j.j. toothman

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Month: April 2010

Footnotes in blog posts

You may have noticed that I’ve started including footnotes in my blog posts.1

Know this: there’s a really good chance I’m going to grossly overuse these.

I haven’t done this in the past. Why start now?  Well, in whatever writing I’ve done2 whether its a business email, a message to my friends about the current state of the Red Sox3, or a letter to my grandmother, I’ve find that my mind wanders as I write.  Make that as I type4. I go off on brief tangents which I would often include in parentheses.  And it really broke up what I was writing into this distorted flow. Lots of sentences would start with stuff like, “But anyway, as I was saying…”

But there were a couple recent external influences in my current reading materials.  First, there’s John Gruber’s FANTASTIC blog, Daring Fireball.  I’m really enjoying his deep analyisis and long-form writing.  Most recently, his coverage of the iPad and the Apple vs. Adobe WWF cagefight.5.  I’m getting close to saying with full confidence that John Gruber is to tech blogging as Peter Gammons is to baseball writing. 

The second element is that I’ve started reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball.  In the foreward, Malcolm Gladwell of all people shines light on SImmons’ use of footnotes, mentioning “Oh, and read the footnotes.  Simmons is the master of the footnote.”  He’s right.  The footnotes are a must read in this book.  If you don’t read them, you’re going to miss out.

Ok, so we’re at word count of around 330 and I’ve got 5 footnotes.  See?  Told you I was going to overuse these.

Last thing.  Wondering how I’m generating the footnotes in my posts?  It’s a plugin called WP-Footnotes and more information can be found here.

  1. See? here’s a footnote now! 

  2. And to be clear: I am NOT a writer 

  3. current state: not too good, but it’s only April 

  4. I gave up handwriting pretty much anything other than my signature a few years ago.  Even letters to my grandmother.  The art of handwriting is being a sacrificed in the computing age.  But that’s probably another post 

  5. one of these companies has to be The Iron Sheik, I just haven’t figured out which yet 

Dick’s Picks

I’ve decided that I’m going to listen to all 36 volumes of The Grateful Dead Dick’s Picks series.  But in the order of show date.  Starting with Volume 26 (a pair of Tahoe shoes in 1968) and ending in Volume 27 (Oakland, 1992).

Dicks Picks Vol 1


In case you’re interested in the show order of all 36 volumes, here the chronological list:

Vol. 22: Lake Tahoe, 2/23 & 24/68
Vol. 26: Chicago & Minneapolis, 4/26-27/69
Vol. 16: Fillmore Aud, 11/8/69
Vol. 4: Fillmore East, 2/13-14/70
Vol. 8: Binghampton, 5/2/70
Vol. 35: San Diego, Chicago and Hollywood, August 1971
Vol. 2: Columbus, 10/31/71
Vol. 30: Academy of Music, NYC, 3/25 & 28/72
Vol. 23: Baltimore, 9/17/72
Vol. 36: Philadelphia 9/21/72
Vol. 11: Jersey City, 9/27/72
Vol. 28: Lincoln & Salt Lake City, 2/26 & 28/73
Vol. 19: Oklahoma City, 10/19/73
Vol. 14: Boston, 11/30/73 & 12/2/73
Vol. 1: Tampa, 12/19/73
Vol. 24: Cow Palace, 3/23/74
Vol. 12: Providence & Boston, 6/26 & 28/74
Vol. 31: Philadelphia & Jersey City, 8/4-6/74
Vol. 7: London, 9/9-11/74
Vol. 20: Landover & Syracuse, 9/25 & 28/76
Vol. 33: Oakland, 10/9 & 10/76
Vol. 29: Atlanta & Lakeland, 5/19 & 21/77
Vol. 3: Pembroke Pines, 5/22/77
Vol. 15: Englishtown, 9/3/77
Vol. 34: Rochester, 11/5/77
Vol. 10: Winterland, 12/29-30/77
Vol. 18: Madison & Cedar Falls, 2/3 & 5/78
Vol. 25: New Haven & Springfield, 5/10-11/78
Vol. 5: Oakland, 12/26/79
Vol. 13: Nassau Coliseum, 5/6/81
Vol. 32: Alpine Valley, East Troy , 8/7/82
Vol. 6: Hartford, 10/14/83
Vol. 21: Richmond, 11/1/85
Vol. 9: Madison Square Gardens, 9/16/90
Vol. 17: Boston, 9/25/91
Vol. 27 : Oakland, 12/16-17/92

Daring to be great at NASA

For almost a year, my LinkedIn profile has been headlined with the phrase “Looking for a dare to be great situation.”  And while that was partially me drawing more career inspiration from the wisdom of Lloyd Dobler, who doesn’t want greatness as part of their job?

Now, you can interpret greatness in a variety of ways. And over the years I have.  Some jobs have had great technical challenges.1   Or great people.2 And then there are those jobs that daring to be great is truly part of the cultural fabric and organizational mantra.  NASA is that kind of place.

And after two and a half years away, that’s one of the major reasons I’ve decided to return to NASA and work at Ames Research Center in Mountain View.3

It’s certainly not the only reason.  But it’s a big one.  When I was working with Ticketfly, I enjoyed working in a place that was thinking big.4  There are few places that think bigger than NASA.  What could be more daring than putting human beings into space?  This organization has sent people to the Moon.  And now NASA is pointing to Mars. 5

What I’ll be doing at NASA Ames

Well, my title is “Web Strategist.”  And my work will build upon what I did from 2001 to 2007.  I was involved in migrating some of our web solutions to open source.  And even launched Ames’ first official public blog using WordPress.  I actually helped define the requirements for the server that ended up hosting the content for the NASA iPhone app.  But what’s up first for me now is to come up with a strategic roadmap for the web at NASA Ames.  I’ll be taking a look a the overall web landscape at Ames and NASA.  Everything from the guts of the infrastructure(its actually fairly solid and bulletproof) to collaborations tools (big problems here – there aren’t great ones) to the user experiences (again good ones are few and far between).

So no, I’m not in astronaut training.  I doubt they’ll let go on one of the last few shuttle missions. 6  And I’m not designing rocket launch software or involved with aerodynamics testing.  But everyone involved with NASA has a part to play.  And all those parts feed into the various NASA missions.  My part is helping the NASA community utilize everything the web has to offer it.  As well as help the NASA community enrich the web so that it can offer back something back for others. 

Why it’s the right time for me to come back

OK. So I actually started two weeks ago.  It’s taken me a little bit to get my feet wet and truly feel like I’m back.  Onboarding new employees isn’t exactly this place’s strength.  I’m actually surprised that I wasn’t asked to pick a lock with a safety pin in order to start using my nasa.gov email address.  

I left in 2007 after 6 years of working in (mostly against) government bureaucracy.  At the time, I was feeling a bit jaded about NASA and needing a change of scenery.  Furthermore, I was finding it difficult to work on the progressive types of web projects I was interested in.  The web was exploding with new tools and APIs and I really wanted to tinker with them.  Working for 18 months at Stanford and the past year with startups allowed me that opportunity.  In the meantime, NASA – and particularly Ames Research Center – has evolved in many positive ways.  Some new leadership in the technical areas has emerged and those leaders had as much to do with my return as any.  The Nebula cloud computing initiative is one representation of the new forward type of thinking that has emerged in the NASA tech landscape.

The Obama administration is changing that landscape as well.  Come to think of it, it was about a year ago that I actually had a phone conversation with a White House official about working in the new media team of the executive branch.7  There’s clearly an evolved environment to try new things and break the status quo.  To be honest, that wasn’t always there before.  Things like OpenGov are refreshing to see. 8

Here’s a picture of my new “second home”.

  1. Still haven’t found the job that allows me to sit on the drink and drink vodka tonics all afternoon.  That would be pretty great, right? 

  2. OK, hopefully they all do.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the work environments without great people working in them are destined to crash-and-burn miserably 

  3. Full disclosure: I’m not a government civil servant.  I’m a federal government contractor working for Dell government services. 

  4. In Ticketfly’s case, they wanted to take a big bite out of Ticketmaster. 

  5. Yes, there’s a ton of controversy going on right now with the human spaceflight program.  Obama doesn’t want to go back to the Moon.  And plenty of people are pissed off about that. 

  6. Skyrocketing to the top of my bucket list: take my children to Florida to see a shuttle launch this summer. 

  7. At the time, Jude was 8 months old.  Honestly, a move to D.C. was the last thing on my mind. 

  8. NASA’s OpenGov plan is at http://www.nasa.gov/open/ 

OK blog, I’ve got some things to say

Hello blog.  Happy to see you’re still here. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.  Though if you thought that I had abandoned you for something like my posterous account, I could see that would be running through your database tables and php scripts.  Don’t worry.  I’m only using that for that for quick publishing photos and videos taken on my iPhone.

But I’m sure you’re wondering why no updates for since last Fall.  Let me bring you up to speed.

I spent the last half of 2009 working with a dot-com startup in San Francisco called Ticketfly. I told you about them before.  Working there was wonderful in so many ways.  I met a lot of great people and made some new friends.  I got to work with a lot of web technologies and social APIs that are right in my sweetspot of interests.  And it was about live music.  And you know how much I like that.

In so many ways, Ticketfly was a perfect match for me.  But in other ways, not so much.  As I write this I’m tuned into a live video stream of the Twitter Chirp Conference.  I’ve already heard a couple of the speakers talk about how working on a startup completely takes over your life.  I definitely found that to be the case in the last half of 2009.  Even though I was having a great time, other parts of my life were being impacted.  I have to admit that I was not completely self-aware of how little quality time I was spending with Mason and Jude.  The people at Ticketfly were great and super understanding of the demands of two children.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there were a million things to do there every single day.  Many of which simply couldn’t wait until a more convenient time.  And yes there were plenty of days when I left the Ticketfly offices in San Francisco around 4 to head down the coast to Half Moon Bay and pick up the boys from daycare.  And yes, I would get them home and spend dinner time with them.  But it didn’t take long for me to look at them and start thinking “OK, when are you two going to be ready for bed so I can open up the laptop and so work until 10 or 11 pm?” That’s no way to look at  your children.

Sure, Keturah is around to share the load, but she’s working with her own start up.  So it was a double whammy as the requirements on our time were constantly smashing into each other.  The Obama administration recently held the Workplace Flexibility Forum in which they talked about the “juggler family.”  Here’s an excerpt from The President’s remarks:

Today, two-thirds of American families with kids are headed by two working parents or a single working parent, and the result is the rise of what one expert I know refers to as “the juggler family.”  For these families, every day is a high wire act.  Everything is scheduled right down to the minute.  There’s no room for error.  If the car breaks down, or somebody gets sick, or there’s a problem at school, that begins a cascading domino effect that leaves everybody scrambling.

That’s our family.  Described with frightening perfection.  Except in addition to things like car break downs throwing us off course, Keturah and I were dealing with late afternoon meetings that started late and ran until well past 5 pm.  Or last minute phone calls.  And even worse, business calls to our cell phones while we were trying to enjoy a family dinner or read a bedtime story to our kids.

To say that our lifestyle was unsustainable is an understatement.  And something had to give.  So in January, when Ticketfly indicated that, due to budgetary constraints, they were going to be unable to continue to retain my consulting services, my initial reactions were of sadness and disappointment because of the fun work that it was and because of the good people that I was working alongside.  Good people who had become my friends.

In fact, it was so disappointing that I didn’t even say goodbye to them.  Nothing personal.  In fact, it was a pretty rude and immature move on my part.  But it was just something that I didn’t really want to do.  So I avoided it by slowly and quietly drifting away.

Sorry ‘Flyers.   You’re a great group of people and I have no doubt that you’ll help Ticketfly achieve greatness.  I wish you all nothing but the best.  Proud to call you all my friends.

And eventually, my disappointment washed away into relief and a true understanding of what I was really disappointed about in the first place: the recurring conflict of my personal and professional ambitions with the realities of being in a juggler family that includes two toddlers.   Living that existence is extremely difficult.  The challenges are extremely physical and emotional and they took a tool on me last year.  In addition to creeping close to exhaustion at times, healthy nutrition became a term completely lost on me, and exercise…does stretching on the couch count?

Ultimately the relief I felt was because a decision that I didn’t want to have to make was made for.  I had often said to Keturah in 2009 “I’m not so sure we can both be involved in startups AND raise these two kids AND keep our sanity. “

Now I know it sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not.  Yes, I did go to Vermont last Fall to visit some friends. And the last night pig roast was something only a bunch of idiotic college friends would do.  And in that same trip I went to Fenway for a playoff game with my parents.  And we had a wonderful family Tahoe trip a couple of months ago that included Mason’s first time on skis.

Yeah, there have been some good times.   But I want more of those.  So I’ve been making changes recently.  I’ve been regrouping the last couple of months.  I did dabble in a few freelance projects, but none were really what I was looking for long term.  Mostly I’ve been relaxing, spending time with my family, reading books (another thing that went in the waste bin last year), trying to eat better, and get myself on some exercise programs.  As you can tell from the lack of posting here and on Twitter and Facebook, I went into hibernation a bit.   I’ve talked with a few startups, but wasn’t looking to dive into the questionable work/life balances that came with those types of opportunities.  Being in a “juggler family” isn’t something I want to do long-term and I’m ready to tackle that from another angle.  This post is long enough.  I’ll write more on what’s next for me in my next post.

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