a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Fri, 24 Mar 2006

[00:55] The Skull on Your Desk

Around this time last year, like lots of other hackers, I came down with the Getting Things Done virus, probably though not exclusively through Jo, who caught a bad case of it herself. This was in and of itself not such a bad thing. The whole point of GTD is, well, getting things done, with a focus on generating and maintaining a detailed inventory of all the "open loops", or unfinished tasks that tend to occupy one's mind for fear of losing or forgetting them. The end result is supposed to be a comprehensive list of everything you want or need to do in every sphere of your life, and a clear head to do it with.

Of course, there's different ways of approaching the technique. The cult's founder, David Allen, has his suggestions, many of which deal with paper and fixed working places, and didn't really apply well to us. Jo decided to keep her to-do lists on 3"x5" index cards. I kept mine in good old todo.txt, for all the reasons Danny O'Brien posited, plus the fact that it's online, and I don't have to lug a paper reminder with me everywhere. My concession to the GTD regime was a customized folding outline configuration for vim, along with a corresponding entry in my .vimrc. I've been meaning to write an article about how this all works for O'Reilly Net. Needless to say, there's a heading for it in my TODO file, along with 21 corresponding Next Actions.

And this is where I started to get into trouble. Stuff just kind of accumlated in my TODO file, random things, and faster than I could finish the ones that were already there. (It didn't help that Jo and I were working out of the Limehouse Town Hall map room and more or less couchsurfing around London at that time.) Finally, it got to the point where I started to find the list depressing to look at, a persistent reflection of my own feelings of disorganization and lack of discipline, and I started opening my TODO file less and less. By this point, I had more or less failed at Getting Things Done, it had failed at me, and I couldn't find anything specific in Allen's recommendations to help me stick with it.

Fast-forward to last week. I was having a long catch-up phone call with Rich, who has been Getting Things Done again in a furious fashion, after a long hiatus, to the point of reducing his email inbox to zero messages for the first time in, well, as long as I've known him, I think."

"When you put a thing on your to-do list, you are making a committment to do it," he says to me. "Meaning you aren't going to do some other things." He pauses. "So you have to choose between those things. Now, why do you have to choose?"

I think about this for a second. "Because your time is limited?" I venture hopefully.

"BECAUSE YOU ARE GOING TO FUCKING DIE," he responds.

At this, the student was enlightened.

Rich went on to observe that one's to-do list, in whatever form, is ultimately a skull on the desk, a memento mori, a reminder that our time here really is limited and we ought to make the most of it, in as much as the list is also meant to be a tool for helping one actually do so.

"Just keep telling yourself 'I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to die,'" he later said on IRC.

Operationally, I interpret this as an imperative to keep moving lingering items out of the active to-do list and into the Someday / Maybe file with the ruthless efficiency of an oncology surgeon. Or to not even let them reach the to-do list in the first place.

  • "Write a universal wiki transcluder." Not this week, or next. What were we high on thinking again?
  • "Make an Ubuntu-based GIS live CD." Great idea, I hope someone does it.
  • "Move geotorrents to the freemap server." I ought to do this... but they're fine where they are for now...
  • "Add [mumble] check to portsentry." Well. Maybe I'll do that one if I clear my Projects file of the 108 items I promised myself or someone else I'd do during this lifetime.
  • "Finish Jehoover." Don't even ask. Sorry, Saul, maybe someday. Maybe I should make an actual action item to post the code somewhere, in case anyone else cares.

You have these items, too, I bet. You don't have to get rid of them, just move them to Someday and forget about them for now. You're going to die, after all.

  • "Visit Iceland." Well, I kind of did this one last month, but all I really got to see was the inside of Keflavik Airport. So it's still on the Someday list. I'm not dead yet.

Mon, 13 Mar 2006

[23:35] The Arch in Architecture

Phil Windley has notes on an interesting lecture by Alan Kay entitled Is the Best Way to Predict the Future to {Invent,Prevent} It?, which I stumbled on via the Torkington Radar:

Hurricane Katrina is Alan's new favorite story. When the city started flooding only four pumps kept pumping until the levee actually broke. The youngest pump that kept going was made in 1929. The newer pumps all stopped well before that. Try to imagine a computing system that will be working 90 years from now?

For some perspective on this, have a look at Sam Ruby's slides from his recent talk on "neurotransmitters", specifically about the technologies and companies that are less than ten years old today. Wifi. Instant messaging. Google. MapQuest. And so on.

Windley's synopsis of Kay continues (emphasis mine):

We live in the 80s extended into the 21st century. The only thing that's changed is the size. Windows XP has 70 million lines of code.... Microsoft engineers don't dare prune it because they don't know what it all does. Cathedrals have 1 millionth the mass of pyramids. The difference was the arch. Architecture demands arches.

The arch, apparently, was a significant innovation in building construction, because it serves to redirect tensile stress, which can be very hard on common building materials, into compressive stress, which is tends to work more with the existing compressive force of gravity. So, if building architecture demand arches, what kinds of analogous structures do other architectures demand? What is the arch in software architecture? What is the arch in architectures of participation?

Sat, 11 Mar 2006

[21:13] Be Catawampous, But Marchesini

I'm restarting this blog for the sole purpose of sharing these two lovely bits of email I got recently. Here's the first:

Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2006 21:28:17 -0500
From: "yaffa"
To: 
Subject: no verona, wi data
you have no data for verona, wi?

At first, I thought this particular query about geocoder.us was perhaps from an Eastern European or Central Asian correspondent.

They: You have no data for Verona, wi?
Me (logically): Wi, we have no data there!

Then it occurred to me that "wi" was intended not as some kind of interrogative particle from an Oriental language I don't speak, but rather as a postal abbreviation, namely that of the great state of Wisconsin, famed for its cheese and its mosquitos. Suddenly, the conversation took on a whole new tone.

They: You have no data for Verona, Wisconsin?
Me: Wi, we have no data there!

(Actually, geocoder.us does have data there.)

The other email was pure Zen, in the getting-hit-with-a-stick kind of way:

Date: Tue, 07 Mar 2006 07:40:54 -0600
From: "Billy"
To: [email protected]
Subject: I ask myself the same questions every day.
be catawampous but marchesini see naskapi in jbinng some cpwscb

What a concidence -- I ask myself that same question every day, too!

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