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In Some Small Measure, Wisdom

Picture of the Interior of the Jefferson Memorial, taken by Thomas Gideon

Yesterday I took what ended up being an epic walk. I have already written about how I have been walking more lately. Walking more has been easier over the last two months. I had been taking days off or at least working from home while focused on my job search. The other week, I had a sudden run of days in DC but hadn’t yet come up with attractive walking routes to help me keep up my new habit. In looking around an online map of what was nearby, I found Constitution Gardens. The Gardens truly are one of the hidden treasures of DC and I wish I had found them sooner. There is a huge water feature within which is a small island that has a ring of stone engraved with the signatures of all those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The Gardens are a decent half hour walk from where I work. Worked–today is my last day and my new gig is located much closer to home, in the suburbs.

During that first walk to the Gardens, I paused near the World War II memorial and happened to noticed the Jefferson Memorial was close by. On that day, I promised myself I would come back to see that site before my last day working in DC. I did just that yesterday, taking advantage of some cold but stunning weather.

The online maps make the memorial seem far closer to the Gardens then it is, at least by foot. I walked around the World War II memorial. I crossed several beating arteries of downtown traffic and started around the tidal basin. The view of the memorial as you walk under the cherry tries is breathtaking, especially on a clear, sunny day like yesterday. The view lingers as the walk around the basin is a good twenty minutes. When I finished my visit, I continued my around the other side of the basin which is even a little longer than the side I walked on the way down.

The time and distance (an hour and a half and more than four miles respectively) were only part of what made the walk epic, at least to me. Thomas Jefferson holds a special place in my regard. He attended my alma mater where we refer to him as either Young Thom or Our Thom. We used the latter especially around UVa students. Jefferson founded UVa but he was a student at William and Mary. The claim to him is part of the two schools’ long standing rivalry.

More importantly, when I was just getting involved in online activism, exploring topics around creativity and intellectual property in a post-digital, post-network world, a quote of his spoke to me deeply. In a letter to Isaac McPherson, he wrote this particular turn of phrase in talking about intellectual property, its nature and how we should think of its regulation, for instance by copyright:

Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Visiting his memorial was a touchstone. At first I thought also it might be a farewell, a sort of personal resignation. I am leaving the world of working directly for the public interest to return to private industry. The memorial is filled with inspiring quotes, four of them in massive panels interspersed with openings out onto views of the tidal basin, the Potomac, and parts of DC. A more subtle quote is worked into the stone just beneath the dome.

I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Standing in a contemplative space dedicated to someone whose writings called to me across the generations, thinking about this transition in my life, that last part really struck me. Even though for reasons related to my own pursuit of happiness I was leaving the service of the public interest, in my own way I can certainly hold to fighting every form of tyranny over the mind of man. I can do so wherever I find myself, not in the least on this site and in my podcast as I am renewing and recommitting to my writing and thinking here.

That thought touched off what I hope is at least some small measure of wisdom I can take away from this job, more so than I have managed to realize when leaving jobs past.

Earlier in my career, I often gave into the urge to demonize the the people or experiences from a job I was leaving. I’ve read enough to understand I am not alone in feeling the urge to do so. Humans are story telling creatures. We continually weave a story of our own life. Our own individual narrative first and foremost supports who we think we are. When the world around us is at odds with who we believe ourselves to be, we feel pain in the form of cognitive dissonance. The easiest way to relieve that pain is to change our narrative, despite the facts, to restore the version of ourselves we believe is true.

I increasingly believe the secret of true wisdom is to resist rewriting our personal narratives. If we admit our own faults, the tale becomes the richer for it. We invite in opportunities to learn, to actually grow and honestly become more of whom we would like ourselves to be, in fact and deed. In holding more to the complicated, messy, objective facts of our lives, we can better embrace humility, honesty and courage, rather than simply rewriting the narrative. If we revise our story, we miss that chance to harness our faults and mistakes to urge us on to do and be better in the future.

Posted in General.

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Searching for Myself

Detail of an orrery made by Benjamin Martin in London in 1767, used by John Winthrop to teach astronomy at Harvard, on display at the Putnam Gallery in the Harvard Science Center, used under CC-BY-SA, by Wikipedia user Sage Ross

I sat across a table today from an account manager at a staffing firm. I didn’t expect to be there. I had taken a phone screen the week prior, my first in-depth technical assessment, that I thought I had completely fumbled. Looking back at my notes from right after the call, I wrote in big block letters, FAIL.

Right after that, I wrote three quick bullet points, things I needed to do in order to avoid failing like that again. In a nutshell, I had not prepared for the call. Things I knew when I was more actively programming refused to pop instantly into my head. Instead, I struggled even though I knew I knew the answers to his questions. The questions were mostly what I call technical trivia, information that is easily searched for online and rarely demonstrates a grasp of useful programming knowledge or skill.

I have since made good on those action items in my notes. I promised myself I would not take an opportunity for granted again, preparing as best I could for each one from here forward.

I have been on the job search a handful of times over the years. I am not sure I previously had such a moment of self awareness. In the past, even under difficult circumstances, I found it too easy to take my knowledge and skills for granted. If I failed, I wrote it off and blithely looked towards the next opportunity. If I had to be charitable in explaining myself, I suppose I would say that more often than note I have had the good fortune to be looking when time was a luxury, when I was still employed. Dismissing a failure without learning from it didn’t seem to carry any meaningful risk.

For some reason, this failure was different. Maybe it was because of an earlier failure in the same search. I had come close but ultimately failed at a first opportunity when I started my search in earnest, back in September. That first chance was like all the others, I guess. I didn’t especially prepare. I relied on my wits, my ability to communicate, and luck more than anything else.

When I didn’t get that job, I was crushed. I really liked the company and the people. The whole experience was great, even doing a thirty hour quick turn around trip from coast to coast. The role was a new one to me that seemed like an amazing way to both return to more hands on technical work as well as to continue to engage my writing and speaking skills. They even found me through my podcast, rather than the other way around.

Maybe the disappointment, in myself as much as anything, was a wake up call. I had used several weeks pretty much exclusively on one job prospect.

At that time, I didn’t have an end date for my current job. I have been blessed to have my hard work during a difficult transition be rewarded by my current employer with support and patience. I now have an end date, one that is still incredibly generous, not in the least because they know I am actively looking. On some level, I knew even before I discussed an explicit end date that it would come, that it would be soon. Realizing I had worked through several weeks with no other prospects to show for it definitely lit a fire under me.

I may have over compensated. I usually am skittish about working with recruiters or staffing firms. In my experience, they don’t save time and often focus on opportunities very different from the ones I find most rewarding. Despite my prior experience, I didn’t feel like I could afford to leave anything unexplored. After I applied to all the obvious good fits, I kept on applying, to the consulting and contracting jobs I know I could do but that I would not enjoy anywhere near as much.

That is how I ended up, today, at a staffing firm talking to an account manager.

Up to this point, I had convinced myself I could and would pursue this all the way through. Part of me added, “if I had to,” to that last sentence while the rest of me, prior to today, worked hard to ignore that contingency. This account manager called me on it.

He grilled me about the usual stuff. Had I used this technology and where. What about this tool. How had I approached this challenge, solved another problem. At some point, he stopped. He looked at me and asked me frankly if I felt I would be happy at this job he was pitching. He went so far as to explain that his reason for asking is that he suspected I wouldn’t be. At the risk of his commission, he didn’t think that made sense in the long run.

For a moment, I prevaricated. I doubt he even noticed, the moment was so fleeting. I admitted he was right. I admitted it as much to myself as to him. Giving up on an opportunity, even one I knew wasn’t right, didn’t feel great. But the notion of stringing it along only to say, “no,” when a better offer came along didn’t feel any better.

At that moment, I realized that this entire  job search really was different. In the past, I have always at least tried to focus on what I really want to be doing. I haven’t always succeeded. I don’t think I was making as intentional choices as I could have, rolling with what came my way and rationalizing it after the fact. My engagement and especially my learning from those experiences were thin at best.

For this search, the stakes haven’t really changed. I still need a job, ideally before the end of this year. What has changed is my openness to being honest with myself. I am far more willing to learn from every single experience along the way this time around. Maybe opening up will improve my prospects, maybe it won’t. I am pretty sure I will find the rest of my search far more rewarding by admitting that I am both searching for a job, for a career next step, and at the same time, searching for myself.

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TCLP 2014-11-09 Touching Earth and Little Acorns

This is an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

I spend some time discussing my current thoughts on my approach to the podcast, including more extemporaneous speaking, streamlining the recording of each episode, and stronger overlap in content between the podcast and the blog as my sense is that not many people necessarily follow both.

I mentioned how you can still follow the news I read daily. You can subscribe to my RSS feed of interesting stories if you want or just follow me on Twitter.

For the bulk of this episode, I provide some more context around two recent essays. I read “Touching Earth” about changes in my professional life. I read “Little Acorns” which I hope sheds light on my state of mind in the last year and some discusses some ways I hope to move forward.

You can grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License

Posted in Podcast.


Sense of Scale

Seahorse Tail fractal by Wikipedia user, Wolfgangbeyer CC-BY-SA

What is high quality code?

I have been asked this question now a couple of times in my current job search. I usually go back to my thoughts on functional decomposition. I like the concept but that phrase is clunky. It doesn’t help explain the concept very well.

As readers of the site know, recently I have been walking more in an effort to improve my health. For a longer time, walking has been a large part of my experience of travel. My favorite places to visit are those that are highly walkable. I suppose that is why I fell so hard for the few great European cities I have managed to visit so far. Most recently I spent a fair amount of time walking around Cleveland with a close friend, seeing that city through his eyes.

Like a lot of American cities, I noticed how distance in and around Cleveland works a bit differently than in the old world. To get from one part of a sprawling America metro area to another, often you have to take a car or some other form of transport like light rail or bus. The best America cities, as in Europe, are very walkable once you get to a specific part.

During this most recent trip I really dwelt on the different experiences of the same place when walking versus riding. Driving around, the scale of the place collapsed. Place names were much more shorthand labels than something I got any direct visceral sense of. I might see a storefront but it was there and gone too quickly for me to see into the interior, see the people inside, or any other specifics. I could form a very rough map of the overall city but could not yet identify with its districts and neighborhoods.

Once we got out of the car and started walking, my perspective shifted. The character of each district emerged in the how the various business, buildings and open spaces were arranged in close relation to each other. Architectural themes became more clear, revealing more detail and texture. Individual people, groups and crowds made more of an impression. Everything opened up, feeling a lot bigger. The other place names on my mental map receded further away in favor of the scenes right in front of me. Conversation with shop owners, restauranteurs and citizens became possible, filling in more of the narrative sense of place than the useful but necessarily brief sketches my guide gave me on the way in.

Even more recently, I took a walk through a well known area park that happens to extend right up to within a block or two of my home. The park is named for a creek that meanders through it and the foot paths closely follow the aimless curves the running water takes. I love walking with the sound of running water nearby. I took my ear buds out and left them out for most of my walk. Like the sense of expanding scale I felt during my week in Cleveland, my sense of the neighborhood opened up, through sound, sight and sense of distance.

I walked about to the nearest shopping plaza and back. By mileage covered, I actually walked at least twice as far as the straightest distance between there and my house. Walking through this stretch of green space right through in the midst of an active DC suburb, it felt like ten times as far. I realized how much I had been taking that distance for granted. I usually cover it in my car, in trips measured in tens of minutes rather than the hour my walk took. That walk covering the same area and a comparable distance felt like an entirely different scale.

I think there is a closer parallel revealed in the best written source code. High quality source code is like a fractal. The more you zoom, the more detail is reveal. That detail doesn’t have to be self similar, it usually isn’t. What emerges the closer you look is more like Mandelbroit’s more complex fractals, like the one pictured above.

When reading to get the general sense of a program, it should feel like driving through a city scape, taking in more of a gestalt than any specific surface detail. A reader should be able to grasp the general orientation of the code. This module does this, that subsystem does that. More specific details should be easy to ignore, behind API boundaries or at least in different but well laid out source files. The placeholders and map should cover just the broad functions, responsibilities and relationships of the code.

When troubleshooting, especially in an interactive debugger, it should be possible to walk down into the code to focus on a specific neighborhood to the exclusion of the rest of the code. That overall map may still be in mind, but it should feel comfortable and natural to just take in the local concerns without needing to know anything more specific about more distant code. If distance code intrudes, odds are your bug is going to be much, much more difficult to isolate and to fix.

When writing high quality code, think about the experiences you have that reveal different senses of scale for the same thing. For me, walking is one activity that helps me grasp this idea on an intuitive level. No matter how fast I walk, or even if I decide to run, the zoomed in sense of scale remains. I have to express a concrete intention to trigger a shift in scale, by getting in a car or a bus.

If you can use the tools your language and technology of choice provide to cultivate that same possibility of overlapping, simultaneous but different scales, then I think you are on to something. In my experience, code that works at various scales is easier to test, to read, and to troubleshoot.

Posted in Programming.

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Keep on Walking

8286401024_e0441285ef_oI woke up late this morning, at least late for a weekend. Despite sleeping in, my mind and limbs felt heavy. I skipped my usual habit of making myself breakfast from scratch, instead throwing something frozen in the microwave. Out the window, the neighborhood was gray, wet from overnight rain. I felt unmotivated to keep at another, more recent habit, of taking brisk walks on as many days as I can. I will be traveling this coming week, I knew I should get out of the house to walk when I have the time and space so I feel less bad if I have to skip a day later on.

(Photo by Derek Adkins. Used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.)

The sun broke out for a moment a little later in the morning, painting the houses across the street in warm, liquid gold. That sight was all the invitation I needed. Once I started moving, it was easier to keep moving. I have mapped out a few different routes, of various lengths. I can choose based on the time and my motivation on any given day. Better yet, the routes overlap. I can make a decision in the moment, to head home sooner or to push myself, to get my heart rate up a bit more, for a bit longer.

Today I chose to take my longest walk yet. I am proud of myself. A parade of chill and drab lawns and homes didn’t dissuade me. Having the choice of a quicker loop counter intuitively invited me to choose the longer loop. In the home stretch I contemplated that decision for a bit, how just putting myself in a situation to make smaller, more active choices lead me to a better outcome.

Just like I shared in another recent post, I broke my problem into smaller pieces. More than that, mulling over those pieces while in the midst of them helped me make a connection. I realized at least one reason this idea works, for my anyway. I made a connection between a powerful idea and putting it into actual practice. I had an experience I will try to keep in mind as I contemplate larger projects, whether they are writing or coding. I will try to find parallel experiences that bolster this perspective of a series of simple choices.

As a budding musician, I have been thinking about a phenomenon that I realize is similar. I am best able to play a song without sheet music correctly when I don’t think about the whole song. Rather, the playing flows best when I am just anticipating the next change. I had very similar thoughts the last time I was actively studying Tai Chi. Dozens of poses are daunting all together but when in the midst of doing them, just remembering the movement to the next pose is all it takes to get through to the end.

I have been returning to reading technical books, as part of my renewed focus on coding. I have worked through more than a few short exercises and tutorials. I can bring a greater awareness and intention to these efforts. I can choose both short, attainable chunks for each time I sit down to chip away at refreshing an old skill or tackling a new one. Better yet, I can give myself some possible next steps, an invite I will just as likely accept to continue working for a little while longer, with more energy and focus.

Ironically, I had a topic on my writing list for I don’t remember how long, on the loss of motivation. Today by holding to the thoughts that occurred to me while out walking, I was able to present myself with another easier step. I have some more ideas in my notes for this topic. I took the first step by putting my butt in the chair to share some fresh experiences and thoughts. I will no doubt feel less inertia to overcome when I return to this topic, to talk more about what causes loss of motivation and other ideas for restoring it.

Posted in General.

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To My Few Remaining Recurring Donors

As you might guess from my recent posts, I am doing some stock taking and house keeping, both in my life and on the site. I just cancelled the three remaining recurring donations initiated when the podcast in particular was much more regular and frequent. One of those donors sent me a note, confused, so I am sharing my thought process here for anyone else who is curious.

I guess I don’t feel that two podcast episodes in 2014 and three in the last twelve months is not the same value on offer as earlier in the podcast when I was producing episodes more regularly.

I am trying to get better at writing but not with any expectation of support or reward. It is early days in that renewed effort for me to feel that my efforts deserve any sort of financial support. And the site and podcast have never been about the financial support, anyway.

I really do appreciate the support I have received from my readers and listeners over the years, whether that has been through just following along or sending in something more tangible like a bit of feedback or a donation.

If anyone wants to restart their PayPal subscription, I won’t cancel it again without reaching out. In retrospect I should have asked first. If you’d rather leave it canceled and send that on to another project you’d like to support, that would be fine with me too.

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What News I Am Reading

old-newspaper-350376_1280One of the things I used to do was post regular link dumps. On a good day, I was able to keep these fairly short and add a comment on most or all of the stories. This type of post, for me, started as an outgrowth of my podcast. I sifted through tons of stories on a daily basis to find the handful I wanted to discuss in each news cast episode. When I stopped doing the news casts, I didn’t think it made as much sense to keep sharing these links.

My news reading has not stopped. It is unlikely to stop, it is so important to my professional life and a priority in terms of continuing to understand what matters to me personally.

A few months before Google put a bullet through the head of Reader, I switched away to a self hosted aggregator, Tiny Tiny RSS. I have been very happy with this tool. It supports everything I used to do in Reader and adds in several functions I never knew I was missing. Most importantly, the only person who can decide to shut it down is me, also its primary audience.

One of the features it offers that I use in both applications but haven’t really mentioned is sharing. I can’t remember if Reader’s sharing was internal to that application or it offered a way for non-Google users to see shared stories. At this point, it hardly matters except to point out yet another way in which Tiny Tiny RSS is superior. Anybody I set up in my server can see things I share but there is also an external feed for anyone else to use.

If you use a feed aggregator yourself, you can subscribe to my feed of shared articles. I have also added the feed over there on the right, in the sidebar of this site. That will update on a regular basis if you don’t want to subscribe but are curious about what articles I have been reading. If you follow me on Twitter, the linked items may seem familiar–they are pretty much the same so if you are happy to pick up interesting links from my Twitter feed already, then you may not need to subscribe directly to the feed.

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Touching Earth

I used to hate travel for work. I’d be stuck in the pressure cooker of modern air travel with people with whom as often as not the only thing I had in common was a job. Can you imagine, long spans of either awkward silence or endlessly rehashing work? For those jobs of the past, the purpose of any given trip was likely to involve some customer glad handing, a chore under the best of circumstances. The destinations were always uniformly nondescript, beige, corporate, even industrial.

The first weeks of the job I took a little over three and a half years ago gave me reason to reconsider. I went to my first conference in several years specifically for work, the Personal Democracy Forum. Many of the talks were life changing, electrifying, provocative. I got to spend time with colleagues with whom I’d only ever interacted online. I had many conversations with a friend who I still see but rarely, our time together as much a function of our respective travel schedules as anything.

Right after that conference, I got to take my very first trip to Europe. Ever. In my life, then almost forty years long.

I spent a week in a reclaimed, run down space in an urban neighborhood in Budapest. A bunch of local makers had made it their home and were hosting another bunch of makers, who travelled from all around the globe. We formed teams and worked during the day on building something, in my team’s case a smart and social door, to present at the end of the week. When we weren’t working, we ate where the working people of the city did, in open air courtyards. We were very lucky to have an almost native guide who helped us form a very authentic impression of the city. We didn’t see any kind of tourist place until the very end of the week, when we walked to the Open University, by the river, for some plenaries.

Unfortunately, after that first year, I made a choice to accept responsibilities I thought the organization needed me to fill at the time. If I encountered an opportunity to travel or to speak, more often than not, I delegated to one of my staff, to give them opportunities to grow professionally and personally. At the time, it didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice. There were tons of other demands on my time dealing with strategy, staffing, budgeting, and managing. I grew in my own way in response to those demands on my abilities and characteristics.

I made a decision recently, to leave my job. I do not yet have something else lined up though I am working almost full time on doing so. My co-workers know of this decision, I was asked to share it just a couple of days after I spoke to my bosses. I have no idea how much more widely it has been communicated and to be honest, two weeks on from my decision, I am not concerned if this is news to the wider world.

A large part of my thinking was that I need to touch earth. I actually didn’t know the origin of this expression and had to look it up, finding it even more apt than I realized. When the man who was to become Buddha was in the midst of his trials before enlightenment, he was set upon by a demon. He touched his hand to the earth, in response the earth roared, causing the demon to back down. There is a gesture, a mudra, that is apparently common in depictions of the Buddha, that demonstrates this act, a renewal of resolve.

For me, it is how the earth is touched as much as it is that renewal. I realized I had been cutting myself off from those things that best charge my resolve–writing, speaking, making, and even travel. Arguably, my intentions were right but I put myself in a position that was untenable in the long run. The more I needed to touch earth, the more it felt like other responsibilities were dragging me away from doing so. In retrospect, my own trial by demon I suppose. Right or wrong I felt that in order to make the opportunity to renew my own resolve I had to introduce a concrete break.

Since my decision, I have written more, coded more, and as a consequence felt a greater resolve than I have felt in a long while. I am also about travel more, definitely in the short term and hopefully more ongoing, for both personal and professional reasons. I have touched earth and am optimistic at my prospects, that the opportunities I am now pursuing will allow me to maintain these very critical connections, for my own well being.

The most promising opportunity on which I am working will allow me to re-connect with the world, in addition to focusing so much more on making and sharing, to once again wear off a little shoe leather touching earth in some of the greatest cities on the planet. I didn’t realize how important that was to me until this chance came along, unrelated to my decision, unrelated to anything other than the voice I have cultivated here, on this site, and through my podcast. However my next steps play out, I am glad of my decision and the renewed resolve I already feel.

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Ohio Linux Fest 2014

I have only been to a couple of Linux fests and I have enjoyed every single one. Ohio Linux Fest was my first, three years ago. I was very privileged to meet a few long time listeners there, make some new friends, and meet some of the Hacker Public Radio crew for the first time. I am finally going back to Ohio Linux Fest in a couple of weeks and am very much looking forward to it, especially if it is at all like that first time.

The first day of my first OLF, I of course immediately scoped out the local beer scene. I staked out a stool at the bar of the brew pub across the street from the Columbus Convention Center. As I sipped on my first beer, waiting for my lunch order to arrive, I heard someone at the end of the bar recommending my podcast to someone else. I recognized the voice from audio comments I had received. More immodestly than I would have done if it was a complete stranger, I interrupted and introduced myself. It remains one of the more humbling and surreal moments made possible by my podcast.

I hung out with that listener a lot that weekend. We accumulated a couple of new friends, as well, who often joined us as I continued to explore the beer scene. Downtown Columbus is…well, bare may be a bit strong but right at the convention center, that brewpub is a bit of an oasis. I hope it is still there. Despite that scarcity of obvious points of interest, we found a handful of respectable beer spots.

Later in the weekend, I was wandering the small but excellent exhibit area. One table was run by a musician who had CDs out as well as some headphones to sample his wares. I was immediately struck by the sound and the story I heard when I put the headphones one. I started chatting with the artist, int 0x80 as it happens, part of the amazing rap duo, Dual Core. The song was “Painting Pictures” which tells the tale of a fan of the pair who was deaf from birth. As the song progresses, int 0x80’s rap tells the story of, as he puts it, “an amazing little girl” who through the internet makes connections she never would have otherwise and ultimately ends up researching cochlear implants. With the support of her family, the first song she finally hears is one of Dual Core’s. The track still moves me.

I interviewed int 0x80 shortly after meeting him. When I was at DEFCON this year, I happened to run into him. I was surprised because I didn’t think to look for him. I wasn’t really surprised as so much of his early work with c64 is about playing hacker conferences, just like DEFCON. He remembered me and catching up with him was one of my favorite parts of my first, and so far only, DEFCON.

I am sure these experiences set unrealistic expectations. The quality of the programming means it doesn’t matter. I will have a good time attending the talks. Even though my podcast has been a bit quiet lately, I trust I will still bump into people I recognize. Better yet, I hope to meet some new people, make some new friends. If going to Linux fests has taught me anything, it is to be entirely open to that.

Posted in Events.

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Little Acorns

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked in from the Metro to work, an album to which I was listening brought me to tears. The stresses I have been feeling for the past year had reached a crescendo pitch. Music has become a key part of how I cope. I started playing guitar back in January, inspired by my older son’s intense musicality and some of the fondest memories of my dad when I was growing up.

Almost two years ago my older son asked me if could spend some of his starter savings account on a short scale bass. I remain stunned at how deeply he has taken to making music. My wife has always encouraged both boys, making music and the means to make it always available since they were small. My older son’s passion has far outstripped what even an enriched environment might suggest. He practices for hours on end, picking up techniques effortlessly. In conversation he can rattle off scales and chords like a second language. Bass guitar was just the start, he now has a couple of electric guitars, an electronic keyboard, and is now talking about multi-track recording and mastering. More than once, I have poked my head into his room, asking who or what he was playing to be deeply impressed when he simply replies it was something he wrote.

I remember my dad showing a similar effortless musicality when I was a little younger than my sons are now. I quietly would sit in a room with my dad as he just simply would play. I was in awe of his guitar–polished wood, gleaming metal, and intricate machinery from saddle to tuning pegs. Most summers at that same age, my parents threw wonderful, sprawling parties with all their friends. All of the kids would roam freely around the pool and the yard. My favorite parties were the ones that had a soundtrack of  my dad and his friends playing together at volume, especially covering Summer songs like The Doobie Brothers, “Listen to the Music.”

Just as my dad shared his music with us, I have discovered more music this past year through sharing with my own sons, including the album that brought me to tears. That sharing even spans all three generations. Back in February I got a welcome break from the recent stresses, visiting with my family for the occasion of my brother’s wedding. The day after the beautiful ceremony and epic throw down of a reception, we all recovered at the beach hosted by my dad. My older son, my dad, and I joked about high end, plutonium stringed bass guitars. We talked about guitarists whose playing we particular liked and why. My dad showed us the picks he keeps on him, sharing that deep wish every guitarist holds close, of being called up on stage to jam.

One result of that sharing and deeper appreciation of music is a song I keep coming back to, “Little Acorns” from the album “Elephant” by the White Stripes.

The reason is right there in the lyrics.

But Janet not only survived but she worked her way out of despondency and now she says life is good again. She told me that late one autumn day when she was at her lowest, she saw a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. One at a time, he would take them to the nest. And she thought, if that squirrel can take care of himself with a harsh winter coming on, so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time.

The voice over intro calms me. I smile every time I hear it come up when I shuffle through my music collection. I think it mentally primed me for a bit of blogging advice Anil Dash shared recently, too. After fifteen years, he has a ton of practical, simple advice most of which really boils down to simply keeping at your creative endeavors. In his case that is a blog; in mine both a blog but also my poor podcast which I’ve been neglecting for months.

Anil’s last point, in particular, reminded me of the squirrel.

Leave them wanting more. One sure way to trigger writer’s block when blogging is to think, “I have to capture all my thoughts on this idea and write it about it definitively once and for all.” If you assume that folks are smart and curious and will return, you can work around the edges of an idea over days and weeks and months and really come to understand it. It’s this process that blogging does better than pretty much any other medium, and it’s sharing that process with you that’s been the greatest privilege of writing here for the last decade and a half.

Every week that passed since I decided I couldn’t keep up a weekly pace with either my podast or my blog, the instinct to only share fully realized ideas became more paralyzing. Anil’s advice, like the squirrel and its acorns in The White Stripes song, reminded me it is OK to tear down how I approach writing for whatever end into smaller, less paralyzing pieces. I already have a few more acorns I will try to share this week.

Anil also reminded me that “the scroll is your friend.” Many short pieces, even if some are less formed, a bit rough around the edges still, will feel more alive in both the writing and the reading than the longer, more finished I have expected of myself but been unable to finish.

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The Command Line by Thomas Gideon
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