What is ‘agile’ and what is the Agile Manifesto?

In a recent a Ruby Rogues episode I heard Andy Hunt discuss how the fundamental expectation from the original Agile Manifesto was that “everyone and their dog was going to come out with their own agile method.” Andy continued to explain that most people equate ‘agile’ with scrum, which in turn leaves much room for innovation (including Andy’s latest effort via the GROW methodology).

When I heard Andy talk about this, I realized that I never really read the Agile Manifesto. In my mind is was something related to Agile and Scrum and XP and every other agile-like methodology that I’ve heard and read about in the past (and somewhere in there stand-up meetings were required because I experienced this in various start-ups). It was quite a revelation for me to read and revel in the simplicity of http://agilemanifesto.org/ site – 2 pages consisting of the manifesto and the principles behind it.

After reading these two pages I felt like the guy using the word ‘inconceivable’ in Princess Bride where Mandy Patinkin says “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

This post is a reminder to myself to re-examine my assumptions about agile. I can now see how the manifesto and its principles can apply to many things beyond work. For example, there’s the principle of:

The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.

How many times have I resorted to emailing over face-to-face? How many times has email been ineffective when compared to face-to-face?


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter or eli4dcom on Snapchat (I’m still experimenting with Snapchat)


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How to Research and Vote on California Propositions

Overview

California is ‘blessed’ with tons and tons of propositions that are on the upcoming November ballot besides the usual election craziness.

In this article, I cover my way of quickly sorting through the propositions and the way best to vote for me. The usual disclaimers apply. This is my approach based on a bit of cynicism and a bit of practicality. I hope you find it useful.

The Problem

For the past few months, my mailbox has been inundated with oversized postcards that yell in my face “VOTE YES FOR PROPOSITION 314” followed immediately by another postcard with a “VOTE NO FOR PROPOSITION 314”. All of these commercials try to take advantage of basic human biases (such as “don’t tell me what to do,” and “I know how to manage money better than the politicians,” etc…).

The one commonality across all of these propositions is the money that backs them up. My rather simplistic theory is to follow the money. If I like the funders of the ‘yes’ side of a proposition (and by like – I mean that the funder(s) are aligned with my values or at least some of my values), then I vote ‘yes.’ If I’m more in line with ‘no’ side – then it’s a ‘no.’ The approach is simple but the key question is where to get the data in a form that makes it clear and quick to understand a proposition’s goal and its backers.

The Approach

My first stop is my favorite search engine Duckduckgo (I know – a ridiculous name for an amazing resource).

In this section, I go over the top 3 results and the best one that worked for me

The Approach

1. http://www.followthemoney.org is too national

www.followthemoney.org is a beautiful site. While California is part of the site, this resource is targeted at a more national level.

www.followthemoney.org is too national

2. The calvoter.org site is pragmatic

The calvoter.org site slaps you awake with a bright yellow coloration while providing some pragmatic information. Scrolling down a bit leads you to a “follow the money” section. The ‘top donors‘ and ‘total amounts‘ links seem promising and lead to official state of California pages with money information. The problem is that those state pages don’t give much context beyond the numbers. These links are useful for more details about proposition backers/opponents and I use them after getting some context for a proposition (see below).

The calvoter.org site is pragmatic

3. Hitting the ‘follow the money’ jackpot with calmatters.org

The third time may be the charm in this case with the calmatters.org. The site is a nonprofit and nonpartisan site that hits the key issues of each proposition. See the ‘Example Walkthrough’ (below) for how I use it.

Hitting the 'follow the money' jackpot with calmatters.org

Example Walkthrough

In this section, I learn about Proposition 51 through the calmatters.org and top donors sites and make my voting choice accordingly.

1. It sounds good

My first impression is that it sounds good. What could be bad about “school constructions”? I have a child, and I want schools to be constructed and/or refurbished.

Thinking: Yep – I definitely want this!

It sounds good

2. Give me more info

Continuing on https://calmatters.org/proposition/proposition-51-school-construction-bonds/ – there’s a good summary of what Prop 51 is about.

Interesting – 9 billion dollars in bonds and almost 9 billion dollars in interest.

Give me more info

3. Supporters versus Opponents

Interesting sets of supporters and opponents. Eleven million dollars have been spent on this by the supporters though the chart doesn’t tell us who (we’ll come back to that through the top donor sites).

Ummm…I like Jerry Brown for the most part – why is he against this?

Supporters versus Opponents

4. The “More information” section links out to supporters and opponents.

This is a nice section that links to various sites for both the proponents and opponents of Proposition 51.

The "More information" section links out to supporters and opponents.

5. Why is Jerry Brown against it?

Following the Los Angeles Times link (http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-pol-sac-jerry-brown-school-bond-20160212-story.html) from the above step. Brown is saying that this effort will promote more building in affluent areas while providing less to low-income communities. At the same time – the legislature is practicing ‘stagnation’ when it comes to this issue.

So the choice is: builder/developer motivated agenda to increase their revenues or stagnation via the legislature’s indecision and inaction 😦 .

Why is Jerry Brown against it?

6. Getting more details about donors from the state’s top ten donor site

The top ten donor site has much more detail about actual donors. The highest donor is “Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee” followed by the building industry association. Who is this “Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee”? It’s a somewhat obscure name that just reinforces Prop 51’s topic – “School Housing” (i.e. school construction). Clicking the link on this coalition leads us to more contribution details from the state’s site.

Getting more details about donors from the state's top ten donor site

7. Details about “Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee” – 1

Top level page of the state’s information about this coalition. The “Historical names for this committee” is also interesting. If I get minimal information from this page, then I can check out the propositions from the historical section to see the topics/issues that this organization supported. The “Late and $5000+ Contributions Received” option seems very interesting – let’s select that.

Details about "Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee" - 1

8. Details about “Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee” – 2

I sure wish I could see only the $5000+ rather than the ‘late’ contributions. This would be easier to do through Excel but time is short and there are many more propositions to go through. There are some people in education that are contributing, and there are lots of construction, architecture, and property management firms.

Details about "Coalition for Adequate School Housing Issues Committee" - 2

9. How to vote on Prop 51?

My rapid research provides the following considerations about Proposition 51:

  • For the most part it seems like it is supported by companies that are associated with construction (like architecture firms, property management firms, etc..). Businesses don’t usually invest in something unless there is a significant upside. So there’s 9 billion dollars worth of upside for a 10 million dollar investment with the state paying 9 billion in interest (and by ‘state’ I mean the taxpayers of California). Do I trust these companies? Are they aligned with the communities in my area?
  • Jerry Brown is against this proposition. He claims that it will help builders and take away from poor communities. This gives me significant pause.

Conclusion

California is a state of sunshine and propositions. There are 15 more propositions to go beyond Prop 51 (sheesh). Mailers and TV commercials are useless when it comes to understanding propositions and are no different than car commercials (though I have to say that I like car commercials better). They tug on psychology and emotion to get the voter to react with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I’ve tried to figure some rapid way to understand the issues, and I’ve written it in this post. Hopefully, it helps you.

If you have any feedback or a better way to figure out California’s propositions – let me know via Twitter (@eli4d) or Snapchat (eli4dcom).

Key links in this post:

A Beginner’s Guide to How to Fly a Drone by a Beginner (with some specific instructions for LaTrax’s Alias drone)

Overview

Towards the end of last year I walked into my local Hobby People shop to find a drone. I walked out with the LaTrax Alias drone (they said it was awesome and they had a sale and I’m a sucker for a sale and a great piece of equipment).

In this article I cover some things that I learned on how to start and how to fly the Alias. I goofed up and mis-remembered the drone arming procedures many times (choosing to just “do it” rather than check YouTube). Luckily the fine folks at Hobby People helped me out every time (shout out to Mike and Richard). While there are tons of resources about drone flying, these are just some things I learned that may be helpful to someone who wants to just get going with a drone.

Alias What?

In case you wondering – no I’m not talking about Jennifer Garner’s character from Alias the TV show. I’m talking about the Alias quad-copter from LaTrax.

Alias What?

Support from LaTrax

LaTrax has a great deal of support for the Alias:

In spite of the videos and PDFs I had a heck of a time connecting the remote to the Alias (which had more to do with me rather than LaTrax’s instructions). Luckily the Hobby People folks were very (very) patient with me. This is one of the reasons why buying a drone from a local bricks-and-mortar shop makes sense, besides the fact that the there is very little pricing when compared to online.

How to Arm the Alias

‘Arming’ a drone refers to the process of connecting the remote to the drone. The Alias (like most drones) begins in a disarmed state. In other words, it doesn’t connect to the remote without specific user interaction. Otherwise, you might accidentally tap the remote and the drone would go flying haphazardly into your neighbor’s Bob yard and then Bob would claim it’s his drone and…well anyway.

The video explaining arming

LaTrax’s drone arming video is very useful in this respect. It’s good to start with this video. However, there is a subtlety in how you click on the throttle stick (which I’ll explain in the next step).

The video explaining arming

The subtlety of arming using the throttle stick

So as the video shows you pull down the throttle stick and then you “quickly press and release the throttle stick”. My problem was that I would press and hold the throttle stick and then this would cause the numbers on the remote to flash and go into its option setting mode. Additionally, this mode can cause the drone/remote to be unbound (the very opposite of what I was trying to do).

So what the heck does “quickly press and release” mean? Think of the volume buttons on your iPhone (or iPad). When you press the button to raise the volume by just one bar (so you’re quickly pressing the button on/off) – that’s the exact same action with the throttle stick. Another analogy – a letter on a keyboard – think of how you press a letter (quickly) on/off with no hesitations – this is the same thing.

The subtlety of arming using the throttle stick

What happens if you end up in the options mode

When I over-pressed the throttle stick (and it would go into its option setting mode), I would typically end up pressing anything else that I could find on the remote. This is definitely the wrong thing to do (but it seems really like the right thing when you’re following the “just fly already” mentality). If you end up in the options mode, then its best to turn off the remote and turn it back on and try again (flight stick down and then a quick push/release).

A note about binding/unbinding

If you press the throttle stick incorrectly enough times your drone may become unbound. So lets quickly cover this:

“Binding” is the process of making the controller (i.e. your remote) “talk” to the drone. Typically the drone (like the Alias) is bound to the remote but you cannot control the drone with the remote unless the drone is “armed” (per above steps). “Re-binding” is the process of re-connecting the drone and the remote so that they can talk to each other. Every drone will have it’s own re-binding procedure.

In the case of the Alias the rebinding procedure is as follows:

  1. Hold both throttle and flight stick at the same time until you hear a beeping sound and see options on the LCD screen of the remote.
  2. Tap the throttle stick to go through the different selection options until you see the ‘reset’ option (i.e. the word ‘reset’ on the LCD screen).
  3. Then you hold both sticks to selected and the remote/drone will reset and re-bind.

Note: I will have a link here to a video where Richard from the Hobby People will show how to do this (this is a todo on my side).

Because you’re not sensitive you need a hula hoop (i.e. how to practice flying a drone)

Why you’re not sensitive

OK – so I don’t know if you’re really sensitive/empathic/understand but when it comes to drone flying that doesn’t matter. What matters is your ability to use the remote in a way that doesn’t cause your drone to crash or fly away in a haphazard way. Initially, when you try to use the remote to control your control of the throttle and flight sticks will be out-of-whack.

Let me give you a gas/brake pedal analogy (the usual disclaimer applies – do not try this: at home, in your garage, on the road, etc…). Let’s say you’ve had the unfortunate circumstance of hurting your right foot (like fracturing your foot while walking off a curb because you were reading a for-sale sales flyer…but I digress). And you have to drive somewhere. So you get into your car and you have the brilliant thought “no problem – I can use my left foot for the gas/brake pedal”. So you put your car in drive (in a safe situation) and as the car begins to drift forward, you attempt to gently press the brake with your left foot. So what happens?

What happens is that you will stomp that brake pedal in the same way that Godzilla crushes cars with his feet. Your brain will tell your left foot to gently/slowly press the pedal but your left foot will be completely mis-synchronized with that request. Your left foot will Mr. Hyde to your right foot’s Dr. Jekyll. At this point you’ll realize that the sensitivity of your left foot is vastly different from your right foot and that it’s time to call Uber or Lyft.

This sort of brain/body sensitivity is what I’m referring to in terms of the drone’s remote control usage.

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/dDTryr

Why you're not sensitive

What you should NOT do first time with your drone

LaTrax has a video called “Episode 1 Making your First Flight”. In it they place the Alias in an open area (a good idea) and then they just start to fly it around (their flight expert John is flying it around…sheesh – what’s the point of having an expert fly the dang thing when a beginner is watching the video?). John flies the Alias perfectly because he has the sensitivity to do so but mere beginner mortals do not have this ability yet.

Note: the arming and positioning portions of the video are spot-on so the video is worth watching.

What you should NOT do first time with your drone

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 1 – Get a Hula Hoop

First step is get a hula hoop. A small one is perfect but a large one is good too.

Note 1: Mike from the Hobby People shop told me about this approach to learning.

Note 2: A cat is not necessary for this step.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/5d1dxu

What you should do (in my opinion) - Step 1 - Get a Hula Hoop

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 2 – Find an enclosed structure and put the hula hoop down

Find an enclosed structure. Maybe a small room in a home or even a garage. The key of course is that you don’t want anything breakable (just in case your drone or better said your control of the drone goes crazy).

Put the hula hoop in the middle of the room and put the drone in the middle of the hula hoop. Then step away.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 3 – Practice Hovering – Phase 1

The first step is to practice hovering. You want to practice hovering the drone at about 3 to 5 feet off the ground. The reason for this height is that you want to prevent the rotor updraft from causing stability issues (i.e. drone rotors push lots of air downards and hovering below 3 feet causes you to ‘fight’ the drone to keep it stable at a hovering position).

The practice steps:

  1. Drone in center of hula hoop.
  2. Blue LED pointing towards you and red/colored rotors away from you (in the case of the Alias).
  3. Use the throttle stick to lift the drone 5 feet off the ground.
  4. Use the throttle stick to bring the drone back into the middle of the hula hoop (you should not be using the flight stick at all if possible).
  5. Keep practicing steps 3 and 4.

Note: If the drone drifts while hovering and you’re not touching the flight stick, then you’ll need to bring it to a Hobby People type of shop for adjustment.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 4 – Practice Hovering – Phase 2

Once you feel comfortable with hovering you’re ready for the next exciting phase: step away further from the drone (a few feet back) and practice the same hovering steps again (from phase 1).

You may be wondering why you need to practice hovering again. The issue you’re addressing is one of perception and control. The further you are from the drone (both on a horizontal and vertical axis) the more different your perception and therefore the more different your control. What you’re practicing is getting a feel for controlling the drone from a distance and that’s very important when you fly it at much higher heights than 5 feet.

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 5 – Practice the drone version of touch-and-go

At this point you’ll be practicing a drone version of touch-and-go. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take off from the center of the hola-hoop.
  2. Go to the right and touch down outside of the hula hoop.
  3. Hover back to 5 feet and fly back to the center of the hula hoop.
  4. Touch back down in the center of the hula hoop.
  5. Do steps 1 to 4 by going to the left.
  6. Do steps 1 to 4 by going to the back.
  7. Do steps 1 to 4 by going forward (without hitting yourself πŸ™‚ ).

What you should do (in my opinion) – Step 6

There is no step 6 and there is no spoon. If you’ve passed your drone sensitivity training then you’re ready for the great outdoors.

If you have an Alias then check out LaTrax’s YouTube channel for how to do flips, rolls and other awesome things.

Have fun and good luck!

Some additional information regarding drone training for kids

There are lots of (crappy) drones for kids. They’re cute and small and they breakdown really quickly. My wife bought one of these tiny disasters for our son during a trip and one of the motors quit fairly early and then the drone was useless and the boy was very frustrated.

I asked the Hobby People people on the best way to teach a pre-schooler to fly a drone. Richard had suggested that I get prop guards for the Alias. More importantly, he indicated that he could adjust the remote control (takes about an hour) so that the Alias control reactions are much slower. In this way, my pre-schooler can learn to fly the drone without destroying himself, the cat, the house, and the drone. He offered to do this adjustment (no charge) and I will take him up on it in the near future (have I said how much I like local hobby shops such as the Hobby People?).

If you’re interested in a post about pre-schooler drone training/flying – let me know via @eli4d.

Conclusion

While your impulse may be to fly that drone as soon as you unwrap the box, it is best to practice just a little bit.

That’s it. That’s the very little I know about drones. Hopefully you found it useful.

I welcome feedback at @eli4d.

Why you should (probably) NOT buy a timeshare (and the only question you need to ask when dealing with a timeshare salesperson)

Note: The usual disclaimers apply. I’m only relating my experience, and this post is more of a reminder to myself than anything else. If you find it useful – awesome, and if not then no worries.

A while back my wife called me to tell me that the timeshare company was asking for $1,200 to take the timeshare back from us. She had looked at the possibility of donation, but this still seemed like the best route to get rid of the damn thing. So we paid the $1,200 and considered ourselves supremely lucky to have a timeshare company (the only one we’ve come across) that could take this beast back. This marked the last timeshare payment that I would make and a lesson for timeshare ownership (I’m writing this post to remind me of this lesson).

Wikipedia does a good job of explaining the definition of a timeshare and all its problems. We bought ours while on a ski trip in the early 2000s. The sales pitch lured us in with a price ($7,800) that seemed reasonable and maintenance (about $400 per year at the time) that looked like a good deal for what we got.

The event that clinched the sale was not the salesperson but rather this family that we saw on the ski slopes. They had three boys and we just started chatting with them and mentioned the possibility of purchasing a timeshare. They said they had two timeshares, and it was a great thing to do when you have a family. The key point for them was that they could always vacation at a place with a kitchen and that this helped in making the kids comfortable. Event though we didn’t have kids at the time, it still sounded like a good idea.

For the first few years, it seemed to work for us. We ended up doing timeshare exchanges all of the time to go on a yearly vacation in Tahoe. Our unit was not in a good exchange zone (i.e. it was a great skiing unit for a week in the spring). So besides the Interval exchange fees and the Interval membership, there was also the issue that we couldn’t get great exchanges during the winter months. We did ok because our vacation time was flexible (before having a child).

As Wikipedia states about exchange timeshares:

Due to the promise of exchange, these units, called “vacation ownership” by the industry, often sell regardless of their deeded resort (most are deeded into a certain resort site, though other forms of use do exist). What is not often disclosed is that all differ in trading power. If a resort is in Hawaii or Southern California, it will exchange extremely well; however, those areas are some of the most expensive in the world, subject to demand typical of a heavily trafficked vacation area.

Most timeshares will have somewhat crappy trading power which means that you’ll be giving away money on a yearly basis to exchange companies such as RCI and Interval International beside your regular maintenance fees.

You may have significant flexibility when you are single or as a couple without kids. This means that you can choose a not-so-popular week for an exchange and get a location that you desire for your vacation. However, when you have kids, the timeshare equation goes from bad to worst. The problem is that dates for school breaks are common across most schools systems. So you end up competing for travel destinations that thousands of other families want to use, and you end up losing. Either you can’t find an exchange, or you end up with a really bad exchange. The most likely scenario, however, is that you can’t find an exchange, so you end up finding a hotel and vacationing in the very way that timeshares were supposed to help you. So now you’ve spent money for a vacation on top of the timeshare maintenance without even using the timeshare (crazy isn’t it?).

I’ve gotten tons of timeshare sales pitches. It seems that because I was a timeshare owner, timeshare companies seem to fall over themselves to give me their pitch when I’m visiting a resort. I suspect that their internal data indicates that timeshare owners are more likely to buy more timeshares.

The typical timeshare sales pitch starts by asking you the value of your time. Then it proceeds with a pitch to your heart string about family, vacationing, and connection. The pitch is that you’re guaranteeing future time with your loved ones through a timeshare. And the older you are, the more the pitch tilts towards your child/children – “your child will have an asset and a way to vacation…you’ll be locking in these savings forever…don’t you want your child to be free of vacation burdens?” (the way I see it is that my child is free to vacation wherever, whenever and to whatever extent they can and mechanisms like Airbnb abound; besides this is leisure time and my child is responsible for their leisure time in the same way that they’re responsible to entertain themselves when they’re ‘bored’)

The sales pitch is very hardcore, and I would say it is much worse than the stereotypical used car salesman pitch (so if want to warm up for an upcoming timeshare sales pitch, then you should visit your local used car dealer and see how well you deal with that). At least with a used car salesman – you may end up with a car that isn’t a lemon. Furthermore, the used car dealer doesn’t send you a bill every year. With timeshare sales, you end up with something that keeps sucking cash out of your wallet on a yearly basis besides the initial up-front cost (don’t forget to add exchange fees if you’re trading for a particular time/destination). Wikipedia’s article hits the nail on the head with:

The industry’s reputation has been severely injured by the comparison of the timeshare salesman to the used car salesman; because of the sales pressure put on the prospective buyer to “buy today”. “The discounted price I quoted you is only good if you buy today”; is the industry standard’s pitch to close the sale on the first visit to the resort. Many have left a timeshare tour complaining of being exhausted by the barrage of salespeople they had to deal with before they finally exited the “Tour”. The term “TO”, or “Turn Over” man, was coined in the industry. Once the original tour guide or salesman gives the prospective buyer the pitch and price, the “TO” is sent in to drop the price and secure the down payment.

In a recent timeshare pitch the salesperson labeled my former timeshare as a “dinosaur” because it was an inflexible exchange week, as compared to the flexible points system that he was selling (in this case it was RCI Platinum Points). There was, of course, the $1,500 yearly maintenance fee besides the upfront cost of $15,000 and the fact that the points would never add up to a full week for the vacation times that we would take (again – based on school times).

The biggest problem that we had with our timeshare was that we had a tough time to get rid of it. The web is littered with timeshare sales. Desperate owners that want to get rid of this yearly liability. After all, if you stop paying that maintenance fee then you’ll get a collection company after you and you credit score will be hit (so good luck with good old home buying, car buying, or any other large purchases).

Wikipedia sums this up best:

  • From :

    However, the biggest complaint of all is the fact that timeshare re-selling by the private owner is almost impossible to do.[20] An owner looking to sell literally cannot give the timeshare away. Timeshare resale companies have sprung up that actually charge the owner to assume his/her timeshare ownership, using the excuse that the resale company must assume the maintenance fees until that burden can be unloaded to a new buyer.

  • From :

    It is more than likely that a new timeshare owner could have purchased the same product from an existing owner on the timeshare resale market for between 0 and 15% of what he/she paid from the developer, simply by doing a computer search. In many cases, the exact or similar accommodation purchased, will be happily transferred by an unhappy timeshare owner. The new buyer usually pays nothing, other than to take over the existing maintenance fees, because the existing owner can’t find a buyer for his/her timeshare without paying a resale company thousands of dollars to absorb it for resale. The reason for this anomaly is that the lion’s share of the cost of a new timeshare are sales commissions and marketing overhead, and cannot be retrieved by the timeshare owner.

You have to do your own research of course, but in my opinion – timeshares are a terrible use of money. They’re not an investment in any sense of the word. No matter the form and the sales pitch, they are a constant drain on your wallet. Year in and year out they’re pocket sharks that keep chomping away at your hard earned dollars.

Now if you do end up in a timeshare presentation and your emotions and sentimentality are put to the test, and you are desperate to get out of this sales-y tarpit – here’s a question that has worked really well for me:

“Your sales pitch sounds tempting but let me ask you this – if this timeshare doesn’t work out for me – will you take it back? Can I completely get rid of it? You’ve said it is an asset and a great thing to own, so taking it back shouldn’t be a problem…should it?”

In my experience, this is the question that no timeshare salesperson can spin or answer in a positive way. Typically the salesperson’s face turns just a little, he/she may even look away. Then they’ll quietly answer with ‘no’ and then enthusiastically they’ll tell you about the great deal that you are getting and how future generations will benefit from your wise choice.

Now I know – you’re thinking “wait…didn’t you just say at the beginning of your post that your timeshare company took it back?” And the answer is ‘yes’ – they took it back at this point in time. I was lucky and the company stated that they were looking to discontinue this option. So don’t confuse my dumb luck with the possibility of timeshare awesomeness.

If you’re looking for alternatives to timeshares here are some that come to mind (I’m sure there are many more out there):

  • Costco Travel: like all things Costco they have great and most importantly fixed pricing. What you see is indeed what you get with Costco.
  • Airbnb: I haven’t personally used the service, but it’s on my list of things to try.

Meditation and Mindfulness – a Book Review of “The Mindful Geek” and Some Suggestions for the Practice

Note: I have one Amazon affiliate link marked with (^a).

A Book Review of “The Mindful Geek: Secular Meditation for Smart Skeptics”

I just finished “The Mindful Geek: Secular Meditation for Smart Skeptics”(^a) and I found it to be both useful and enjoyable.

I first heard about Michael Taft’s book in David McRaney’s excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast – episode 061. I enjoyed the episode and Taft’s approach to mindfulness and meditation.

I’ve been a big fan of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. When I read one of his books I typically feel that peace and clarity are within reach, but as soon as I put the book away I feel like I just experienced a magician’s puff of smoke. Or perhaps it’s more along the lines of the “then a miracle occurs” cartoon. Of course, this is likely more of a failing of mine than of TNH’s books.

And a Miracle Happens

Taft’s approach to mindfulness and meditation as a technology is quite refreshing. He approaches this technology in a somewhat computer sciencey way without being dry and boring. He alternates between an explanation of the how/why of meditation/mindfulness and the actual doing of it through specific practices. The meditation algorithm chapter is amazing, and it has an explanation with a flowchart…a FLOWCHART. This excites my geeky heart to no end.

Then there’s the “Reach Out with Your Feelings” chapter that really reaches into emotions – what they mean and how they can help. This is especially helpful for those of us that live more in our heads than in our hearts. Additionally, this chapter begins with a reference to Star Wars (so how could it not be full of awesome?):

It’s time for the Rebel Alliance to make their desperate attack on the Death Star. As Luke Skywalker rolls his X-wing fighter in toward the canyon-like surface of the battle station, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi speaks right into his head.

Of course at the end of the day meditation is all about doing rather than conceptually thinking about it. Taft hammers this home through the step-by-step directions for various meditation techniques. Not only that – but he also explains the reason for the specific practices. For each of these practices, he also has a guided audio track (a 5-minute version and a 30-minute version) at https://themindfulgeek.com/guided/. The audio is far from perfect, but that’s ok with me since it’s a guide for doing meditation and it reflects the imperfection of my practice. After all, the guided recordings are not the key; the key is to sit one’s butt down for a minimum of 10 minutes a day.

There are few books that I re-read, but this is one of the few that I will go back to.

You might find Taft’s book and approach useful if:

  1. You are someone that lives more in your head.
  2. You are looking to learn/practice mindfulness/meditation without any religious or philosophical dressing.

Some Suggestions for the Practice

Some additional resources that may be useful in regards to a meditation practice:

  • At the beginning of this year I tested various meditation apps on the iPhone in terms of the teaching of meditation practice and cost (Mindfulness Daily, Headspace, and Calm). I was planning to write an epic post about these apps but in case I never get to it – here are my conclusions:
    • Mindfulness Daily is the winner because it thoroughly teaches you meditation over 21 days and it does not demand a recurring subscription (unlike the other apps). It also provides various daily reminders to snap you out of the daily chatter of your mind.
    • On a daily basis I ended up using the GoodReader app to play Taft’s guided audio track followed by a 5 minute bell timer (below) GoodReader is an amazing app that is truly a Swiss Army knife for all kinds of media (whether reading/writing to PDFs, listening to audio, and so on). It is worth every penny.
  • Blissfully simple audio timers with a bell at the beginning and end: http://www.the-guided-meditation-site.com/zen-meditation-timer.html

  • Episode 82 of the Asian Efficiency podcast had an interview with an interesting guy (Dr. Andrew Hill) who in turn had a very nice (i.e. simple) way to practice meditation. You can find his practice on this page.

In Conclusion…

I initially wrote this article with the intent of just a book review. It ended up being a bit more than I expected.

Contact me via Twitter (@eli4d) if:

  • You’ve read the book and have ideas/opinions about it.
  • You found a great, simple, and effective approach to meditation (URLs to specifics would be very useful).
  • You want to say ‘hello’ πŸ™‚ .

The eli4d Gazette – Issue 006

Issue 006: 2016-05-25

A Slightly Tech Pick (human and machine protocols)

For this issue, I’ve picked a perhaps depressing topic – death. Death from two aspects. They’re not mirrors of each other or related to each other except by the thread of death.

The first aspect is an article called “A Protocol for Dying” by Peter Hintjens. When it comes to cancer, there is no protocol for communication. There are default settings and a crap-load of attempts at encouragement and ‘positivity’. I like Peter’s approach to cancer-related communication in terms of a protocol, no different than HTTP. I know it sounds ridiculous but when the sh*t hits the fan – no one knows how to speak to a person that has cancer. The “Talking to a Dying Person” section is pure gold.

The second aspect is an article about men and the nature of grief. It’s a heart-wrenching article on many levels, and it reflects about some faulty society norms around grief.

Media Pick

My media pick relates to Peter Hintjens and his core work in building communities. He spoke of his effort and approach on the Ruby Rogues podcast – Episode 188. It is an eye-opening discussion about the community around an open source project (ZeroMQ), but it greatly relates to communities in general. A written encapsulation of his ideas and approach to community building can be found on his blog in this extensive article.

A Tiny Little Privacy Hack for Grammarly

Remember your English teacher in high school?

Do your remember THAT English teacher in high school? Well, I remember THAT one. Her name was Miss Johnson (I’ve changed this name of course :-)). I don’t remember much of Miss Johnson’s teaching, but I do remember one incident when I accidentally called her “Mrs. Johnson”. After uttering those two words, time stopped, the clouds darkened, and Miss Johnson turned around and became Voldemort. She yelled at me with a quiet hissing tone – “IT’S MISS JOHNSON, NOT MRS. – IS THAT SO DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND?” She then turned back and continued with the lesson muttering some other words under her breath.

I may have forgotten my grammar and my English, but I never ever forgot to use ‘miss’ when addressing Miss Johnson.

You don’t need a Miss Johnson – you just need Grammarly

I LOVE Grammarly. It’s an excellent English teacher without the attitude and embarrassment of dealing with a Miss Johnson. While the Grammarly site (https://www.grammarly.com/) explains all of the features, I think that the Grammarly magic can best be summarized in 2 steps.

You don't need a Miss Johnson - you just need Grammarly

Grammarly Magic – 1

Here’s William Ernest Henley‘s poem Invictus. It is one of those gritty determination types of poem that has been inspirational (at times).

Getting back to Grammarly – so notice that Grammarly flagged a grammar issue. Now looking at this, you would think “well – even Word can do this” and I would answer with “Yes but WAIT TILL STEP 2.”

Grammarly Magic - 1

Grammarly Magic – 2

By choosing to expand the explanation card, you get to see the Grammarly magic. It’s Miss Johnson without the terror and attitude. Here we get to understand why Mr. Henley should have used a comma (now granted – it’s a poem, so in a sense it’s an ‘anything goes’ grammar stew). My point is that Grammarly teaches you about grammar usage using the best relevant examples i.e. your day-to-day writing.

Of course, you don’t have to expand that card, and you can just go based on whatever ‘sounds’ right. But there’s something educationally magical to have this card explain the problems with one’s writing. And if I learn what’s wrong with my writing, I can become a better writer. Grammarly gives you the gift of education without the high school English flashbacks of Miss Johnson. This gift makes Grammarly fantastic!

I have yet to encounter another web service that does such an amazing job at teaching without seeming to teach.

Grammarly Magic - 2

Houston – we have a teeny tiny privacy problem with Grammarly

So hopefully I’ve established how much I like the service. However, like all things on and off the web, Grammarly has an issue when it comes to privacy of information. I’ll explain the problem by covering:

  • The two methods which Grammarly uses to check your work
  • Some fatal privacy assumption that we all make

Then we’ll cover an easy solution for one of the privacy issues.

How Grammarly checks your work – Method 1

The first method is to type/copy your words into Grammarly’s editor. Grammarly checks your words and shows you the errors.

You can do this on Grammarly’s web application (at https://app.grammarly.com/)) or through a native application such as Grammarly’s native Mac application.

Questions to consider:

  • On the web application – where does Grammarly store your document?
  • On the native Mac application – where does Grammarly store your document?

How Grammarly checks your work - Method 1

How Grammarly checks your work – Method 2

In the second method, Grammarly checks your work within your web browser. In this case, you need to have Grammarly’s plug-in installed for your specific browser (there are plug-ins for all the major browsers). In the example below, I’m writing an email in Gmail and Grammarly does the checks right on the web page.

Note: As an aside, there are certain sites/conditions where Grammarly will not work. For example, Google drive is not supported at this point.

Question: So in this case – where does Grammarly store your document? Or does it even store your document at all when you’re in something like Gmail?

How Grammarly checks your work - Method 2

Where does your work reside after Grammarly checks it?

As mentioned in the previous steps, a fundamental question is where is your work/data when Grammarly checks it?

The answers are as follows:

  1. If you’re on Grammarly’s web application, then your document is in your Grammarly account. Makes sense – right?
  2. If you’re on a web page (like Gmail’s “Compose an email” page), then Grammarly checks the document, but it does not store your document in your Grammarly account as a ‘document.’
  3. If you’re in a native application (like Grammarly’s Mac client) then Grammarly stores your document on your Grammarly account on the web.

Where does your work reside after Grammarly checks it?

Fatal Privacy Issue – Grammarly’s Native Applications

It is the native application (like the Mac app) that is troublesome from a privacy perspective. After all, if it’s a native application, you would expect the app to save your document on your Mac. If you pursue this assumption, then you would think that using the native application would provide more privacy than any other approach, and you would be completely wrong.

You might be thinking “well that’s not a big deal – Grammarly’s native application is just a wrapper to the web application”. Unfortunately, it is somewhat of a big deal. Consider these scenarios:

  • You are writing a sensitive vendor contract or HR document.
  • You are writing a sensitive internal email to an employee.

There are lots of scenarios besides the above two. The point is that you would not want your document to be stored on Grammarly’s servers (i.e. by being a ‘document’ in your Grammarly account) for sensitive documents/information. Consequently, using Grammarly’s native application could be disastrous from a privacy perspective.

Houston – we have a solution

Grammarly’s browser plug-in provides the solution for our teeny tiny privacy issue. The on-the-web page check is the only Grammarly method that does not store anything in one’s Grammarly account.

Note: There is still a period of time when Grammarly’s web service has the data for the in-web-page checks. I checked with Grammarly’s support folks and found out that “User Data is stored on our servers for up to 14 days. After 14 days, deleted user content is completely removed from our servers.” So if you’re dealing with extremely sensitive information that shouldn’t leave the premises of your network, then you should skip Grammarly altogether. The solution I propose in this section prevents your document from being stored on the web application side as a document. Of course, the usual disclaimers apply regarding anything that I state in this article and throughout my site.

Special Thanks to Kasey and Christine from Grammarly’s Support Team

I’ve come across many support teams, and there’s this very fine line between a ‘just stop asking me questions’ curt response and a sincere, helpful response. Grammarly’s support team goes beyond the ‘curt’ approach, and I really appreciate it.

Kasey answered my questions about the browser plug-in while Christine answered my data retention questions.

Solution Approach

My initial approach to prevent Grammarly from storing my words as a document on my Grammarly web account was to create a simple page with a textarea and no submit button. All I wanted was that tiny little green Grammarly refresh icon to show up. But I got nothing. So I contacted Grammarly support.

Solution Approach

My question to Grammarly support

My question to Grammarly support

Grammarly support response regarding textarea

In relatively quick order the fantastic Kasey responded with the answer. The moment I read this, I did an immediate face-palm – of course it couldn’t see a local file. So I had to put my super simple page on a web server somewhere.

Grammarly support response regarding textarea

Where to store my super simple html file?

I could, of course, spin up a Digital Ocean* droplet, but that would be somewhat ridiculous for one html page (it would be the equivalent of swatting a mosquito with a hammer). My K.I.S.S. (Keep It Super Simple) choices were either an Amazon S3 bucket or GitHub Pages. I ended up going with the creation of a GitHub page.

Where to store my super simple html file?

Here are the steps to the solution

You can find my tiny little Grammarly hack page at http://eli4d.github.io/tiny-grammarly-hack.html. You can use my page or create your own and toss it on a web server.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Get an account on Grammarly (you can get a free one or a paid one – up to you)
  2. Pick your least used browser (in my case it was Safari):
  3. Whenever you want to check a document (text only), just copy and paste it into the textarea box and click on the little green Grammarly refresh icon.
  4. After fixes to your document, make sure to copy everything from the textarea box back to your document.

Using the above steps you can use Grammarly without worrying that a document will be created and stored in your Grammarly account.

A reminder: As mentioned above – this method does not prevent Grammarly from storing your data (even this temporary data). In fact, according to Grammarly support you must assume that even for this sort of temporary check, Grammarly’s servers will hold you words for 14 days. That’s a bit crazy from a privacy/security point of view but this retention time is up to Grammarly’s management.

Here are the steps to the solution

Conclusion

Is Grammarly’s service awesome? Absolutely. It’s like having a nice electronic version of your high school grammar teacher (like Miss Johnson) minus the meanness.

Is Grammarly private? It’s as private as any web application that’s on the Internet (my assumption of course because I have not seen any architecture/security documents about their infrastructure). The steps I provide in this article related to preventing Grammarly from storing your document in your Grammarly account. So if someone breaks into your account on Grammarly, they won’t see anything. On the other hand, if someone breaks into Grammarly’s servers, then they could potentially get to any in-line checked user documents (even if the document is not saved in your user account) because of Grammarly’s stated 14 day retention period.

Personally, I find Grammarly’s service to be invaluable. I get to explore the quirkiness of my writing in conjunction with the quirkiness of the English language, and I get to learn to write better.

(And in case you were wondering – yes – I did use Grammarly on this article, but I choose to ignore some suggested fixes and keep my quirkiness)