My annual retrospective is running a bit late this year. Probably because there has been so many big life-changing developments in the last year. This has inspired a great deal of introspection and anxiety. I describe 2016 as a very necessary year. Not an enjoyable year, but a year where I was mostly reactionary to a long sequence of unavoidable events that started with the totaling of Ford Explorer in late 2015 and leading up to the eventual first-home purchase.
The year of necessity has become my description of 2016. Everything happened because it had to happen. There was little agency involved, but rather a great tide swept me along. It took me from Wyoming to Arizona. It took me from Clifton to Alpine. It put me into a mortgage. It put me into a car loan.
In between, I found some time to read, game, and watch thirty some films. Somewhere around the midsummer I fell into a kind of fugue where all my hobbies and activities started to feel more like chores than entertainment. I read, gamed and watch films out of habit rather than enjoyment. Nihilism set in, I looked ahead on life and just saw an infinite number of books to be read and realized that the act of reading was itself meaningless. Life seemed an infinite set of tasks, each task leading to yet another task, and no task itself intrinsically meaningful.
Since settling in Alpine, my mind seems more settled and at ease, but one thing that came of this is a realization that there is simply too much to do in adulthood and not enough time to commit to all of it. More importantly, my time is often consumed not by what I want to do, but what I need to do. That I would be better off setting aside all commitments and evaluating them. Do I receive commiserate value for my time in work (existentially that is, not monetarily). Would that time be better spent in some other pursuit? How much enjoyment do I get out of a perfectly folded closet?
Redundancy in Task Management
I like lists. I like checking things off lists way too much. This can, at times become overdominating to my lifestyle and at the start of 2016, I started to realize that I was drowning in lists!
A couple years back, I started to keep a daily work log to remind myself of the work that I had done over the year. I consolidated that work log each sprint into a sprint log, and each quarter into a quarterly log and each year into an annual log. I documented the work I did both in TimeKeeper, in Trello/Todo.txt, and then again in my summarizations.
The redundancy had to be eliminated. With this in mind, I stopped keeping a daily log. Now, I keep my lists in Todo.xt and my time in TimeKeeper. I do make a very short Sprint review every two weeks but I focus on only documenting extraordinary events and future plans instead of the minutia of everyday living. The quarterly log is a summary of those extraordinary events and the annual review a further summarization. There is no need to go back and review past todos and past sprint logs.
One of these days, I will write a nice, long post about my task management and note-keeping systems.
The Permanent Southwest Trip
The move to Three Way could best be described as an adventure. We started on brisk -26 degree evening in Jackson, WY. My trailer jack broke off in my hand. I was able to lever it onto the hitch using a spud bar only to have it bounced off in heavy traffic in Salt Lake.
Three-Way was our new home on the intersections of Hwy 78 and 191. Home to a corner store, the USDA and the Department of Transportation. We lived for the first two months out of a Fema Trailer. At thirty feet long, it felt cozy but at times also claustrophobic. Jess walked the hundred yards to work each morning. I worked off a cell tower. In the evening we walked the dogs down to the Airport and back trying our best to avoid the occasional rattle snake and overly curious horse.
Come March, we found housing on a six acre property just a short walk away from the Gila River. As a condition of renting, we put in a floor and signed a six month lease hoping to make a more permanent home for some time.
Greenlee County, of which there is only really two towns: Duncan and Clifton proved a strangely magical location. Through the spring we were visited by all kinds of exotic birds, lizards, snakes, tarantulas and insects the like of which I have never seen before. I killed no less than dozen scorpions in the house and one rattlesnake that wandered too close to the porch. At night, javelinas roamed about in the yard. The summer proved far too hot for me – reaching 120 on one day. I confined myself to the office, the only room with an air conditioner, and slept through most of the afternoons while working late into the night. The August rains helped some and soon the washes around the house swelled and flowed.
In the end, Greenlee County proved a short lived adventure. A promotion was in store for Jess moving us up the Mogollon Rim to higher elevations, cooler climates, and more familiar surroundings. For the long-term this is perhaps best, but Greenlee is a mere two hours away at any time, inviting us back to the deep desert whenever we tire of mountains and prairie.
The Alpine House
Greenlee was exotic, exciting, but altogether too hot and alien of a climate for me to see any extended stay. We found ourselves, by midsummer, looking northwards to Alpine, AZ. There, at an elevation of 8,000 feet the climate was far more temperate. The summer reached only the low nineties, the nights stayed cool, and in the winter there was snowfall. The hiking was excellent, the forest a mixture of aspen, oak, and ponderosa much like my beloved Black Hills.
Jess applied, and was offered a promotion in the district. The town, of a mere 100 people in the winter, proved a tough nut to crack for rentals. However, we quickly fell in the love with the area. Springerville proved a treasure trove for shopping. Between Safeway, Western Drug, and two hardware stores we were well set. The location, a perfect basecamp for the southwest. In five hours we could be in Moab, Sante Fe, Tuscon, Silver City, or the Grande Canyon. In the winter, we found snow shoeing available above 10,000 feet at Hannagan Meadows. If we grew tired of Winter, a twenty minute drive put us in the Blue and a two hour drive put us on the desert floor.
By luck, we stumbled upon a cabin that was in our price range. Built in 1962, it sat on the back of a quarter acre lot a mere quarter mile walk from the Forest Service. Three bedrooms, a single bathroom, and an expansive Arizona room that looked out over the valley and up to South Mountain. Only minor work required, a new metal roof, a wood stove added to the living room, venting for the bathroom and dryer and it was soon ready for the long term.
Granted, we first had to run the gamut of the mortgage which proved a nightmare that consumed two months of my summer. An employment paid move from Three Way up the hill, unpacking, and the long run of house guests who always arrive shortly after such ventures.
May was occupied by chickens. A strange thing to occupy a month. We picked up six chicks from Tractor Supply near the end of the season. In the spare bedroom we set up a brooder made from cardboard boxes. There the chickens grew for another month while I busied myself with building a coop.
I got a design off of Catawba Coops detailing a nice A-frame style chicken coop and made some modifications for the climate and potential threats. The wooden roof, I swapped out with metal. The fencing I made smaller to keep the snakes out. The project consumed the weekends for over a month. In the end, we got five hens and a rooster out of the mix. The rooster died before fall, but the hens started laying eggs around September and kept up almost until Christmas.
The Places I Did Go
The change of region brought with it the opportunity for exploration. Sadly, we found little time for camping trips, nor extended hikes. We tasted a lot of our new home but left many a trail for deeper exploration in years to come.
Greenlee County was our first campaign. Starting with hiking the State Lands around the Airport. We made regular trips up Willow Creek Wash and cold Water Canyon. The area was ripe with slot-like ravines that proved both fun hike down and clamber about. From the desert plane we descended down into one wash, walked it until we met up with another, walked up the new wash then climbed out to cross the plateau back to our truck.
The BLM’s Black Hills Byway proved a continuous source of amusement. We spent many weekends on Goat Camp Road, Tank Road and Black Canyon. East of Three Way we discovered Apache Box, a bizarre formation where Apache creek plunged down through thick layers of rock from the Colorado Plateau down to the valley floor.
We mixed with the community. Attended birding classes. Attended container gardening classes. Helped with creek clean up and met our neighbors. We were sociable in ways that we never quite found in the stuffiness of Jackson nor the closed community of Ashton.
Then there comes the trips. We made several passes to Silver City. First to explore the Gila Cliff Dwellings, then later to stay at the Bear Creek Cabins.
Come September we made our way up to the old stomping grounds in Idaho Falls. There to polish off a few day hikes. We hit the Aspen trail, which we had tried the prior spring but found too muddy to attempt. Then we hit Wind Cave, which I had wanted to see for some time. The entrance of the cave is a massive gash through the cliff face. A cold river runs out of it’s mouth and it seems like such a place that dragons would be found.
We made trips up to Sante Fe. Ate at their many good restaurants, hiked the Dale Ball and La Tierra Trails, and witnessed the miraculous staircase. We talked for some length on the idealism of Sante Fe as a city. It’s walk-ability. It’s historic architecture. Yet, after a week we found ourselves pleased be home and away from the crowds and rush of traffic.
I made way to San Diego for my Grandmother’s eightieth birthday. A good “workation” as I like to think of them. Taking advantage of the opportunities of remote work to visit relatives without the need to use PTO. The same was done for Christmas, as we ventured north again to Portland. This trip proved vastly more complex than intended as we hit snow storms on both the going and coming delaying us considerably. Yet, it was fun to drive across Nevada, a state that I have hardly seen. It’s big open bowl, empty rocky landscapes that stretch out to slowly rising mountains. The state excites me and I hope to return to really wander it appropriately.
Fossifying My Workflow
Last year, I took a huge step back from my personal workflow to evaluate just how much SAAS and licensed applications have slowly infiltrated my work. Slowly my daily task-management regiment went from the wonderful Todo.txt to Trello. Synchronizing my working directories between my two desktops, laptop and phone had gone from a series of duplicity scripts to Dropbox. My note taking had gone from text files, paper and pencil to Evernote. My development platform had slipped away from Vim and into PhpStorm.
First, I gave up PhpStorm and went full-on terminal. I don’t regret it. PhpStorm and Xdebug never really played well together. Once I really had all my Vim plugins put together, I replicated every piece of functionality that I wanted. Tmux, I finally grokked. Writing on the terminal is vastly more distraction free.
When I look back through my archives, I find files that go all the way back to the nineties. Some of these files are binary media files for applications long dead. Yet, a lot were simple text files that I can still open and read today. Some people delete everything on their computer, my habit is to just keep everything. I enjoy being able to go back and retrieve a file from a decade ago.
SAAS and proprietary binary file formats breaks this. It imprisons my documents, my ideas, my notes. Trello might be happy to let me download an archive today, but will it in ten or twenty years? Will it even exist in twenty years? They make no guarantee of the accessibility of your archives.
My fears are already confirmed. Trello was sold to Atlassian. Evernote changed up it’s free and premium plans shortly after I jumped ship. It is clear that notes created in Evernote are not my notes, not in the same sense as a markdown note on disk is my note. Both Trello and Evernote can take their ball home at any time leaving me without a historical archive.
Thus, I switched back from Trello to Todo.txt. I copied all of my notes out of Evernote and turned them into markdown files. I even wrote a script that went through every binary document file in my home documents directory, converted it to markdown and then archived the binary document file. At this juncture, every document file that I work on, with the exception of spreadsheets which are in the OpenDocument file format, are markdown or latex files that I typeset to pdf, html, or Docx depending on the consumer. In large though, I have greatly gone by the hand-written word. Design notes on graph paper are vastly faster, and more expressive then any computer document.
I did not go back to Duplicity for my synchronization. Duplicity always proved too limited in scope when dealing with more than two devices needing to sync. There was a need to manually run the script and confirm the overwrites. The lack of file watching proved an issue if I edited a file on one device, then switched devises and continued editing without running duplicity then I ended up with two conflicting files. Sadly, I have not found an open source solution to the problem. Dropbox has that NSA-friendly, integrated into everything, creepy factor going on. It lacks a lot of the power-user attributes that I want. I don’t want a “Dropbox” folder. I want a home directory, multiple file-system synchronization process.
While not open-source, Reslio Sync, will at least let me pay a one-time fee for the binary application, and then run it across all of my devises. It does all the power-user things that I want. Selective syncing, arbitrary file locations for syncing files, renaming files, and the ability to control synchronization so it stays inside my local network. If one day the binary stops working, I’m just out the cash that I paid for it. I can drop it any day for a OSS solution if a solid one ever shows up.
There are a few pain points that I have yet to fix. Mostly, on the cell phone. The Todo.txt application don’t seem to support the full scope of possibilities that found on the desk top. I miss being able to quickly add a new todo when on the road. Instead, I jot them down on a notepad and add them all in when I get back to the home office. Likewise, shopping lists have gone back to the pad-and-paper method. I am also, still on Lightroom for my photo editing, but will probably never upgrade to the Creative Cloud.
Learning New Tools
Docker continues to allude me. I have read through the documentation. Read through a great number of tutorials. I have docker containers running on my system and continue to experiment with them on side projects. Yet, it just feels like an unnecessary layer of abstraction on top of an already fine ecosystem. Coworkers continue to praise Docker, and I assume that at some juncture Docker will just click. A large chunk of the praise seems to be due to a synergy created by using Docker and various AWS services. I am not a huge fan of AWS. It feels like another form of vendor lock-in where their services, while amazing useful, also create an interdependency between the software and the availability of their stack.
A second tool I worked on this year was the Go Language. I picked up a copy of The Go Programming Language and worked my way between the covers. While I did a lot of little practice problems that really demonstrated the power of the language, I had no deeper side project to work on with it and am still more excited about Rust’s potential (not that I have anything that I want to build with Rust either!)
2017 In Resolution
The Four 200 Hundreds
I made a strange discovery last year. Focusing on personal projects instead of time working on personal projects results in personal projects never shipping. A few years ago, I shifted to working on personal projects the way that I worked on work-work projects. I broke the projects down into actionable, measurable tasks. Itemized them like I would user stories in Jira. Filed them away in my todo list. Then lost all passionate energies to actually complete these tasks.
Each sprint, I added the same actionable items for my personal projects to the list. At the end of each sprint, I moved them to the next sprint. Structuring a personal project in this way made it just feel like more of my day job instead of a form of play.
So instead, I’m switching away from managing my personal projects. Instead of focusing on “finishing” a project, I’ll focus on “spending time” working on whatever I am moved to work on that day. I will track time spent on projects rather than milestones of projects.
So far, this seems to be working. After two years stalling on the rewrite for this blog, I actually got the Jekyll skeleton into place and all of my posts exported. I started playing around with the Solarus engine and tinkering with some old Damasca files. I started reading OSR books and putting together a rewrite of my campaign settings. All back-burner projects that have languished for years.
I call it the Four 200 Hundreds. Four subject areas, each with a dedicated block of 200 hundred hours for the year. This works out to 50 hours a quarter or roughly eight hours per subject a sprint. The subjects are writing, arts (music, game development, drawing), reading, and audio-visual media (games and film).
The One Thousand Miles
The second item is, fitness. This summer will be six years since the cave days. Since then, I’ve packed on weight. I do hit the gym, and get my three to four mile walks in several times a week, but I don’t do it with any kind of enthusiasm. The last time I really got into shape it was on my bicycling tour of Ireland. Four to eight hours on a bike for three weeks was a great way to lose well over twenty pounds. Coupled with an active employment, I kept the weight trimmed down for a while.
What I really want to do is a through hike of the PCT. That’s 2,650 miles over 4.5-5.5 months which is going to work out to 16 to 18 miles daily under load. Such a project would require considerably greater physical capacity then I am at now where a ten miler, unloaded, is around my maximum range.
In the heart of the four 200 hundreds, I thus have fifth goal: the one thousand miles. I want to have hiked, that is focused walking activity and not just meandering about the house, one thousand miles by the end of the year.