Documentation Momentum

I got my first real camera in 2006. Specifically, on June 14th, 2006; I know this because prior to then, my life was more or less undocumented. This is the first picture I took with it:

Since then, I've taken just over 10,000 photos (that I've kept), of which about 1400 are on my Flickr page. 2007 was a peak year (4125 photos), and 2008 trailed off a bit (2308 photos).

Then, in 2009, I only took 626 photos. What happened?

I got an iPhone.

"But wait, Ian! Doesn't the iPhone have a camera in it?" Yes, absolutely; that's the problem. I stopped carrying my awesome camera around because I didn't "need" to; I told myself that I'd just take lots of pictures on my iPhone instead. And, I did take some pictures. But the funny thing is, I didn't like the pictures, and didn't care to organize or look at them later. And, over time, I just kind of quit taking pictures.

At the same time, I switched from managing my photos on a Mac (iPhoto) to a PC, because our old Mac was groaning under the ever-increasing weight of my all these pictures (most of which were of my dog). So I moved my photos over and started using Picasa. Big mistake! It's well engineered software, but not well designed for use by human beings; everything is convoluted and un-obvious, at least to me. So, my visual documentation languished.

No more! I've now moved back to managing photos in iPhoto on a Mac, and can now easily integrate photos from both my camera and my iPhone (which can now do fancy stuff like click focus, HDR, etc., and actually looks quite good). And I've started posting on Flickr again (here are sets from recent trips to London and San Francisco.

Brighton Pier

The City


The Force

Through my career as a software engineer, I've always felt drawn to data. Modeling it, manipulating it, mining it: anything having to do with the structure and use of concepts in software, really. It's an amazing (and important) area to work in, because understanding a problem's data is often the biggest step towards solving it.

I finished my Masters Degree at UT, and wrote a thesis about some new-fangled database design strategies that got noticed by a few folks. One group who noticed was a company I've long admired: San Francisco-based Salesforce.com, which creates online ("cloud") software for businesses. They've essentially built a "meta database," where their customers directly interact with database concepts, without needing a programmer to make it happen. Salesforce brought me out to do a technical talk about data design in non-relational databases, and I had a great experience meeting and talking with the team.

So it is with great excitement that I can now share that I've been hired by Salesforce.com to join the core engineering team, and work on the next generation of really tough data problems, andhopefullymake the world a better place. I plan on taking advantage of Salesforce's 1/1/1 policy to not only design and develop advances to data in the enterprise, but also to extend that work to non-profits who are themselves tackling even bigger problems, and can use all the help they can get taming and understanding their own data.

I'll continue blogging personal stuff here, but probably not much about my work, since, as a part of a public company, I can't discuss internal stuff without working through the standard communication channels. Besides which, I'll be up to my ears in java code, and you probably don't want to hear all about that. :)


Honeybear in Hibernation

Photo by Matt Strmiska

For the past 3 years, I've had the pleasure of playing with a talented group of guys known as Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. In that time, I've toured the world, played shows with everyone from the New York Dolls to Barack Obama, and performed for huge crowds at festivals (and even on TV). I joined the band just before their first big break (opening for a Spoon tour), and had no idea what I was getting into at the time--every time it seemed like we'd just done the most ridiculous thing possible, something even crazier popped up. They're a fantastic group of human beings, and great musicians as well.

Tonight (3/20/10), at the Austin Music Awards, will be my last show as an official member of the band. Over the years, life, in all of its amazing fortune, has interceded to make it rough for a thirtysomething guy like me to do hard touring with a bunch of whipper snappers like them. They've been awesome about letting me play just the "big shows" (thus, my nickname), but some new commitments in my life are making it harder to do even that. They show no signs of slowing down, and while I hope to still show up for the occasional gig or session, it's time to take my bow. If you're in Austin, I hope you can come see me off.


Draggin' A Mean Bar

In the fall, I took up a new instrument: the pedal steel guitar.

That's my current guitar - a slightly used Carter Starter.

"The what?" you might ask? Actually, if you're lucky enough to live in the world's finest city (Austin, TX) or know classic country music (e.g. Merle Haggard), you're not asking that, because you already know. But for the rest of you poor souls, I'll explain it.

The pedal steel guitar is the king of instruments. It's a horizontal guitar, played with a slide, and makes use of various pedals & levers to change the pitch on individual strings. It's got an ethereal tone, and is unique among instruments in that its configuration allows chords and harmonies to "morph" continuously from one to the next without interruption.

It is also maddeningly hard to learn, because you've got several dimensions to think about: bar position and angle, 3 foot pedals and 4 knee levers (which can be used in various combinations), 10 strings (usually played with 3 or 4 finger picks), and a volume pedal. It's kind of like playing chess on a unicycle at first.

Why am I learning pedal steel guitar? Because it's my favorite instrument to listen to, and because I love a challenge. I took a couple lessons (from Neil Flanz and Bob Hoffnar) to get the basics down, but I'm mostly self-taught; I've put in nearly 150 hours of practice so far, and am now vaguely passable as a backing player (though definitely not a soloist yet). When I started in September, my goal was to be stage-ready by South By Southwest.

And lo: here we are! I've already done my first gig, as a matter of fact - last week with my friends in Honky Kong at my favorite, Club Deville. That one was just to get the butterflies out, and did its job.

But now, for the world's most famousest music festival, I offer, for your enjoyment, 2 shiny new gigs, with yours truly draggin' bar. The first is TODAY (Monday, 3/15) at the Mohawk at 8:15pm, backing up singer/songwriter Trey Brown. It's part of the ATX Emerge party.

ATX Emerge

(I hear a pretty good soul band is playing later, too, but they don't have a pedal steel player, so ... whatever. :)

The second one is with my own new project, Branch & Steel, which is so hip that we don't even have a myspace page. It's comprised of me on the steel, and amazing guitarist John Branch, who will instead be playing piano. We'll be playing original compositions, pretty chill stuff, as part of the SoCo Freedom Rock party, which will also feature FREE MARGARITAS.

So, if you've a mind to hear the mighty brought low, here's your chance. See me now, before I start refusing to play to crowds smaller than 10,000 again. By my prediction, that should be happening by June or so.[1]

[1] June of 2057.


The Examined Life: 2009

2009 has been a well documented year for me[1]. All year, I've been tracking my time in 15 minute increments using Bubble Timer (as I said I would a year ago). Now, with a little SQL magic, I can look at my entire year in one picture:

Nifty, eh? Each data point is one week; each color is a different activity. I'm not saying what each color is, for my own privacy[2], but a couple of them are:
  • The blue on the bottom is "sleeping"
  • The top is "Other" (notice how it fills in the cracks to make most days pretty consistent)
  • Other stuff in the middle includes Work, School, Music, Dog Walking, Housework, Food, Exercise, Reading, Personal, Web Surfing, Entertainment and Hanging out. But not in that order.

It's fairly consistent over time, but things do change; for example, all spring and summer, I worked on my Masters Degree, and then it ended in August, after which time I moved on to spending (some of) that time learning Pedal Steel guitar:

(Blue (on the left) is time spent doing school work. Red (on the right) is time spent learning the new instrument.)

In addition to tracking my time by category, I also "tag" certain time, like time spent listening to music. When I looked at that, I saw a disturbing trend throughout the year:

What's up with that? Turns out that in the fall, I diverted a lot of my listening time into "listening while practicing" time (I often practice by playing along with music), which I didn't also tag as music listening time. When I add that back in, I get it moving to a nice steady state:

Of course, it's not just for tracking trends over time; I can also see patterns in how I spend my time during a single day. For example, here's a 24 hour plot of how I spend the majority of my time:

And my daily routines are evident (though still pretty flexible, as evidenced by the large spread):

Was all this effort worth it? Who cares, it's pretty. :)

Seriously, though, I do actually enjoy both the tracking (which keeps me mindful of how I spend my time) as well as the eventual analysis (which hopefully gets easier as time goes on).

What's up in 2010? A few things. First, in reading a book called Beautiful Data, I stumbled across this self-tracking web site:

It uses Twitter as a collection interface to let you track anything you want to (moods, hygiene, health, exercise, etc.). Been trying it out for a few days and I like what it does so far (it's got lots of visualizations built in - in fact, that's the focus of the research effort). I'll also continue using Livestrong (which I mentioned here, and recently got an Ajax-y revamp so it's easier to use). I'm also thinking about getting a Fit Bit, which automatically tracks all your movements and sleeping patterns using built-in accelerometers.

I also learned this year that I'm not the only person who's interested in tracking all of this stuff about my life. In fact, there's a burgeoning community of "Self Trackers", with blogs like The Quantified Self. So, while I am most certainly OCD about it, at least I'm not the only one.

[1] - Some might even say my year has been a little too well documented. And by "some" I mean "my wife". But I guess she should know, since I spent 34.8% of my waking time with her this year.

[2] - Or putting axes on the graph, so that nobody comes back and complains that I am, say, spending 300 hours a year playing video games. Not that I am.