I’ll have to admit I was a little bit stressed this morning. I’d spent the majority of the night previously thinking about the narrative I wanted to put forward for my post for Lifehacker and the night’s sleep didn’t bring about any sudden moments of clarity. This isn’t completely unusual, indeed there are many times when I go through a similar process for my daily entries here, but the thought of not being able to deliver something (well, something that was up to my standards) to someone else for publication wore on me heavily. Still I’m not one to dwell on problems that don’t have an immediate solution so I trucked myself out to TechEd.
My writer’s anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that the first session I had chosen turned out to be a 75 minute long advertisement for NetApp. Now usually I’m ok with sessions like this, especially if I’m interested in the particular tech they happen to be peddling, but no where on the session information did it say anything about this being all about whatever NetApp could do rather than, you know, what the session description led you to believe. Thankfully the second session I went to was with Mark Russinovich (of SysInternals fame) who’s presentation was not only great the stuff he talked about it was the inspiration for my post on Lifehacker. That’s also led onto me figuring out where I want to go with it for the next 2 that are due which just makes everything a lot easier.
The lack of a common meeting point (like the press room was the last time around) has led to this weird situation between all of us. Since we’re all in sessions for most of the day and the majority of them don’t overlap I actually didn’t see anyone else from the Lifehacker crew today. Sure there were a couple emails shot about but apart from that I’ve had no contact with them. After the experience I had travelling with DFAT it certainly feels a bit weird to me as we’d always meet up after work for dinner and a chat, something which was always fun after you got over that initial getting-to-know-you hurdle.
However this also afforded me a little freedom to do what I pleased after TechEd finished. After battling with dodgy Internet to get my post and pictures uploaded for the better part of an hour I finally made it out of the hotel and set out to look for some local cuisine. I’d tracked down a decent looking restaurant called Luke and, after walking in circles and almost giving up on finding it, settled in for a nice meal of baked oysters, a burger and an Oaked Arrogant Bastard ale. The food was quite incredible as the following photo will attest:
I had thought ahead and brought my camera with me to the restaurant (none of the pics I’ve uploaded so far are from it, however) and afterwards I went on a bit of a tour around the area near my hotel. There was no limit of interesting subjects, at least for someone like me, and looking over the photos shows that I should have at least a couple keepers, maybe more once I get done with them in Lightroom. I was going to install a copy of it on this laptop however I don’t really have the time to go through them right now, unless I want to cut sleep out completely. It’s enough to satisfy me should I not get another chance, but I’m hoping to spend the better part of Friday doing the same thing again, only during the day.
So two days and two more posts to go. I’m feeling an awful lot better about this whole thing and I feel like its going to be reflected in my writing. Hopefully I luck into some more of those inspirational sessions as whilst I’ve got a general idea of what I want to write those kinds of posts always feel a whole bunch better. We shall have to see though and I’d better stop prattling on here in favor of getting some decent rest before tomorrow.
Imagine a social gathering, you’re familiar with most of the people there but not all of them so you’ve been engaging with some small talk so you don’t spend the next 4 hours being that weird guy in the corner. Amongst the varying commentary about weather, local sports teams and what have you inevitably the conversation turns to what you all do for a living. Now for most people this is usually a one liner followed by a few back and forths over a few minor details and then it’s off to the other topic of conversation. There are some notable exceptions of course usually when your job is in an industry like IT, medical or (one of the more recent additions to this club) app development. If you dare mention you’re in one of these industries it’s highly likely that someone will launch into a description of their problems or start giving you ideas for their great iPhone app.
Being someone who fits into 2 of these categories (IT and a budding app developer) I get this kind of thing all the time, especially when I’m visiting a friend of a friend who I haven’t met before. Mostly it’s pretty harmless and I don’t mind taking some time out to help people as long as it doesn’t become a recurring theme. Of course IT problems don’t usually exist in isolation so more often than not I’ll be called upon again to come back at which point I usually tell people my going rate and watch the problem evaporate rather quickly. What a lot of people fail to realise is that whilst we might do something for a living we don’t necessarily enjoy doing it out of work, especially if we’ve just spent our whole day doing it.
It’s for that reason alone that I don’t bother people with questions about their professions in a social setting, kind of a common courtesy from someone who knows what they’re going through. I’ll admit it’s not easy sometimes, especially if I have an idea for a project that I want someone to work with me on, but there are much better ways to approach someone than accosting them the second you find out that they could be useful to you.
New app ideas are probably the worst out of the lot as many people are convinced their ideas are fantastic and all they need is you for a couple hours to just bang it out for them. Luckily for me I can tell them that the last app I tried to develop took about a year and barely lead anywhere but even that doesn’t deter some of the more enthusiastic punters. It’s even worse that I completely understand their motivations too as I tried hard to get other people excited about the idea but inevitably you can only talk about something for so long before people just don’t want to hear about it anymore.
It’s for that exact reason that I haven’t been talking at all about my most recent project, except in the most general terms. There’s also a multitude of other factors as well (like first mover advantage, which I believe I have in this case) but it also comes down to a the fact that talking about your goals triggers the same neurological response as actually completing them. Thus I feel those who are approaching me to develop an idea for them have already got what they needed (that feeling of completion) and attempting to follow the idea to its conclusion is usually an exercise in futility.
Even though we’re all familiar with the old adage of “Genius is: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” the opposite seems to hold true for commonly held opinions about ideas. The notion that all it takes is an amazing idea to realize your dreams (made worse by the fact that people think iPhone apps are just so damn easy to make) and so the second they get something they think is novel suddenly the hard part is over. Being someone who’s had 50+ of those “amazing” ideas and only been able to execute a couple of them I can tell you the easy part is getting an idea, the hard part is tuning out everything else and working solidly on that idea for months on end. So you should really ask yourself “Would I be willing to work on this day in day out in order for it to succeed?” and if you’re answer is anything but an unconditional yes then you should wonder why others would bother to work on it with you.
I was never a big fan of writing. I’m a very stereotypical nerd/engineer in that respect as I always struggled to get my thoughts down on paper, especially when I was told I wasn’t elaborating enough. I became frustrated with the arbitrary word counts as everything I needed to say could be summed up in a couple paragraphs and struggled with gathering supporting arguments. It got easier when I started writing documentation professionally, since all you really need there are the facts, but I only really started to enjoy writing about 6 months after I started this blog when I started to force myself to punch out at least 1 post per weekday.
I’ll be honest with you though, I still struggled with the basics for quite a while. Back then inspiration was a lot easier to come across than it was today (thanks to me not having a massive back catalogue of stuff I’ve already written about) but writing anything more than 500 words was a complete chore as the engineer in me yelled continually that anything more was just me waffling on. Over time however I came to realise just how to trigger that part of my brain that knows how to break down a subject into several key points that I can then turn into a paragraph each and now I routinely find myself writing 1000~2000 word posts on things that I’m passionate about.
Of course the small bit of recognition I get amongst my friends and peers for my various musings here go a long way to keeping me coming back to continue writing. It’s why whenever I hear about a friend starting up a blog I’ll link to them, subscribe to their blog and comment on their posts as I know how hard it is when you’re first starting out. I was shouting into the darkness for a good year before I got anything above what I’d classify Internet background noise so I know exactly what it can feel like to do something with seemingly no return. Of course most of the benefits don’t come from page views, but they certainly help to keep you on track to improving your writing (and hopefully other aspects of your life too).
Now I don’t necessarily recommend doing what I do exactly as whilst it’s been immensely helpful for me it’s also had the rather undesirable side effect of giving me a crazy OCD for getting a post out every day. Whilst some of my most complimented bits of writing come from the days when I have to drag inspiration kicking and screaming out of the dark reaches of my brain it would probably be a whole lot better, at least creatively, if I only wrote when the inspiration hit me. Indeed some of the best blogs I read come from those who only write when they really have to. That’s not to say that all my posts are forced out (the majority, thankfully, aren’t) but unless your goal is SEO and page views blogging or writing whenever suits you is probably the best option.
I’d also go out on a limb and say that any sort of online creative expression (whether blogging, vlogging, tweeting or whatever) will help you better yourself in some way. Of course I think some mediums are better for certain things (blogging is best for writing, of course) but giving yourself some sort of creative outlet, even if you think you aren’t that good, will do wonders for you. Sure many people already have these, especially those who make a living off their creativity, but having your own place of expression where only you are in control is definitely something worth having.
I’m not going to say that everyone in the world should blog, more that if you’re looking for a sure fire way to improve your writing and being able focus your thoughts then starting a blog might be the way to go. Plus there’s always the possibility that what you jot down will gain you an audience that will keep coming back for your musings, something that’s extremely gratifying (even the trolls, to a point). Hell if you’re worried about what people might think then just open up notepad every time you want to write something down and save the files off in some random location. Even doing that I think you’d be surprised of the improvements after a while, I know I certainly have.
A long time ago I made a decision to do at least one post per day on weekdays. I’m not sure where I pulled that figure from, probably because it lined up nicely with the fact I had absolutely nothing to do at the time whilst at work, but after about 6 months habit took over and I was then compelled to write at least once a day. The only sure fire way I’ve found to break myself out of this loop is to be on holiday somewhere, although should that holiday go over a weekday I’ll still have that niggling little voice in the back of my head telling me I should post something. In fact I’d say that it’s obsessive compulsive disorder that drives a good chunk of posts on here, it’s now such a part of my morning ritual that not getting one out can seriously impact my productivity.
My general process for finding something to write about is pretty fixed. Most of the time I simply troll my feed reader looking for something good to write about, usually something that I can either find a core theme to expand upon or a topic in which I believe I’ve got some interesting background information. Having a rather large backlog of posts means I’ve probably hit on a topic before and apart from topics where I’ve changed my position on something (like say cloud computing) there’s no good reason to go back and revisit it. Often this process ends up with me rifling through thousands of post titles, hoping to hit on that one that triggers the writer in me to plonk down a good 600+ words.
I also have a sizable backlog of drafts and post ideas that I’d love to do but simply don’t have the time or haven’t done the preparation for. Many of these are long form works that would require a whole day just to research and formulate properly. That’s not to say these will never get written indeed many of them do, but they sometimes feel to be more harmful than helpful to the whole writing process since I’ll often procrastinate trying to find something to write about by digging through them in the hopes they’ll trigger another idea (which they do not, 99% of the time).
Inspiration then is a tricky thing, as whilst it appears to strike me in some form most days it’s often preceded by hours of trawling, researching and screaming inside my head. To be honest I attribute this to trying to shit when I don’t have to go as really I shouldn’t try to force myself to write when I don’t have anything good to say. I’d probably do that too if the posts I write on those days weren’t the ones that get me positive comments (how that works I’ll never know) and it seems that if I go more than my usual 2 day break on the weekend Google likes to punish me by dropping me down a couple notches, thereby reinforcing my OCD habit of needing to do it every weekday.
Still for all my whinging about the difficulty in finding inspiration for things to post on here I still very much enjoy the whole process once I get it rolling. There are also a whole bunch of posts that come along quite easily (like my reviews) and it seems that no matter how stuck I get eventually something will eventually trigger in my head that will lead me to posting something here. Like any endeavor its not always rainbows and flowers but the rewards I’ve reaped from blogging (both real and intangible) far outweigh the costs of doing so, and I know that the work I do is appreciated.
At least some of the time anyway 😉
I remember way back when I first started trying to create a business for myself that I’d eagerly seek out stories of others who had done the same, looking for trends so that I could replicate their success. There are of course hundreds of these and it didn’t take me long to find a couple examples that mirrored my own experiences. The common thread that I found amongst them all was that overnight success never happens overnight and that more often than not you’ve got a few solid years of working on something before it starts to get traction. That was a revelation in itself for me since I had always ascribed much of the success of these kinds of people to luck or something I had no control over.
Of course over the past 2 years I’ve seen nearly every inspirational story there is to see and read thousands of articles on how to build a successful business. Sure many of them have been helpful but recently I’ve found myself deliberately avoiding any success stories or how I did it articles, finding them to be rather tedious and uninformative. Indeed the vast majority of them are usually a bunch of high level waffle of how they do this or that, with those things usually being one of the industry hype terms of the time. There are of course notable exceptions who attempt to give you real actionable advice but even they fall prey to make things so general as to be useless to anyone.
It feels like I’m suffering from some major inspiration fatigue. Back in the early days these stories of success pushed me to keep on coding on those days when I felt I was being less than useless, knowing that if I kept at it that eventually I’d have something of value to release upon the world. After failing to attract attention both from Y-Combinator and the general public with my Lobaco beta these stories of success started to seem more like the exception than the rule. I fast became disillusioned with all these inspiring tales of how success followed their hard work, instead wanting the real meat of what they did in order to achieve success.
Maybe its more that I’m at a point where I know that there’s the possibility of success out there and hearing about it no longer helps to inspire me to achieve it. Perhaps its the realization that there’s thousands upon thousands of much more talented developers out there working on their own ideas that are much better than my own. In any case I can no longer take comfort in the just the mere idea that success awaits those who put in the effort and will only be content upon its realization.
Or maybe its just a slow news day and I had nothing better to write about, you can be the judge on that one.
Way back in my high school days, over a decade ago now, I can remember being in one of my English classes studying Shakespeare. Anyone who’s had the privilege of experiencing his works whether through reading, performing or seeing them performed will attest that whilst it’s initially quite confusing (thanks to the language) eventually it will all make sense as if it was being spoken in plain English. For an engineer like me it took a good while and many performances to understand what the hell was going on but eventually I can remember being able to read Shakespeare as if it was modern day English, rather than the romantic gibberish as it used to appear to me.
More recently I had come to experience the same penny drop moments when learning the new platforms I wanted to develop on. I’d been a long time C# developer having cut my teeth on small projects at university but anything past a simple desktop application was pretty much out of my reach. After bashing my head against the wall that was ASP.NET I eventually managed to figure out enough to get by and eventually shift gears completely when I realised it wouldn’t suit my needs. I met with the same issues when I began working with Silverlight as its XML based UI design tools left me wondering how to do things that were so simple in the past. Again though after spending a few frustrating weeks stumbling through the code the click moment happened and development started in earnest.
What I’ve come to realise is that whilst I think I have these click moments when trying to learn new things in reality there’s no real turning point where I go from floundering idiot to competent worker. More it comes from building on previous experiences and using them to further yourself at an ever increasing pace. The click moment is really just that point of reflection when you realise you’re no longer struggling as hard as you once were to take those next steps. Additionally once you have enough knowledge about a certain area you’ll find yourself asking the right questions in order to find the information you require, rather than having to spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with information overload (which has become so easy to fall prey to in the digital age).
More and more I see that determination is the key to seeing something through to realisation. Whilst aptitude (and maybe luck) can play big parts in the process the drive to continue on with something, even when it seems pointless, is what will ensure that idea becomes a reality. I’ve lost countless weekends and nights of sleep pursuing what started off as just a simple idea in the back of my head which has now turned into a full on obsession fuelled by the desire for success, gadgets and not being a hypocrite when I tell people to chase their dreams. The process has left me with many of those click moments where things just started falling into place but the more I look at them the more I realise that it was sheer brute force, not inspiration, that brought me to that point.
Everytime I think I’m losing my interest in space something always comes along to bring me right back into that almost dream like state I first had when I decided that leaving this blue marble was my lifetime goal. Whether it be pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, a few readings from the Mars Exploration Rovers or even a discovery that might one day lead us faster than light travel I can’t doubt myself for more than a day before I reminded of the beautiful, complex and ever changing universe that we live in. It is my fervent hope that I can one day instill such passion in a wide majority of the world, and the beginnings of that are contained in this blog.
However I understand that we don’t live in a world that is governed solely by one man’s desires and hopes. In this world that is ruled by politics, economics and raw resources we have work within these constructs in order to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Unfortunately in the case of NASA these rules have led from it being a source of inspiration for humanity worldwide to a struggling organisation who can barely make the headlines. Whilst some might say that this is because there are bigger problems to solve here on terra firma I and many others would disagree:
Tyson echos a sentiment I’ve held for quite a while now. Born well after the initial space race and in the remote location of Australia I was cut off from the world of space for a very long time. My earliest memory of having anything to do with space was a night of astronomy when I was about 8 years old, seeing a bright red dot through a large contraption I had no understanding of. It would be another 4 years before my next brief experience of space when I saw Mission to Mir on the IMAX screen in Sydney. After then I can not think of one experience I had with space until a couple years back, when I discovered my passion for space and all things to do with it.
After the dizzying heights that were reached when NASA was formed to win the space race it has taken a slow downhill course to irrelevance. No longer are they charged with pushing the boundaries of what we are capable in space, more they are responsible for a very expensive transport business with a small dabbling of science on the side. This is why they are no longer the inspiration they once were, every they do is routine. For decades now NASA has been in a position to cast off its routine duties and begin clawing at the edges of space, just like it did so long ago. We have the chance to do so much yet such a comparatively small cost is too great for those who have the ability to pay for it.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic for a time that I didn’t live through, but after going so long not knowing about the tremendous benefits that NASA and its projects brought to our world and then finally discovering them I can’t help but feel that the everyman is in the same situation. As a species we seem so focused on the immediate problems of our world that we tend to forego looking up and seeing the direction we should be moving in, leaving us only to tread the paths we’ve been down before. It would seem that collectively we’re incapable of drastic change over a prolonged period of time.
The point remains however that should NASA axe its human space program that it will become irrelevant in the public’s eye. Whilst we have had a tremendous amount of success with robotic exploration missions they fail to grab the attention of the everyman as they can not identify with them. Whilst I lament the idea of flag planting missions they serve to inspire the generation of their time to achieve such lofty goals which, if continued over an extended period of time, leads to a feedback loop of epic proportions. Had NASA continued along the same path as it did when it was first created there’s no telling where we would be today, but there’s no use dwelling on the past.
Despite this we are on the cusp of another revolution in space which the fledgling private space industry is responsible for. We have so many companies that are now willing to do the job that only NASA was capable of just a decade ago that soon NASA will have no choice but to give way to them. Once they have done this they can refocus their efforts on pushing the limits of technology like they once did and hopefully see them return to their rightful spot as the most inspirational government organisation mankind has ever seen. Just that thought alone is enough to keep a dreamer like myself going even when NASA seems to be going through the darkest times.
My thanks go out to my friend Glen for linking the video that inspired this post.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th President of the United States of America
40 years ago, on this very day, this very hour, this very minute Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander “Eagle” and began his decent onto the surface of our closest neighbour in space, the Moon. Today the world remembers what an amazing achievement that this was, and how the whole world watched in awe as we saw for the very first time the human race had landed on another celestial body. Truly it was something that no one who saw it would ever forget.
For me the greatness of the achievements of Apollo are embodied in the two things that prefaced this post. The first is a picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong. A simple picture showing an astronaut against the magnificent desolation that is the surface of the moon. It’s always the first picture I think of when I’m talking about the Apollo missions, summing up their essence with such simplicity. The second is a quote that I’m sure everyone around the world is familiar with. John F. Kennedy was an exceptional man and his speech served to inspire his nation and drive them towards a goal that no nation has matched to this day.
As a man who was not even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes at the time of this event I can only imagine what the event must have been like. I’ve watched hours upon hours of footage of the moon landings with a tearful eye but I know nothing can compare to what everyone must have experienced on that day. My only hope is that this blog and my endeavours outside it will lead humanity to achieve such greatness again.
Today I pay tribute to all of those who made Apollo possible. From the ground crew to the politicians to great people such as Walter Cronkite who helped bring the missions home to everyone around the world. I would also like to leave you with an assortment of other tributes to the achievements of the Apollo program, something to keep you busy during this day of celebration.
Happy 40th Apollo. In 10 years time I hope we’ll be celebrating your 50th in true style, back on Luna.