’ve only ever briefly visited. Kristin was planning to go to Montreal and Quebec City, buy those plans fell through, so she spent three days with me in Toronto.

My first impression of the location immediately surrounding the hotel was one of New York, with small oddball shops with the roll-down grates to secure the store at night. Food places, electronics stores, luggage stores, a few gift shops. And oh, look a strip club. And another. This was the more interesting part of the city. At no time did I ever feel unsafe, however. My second impression of the city was it is big. The last new city I’ve been to recently was Portland and its tiny be comparison. On Sunday we walked upwards of 15 miles and barely made a dent in what we traversed.

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On our first day in Toronto, we decided to walk around and explore the city. It was hot and humid for such a northern city, a heat wave they called it. Regardless, we found our way down to (insert park name here) and saw lake Ontario, a cool, old, locked (yes, I checked) lighthouse, and not one but two different ferries! Suffice to say, we did a lot of walking that day. And the next and even some more on Tuesday.Toronto is a pretty sprawling city, and there’s no strict delineation between downtown and not downtown.

Epic Train Trip

Epic Train Trip

Other things that stand out are the St Lawrence Market (who needs three cheesemongers? I do!), the Distillery District and a labor day market they were having, and just general people-watching in Dundas Square near our hotel.

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The food was good there, too. We found a great ramen place and went there twice for dinner. You know our good when there’s almost always a long out the door and everyone there speaks Japanese. Epic Train Trip

The other place that stands out is an Ethiopian restaurant/coffee house that we found on yelp. It was closed on labor day, but we went back on Tuesday and it was so worth the wait. The lady who owns the place doesn’t have a menu. She just asked about how much heat we might like in the food and prepared whatever she had that day. We ended up with pickled beets, caramelized carrots, lentils, greens, egg and probably something I’m forgetting. It was amazing. I felt like I was a guest in her home while at the same time she seemed surprised and humbled that we were even there. To drink she had Ethiopian tea and Turkish coffee, among others, both of which were delicious.

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Then it came time for the train. Well, not really. We received word that the train was going to be two hours late. Then three hours late. Then ten hours late. Via Rail put us up overnight in the nearest hotel since we already checked out of our own hotel. Turns out the closest hotel was there Fairmont. Niiice. We had a drink or two in the Library Bar there, which was good, and it was also paid for by the train. And then we went to sleep to be up early to get our very late train. CAM03186

Traveling in the “sleeper plus” class on the train afforded us a few benefits. The first was access to the business lounge at Union Station in Toronto. Since the train was late, and we missed breakfast on the train, they had a continental breakfast in the business lounge. Which also had free WiFi. Finally we boarded the train. Woo! And then we say for an hour. Yep. We were now 11 hours late.

Toronto Union Station

At this point I was of two minds. On one hand, I hope they would not make up time because the journey was the point of the trip. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to miss having dunner with my friends when we arrived in Vancouver. In the end, we got a little of both. The train made up about 5 hours, so we arrived in Vancouver in the early afternoon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The train was the longest I’ve been on. It was 24 cars long, not counting the two locomotives. Most of the cars were sleeper cars with cabins of varying sizes and berths that converted to seats in the daytime. Mixed in there were a pair of luxury sleeper cars, two dining cars, two activity/observation cars and the bar/lounge at the end of the train. Our berths and cabin were near the front of the sleeper plus section of the train. The economy passengers had three cars of seats at the very front of the train and a single activity/observation car. But they couldn’t enter the rest of the train. I have mixed feelings about this, the separation of classes. But at the same time, I got the impression that very few people take economy class across the country.

Epic Train Trip

Epic Train Trip

The amenities were nice. The two daytime seats in our berth seated for people comfortably, and if requested, the staff could put a table between for reading, activities or games. Or you could put your feet up, gaze out the window at the scenery outside. During dinner (I’ll get to the food in a bit) our attendant would convert the seats into an upper and lower berth. The to section would fold down which contained both mattresses. The seats would fold flat and a matters would be placed on top to create the lower berth. A ladder then hooked onto the side to get to the upper berth. Both were quite comfortable, though the upper berth has no window at all. The heavy curtains blocked out most of the light and the motion and noise of the train helped to lull me to sleep.

Lower Berth

Upper Berth

The activity/observation car is sort of divided into three sections. The front section had booths with tables with a chess/checker boards printed on them. From here, the stairs leading to the observation Deck went up. The middle section was two floors. Below was the kitchen/galley and above was the observation Deck. The third section was more tables, but these have cafe-style chairs. Again, a place for games, activities, and even watching movies that they played in the evenings after dinner.

Activity Car

Finally at the very back of the train was another sort of car, similar to the activity car, but this one had a proper bar, an observation Deck and a lounge at the very back of the train with windows all around. This was the Bullet Lounge and though it was nice, we didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a long walk. From our car (about #8 or #9) we had to walk through fourteen cars to get to the end. And nine of them were sleeper cars. All the same. Like you were stuck in some sort of sleeper-car nightmare. Or a national lampoon movie (“look kids, it’s Big Ben! “)

Bullet Lounge

On the train were two dining cars. They are unable to seat everyone at once, so we ate in shifts. This was vaguely reminiscent of dining at my grandmother’s for thanksgiving when there were way more people than the mere ten seats at the dining room table. On the train, we opted for the most popular second seating, which was around 6:30pm. The dining tables were, due to the nature of being on a train, a bit smaller than we americans are used to. Elbows were bumped easy, so it’s a good thing that the four of us were dining together every night. The tables were well appointed and the food was excellent. Every night we had a choice of four entrees and soup and/or salad and then usually a choice of two desserts. I’m not going to go into details of what we ate, but everything was quite pleasing.

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IMG_9325IMG_9398And of course the view out of the very large windows at the tables was excellent. That’s one thing we could always count on, something interesting to see outside of the train. We traveled through four distinct terrains. The first was most of Ontario, which looked to be a bit hilly, lots of green and birch trees, and many, many lakes. The second was the prairie which stretched on for as far as the eye could see. In some cases there were rolling hills as one would expect, but lots and lots of sky. (Speaking of which, for the most part, the weather was good during the whole trip. No rain, not that I would have minded, and only some clouds.) Then came the Rocky Mountains, most of which we missed due to the delays of the train, and finally, on the way out of the rockies, we followed a river valley all the way into Vancouver. It was definitely almost desert-ish in places, and very rocky. As I mentioned, we didn’t get to see much of the Rockies, despite having attempted to make up time throughout the trip across the country. We just couldn’t do it. Since we kept getting bumped by the freight trains, we kept losing time. So we started the climb into the mountains at dusk and didn’t really get to see anything. On the other hand, we did get to see the trip down the Thomson and Fraser rivers into Vancouver, which normally happens at night. The highlight of that was getting to see what’s called Hell’s Gate, which is a narrowing of the Fraser river where the width is only about 35 meters or 115 feet wide. It’s quite a spectacular view and the train even slowed down so we could all see it. Perhaps they were making up for us missing the mountains. IMG_9378IMG_9464IMG_9408IMG_9468Our arrival in Vancouver was ultimately six hours late, which means we gained five hours as we crossed the country. The bulk of that time was achieved after we passed the mountains, at which point there were two complete rail tracks, one for northbound trains and one for southbound trains. Despite the schedule having extra padding built into it (that is, there may be four hours on the schedule between cities, they can actually cover that ground in an hour if the way is clear) we simply didn’t make up the time. I wasn’t complaining, really. This time, the journey was the destination. CAM03368Finally, I should make a note about the staff. They are simply great. They are friendly and helpful and pleasant and very good at their jobs. Regardless of whether they are the folks in the business lounge in Toronto helping us arrange a hotel room, or our cabin attendants who worked every morning and night to raise and lower our berths (which take about 20 minutes each!), or the engineer we spoke to who drives the train between Edmonton and Jasper six times a week, or the man in charge, the service manager, who was very friendly and happy to talk about everything train-related, they were all great and I look forward to hopefully seeing them again the next time I take the train. IMG_9459

And I will. Maybe in the winter. It was that fun. But this time I’ll go from Vancouver to Toronto.

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One month of exercise

So it’s time to change my life. It’s October 1. I want to be healthier. I currently weigh 216 pounds, which is the most I have ever weighed, and according to the health assessment I did last month at work, I burn 1870 calories just sitting on my butt and I’m something like . To this end, I have

  • Restarted my account at MyFitnessPal to track my food intake
  • Cut out sugar and white bread as much as I can
  • Bought a new bicycle to bike to/from the Metro on mornings where it’s not raining
  • Added a pedometer app to my phone to count my steps with a goal of 10,000 steps a day
  • Installed the 30 Days app on my phone to challenge me every day for strength
  • Committed to writing a blog post every week

If you want to join in, find me on MyFitnessPal as cajunjoel. See you on Monday!

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In support of Zoë Keating

I’m writing this on my phone because it’s on my mind and it needs to be said.


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Zoë Keating
was a performer on JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 in 2013. I had not heard of her before the cruise announcement, so I opted to not listen to any of her music before the cruise and instead enjoy the experience of hearing her for the first time in the shared experience that is JCCC. (If you’ve been on this cruise then you know what I’m talking about.)

The result was no less than I expected from JoCo Cruise Crazy. Zoë is talented and downright amazing. Her music is unique and magical and I enjoyed every moment of that performance.

Later in the cruise, I was volunteering to check badges at the doors of another performance and as things got quiet out front, I went inside where I could watch the show and still see the doors. Back there near me was Zoë Keating and her husband and their toddler, a child at that age where they want to roam around and explore their environment. It made sense that they were at the back of the hall, enjoying the performance of one of her colleagues while still attending to the newfound wanderlust of their child. I didn’t intrude, but I watched from afar, as it were. It may be a commonplace thing to do for a patent, but to me I found it endearing. I enjoyed their interactions and probably smiled at them once or twice. It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.

Today, Zoë Keating and her family find themselves in a crisis. Her husband has recently been diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer. Cancer sucks, I agree, but this is a bad situation.

My husband Jeff has been sick with a mysterious illness for several months. It’s not so mysterious any more. My man, my best friend, my soul mate, my partner-in-crime for 16 years has cancer. All. Fucking. Over. Lungs, brain, liver, bones.   Read more…

//twitter.com/zoecello/status/471401598384893952

Which brings me to my point…

I’m asking you to support Zoë Keating. Check out her music. Buy a song, buy an album. She is a professional musician, so this is her livelihood. The tours and concerts and album she had plans for this year are all on hold while she is with her husband. I promise you won’t regret adding her music to your collection.

Thanks.

 

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Silverlight Getting it Wrong

It’s monday. This is a rant.

I work in Google Chrome, it’s my browser of choice. Today, I got yet another popup reminding me to update Microsoft Silverlight. So I said to myself, what the hell, I’ll update it finally, despite the fact that I see nothing horribly wrong with my browsing experience. (N.B. Our shop uses a Microsoft backend, including heavy use of Sharepoint.)

So after clicking through to update Silverlight, I am presented with this.

Get Silverlight | Microsoft Silverlight

I think I stared at it a full minute before figuring out that I had to click the link for the “Current Version”. Current Version implies to me that it’s the version that I have installed on my computer. I had to compare the version numbers to see that the “Current” version was really the NEW version I needed to install.

Every other “Update this software now” installer I’ve used either A) started downloading the software immediately or B) at least provides a big bright UPDATE NOW button to send you on your way.

And people wonder why Microsoft is fading. They can’t get something this simple right. This smells like design by committee. Or design by people who don’t use their own software.

I think that everything else was just confusing the matter. Looking further, I have a 9×10 chart (NINETY different elements!) to look at to determine which version and OS Silverlight works on. As I said, I am on Chrome. I’m also on OS X. So if when I dug deep enough into this chart, I found that Silverlight is not compatible with Chrome on OS X 10.5.7+.

But wait, Silverlight was capable of telling me I needed to upgrade it, so SOMETHING was running on Chrome. But apparently it’s not compatible. Or maybe it’s no longer compatible. But compatible enough to harass me to upgrade every damn time I went to my company’s intranet homepage.

So, in summary, I have been badgered into updating software that is infuriatingly vague to install, but won’t provide me with the features it’s supposed to bring to my internet experience. Way to go, Microsoft.

At the very least, I hope that upgrading it will stop it from ever bugging me to upgrade.

UPDATE (Dec 4):

After updating Remember the big “INSTALL NOW” button I was looking for? It’s actually created with Silverlight. So if it’s not running because it needs to be updated, you don’t see it and the page isn’t confusing. I guess a PNG is too difficult to create at Microsoft.

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On vacation

I find I have too much on my plate to keep this blog up to date with interesting things. So this is my official “I’m taking a break until I can re-prioritize things.” I hate doing this and I will not wear my “busyness” as a badge of honor as if my life is somehow more meaningful because I have a lot of stuff going on, but something is slipping and this is it. Until next time, take care.

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Thoughts on Running

Run for your Lives logoI don’t know how it came up, or what conversation it was in, but I was sort of half-challenged to run a Run For Your Lives 5K zombie run in June.

Me? Running? Unheard of. I’ve always felt that I was never a good runner. I have weird things with my knees and problems with my feet. Running would be a bad idea.

Also, my loathing of running goes back to high school when we had to run around the track and I could barely make it a quarter mile without practically falling over. I wasn’t an overweight child, I just wasn’t athletic. I now realize that the coaches in high school had it wrong. You can’t just drop kids onto the track and expect them to run a half mile without any training.

I got an app on my new-to-me used smartphone and started with the Couch-to-5K plan. The first week, was pretty straightforward. Hey, this isn’t so easy. A treadmill cushions the ankles and knees and I have a shower and gym at work. Pretty nice when it’s 30 degrees outside.

Now that it’s warmer, I’ve been running outside. I just started week five, I’m all “Hey, I’m running! Holy crap, I never thought I could do this!” Of course, I’m still in training and taking audio cues from a disembodied computer voice from my phone, but it’s something. It’s almost fun. I find myself getting into “the zone” sometimes, where I am not concerned with how far I have left to go. I’m definitely getting the sense that this is mind-over-muscle. In some ways, I am working a part of my psyche that has never really had this kind of workout. It feels good.

Couch to 5K logo

I think I’m hitting my first challenge, though. Today I hit the treadmill with the symptoms of a cold caused by the insanely high pollen counts. Lung capacity is reduced, so I didn’t quite make my three intervals of 5 minutes each. I’ll have to repeat that again.

So far I’m enjoying how I feel having exercised. Overall I feel a bit stronger and a bit more accomplished at doing something I never thought I could do. Whether I lose my “brains” to a horde of “zombies” is still up for grabs, there’s hope that I will survive the run and obstacle course in June.

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Solving the Email Problem

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You have an email problem. So do I. We all do. We get too much of it and we don’t know how to handle it. We sit down at our desk and see an inbox of hundreds of emails, maybe even thousands, and we despair. It’s too overwhelming. Too much to deal with. How do you get through that mountain?

I hope to be able to help you. It’s a simple system and I’ve done it for 10+ years. I used to get a few hundred emails a day. I still get over a hundred a day now, but my inbox usually hovers between 10 and 20 messages. Right now, I’m at 12, but mostly because I haven’t processed them yet.

It’s important to remember that reading email is not your job. It’s certainly part of your job, but producing widgets (or code, or reports, or whatever) is your job. The goal is to reduce the amount of time you spend mucking around in email. Is “Reading and responding to email in a timely manner” part of your job description or performance plan? I didn’t think so… :)

So here we go.

Getting Started

First, don’t look at your email as it comes in. The popups, the notifications, the “You’ve got mail!” alerts. Turn them off. Seriously. Go do that right now. I’ll wait.

Ok, done? Look! The world hasn’t ended. You don’t know if there’s something urgent to respond to! Oh no! In all reality, if it were truly urgent, someone would call you. Or send you an instant message. Or direct message you on twitter. Or something. Generally, the email can wait a half hour or an hour. (We’ll get back to urgent messages later.)

The reason for turning off the notifications is to turn off the distraction so you can actually work. Because the constant checking of email really does get in the way, doesn’t it? Slows you down. Saps your attention. Distracts you from the thought processing needed to write that report, code that module, update that content. (By the way, the same goes for twitter, facebook, google chat, etc. Turn those off, too, if you want to work.)

Enjoy the blissful focus. Put on some music even, knowing that your trusty mail program, whatever it may be, will store your emails reliably until you, and only you, decide to read them. Because checking your messages as they come in is allowing someone else to dictate the flow of your day.

The Overview

Clock-iconThe general process goes like this: set aside two or three times a day (no more than this) to sit down and process your email. I’ll get into processing in a moment. You may also choose to check your email once an hour should you think you might get some truly urgent, business critical message, but when you do check, you’re only checking. You’re not processing. You’re not acting. You’re only checking. If it’s not urgent, it sits until your next processing time. When you’re done, close or hide your mail program.

When to process? For me it ends up being mid-morning and mid-afternoon.  Maybe 9:30 or so and 3:30-ish. These are flexible times but generally I process my email twice a day and I look at it roughly once an hour otherwise. Since you’re only processing twice a day you could even close your email program! (or gmail window) I know! It’s a crazy thought! I can’t tell you how much work I’ve gotten done when I’ve accidentally had my email program completely closed.

The Processing

Here’s where the fun begins. Processing your email means reading it and making a decision. Try to do this in an uninterrupted manner. Deciding what to do with a message means a bit of focus and you don’t want too many distractions.

My experience has shown that my email comes in three forms. Yours probably does too.

  1. Something you need to do.
  2. Something you need to remember.
  3. Something you need to read but not remember.

That’s it. Each message will fall under one of these three headings. Let’s look at them in detail, starting from the bottom.

Also, process your emails from the oldest to the newest. If you always start with the newest, the old ones tend to not get any love from you and may stagnate. This will account for when you are out of the office for a day or even a week. The oldest things will not get forgotten. And believe me when I say that you can use this process after a week-long vacation. You may have 400 emails to process and it may take you two hours, but it will work.

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#3 is the easiest. It’s a funny article someone sent you or a notification about that bake sale where they always have the yummy chocolate chip cookies. But you don’t really need to remember it, so you can delete it. Read it, delete it. Boom. Done. Gone. One less message to worry about. (If that bake sale needs a calendar entry to remind you, this message is a #1, not a #3.)

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#2 is requires a little more explanation. This type of message is something you might need to refer to in the future. An article related to a project you’re working on. Some instructions for logging into that website that you’ll need from time to time.

There is some setup work is required on your part for these messages. You must set up some folders (or the equivalent) in which to move and store your messages. For me, it’s often broken into the projects I’m working on that year. I tend to create folders (in OS X Mail) as I need them and based on whether I think that I will have more messages to add as the year goes on. (We’ll talk about the “this year” idea later.)

I’m writing this in April, so since January I have created 14 project folders and one “Miscellaneous” folder for things that aren’t project-related but I do want to remember.

What’s the point of all these folders? Well, first they are all searchable. But you can also search within a folder for emails related to only that project. Regardless, it’s not always helpful to have one giant folder containing all 5,000 messages that you’ve saved. There have been times where a search has failed me and I’ve had to go through and find the message by hand. Doing this in a folder containing a few hundred is much easier than a few thousand.

Remember that for all the emails that fall under #2 you haven’t actually had to do anything with them. It’s just read and file. Read and file.

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#1 is the most tricky because these require some more decision making above and beyond whether it’s #1, #2 or #3.

(Note: The process I describe in #1 is a small part of the GTD process taught by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.)

Read the message. If it’s something you can complete in 2 minutes or less, do it now. Go ahead. Just knock it out. Send the reply. Make the setting on the website. Fix that typo in the content. Make that calendar entry. But the rule is less than 2 minutes. If there’s the possibility that it will be more than that, don’t do it now. Let it wait. When you’re done with the 2-minute task, reply only if necessary (hah! Does the reply take less than 2 minutes?) and file or delete. (Because once you’ve done the task, it’s now a #2 or #3 message so you can decide to keep it or not.)

If it’s more than 2 minutes, then it needs to go somewhere. This is where the GTD process really comes into play. I’m not going to get into it here, but the core of GTD is to have a todo-list sort of thing that you trust to keep you on top of the things you need to do. Since the email message is something you need to do, make an entry in your todo list and then file the email message.

Above all else:

Do Not Use Your Inbox As Your ToDo List

This is crucial. If you use your inbox as your todo list, then it’s a todo list that other people can add to. This is the path to crazy land. By consciously moving the item to your own todo list, you are making the choice to take on that task. If you don’t want add it to your list, then you can reply to the message, discuss an alternate solution, or decide who might be better suited to the task.

I understand that this is getting into the area of what your responsibilities and duties are, which is a more philosophical discussion and is not really suitable to this post. How you take on work is totally part of where you work and your corporate culture, but you can still have a todo list.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “But what if my todo list just starts getting insanely long?” Well, by only processing email twice a day, you’ve given yourself more focus to actually do your work. But you’re working from the todo list, which is always open, whereas your email is closed or otherwise hidden. (Right?)

(That said, there are things that have been on my list for months. Apparently they are low-priority. I hope…)

Long-term handling of your email

Over time, projects will begin and end and your list of folders will need to be managed and culled. The routine is simple: At the end of the calendar year (Dec 31 or even a few days before) move all of you project folders into a folder for the year, “2012”, for example. On Jan 1, start creating new folders, even if they end up being the same as last year’s.

This helps keep the number of messages down within each project folder and yet you’re still able to go back and search last year’s folders. My experience has shown that by the time March rolls around, I’m never checking the prior year’s folders for current projects. After that, it’s probably once or twice a year that I will need to go back in time to search any of my archives at all.

And this begs the question: did I need to file all those emails after all? (oooh, deep question!)

How to reduce the amount of email overall

Document-Help-iconWe get and send a lot of email. There are a few things we can do to reduce the amount that we send and receive.

First, sometimes adding your entire message to the subject, especially if it’s short, may save the person from having to open the message. Something like “Pls call me when you get a chance?” They don’t need to open the message which saves a bit of time. (Also, use “EOM” in the subject to indicate that the message doesn’t need to be opened. EOM = End of Message.)

Second, send things that are only necessary.

  • Want to see if someone’s available for lunch? Call them. :)
  • If there’s a back-and-forth that’s needed, set up a 15 minute meeting. It’ll be faster to talk than to type anyway. (A good rule of thumb is whether or not the discussion will need more than one reply. One reply, email. More than one, face-to-face.)
  • If the whole body of a message is “Thanks” or “Have a great day”, maybe saying that in person is a better option. Some people may even like being thanked in person! And they don’t have to spend 5 or 10 seconds reading and deleting the message.

Third, if the message is an FYI or an article of some sort, include some information at the top about why the message is relevant, or include a crucial excerpt that highlights the importance of the message. If you’re relaying a news article or a message to everyone in your department, make sure it’s applicable to everyone. If it’s not, send it to those who would most benefit from it.

(As an exercise, Let’s assume you have 100 people in your organization, the message is applicable to 10 of them, and 90 of them have to take 30 seconds to skim the message to decide if it’s important. That’s a total 45 people-minutes of company time lost due to one email message.)

Fourth, if it’s applicable (“Here’s the info you requested…”) you can indicate to someone that they don’t need to reply to your message by adding NNTR (No Need To Reply) at the end. This may save them from typing the “Thanks” message and save you from reading it. Eventually people will catch on and start using it themselves.

Summary

I know I’ve covered a number of things here, but the important bits are:

  • Set aside time twice a day to read email. Close or hide it completely otherwise.
  • Process your emails in the order you receive them.
  • File messages you need, delete messages you don’t need.
  • Do it now if it’s 2 minutes or less. Add it to your todo list if it’s more.
  • Don’t use your inbox as a todo list.
  • Use good etiquette and don’t send unnecessary emails.

By

MAGFest 2012

So… Mag fest happened. I didn’t really known what to expect, except for

  • A lot of nerds (9000 as it turns out)
  • A lot of fun (goes without saying)
  • Very little sleep (also goes without saying)

The con went from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, which was more time than I had from work what with the New Year holiday the weekend before. Too much going on at work meant that I couldn’t take that much time off from work. That’s OK, this time I could afford to miss some of MAGfest in order to balance things out.

First a side note: I am not as wired as most of my friends. I do not have a smartphone with unlimited text and data or whatever so the biggest headache was not really being able to be in contact to coordinate with people for dinner, panels, hanging out or whatever. My dumbphone can do text, but it’s damn hard to type on and the battery life is iffy.

So, I figured out that I need to have a better way of being able to find people and communicate with them during the con. This is a must for PAX East. Currently I am looking at something under the Virgin Mobile banner since I really don’t want the distraction of being connected all. the. time. and I’ve pretty much gotten over the whole 2-year contract garbage from the other carriers.

Part the second, I need to plan better to go to the things I want to go to and the things that I want to see. Ahead of time. And stick too it. Not that I am complaining, I had an amazing time doing what I did at MAGFest, but I know that for PAX East I will need to be a bit more attentive to that and plan a bit better and make a decision to do this and not that and know that I am making the choice (or not making the choice).

I think the highlights of the weekend are topped by the after-party in a hotel room (that wasn’t shut down by security, though they did pay us a visit) in which I got to met some of the members of The Protomen right after seeing them for the first time ever. They really rocked the house. Both times!

That’s a highlight on a weekend that was lit up by spending time with my friends the entire time, some new and some old. I reserve the word epic for rare cases, but this came close. If PAX is anything like this then it’s going to be truly epic. :)

Some personal notes:

Zulahni, it was awesome to meet and hang out with you on Saturday. JCCC3 is going to be awesome!

Nicole, I’m sorry we didn’t hang out more but I know you were working and I am grateful for them time I did get to see you.

Rhaje, if you tell me there is an after-party in a smelly dark alley, I will go, no questions asked. Forget “Team Joel”, OK, the guacamole was good, but good guac doesn’t compare to the incredible people I had the pleasure of meeting. Team Rhaje!! (P.S. were you there when the googly eyes showed up? Yeah, that.)

And to all the people I met, Rachel, Abby, Danimal, Q, Mags, A.J., Josh, Christie, L.A., Casey, Ian, and (60% of) the Protomen, I hope to see you you guys next time!

 

By

The Amazingness of Marian Call

Something Fierce vol. I: Good Luck with That

Today is November 13th. Yeah, I know. Tuesday. Well, today is better than most Tuesdays because Marian Call is re-releasing her album Something Fierce.

I’ll wait while you go buy it. Really. Go now. You won’t regret it.

Ok? Good! Listening?

So I first heard of Marian Call when I saw her name come up as one of the entertainers on JoCo Cruise Crazy 2 which took place in February 2012. I will be the first to admit that I don’t take/have the time to pursue all of the many avenues of awesomeness that pervades the nerdy world, so it’s not surprising that I hadn’t heard of Marian Call yet. So I poked at her website a bit and looked around, had a listen to some of her music. There was some good stuff there. I moved on since it wasn’t entirely my style. Alaska, huh? That’s cool.

vol. I: Good Luck with That

But I was to get a preview of her music when she was passing through Virginia on her way to somewhere else while on tour. She stopped and played for a half hour at the Can’t Stop the Serenity event with the Northern Virginia (NOVA) Browncoats. Apparently she has this song that ties into Firefly, so I figure it’d be a good time regardless.

She seemed confident on stage, like she’s done this just a few times before [kidding!]. I also noticed that she worked the handled really well. We were all singing along as she led us through the choruses and refrains of her music. She was a natural at it. We were part of the performance, really.

And the typewriter. That was different. Typewriter as percussion. Who knew! She did, that’s for sure.

Since she was on a limited time schedule, Marian asked during a break between songs how much time she had. I was having a really good time at this point (I’ve seen Serenity a half dozen times, but I do so enjoy live music!) so I shouted out the following.

“Four more hours!”

It’s a relatively small space. Everyone heard me. A moment passes and Marian Call says into the mic:

“That’s what she said.”

And the entire room bursts into laughter, but no one laughed harder than me. I earned that, but it was worth it.

And so I started paying attention. On JoCo Cruise Crazy 2, I did this crazy cross stitch thing and I was seeking (hunting? stalking?) each of the fifteen performers on the cruise for their autographs. I ran into her one evening on the Sea View Deck and she was kind enough to stop and sign it for me. We talked a bit and then she said she was looking for someone and… oh man, I’d interrupted her! And I felt bad because she was on a mission and oh man, she’s the talent, one of the performers. Regardless, she’d been very gracious and I truly appreciate that.

Time went by and Marian released a new album and went on tour this fall again, this time on the east coast. I missed one of her house concerts here in Maryland because of a conflicting schedule. Some friends of mine were there and one of them recounted to me how, after the concert, with possibly two or three dozen people there, Marian took the time to talk to each and every one of person who wanted to talk to her, get a CD signed, say Hi, I loved your show, etc.

Marian Call and Scott Barkin on JoCo Cruise Crazy 2

I got to see this first hand when I happened to be able to go to a Ladies of Ragnarok show in Cambridge, MA. I wanted to say hi, and introduce myself, but I am also very conscious of being pushy so I sat back and watched. And I saw that either Marian is a great actor or she really and truly enjoys meeting the people who make up her fans and, in a sense, patrons. Never once did she turn someone away or show any sign of impatience or irritation or even fatigue.

Eventually I did get to talk to her, finally putting a name to a face (for her, not me) and it was good.

But I left with the feeling that Marian honestly enjoys what she does: making great music and playing before smallish groups of people. It’s not an easy life, nor is it glamorous. There’s no tour bus to sleep on, no millions of dollars rolling in, no superstar fame. But I think that’s okay, that can change a person, no matter how hard you stick to your roots.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish Marian the best of success and the most that life has to offer. I also agree with the idea (not mine) that this is how music was done in the past and a model for how it can continue to be done in the future for a host of musicians who would not have “made it” before. Doing it this way, small venues and house concerts, offers an intimacy and potential for connection with an artist that you can’t ever hope to get in an arena with 40,000 fans, or even going through a autograph line at a convention.

And so I do what I can to support this kind of effort from Marian and other musicians whose music I truly love. Because it’s amazing and awesome and so many other words that I can’t think of right now and I want to see that continue. Forever. Artists bring beauty to the world and we can’t stand by and hope that someone else provides the money for it.

So, here’s what you can do, right now. Go buy this album. Support art and the people who make it. Promote the hell out of the people you know who do this sort of thing. Tell your friends who like good music. Really good music. Music that won’t come from a worldwide record label.

Music that comes from the heart.