Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Turned 40

Without celebration or fanfare, I attained 40 years today. What's next?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tried out some Time Management Tools

The great Peter F. Drucker, master of all things management, commanded "Know Thy Time". It was the title of chapter 2 of The Effective Executive and he emphasizes that it is difficult or impossible to become truly effective without this step.

I decided to go in search of time tracking tools for the Mac to see if I could find anything that would help. The short story is, although there are many choices out there, I found very little that met my personal requirements. Most existing time tracking tools are integrated as part of a larger project management suite and provide lots of great tools that got in my way since I am not a project manager.

Here's a quick review of the tools I looked at:

RescueTime is a program that sits in the background and watches what programs you use and what web sites you visit. I used it for a while, but I didn't find the output to be actionable. It could measure, for example, how much time I spent doing email vs. web browsing. It even allowed me to lump email, IRC, and IM applications together into a "communication" category. However, it did a very poor job allowing me to record off-computer time. There's a basic "add time" interface and that's about it. Worse, it's model didn't really fit my usage patterns. As a web developer, I spend pretty much all my working time either in a terminal or a web browser. RescueTime did not allow me to differentiate between developing code, debugging production issues, performing QC testing, writing documentation, etc, all of which take place in the same two programs. Likewise, sometimes when I'm in my IRC client, it's scheduled work collaborating with coworkers. But if I'm supposed to be doing something else, then it's a distraction. RescueTime can't really make that distinction.

Harvest is a time tracking and invoicing tool for freelancers. It's a web-based tool, and the service costs $12 a month. These two factors eliminated it from my consideration without a test drive. Too much money to pay for features I will never use, and too much inconvenience trying to track offline time.

Nozbe is a GTD-style personal productivity tool that includes a time tracker. This is another web-based for-pay tool, although there is a free version that you can use indefinitely. Again, for this task I find web-based tools inconvenient, and this one had too many features that I simply didn't need.

Fanurio is a commercial cross-platform Java time tracking and invoice application for freelancers. This one had potential, but the proof was missing from the pudding. I found using it to be a hassle. Just getting started was a wicked pain, because it forces you to enter a Client, Project, and "Service" before you can begin tracking time. This makes it entirely unsuitable for tracking small bits of time. The interface is bizarrely counter-intuitive, displaying completed time but not the current timer by default. Finding how to enter notes for the current timer is like an Easter egg hunt, and the tool managed to lose some of the notes I entered in the few hours I was using it. Strongly NOT recommended.

Time Tracker (what a unique name!) is an open-source time tracking application for the Mac. It performs the basics of tracking your time, but it was not at all easy to switch between tasks. I rejected it because it commits the worst sin: closing the window will close the program and stop tracking your time. That's just dumb. A time tracker should, almost by definition, be unobtrusive and should run in the background by default.

Finally, OfficeTime probably came closest to being usable of those I tested. It was reasonably easy to switch between tasks once I had set them up, and the idle timer was both clever and very useful. Unfortunately, OfficeTime also stops tracking time if you close the window (though it does not quit the program). It lasted longest on my desktop, but I seriously doubt I will still be using it when the free trial runs out.

What I want in a Time Tracking Tool

What I'm really looking for is a strange hybrid between OfficeTime, RescueTime, iCal, and Twitter.

I already have a schedule in iCal that knows what I'm supposed to be doing. My time tracker should start with that. Then it just needs to ask if I am on-task at the beginning of each calendar event so I don't have to re-enter anything.

OfficeTime's idle time pop-up did a reasonable job of substituting for what I call "interrupt mode". There's the thing I'm supposed to be working on, and then someone walks up to my desk and asks a question. Ten minutes later when I turn back to my screen, the idle pop-up asks "You went idle, what have you been doing?" It gives me the option to keep the time on the current task, or allocate it somewhere else (or ignore it entirely, but don't do that). I'd like to add a hot-key that would put the tracker into "interrupt mode" manually. This would help prevent accidentally restarting my scheduled work after an interruption without resetting the timer properly.

RescueTime's ability to know what program I'm using would be a fine addition, to enable tracking hidden distractions. It could warn me, "Hey Vince, you claim to be doing web development right now, but you're in your email client. Are you really still developing or have you switched to communicating?" RescueTime already allows categorizing programs, it would be a short leap from there.

Finally, the user interface for all this should be as simple to use as answering Twitter's "what are you doing" question. Allow me to set up projects, categories, and tasks, but don't force me to! Often, I don't know what category a particular block of time should go into at the moment I'm recording it, and trying to think about it then is distracting me from my real work. Let me add all that metadata after the fact, if at all. In fact, just leave me a delicious-style "tags" field, and later I'll tell the time tracker which tags represent clients, projects, categories, or something else.

At the end of the week I'll do my weekly review. At that time I would like to check scheduled vs actual time on task and get an idea of when and where my interruptions are coming from. RescueTime-style graphs of time by category would be extremely useful. So would a temporal graph displaying activities and interruptions linearly by time.

As it stands today, none of the time tracking tools I have seen do what I want. Nearly all of them are focused on tracking projects and/or billable hours, and as such they are biased against the very feature that I want, the tracking of distractions and small amounts of off-task time. Does anyone out there have a tool for me?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Updated Webquills.net with tasty links

Man, those round tuits are really hard to come by.

Nearly a month ago, I started working on a system to incorporate my Delicious bookmarks into my web site. I spend a lot of effort sifting through web development articles and writing descriptions of them to go into my bookmarks. I've always thought it was a good idea to recycle that content for use on my web sites. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I got the polish on my integration.

Tonight I finally found the extra hour I needed to get the software tested and integrated in the site. So now when you visit the Webquills.net home page, you'll see not only my articles, but also articles from around the web that I think are worth reading.

If I can find any more of those tuits, I'll write up an article about the software for Webquills.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Relaunched Webquills.net

Last week I launched my new web design for Webquills.net. I accidentally spent a couple of months working on it, and threw away two nearly complete designs and one perfectly good blogging tool in the process. These things are always a learning process. So what did I learn?

First, although Movable Type is a perfectly acceptable blogging tool, it annoys the crap out of me. I couldn't stand the tedium of trying to edit all those templates in so many places through that dinky web-based editor. I finally just pulled my head away from the wall it had been banging against and rebuilt the whole site in HTML::Mason. After all, I'm a web developer, I can do that.

Second, I learned that I have the visual design skills of a wet bar of soap. I couldn't put an inoffensive color scheme together to save a kitten's life, and anyone who lets me near a texture library should have himself analyzed. I finally just adapted one of those free page templates you find on the Interwebs, and even my selection drew sneers from the more color-coordinated people in my life. It's sort of Ubuntu-orange. But IMHO, almost anything is better than the horrible Movable Type default template.

I'm having fun putting together the back-end functionality I want, rather than picking from a menu of somebody else's mediocre ideas. I have basic blog stuff working now (posts and feed). Soon I'll be integrating my delicious feed as well.

Actually, the thing that took the most work (and by work I mean thought) was coming up with a tagline that captured the spirit of Webquills. I must have gone through 100 variations or more, returning to the same concepts over and over, trying to boil down in my mind what it is that Webquills is meant to be about. Finally I settled on Develop effective web sites. The phrase was strongly influenced by my reading of The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker - a fantastic little volume that basically woke me up to the difference between killing time and kicking ass. Read it. Just read it.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Contributed to a CPAN module

I had a need to use Net::Amazon at $work, and it needed a little help because Amazon is changing their API to require all requests to be signed. So I contacted the maintainer and offered to contribute a patch. The patch was added in version 0.50. But what's cooler is that in version 0.54 some one else submitted a patch to correct some problems caused by my patch. Open source software is so great! Two people who don't even know each other writing software maintained by a third person, to make better software for all of us. What a great concept!!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Embarked on a Historic(al) Publishing Adventure

Sometimes fun turns out to be a lot of work.

I have always had an interest in History. In school, all my elective classes were history classes. I love that whole karmic one thing leads to another flow of events that brought us from there to here to who knows where next.

Of course, in my life, everything usually comes back to the web, and so it is with history. I recently discovered that the great science fiction writer, H.G. Wells, also wrote a marvelous tome of the history of the world, entitled (creatively) The Outline of History. I also discovered that, although the book is in the public domain, the only text of it available on the web is a sort of unfinished OCR scan. Being a history fan, and an H.G. Wells fan, and a web developer, I obviously could not let that stand.

And so I have begun a long term project to edit together a web version of the book. This mostly entails doing some cutting and pasting, and a whole lot of trips to Wikipedia to verify spellings of archaic terms and the names of obscure kings. At any rate, the publishing of The Outline of History, Online Edition has begun. One article at a time, I will be editing and posting the entire contents of the book. It's going to take months to get it all out, and the project is eating huge amounts of my spare time. But it's so much fun!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Finally created my "me" page!

Although I have been on the web for more than a decade, I've never really had a page that was just about me. Until NOW! Mwah-ha-ha-ha! (Okay, so I'm not an evil mastermind, I can still practice the laugh. You never know.)

The All About Vince page is a collection of "inputs and outputs", things I read (or hear or watch) and things I write. At the moment, it's almost entirely composed of Javascript or Flash widgets that pull in me-data from various ports of call on the web. So far I've covered my delicious bookmarks, my Amazon wishlist, and most importantly, thanks to Google's Feed API and their swank FeedControl, all of my blogs.

There's plenty more I want to add, but the page is a Work In Progress (just like me :).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Turned off my link splicer

If you've been subscribing to the What Vince Did Feed (you're probably the only one) to get my tasty link list, you're about to get disappointed. I have removed the link splicer from my FeedBurner feed, so you won't be seeing them here anymore.

Of course if you really want them, you can go directly to the source, my bookmark feed is here. It's just that I'm starting to build a tool that combines my feeds in various ways, and having all my links show up twice is a bit unpretty. More on the mythical feed project later, after it's launched.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Came out of hiding - mumba zuzu!

After more than three months of doing nothing but $work and (very little) sleep, I have finally emerged and re-engaged with the tiny pieces of my tiny world. (Hello World!)

I made a post over at Webquills on hash slices that I've been itching to write, because I use the things so much and I don't see them around much elsewhere.

I also dropped a note on Media Brothers about my latest muse. Kate Voegele's music has helped keep me pumped for coding through those long nights of sore eyes and tired fingers. Thanks Kate!

Also I received three emails in one day with the subject line "mumba zuzu". I have no idea what it means, but it's so fun to say that it has become my mantra this week! Say it with me now: MUMBA ZUZU!! See, isn't that fun? :)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Discovered REAL ultimate power!

See, this is why I will never be cool (and by cool, I mean totally sweet). I'm just not plugged in to the Jungian collective subconscious. Somehow, until today I managed never to hear about real ultimate power, an Internet experience apparently so powerful and popular that it has been parodied to apply to programmers and bald Britney.

I'm going to crawl back under my rock now. Wake me at the Apocalypse.

On second thought, don't.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Made PerlBuzz!

W00t! My Webquills.net article on choosing a perl template system got linked from my favorite Perl site, PerlBuzz. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

It's funny, that article started out as just a quick little "here's what I do" note, and ended up a 1,500 word comparison of various templating systems in Perl. I'm pretty sure this is the first person to link to Webquills.net who isn't me. Maybe I'll get a little traffic now.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Switched Webquills.net to Movable Type

I recently made a decision to focus my Webquills blog not just on web development, but specifically on Perl web development. It seemed hypocritical to write a blog about Perl web development using a PHP blogging tool (or a Java-based service like Blogger). And when I heard that MT was going open source, it was the perfect opportunity for a switch. So this past weekend, I converted from Wordpress to MTOS. So far, so good. I still need to do a lot of look and feel customizations. But no at least my Perl blog is generated with Perl blogging software.