Nate Dickson Thinks...

Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

You can't abbreviate your hair.

Even though that's what abbreviate means. “Make it brief” and brief means short.

Except I guess that brief generally means short in terms of time, huh? A brief moment, a brief note.

Oh, a brief note...briefcases! Named for carrying legal briefs, briefcases are full of shortened versions of the full case files, which were shortened, much like hair is.

I guess these days you're probably just putting a laptop in your briefcase. Do people do that? I just use my backpack. briefs are physically shorter, right? I guess we think about written things in terms of reading time, not physical size, huh?

Oh, we're done? Should I say “thanks for abbreviating my hair?” Nah, that's stupid.


A couple of weeks ago a friend/co-worker of mine was interviewing for a promotion. A few minutes before this friend's interview they started panicking and asked me in a chat:

How is it fair that your WHOLE FUTURE depends on the answers to a few little interview questions?

And while I understand their point, I had to disagree.

Eight months ago I interviewed for a promotion and didn't get it. While I was waiting for the final confirmation I felt exactly like my friend. I felt like my whole future, my career, everything, depended on that decision. And when I didn't get the job I was understandably crestfallen.

But the next day still came. That particular “story” ended and I was able to go on.

And last month I got a different promotion, one more suited to my overarching career goals.

I'm not saying that it always works this way, of course. Sometimes you lose and then you lose and then you lose again. I've been there too. Even in that state I've found that there is a certain value in just surviving to the end of a “story” or “event” or whatever you want to call a certain set of experiences.

Hence the Title

It's important for us to work towards our goals. But when a specific effort doesn't pan out we should learn from it and move the heck on. Let's be glad that things end and that we can go on to other things. It doesn't matter if things end well; when they end you have a chance to look around, shake it all off, and start again.

For a few years now I've been a proponent of leaving my work computer locked but running when I go home for the night. After all, that way I can access if it I need to, and everything is where I left it when I come in the next morning.

But about a month ago I had a realization: I don't want to access my computer from home, and having everything where I left it is actually more of a problem then a help.

The first point comes down to the fact that I am trying more and more to leave work at work and live my life at home. The second point is more interesting to me.

It feels like it would be more effective to get to work, see where all your windows are, and get right back into what you were doing the night before. But it doesn't work that way. I found that I would get to work and have to pick through the various things that were left open, detritus of meetings and fleeting thoughts and three different lines of work all going on at once. I have to decide if terminal window is doing anything useful or is just open because I didn't close it. Why do I have an empty spreadsheet open? No clue.

So now I close everything down and turn the computer off every night. When I get to work the next morning I open the windows I need and start on the projects that, in the light of a new day, are the most obviously pressing. As an added bonus, all of the apps that only check for updates when they're restarted are more up to date.

So yeah, nothing huge or earth-shattering here. I just like the sense of “done with that!” that comes from shutting my work machine down every night, and the fresh start every morning.

My wife said the other day that she's figured out part of why we're all so stressed these days, and it has to do with how we fill our free moments. In the past, she said, we always had those moments to ourselves. We had time with our thoughts when we were walking from place to place, or waiting for something. But now we have phones that are instantly and endlessly full of distractions, things that very effectively keep us from having the introspective thoughts we used to have.

So we discussed this idea for a while (after both of us turning our phones off and setting them aside). It seems that we're more fragile, because we never get the processing time we need to come to grips with things going on around us. When life gets too real we hide in our devices and their endless diversions instead of dealing with what's actually bothering us. We allow ourselves to be distracted with small, vapid social media things, and hope those fears, stresses, and complications from which we are hiding will disperse without our ever having to deal with them. I mentioned that, on some level, I'm trusting my subconscious to work through those things, hoping that when I'm done being distracted the problems will be fixed.

But they aren't. We keep carrying them, still present if slightly sublimated.

Since this conversation we've both been declaring certain parts of the day processing time. For me this has been times like the walk between the office and the train, or other little moments where I used to dive into podcasts or other distractions. I've also started asking, before I pull out my phone or tablet if I have something I need to do, or if I'm just using the device to hide from what's actually bothering me.

CJ Eller wrote about writing down what you're doing and it really resonated with me. I try to keep a faithful journal of my life, multiple journals in fact. But why aren't I recording all incidents of behaviors I want to quit? Why am I sanitizing my life for imaginary biographers?

So I'm going to try and keep a more honest, more human journal of my life. I have to keep reminding myself that what I write in my notebooks or in my journal isn't for anyone else to read later, it's for me to reflect on who I am now.

There are a few mantras that I'm clinging to right now.

Just because this is hard doesn't mean it's bad.

This too shall pass

Last week of these classes! Then you get a break!

But honestly it feels like an endurance race right now. Will I survive to cross the finish line? Or is a fortnight of going to bed at 2am going to kill me? (I'm not British, I just like the word “fortnight”. Never played the game.)

And I still think it'll be worth it. I have learned a lot in my degree program and it would be a shame to throw all of that away just because this week is bad.

The irony is that these classes were supposed to be the easy ones. I'm taking IS classes, and I've been a programmer for 14 years. And the actual coding is easy. What's making them hard is the bane of all education: TEAMS.

I'm a team lead at work. I love working with real software teams. But a team you are with for one semester is nothing like a real software development team. You're not working together daily, you're hurredly assigning tasks on a project that fits into none of your schedules, trying to make sense of one another's working styles.

In my six-ish years of higher education, four undergrad and two graduate, I've had one good team. And we only became a good team because we had worked together on various bad teams in previous classes. So when we got to choose a team and all chose each other it was magic. We got things done.

There's probably a lesson in there, but I'm too tired to learn it. Here's hoping I make it to next week.

Rainy days lift my mood. I realize that's the opposite of how it often works, but I love the peace and coolness of rain. This might be because I've lived most of my life in high mountain deserts, so rain is an occasional repreive from the hard hot blue skies of summer.

But I also loved rain during the two years I spent in the Philippines, when the hot downpours just made it somehow even more humid.

And I loved rain when I lived in Alaska, where the rain soaked you to the skin and was dangerous if you didn't know how to manage your body temperature. (Repeat after me: “Cotton is cold. Cotton kills...”)

So let it rain, I guess? I don't really have a huge conclusion to this one.

Two years ago I bought a 64GB MicroSD card for $40 and considered it a good deal.

Last year I upgraded to a 128GB MicroSD card for the same device, for $30.

This year I upgraded that device's storage again, this time to 256GB, for $40.

So, given this pattern, I look forward to buying a 1TB MicroSD card in 2021 for $40.

Raspberry  Pi Logo on a Timbuk2 Backpack

I've always loved the concept of the Raspberry Pi, and have tried for years to find a way to actually use one in my house. The first Raspberry Pi I ever purchased was a Model 2 B+, and I ended up spending almost a hundred dollars kitting it out with a case and power supply and SD card and a fancy little Pimoroni light thing to go on top. And I got a web server up and running on it, got some other software going...but I never really used it.

Over the years I've collected others. I've got a model 3 in an incredibly awesome case that looks like a Super Nintendo. Ostensibly to run RetroPie, but in reality, it sits in a box in my desk. I have three Raspberry Pi Zeroes, none of which have ever done much.

Until this week. Somehow it's all started coming together.

It started when I finally decided to put one of my model 3's to work as a Pi-hole, and realized that I don't need to make a project perfect to just get it done. From there I started using my Keybow (another Pimoroni joint) even though I didn't have a perfect lua script to make all the lights dance every time I press a button. I also helped my son figure out how to hook up a model 3 to a touch screen he bought, and he's got a portable programming station.

I think the main thing here is I'm less scared of “wasting” one of these little boards. A Raspberry Pi Zero is $10, it's okay if I let it be a single-purpose board instead of making it do ten different things. In other words, I'm getting less frightened of tinkering, and that's a good feeling.

About a year ago I read about the Pi-hole project. For those of you who haven't heard of it, the gist is that you install it on a Raspberry Pi (hence the name) and then use that Raspberry Pi as your network's DNS server. It's a very specialized DNS server that blocks some 130,000 known advertising servers (and counting). And your home network becomes much more advertising-free. The project is designed to be easy. You run one script, adjust a few values, and it's up and running. I didn't put one together until three days ago.

Why not? Because I fell into what I call The Adafruit Trap. I adore I love all the tricks, tools, and toys they make available. I love the tutorials they publish; I love the bundles they sell, I love the enthusiasm for tinkering that radiates off the site. I want to make it clear here: the problem isn't Adafruit, it's me. I never want Adafruit to change what they're doing. I'm writing this to help change what I do. Okay. Let's move on.

So, here's how the Adafruit Trap works:

  • Step One: I find a project I'd like to try. In this case, it's setting up a Pi-hole server. In my initial research, the task looks accomplishable, and fun, and useful.
  • Step Two: I look for guidance on how to make it happen. Because they write such excellent tutorials, Adafruit comes up high in the search rankings.
  • Step Three: I read of all the really cool ways I could make my simple project So much fancier. In this case, by adding a sweet little OLED display to a Raspberry Pi Zero that has the stats on how many ads are blocked right on the device. This is a legitimately cool idea, and I want to do it! But I don't have the money to buy the OLED display right now, so I postpone for a while.

And a while longer.

And then get distracted by something else.

Until the next time someone mentions the Pi-hole project around me.

So here's the thing. I had a Raspberry Pi 3 sitting around, unused because it was part of another project for which I could never quite afford all the parts. It's already in a case, with SD card and power supply all set up. True, it doesn't have a sweet little OLED screen displaying how many ads it's blocked, but...what if...

What if I got a Pi-hole server working instead of waiting until I could do it “perfectly”?

One of my friends calls this the “Pinterest Trap,” where you look for inspiration on Pinterest, and everything is so perfect that it scares you off of even trying. In other words, the exact opposite of what tutorial sites are trying to do.

So how do you get over it? Good question! I don't know. So far my answer has been what I said above. I just forced myself to do what I can with what I had where I was instead of waiting for everything to be perfect.

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