Loose Articles

a blog by Josh Dzielak

picture of Josh

Hi, I'm Josh, an engineer and entrepreneur living in San Francisco. I write about code, companies, and ideas. I work at Keen IO.
Find me on twitter and github.

Why I Ended My Open Source Contribution Streak At Burning Man (And What I’m Doing Next)

Streak and Burning Man are in the title but I assure you that this post is G-rated AND family-friendly.

As of August 23rd I had contributed to open source for 66 days in a row:

Github snapshot

Then, like any Whole Earth Catalog-carrying cybercounterculturalist living in San Francisco, I went to Burning Man.

I’m glad I did. 2014 was my 3rd and best year, thanks to this good-looking group of hard-working campmates:

Amazecamp Group Photo

<3

The Streak

The contribution streak started in June. The idea was to make at least one commit to open source software (OSS) for 365 days in a row.


My goals were to boost productivity and give back to a movement that has given me so much. I also wanted to inspire others to do the same.

To that end I tweeted my progress and I created the @oss365 Twitter account to recognize other “streaking” developers. It was cool. Other developers chimed in with stories about their progress:



As of today, October 30th, Lloyd is CRUSHING IT at 555 days!



Dieter a.k.a. ruleant is still going strong at 291! Coincidentally, he was just in SF this week from Belgium, so I had to buy him a beer:

Beers at Mikkeller

That’s us in the back. Also pictured is the Mild-Mannered Mustachio of Community, @elof, and a friend of Dieter’s.

Other developers chimed in with words of support and encouragement:



This stuff was really inspiring and validating. It made the decision to end the streak in August really difficult.

Cerebral Renovation

I had planned to keep the streak alive at Burning Man. I brought my laptop. There are camps with WiFi. I figured it would take about an hour a day.

But there on the playa, in the moment, even one hour a day is too much. It would have disrupted the flow and gotten in the way of the playa’s special, mind-remodulating magic.

Call it cerebral renovation, it’s a big reason I come to Burning Man. I can re-center myself by radically changing the context around me. The context at BM is delicate, however, and inviting in even a little of the default world can damage it.

So I decided to let the streak lapse on the first Sunday. A few hours later I was blissfully cruising the playa with, as Dustin would affectionally say, ”these dorks”:

This crew

How often do you get to ride bikes on the moon with your best friends? Not nearly enough.

Un-routine

I’m not the kind of person that streaks. I live a pretty routine-free life, complete with its fair-but-welcome share of interruptions. I haven’t had a 9-5 in forever, and even then it was consulting and travel every week – not exactly predictable.

Today the more open my calendar the less anxious I am and the more creative I’ll be. This is why a contribution streak was intriguing. It would be different and structured and challenging. I would learn something.

Learn I did. I reinforced an obvious-but-important belief that one commit leads to another. I learned that even I, the un-routiner, can increase my productivity by adding a little structure.

But I also learned that streaks are a dangerous thing for someone who lacks a real routine to hang them on. In the absence of routine context is allowed to shift freely, and streaks don’t appreciate these context switches. The resulting tension between continuity and spontaneity creates stress, and worse, it can be unfair to the original intent of the streak. What if I only made it 364 days? Is that a failure? No way. Compared to any lesser number of days it’s a victory, maybe a big one. More open source software still exists.

Streaking Alternatives

If streaking isn’t the right road to reward, than what is?

Streaks break a bold, abstract ambition down into concrete, bite-sized chunks. Small chunks are easier to start and easier to finish. This much we know.

But the oft-overlooked connection is that streaks are also a mnemonic, a memory aid. They’re a cheap and consistent way to remember that the bold, abstract ambition still stirrs. If I’m searching for a streak substitute, it has to be something that keeps the goal top of mind; something I’ll see all the time.

I think a strategically placed open source contribution dashboard could do just that. The dashboard would show stats like:

  • How many commits have I made so far this week? This month?
  • How many different projects am I committing to?
  • How many new stars or contributors do my projects have?

It’d be public too, so I can also play to my strengths of Competition and Significance.

Data Plus Dashboard

Since it’s no longer a daily streak, I’ll need something beyond just Github to track the data. I’ll use Keen!

Adventure Keen

I’m already tracking my Github activity in Keen using the github-webhook-collector utility I made a few months back. I can make the dashboard using the responsive templates that were just announced yesterday. Alex and I are going to pair on this next week when he’s in SF.

The next question is where to put it physically. A 55” display right next to my desk? Maybe not – that’s a little too much reminding. Of course if you want to buy me one I will consider it.

What about the New Tab screen in Chrome? Or I could use Pushpop to send me an email report of my metrics every so often.

There’s lots of possibilities and I’d love to hear any other ideas you have. The project will (obviously) be open source so you can set up your own contribution dashboard and contribute too.

Postscript

Thanks for wading through my personal journey of commit streaking! Come along for the rest of the journey in the upcoming weeks and months. My hope, true of anything I write, is that you find something that’s applicable or useful to you.

Whole Earth

I actually do own a bound copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog:

Whole Earth Catalog And I

It cost me more than $5, but it’s been worth every penny.

Access to tools.

No FOMO – Why newsletters are making a comeback

Welcome to 2014. The amount of content on social networks continues to explode beyond the capability of tools available to tailor and filter it. The extra noise blocks out valuable signal. Within every block of loosely-relevant tweets hides a highly relevant one, and too often we miss it.

Algorithm vs. Interface

This is frustrating. But what frustrates me more is that most companies are trying to solve this problem at the algorithm level rather than the interface level. Instead of getting tools you get recommendations.

Algorithms are achieving widely-touted local-maximums, like Eugune “passing” the Turing Test, but that doesn’t mean the average person’s life is improving any more than if they tried to achieve Her-like intimacy with Eugene the Chatbot:

Picture of Eugene

Not how I pictured ‘Her’

Eww.

Newsletters

The increase in social media noise in absence of filtering tools is why I’m happy to see some of my friends going back to the newsletter publishing model. I sign up, and I get an email at some frequency pushed to my inbox, where it remains until I address it.

Keep Calm and NO FOMO

Newsletters are active, not passive. I get the email even if I don’t check my email. Contrast that with Twitter, where not checking means missing. Heck, on Twitter, checking often still means missing plenty.

On the other hand, the email model does require that every message be dealt with. That is work. But for high-signal content like a great newsletter I’ll happily trade away FOMO for the occasional maintenance.

Let me tie this back to my earlier comments.

I’m a fan of giving people tools to control their own information destiny instead of trying to guess it for them. And as the tools and interfaces for working with inbound information get better it’s possible to widen the floodgates; to receive more without losing more.

Achieving inbox zero has gotten easier because of improvements in interfaces not algorithms. I have a swipe-to-act mobile mail app that makes postponing or archiving mail fast and easy. I have gmail filters. As a result I’m willing to let the world fire more at my inbox for the benefit of missing less.

Because email’s interface has gotten more advanced, subscribing to newsletters is proving to be a better system for me than checking Prismatic, creating Twitter lists, or tuning Facebook feeds. (Though I do think Prismatic is excellent for what it tries to do.)

In the long run I’ll bet on algorithms, but if I was solving this today I’ve be picking the low-hanging but very juicy fruit. I’d be hacking on interfaces that allow humans to do what humans are good at – determining relevancy in the blink of an eye.

My recent subscriptions

There are 6 newsletters I signed up for recently that ultimately inspired me to dash out this post. Allow me to acknowledge them:

  • Weissblog – Justin is a friend of mine from college and has been using Ruby & Rails since 2004. His latest post, Tips for Finding Rails Blogs at Your Level, is actually about finding signal in a blogosphere of noise.
  • Jon Gold’s Newsletter – Freelancer Jon Gold is using a newsletter for a totally different purpose: to tell you when he’s ready to take on his next gig.
  • gitat.me – Covers a broad array of open source projects, and the posts are short and to the point. Once a week, curated by my Twitter friend @nealrs.
  • The Endeavor – From the brilliant John D. Cook. Some of the math goes over my head, but the use of clever analogies like jigsaw puzzles makes sure any post is a proper thought experiment.
  • Crypto-gram – This one needs no introduction. Author Bruce Schneier is a premier security expert. Every commentary is clear, consise, and accessible to non-security experts.
  • Mattermark Daily – Hand-curated enrepreneurial content broken out into clear sections so you can quickly jump to what you’re interested in.

I also have subscribed recently to a few personal, private newsletters targeted at friends and family. Their authors see these as an alternative to Facebook or blogging, focused on creating 1:1 replies instead a stream of likes and comments in the semi-public forum. I’ve really enjoyed this format, and I think I’ve replied to every one of their posts so far with something to add.

Day 13 Open Source Update and Keen IO Milestone

Today is Day 13 of my 365-day Github contribution streak. I’m happy to say it’s going well, and I’ve already learned a lot.

Day 13 Streak Picture

I wrote a post yesterday on the Keen IO blog about what happened on Day 12. The post talks about my experience so far and announces a new command-line tool for Keen that emerged out of making just the one commit I needed for that day. (Well, I thought it’d be just one commit.)

Read the post for a quick tour of the tool, or head over to keenlabs/keen-cli on Github and see installation and usage instructions.

I’d also like to take a moment and highlight another post on the Keen IO blog. Today we announced a major milestone for our company. We’ve partnered with Aaref and the excellent team at Sequoia Capital to expand our mission of bringing custom analytics to everyone. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this ambitious, humble, and growing team.