December 2005 Archives

System administrators have a stereotypical reputation for grumpiness and irritability. Some times this misanthropy is a cultivated pose, designed to deter casual or trivial requests that would take time away from more important activities like playing nethack and reading netnews. More often, however, sysadmins are disgruntled simply because they can’t seem to make any headway on the dozens of items clogging up their todo lists. If you’re an example of the latter case, you may find some help in Time Management for System Administrators, the new book from Thomas Limoncelli (who you may recognize as one of the co-authors of the classic The Practice of System and Network Administration).

This slim book (only 226pp) packs a large amount of helpful information about making better use of your time at work, so that you can make some headway on at least some of those tasks that have piled up around you, while still managing to have a life outside of work. One of Limoncelli’s main points is that sysadmins have to develop some way of effectively dealing with the constant stream of interruptions in their life if they’re going to accomplish anything. The other point is that they also need a good tracking system to make sure they don’t lose track of new, incoming requests in the process of dealing with existing ones. The book continually reinforces these two points, and presents several alternative, complementary ways to accomplish them.

The first three chapters deal with high-level, generic issues: principles of time management, managing interruptions, and developing checklists and routines to help deal with the chaos of day-to-day system administration. The middle third of the book details how to use “the cycle system”, Limoncelli’s task management plan for sysadmins. Basically, it’s a hybrid between Franklin-Covey A-B-C prioritization and day planning and David Allen GTD-style todo lists, with a few sysadmin-specific tweaks thrown in. The final chapters of the book address a grab-bag of issues: task prioritization, stress management, dealing with the flood of email that all admins seem to get, identifying and eliminating the time sinks in your environment, and documenting and automating your work-flow.

In general, I think this is a great book for sysadmins that are looking to begin addressing time management problems. People that have already done some investigation of time management techniques (like the aforementioned Franklin-Covey and GTD systems) may find less value here — but I still think the book will be interesting, especially the chapters detailing the workings of “the cycle system”. Personally, after reading this book, I don’t see any reason to move away from my modified GTD system, but I have gone back to using some daily checklists, which are helping me keep on top of my repeating tasks a lot better. I suspect that any working sysadmin will take away at least two or three productivity-enhancing tips from this book.

Happy Holidays!

Happy Chanakwaneidxmastice to everybody — things are going to go quiet here for the rest of the year; we’ll catch you on the other side.


After the DCLUG meeting last night, I went to Metro home and discovered that the Dupont Circle statiot had lost power. Trains were still running, but there weren’t very many lights. I tried to get some pictures, but this is the only one that ended up being worth looking at — low-light handheld stuff is beyond my capabilities with the small point-and-shoot, I guess.

I’m giving a talk on CfEngine at the DCLUG meeting tomorrow night; details are here. Stop by if you’re interested in configuration automation or sysadmin-type stuff; I hope to be interesting or at the very least, informative.

UPDATE: Here are my slides.

A couple of hipster PDA mentions that I’ve noticed recently. First, in shark-jumping news, US News & World Report discovers the lifehack “movement”:

Have you heard the term “life hacking”? That’s the newest techno jargon, and it means coming up with ways to reclaim your time. Ironically—and yet aptly—some of the best advice for cutting through digital clutter comes from self-described “geeks.” You know, the folks who got us in this mess in the first place. Many of them have set up websites to disseminate their wisdom.

Second, a columnist from the Great White North says enough already:

If there’s a quibble (oh, I’ll quibble alright) it’s with the site’s rallying symbol, the Hipster PDA. Basically any type of paper fixed together through any means (paperclips, staples, very thin rocks), is suddenly cool. And instead of calling it “paper fixed together,” it’s called “the Hipster PDA”; it’s cool like the kid at the comic convention with the Star Trek t-shirt AND the Luke Skywalker lunch box. Enough already - we get that paper is cool.

That was a fairly quick fifteen minutes, all things considered.

In the continuing slow-motion explosion of SnoopGate, we find:

  • The moderator of the Cryptography mailing list says the President violated the law and endangered the future of the Republic:
    There is no room for doubt or question about whether the President has the prerogative to order surveillance without asking the FISC — even if the FISC is a toothless organization that never turns down requests, it is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years imprisonment, to conduct electronic surveillance against US citizens without court authorization. The FISC may be worthless at defending civil liberties, but in its arrogant disregard for even the fig leaf of the FISC, the administration has actually crossed the line into a crystal clear felony. The government could have legally conducted such wiretaps at any time, but the President chose not to do it legally. Ours is a government of laws, not of men. That means if the President disagrees with a law or feels that it is insufficient, he still must obey it. Ignoring the law is illegal, even for the President. The President may ask Congress to change the law, but meanwhile he must follow it. Our President has chosen to declare himself above the law, a dangerous precedent that could do great harm to our country. However, without substantial effort on the part of you, and I mean you, every person reading this, nothing much is going to happen. The rule of law will continue to decay in our country. Future Presidents will claim even greater extralegal authority, and our nation will fall into despotism. I mean that sincerely. For the sake of yourself, your children and your children’s children, you cannot allow this to stand. Call your Senators and your Congressman. Demand a full investigation, both by Congress and by a special prosecutor, of the actions of the Administration and the NSA. Say that the rule of law is all that stands between us and barbarism. Say that we live in a democracy, not a kingdom, and that our elected officials are not above the law. The President is not a King. Even the President cannot participate in a felony and get away with it. Demand that even the President must obey the law.
    (via boing boing)
  • Our Vice President is telling blatant lies and getting away with it.
  • AmericaBlog points out that this means the Second Amendment is just as dead as the Fourth — alert the gun nuts NRA members in your life. (via Medley’s Furl-stream.)
  • JWZ breaks down the post-Bush impeachment succession order and discovers it’s all bad, all the way down the line.
  • Finally, Talking Points Memo and Political Animal are both speculating that the underlying reason for the secrecy over this program, and the reason why it wasn’t presented to Congress in the first place, is because it involves wholesale screening of electronic communication — i.e., the NSA reading everyone’s email. Time to bust out that GPG Howto, or maybe turn your holiday celebration into a keysigning party.
thechild at her office

TheChild loves nothing more than sitting down at the end table with a good book and a tall glass of milk.


I see that you’re still feeling a bit under the weather. I hope you feel better soon.

Here are some things I would have fed you over the past few days, had you been able to eat them:

Again, hope you’re feeling better soon. I miss you.

Yr internet pal,

Or at least the end for now, because there are lots of things I should be doing instead of procrastinating with this shiny new toy…

Let’s see if things don’t work a bit better now that I’ve set up a custom template…

Testing out work flow through iPhoto, into Flickr, and then to the weblog…

And the “damn, that’s messed up” news just keeps coming: Polar bears drown as ice shelf melts. Oy.

(via jwz.)

This Roman Textures photo set has some shots that make great desktop backgrouds.

(Via the Flickr blog.)

Courtesty Sacha

Top 10 tags for 2005 read_me(126) sysadmin(48) perl(43) programming(41) do_me(33) tools(32) gtd(20) for_work(17) emacs(16) linux(15)
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TheWife had a bit of outpatient surgery done on Friday, so I was away from any sort of news from about 10pm Thursday night until about 9pm Friday night. Once I sat down and started catching up, I started to realize we’d been offline on one of the most politically important days of my lifetime. It started with a New York Times story reporting that President Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on the communication of American citizens in cases when they hadn’t obtained a warrant — a significant violation of our laws, if true, and sufficient to scuttle the Patriot Act renewal in the Senate.

Then, on Saturday, in his weekly radio address, Bush himself admitted that he had done this, had broken the law, to spy on American citizens.

There’s lots that’s been written on this; I’m not going to take the time to repeat the history and the legal analysis — see Bruce Schneier, or Digby, or Kos, or Atrios, or Orcinus.

January should be “interesting”, not to mention the remaining three years of this administration… has an article on building a shopping-cart site with Catalyst. The impressive thing is that it’s all plug-ins — no additional code required.

Our Secretary of State admits the procedure of “rendition” exists, but denies that the purpose is torture:

Attempting to stem fierce European criticism of US treatment of suspected terrorists, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, admitted that Washington had carried out “renditions” of suspects - but never in violation of other country’s sovereignty, and never where it was believed that the individual might be tortured.

This raises several obvious questions about the practice — for example, if it’s not to facilitate torture, why do we bother? Do these other countries have some non-torture-based information extraction methods that we don’t? Couldn’t we just get that technology? In more encouraging, “hey they’re awake” news, the White House press corps put some of these questions to Scott McClellan:

Q What is the purpose of rendition, other than, if it is not, in fact, to subject detainees to a degree of interrogation somewhat more difficult than that which they would be subjected to in the United States? And that being the case, what definition of torture does the United States understand and accept? MR. McCLELLAN: The ones that are defined in our law and our international treaty obligations. We have laws — Q If that’s the case, then why bother to render anybody? MR. McCLELLAN: We have laws that prohibit torture. We have treaty obligations that we adhere to. And the Convention Against Torture is a treaty obligation that we take seriously and we adhere to. And in that treaty, it — those treaties and laws, it defines torture. And — Q Then what’s the purpose of rendition?

The harm being done by this sanctioned, wink-and-nod practice of torture will far outlive the current administration; it is our everlasting shame.

(Independent link via Snowdeal: Conflux.)

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… so add it to your daily rounds for the month: Perl Advent Calendar 2005

Update: And there’s a Catalyst Advent calendar too! Catalyst is the shizzle; if you’re doing any Perl-based web programming, you should be giving it a serious look.

There’s a situation in Denver that is troubling, to say the least:

Meet Deborah Davis. She’s a 50 year-old mother of four who lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Her kids are all grown-up: her middle son is a soldier fighting in Iraq. She leads an ordinary, middle class life. You probably never would have heard of Deb Davis if it weren’t for her belief in the U.S. Constitution. One morning in late September 2005, Deb was riding the public bus to work. She was minding her own business, reading a book and planning for work, when a security guard got on this public bus and demanded that every passenger show their ID. Deb, having done nothing wrong, declined. The guard called in federal cops, and she was arrested and charged with federal criminal misdemeanors after refusing to show ID on demand.

There’s a rally Friday at the U.S. Courthouse in Denver; if you’re in the area, please investigate going.

personal overclocking evidence

This week has not been going at all like I intended. Going into it, I knew it was going to be stressful — TheWife was out of town from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday night for a meeting, which meant that I’d be in single parent mode. Generally not too bad for a day or two, but stressful nonetheless. We’ve also got a number of big things that are starting to ramp up at work this week, and because of the drop-off and pick-up times we have at TheChild’s day care, I end up being limited to six-hour days when I have the Mr. Mom hat on. So I was ready for some frustration (and, to be fair, I was looking forward to hanging out with TheChild too — these things balance out).

What I didn’t count on was coming down with some viral crud. So in addition to the Mr. Mom-ing, I’ve had a two or three degree overtemp for the past several days, and (as a consequence of missing work) am completely off the rails in terms of things I was trying to get done. I’ve also been sleeping rather poorly; I keep having fever dreams which make absolutely no sense, and then I wake up and try to understand them, and just get annoyed.

For whatever reason — the fever, or the missing sleep, or both — I’ve had a persistant “this is what it’s like to be stupid” feeling. My short-term memory is non-existent, I tend to forget where I am in multi-step tasks, and I grow frustrated fairly quickly when I’m forced to think about something for too long. (Feel free to insert your own political joke here.)

The additional hanging out time with TheChild was good, though (although she was probably the source of the viral crud, and seems to have picked it back up from me…) I recently bought a “best of” compilation of the Pixies, which she really likes. She’s particularly taken with “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, and seems to be constantly asking for me to play it on my laptop — and then she sings along. She doesn’t know all the words yet, but she does have the chorus and some of the verses (in particular, “there’s a hole in the sky / and the ground’s not cold” has been getting repeated quite a bit).

The Pixies are also responsible for the funniest thing that TheChild has done recently. It’s important to understand that, because she’s three, there’s a good deal of perfectly age-appropriate body exploration going on. And as I’ve said, she’s quite taken with the Pixies. So while I probably shouldn’t have been surprised the other day when she walked around the corner with her hand shoved down the front of her pants singing the chorus to “Diggin’ For Fire”, I ended up falling off my chair laughing anyway.

The BioPerl class is finished; Thanksgiving come and gone. Work is starting to do the usual “it’s a slow time of year so let’s try to cram in all this stuff” business, and I’m starting to think about how much and how little I actually got accomplished this year. It must be December.

You may notice a change or two around here; my web host sent me a bitchy note about using too much CPU, so I’m seeing what effect switching to WordPress will have. I suspect a lot of the CPU usage was because I was using an older copy of Blosxom with some seriously dodgy plugins; I guess we’ll see one way or the other.

I will say that switching to WordPress was less involved than I expected; maybe it will cut down on some of the comment spam too…