What I did on my Winter Vacation

I just returned to the US after eight months living in Taiwan. The trip was great fun for me and my family. But more than that, it was a very productive time for me to learn new programming technologies.

Why was my trip so productive?

I think some of the reasons were:

  • I was away from my home computer set up (including video game consoles and a large TV). All I had was a Mac Mini (for the family to use), a MacBook Pro (for work) and a Nexus One phone.
  • I commuted by bus rather than car. While my commute time was longer, it was much more productive. Instead of having to concentrate on driving, I had 40 minutes a day of free time to think, web surf, and even code.
  • I didn’t follow local politics, and USA politics were made less interesting by distance and time zone. I stopped visiting political web sites and obsessing over current events.
  • The timezone difference between Taipei and the US ment that email became a once-a-day event, rather than a continuous stream of interruptions.
  • It’s more time-efficient to live as a guest in a city than as a home owner in the suburbs. For example, my mother-in-law cooked our meals, and I didn’t have nearly as many household chores as I do in America.
  • Location-based internet blocks ment that some of my favorite time-wasting web sites (Pandora, Hulu) were unavailable.
  • Having to explain and defend my technology opinions to my Google Taipei coworkers. “Go is a cool language” I would say. “Oh yeah? Why?” they would reply. I would struggle to explain, and usually both of us would end up more enlightened.

Beyond that, I think being in a new environment, and removed from my home, helped shake me loose from my mental ruts. I was learning how to live in a new physical environment, and that transfered over to how I used the web as well.

What did I do?

  • I visited Hacker News frequently. It is a very good source of news on the startup business and new web technologies. Hacker News was where I first learned about Node.js and CoffeeScript, two of my current interests.
  • I entered the Google AI Challenge, a month long Game AI programming contest. I didn’t place very high, but I had fun competing.
  • I gave two talks on the Go programming language. One at the Google Taiwan office, the other at the Open Source Developer Conference Taiwan OSDC.tw. Having to give a talk about a programming language helps increase one’s understanding of that language.
  • An afternoon spent hanging out with JavaScript Mahatma Douglas Crockford. I worked with Douglas ages ago when we both worked at Atari. It was great to catch up with him and his work. (He was in town to give a speech at the OSDC conference.)
  • I joined GitHub, and started using it to host my new open source projects.
    • I wrote Taipei-Torrent, a Bit Torrent client written in “Go”.
    • I started summerTorrent, a Bit Torrent client written in JavaScript, based on node.js
  • node.js - an interesting server-side JavaScript environment.
  • CoffeeScript - a JavaScript preprocessor that looks like a promising language.
  • PhoneGap - a cross-platform mobile JavaScript / HTML5 UI framework. I wrote a word scramble game using this framework.
  • DD-WRT routers. I bought four new DLink 300 routers (which are dirt cheap), installed DD-WRT on them, and used them to upgrade my Taiwan relatives’ computer network.
  • My nephew bought a PS3, so I finally had a chance to see Little Big Planet and Flower, two games I had long wanted to know more about. I also got to see a lot of Guitar Hero being played. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to actually play any of these games – someone else always had a higher claim on the TV.

Keeping the Taipei Experience Alive

I’m back in the US, and am already starting to slip back into my old ways. Here are some ways I’m trying to keep my productivity up:

  • Cool side projects.
    • I’m going to continue to work on side projects to learn new things. I want to do something serious with CoffeeScript and Node.js.
    • iPad. I’m getting one in a few weeks, and looking to see if its a useful paradigm.
  • Get rid of distractions.
    • I’m selling off (or just closeting) distractions like my older computers and my media center.
    • I edited my /etc/hosts file to block access to all my top time-wasting web sites. Hopefully I won’t just replace these with a new generation of web sites.
  • Working at home. My work office here in the US is just too noisy for me to concentrate in. I’m going to start spending as much time as possible working from a quiet room at home.
  • Regular exercise. I got a lot of walking done in Taiwan. I’m going to take up running again. (Easy to do now, we’ll see how it goes when the weather gets rough.)
    • I may even get a pair of “Gorilla Shoes” for barefoot running.