Excerpts From My To-do List

Like many sysadmins, I have a lot of things going on. This is an excerpt of some of the current entries and an explanation.

  • Look at planners.

    In Time Management for System Administrators, Thomas Limoncelli suggests getting some sort of personal assistant, either analog or digital. Since my current smartphone leaves a lot to be desired and I have an old-fashioned penchant for fountain pens, going the analog route seems ideal. So, to make an informed decision about what to get, I need to know what's available and that entails a trip to a local office store.

    I may use such a trip to look at furniture as well. I'm planning to work on an "office" in the spare bedroom to separate play from sleep. Having read about Mitch Haile's office, I am somewhat inspired. (Although proper furniture is expensive.) And, having just read this, a shredder may not be a bad idea either.

    The hard part about this is actually going out and doing it.

  • Look at shelving.

    As mentioned above, I want to work on assembling a "home office." One thing I want to avoid is having the computers on the floor since it's not good for them and it's not really good for me. I've also damaged cables because of where the computers are and their proximity to the chair. (Not "major" cables fortunately.)

    I don't need expensive shelving, just durable shelving. "Nice" is a bonus. Plastic is out due to static concerns. Lowe's Home Improvement has several options, like this one.

    Like with the office store above, the hard part is actually going out and doing it. I could probably even do them both in the same trip since there's a Staples near the local Lowe's. (Although I prefer Office Depot out of our local office stores.)

  • Install a personal wiki.

    At first, it sounds silly to install a wiki for use as what's little more than an online notepad. However, it seems like it would be a great way to write down things and flesh out ideas with little overhead. I could keep notes as documents on my laptop but that requires having access to the laptop. I'm fine with the requirement of needing to be online to modify it. I have a small Moleskine notebook in my coat pocket in case I need to make notes when I'm not near a computer. (I have also considered getting a portable voice recorder for taking notes as well.)

  • Play with RT.

    In Time Management for System Administrators, Limoncelli suggests using RT as a tracking system. While this won't work for anything on the immediate to-do list, it would help make sure that nothing falls through the cracks.

    I already have RT set up (although I'm not sure the email functionality is working correctly, I'll have to check that) but I haven't done a lot of playing with it yet. I expect that I will end up rereading RT Essentials.

  • Read the books I got this month.

    For some reason, February is usually a big book-buying month for me. Highlights include The Algorithm Design Manual, Code Complete, Programming Pearls, The Practice of System and Network Administration, and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. This will probably keep me busy until, oh, May.

    There's other books I have which I'm sure I haven't read or don't remember reading. Most of them are still in boxes. I hope to unbox most of them when I'm done setting up the "office."

  • Write a Rails app.

    I actually have a specific Rails app in mind. have mentioned before that I like books. However, I've taken to buying the print book + PDF bundles when I by from The Pragmatic Programmers. I've been saved some by having a PDF of the book when it has not been available.

    Since I can't have all of my print books while traveling but I can have all of my PDF books, I want to have an application I can use to search the PDFs for given content. (For various reasons, it should only be accessible locally from the laptop and only run when I want it to run. However, this isn't an application issue as much as a deployment one.) Ferret, paired with either pdftotext or pdftohtml, should work for the search component. It should be reasonably easy to write. I just, you know, have to do it.

Frustration Of My Own Making

I've spent the last two days trying to recompile gcc on my G4 iBook. It hasn't been pleasant and it hasn't worked. And that might be because I didn't do enough research.

In the process of doing Project Euler problems, I reached one where I needed to solve a system of linear equations. For those of you who don't remember what this looks like, it's something like:
$4x+3y = 10$
$7x-2y = 3$

While this is a reasonably simple example and can be solved by hand, they can get significantly more difficult. The standard way for solving problems in this fashion involves using matrices. (If you took a linear algebra class, this should look familiar.)

Coding a naive way to do this is not difficult. Cramer's Rule provides a way to find each value by using the determinant of matrices. (Apparently LU decomposition is faster but it looks harder to implement. I'll go with naive first and then refactor later if I need to.) The determinant of arbitrary-size square matrices can be expressed through the Laplace expansion until eventually 2x2 (or, I suppose, 3x3) matrices are found that can have their determinant determined mathematically.

In consulting Skiena's The Algorithm Design Manual, I found references to LAPACK, a linear algebra package for FORTRAN. This is not useful to me since I'm using Ruby. But if such a package exists for FORTRAN, surely one exists for Ruby.

Linalg is a linear algebra package for Ruby. Or, more precisely, it's a Ruby wrapper around LAPACK. As a result, it relies on embedding a FORTRAN compiler into the package. And this is where the pain starts.

OS X comes with LAPACK already. However, it does not come with FORTRAN support. In order to get FORTRAN support, you need to install software or recompile gcc. Failing to do a proper search and not finding this resource, I decided to compile a new gcc.

gcc 4.3.3 relies on gmp and mpfr. gmp 4.2.1, which, if you don't have it installed, gcc tells you to get from ftp://gcc.gnu.org/pub/gcc/infrastructure/, does not work on OS X. It builds and installs fine and then yields an obscure linker bug when you try to build mpfr or any other software that tries to include gmp. After an hour of fighting with this, I found out that gmp 4.2.1 was not the newest version but that 4.2.4 was. I had no issues with gmp 4.2.4.

Then there has been little love compiling gcc. At some point, gcc creates a spec file which is then used to pass the option -macosx-version-min which causes the compiler to fail. Editing the spec file and removing that lets it continue on before the next pass with a recreated spec file. Fixing that seems to correct the issue again. And then, eventually, there's a point in the build where it just fails. However, this may have been left over from something else so I tore everything down and restarted the process.

It looks like the issue with the spec file could also be of my own making. If I understand this post correctly, the issue might be that I don't have a new enough version of the developer tools installed. This may be possible since I think the version I have is the one that came with OS X 10.4 (and is, therefore, at least three years old).

With the information I've found this morning, I wonder if I could restart the process and have it run smoother. (Although the installable gfortran may be the smoothest option.) I just wish I knew days ago what I know now.

It's Harder Than It Looks

The problem with practice is remembering to practice. This is especially true if you are trying to practice as a way to break a bad habit.

It's been a bad weekend for me. I forgot to practice touch-typing. And while I keep starting with tests for my Project Euler problems, I keep slipping to implementing large parts of the algorithm without further testing.

At least according to Thomas Limoncelli, "[P]sychologists tell us that it takes 21 days of doing a new behavior to develop it into a habit." Twenty-one days doesn't seem that long, does it? It's only three weeks, right?

Let's face it: It's hard.

It's not just three weeks of doing it. It's three weeks of making yourself do it. It's three weeks of making sure you don't miss a single day for whatever reason.

This is a common thing for people who decide to start exercise regimens. They start and keep going for a week and then stop. Something comes up and they put it off. And then they put it off again. And... I haven't found a statistic about the number of gym memberships that go unused but it apparently ranks as one of the top ten money drains.

It's easy to say that you need to force yourself to do things day after day, force yourself to think about doing them until you're doing them without thinking about them. It's easy to say this because talk is cheap. Action is not.

How To Offer Poor Customer Service

Customers judge the quality of customer service based on their expectations. So, in order to offer poor customer service, fail to meet to your customer's expectations.

Let me share with you the worst customer experince I have had recently:

I purchased something with a credit card Wednesday morning. What I purchased is irrelevant. I've purchased the same product before with that card.

This time around, something about this transaction was flagged by the credit card company. I came home to a message from their fraud prevention service asking for me to return the call as soon as possible. It was an automated message, complete with taped voice and a low quality speech synthesizer mixed in where the information differed between calls. Given the nature of the call, this didn't surprise me.

So I call the number that was left on the answering machine. I navigate through a bunch of options to verify the card in question. Then I am given information about the charge and asked to push a button on the keypad to indicate whether or not the transaction was authorized. Since it was, I pressed the appropriate button and the process ended after another canned speech.

The entire process took a couple minutes and was entirely between me and this computer on the other end.

There was nothing horrible about the steps in the process. If anything, the process was too streamlined. "Press one if this is the phone number on the information for the credit card." "Press one if you are the cardholder." "Press two if this is an authorized transaction."

What bothered me most about the process was that it was completely automated. At no point did I interact with a person. During the process, I expected to interact with a real person. Every other call I have made to a credit card company has featured a real person at some point. (The only exception has been when I called to my balance which I haven't done for at least seven years.) I expected to need to say "Yea, verily, this was an authorized transaction" while talking to an operator and being recorded. If nothing else, this would cover the credit card company in case of legal issues. Instead, I got the computer.

My expectation was that I would deal with a real person at some point. At some point in the process, my identity would have been challenged and I would have needed to present a recorded statement. What I received failed to meet these expectations. As a result, I feel that the customer service experience was poor. Further, because the perceived quality of service was so poor, I am inclined to regard the company poorly. Since my identity was never challenged, what's to stop my roommate from "borrowing" that card, purchasing things, and then dealing with the fraud prevention hotline himself before I even find out about it? I come away from the experience feeling that the fraud prevention hotline is just a fake system they have set up to make their customers feel good.

If I had dealt with a real person at some point, my expectations would have been met. Even if it were a mediocre experience with that person, I would still have had my expectations met and I would have come away regarding it as sufficient customer service. However, with no interaction at all, they failed to meet my expectations and I regard the customer service as being poor.

(In defense of the credit card company's system, if this had been about an actual fraudulent transaction, I'm sure I'd feel differently because my set of expectations would have been different.)

Practicing TDD

I have been rereading Thomas Limoncelli's Time Management for System Administrators. One of the points Limoncelli makes is: "[P]sychologists tell us that it takes 21 days of doing a new behavior to develop it into a habit." Give or take a few days, of course.

Test-driven development (TDD) is something I keep revisiting. I have Kent Beck's book on the subject and have read it at least twice. I have tried doing TDD on at least four separate occasions but I seem to stop usually a few hours or a day into the process.

Mark Mzyk wrote of having similar issues with TDD. I disagree with his statement that the issue with TDD is a lack of experience. Instead, I think it has to do with a lack of practice. If you don't do it consistently for any length of time, say three weeks, you're not going to adhere to it. If you follow it, even if not deliberately, you eventually find yourself, as Peter Harkins put it, "drifting into test-driven development."

I think it's kind of like learning to touch-type properly. It's painful and difficult and slow now because I lack experience. As I said before, I spend time actively thinking about which finger should be used to press which key. However, even just a few days into it, I find I spend less time thinking about it.

"How can I practice TDD?" I ask myself. Well, my big thing recently has been problems from Project Euler. I can use it there!

Most of the problems from Project Euler provide a sample test case. For example, problem 1 states:

If we list all the natural numbers below 10 that are multiples of 3 or 5, we get 3, 5, 6 and 9. The sum of these multiples is 23.

Find the sum of all the multiples of 3 or 5 below 1000.

From this, I know that we are solving for the sum of all multiples of 3 or 5 below 1000. We also know that the sum of all such multiples below 10 is 23. This means that I can set up a test script:

  1. require 'test/unit'
  2. require 'euler1'
  4. class TestEuler1 << Test::Unit::TestCase
  5.   def test_euler1
  6.     assert_equal( 23, euler1( 10 ) )
  7.   end
  8. end

Running it complains that it can't find a file for euler1. After touching euler1.rb, it complains that there is no method euler1. And after each new error, more changes are made until, eventually, euler1.rb looks like:

  1. def euler1( n )
  2.   23
  3. end

and the test passes. This obviously won't answer the question correctly but doing this proves that the unit testing framework works. It also proves that it considers 23 to be equal to 23 which indicates that there are no silly math errors in the language interpreter, at least at this point. From here, I know I can implement an algorithm and as long as it meets the given criteria, the test should pass. If I'm uncertain about this, I can find other points to test as well. The values for any given n up to 58 are listed in sequence A126592 at The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.

Since this process appears to work for one problem, it should work for all of them. I'll try it and see how it goes.


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