Monthly Archive: December 2014

The Tyranny of Experts

We’re trapped in an expert-bound world.

If you’re not recognized as an expert by another team of experts, it’s difficult to reach an audience. This is true even if you really are an expert. If you spent thousands of hours pursuing mastery of economics but didn’t tell anyone about it, unless you get lucky a la Thomas Piketty, you’re shouting into a sea of noise.

This means trouble because throughout human history, many great discoveries came from lone thinkers and doers.

Leonardo da Vinci. Galileo. Mendel. Edward Jenner. Banting and Best. Einstein. Ignaz Semmelweis. Beethoven. Prometheus (mythologically speaking). Linus Torvalds (initially).

The TCP/IP Exception

There are exceptions, of course. TCP/IP. The Manhattan Project. Teamwork can work in a well-crafted atmosphere. But there’s a high failure rate in creating such an atmosphere.

And academia? It’s hard to say the modern academic environment, with profit-motivated grants and overwhelming politics, succeeds in creating a place where real breakthroughs are possible. More often, academics seem to be rewarded for incremental breakthroughs, not out-of-paradigm thinking.

High Volume, High Stakes

Granted, many of the great thinkers and discoverers listed above were ridiculed or persecuted.

But ridicule has a higher volume today, thanks to social media, the Internet, TV and worldwide communication. It’s hard to be just the village eccentric now.

Moreover, official experts often don’t dare look ridiculous by departing from the accepted quo. Even if they believe something different in private. Especially if believing something different could endanger their job.

That’s why innovation often comes from unexpected corners.

It’s a tough choice: Even if you’re right, you may be ridiculed and discredited; conversely, you could find acceptance and reward. If your discovery can make people money, chances are higher that your experience will be relatively good. If your discovery could cause people to lose a lot of money, you face a greater risk.

But even if what you have to say seems ridiculous, someone has to say it first.

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Nothing Is Perfect: The Less-Good Parts

''The Mouth of the Beast'' from http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/220479689/ by http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/ {{cc-by}}

”The Mouth of the Beast” from http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/220479689/ by http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/ {{cc-by}}

One of my favorite people told me I sound like a superhero. The blog highlights all of the great parts of leaving my job and wandering the world, but none of the snags or tangles along the way.

I’m not sure I entirely agree. I’ve highlighted some of the ambiguous moments, like feeling stranded in Tuscany without a car, struggling with Internet outages and unreliable trains, and getting used to dark nights in farmhouse country. I’ve written about fear.

Partly, I’ve shied away from ungood stories because I don’t want to sound like I’m whining or ungrateful. On balance, this whole endeavor really is pretty great, and I’m happy I did it. I’m also grateful I was able to do it.

But to balance the scales a bit, this post will cover, in an anonymized way, several additional things that weren’t perfect.

1. Cat Bite, Initial Encounter. That’s what the hospital paperwork said when I was released from the emergency room. My roommate’s cat, which hates people but liked me, didn’t like it when I took her photo with my iPhone. It looked like a tiny scratch, but it got infected and my arm turned red. Seven days of antibiotics and stern warnings from my doctors to take all of them. I did.

2. Other Guest Roulette. With Airbnb, when I rent a private room in a host’s apartment, there are always other guests at some point. This has been true 100% of the time so far. Some of the guests were also from Airbnb, and some were friends of the host. Several of the guests were awesome and we became friends; others were less awesome. Only one made me feel truly uncomfortable, mainly because the hosts were also out, but we shared space for just a day and I locked my door while he was there.

3. Type-A, Nature-Lover Shock Therapy. I discovered I may not be cut out for life on vacation. That’s fine; I didn’t think I wanted to spend my life on vacation anyway. But I had more trouble than expected when I stepped away from an always-on, Internet-focused life. It was good for me to have this experience, but it wasn’t as easy or relaxing as I thought it would be. There were also beetles in the farmhouse that made a low, humming buzz that sounded like giant wasps. This terrified me until I figured it out.

4. My Right Foot. I sprained my ankle about 10 days before my scheduled flight to Florence. It wasn’t a bad sprain and didn’t hurt much, so I never bothered to ice it much or use a compression bandage. But I re-sprained it two days pre-flight; it collapsed while I was just standing still (perhaps a bad sign).

It still didn’t hurt much, so I purchased a compression sock and flew to Italy, then ended up visiting the ER the night after I landed. It turned out to be fine, thankfully, and the total bill was 31 euros. A week later, I re-sprained it again in the Cinque Terre, because I was starting to feel better and saw a hiking path near the water that I really wanted to explore. This time was worse — I felt like there was spaghetti in my ankle instead of ligaments and tendons. I finally accepted the need to take it easy. (It is getting better now, fingers crossed — I’m getting SCENAR therapy from my amazing acupuncturist and it is essentially a miracle.)

5. What Now Syndrome. My greatest fear is that I am like a zoo animal that, released from its pen, stands in the middle of a field and doesn’t know what to do. I can do anything, so I do a little bit of everything, and therefore I do nothing. I feel this fear more acutely as the learning-and-exploring phase of my adventures shifts into a do-something phase. I don’t think it’s bad for me to try several different things, and I think as long as I do some real work every day, I’ll figure it out, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by possibilities. I woke up this morning from a dream that I won’t be happy unless I’m working hard. I already knew that. And I woke up happy and ready to work.

I can’t help it even now. I’m turning this “Nothing Is Perfect” post into an “Isn’t This Awesome?” post. That really is how I think about the world. But nothing is perfect, and I’ve tried to give you a glimpse of that, to round out the picture and add more humanity to this adventure story.

My Interview with Nomadtopia

I’m excited to share the interview I did with Amy Scott at Nomadtopia: It’s here.

In the interview, I share some of my best advice from six months of travel, learning and exploration, including how I test-drove my nomad plan before taking the leap.

I normally have long blog posts, but this time I’ll let the interview speak for me, and I’ll be back with more later.

How to Get Almost-Free Airline Miles with Rocketmiles

One of the services I used during my recent trip was Rocketmiles. Rocketmiles offers airline miles in exchange for prepayment of hotel bookings. The main draw, for me, is the ability to earn United MileagePlus miles for hotel stays. And not just small bonuses — I earned 9000 United MileagePlus miles for a three-night stay at the Hilton Vienna Danube. The hotel rate was about $150 per night.

The going rate for 9000 miles on United’s website as a flight add-on is about $180-190. So, in exchange for paying a few weeks in advance, I received those miles for essentially $0. (I often use miles for business-class flights, so this starts to look even better.)

Rocketmiles is simple to use. Enter your destination, number of guests, dates of stay and airline loyalty program, and it produces a list of hotels offering at least 1,000 miles per night in exchange for your prepayment. Refundable rooms are often available (with cancellations required about a week before the stay begins), and prices are often the same as those on other travel sites.

Certain cities appear to offer better Rocketmiles deals than others, on average, though this can vary according to your dates of stay. I saw good deals in Vienna, Prague and Montreal when I was looking.

To me, Rocketmiles is a no-brainer if:

  • You’re planning to stay at a hotel anyway;
  • You’re staying with someone else, so your costs will be even lower; and
  • You can find a refundable room at a hotel that appeals to you.

In my mind, it becomes even more of a great deal if the value of miles received approaches 30% of the total hotel bill.

So, what are the caveats?

  • All hotels tend to sound good on Rocketmiles. Double-check the user reviews on TripAdvisor before you book.
  • Double-check the price on other travel sites to make sure it’s the same.
  • If you’re booking business travel, make sure you’re following your company’s procedures (i.e., are allowed to book your own hotel).

For four separate stays in November, the miles credited to my account quickly, and there were no hassles. I was treated well by the hotels and the rooms I was assigned were fine.

This service seems a little too-good-to-be-true, but I’ll be using it as long as it’s available.

GitHub Fails and Lessons Learned

I messed up my Xcode plugin yesterday. GitHub failed me, or rather, I failed GitHub. Then I fixed it and implemented better practices.

This blog post is an open, transparent attempt to share my mistakes and solutions.

For non-GitHub users, GitHub is sort of like Google Docs for software. It allows multiple software developers around the world to work together on software (relatively) seamlessly. So, if a software developer in Dubai makes a change, and another software developer in France makes a different change, those two changes can be merged into a single version of the software without significant hassle.

One Branch to Rule Them All

My first mistake was that I had only one GitHub branch: master. Initially, this worked well for me, because I used one laptop for development and pushed changes frequently from my local machine’s master branch to GitHub’s remote master branch.

Yesterday, I decided to push changes from a second machine, a test iMac with OS X Yosemite and Xcode 6 GM installed (for stability of the plugin, my laptop is still running Mavericks and Xcode 5/Xcode 6 beta. This turned out to be a good idea, at least until quirks are worked out).

Using the test iMac, I added the UUID (unique identification code) for Xcode 6 GM to my plugin. I did some limited testing (MAJOR MISTAKE) to verify functionality, pushed the code to GitHub’s master branch from the iMac, published a few more minor commits, and then pulled the new master version onto my laptop to make sure it also worked there.

Spoiler Alert!

The plugin did not work on my laptop. Previously functional commands produced no output. One command to create a for loop actually executed the Undo function instead! (If you’re not a software developer, just know that this is a bad kind of bug.) Most of these commands had worked fine on the test iMac.

Baffled, I decided to test every single command on the iMac (maybe I should have done this the first time, hmm?). I quickly discovered that with only one exception (of course, the one I’d tested before) my conditional-statement methods crashed Xcode. Some of the other methods that had produced no output on the laptop worked perfectly on the iMac. And entering slightly non-matching commands, which should produce no action, also crashed Xcode.

Clearly, my program now had crossed wires — and this crossed-wires version was the master branch on GitHub and the working version on my iMac and my laptop.

It was time to revert.

Don’t Cross the Streams

I researched how to revert GitHub commits. I wanted to roll back to a canonical, stable version that had worked with Xcode 5, and then go forward from there in a more measured way.

It turned out there were many ways to do this, many of which seemed complicated. The simplest way, doing a hard reset, was utterly bad practice (see: rewriting history) and I didn’t want to go there.

I found a Stack OverFlow answer that solved my dilemma. A poster there recommended doing this:

git revert –no-commit #######..HEAD (where ####### is the ID of the commit)
git commit -m “Commit message explaining what I just did”

This approach would revert all of the commits at once and re-create the state that had existed after the target commit. But it would not rewrite history by entirely removing old commits. Perfect.

Executing the Plan

First, in case something went wrong, I created a new branch with the old commit that I considered to be stable:

git checkout -b xcodestable #######
git push origin xcodestable

Then, reassured that I had a stable version stored on a separate branch, I switched back to the master branch and rolled it back to the old commit using the “git revert –no-commit” solution from Stack OverFlow:

git checkout master
git revert –no-commit #######..HEAD
git commit -m “Commit message explaining what I just did”
git push -u origin master

This seemed to work beautifully. But when I tried to run the plugin on my laptop, I encountered the same problems as before.

Into the Logs

Stymied in all other ways, I dealt with the situation I had in front of me and started logging messages to the console. I stepped through each process to see where things were going wrong.

To my surprise, the main problem appeared to be that many commands, after detecting the correct start point, were jumping into a method that adds items to an array. That method started with the word “Put “.

I had added case insensitivity to the plugin recently. That meant any text containing “put ” also would trigger the add-items-to-array method. For example, if the word “input” appeared anywhere in the code or comments, that would be a trigger. Whoops. I wasn’t sure why the case-insensitivity feature had worked perfectly when I first implemented and tested it, but it was breaking now.

I cleaned that up by making the command start point more specific (“Put item “) and built the program again. This time everything functioned. I tested every piece of functionality and then pushed it to the master branch:

git add –all
git commit -m “Functioning version”
git push -u origin master

Since everything was working, and the prior “stable” snapshot actually had not functioned correctly, I created a new stable branch from the functioning master branch:

git checkout -b xcode5stable2
git push origin xcode5stable2

Then I deleted the old, non-stable-after-all snapshot branch:

git push origin –delete xcode5stable
git branch -d xcode5stable

On to New Frontiers

At this point, the master branch functioned on my laptop and I had taken a snapshot (branch) of this stable state.

I still wanted to update the plugin for Yosemite and Xcode 6 GM functionality.

Unlike the last time, I decided not to do that on master. I created a new branch for testing new functionality, with the goal of merging it into the master branch once it verifiably worked on Mavericks and Yosemite:

git checkout -b newyosemite

Using the laptop, I opened the plist file as source code and added the Xcode 6 GM UUID. Then I built, re-tested every piece of functionality on the Mavericks laptop, and then pushed to the newyosemite branch.

git add –all
git commit -m “Now compatible with…”
git push -u origin newyosemite

Next Steps

The next step is to test this seemingly functional version on the test iMac with Yosemite. I’ll do that this weekend. I’m not sure if it will work, but I believe I found and fixed the major bug behind the wacky, unpredictable functionality. I also think I figured out what is causing another bug and have several ideas on how to make the code more robust.

My major takeaway is that no matter how small a project, better Git/GitHub practices are worthwhile. Specifically:

  • Preserve stable versions before major changes in a separate branch;
  • Make new changes in a separate branch before merging those changes into master; and, possibly most importantly:
  • Test ALL pieces of functionality before pushing or merging anything to branch master. Don’t just do spot tests.

 

Sabbatical Phase 2: Coworking and Bootstrapping

As I gear up for Phase Two of my adventures, I feel pulled in different directions. My primary goal is to make things that are helpful, useful improvements to the world. I’m conflicted about how and where to do it, specifically whether to try coworking, and how to bootstrap/fund until those things either succeed or fail.

Dilemma 1: Where to Work

On coworking, I’m an introvert. I enjoy meeting people, but a day in a noisy space leaves me needing to rest and recharge. I do my best work in focused, productive bursts, either alone or with a small team of people. (I’m also good at political wrangling and large meetings, but that skill is less useful for my current activities, at least right now.)

I’m not sure I see the benefit of paying money to sit in a noisy space that saps my concentration and energy.

Fortunately, I have alternatives. On Thursdays and weekends, I can visit the Hacker School space. This space is special: It manages to be quiet and focused for much of the day even while full of people, which astonishes me but also makes me extraordinarily grateful. As a bonus, it’s a great place to find lunch or dinner partners for non-work breaks.

Tomorrow, I’ll be trying free space donated by an incubator for Hacker School alums to continue working on cool projects. I love this idea and look forward to seeing how it goes, especially because it requires one-day-at-a-time sign-up rather than an ongoing five-day-a-week commitment.

About the only thing I don’t gain from these spaces is a permanent “home” for my work. What I would pay for is a service that provides office trappings without actually being an office. Things like a non-P.O.-box mailing address, faxing, copying and printing, supplies like envelopes and a receptionist and phone numbers (which I could forward to my cell phone), with conference rooms rentable by the hour for meetings. But no work desks — I could take care of that part by going to quiet-ish coffeeshops or working from home, wherever home is.

Does anyone know of a service like this?

Dilemma 2: How to Bootstrap/Fund

On the bootstrapping/funding side, I could continue without focusing on money at all — and it’s been a blessing to do that for the past six months at Hacker School and while traveling — but I feel like that might be short-sighted. I can extend my options if I earn money by freelancing, consulting, investing, fundraising or seeking fellowships.

One thing I don’t want to do is become too focused on making money at the expense of actually doing things and making things. So I’ll need to find the right balance, and that will be a process of trial and error. Ideally, some of the things I do and make will become sources of income and possibly allow me to raise funds or get fellowships. But I don’t want to force an outcome; I want to experiment, make useful things, and see what sticks.

I suppose I have a sabbatical bucket list. If I do a self-check, I’ve done some interesting things so far (though not all of the things on this list). Travel to places I’ve never been. Attend Hacker School. Make YouTube videos. Write a blog. Write an eBook. Make apps and plugins. Make websites. Make training courses. Be an e-tutor. Speak up on Twitter. Present at conferences and meetups. Attend different types of conferences. Try crowdfunding. Make or contribute to some real-world products.

This list sometimes makes me feel disorganized or scattered. But if I think about my mission statement, it’s pretty clear:

Experiment, make useful things, see what sticks. Keep doing the things that stick. Be myself and see what happens.