What has Ben been up to?

Not that anyone was really asking, but I want to tell the few of you who aren’t search engines and spiders, what I have been up to recently (and hey if the spiders are amused, all the better). It has been a very busy year so far for me and I have realized that too many of the posts on Alt Text recently, have been links to other sites, posts, and videos and a lot less of me. I’m not contending that people think I am all that interesting, but a side-effect of not talking about myself is that I have not been talking about things I am doing and things I care about, and this is perhaps effecting how much passion I have had for blogging. How can I ask you, the reader, to care about what I am writing here, if I have been less than passionate? The answer is, I can’t. So I am hoping to start some more off-the-cuff style posts – perhaps putting less research into some topics, but also adding more of my own personality.

So what have I been up to? As I was saying it has been a very busy, but also a very fulfilling and, in many ways, extraordinary year so far. The first thing to note is that I co-founded a company with my friends, Scott and Jesse. My work as part of Refactr has been rewarding and fun. We have developed a product that we plan on releasing soon and we are working with a medical startup company to help them develop their flagship product. In addition to working in a very agile way we are leading the way in the Groovy/Grails development community by building a large application using this new language/framework.

To help foster community here at home in Minnesota, we have started the Groovy(and Grails) Users of Minnesota. Meetings are the 2nd Tuesday of each month. In late April, minnebar, the (un)conference I help to put on was a huge success with over 330 people spending a Saturday indoors geeking out. By all accounts, it was the second largest barcamp event in the world and the largest outside of India.

In addition to work and community related stuff, I have been playing volleyball and kickball this winter and spring. Jena and I threw a Cinco de Mayo party with her sister and husband that was quite fun and then my loving wife gt me a Wii for my birthday so I have been busy playing Wii sports like golf, tennis and bowling, as well as trying my luck with Super Paper Mario, Zelda, and Call of Duty 3.

MinneBar remembered

Lots of folksBy our count nearly 350 geeks and “geeks at heart” converged on the Railroader building in downtown Saint Paul this past Saturday and I think most everyone has been very positive about the result. I believe that number (or any number over 300) would make minnēbar the largest barcamp outside of India (Barcamp Bangalore 3 – just a couple weeks ago – drew over 500 people!). I know that barcamps are supposed to be about local community and ours was no exception, but it was still nice (and a little amazing) that we had quite a few people drive or fly in from New York (at least 2), South Dakota (at least 2), Wisconsin (6 or more), and Chicago (at least 1). Knowing that this event is worth someone’s Saturday is one things, but also worth a six hour drive, or several hundred dollar plane ticket? That is awesome.

I am very happy with the way the event turned out. I think the sessions, by and large, were first-rate. The special guests such as William Gurstelle and his excitement for making things that go Whoosh, Boom, Splat as well as the Scout Robots from the University of Minnesota gave a nice real-life tech component to the day. Of course David Heinemeier Hansson was a highlight as he was his usual witty and charming self. I have had lunch with him before (at Etech last year) and have seen him present, but he seemed even better in this setting. All his answers came very freely and he didn’t really seem to struggle with any of the questions. I am sure he had been asked about such things time and time again. Even so, I thought Jamie Thingelstad did a very good job with his side of the interview, as well.

I was very worried that the size of the crowds would really take away from the intimacy and sense of participation that is crucial to barcamps, but I don’t think these fears turned out to be warranted. Plenty of people talked between sessions or headed off to an “ad hoc session room” to discuss this or that and the sessions (with a few exceptions) never got too full. I still believe that the 50 minute session length is good. It is not so much that it can get too detailed so people really have to know their stuff. I spoke with Shourya Sarcar, one of the planners of barcamp Bangalore, and he said that one of the differences between the Minnesota and Bangalore barcamps was that their sessions are 30 minutes and that they “vote with their feet” meaning they leave a session if it is no good, or not what they had hoped. Minnesota “nice” retards that practice a bit, but there was still some wandering between sessions.
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Getting things done

In a recent post over at the Web Worker Daily, Anne Zelenka asked the question: How do you decide what to do from your to do list? The focus was on a couple hosted software apps that help people follow the Getting Things Done process laid out by David Allen.

I haven’t really evaluated either Vitalist or Nozbe, though Vitalist appeals more to my design sensibilities. There are several others that look to be worth trying out, too. What I have been doing for some months now is using a Firefox extension to Gmail called GTDGmail. I hadn’t really heard of the GTD process before stumbling upon this extension and deciding to try it out. Basically GTD is based on the idea that you have to free your mind from keeping track of tasks by getting those tasks out and into something else, often times paper lists. It goes further into saying that you really should only decide that you are going to work and then let your pre-coded tasks determine what you work on. There is more info to be found on GTD at Wikipedia including the following brief intro:

When you process your inbox, follow a strict workflow:

  1. Start at the top.
  2. Deal with one item at a time.
  3. Never put anything back into ‘in’.
  4. If an item requires action:
    • do it (if it takes less than two minutes),
    • delegate it, or
    • defer it.
  5. If not,
    • file it for reference,
    • throw it away, or
    • incubate it for possible action later.

GTDGmail has an explanation I like even better:

GTD has two main aims:

  1. To get all the fiddly little things you have to remember out of your head, and into something more robust.
  2. To give you a view of your tasks that will always answer the question “What should I do now?”

It is designed for lazy people. It is simple and effective enough that anyone can do it, and keep doing it.

In addition, they state that any task that can be done in 2 minutes or less, should just be done right away. (Thus reducing the stress of task overload).

I am not using the full GTD system. I have modified it a bit to suit my needs. The GTD system has Contexts, Statuses, and Projects and while I like the idea of Contexts (where I do things e.g. at a computer, or on the phone) I find that I am mostly using this for tasks that I would do at a computer or that context did not really matter much to me. I usually just click on a status such as “Waiting On” and a project title such as “Refactr Website” and call it good.

I am just now starting to buy into the system and use it daily. There are a ton of customization options and, in one of the neatest aspects of the software, some of these options are configured based on one of three archetype users you tell it you are:

The Empty Inbox
Style: As soon as an item comes in, it is labeled and Archived. The Inbox should always be empty.

The Archive Graveyard
Style: Keep all current items in the Inbox, and put all finished ones in the Archive.

I Love My Inbox!
Style: All items stay in the Inbox. Archive? What Archive?!

I strive to be the middle group but am afraid, all too often, I fall into the last group. All in all, I guess I would say I recommend anyone who feels a bit overwhelmed with tasks to give GTD a try, and specifically the GTD Firefox extension. It can’t really be worse than putting messages in all those folders can it?

My first 48 hours with MacBook

I cannot believe how easy the transition has been for me in my switch from Windows-based computing to my new Mac. I admit I was apprehensive and had a lot of worries that I wouldn’t be up to speed as fast as I needed to be, but those fears appear to be unfounded. Sure there are a couple keyboard commands I am retraining my fingers on and there are a few Firefox extensions that don’t work well, but all in all I have been pleasantly surprised by the ease of the switch.

I am sure it will take a couple months to erase some of the muscle memory of hitting ctrl + c and v in favor of command + c and v and I there are no doubt countless little things I will find in Photoshop that could slow me down (like the save for web keyboard commands, that is an awkward hand contortion). I picked up the new wireless, Bluetooth Mighty Mouse too and have adopted a wait and see approach there. It is a great mouse in many ways but it seems a bit small for my hands and I can’t quite get it configured how I want (though the SteerMouse software I downloaded is helping by allowing me to set additional preferences and per application defaults). The Tab browser Preferences extension (does anybody else hate the change to the word “Add-ons”? I wonder if it has legal reasons) is something I cannot really live without and a couple others would sure be nice to have on the Mac side of things.

But let’s talk a bit about what I am impressed with. First off, and it really does strike you before anything else, is just how physically well-made these laptops are. There was a tremendous amount of thought put into the closing mechanism, the placement of ports, and the power supply. The keyboard has a great tactile feel and the back lighting and lighted indicators for num and caps lock are great.

Inside, the operating system is intuitive and clean. It responds quickly (even with only 1 GB of RAM. There were a couple things I altered right off the bat to make it feel better to me (adjusted the font smoothing down to 6 from 8; turned on full keyboard access for all web form controls (like check boxes), and adjusted the settings for Dashboard, Expose, and the Dock.

Third party software (while I lament the dearth of free options, has impressed with the overall level of quality in the interface department. Almost all of the applications I have downloaded (TextMate, Transmit, and Parallells), very nice and tied closely to the look of the OS.
There are still some things I would like to figure out, like how to efficiently use Dashboard and iPhoto, or how to get my Google Calendar to load into iCal like it is supposed to, but all in all I already feel very comfortable with my new Mac and am dreading going back to work in the morning and booting up my Dell.

Take it easy

Route 66 at night I am writing this from a city made famous by the Eagles, Winslow, Arizona (“I’m standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine site to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me.”). Jena and I (and the dogs) are traveling across the country to Phoenix, AZ. My mother and sister live down there and my other sister and nieces are coming down as well. It will be the first time we have all spent a holiday with each other in many years. Jena and I are driving and decided to, more or less, follow the old Route 66 highway through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. In some places the road no longer exists or is in severe disrepair. Interstate 40 runs most of the way along its trail as well and we often jump over to that road. For the most part, the trip down Route 66 is trip down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, as so many business that relied on the traffic of Route 66 can no longer continue operations now that 40 has diverted so many travelers. I have posted some photos of the trip so far. Enjoy

All Hallows’ Eve bonfire bash 2: wrap-up

Appetite for DestructionIt happened again. Just like last time a thirsty hoard of ghouls, goblins, and (scarier) celebrity impersonators descended upon our house in suburban Minnesota to feast and drink on… well food and beer, mostly.

It was a great time, this past Friday night, with a bonfire and fire “juggling” and even bobbing for apples of all things. I am a bit disappointed that we only had 1 person crash at our place, though. That represents a 300% decrease over last year.

But mine was not the only house to be haunted that night. Take a look at some great photos on flickr tagged with “Halloween Party” I like the shots from the Industrial Light and Magic party (and while some of these are great costumes why did I still expect more).

Some favorites: A giant digital camera that actually worked, Katamari Damacy, Borat, and the whole Monty Python crew of knights (complete with giant Trojan rabbit). Marie Antoinette was looking good too. Just look at that detail in the wig!