All posts by brett

The Zombie Treehouse and Teaching Problem Solving

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It’s tempting to think that modern parenting is somehow fundamentally different from the generations that have come before. Kids have access to devices that carry access to the sum of human knowledge in their pockets; they plug machines more powerful than the entire Apollo program into televisions with more resolution than the naked eye can process and play elaborate games with them.

It is different; don’t get me wrong about that. There are social changes afoot that we won’t really see until we are all dead and buried – or alive and cybernetically enhanced, perhaps? – but it’s hard to know what is a superficial change versus a fundamental one.

Take, for example, Minecraft.

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I have a lot of good things to say about Minecraft for kids in moderation. Kids can build amazing things when they have the tools for it. My daughter builds elaborate roller coasters out of mine cart tracks. My son recently made self-harvesting farms using redstone circuits. I have hit the point with something on a computer where it is easier for me to ask my kids to do it for me, because figuring out pressure plates is too much for my middle aged brain.

Minecraft is both a lego set and a treehouse. It’s a place where kids can go – a virtual place, but that is still a place – and it’s a place where they can build whatever their imagination directs.

So, like parents of generations before, I set out to build my kids a treehouse and set up a Minecraft server at home.

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A few weeks ago I noticed that my Mac Mini where I’d installed Minecraft was suddenly really slow. Really, really slow. I checked in and saw that the server itself was crashing. My son was home on holiday and I would see the same pattern – he’d log in, do a few things, and then the server would crash. Grumpy noises would ensue from upstairs, and then a muffled “DAD RESTART THE SERVER” would float down from his high command post up in his room.

Finally, this happened enough that I logged in to see what was going on.

He’d spawned thousands of villagers in a single village and then flying around them, trying to interact with different ones. The Minecraft server couldn’t handle that kind of load (I’d limited it to 1GB RAM) and then … boom. Down it went.

“You have too many villagers in one place,” I called up. “They’re overloading the server.”

“Okay, Dad!” he called down. “I’ve got it.” Occasional server crashes followed, but I was working on other things so I restarted the server as requested but tried not to think too much about how he was solving it.

About an hour later he came downstairs.

“Dad, I have a problem. I went ahead and dropped zombies on top of the villagers.”

“Wait, you did WHAT?”

“Well, I dropped a zombie on them, which started turning everyone into zombies.”

“Buddy, that’s … kinda awful, isn’t it?”

“No, not at all. See, zombies burn up in the sunlight.”

Oh. Of course they do.

“But not the baby zombies.”

“What.”

“See, the villagers had kids, and they turned into zombies, only those zombie babies aren’t burning up in the sunlight and they’re still crashing the server.”

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“Okay. I will handle it tonight.”

“But…”

“No buts, this village is crashing my computer, it’s got to be fixed.”

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I don’t know much about zombies in Minecraft. I’ll be the first to admit it; I play with my kids in Creative mode, I can build things but I haven’t felt compelled to figure out all the ins and outs of the Minecraft ecosystem.

What I do know is that things burn if you pour lava on them.

Lots of lava.

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Now, the boy had warned me that the zombie babies were really fast, and he wasn’t exaggerating. I had to chase down zombies and fling fire on them as fast as I could at times. They roamed in large packs, swarming towards gaps in the fence line.

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I’ll be the first to admit that things got a little out of control.

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However, after about 20 minutes of flinging lava and burning down the village, I had rooted out the last pockets of zombies and restored stability to the server. No more crashes, no more zombies, and a somewhat eerily beautiful ruined town standing as a reminder of our folly as modern people.

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I showed the boy the village the next day.

“DAD. WHY DID YOU DO THAT???”

“What? It HAD to be done.”

“Why didn’t you just build an Iron Golem? That was what I was going to do!”

“A what?”

“A Iron Golem. You take four blocks of Iron and a pumpkin and make them into a Iron Golem, whose only purpose is to defend against zombies. It would have wiped them all out without you having to destroy anything.”

I just sat there, deflated. Oh, of course, just build an Iron Golem, anyone should have known how to do that. Just stick a pumpkin on it.

“Sorry, bud,” I said.

“It’s okay, Dad. You didn’t know.”

“Let me rebuild your fence for you.”

“Okay. I’ll get started on cleaning up the lava.”

While I might not have approved of his Rube Goldberg-esque approach to problem solving, it certainly would have involved less cleanup.

(But burning down a zombie village is kind of fun, let’s be honest here.)

On Instagram, Ello, and Online Detritus

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Somewhat on a whim, I signed up for Instagram this weekend and instantly ‘got it.’  It was simple to sign up for on my iPhone, quick to integrate with Twitter and Flickr, and easy to work with. I’m not sure I’m ready to throw everything away and become an Instagramaddict but I certainly get why it’s so popular. It gives me a place for a photostream that integrates with all the other streams in my life, and I can probably get my head around square frames and fancy filters to work with it.

I don’t even know if it was completely a whim – I hadn’t thought about Instagram in a while, and then I passed one of the stablehands muttering “I can’t get a connection in this place, I just want to upload an Instagram!” the other week. It got me thinking about my current photo posting process, which is:

  1. Take the picture.
  2. Edit the picture in Photogene.
  3. Maybe run it through Noiseware or VSCOcam.
  4. Pick one of the 2-3 drafts thus generated.
  5. Go to Tweetbot.
  6. Pick one of the 2-3 drafts generated.
  7. Attempt to find something witty to say.
  8. Fail.
  9. Post it anyways.

It’s not that this is a bad flow, per se – it’s just not great, and it only puts the photo in once place.

Well, okay, it puts it in once place (Twitter) and another place (Camera Roll) where it goes to (Dropbox) and (Hard Drive 1) and (Hard Drive 2) and (Crashplan) but – online – it only puts it one place. Consequently, those folks who follow me on Flickr haven’t seen any of my photos for months because I’m lazy and just put them on Twitter.

Not lazy. Just human. You can only occupy so many spaces at once.

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I signed up for Ello during the Great Ello Rush of 2014 (I’m @btp over there, but I stopped posting) and enjoyed it for a few days before the UI drove me nuts. It wasn’t the layout, or the font, or even the unconventional business model – which still makes me raise an eyebrow, sorry – no, it was how hard it was to use. It was hard to compose on mobile, especially on the iPad. I lost a couple of story drafts just because the page refreshed the wrong way. UI elements would wig out and cover the entire screen. It doesn’t matter if a site is fledgling or not – if it’s not usable, why should I use it?  I don’t owe free web services anything – not even my attention.

Ello had my attention for a little while, and it seemed interesting – and then it seemed frustrating, so I stopped.

In a way, Ello reminded me of Zooomr, the ill-fated Flickr challenger from, what, 2005? 2006? It had different features than Flickr (oh to have geotagging be a differentiator!) but infrastructure woes and design issues sunk it, while Yahoo! sunk capital into Flickr and it scaled up into … whatever it is now.

I have trouble of thinking of Flickr as an online community. It’s a place to store hi-res photos online with some limited privacy controls, of sharing with family who begrudgingly log in because I’m the only one who uses it. Only recently has their online experience has sufficiently smooth to consider using them again, but I’ve long been left wondering if it serves any purpose in my life – which is sad, because there are over 5500+ public photos and a few thousand more family ones up there. That’s a lot of past history wrapped up in those sites.

I wrote, in a different online guise, about digital detritus and the desire to throw everything out and start over. That particular article was about characters in a video game, but it applies to our much larger online (and offline) lives too. It feels good to start over, to just walk away from the past so you can do something new.

But there’s also a good feeling of having built something over time. Sometimes it’s a community, sometimes a portfolio. Sometimes it’s walking in to a place and having people recognize you, or your kids, or your parents, and knowing that you’re part of something longer than just a moment.

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This has been a really strange year for me. Simplexity’s disappearance was only the beginning; I changed careers, walked away from my old gaming hobby. My parents are moving for the first time in 20 years. My car finally died and it’s time for me to get something different. Even my glasses, which I’ve had since 1995, finally broke. (I’m wandering around in Harry Potter frames from the late 80s trying to find replacements.) But by no means has it been a bad year – far from it, actually. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. My attention is more focused on things which matter to me.

It’s like the whole year has been a series of events designed to make me really think about where I spend my attention. Giving it or hiring it out – both wind up being the same thing.

This started off being a simple post of hey, I’m on Instagram. But in writing it I realized that what I really want to say is, hey, I’m taking pictures again, because I really enjoy taking pictures. I’ve been posting them to Twitter but now I think I’ll post them a whole bunch of other places. Instagram makes it easy so I’ll use it for now.

So there you go.

The Fall of iPhoto, Part II

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Getting free from iPhoto has taken me years. But I’m finally free.

The eventual solution I hit upon is the one you see above, sketched out on a trusty Field Notes notebook while on vacation earlier this year. instead of losing myself in the minutiae of sand and sea, I was thinking about file transfers and backups.

Side note, I’m absolutely horrible at taking vacations and need at least three days before I start relaxing. Sometimes four or five.

Dropbox is the key, sadly. Dropbox’s camera import function is 1) available on practically everything now, 2) renames pictures uniformly and sensibly, and 3) frees me from the tyranny of wires without subjecting me to iPhoto or its slightly less obnoxious offshoot, Photo Streams. The downside is serious privacy concerns with Dropbox, but I’m feeling security fatigue these days and cant be arsed to care.

Is that bad? It’s probably bad, but it’s honest.

Dropbox slurps up the photos off devices and pops them onto my Mac Mini Server. That server (named Sirion, if you’ve been keeping track at home) puts them in the normal Dropbox place – ~/Dropbox/Camera Uploads/. Thats where the backing up starts.

  • First, Crashplan senses the changes on Sirion and triggers a backup every 15 minutes. So the first copy is on Dropbox (in at least three locations), and now theres an actual backup in the cloud.
  • Second, I have a cronjob running which looks for media files in certain locations, identifies their modified-on date, and copies or moves them into sorted directories on my main external drive. The directory format is Media/YYYY-MM/, with movies, screenshots, gifs and photos all treated separately. This is the main archive where I do basic editing.
  • Third, Crashplan runs again and backs up my external hard drive. Now the photo can be removed from Dropbox with impunity, which is good because  I have a script clean out Dropbox/Camera Uploads and Dropbox/Screenshots of files older than 90 or 15 days, respectively.
  • Fourth, I do a brute force rsync between my primary external drive and an identical secondary local drive once a week to snapshot everything and guard against disk failure.

Clunky? A little Rube Goldberg-like? Yes. But effective.

Living in the Finder has some disadvantages – mostly because I havent gotten out any Christmas photobooks in 2 years – but it has a lot of advantages, too. Speed, ability to arrange photo collections as desired, editing on iOS devices at will – did I mention I can actually page through photos again?

Well, I can. It’s pretty dang neat.

 

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Goodbye, iPhoto. I don’t miss you at all.

Suddenly Freedom

Yesterday was the strangest day I’ve had in my professional career. I was having a productive morning with my boss – we’d found an error in the LTE vs CDMA implementation of a few of the rate plans for a carrier who was launching this week – when we got an email from our CEO at 9:38. Mandatory meeting at 10:30. No exceptions.

I work remotely, so these kinds of meetings are usually a chance to catch up on email and get the scoop after the fact. My friend Patty, who had just moved to Florida to join the ranks of the remote workers, IMed me.

“How can you stand not knowing? This is driving me crazy!” she said.

“You get used to it. I go for a walk if I find I’m getting anxious or nervous.” I replied.

“I bet so-and-so is leaving,” she speculated.

“I think we’ve been bought,” I replied. “But I hadn’t considered that it might be about so-and-so leaving, that’s possible!”

“You’re an optimist, Brett,” she chided.

I didn’t have to wait long. By 10:45 my boss called me back.

“It’s bad news. They’ve shut down the company.” His voice was low, stunned. “I’m packing my things now.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. My brain was not keeping up. I’d worked at Simplexity and Inphonic for 11 years – how could it be gone? “You’re joking. No, you’re not joking.”

“No joke. They’re out of money. It’s over.”

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It was over.

The banks called in outstanding loans, drained the funds, and my employer was gone. I was not to be paid for the last 12 days of work, nor would I get the severance package that was part of my agreement, nor would I get any of the future bonuses which had been thrown about as incentive to stay.

Gone.

One by one, services were shut off. The VPN was first, cutting off all remote access. Then the main websites. Lastly the Exchange server went dark. After a few minutes of my phone rejecting the password I sighed and deleted the account. This wasn’t a joke, no matter how much I wanted it to be. I had a terrible headache, my stomach was in turmoil, my brain was trying to catch up. I talked to Merrystar about it all and she was in a similar state of shock.

But as the shock faded, a certain euphoria descended. I was free. I didn’t have any safe options anymore, I didn’t have a comfortable job to fall back upon instead of chasing something new. It was a good job, easy at times, hard at others. But I’d been doing it for 11 years. That’s a long time, even if I changed jobs within the company every two years or so.

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I’ve worked from home, remotely, for the past 7 years. I am a far more effective employee because of it – by visiting the office on specific days, I’m able to concentrate my productivity into those hours that aren’t spent building relationships in the office. I get a lot done this way.

Yesterday I missed out on the shared physical experience of Simplexity’s shutdown because I work remotely. I didn’t get called into a room and have to look the CEO in the eye; instead, I got a phone call, a disconnected voice over electrical wires saying that my employer was gone. It was like hearing someone had died but never seeing the body; grief but mostly disbelief.

So this morning I resolved that it was time to clean the ghosts out of my office. Today was a day to move forward, to accept that the company wasn’t coming back. Nobody was going to email and say ‘lol j/k’ – any credibility the organization had is gone. It’s not coming back.

So I looked around. A few test phones, a laptop I don’t use. Home router I’d been playing with getting the firmware to do what we wanted to do for a new project. A mifi from a client I’d purchased on my own so I could see what their experience was like. A collector’s edition Disney Mobile phone – one of the few souvenirs I’d ever gotten from a client –

and notebooks. Dozens of Field Notes notebooks.

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Building virtual things leaves very little behind. There’s nothing to grasp, nothing to point to, no buildings or monuments to your labor. I think we forget sometimes how important that is. It might seem childish, or at least child-like, to want to commemorate important events with ribbons and trophies and badges – but that’s unfair and unkind. Kids recognize a truth we try to forget as adults – a physical representation of an achievement gives you something to hold on to.

I’d switched to using Field Notes notebooks in 2006 or 2007, around the time I moved down to Williamsburg. In the 6 years or so I’ve filled 22 of them with tasks, notes, drawings, flow charts, client requirements, to do lists, plans to take over the world, temporary passwords, IP addresses. Twenty-two notebooks.

When I was managing Simplexity’s Transera launch – the only major IT project that launched on time and on budget that year, I should add – the other PMs would laugh at my little agricultural notebooks. I was a luddite for not using MS Project Server, for not having charts and plans.

Instead, I had scrawled lists and general timelines and when someone wanted to know how we were doing I could tell them. The teams I was using weren’t embedded in the MS Project ecosystems – it was a combination of vendors, clients, call centers, internal and external developers. But it all worked.

Years passed. I managed the telecom budgets with those notebooks and a few excel spreadsheets. Projects would get entered in, tasks would be tracked. I changed jobs and went back to working on MVNOs, and still the notebooks accumulated, a new one every few months.

Those notebooks are what I can point to. Those twenty-two slender volumes represent … something. Time. Labor. Things that I built which are no longer there, but dammit, they had value. I managed millions of dollars of telecom spend and projects with them. I brought in revenue with them.

It may have been for naught in the end, when you look at it from the company’s point of view. Simplexity was there yesterday, but it’s gone today.

But these notebooks are worth something to me.

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Kickass IT guy looking for a new challenge. I’ve got a fresh stack of Field Notes notebooks and I’m itching to use them.

My CV is at btp.me/cv/.

I’d love to hear from you.

The Fall of iPhoto

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iPhoto is not up to the demands of a modern photographic library.

When I returned to a Mac in 2005 I had a lot of hope for the little photo database who could; it was shiny, easy to use, with neat features to help me organize my small but rapidly growing photo collection. My first child was born that year and I had a digital camera.

Surprising no one, I was unprepared for the sheer volume of photos I would generate. Not only did I start taking exponentially more pictures, but they got bigger all the time. Then my wife got a camera, adding more photos to the input. Then my in-laws. I moved from a Linux-based hodgepodge to a monolithic silo called iPhoto, and that silo filled up. Every year or two I would upgrade, and every year I would curse at it as it slowed down more and more.

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Looking back, I think the 10,000 photo mark was where I stopped having acceptable performance. Up to that point iPhoto performed pretty well within an overly-complex photo workflow; once I started going past that number it slowed down past acceptable levels. I struggled with it for a few years, before finally giving up on the idea of publishing photos online entirely. This wasn’t entirely iPhoto’s fault – Flickr was slowly becoming moribund during the end of the last decade, Zooomr (remember them, the first with geotagging?) collapsed – and I certainly went through a period of dissatisfaction that’s another story entirely. But it’s important, when looking at why you stopped doing something, to inspect your tools and ask: did these make me happy or not?

iPhoto didn’t make me happy.

I kept it around out of a sense of obligation and convenience. Every year my wife and I would publish a little softcover book out of it for Christmas with pictures of the kids for our families, and those pocketbooks have been great. Fantastic. I’m glad I kept that tradition going, even with a second kid and serious illnesses hitting us several winters running.

But the photos kept piling up in iPhoto. 20k. 30k. 40k. 45k.

I stopped using it as anything other than photo storage. It took minutes to open no matter how much database optimization I tried. It pegged my CPU, even with 16 GB of RAM and nothing else running. It was untenable, but I didn’t have the time to fix it, nor did I really have a better option. And then two things happened.

I met an entrepreneur from Holland, and I developed carpel tunnel syndrome.

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Steven is a bright, charismatic guy. He and his savvy tech team came to visit during a deployment of a startup he’d gotten funding for back about a year ago now. In the way of such things, we chatted about all kinds of different technical things, and one of the things he really was passionate about was Dropbox. Dude lived in his Dropbox to such an extent it was inspiring. Paper would come in, get scanned on the spot: boom, Dropboxed. Important tech stuff? Right into Dropbox. Pictures?

Ah, pictures. In the span of thirty seconds – no longer than an elevator pitch – Steven sold me on returning to the basics of storing your photos on the Finder again – using Dropbox, naturally. “Everything goes into one big folder and I can find it by date. Or name, if I want. It scales naturally, no application overhead, and easy to see where it all is.” He was so passionate about this simple system he used! I think he sold me more on returning to the Finder than he did on his business. I thought a lot about how iPhoto had become an obstacle to my photo collection because of its inability to handle large collections.

Then, about six months later, my hands started to hurt. First a little, then a lot, then it became clear I needed to stop all non-essential activities on the computer. I stopped all gaming, all blogging, even Twitter and limited email for a while.

What this injury gave me, though, was time to poke at my photo collection. To pick up a camera again, firstly. Then to poke at that iPhoto library, slowly. I couldn’t be active but photo processing and sorting with an overburdened, underperforming database is very mow impact. You can only do so many actions every minute – 1 if I was lucky.

I wasn’t usually lucky.

But the poking at it had a purpose – this idea of returning to the Finder percolated through the long months with painkillers. I made copies of the photos, tried different export routines, slowly cobbled together a plan for escaping the iPhoto trap. Every time I got thwarted by iPhoto’s limits (whhhhyyyyy won’t you let me drag and drop more than a few photos at a time? Why do you change dates when I do?) the incentive to free my photos grew. I just wanted to be able to look at them again. I wanted to have a sane organization, something I didn’t have to wait 5 minutes to launch.

My injury gave me the time to realize that continuing to use iPhoto as my picture repository was dumb, and the longer I waited the worse it got, and since I couldn’t do much else – at least I could fix my photos.

This is not to pick on iPhoto, to say it has no value. It’s great at putting together small slide shows, print books, etc.. For a small, well-curated collection it’s probably great. But it doesn’t scale. It really doesn’t.

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It took ten days to code and run my first pass through escaping iPhoto, and I netted 73GB of duplicate photos that went into the Trash. Given how scattered and disorganized I’ve become, and how many backups and copies I’ve made over the years, there are several hundred GBs to be reclaimed off my hard drives.

To start off my return to blogging here on this site, I’ll walk through what I’m doing to better handle the media deluge I create for myself and see if Steven was right – maybe letting the file system handle your files really is the best option.