Sunday, November 21, 2010

My personal computing history

My generation may be the last to ever have known a world without ubiquitous computing.  It’s now almost impossible to imagine a computer being a thing that sits in the corner at the school library and gets used only by a few geeky kids, but in my high school that’s exactly what it was.  I’ve recently been trying to reconstruct the history of different computers that I played with and owned back in those days; here is my first pass at a personal computing history, helped in large part by the awesome amount of computer history information that’s available online.

My first exposure to computers came during 1981-1983 when I was in high school, though several different paths (the order of which is slightly hazy me at this point). 

The first system that I remember programming on was the TI 99/4A, which was a “home computer” released in 1981 (we probably got it around 1982-1983).  It came with relatively little software, but I do remember playing a number of games including “TI Invaders” which was their clone of the Space Invaders game.  The programs were released on cartridges, more like a video game system than a personal computer.  The machine came installed with “TI BASIC” which was a pretty rudimentary version of BASIC.  We didn’t have a hard drive, but it was possible to save programs to cassette tape.  I don’t remember much about what kind of programming I did on this system, though I’m pretty sure it was all text-based.

Northstar Advantage

Around the same time, my father purchased a computer for his accounting office, back when this was just becoming common.  It was a Northstar Advantage, which was resold with a GBC logo.  This machine was released in 1982, right after the release of the first IBM PC.  It ran an operating system called CP/M, which was similar to but predated Microsoft’s DOS. The apps that I remember using included WordStar (word processing) and dBASE (a database program). I don’t think I actually programmed on this system, but it was my first experience with command line interfaces (PIP, anyone?).

Apple IIe

In our high school there was an Apple IIe in the library that was almost always free.  I was ostensibly on the tennis team when I was a senior in high school, but given that I wasn’t very good at tennis, the coach was happy to let me go to the library and play with the computer instead.  This system had a great advantage over the TI at home, which was that I could save programs to 5 ¼” floppy disk.  This is the first machine that I remember doing any graphics programming on, though I’m sure that it was incredibly rudimentary.

In the summers of 1984 and 1985, I worked at a local bank helping them to automate some of their records.  The bank had just recently purchased a new IBM PC/AT which was the second generation of IBM PC’s.  It had such amazing features as 16 MB of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive.  I primarily used Lotus 1-2-3 (an early spreadsheet program).  However, in the moments between real work, I would also take advantage of the machine’s modem to dial into a number of BBS sites.  It’s hard for me to remember exactly what I found on these sites or how I even found out about them, but it was basically like a very earlier version of the web that one could call into for free.  I think I mostly used them to download software.

Macintosh SE/30

During most of my college career I did not have my own computer; very few students did. If we needed one, we would go to the computer lab on campus, which is where I was introduced to Macintosh (Plus or SE) computers.  In my senior year of college the Mac SE/30 was released, and my parents were nice enough to plop down several thousand dollars to buy me one before I headed off to graduate school, along with an ImageWriter II dot-matrix printer.  This machine was my workhorse throughout graduate school.  I addition to writing papers, I was my platform for learning other languages including PASCAL and C.  It was the system on which I wrote my first simulations, which would be published here (though the actual simulations for that paper were run on a Sun UNIX system at the Beckman Institute because it was so much faster than my SE/30). 

PowerTower Pro

When I arrived at Stanford for my postdoc in 1995, it was definitely time to upgrade.  I was lucky enough to be in the market during the short period in which Mac clones were available, and I bought a Power Computing Power Tower Pro, which was one of my favorite computers ever.  It was this machine on which I first started playing serious with Linux (using mkLinux IIRC). The PowerTower Pro is the last machine that I’ve owned that I think could be legitimately called “historical”, so that’s where my story ends for now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Becoming an academic road warrior

It’s a reality that if you want to make it in academic science, you have to be ready and willing to travel a good bit.  Between conferences, talks at other universities, grant review panels, and other various events in the US and abroad, I generally end up flying between 50,000 and 100,000 miles a year.  Students and postdocs often ask me how I can stand to travel so much, and this post will lay out some of the strategies that I use keep myself sane while on the road.  I should note up front that many of these strategies are not exactly “budget travel” ; my feeling is that I travel enough that it’s worth investing in some things that make it pleasant, but I realize that this may conflict with the realities of student or postdoc salaries.

Pick an airline and stick with it

I think that airline loyalty is probably the most important thing one can do to make traveling more pleasant.  Most airlines have loyalty programs for people who travel at least 25,000 miles (that’s about 5 rounds trips from LA to DC, for example), and achieving this level of frequent flyer “status” comes with some very nice benefits.  Foremost is access to priority check-in and priority security lines.  The benefit of priority security varies between airports, but in many places (like the United terminals at LAX or O’Hare) it can save a very long wait to get through security during busy times.  As your status increases, so do the benefits; in particular, once you reach “gold” status (50,000 miles on most airlines) then you become much more likely to get upgraded to first class, which is always a nice perk.  Some airlines (like United) give preferred seating (with extra legroom) to frequent flyers, which makes using your laptop much more bearable.  Another benefit is that you have priority for rebooking when problems occur.  Finally, another benefit of loyalty is that it gives you a chance to learn the airline’s terminals and systems, which can be really useful when you are running late or things go wrong.

I was a frequent flyer with United for many years, but recently switched to Continental after moving to Austin – I’ve been quite happy with both overall, and fortunately with their merger these are becoming one airline. 

When another institution invites you to come and give a talk, it’s perfectly legitimate to tell them what airline you want to fly on (and even what flights you want to take), and give them your frequent flyer number.  This has the nice side benefit that your itinerary will show up on the airline’s online system, so you can see schedule changes and check in online.

Be sure to sign up for text alerts from your airline, which will let you know about delays or upgrades.  Also, when problems arise, it’s often better to call the airline directly rather than waiting in line to speak to a customer service representative when the lines are long.

Join the club

If you’ve spent any time in airports you have probably wondered what goes on inside the “Red Carpet Club” or other airline lounges.  The short story is that it’s a place where you can pay to get away from the craziness of the terminal, and if you are going to fly regularly it is money well spent.  It’s not cheap (generally about $400/year) but if you are flying 20 round trips in a year then that’s just $10 for each one-way trip – well worth the price IMHO.  Perks include free wi-fi, snacks, and drinks (usually just beer) – unless you are in a European airport, where it generally includes a full spread of food and a full bar (though not always free wi-fi).   But perhaps the most important benefit of the club is that there are customer service representatives that can help with flight problems – this is especially useful when large disruptions occur due to weather, resulting in long lines at the customer service desks out in the terminal.
Keep calm and carry on

NEVER check a bag unless you absolutely have to. It is certainly possible to travel for weeks with just a carry-on bag, if you pack carefully and take advantage of hotel laundry services while on the road.
I have two bags that I use for most of my trips.  My primary bag for trips longer than 2 days is a 21” expanadable carry on.  I find that I can generally make it up to 4-5 days with this bag in its carry-on (un-expanded) configuration, depending on the season and what kinds of clothing I have to carry.
For 1-2 day trips I use a small carry-all. 

Learning to pack can help you really maximize your carry-on space - for example, see (Packing Tips from Professional Travelers) - I particularly find that rolling my clothes helps to maximize packing density.

Once you can afford it, buy some good luggage.  I use Briggs & Riley, which is not cheap but has a lifetime warranty and has very good usability in general.  Nothing sucks more than luggage failure in the middle of a trip.

I also carry a TSA-approved laptop bag; having to remove your laptop is a pretty small thing, but every little bit counts when it comes to getting through security without stress.

Stay prepared

I don’t want to have to scramble the morning of my flight to find all of the toiletries that you need to take with me, so I have a separate set of toiletries that I keep ready just for travel.  I use either 2 ounce Nalgene bottles or recycled pill bottles to hold most of my toiletries, so that I can fit everything into the TSA-approved quart bag.  

Some things I always bring:
  • extra ziploc bags
  • earplugs (for the plane and/or the hotel)
  • noise-cancelling headphones (I use the Sennheiser travel headphones which are are small and light)
  • an energy bar (in case I miss the chance to eat between long flights)
  • my yoga mat (to keep me flexible after too much sitting - I have a very thin and light mat that's easy to pack)
  • for international travel: Ambien (for sleeping on the plane and overcoming jet lag)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Productivity Toolbox

Today I’m going to say a bit about some of the tools and strategies that I use for productivity.  I’ve been a fan of GTD since Jen introduced me to David Allen’s book several years ago, though I use a fairly lightweight version of it.  When an email comes, I try to process it as quickly as possible, either responding to it or putting it into my to-do list (more on that below).  Although I don’t always live up to it (especially when I’m traveling), I am a strong proponent of the Inbox Zero philosophy.  When I see people who have thousands of emails in their inbox it makes me cringe (and it usually correlates with an inability to get things done on schedule!).

Platform:  My desktop platform is the 15” MacBook Pro, which I carry between home and my two offices (where I have external monitors and extra power adapters).  It generally has enough juice to do anything I need, and it’s nice to have everything in one place.  I previously kept a desktop machine at work and laptop for the road, but I find it more straightforward to keep everything on a single machine.

Calendar: I use the mac calendar app +  mobile me, which keeps everything synchronized across my computers, iPhone, and iPad.  It’s well worth the yearly fee in my opinion; there are probably ways that one could achieve similar synchronization using free means, but mobile me just works so I’m happy to pay for it.

To-do/GTD: I use OmniFocus to manage my to-do lists and tasks.  I really don’t even scratch the surface of its features, but it still works very well for me.  What I particularly like is the ability to trigger new to-do items from Mail messages, which are then directly accessible within OmniFocus (including attachments).  This makes life SO much easier for me that I can’t imagine living without it.

Mail:  I use the Mac as my primary mail program, using IMAP to access gmail as my primary mail account; mail to all of my other addresses is forwarded to my gmail account. My main reason for using is its nice integration with OmniFocus, as well as the ability to work offline (I like to catch up on emails in flight). 

Backup: I don’t back up my machine per se.  However, all of my important documents are in a folder that is attached to a 100GB Dropbox account, which means that they are automatically synchronized across all of my machines, as well as being accessible from the web.  Again, there are probably free alternatives, but I doubt any of them can offer the really solid usability of Dropbox.  My only compaint is that if I add large numbers of files (e.g., digital photos), my machine gets fairly overloaded while they are being uploaded to the Dropbox server. 

Document sharing: Here too, Dropbox is the killer app.  We have a lab dropbox that is separate from my personal dropbox, which serves as a central location for files that I can share with lab members.  We recently wrote a grant using Dropbox, with authors strewn between Texas and California, and it was amazing how well it worked.

PDF management: I have been using Papers for a while now, though I still am not as religious about it as some others, and I don’t actually use it for bibliographies (more on my writing workflow another time).  I do find its ability to obtain papers through the UT proxy server very useful when I am off campus. 

Note Taking: I use Evernote for note taking. Its greatest feature for me is the seamless integration and synchronization across my Mac, iPhone, and iPad.  As with most of the other software mentioned above, I am not exactly a power user; I just use the simple features that meet my basic needs.

Another tool that I have found very handy is my Fujitsu ScanSnap desktop document scanner, which allows me to scan in a document and attach it to an email with 1 button press and two mouse clicks.  Very handy for those pesky travel reimbursement forms that always require written signatures.

I'd love to hear your suggestions and comments.