My Outlook Divorce & Return to Paper

Perhaps it was the start of a new year or more likely the onslaught of work that hit me the day I returned from holiday, but I had an epiphany. I was being far too reactive. Why was that? I have a highly efficient process that I’ve honed after living in Microsoft Outlook for over a decade. I’m obsessive about my calendar (managed in 15 minute increments and with blocks for work and travel time) as well as achieving zero inbox on a weekly basis–much to the chagrin of my staff when the flurry of resulting emails happens on a Friday afternoon. Yet, it became apparent to me that my professional life was being dictated by what fell into my inbox and showed up on my calendar. External stimuli.

Old DatebooksAround the same time, I happened to come across a collection of my old datebooks from the 1990’s. I was always organized about my time and began using them in high school and through college until I got my first corporate gig which included, you guessed it, Outlook. I’m glad that I held on to them, fascinated I suppose with the idea of being able to say exactly what I was up to on a given day decades ago. Who knows, maybe they’d come in handy for my memoirs or for some future biographer when I hit it big. In any case, it was a stroke of luck that I came across them about this time.

As I flipped through the assortment, noting how much life was dominated by tests and homework, I remembered there was always one that I really liked. It’s had a great large format, pleasing layout, thicker paper and good typography. It was perfect bound but able to lay open flat. It was different from the others, which were mostly medium sized “Week At-A-Glance” full weekend editions by Keith Clark with their black vinyl covers and metal spiral binding. It wasn’t in the pile, but being larger than the rest I hoped it was just somewhere else in the storage trunk. I went frantically digging and was pleased to find it.

Quo Vadis Prenote 24 Agenda Planning DiaryHaving no recollection of the brand, I discovered it was a “Quo Vadis Prenote 24 Agenda Planning Diary” from 1994 with brown print and a black vinyl cover. It shows the whole week with columns for each day except Sunday, which is squished into a small box–I hate it when they do that. It’s 8.25 x 11.5 (in contrast to the 6.75 x 8.75 “At-A-Glance” size which happen to have full Sundays, probably the reason I switched to them) with plenty of room for daily and weekly notes.

So the next question was, do they still make these? A quick internet search found them and I was stoked. Looks like they’ve changed the typography and color palate (for the worse, sadly) but the format remains largely the same. A quick trip to an online specialty office supply store and I had one on the way ($28.44 with shipping).

Quo Vadis Prenote 24 Agenda Planning Diary

So what makes these so special? It’s actually the experience of using it and the planning process it encourages. Unlike my Outlook inbox or calendar, nothing randomly shows up, I have to choose to write it in. I engage my muscle memory when writing. I become more intimate with the item I’m writing about (whether a priority, to do or appointment). This particular planner has more than just space for appointments. It has space for weekly priorities (if you repurpose the boxes on the far right) and a box for the top priorities of each day. It encourages you to think about what’s most important (or “dominant” as the 1994 version called it). It’s always providing tidbits of data like how many days or weeks remain the in the year, reminding you of the big picture.

Now I realize that with some configuration and discipline, I could make Outlook (or iCal for that matter) conform to a similar layout. But I would still loose control of what shows up. I wouldn’t get the tactile experience of writing in the book or the resulting muscle memory. Instead, I would get a backlit experience on an iPad or computer monitor during those quiet times early in the morning or late at night when natural light on paper is more contemplative (or worse, toner on loose sheets of stark white paper with horrifying typography should I conform to one of Outlook’s barely customizable print layouts).

So after a decade, we’ve divorced and I’ve found someone new. Outlook is no longer my planner. It is an input to my planner. I’m never going to avoid the flood of email or the daily meeting marathon with constantly shifting appointments that is a fact of corporate life. But by putting space between that chaos and what I write in my planner, I’m afforded the chance to consider what’s most important. To think about the rhythm of a day or a week. To be a little less quick to change priorities when something “urgent” comes in (after all, I have to actually spend a few seconds with a pencil eraser to make changes instead of just clicking a mouse).

How have the results been? Well, it’s only been two weeks so it’s difficult to factor out the potential novelty factor, but I can say with confidence I’ve been more productive. Setting daily priorities that have to fit into a 1 inch box have really made me think about what’s most important. You can only really write 2 or 3 things in there, which is usually about right for significant items. Most importantly, I enjoy the experience. It produces a more contemplative mood which I believe will lead to better planning. The muscle memory from handwriting has gotten me closer to the details of each day, and I find I actually refer to the page less because of it. I can let Outlook be Outlook and not get frustrated by trying to bend it to my needs. And, I’ll have something I can look at decades from now to see exactly what I was up to in 2012.

Donuts & Creepy Facebook Ads

Earlier today I visited a popular news website and did something I almost never do. I clicked an ad. Now, it happened to be a enticing photo of some glazed donuts and mentioned the name of the town I lived in–apparently a potent combination:

Clicking the ad spawned a new window that brought me to the following page:

And there I noticed several of my Facebook friends embedded in the bottom of the ad. That was strange, I wasn’t in Facebook. I didn’t come from Facebook. In fact, I didn’t even have Facebook open in the background.

I forgot all about donuts. I went over to facebook.com which dutifully landed me straight on my “news” feed, indicating that I had remained logged in from a prior visit. When I logged out and reloaded the ad, sure enough, the my friends had vanished:

I don’t know about you, but that seemed a little creepy. As an astute colleague at work pointed out, this is a case where they let you know–imagine when they don’t! Now I’ve scoured the maze of Facebook account and privacy settings and couldn’t come up with a way to turn this off.

So, my lesson learned is to log out of Facebook (assuming I don’t just delete my account), don’t do business with whatever “livingsocial” is, and most importantly… stay away from donuts!

Gratitude or Greener Grass?

Working in corporate IT, it’s amazing how often I find myself fantasizing about the consulting life. To work with different companies and different people and varying cultures–each engagement new and exciting. To be able to size up a problem from the outside, and propose or implement a solution, then have the luxury of not living with the consequences of my decisions. Sure, it would probably involve more hours and certainly more travel, but the incentive-based compensation would more than make up for it, right?

Then I talk to a consultant or entrepreneur and hear about the stress of not generating enough revenue and the unpredictability of their compensation. The midnight hours spent rushing on a RFP dropped on you with little notice. The sobering reality of corporate politics in every large engagement that can sometimes leave your entire project in limbo, and you on the bench in the meantime. Oftentimes they even wax about taking a corporate role for the “stability” and “low stress” (I know I did back in the day).

It’s easy to get stuck thinking the grass is greener. We all know the cliche, but few of us live with it’s antidote, gratitude. To be able to step back and appreciate what you have and how fortunate you are to have it. How worse things could actually be, and the sobering knowledge that no matter what the job, their will be plusses and minuses. There is no perfect job–even Steve Jobs a had boss to deal with (and got fired!).

About the only thing I can think of that’s good about grass-is-greener thinking is, if channeled right, it might challenge your complacency and career inertia. By contrast, I can find no drawbacks to gratitude. It makes you a happier, better person and compels you to express thanks to others in your life–something that in the end is what life’s all about.

So next time you find yourself peering over the fence at that green grass, use that as a moment to pause, reflect, and be grateful for what you have. You’ll be happy you did.

They Stood Up to Evil and Made the World a Safer Place

It’s been a long time since September 11, 2001, and much has happened in my life since then. I found a great company to grow a career at, married my beautiful wife and had an amazing daughter. Personally and professionally I’m thriving, yet the horror of that day and the subsequent wars have cast a lingering shadow in how I look at the world.

As a history buff and grandson of a Naval Aviator in WWII (or “the big one” as he like to call it), I grew up with a fascination for American history, particularly WWII through the Cold War. That generation faced evil, stood up to it, and made the world a safer place for the rest of us.

Talk to anyone from that era, and they can tell you with clarity what they were doing on December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963. In my life, it had only been the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger (January 28, 1986) announced over the PA system of my school that created a similar memory for me. Like most people, I got a call early September 11, 2001 from a close friend saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and to turn on the TV. I then witnessed the rest of those horrific events play out in my living room and felt the shared dread of “not knowing what was next”.

I’ve come to realize how sheltered and fortune I had been not having felt that way before. That security, earned by my Grandfather’s generation, was something I had taken for granted.

In moments of doubt, I sometimes wonder if my generation has what it takes for a struggle like WWII as my Grandfather’s generation had. We grew up with abundance rather than scarcity, and by nearly any measure are “soft” in comparison. I do think we’re enterprising and hard working, but there is no question a sense of entitlement and complacency has infected the outlook of many.

That brings me to A.J. Castro, a local high school graduate that lost his life serving his country in Afghanistan a couple weeks ago. He chose to join the Army, serving in the legendary 101st Airborne, and chose to go to Afghanistan. He didn’t have to do either. He was killed at age 20. No entitlement or complacency there.

It’s men and women like him, and the many thousands that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 9 years, that allay those moments of doubt. My Grandfather once said that he’d wished he hadn’t lived long enough to see September 11th–evil had come back and it was now up to my generation to face it. Are we up to the challenge?

Well, men like A.J. Castro are standing up, facing evil, and again making the world a safer place for the rest of us. May we never forget the cost.

A New Addition to the Family

After another prompt delivery of an obscure CMOS battery from Battery Bob, the latest addition to my vintage Macintosh collection is a nearly pristine Mac Plus. Why another Mac Plus you say? Well, I suppose it’s the same reason Howard Hughes would purchase an new airplane then do all his flying in a leased one while keeping the original untouched in a hanger–now I can actually use one without any fear that I might burn it out, if I do, I still have my original in working order.

Thanks to my LocalTalk-to-Ethernet bridge and virtual WindowsNT server running an AppleTalk share, I can actually use this Plus (affectionately named the Mac Minus) for real work. In fact, I’m composing this blog entry using TeachText and saving it through my nifty bridged network to the MacPro for posting.

The keyboard is a bit clunky and the screen has a noticeable flicker (unlike the now seemly luxurious 28 inch LCD monitor next to it), but with no fan or hard drive, it’s perfectly silent (save the knocking of the giant keys). And it’s a pleasure to use. That is if you find a 9 inch black and white screen to be nostalgic.

It’s amazing what you take for granted in life. Using a vintage system like this is not only satisfying, but it reminds you how nice a modern computer really is: the bright screen, ample real estate, gorgeous chrome, and snappy responsiveness.  It’s like when we return home from a trip in the Airstream. When living in the trailer, your needs are met and you’re not really wanting in any way. It’s when you get home, you realize how big your rooms actually are and how much luxury you really live in.

Go find something old and use it again. It will make you happy.

Surfing the Web on a Vintage Mac Plus

After some serious tinkering, I was finally able to get my original Mac Plus (cira 1986) to surf the web natively. No cheating, no terminal emulation. Just a real web browser running in System 6 accessing the live internet.

Here’s what the System 6 Heaven webpage looks like on the Plus:

Mac Plus Surfing Web, 2010
Mac Plus Surfing Web, 2010

That’s not just a text file!  It’s actually MacWWW, an early web browser (circa 1992) that can run on System 6.  For comparison, here is the same webpage in Safari 5: <Photo Missing>

How did I do it?

Well, it was a little tricky since the Mac Plus and System 6 were built before the web, web browsers, home Ethernet LANs and always-on broadband Internet connections were common place (or in some cases even invented). Macs of that time communicated using AppleTalk over LocalTalk networks, both of which are obsolete and no longer even supported by contemporary Mac OS X.

First, I acquired a Quadra 700 for the lab (circa 1992), sort of the Mac Pro of it’s day, since it has ports that support both LocalTalk and Ethernet (using a proprietary Apple AAUI adapter, yes another trip to eBay) and can run System 7. After getting it working on both the modern Ethernet LAN and the vintage LocalTalk network with the Plus on it, the next step was to bridge the two networks using Apple’s (now freely available) LocalTalk Bridge software (the trick being to remember it will always use your printer port for LocalTalk!).

With that in place and working, I could now use AppleTalk file sharing across both networks to easily move all the vintage software around that I needed on the respective systems. It also occurred to me that I should back all this up, given the age of the hard drives and floppy disks, so after exploring open source alternatives like FreeNAS (and learning the vagaries of which versions of AppleTalk are supported by which OSes), I resorted to bringing up a virtual Windows NT 4 Server (cira 1994) with Services for Macintosh. It gave me quite the chuckle that I had to use a Microsoft product to pull this off.

Lastly, I made a clean System 6 install on the Mac Plus and added MacTCP but still needed to get TCP/IP routed over LocalTalk and the bridge on the Quadra. For that, I found IPNetRouter and these instructions which quite frankly required some serious trial and error (the trick there being while you set the bridging machine address as the gateway on the LocalTalk devices, you have to use a real DNS server address).

After some patient tinkering, and many disappointing pings on the Mac Plus, I got it working and fired up MacWWW to find a webpage with no graphics, JavaScript, CSS, Flash, embedded media, or just about any modern element we take for granted. You see the results in the pictures above.

Why did I do it?

Just to see if I could I suppose.

Both my Mac Plus and the early web played an important part in my life and the beginning of my career. I can still recall when NCSA Mosaic was first installed in the university computer lab–after just being told during orientation that most of us would work in jobs that hadn’t been invented yet (which has held true for me).  And aside from a brief (and shameful) period during the late 90’s, I’ve always had a Mac.

I had wanted to do this for some time, but it wasn’t until my recent focus on some other vintage technology projects that I got serious. My next task is to get a solid SSH client working on the vintage machines (perhaps for retro Twitter), as well as virtualizing each of them in emulators on my modern systems (so they can live in perpetuity).

Anyone up for a game of Bolo?

Remembering Ben

Ben, Ray, Brian, Peter, Joe, John, circa 1989.
Ben, Ray, Brian, Peter, Joe, John, circa 1989.

It seems in each era of life, certain friendships stand out as being especially close for that particular period. During my junior high years, that was Ben Tanner (far left) with whom I shared passions for aviation, computers and amateur radio (and shall we say a certain propensity for school hijinks).

When I moved away to New Orleans for high school, we maintained a New Years tradition in which I took advantage of the time zone difference to welcome him into the next year 2 hours in advance. As high school turned in to college, we lost touch but in a pleasantly unpredictable way reunited when we both found ourselves back in California following college.

It was then I learned one of those life lessons you don’t soon forget. He relocated to Colorado to get married and pursue a firefighting career, and we had a falling out. I felt strongly at the time and chose not to attend his wedding. He was killed in a car accident not long after that, and our relationship was forever locked in that divide.

That was 10 years ago this Independence Day.

Here is an except for the Denver Post article which covered the accident:

Holiday’s highway toll reaches 7 EMT dies in crash caused by out-of-control semi

July 4, 2000

An emergency medical technician was killed on his way to work Monday in a wreck on Interstate 25. Benjamin Tanner, 26, of Westminster was the latest to die on Colorado highways over the Fourth of July holiday. With about 24 hours to go, the holiday toll stood at seven – two fewer than last year.

Troopers said Tanner was southbound on I-25 near East 152nd Avenue in Adams County about 9 a.m. when a northbound semi went out of control, colliding with a northbound car and pushing it across the median, where it rolled and hit Tanner’s car.

A medical problem might have caused the truck driver to lose control of his rig, Trooper Rod Campbell said.

The truck driver, Stanley Matsinger, 58, of Alvarado, Texas, and the driver of the other car, Jon Howell, 25, of Longmont were admitted to Denver Health Medical Center in fair condition.

Tanner had worked for Action Care Ambulance for two months and previously worked for another ambulance company. He and his wife would have celebrated their first anniversary next week.

“He was really highly motivated and working hard to get into paramedic school to finish his paramedic training,” said Tom Tkach, chief paramedic for Action Care.

I was also able to retrieve his obituary:

Benjamin David Tanner

Certified EMT, 25

Benjamin David “Ben” Tanner of Longmont, a certified emergency medical technician, died July 3 of injuries sustained in an auto accident. He was 25.

Services were July 7 at St. John’s Catholic Church in Loveland. Interment was in Resthaven Memory Gardens in Fort Collins.

He was born June 12, 1975, in Chesterfield, Mo. He was on high school cross-country and track teams in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

He was a member of St. Paschal Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks. He studied fire science technology at Moorpark and Oxnard colleges toward a firefighting career. He was a certified EMT in California and Colorado. He also held a student pilot certificate.

On July 17, 1999, he married Trisha Leigh Smith in Evergreen.

He worked for Action Care Ambulance in Englewood and was a volunteer EMT with Northglenn Ambulance and the Pleasant View fire station.

His interests included fishing, computers, flying, animals and music.

He is survived by his wife; his parents, David and Anne; two sisters, Emma, Brea, Calif., and Barbara, Los Angeles; two brothers, John “J.T.” and Daniel, both of Brea; and his grandmothers, Mary Frederiksen and Eleanor, both of St. Charles, Mo.

Contributions may be made to the Ben Tanner Family Memorial Fund, c/o Commerce Bank of Aurora, 15305 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora, CO 80011, Attention: M. Toggle.

I often think of Ben when I see our old school or pass his family’s old house, and hope his widow and family have gone on to thrive in the past decade. I now make it a practice to never let those type of disputes carry on long with people close to me–it’s my tribute to him and a life lesson I hope to convey. I won’t forget you Ben.

Review: HBO’s The Pacific

Today I watched the last installment of HBO’s The Pacific, culminating 10 hours of intense television that I had been anticipating for months. As with Band of Brothers before it, The Pacific was more than just education–it brought amazing perspective on the tragedy and violence of war and reenforced how small my own problems seem in comparison.

The Pacific was about as different from Band of Brothers as the Pacific Theatre was from the European during the war. As Eugene Sledge points out in this talk, the German soldier was a very competent killer, but in the end, wanted to get back to his family after the war. The Imperial Japanese soldier, however, had no higher honor than to die for the emperor. That led to a very different kind of brutality and a raw volume of killing thoroughly depicted in the series.

On balance, I felt Band of Brothers to be the better of the two–primarily due to the fact you are following one cohort through the war and get to know the soldiers, and their amazing leader Dick Winters, quite well over the 10 hours. The Pacific bounced around between different key Marines and only touched on some of the incredible leadership stories (Chesty Puller getting the most attention).

One of the most compelling stories, that of Captain Andrew “Ack-Ack” Haldane, deserved more attention. He represented the best America had to offer, a natural leader: captain of the football and baseball teams, president of the student council, beloved by his men and respected by his superiors. As you can read in this profile, and this news story, his impact is still felt.

Even as an American history buff, I did not know the whole story of John Basilone and intentionally did not read more about him beforehand so as to experience his story unfold in the series. That resulted in the second kick in the stomach of the series for me, the first being Haldane. After reading the citations for his Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, I couldn’t help but feel the depiction of both events in the series was lacking.

As with Band of Brothers, the series brought an amazing perspective to the “problems” I have in my “intense” and “stressful” corporate job. Since we don’t have cable at home, I bribed a history buff friend of mine to subscribe to HBO (thanks Scott!) so we could watch each episode over lunch at his house. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, going from my “hectic” office, to view (or rather experience) each episode in the dark of his living room, then emerge an hour later to a sunny afternoon in his bucolic suburban neighborhood. Each time I returned to the office, things seemed a little less dire at work.

Overall, I salute Hanks and the producers for putting this historic piece out there. It will educate countless viewers about what those men went through, and maybe make you think a little bit differently about Trumen’s decision to use the nuclear bomb to ultimately save lives. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as Band of Brothers, it is an important contribution to our historic memory and a superb tribute to those Marines.

The Benefits of Biking to Work

Thanks to my new ride, I have the ability to bicycle to work rather than drive. It’s something I’ve always wanted the choice to do, and finally my proximity to the office, the local weather, and a recent lifestyle choice coincided to make it possible.

A round trip is only 5.2 miles, which amounts to 26 miles if I rode every day.  That’s probably not a reasonable goal since there will still be occasions where I will need a car for other reasons (weather, errands, etc.), so I’m starting with a goal of 3 days per week, or 15.6 miles.

Assuming a leisurely pace, that’s about 700 calories I would not have burned. It’s about 2 more hours of fresh air and sunshine and a the chance to savor a peaceful buffer between a bustling home and frenetic office.

It will save me about a gallon of gas per week, running about $3.50 around here, and maybe $8 in vehicle mileage (that’s almost $600 per year!). If I’m able to do this year round, it amounts to saving over half of ton of CO2 emissions (calculator).

So I suppose the question should have always been, why drive?

Why I Didn’t Buy an iPad (Yet)

So I went to the store. I held one in my hand. And I didn’t buy it. I surprised my wife, and impressed myself. I figured by the time I actually saw it in person, I would have passed the event horizon and surely have brought one home. Yes, it helped that the 64GB models had been sold out, but I could have found one at another nearby location if I really wanted to.

Why didn’t I buy it?

1.  I need a multi-user device. Yes, I know if Apple allows for that, families would buy less iPads, since everyone currently needs their own. Well, this family didn’t buy any because of it. I’m not about to have my baby daughter (who’s grown up using an iPhone touch screen), playing her games, watching family videos, and then sending random tweets or composing gibberish emails to my boss from my account. If it could support multiple user accounts, I’d buy it.

2.  I like to write and draw. Multi-touch is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but for me to carry the iPad to meetings and take notes, I need to be able to write and draw on it, with the precision of a stylus. If it could replace a paper notebook, I’d buy it.

3.  I’m focused on content production. While I consume content, I don’t need another screen to do so. Yes, the experience is very elegant, and if I was in to luxury or had to travel frequently, I would have bought it. Same for the MacBook Air a couple years ago. But luckily for my wife, I’m a little too conservative for that. If the device could sit on a desktop easel and take a wireless keyboard and mouse (thus replacing my laptop), I’d buy it.

4.  Lastly, there was no killer app for me. So far, everything I would want to do on an iPad I can do on an iPhone, just with a small screen. Check/compose email, use Twitter, play a couple games, or watch movies in bed or on a plane. The on-screen keyboard is bigger, but not tremendously easier to use. If an app comes out that I simply must have, then I’d buy it.

So for now, I’ll stay on the sidelines observing how the apps evolve and if any of my use cases above will be supported. I’ll just have to make due with my iPhone, MacBook, Mac Pro, iMac, AppleTV and the MacBook Pro at work.