Skip to content

Tech in the Trenches Posts

Zombie persistence

People said I did the impossible, but that’s wrong: I merely did something so boring that nobody else had been willing to do it.

Embrace the Grind – Jacob Kaplan-Moss

I was reminded this morning that much of technical support work is to continue trying something until it works.
“I rebooted already.”
Try it again.
“Now it works.”

My wife’s phone started booting in a loop this morning.
I held the power button down until it restarted and then it loaded properly.

I joked about it needing the hands of a seasoned technical support technician.
Likely, it just needed another reboot. More forceful than the last.

I thought about a recent post from Jacob Kaplan-Moss about Embracing the Grind. And I’ll admit I rolled my eyes a little bit. I thought it was going to be another missive about working hard and through hard work comes success.

And it was, but not in the way I expected.

I often have people newer to the tech industry ask me for secrets to success. There aren’t many, really, but this secret — being willing to do something so terrifically tedious that it appears to be magic — works in tech too.

I think about that a lot. Especially in my early days starting out when I would have computers running disk scans to repair issues, trying to recover deleted files without backup, or scanning to remove malware. Sometimes it took multiple scans that would run for hours, sometimes overnight. But eventually I’d find success.

There is magic in hard work. But it doesn’t have to be 90 hour work weeks or 17 hour days. Sometimes just persistence. A little bit of effort over a long period of time. A mundane task slowly worked through.

This is the grind I embrace. The slow advance of a tireless zombie hoard. They’re not fast. They’re not hard working. But their determined. And in the event, their simple determination is what makes them dangerous.

Lessons from a minimalist

Matt D’Avella‘s last newsletter shared 10 lessons from 10 years as a minimalist. I learned about Matt from his work with The Minimalists’ film Minimalism. I’ve enjoyed his video work and like his newsletter. The one he sent today was a look back at 10 lessons from 10 years as a minimalist. That hits my sweet spot of lessons learned through introspection.

There were a couple that really resonated with me, as I turn 40 and haven’t had a crisis (yet) but have thought about how I got to where I am. And while I am no minimalist, I embrace its intentions.

The excitement fades but the value remains. When I first started practicing minimalism, I was truly giddy. I felt like I had a new lease on life. My perspective had completely shifted and I felt a rush of excitement as I purged my things. This faded as minimalism became my new normal. But that’s not a bad thing. Even though the initial honeymoon phase ended, the benefits of minimalism have remained.

I think about his entire idea in a few ways. First, the Shiny New Thing™ is always exciting and fresh but dulls in time. That’s true of any new endeavor or thing. Second, I try to think about this in terms of starting new things. Will I want to be doing this in a year? Is this a habit I want to continue with when it gets hard? What are the reasons behind my motivations?

If they aren’t for me or I don’t see a future with a product, project or habit, I don’t start it. I think about the impending divorce before I’ve even said I Do to the new.

We upgrade too often. Brands do a great job at convincing us we need to replace our phones, computers, and kitchen appliances every couple of years. But do we really need to make the upgrade? Will those extra pixels, different buttons, and a new sleek design really improve our lives? That’s up to you to decide. But you may find that the phone or laptop you have now meets your needs just fine. Maybe if you choose not to upgrade, you’d be able to pay down more of your debt, and you could save one less thing from ending up in a landfill.

I’m guilty of this in some areas. (We don’t talk about the number of computers in the house. They all serve as purpose.) The siren call of a new phone is one I am nearly immune from. I was waaaaay late to even having a cell phone. I held out through much of college (maybe all of it, I don’t remember). I enjoyed being able to leave my dorm room and be out in the world, unreachable and unfindable. Untethered to the desires of those outside my immediate vicinity.

Now, I upgrade when my old phone breaks every couple of years. Since switching to Android years ago, I’ve bought an evolving series of Pixel phones. When they launched their mid-tier line starting with the 3aXL my wife and I both jumped at it. Our combo 3a for her and XL model for me cost less than a single iPhone.

Even recently, when my phone took an accidental swim, I replaced it with a 4a. The non-5g model of course. Because why pay for something I don’t have access to, or even a need for in the next couple of years at least. I walked to our local Best Buy and for $350 walked out with a brand new phone unlocked and ready to activate with Google’s Fi service. Which costs my wife and I around $80/month for two phones. The benefit being we pay for what we use. It can fluctuate, but we’re not paying for potential.

In giving up the latest in gadgets and appliances and televisions we’ve been able to pay off huge amounts of debt and save for disasters (like when your washer overflows and floods your carpeted upstairs laundry room).

People overthink it. Should I keep the manual for my toaster? Should I get rid of my Harry Potter book-set? What should I do with that vase that my mom got me last Christmas? Listen, I get it. I overthink just about everything. But there comes a point when these questions become a stalling tactic. You’re afraid to let go because you don’t want to make the wrong decision. But ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? You recycle the toaster manual and need to look it up online. You give away the book-set and later decide to repurchase it on your Kindle. Your mom gets a little upset about the vase but understands that it didn’t match your design taste (good luck with that convo btw). Stop overthinking, and start taking action. You can apologize later.

I am so guilty of this. I keep everything. I have instructions manuals for everything. Even though I can readily find what I need online, and that’s where I do first. Ask me how many Ikea wrenches I have. (OK. Don’t. It’s an embarrassing number.) I keep so many things Just In Case™. Just in case of what I don’t know. But I feel prepared.

It (surprisingly) makes receiving gifts easier. Now that my friends and family know I practice minimalism, they really understand my values. I’m unlikely to receive random crap I don’t need (and that I’d eventually have to give away). Instead, the gifts I get these days are really thoughtful experiences, a nice bottle of whiskey or fresh-baked treats. It’s important to have these conversations before the holidays begin. If your family and friends care about you and want you to be happy, they’ll totally understand you don’t want random electronics from Sharper Image this year.

While no one in my house is a card carrying minimalist. It does make gifting easier. We’ve turned down things and instead asked for experiences from people who insist on getting us something. Pay for my nice meal out. Giving myself permission to get anything from the menu financially guilt-free is a fabulous present. We’ve gifted family money for their children’s 529 accounts instead of buying them more toys.

Detaching yourself from stuff makes you less of an ass. When I was in college, my brother gave me 4 really tall beer glasses… they didn’t last very long. One by one, each of them shattered, and I remember feeling pain and frustration each time I had to sweep up the broken pieces. This was likely in-part because I was struggling financially and they would have been difficult to replace. But I was also way more emotionally attached to stuff than I am now. Cars will get dinged up, my phone’s screen will crack, and coffee will spill on my clothes. But now that I’m less attached to stuff, it doesn’t affect me at all.

I don’t have any stories that come to mind of particular things getting ruined. But the overall lesson applies. When I haven’t spent Top Dollar on new things, I don’t feel as bad if they become dinged, dented or destroyed. When I dropped my phone in water, it was a $400 purchase a few years old. Replacing it with another $350 wasn’t the end of the world.

All of my cars have been used and I’ve driven them until they expire. My last car decided when it hit 100,000 miles, it was time to no longer have a transmission. So it was donated. I’m giving my current vehicle pep talks as it approaches the six-digit mile mark. But when it dies, I won’t lose sleep over it. It has dings and dents from mishaps in parking garages and being bumped into by persons unknown. But it’s not a big deal.

My clothes are bought to fit, with an eye for comfort. It’s not brand name, nor fancy. Shoes are an absolute joke. I buy shoes by walking into a store and looking at size 14, wiping tears of sadness from my eyes, then buying whatever basketball shoe they can muster.

I don’t place value in things. They’re all replaceable.

Minimalism is a practice. As your life changes, the stuff you own will need to change as well. And that’s because what we own today might not be useful or helpful one year from now. When you move into a new apartment, adopt a pet, give birth to your first child, you’ll need to buy new stuff (or get hand-me-downs from family). And when you find that stuff is no longer adding value, you can find a better home for it.

I’m actively in the midst of this lesson. Working from home and truly living in my house for the past year has taught me a lot about what I will use or not. What is valuable and what’s just taking up space? There are things that hold value in my head I think that someone might want. The reality is more stark. No one wants that old thing. I’ve got some things I need to find a way to donate. Or give away. Or generally get out of my house and into the hands of someone who will find value in it.

Backups will save you

It’s true what they say. Backups are important!
Today was the perfect storm of why backups are important. Last night, I violated my own rule of working on projects after midnight. I thought it would be a good idea to update PHP on the server where my Nextcloud installation lives. The place where I keep and sync my files for work and I setup for my wife so she could stop paying for Dropbox.
I wanted to upgrade PHP so I could move to the newer versions of Nextcloud. Then, I decided to upgrade Nextcloud. So I updated PHP and Nextcloud itself. After midnight. A sure recipe for success!
Logging back into Nextcloud told me, This directory is unavailable, please check the logs or contact the administrator. Well, I am the administrator so that option’s out. I asked him. He’s clueless. So I went looking at the logs and they were full of errors I didn’t understand. Not enough to craft the search term that might lead to help. After a brief trip through github issues and forum posts, I gave up. I had to roll back the server to the last backup.
The latest one was from two nights ago. So I started the restore and went to sleep.
The next morning, I checked on Proxmox and after about 5 hours, the data restore completed. I took a deep breath and logged into the server.
No errors.
Files were all there.
Things looked good.
Until later that morning when my wife made sounds of distress, which I feared was my doing. Sure enough, there was a directory missing from her files. One she needed for work today. In about 30 minutes.
I had forgotten to mention what happened to her in the morning. She was mad. She was right.
I took my second deep breath of the day, asked for her laptop and the name of the folder and about where it was in her folders. (There are SO. MANY. FOLDERS.)
I opened Time Machine and hope the NAS downstairs had done its job. I’d had such a hard time getting the Mac mini on her desk remaining connected to the NAS to back itself up. I had setup oour laptops to backup on the same day. My laptop had not complained. So I was hopeful I my planning would pay off.
I was not. Time Machine did its job. I was able to locate and recover the directory and all its contents from a backup from yesterday evening.
Let my near-fatal errors be a lesson to you!
(I’m not sure my wife would have spared me and no jury would have convicted her.)
Backup your data.
For Proxmox, where I’m running Nextcloud and Plex and some other toys, it has an option to back itself up. Turn It On!
You know, that laptop you carry around? The one lucky enough to not have a drink spilled into it. The computer that occaional flies off desks and sofas, back it up.
On the Mac, it’s as easy and low tech as plugging in an external hard drive. Telling Time Machine to use that drive, and walking away. Plug that drive in as often as you like and let it handle the rest.
On any platform, you can use a service like Backblaze to send your data to the cloud. But please, whatever you do, learn from my mistakes. Whether it’s a stupid thing you do, or an accident you didn’t cause, you will lose data.
A backup wil save you.
And before you think you’re safe because you use Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud, I ask you. Do you sync those files? Sync is Not Backup. Replace Nextcloud in my story with any of the alternatives and you get to the same place. On the next sync, those files in the cloud are gone.
And for the server savvy who think you’re safe because your data is in a RAID, Raid is not backup!

“good” reads

Books are amazing, but the options we have to buy books and track our reading are terrible. A lot of us are locked into the Amazon ecosystem – buying books on, reading them on Kindles. Sites like AbeBooks and Goodreads were quietly acquired by Amazon. Even LibraryThing is now part-owned by Amazon.

The new reading stack –

raises hand I am deep in that life. I have a Kindle, subscribe to Kindle Unlimited and use that alongside the Libby app from my library.

The company started with books because they made business sense, and they acquired Goodreads for the reading data, and are now killing its ecosystem out of boredom or malice. Amazon has never cared about books.

I recently removed everyone but my wife from Goodreads and took the account private. Mostly because I wasn’t using (and never used) any of the social features on the site. I wanted a place to track what I read, when I started, and when I finished.

That’s it.

But it did such a poor job of that I’ve given up on the site.

Despite reading books from Amazon on a Kindle. It couldn’t even get that part right. Sometimes I’d had a start date from when I opened and synced the book and told Goodreads I was reading it. Other times I’d look back at the end of the year and half the books I’d read wouldn’t show up because they had no dates at all on them.

Amazon has all the data on every sync. But instead of using it for me, I’m sure it went into their recommendations for what to read next or how to sell me something else on Amazon.

I’ll keep an eye on the list that Tom lists this post, but I’m not sure any social reading thing will be easier than picking a text file to record what I read and move on with life.


Carl: I’ve reported this to Carlo since it seems like the Webex recorder is connected. but… not… recording.

Alison: I think it’s hilarious that the person you report to is your name plus an O like it is your alter ego

Carl: YES! LOL

Alison: like when I have a problem that needs more help I’d just be like oh let me take that up with Alisono and just put on sunglasses and start working on it.