Category Archives: Career

“The Open-Office Trap” Revisited

Speaking of the New Yorker article I posted just now:

With everything we know about open plan offices, why are these mega-rich companies knocking themselves out to hire the very best and brightest minds from the world’s best universities, paying them huge salaries, tapping world-class architects to design artisanal office spaces in the most expensive place in the country, and then cramming desks together in noisy bullpens?
Matt Blodgett: But Where Do People Work in This Office?

Great question. The other thing I think of when I see open office plans like this the fact one person with the cold or flu will easily wipe out the entire floor. I’ve witnessed that event myself, especially in those environments where the desks are really just an eight-foot (if that) stretch of work bench. At least if I have a cold, I can close myself in my office and just call into meetings, sparing everyone else around me.

The Open-Office Trap

But the most problematic aspect of the open office may be physical rather than psychological: simple noise. In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. The psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help: even that, Perham found, impairs our mental acuity. Exposure to noise in an office may also take a toll on the health of employees. In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response. What’s more, Evans and Johnson discovered that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain. The subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative.

I have an office. One wall is completely glass, but an office, nonetheless. I have told HR they can pry it from my cold, dead hands. The walls here are thin—two sheets of drywall and a metal stud to hold them up—but I can put in a pair of 3M disposal industrial earplugs, and my office is quieter than the Widener Library during summer break.

Processing 1,200 DocBook XML Files

XML gets a bad rap, and I am not going to debate its merits here. That has been done ad nauseum over the years, and still no one has a better alternative for when it comes to tagging anything beyond the simplest books. Yes, there is JSON, but as soon as a title has a piece of art or an index I need linked, JSON is no longer the best tool. I have my own opinions about it, but the fact remains that XML is the lingua franca for tagged content in my industry, and I don’t have so many issues with it that I feel compelled to propose my own fixes for it.

The tools that exist to work with XML, however, I think speak to XML’s bad rap as much as anything. There is no single “go to” for all XML work. By that I mean, whereas one can use Eclipse all day to code C, Java, or use Xcode for Objective-C, C, there is no single app that does everything. In addition, the two provided technologies that exist for manipulating XML content—XSL and XQuery—feel as though they were developed from two completely different directions and simply thrown into the XML package.

My chosen tools and their uses

Diagnose and Repair

oXygen XML Editor
I forget what landed me on oXygen’s doorstep, but when manually inspecting an XML file for the first time, this is my “go to.” The errors that are returned from parsers like Xerxes can be intensely cryptic, but oXygen provides a useful interface to make drilling down to certain errors relatively straightforward. XML-specific editing hooks like automagically closing tags and validating against the declared DTD make working with XML worth the purchase price. There are times, however, when some UTF-8 encoding issue prevents even opening the file, at which point I move on to Plan B: xmllint.

xmllint goes where oXygen fears to tread. If I have any error that prevents oXygen from opening a file for any reason, xmllint will tell me exactly where that error is. I’d like to think that an editor as robust as oXygen could handle the same functionality as xmllint, but it doesn’t. I don’t use the command for anything except the simplest of edits (no need to torture myself with vim or emacs if I don’t need to), so I then move onto the next tool for the fix: BBEdit.

BBEdit is the stuff of legend on the Mac, and I don’t think I need to sing its praises to the choir here. While it doesn’t have the XML-specific hooks of oXygen, it does open those files that oXygen barfs on, and has killer search and replace features for fixing problems. One of the best parts of BBEdit is that even if it does come across a UTF-8 encoding issue, it will open the file anyway, which means I can make the fix and move on to transformations.


Updating an XML document’s structure is inevitable when prepping content. XML offers XSL, but I rarely work in a vacuum. Typically, I am mashing some content with some other content, and for that, I need to be able to manage a content store which XSL doesn’t allow on its own. Enter Cocoa.

I hate to say it, because other developers might (will) cringe, but I use Xcode as a as a deep, rich scripting platform as I do for making an application. If I need to deploy a tool for my team, I can do so in no time, but more often than not, I am the one developing and executing the solution. I’ve developed a couple of strategies around this.

First, all solutions begin as command line applications. XML work almost never needs an interface, so I develop all the logic in controllers that link to the main function. If I need an interface, then adding one is a cinch coming from a command line app (but not the other way around).

Second, I develop with scalability in mind. If I do something with one file, chances are very high that I will need to do the same to other files as well. I have developed over time a class called OCFileParser that is the bridge between the directory system and editing logic.

The benefit to all of this is Using Cocoa’s NSXMLParser and NSXMLDocument classes makes working with XML incredibly flexible and fast. XSLT has its uses, but it doesn’t have the same hooks as full-fledged programming language.

The One Big Problem with those classes, however, is that they can crash with EXC_BAD_ACCESS on well-formed, valid XML. Out of the 1,200 titles I am working, there’s around 90 that exhibit this behavior, and they are a real mystery. Everything else in the toolbox has no problem with them but the NSXMLDocument class just barfs on them. I am still trying to sort out if there is some bug deep in the bowels of the classes (others exist so this is entirely in the realm of possibility); if how they link to external files is a problem; or if this is a memory issue—1,200 XML documents is a lot especially since I am relying on ARC for garbage collection to speed development.

That’s the setup. I have one or two other apps I have to work with, but I save those for when I get truly desperate, and not really worth mentioning here (though I am getting close given that last bit). I have a couple more blog posts on how the whole thing works in practice I am looking to get posted before the next semester begins.

Microsoft vs. LaTeX

Ed: This WordPress theme makes the titles all-caps, thus mangling “LaTeX.” My analytics should get interesting in a little while.

I haven’t read this entire article yet, but the opening paragraph has the best comparison of Word and LaTeX I’ve seen yet:

Microsoft Word is based on a principle called “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG), which means that the user immediately sees the document on the screen as it will appear on the printed page. LaTeX, in contrast, embodies the principle of “What you get is what you mean” (WYGIWYM), which implies that the document is not directly displayed on the screen and changes, such as format settings, are not immediately visible. An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development

Between work and school, I deal with Word and LaTeX a lot. LaTeX less so than Word given Word’s ease of use for everyone, but I work with enough math content at work that I needed to learn at least the basics. But, once I got the hang of LaTeX, I’ve been using that as my “go to” for document preparation, despite the state of LaTeX to be a lot more crunchy than I think it needs to be (that’s a separate blog post entirely). Still, even after using LaTeX consistently for a few years, I find it hard to explain it to someone who hasn’t so much as even seen it.

This bit in the abstract is interesting as well:

We show that LaTeX users were slower than Word users, wrote less text in the same amount of time, and produced more typesetting, orthographical, grammatical, and formatting errors. On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software. We conclude that even experienced LaTeX users may suffer a loss in productivity when LaTeX is used, relative to other document preparation systems.

I really need to read the article to find why this to be true but two things come to mind immediately:

  • Know your tools. If LaTeX is a core requirement for submissions, then take the time to really learn it.
  • Always double-check your work. There are no excuses for not checking work before submission.

Coca-Cola Disconnects Voice Mail at Headquarters

Coca-Cola is one of the biggest companies yet to ditch its old-style voice mail, which requires users to push buttons to scroll through messages and listen to them one at a time. Landline voice mail is increasingly redundant now that smartphones are ubiquitous and texting is as routine as talking.

I stopped answering arbitrary phone calls both at home and at work a few years ago, and it’s been one the best productivity hacks I’ve ever done. At home, I can count the number of people for whom I will answer the phone on one hand and have fingers to spare. At work, if you want to talk to me, set up a meeting and I will be more than happy to show up or call if off-site. Our voicemails get sent to our email inboxes, but those get lost in the flurry of everything else. Rarely is there anything so urgent as needing my immediate attention, and oftentimes the work I do requires enough concentration that interruptions like the phone are devastating to my productivity. The voicemail system at work is just wasted on me.

Gates Notes: Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row

I don’t talk about my going to school much here, for a variety of reasons that I don’t delve into here, but this piece from Bill Gates provides a good overview of the current state of continuing education:

In my experience, what separates the great courses from the mediocre ones is the quality of the professors, whose passion and expertise bring their subjects to life, as much online as in-person. That’s why it’s critical that during this time of transition we keep our focus on the instructors. They are the ones who inspire and guide students. The best online learning technologies expand the reach of the most inspiring professors by allowing more students to be part of their classes.
Gates Notes: “Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row”

This, however, is just as important point as the above:

The biggest challenge facing all higher education institutions is how to ensure more students stay in college or university and complete their degrees. They are looking everywhere for solutions. Arizona State University, for instance, discovered that the college catalogue overwhelmed students with too many class choices and gave them too little guidance. So the university redesigned the entire experience. The new, personalized online catalogue features “major maps,” which outline a major’s key requirements, optimal course sequence, and career options to help keep students on the path to graduation.

I can see where students, potential and otherwise, would have a problem with course selection, as with anything where there is a lot of choice and minimal guidance. I’ve faced that dilemma a few times, especially now that I am mopping up the last of my non-credit requirements, and more able to choose the courses I want to take. But course selection is an answered question in the form of advisors. The key to good curriculum choices is to have a plan walking into school. If someone doesn’t have a plan, a good advisor will help create one. But, course selection is the least of my problems as a continuing education student.

The larger, and much harder, problem is balancing school with other responsibilities. There are times when my passion for school outweighs my passion for work. Work is, at times, mundane and uninteresting because I am in maintenance mode, fixing bugs in Applescripts and my utility apps because of some application or operating system upgrade. Compare that to learning something completely new to me in any of my classes, and I can’t get out of work fast enough to go to class or do homework. Then there are times like this semester when the opposite is true, where my passion for work exceeds my passion for school, and doing enough work to get good grades (not passing grades, good grades) is really hard. Add two kids in the mix—five and three this year—and I occasionally get overwhelmed. There’s been a lot of “take a deep breath” moments over the past several years because quitting my job, dropping out of school, or ignoring my kids is never an option.

Being smart about my time is at the core of that balancing responsibilities. Good time management means everything is strategized and planned, from what I eat to maintain a semblance of good health, to when I spend some time with the kids so they don’t feel ignored, and all the way down to when I go to bed to get enough sleep to press on the next day. Courses are at night by necessity, which means I don’t get home until 23:00 (at the earliest if I don’t need to speak with the professor right after lecture). I love going to campus and sitting in the classroom. Online lectures are convenient and I get the meat of the course, but nothing beats the atmosphere of being in a classroom watching the lecture live, and being able to ask questions. But, my morning alarm goes off at 04:00 for a variety of reasons, and there are times when I have to choose sleep over live lecture and instead watch the course online when I am in a better state to do so. Honestly, most nights I don’t go to be because I am relaxed and tired; I often go to bed simply so that I can get enough sleep for the next day’s activities. Not that any of this is a complaint; this is all simply a statement of fact. I will never complain about school because I have chosen to take on the challenge, and I believe one ought not to complain about those things for which one has volunteered.

I have a course I am taking this semester now where the professor is really great, very engaging as is the material he assigns, challenging coursework in all the good ways, but the papers are philosophical, therefore very time-consuming, and sections are required (though my understanding that is against the school’s policy, but, hey, each course is its own little kingdom as my advisor once told me). At the same time, I have a company-wide project I’m now leading at work that just got approved after years of flogging to the powers that be. For that, I need to be alert and awake for some really tough meetings where I have to make tough decisions. That sounds very cliché, I know, but it’s true. Building a content management solution that my company will live with for probably the next ten years requires making decisions at morning meetings that will impact our workflows for years to come.

All things being equal, a project with years of impact that will be a huge addition to my resume, unfortunately, has to trump one grade out of thirty-two I’ll complete by the time I’m done with school. To put it another way, school will be done in two years, but this system, and my job, will be around for a lot longer. Instead, I have to focus on the core coursework needed to get a passing grade and finish off the semester with my sanity intact. My professor likely wouldn’t agree, not that I would blame him, but my getting burnt out will do no one any good, least of all myself.

School is a lot of things, but in this context, it’s an endurance race. I don’t expect schools to address that issue for me as a student, and so I wouldn’t expect to see that in Bill Gates’ article. But, his article does cast a light onto a gap in the conversation about contenting education: how best to approach the balancing of school, work, and other responsibilities. Schools are doing amazing things now to accommodate non-traditional students (here defined as not having gone to school right out of high school), but their efforts are only a part of a larger problem for many people. There is not a government or school policy that is going to provide a solution to that problem. The 36 People Who Run Wikipedia

Participation and administration works not because anyone is paid or recognized, but apparently because people are authentically interested in the project. In fact, many stewards have expressed adamant opposition to payment. Among the stewards I talked with, satisfaction depended only on the intrinsic nature of the project itself: instant gratification from immediate publishing, the ability to spread knowledge, and learn — and yes, because it is fun.

Yup, the largest and most successful collaborative project in history, the modern center of human knowledge — a radically participatory model for this technologic age — is possible because people find it inherently satisfying to participate.
The 36 People Who Run Wikipedia

It’s an old story but it’s true: loving your work matters in the deepest ways. If you don’t love your work, questioning your motivation is fair, if not required. Those motivations may outweigh any satisfaction derived from your work, but work satisfaction does make for a clear benchmark.

On the flip side of this, however, is that in my first class at school, my professor absolutely drilled it into our heads that Wikipedia is really only good for a very general, broad overview of any topic, a place to find a starting point for deeper learning elsewhere more than anything, and that it cannot be trusted as cited, reference material for an academic paper. For everything that Wikipedia content gets things right, there are enough other things that are wrong, so trusting Wikipedia is next to impossible. For those areas where I have deep knowledge I found it lacking in detail much more than getting things wrong, and that could be argued as being just as bad. Whether or not inaccuracies abound in all areas I can’t really say, but that professor definitely changed our views of Wikipedia in an instant. Wikipedia is still admirable in its ambitions and outcomes, all the same.


Double-booking your appointments does not necessarily mean you are productive, nor appear busy in a good sense of the term. Double-booking may make you appear productive, but it’s a false economy. In reality, you double-booking makes people around you unproductive. While you are in one meeting getting something done, you likely have people waiting for you to get started in another meeting, or at least have question hanging waiting for you to answer them, should you tear yourself away from your current meeting to attend the other one. Making people wait on you is easily argued as being disrespectful to all those other people as well, because they all have jobs to do, none of which should consist of waiting on one person to get things done (thought, if that is the case, even informally, then there’s a deeper problem with you and your organization). Then by pulling out of the first meeting to go your simultaneous second meeting puts all those people you just left in the same place as the people who are waiting on you. Double-booking basically says that you over-commit; you don’t know how to pick your battles; and it’s time to delegate.

Don’t you agree?

Every once in a while, I get an email proposing some decision starting or ending with the phrase “don’t you agree.” Whether the proposal is something I agree with doesn’t matter; sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Either way, I have never liked this phrase for the fact that I feel it puts the receiver immediately on the defensive. By adding “don’t you agree” to a question makes an assumption that the receiver is going to agree but that assumption has a real chance of being false.1 We really have no idea all of what the other person is thinking. Using “don’t you agree” forces the receiver’s hand to defend their position in the real chance that, no, they don’t agree, but now they are compelled to explain why, even on those things that needn’t be explained because the answers are completely obvious, causes needless chatter, could be none of your business, whatever. Forcing an explanation is putting up a last-second hurdle that has to be overcome, no matter how small that may be.

In other words, ending with the phrase “…, don’t you agree?” is a passive-aggressive move in enough contexts that its usage really ought to be avoided should you want to be perceived as someone with whom collaboration is easy. Don’t you agree?

  1. You know what happens when you assume, right? It makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

EFF: Adobe Spyware Reveals (Again) the Price of DRM: Your Privacy and Security

The publishing world may finally be facing its “rootkit scandal.” Two independent reports claim that Adobe’s e-book software, “Digital Editions,” logs every document readers add to their local “library,” tracks what happens with those files, and then sends those logs back to the mother-ship, over the Internet, in the clear. In other words, Adobe is not only tracking your reading habits, it’s making it really, really easy for others to do so as well.
EFF: Adobe Spyware Reveals (Again) the Price of DRM: Your Privacy and Security

Adobe collects information about whatever book you happen to be reading using Adobe Digital Editions, which potentially means your entire ADE collection. Then ADE sends that information back to Adobe in the clear, meaning anyone snooping can read it.

Intentional or not, I find none of this surprising.