Thursday, October 29, 2009

1e7 Servers?

This article from Data Center Knowledge has a nice presentation from Jeff Dean.  Recommended.

Merge Contacts in Gmail

Gmail does a good job of building your contacts list from email messages you've sent and received.  After some years go by, you tend to have multiple entries based on various email addresses and sometimes names, for various people.  If you further add in entries to track, say phone numbers and addresses, it gets even more confusing.

Finally, now with the Android phone, your old cell phone list* gets sucked into the Gmail contacts list, since they are fully integrated meaning one and the same on the Android phone, so now there may be one or more entries for various phone numbers, too.

Gmail Contacts actually offers a neat feature to fix this.  If you search on a person's name and get several results back, you can check off all entries that are the same person and click on a Merge Contacts link.  That will throw all of that data into one contact.  Then you can go in and edit it, cleaning up the name (i.e., names like John Cel and John Work), delete old phone numbers and indicate which are mobile, work or home, delete obsolete email addresses, etc.

Android always offers you a choice of matching phone numbers when calling and you select from the list.  Gmail does the same for sending email.

* I've been a T-Mobile customer for eight or more years (it used to be Voicestream and before that was Powertel) so I've been carrying around the same SIM card all that time.  Okay, a couple of years ago I did let the store copy my old SIM card to a newer, larger one.  Since the SIM card has the phone list on it, I had all of my numbers every time I switched GSM phones by just plugging it into the next phone.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What About Comments?

You may ask, “What if I'd like to leave comments about posts here on Monolith149 Daily?”

Here are some options:


You can tweet comments to @stargate149.  They can include links to comments you've posted somewhere and/or links to the post you are commenting on.  This is the simplest, easiest to access, most public and most direct method.


If you are reading these posts on Facebook, you can comment there.  If you aren't reading this on Facebook now, go to

Google Reader

You can share posts from Google Reader with additional notes, etc.

Monolith149 Discuss

For an on-going, closed discussion, you can join the blog Monolith149 Discuss.

The Village

For Halloween, I recommend watching my favorite “scary” movie.

I expect most would agree that M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense is unforgettable.  On the other hand, though I've seen Lady in the Water, I can't remember what it was about. And there's something I didn't quite like about Unbreakable, but once I realized the movie itself is a comic book, I actually found it to be quite enjoyable.

However, the movie I enjoy the most from his collection is The Village.

Warning, this is a spoiler: If you're wondering why I like this movie so much, at least one reason is here, but I'd suggest watching it first, before clicking.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Getting Things Done

For the past few weeks, I've been deep in the process of fully adopting David Allen's Getting Things Done.

It was a bit of adjustment to leave behind (at least for now) a system that has served me well for decades, but I've moved everything over to Gmail Tasks, am reorganizing my office, and changed my daily work process. So far it's still working well and quite enjoyable, too.

Here are some details.

What is it?

GTD is another of those approaches to organizing your work, your life, and accomplishing tasks efficiently. This isn't something I thought I needed. In fact, I've been using Alan Lakein's approach for over 20 years and it has served me well. If you wonder whether I've always had control of my time and my life, the answer is certainly, No. But, I've always known what I needed to do when I wanted to have full control and needed to be maximally efficient.

However, GTD was highly touted by people around me so I finally watched one of David Allen's videos and became further intrigued. Then I read his book and decided to give it a try. Usually, IMHO, the only proper way to give something a try is to follow all of the instructions, completely.

Jumping in

With that idea, I've jumped headfirst into the new process.

There is one important and critical way that GTD differs from any other time management scheme that I've seen or heard. If it's not a difference, at least it's something that just escaped me before now. Mr. Allen claims that it's important to write down or record everything in your action-tracking system and keep nothing in your head. The reason is that, any action item in your head that is not recorded “in a system you trust” maintains a constant psychic drain on your mind, and adds a source of stress. It's not until you get everything out of your mind and into the system that your mind can totally relax and think freely. He claims you can never be free of mental stress (and thus physical stress, if they can be differentiated at all), until you reach this point.

That idea was new to me. I don't know if it's true or not, but it certainly seems plausible and seems worth giving a shot.

I drove over to the Borders and bought the book and read it over the next several days. Then a couple of weekends ago, I started my first collecting and processing effort at home. I also did one at work, but the effort for that was quite minimal since most of my information at work was already highly organized in my old system.

Todo list software and Tasks

A big change for me has been moving from the Lakein style of todo lists to the GTD style of next action lists. I've been maintaining todo lists in Lakein's format for over 20 years. For most of those years, I've used software that I wrote myself and that has been re-written a number of times. The first version was in C and used pointers to pointers to implement a list of strings. The most recent re-write was in object-oriented Python. I've also used a pad on my desk or a little steno book with dated pages. Anyway, leaving the old format and process behind (that was familiar, much loved and working!) has been a big step for me.

GTD isn't specific about what tool to use for tracking your next actions, projects, and such, though it makes a number of suggestions and provides good guidance. There are also many updated suggestions and tools on-line today. When I sat down to decide on a tool, I considered re-writing my todo list again to work in the GTD way of doing things. However, Tasks had been there in Gmail for a while and I'd played with it a bit, even used it a little. It seemed marginally adequate for tracking things then, but I took as second look and simply started using it. The gradual process of just trying it out more and more ended up being a full commitment to moving everything over.

Tasks Features

One nice feature of Tasks is that it's quite simple and somewhat flexible. You can easily drag tasks up and down in a list to reorder them. You can have multiple lists and it's easy to move tasks between them. Finally a task can have a due date (which automatically puts it on your calendar) and it can have a large set of textual notes and web links attached to it.

You check off completed items and you can clear all completed items so you don't see them any more. Then you can view a separate list of all your completed items on a list by list basis. You can also indent items under a leading item. That means you can move that whole indented group as a unit. You can have multiple levels of indentation and, thus, of structure. Finally, you can easily add an email message as a task from Gmail with one click.

So, with many of these added improvements, Tasks turned out to be quite powerful when I started using it in earnest.

How I'm using Tasks

Given all of those features, the path of my evolution of usage, and as I grok more of GTD, here's the way I'm currently using Gmail Tasks.

I keep a number of separate lists. These include all of my next action lists, a project list, and a calendar lists.

Any item that has a date assigned goes on the Calendar list. Since, from your Gmail calendar, you can only choose one list at a time, I always leave the Calendar list selected and that makes those items appear on my calendar. They are associated with a day but not specific times on that day, as GTD suggests.

GTD defines a project as any task with more than one action, so my Projects list has a project and indented under it are the actions. I always keep the next action at the top, by dragging tasks around if needed. I sometimes drag a whole project around to reorder them in the list.

Since my lists were rather long, I organized my next action lists into context-based lists. So I have an At Computer list, At Home list, an Agendas list for conversations with folks. My Read/Review list either has book or article titles to read, or frequently has links to on-line items to read.

One of the best parts of Tasks is that, because it's in the cloud and because it's accessible from my Android phone, I have access to my lists all of the time. (You can access tasks from a phone browser at This also makes it easy to add new tasks and ideas directly into the system.

If I'm driving, I call my Google Voice number and leave a message for myself. It gets automatically encoded into text and emailed to me so I can enter it later. (Granted, the voice-to-text doesn't work that well for me now).

There are two completely separate instances of Tasks for work and home, but it's easy to move items between them. Also I can enter actions into each whether I'm at work or at home, and have access to reviewing them as well.

When on an actual computer, it's important to pop out the Tasks list and make it into a larger window. That's the only way it really becomes usable.

Documents, check lists and filing

For some of the other check lists that GTD recommends, I've been using Google Documents so far. I created a GTD folder there to keep them all in.

Unfortunately I'm haven't quite reached the paperless state at home. Fortunately, Allen recommends a filing system for all of one's reference materials—that's stuff that doesn't require any actions but that you may need to refer to later. In a nutshell, he says to use simple file folders and a label maker, and to file everything alphabetically in one system. He also recommends not using Pendaflex hanging folders because they slow you down too much, and there's a strong emphasis on keeping it all simple and easy to do! So, I got a Brother P-Touch label maker on sale at Office Max, and I've been purging my old hanging files and re-processing everything into a new system. This even lead to emptying out and purging files form an old file cabinet I have at home and dedicating it to the new system.

Is it really faster and better to use the old manilla folders? For me, the jury is still out on this one. At least you don't have to worry about those little hooks that stick out of the hanging folders.

He also says, don't hesitate to file a single piece of paper in a folder with a label. The justification is that, if it's important enough to keep, it's important enough to file. Makes sense. So using the cheap folders definately makes that easier to do.

I've nearly made it through all of the paper in my office and now it's on to the many other boxes of stuff which is another level of purging and reorganizing, but I'm on a bit of a role.


So, I'm still settling into the process. It's been about three weeks since I migrated all of my Todo items to Tasks and about two weeks since I began the Big Collection process in my office at home. Though I've fully committed to giving GTD a spin, my experience with Lakein's (and other's) approach is still present as a source of insight and practical how-to skill. In fact, there is a lot of overlap between these two approaches, more than they are different.

I highly recommend Getting Things Done, and will post here later on how it's all going.

I'm Paperless

If you just want the punchline, skip down to “The Punchline.”

My past, paperful existance

Well, at least at work. For years, spanning previous employers and jobs, I've been moving more and more to a paperless office.

My paperful existence hit a maximum probably sometime maybe in the mid 90s. At that time I think I had either two or four lateral file drawers of files that I carted around everytime I moved offices or desks. In addition to that was a too-large collection of magazines, journals and books.

There was a while on the Emory campus when a friend of mine had stuffed away a large portion of this stuff in a storage room on the fourth floor of the Candler Library, when I moved into a smaller cube arrangement. (And note that the “smaller” cube was a generous 10x10 = 100 square feet!).

Eventually another friend delivered those old boxes and cases to me on several hand carts and I went through and cleaned them out. I finally eliminated almost all of that paper, retaining only some of personal, historical interest.

Paper starts to decline

By the early to mid 2000s, people were generally sending documents as email attachments meaning that there was no reason for paper. During those years I used paper as a presentation medium. I might print something to take to a meeting then throw it away. If anyone gave me something on paper in a meeting, I still threw it away after the meeting (with only rare exceptions). My expectation was that they could always give me another copy if I needed one, and would somehow share or make it available electronically if it was important. I don't recall that ever actually causing a problem.

(For anyone shocked at this use of paper and worried about trees, I reminded them that paper is a major industry of Georgia and that trees are grown on vast tree farms solely for the purpose of making paper. Good grief!)

In my last job at Emory I basically had no paper documents at all. There were just a few in a handful of folders, probably five or less.

The Punchline

In my current job the amount of paper I use is zero. On very rare occasions I print something out to look at it with a highlighter and not on the screen, but usually destroy that copy pretty quickly. Anything important is always on-line.

The nice thing about this is that there are no papers on my desk. Period. I have no file folders and nearly nothing in any drawers. In fact my desk is pretty much empty except for a couple of astronomical pictures stuck up and one or two bits of interesting detritus folks have insisted on giving me. In fact, I could move to another desk with nearly zero effort.

Except for Notebooks

There is one exception of note here. For nearly 20 years I've taken notes in, believe it or not, notebooks. I don't ever use legal pads but always some kind of bound notebook with pages numbered and dated. At the time I began that practice, it mercifully eliminated the unending stacks of miscellaneous pages from legal pads, and whole pads, that I somehow never got around to filing.

At Emory and for most of those years I not only used those notebooks for meetings but for all the work I did. Later, I only used them for meetings and moved other note-taking on-line in a practice I still follow today.

Having on-line notes searchable and available is of almost immeasurable value! (Of course, accidentally deleting a chunk of them is of almost immeasurable damage! Since, uh, that event, I've used a version control system to make snapshots so I can always step back through any changes. Currently I use Bazaar for this and all personal version control).

As a result, I only take occasional notes during meetings, and sometimes notes about ideas and such that are more graphical than textual. When I left Emory I had reached 85 notebooks of accumulated information, though the most recent was always the most important and useful—one reason that notebooks work so well for this. Now, I barely use one composition book per year.

The Apps I use

Even a few years ago, the number of products available from Google seemed dizzying and hard to keep up with. The flow of new stuff (and the deprecation of old stuff) hasn't slowed down and may even have picked up some.

Because of conversations with some folks about the apps that are around now, it seems like a good time for a quick inventory. Here are the Google apps that I use the most, that are most important, and that I'm most excited about. At least they are sorted by some product of those, roughly.

Also, please note that this isn't a complete list of everything that I use, but just those that are highest on the list given the above sorting criteria.

  • Search - Mostly taken for granted now, I use it probably hourly and it actually continues to evolve and improve rapidly.
  • Gmail - Though I think email should die and is, in fact, well on its way out, this is still one of Google's best apps and I rely on it completely and continuously.
  • Android phone software - My phone is probably The Computer I Use nearly 50% of the time, not counting desktop programming and such at work. Use means reading, reference (looking things up), communication (email, messaging), task and calendar tracking, notes.
  • Chrome browser - I use it on all platforms now (Windows, Linux and Mac) almost exclusively.
  • Wave - Though I've been using it for real work for weeks, it's now brand new to the public. It hits a lot of my targets squarely in the center, while bringing along a huge mass of features.
  • Gmail Tasks - Now that I'm fully emerging in GTD, Tasks fits the needs there very nicely. I use it nearly hourly.
  • Maps - I use them daily, to find restaurants and such, and every time I'm going somewhere new. In combination with GPS on Android, I use Maps while driving sometimes. At home I use a combination of satellite, map and street view to plot a course to somewhere new or for a trip. I use the Terrain view pretty often, too. I use the traffic view daily, too.
  • App Engine - I don't create or need them much, but this is a wonderful environment, I'd say *the* way, to develop and deploy a web app.
  • Picasa - For pictures.
  • Google Documents - About the only word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation environment I ever use now. Period. I fire up Open Office for something maybe once every six months. Microsoft Office: never, and not for maybe four years.
  • Apps for my domain - I have a number of instances for domains I own. It's the only email solution I use.
  • Google voice - We've dumped Vonage and GV is now our only family/home number.
  • Sites - This is about the only solution I use now for non-app web sites. I wish it had more themes but those it does have are good enough for my needs, and I'd rather use Sites than do the extra maintenance and customization. It's just not what I want to spend my time on. I have so many sites for so many purposes, I don't even know what the number is.