Lorin Hochstein

Ramblings about software, research and other things

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Personal productivity tools

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Personal productivity tools

Productivity tools have always held a special fascination for me. I also tend to futz around with multiple tools, trying to find the perfect match for my workflow. My toolset has been pretty stable for several months now. Here’s what I’m currently using.


I’ve been a fan of Gettings Things Done for a long time. Of the various GTD-supporting tools I’ve found, I like OmniFocus the best. Useful features include:

  • Syncs well between laptop and phone
  • Easy to add to the inbox via keyboard shortcut in OS X
  • Easy to add to the inbox in the iOS app
  • Integrates with reminders on iOS, which means I can say to my watch “Remind me to do X” and “do X” ends up in my OmniFocus inbox
  • Per-project support for “serial tasks” (only one next action) and “parallel tasks” (multiple next actions). I use this all of the time.
  • I can put projects “on hold” and they don’t show up in current context. In particular, I have an on-hold “Someday” task which acts as a catch-all for things I don’t want to forget but that I don’t plan on doing in the near term.

My contexts are:

  • office
  • online
  • home
  • phone
  • work
  • waiting


VoodooPad is a personal wiki. It mainly has two uses: context for each project I’m working on (e.g., pastes of recent error messages), and reference pages for things like urls and commonly used code snippets or commands that I often forget.

I like how it’s free-form, and not just plain text. This means I can paste in images that are rendered inline, and I can render code and terminal output in fixed-width font, and my notes in variable-width font.

That being said, what I’d really like is some content system that lets me organize by a topic and by date, and VoodooPad only does by topic, but it’s the closest I’ve been able to find.

Emergent Task Planner

I use a notebook called the Emergent Task Planner to structure my day. I write down tasks that I’d like to accomplish that day and schedule them in chunks of time. I often don’t follow the specific schedule, but I find it helps if I take some time to think about what I’m going to try to accomplish, as well as explicitly scheduling out time for checking email so I’m less tempted to do that while working.

Ubiquitous capture tools

Getting Things Done has a notion of “ubiquitious capture”: being able to quickly capture content that you can come back to later. In addition to OmniFocus, I use a few other tools for ubiquitious capture:

Index cards

I keep a stack of index cards in my back pocket with a binder clip and along with a Fisher space pen. It’s often faster to scribble on an index card than to take out my phone. This was inspired by Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA.


When I encounter a book or academic paper I’d like to read, I clip it to CiteULike.


If I encounter an essay on the web I don’t have time to read, I use Instapaper to capture it for later . It has great Kindle support: every week it automatically emails the content to my Kindle Paperwhite.


I use Pinboard to bookmark reference material. I was a Delicious user for a long time, but Pinboard’s UX is so much better, than I’m happy to pay them for it rather than use Delicious for free.

Written by Lorin

July 3, 2016 at 8:37 pm

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When software takes a human life

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A Tesla driver was killed in a car crash while the Autopilot system was engaged. According to the news report:

Joshua D. Brown, of Canton, Ohio, died in the accident May 7 in Williston, Florida, when his car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t automatically activate its brakes, according to government records obtained Thursday.

These types of automative systems are completely outside my area of expertise. That being said, I imagine that validating this type of control system that relies on complex sensor data must be incredibly challenging. The input space is mind-bogglingly huge, so how do you catch these kinds of corner cases in testing?

The failure here is not due to a “bug” (or “defect” in academic software engineering jargon) in the traditional sense that we use the term. Yet, there clearly was a defect in this system, and the result was a human fatality.

I was also struck by this line:

Harley [an analyst at Kelley Blue Book] called the death unfortunate, but said that more deaths can be expected as the autonomous technology is refined.

I wonder if future deaths will lead to additional regulations on how software engineering work is done in domains like this.

Written by Lorin

July 1, 2016 at 1:26 am

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Ansible: Up and Running is out!

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My book on Ansible is now done! You can get the ebook today, print edition should be out in a few weeks.

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April 30, 2015 at 9:50 pm

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Ansible: Up and Running

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I’m writing a book about Ansible. You can grab a free preview version of the book that contains the first three chapters.


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November 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm

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Head banging odds ratio

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Here’s an idea for a software engineering empirical study. My first thought was to use this to compare the productivity of web frameworks (e.g., Django, Rails, …), but really it could be used for any software development framework or language.

Pick a random sample of, say, Django developers and Rails developers. Send participants text messages at random times during the week (ask them in advance which range of times it’s OK to text them). The text message says:

Are you currently programming in the (Django|Rails) framework and banging your head against the wall?

  • If yes, respond “1”
  • If currently programming but not banging your head against the wall, respond “2”
  • If not currently programming, respond “3”

At the end of the study, look at the ratio of “1” to “2” responses for each framework, to measure the odds ratio of “banging head against the wall : not banging head against the wall”.


Written by Lorin

June 4, 2013 at 10:03 pm

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Books I wish existed

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Here are some technical books I’d like to read:

  • OpenStack Networking: A Guide for the Perplexed
  • OpenStack Internals
  • PowerShell for Linux sysadmins
  • Debugging Web Apps with the Chrome Developer Tools

Unfortunately, these books don’t exist.

Written by Lorin

May 21, 2013 at 9:08 am

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Publications trump ideology

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Dylan Matthews interviews Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab”, which is about  how political campaigns are increasingly applying social science research techniques.

It turns out that Democrat campaigns tend to apply these techniques more than Republicans, unsurprisingly, since academic researchers with knowledge of these techniques tend to lean left. However, Matthews notes that a lot of the important research in this area was done during the campaign of Republican governor Rick Perry in 2006. And why is that? According to Issenberg:

The reason Perry developed that partnership is that he made them an unusual offer, which is that they could publish their work.

Via Kevin Drum.

Written by Lorin

November 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm

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