What is Minimalism?

To me, that is an odd – and existential – question, along the lines of the eternal question “What is art?”

I answer this question this way: It is what you define it to be.

In redefining myself, I have begun to make some changes that contribute to my own definition of living in a minimalist way:

Reduce ownership. This is a first and easy to enumerate step. Don’t keep a hundred different types of clothes when just a few will do. Don’t keep twenty separate computers when you only need a couple. This is a constant battle, but it is worth it.

Reduce purchasing. The goal of business is to get people to buy – and buy and buy. Thus, when a business says you need to get something, think twice. This also holds for updates and upgrades. Buy things that don’t require constant updates or upgrades. Buy items that don’t force you to buy only one very specific item (such as room deoderizers that only work with a single refill item). See if you can last a week without buying anything.

Reduce usage. Don’t use the dishwasher or the clothes dryer if you don’t have to. These contribute to electricity usage, and thus increase your costs and your impact on the environment. (Just remember to use the dishwasher once in a while or it will require expensive repair.)

Reduce the unneccessary. Do you really need a couch? Or those extra lamps? Re-evaluate every item to see if you need it. Don’t rule out anything categorically – think. Do you really need it? Dump if you don’t – and before you change your mind: give it to Goodwill.

There are a number of blogs that cover minimalism:

One of my inspirations has been homes like Tumbleweed Homes. If a person can live in one of these, certainly the rest of us can reduce our personal clutter down a lot further than it is today. A counter-inspiration for me is also the current crop of homes that are still being built today – homes that are so big that cities and counties are passing laws limiting house size.

Most importantly, minimalism is what you make it. You define what it means to you.

Foreign Language Improvement

I’ve spoken on the benefits of improving your language skills: sharper mind, expanded technical resources, expanded knowledge, and a lot of other things.

I’ve recently discovered some ways to improve your foreign language online – and have fallen in love with one in particular: Livemocha.com.

This is not the only way – nor should it be – to learn a foreign language. You need to use all your resources. However, Livemocha.com does a good job of trying to do some of that and it helps you in every way it can.

They offer a place for language learners to learn from each other, and to practice speech and writing. There are courses – though they are mostly of the “memorize this vocabulary” type – but everything helps. Given the kind of courses they offer, these classes are very good at what they set out to do. Words and phrases are given to you in a number of ways and you must define them or create them in reply.

There are innumerable ways to assist others in learning your native tongue, and ways to get help.

You can determine who the serious and dedicated users are at a glance – the users are given points based on what they do on the site, and are given awards based on their work.

Try Livemocha.com today!

A Productivity Reading List

If you are serious about gaining control over your time and your productivity, there are a number of books you should read. Here is my list of well-worn productivity books for you to consider – most of them seminal classics in their field:

  • How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. This is a classic tome in productivity, and should be read by all. In particular, adherents of GTD will find parts of the process delineated here 30 years before David Allen brought it all together.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen. This is the modern classic and the definition of GTD. David is very readable, never boring, and always enlightening and delightful. If you want a treat, get the audio version also: hearing David read is also classic and wonderful.
  • The Time Trap by Alec McKenzie. Another time-worn classic on time management.
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A psychology classic about “getting into the zone” and making it work for you and how it works.
  • The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan. This is where mind maps where first explained and created. After reading this, you’ll wonder how you ever thought computers could do mind maps – and will find out what mind maps are really all about.
  • Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman. This book is wonderful and describes how optimism in life and outlook is truly a benefit in all ways and all round (well, except one – you have to read it…)
  • The Memory Book by Harry Lorrane and Jerry Lucas. This is a fun, readable, and memorable book. This is quite possibly the oldest book I own (that is, I’ve owned it longer than any other). You will not regret getting this book – and won’t need any other memory book ever.

What’s on your shelf?

Living in the Internet Cloud

When we are on-the-go professionals, and are potentially required to work from home or from other locations on the road, isn’t it good to be able to reach your data no matter where you are?

Thus is the interest in being able to “live in the cloud”, keeping data and information on Internet computers out there somewhere.  Unfortunately, it also means that instead of making our own backups, we must rely on someone else’s backups.  Suppose the company goes out of business?  This has already happened for several photo sites – and in one case, it took the customer’s photos with them.

There are many sites that can provide a safe harbour for data or for information of various kinds.  My favorites are these:

The online desktops Goowy and eyeOS deserve special mention.  Not only do they provide a desktop, but also all the standard applications you might need.  It is possible to run within one of these desktops and save your data entirely with one of these setups.  This makes for a fantastic central location for everything – and a larger-than-normal risk.

EyeOS has one more feature that most of these do not: it is open source.  If you want to run your own version of EyeOS, there’s no problem doing so.  This is incredibly useful if you have your own server to run this on.  Then you can centralize your information and retain control at the same time.

I also find the mail clients in Goowy and eyeOS to be quite useful for sending mail from anywhere with a browser.

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Quickly creating large files

I’m surprised how many people never think to do this…. but it makes it quite easy.

If you need a large text file, perhaps with 1,000s of lines (or even bigger) – just use doubling to your advantage! For example, create 10 lines. Then use vi (or other editor) to copy the entire file to itself – now 20 lines. If you remember how a geometric progression goes, you’ll have your 1,000s of lines rather fast:

  1. 10 lines…
  2. 20 lines…
  3. 40 lines…
  4. 80 lines…
  5. 160 lines…
  6. 320 lines…
  7. 640 lines…
  8. 1280 lines…
  9. 2560 lines…
  10. 10240 lines…

Ten steps and we’re at 10,000+ lines. In the right editor (vi, emacs, etc.) this could be a macro for even faster doubling. This doubling could also be used at the command line:

cat file.txt >> file.txt

Combined with shell history, that should double nicely – though using an editor would be more efficient (fewer disk reads and writes).

When writing code, often programmers will want to set things off with a line of asterisks, hash marks, dashes, or equals signs. Since I use vi, I like to type in five characters, then copy those five into 10, then copy those 10 and place the result three times. There you have 40 characters just like that.

If only a certain number of characters is needed, use dd:

dd if=/dev/random of=myfile.dat bs=1024 count=10

With this command (and bs=1024), the count is in kilobytes. Thus, the example will create a 10K file. Using the Korn shell, one can use this command to get megabytes:

dd if=/dev/random of=myfile.dat bs=$(( 1024 * 1024 )) count=100

This command will create a 100M file (since bs=1048576 and count=100).

If you want files filled with nulls, just substitute /dev/null for /dev/random in the previous commands.

You could use a word dictionary for words, or a Markov chain for pseudo-prose. In any case, if you only want a certain size, do this:

~/bin/datasource | dd if=- of=myfile.dat bs=$(( 1024 * 1024 )) count=100

This will give you a 100M file of whatever it is your datasource is pumping out.

Stress relief for System Administrators

Who, me, stress?  Nah….. sysadmins never have any stress, right?

Well, just in case you do – my feelings are that laughter is the best medicine – and I mean laugh out loud funny.  So what do you do?

There are a lot of ways to tickle the funny bone, and they’re personal as well.  Here are several that I use:

  • Subscribe to RSS feeds like Sharky’s Column and The Daily WTF.
  • Favorite comics (for me, that means: Liberty Meadows, Calvin and Hobbes, and Get Fuzzy)
  • Personal copies of laugh out loud funny comics
  • Funny movies

If you can indulge in some of these away from the office, it is much better.  Fresh air is good, too – as is doing something totally unrelated to work (even if it is other work).

Burn-out is a real danger to system administrators; so get away from the tension and away from the office!

The Secrets of Mental Math

I’ve read more than a few books on mental arithmetic, and have found some that I like. Strangely enough, they are not common in libraries, despite the fact that one of them is written by an author virtually every one will recognize instantly.

I’ve been reading most recently Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer. Arthur Benjamin recently gave a keynote speech at a national tech event (was it OSCON?). I wanted to see his book and what he had to offer that I hadn’t read recently. I didn’t like it as much as I thought – more of the book was dedicated to “tricks” (to amaze your friends!) than I would have liked. Most books of this sort focus on making daily calculations much easier. I also found his writing to be not as clear as the others I have read on this topic.

One interesting item put into Secrets of Mental Math is the method of finding the day of the week for any future year. This topic is also considered in The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, but in The Memory Book the method is to memorize a number representing the days that Monday falls on throughout the year (that is, a 12-digit number). Secrets of Mental Math proposes a mathematical formula, utilizing a code number for the month and a code number for the year. The code number for the month (and for the year) is never completely explained, but would probably be based on the day of the week that the month will have given that the year starts on Monday (or something like that) – plus a shift factor coded into the year code.

So your choice – choose the memorization method in The Memory Book or the calculation method found in Secrets of Mental Math. Of course, the latter handles every date in every year without memorization – but people would rarely use such a method for anything other than the current year, most likely.

The book I have in my collection that I prefer in this area is Calculator’s Cunning by Karl Menninger, translated from German by E. J. F. Primrose (with foreward by Martin Gardner). I am surprised that this book is not more widely available; it appears to be out of print. Karl’s writing (and Primrose’s translation) is very easy to read, understandable, and clear – and mathematical proofs are offered at the end of each section where the trick is introduced.

Another which is almost as hard to find in the library as the tome by Karl Menninger is a book by the venerable Isaac Asimov titled Quick and Easy Maths. This book may or may not be available at your local library, but chances are good you’ll have to go to interlibrary loan to get it, or even buy used. The book is out of print, just as Calculator’s Cunning is. Asimov is one of the clearest writers I’ve seen, and Quick and Easy Maths is no exception.

Also, the methods described in all three mental mathematical books are essentially the same – even so, the experience of reading of all three is all worthwhile.

Then next time you have to calculate the number of hosts in a subnet, you’ll be able to do it in your head – or adding up an invoice!

Learning Something New

Every day, a system administrator may come across something new, or a way to apply some new knowledge. Don’t stop learning, and take whatever steps are necesary in order to learn whatever you can.

Don’t stop at knowing just enough to get by – what buttons to push, what commands to execute – aim to master something new. Dave Thomas (the writer of the Ruby “pick axe book”) suggests learning a new programming language every year.

Do you use Korn shell in your daily work. Master it! Learn the intricate details. Learn ways to be more efficient, to do things faster, to do things quicker. Learn the intimate details of awk scripting. Learn the many details of sed.

Are you bored with the everyday? Then stretch your mind and start in on something unusual – even unnecessary. Learn how to run the TECO text editor (EMACS was written in it!). Learn COBOL and use OpenCOBOL.

Learn something new and useful but unutilized – such as Lua or TCL.

Alternately – since we are all system administrators here – put a new server environment to work in your home network. Install Kerberos and the Andrew File System. Start working with the Berkeley amd automounter. Set up an IPv6 network.

What does all of this learning get us?

  • Opportunities for improving speed of current operations
  • Opportunities to improve implementation time (of scripts etc.)
  • Faster debugging
  • Knowledge ready for new business initiatives
  • Stretches your mind into new directions
  • Sharper mind throughout a lifetime

So what are you waiting for? Pick something to learn and stick to it – and do it just for you. Sooner or later, if you keep it up, your employer will notice.