Jake McCrary

Using Bazel to help fix flaky tests

Flaky tests are terrible. These are tests that pass or fail without anything changing in the code. They often pass the majority of the time and fail rarely. This makes them hard to detect and cause developers to often just run the tests again.

Flaky tests erode your team’s confidence in your system. They cause folks to get in the habit of not trusting the output of tests. This discourages people from writing tests as they stop seeing them as something that improves quality and instead view them as a drag on productivity.

Flaky tests are often hard to fix. If they were easy to fix, they wouldn’t have been flaky in the first place. One difficulty in fixing them is that the failures are often hard to reproduce.

Often, the first step in fixing a flaky test is to write a script to run the tests multiple times in a row. If you are using Bazel as your build tool you don’t need to write this.

Here is an example bazel1 command for helping you recreate flaky test failures.

bazel test --test_strategy=exclusive --test_output=errors --runs_per_test=50 -t- //...

The above command is running all the test targets in a workspace and each flag is important.

  • --runs_per_test=50 is telling Bazel to run each test 50 times.
  • --test_output=errors is telling Bazel to only print errors to your console.
  • -t- is a shortcut for --nocache_test_results (or --cache_test_results=no). This flag tells Bazel to not cache the test results.
  • --test_strategy=exclusive will cause tests to be run serially. Without this, Bazel could run your test targets concurrently and if your tests aren’t designed for this you may run into other failures.

Flaky tests are terrible and you should try not to have them. Try your best to have reliable tests.


  1. I’ve written this while using Bazel 3.2.0. If you are reading this far in the future the flags may have changed.

How to be automatically notified when long running processes finish

Let me set the stage. I kick off the compilation of a large Scala codebase. This will take minutes to finish, so I switch to Slack and catch up on what coworkers have posted. Someone posted an interesting link and I follow it to an article. Fifteen minutes later, I notice the compilation finished twelve minutes ago. I silently grumble at myself, disappointed that I didn’t start the next step twelve minutes ago.

Has some variation of the above happened to you?

It doesn’t happen to me anymore because now my computer tells me when any long running process finishes. This might sound annoying but it is great. I no longer feel guilty1 for dropping into Slack and can immediately get back to the task at hand as soon the process finishes.

I’ve done this by enhancing on my setup for showing the runtime of the previous command in my prompt. You don’t have to read that article for the rest of this one to make sense, but you should because it shows you how to add a very useful feature to your prompt.

Below is the code that causes my computer to tell me when it finishes running commands that takes longer than 30 seconds. It is found in my ~/.bashrc. An explanation follows the code snippet.

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# Using https://github.com/rcaloras/bash-preexec
preexec() {
  _last_command=$1
  if [ "UNSET" == "${_timer}" ]; then
    _timer=$SECONDS
  else
    _timer=${_timer:-$SECONDS}
  fi
}

_maybe_speak() {
    local elapsed_seconds=$1
    if (( elapsed_seconds > 30 )); then
        local c
        c=$(echo "${_last_command}" | cut -d' ' -f1)
        ( say "finished ${c}" & )
    fi
}

precmd() {
  if [ "UNSET" == "${_timer}" ]; then
     timer_show="0s"
  else
    elapsed_seconds=$((SECONDS - _timer))
    _maybe_speak ${elapsed_seconds}
    timer_show="$(format-duration seconds $elapsed_seconds)"
  fi
  _timer="UNSET"
}

# put at the bottom of my .bashrc
[[ -f "$HOME/.bash-preexec.sh" ]] && source "$HOME/.bash-preexec.sh"

Bash-Preexec triggers the preexec, immediately before a command is execute, and precmd functions, immediately before the shell prompt reappears. Those two functions are enough to figure out how much time has elapsed while a command ran. You setup Bash-Preexec by downloading bash-preexec.sh and sourcing it in your ~/.bashrc.

preexec is passed the command being ran and it captures it in _last_command. It also captures the current number of seconds the shell has been running as _timer.

precmd uses the value in _timer to calculate the elapsed time in seconds and then calls the function _maybe_speak with this as an argument. It also does the work required for showing the elapsed time in my prompt.

If the elapsed time is greater than 30 seconds then _maybe_speak uses cut to discard the arguments of captured command, leaving me with the command itself. It then uses say to produce an audible alert of what command just finished. I discard the arguments because otherwise the say command can go on for a long time.

say is a tool that ships with macOS. I haven’t gotten around to it yet but I’ll need to use something else on my Linux machines.

You may have noticed that I run say in the background and in a subshell. Running it in the background lets me continue interacting with my shell while say finishes executing and running it in a subshell prevents text from appearing in my shell when the background job finishes.

With this setup, I can kick off a slow compile or test run and not feel so bad about dropping into Slack or reading Reddit. It is wonderful and I’d recommend it (though, I’d more strongly recommend not having commands that take a while to run).


  1. I still feel a little guilty as doing so will break any momentum/flow I had going on, but that flow was already broken by the slowness of the command.

How to hang a hangboard using a doorway pull-up bar

If you’ve browsed the adventure section of my website you know I’m a climber. Currently, the climbing gyms in Chicago are closed due to COVID-19 concerns. This has put a damper on my training but I own a hangboard and have been able to keep training my fingers at home.

A hangboard allows you to apply stress to your fingers in a measured and controlled fashion. It is a vital tool for a climber who is serious about getting stronger. It is also a great rehab tool for coming back from injuries.

Below is my hangboard.

Hangboard mounted using hooks and a pull-up bar

As you can see from the photo, I’ve hung mine using a doorway pull-up bar and a bunch of hooks. This lets me easily take it down and causes no permanent damage to anything in my apartment. The towels are there to make sure the door frame isn’t crushed by any of the hard pieces.

Originally, I followed this video to mount it using some pipe and shoving the pipe into the pull-up bar. This setup made me uncomfortable as the forces on the pull-up bar were far away from the intended location. This resulted in a lot of flexing and I was concerned about how the pull-up bar was acting on the frame.

I searched online for other ideas and saw a setup that used hooks. This was appealing to me as it moves your weight under the bar. A quick trip to Home Depot and a bit of easy construction and now I can keep up my finger strength when stuck at home. Here are the steps to build one.

  1. Buy a 2 inch x 10 inch wood board (or some other 2 inch x N inch board that is big enough for whatever you want to attach to it).
  2. Cut the board so it spans the width of your doorway plus a few extra inches. Home Depot can do this for you.
  3. Mount your hangboard to the board.
  4. Take hooks, typically used for hanging bicycles up in a garage, and screw them into the top of your 2-in x 10-in.
  5. Hang the hooks over the pull-up bar. Adjust the hooks so each is pulling on the bar.
  6. Find some padding, I used towels, and put the padding between the door trim and other hard surfaces.
  7. Hang on your hangboard and get stronger.

The board and hook method was much easier to construct than the other pull-up bar method and feels much more solid. The pull-up bar isn’t rated for too much weight, so I’m not going to do any super heavy, two-handed hangs but it is plenty solid for other hangboard exercises.

If you’re a climber and don’t want to permanently mount a handboard, I’d highly recommend this. If you don’t own a hangboard, I pick up something from Tension Climbing. Their wooden boards are easy on the finger tips and have all the edge sizes you’ll need.

Using Bash-Preexec for monitoring the runtime of your last command

My article on putting the runtime of your last command into your bash prompt is one of my most surfaced-by-google articles. Why is this a great to your prompt? To quote my previous article:

I’m fairly certain the following scenario has happened to every terminal user. You run a command and, while it is running, realize you should have prefixed it with time. You momentarily struggle with the thought of killing the command and rerunning it with time. You decide not to and the command finishes without you knowing how long it took. You debate running it again.

For the last year I’ve lived in a world without this problem. Upon completion, a command’s approximate run time is displayed in my prompt. It is awesome.

I’ve been living without the above problem since sometime in 2014 and not having that problem is still awesome.

I have made some changes since 2014.

One change was switching to using Bash-Preexec instead of directly using trap and $PROMPT_COMMAND for calling functions to start and stop tracking runtime. Bash-Preexec lets you trigger a function (or multiple) right after a command has been read and right before each prompt.

The usage is pretty straight forward. In the most basic case, you source bash-preexec.sh and then provide functions named preexec, which is invoked right before a command is executed, and/or precmd, which is invoked just before each prompt. bash-preexec.sh can be downloaded from its repo. The changes required to move to Bash-Preexec pretty pretty minimal.

The other change was introducing the script, format-duration by Gary Fredericks, to humanely format the time. This script converts seconds into a more readable string (example: 310 to 5m10s)

Here is a screenshot of everything in action (with a reduced prompt, my normal one includes git and other info).

Command line prompt showing runtimes of previous commands

Below is a simplified snippet from my .bashrc that provides runtimes using both of these additions.

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preexec() {
  if [ "UNSET" == "${timer}" ]; then
    timer=$SECONDS
  else
    timer=${timer:-$SECONDS}
  fi
}

precmd() {
  if [ "UNSET" == "${timer}" ]; then
     timer_show="0s"
  else
    the_seconds=$((SECONDS - timer))
    # use format-duration to make time more human readable
    timer_show="$(format-duration seconds $the_seconds)"
  fi
  timer="UNSET"
}

# Add $last_show to the prompt.
PS1='[last: ${timer_show}s][\w]$ '

# a bunch more lines until the end of my .bashrc
# where I include .bash-preexec.sh
[[ -f "$HOME/.bash-preexec.sh" ]] && source "$HOME/.bash-preexec.sh"

No more wondering about the runtime of commands is great. Introducing format-duration made reading the time easier while Bash-Preexec made reading the implementation easier. I highly recommend setting up something similar for your shell.

A retrospective format for remote or co-located teams

See all of my remote/working-from-home articles here.

Retrospectives are a useful type of meeting to have periodically with your team. There are many different formats of retrospectives.

One of them can be summarized in the following steps:

  1. Gather the team together
  2. Set the stage
  3. Brainstorm answers to the questions What went well? and What needs improvement?
  4. Discuss the answers

Let’s talk about each step and see how each works with an co-located or remote team.

Step 1: Gather the team

This step is self explanatory. If you are an in-person team, then this is gathering everyone together in a room for some allotted about of time. If you are a remote team, or have remote folks on your team, then this is gathering everyone together in a video conference.

Preferably everyone in the retro is communicating in same way. This means if anyone is remote, it is preferable that everyone join the video conference from their own computer instead of using a single screen and video from a shared conference room. My earlier article about tips for remote meetings goes into more details on this topic.

Everyone using the same communication method puts everyone on the same page and dramatically improves the experience for the remote folks. With a mixed group, we’ll want to use some remote collaboration tools anyway, so it is useful for everyone to have their own computer with them. They might as well use it for video communication as well.

Step 2: Set the stage

This part doesn’t differ between an entirely in-person meeting, mixed, or entirely remote meeting.

Take the time to set the stage for the meeting. Remind everyone that we’re here to improve and to listen with an open mind. Remind everyone to try to not make things personal and not take things personally. This is a good time to read the Prime Directive.

This is also a good time to set the boundaries of the discussion. What is the retrospective covering? Is it covering the last few weeks? The last quarter? The new working from home experience? Pick a topic so everyone in the meeting focuses on the same things.

Step 3: Answer the questions

In this step, we will answer the questions What went well? and What needs improvement? and use those answers for discussion in the remainder of the meeting. Timebox this step to 5 to 10 minutes.

In an in-person setting, this is often done through the use of Post-it notes. Give each attendee a marker and a stack of notes and have each person write down as many answers as they can come up with, one per post-it note, to the two questions. Dedicate a section of a whiteboard or wall for each question and have people bring the generated answers to the respective sections. Try to group the answers by topics.

With a remote meeting, you don’t have the physical whiteboard and cards. That is perfectly fine! Once you figure out your remote collaboration tools, this part of the retrospective isn’t difficult.

I’ve mostly done remote retrospectives using Trello. Trello works great for this as it is multi-user and does a great job of presenting lists to a group. Here is how previous teams I’ve worked with setup Trello for remote retrospectives.

First, make a Trello board and make sure everyone has an invite to view and edit the board. Second, add the following columns to the board.

First three columns before any cards

The first column is for Step 2 of the process and is there to remind everyone why we’re all spending time in this meeting.

Columns two and three are used in this step. Have attendees add cards to these columns as they come up with answers If anyone notices duplicates during this time frame, move them near each other by dragging them up or down in the column. If you notice someone else has already put a card that you’d put up there, don’t bother putting it down again (this differs from the in-person meeting).

First three columns with cards before voting

[remote only] Step 3.5: Vote on cards

This step sneaks into the remote retrospective and is missing from the in-person retro. In the in-person retro, duplication of post-it notes serves as this voting stage.

Once all the answers have been generated, or time is up, it is time to vote on what will be discussed in the next step. Only have people vote on the What needs improvement? answers.

There are at least two ways of doing this in Trello but my favorite is having attendees hover their mouse cursor over the card and then hit space bar1. This sticks their avatar on the card (in Trello speak, I believe this is called joining a card). You can either restrict folks to a certain number of votes, say 3, or let them go wild and vote as many times as they want. I haven’t found the outcomes to be much different and find infinite votes more fun.

First three columns with votes

Once voting is finished (again, timer or when it seems to have reached an end), have one person sort the cards by number of votes with the highest votes at the top of the list.

First three columns with cards sorted by votes

Step 4: Discuss the answers

With in-person or remote retros, go over the answers to What went well? first. This starts the discussion with positive feelings. This part usually goes pretty fast as we’re just celebrating wins and not having a long discussions about them.

Next, start discussing the answers to What needs improvement?

For each topic being discussed, set a five minute timer. At the end of the five minutes, do a quick poll of the attendees on if the topic should be continued or not. If it should be continued, start a three minute timer and continue discussion. At the end of those three minutes, repeat the vote for continuing or not.

Throughout the discussion, try to be mindful of people dominating conversation and give everyone a chance to voice their thoughts. Try to figure out some next steps to take to actually start making improvements on what needs to be improved.

The above is generic advice for remote or in-person retros. When you’re running a remote retro using Trello, it can be useful to do the following as well.

You should add two more columns, Next Steps and Discussed, to the right of the What needs improvement? column.

Additional columns added to board

Since your cards are sorted in the What needs improvement? column, you’ll always be talking about the top card. As discussion finishes, move it from the top of the What needs improvement? column into the Discussed column. As Next Steps are discovered, add cards to the Next Steps column and assign the people responsible for following up to the card. Below is an example of those three columns after discussing two cards.

Final state of last three columns

When voting on continuing discussion or not, it can be useful to have a hand signal for taking the vote and for continuing or ending the discussion. We’d do a quick thumbs up or thumbs down and if half the team wants to keep going then we’d seamlessly start the next timer.

Conclusion

Retrospectives can be a very handy tool for a team’s continuous improvement. If time isn’t provided for reflecting, then reflecting does not happen and this makes improving harder.

Remote retrospectives provide a challenge since most of us only have experience using physical sticky notes or whiteboards for collecting answers. We don’t need to recreate the same form factor for remote retrospectives. Using remote collaboration tools, such as Trello, that don’t recreate the sticky-note-on-wall experience can lead to initial confusion but, once familiar with them, the experience is pleasant and allows for greater participation.

How is participation increased? Well, in an in-person retrospective you often are unable to read what everyone else has stuck up on the wall because of physical distance. With a remote retro, you’re able to read every answer added to the lists.

Don’t be afraid of running a remote retrospective. They can be incredibly useful.


  1. The alternative method I’m aware of is to use a Trello Power-up to enable voting on cards. But why bother doing this when you can just stick faces on cards.

More working from home tips

See all of my remote/working-from-home articles here.

With the the new coronavirus spreading through the world, more people are either choosing or are being forced to work from home. From 2013 to 2018, the companies I worked for were entirely remote. For the rest of my professional career, 2007 to 2013 and 2018 to now (March 2020), I’ve also frequently worked from home.

I’ve managed to be very effective at it and I think others can be as well.

After years of working in an office, transitioning to working from home isn’t easy. I had difficulty with the transition and people I’ve mentored have as well. I think most people will be able to be effective at home, assuming their workplace is supportive, if they try to get better at it. With a supportive company or team, once you get used to working from home you probably find yourself getting more done.

The key word in the sentence “I’m working from home” is working. You are going to be working where you spend a lot of your non-work time. This can be a difficult mental transition. Physically switching to an office environment can help switch your brain into work mode and now you no longer have that. Don’t worry, it might feel rough in the beginning but you will get better at it.

I’ve written more articles about working remotely and I’d recommend you read those as well. This article is primarily targeted at the person not making a permanent change in their work from home status. My Guide to Distributed Work is a bit more targeted at someone that is permanently choosing to work at home or in a position of power to influence work from home policies at a company. I’d recommend that you read it as well as many of the subjects it talks about are generally applicable. It steps through some of the pros and cons of remote work and links to other writing on the topic.

Below is a hodgepodge of tips for working from home.

Setup a home workspace

In my years of remote work, I’ve always managed to have a dedicated space for work. In some apartments, this was a corner of a room where I put a desk and faced a wall. In other apartments, I’ve been privileged enough to have a dedicated room for an office.

If you aren’t planning on working from home permanently, or very frequently, then you probably don’t want to spend a significant amount of money setting up a work area. This probably means you don’t want to find a home with a dedicated office and you may not want or be able to dedicate a portion of a room to a desk1.

Whatever your living arrangement is, I’d encourage you to figure a way to have a regular spot to work at while you are working. Having a regular spot to work from will help your brain turn on and off from work mode.

Setting up a home workspace can be as low cost as using a tv tray or folding table2 with a chair. Your setup could be as elaborate as getting a height adjustable desk with large monitors. It could be something else entirely.

Find something that works for you and stick with it.

Beyond a dedicated space to work, make sure you have a reliable internet connection. If you can, use Ethernet as it is generally better than WiFi. I’ve never had a situation where I could use Ethernet and have found that having a good router is enough to make my WiFi reliable.

Discuss boundaries and expectations with your cohabitants

If you live with others that will be at home while you need to work, you should have a discussion with them about boundaries. You are at home to do work and that expectation needs to be set. You may be able to do some household chores during breaks or take other breaks with cohabitants but everyone in your living area needs to understand you are at home to work.

If you have children that might have a particularly hard time with this, it can be useful to use some sort of physical signaling device (examples: a closed door, a light bulb being on, a closed curtain, headphones on) that you should not be interrupted.

Minimize distractions

This one is obvious but try to minimize distractions. Don’t try to sit on your couch with the TV on and do work. You won’t be doing great work.

If your home is loud and you have difficulty in a loud space, wear some ear plugs or noise canceling headphones.

If cohabitants are distractions, refer to the above section and have that discussion with them about needing space. One technique for dealing with interrupting cohabitants is to schedule time throughout your day for them. You can use these scheduled times as breaks through out your working day.

If you try to get some household chores done while working at home, make sure you schedule time for doing them. This could be putting the time on your calendar or simply setting a timer when taking a break. Regardless of the method, when your time is up, get back to work.

I’ve often found that finishing a short, simple household task can actually jump-start finishing more complicated work tasks. Using that momentum from the household chore can make accomplishing work tasks easier.

Having difficulty starting a work task?

Sometimes it is hard to start a task. It can be especially hard if you are new to working at home and not used to working in your environment.

One technique I’ve found useful is the Pomodoro technique. The steps to this technique are below.

  1. Pick a task.
  2. Set and start a timer (usually for 25 minutes).
  3. Focus intensely on the task for the duration of the timer.
  4. Make a mark on a piece of paper
  5. If you have fewer than four marks on the paper, take a 5 minute break and then go back to step 2.
  6. If you have four marks on the paper, then take a 15 minute break and go back to step 1.

I don’t follow those steps strictly and mostly use the trick of setting a timer for focused work. If at the end of the timer I feel like continuing, I’ll reset the timer. If I need a break, I’ll set the timer for a short period of time and take a break.

It was mentioned above, but sometimes doing a small, easy task can jump-start knocking out TODOs. This small, easy task could be something work related or some simple chore around the house.

Be mindful of your communication

Text communication is hard. It is often taken more negative than intended. Be mindful of that.

Try to take what your coworkers write in the most positive way possible.

Try to be careful with your own written communication. It sounds ridiculous but emojis can help make you look like less of a jerk and set a friendly tone.

Don’t hesitate to jump on a video or voice call with someone (or a group). Video is a much higher quality interaction than voice and both are much higher quality than text. The downside is the communication isn’t persistent so be sure to write down outcomes of conversations.

Sync up with your team

Try to sync up with your team (if you don’t have a team, sync up with someone else from the company) at a regular interval. This should probably be at least once every couple days but it can be more regularly. I usually once a day.

It can be easy to feel like an island when you are part of a remote group. Regular sync-ups help reduce that feeling.

Collaborate remotely

Most video conference software allows you to share your screen with others. Some of them even allow others to take control of your machine or treat your screen as a whiteboard.

Take advantage of these features. After learning how to use them, these features can often make remote collaboration as productive as in-person collaboration.

Using technology, you can even pair program with someone from another city.

Google Docs is another great remote collaboration tool. The best meetings I have been part of were meetings where every attendee was editing a shared Google Doc.

Video Meetings

When possible, have video meetings over voice only conference calls. The addition of body language through video makes remote conversations much better.

You might want to introduce hand gestures for signaling during video meetings3. On a former team, we had the practice of raising a finger4 when you wanted to speak. This practice helped prevent people from interrupting and speaking over each other. It also let quieter people jump into conversations easier.

As far as I can tell, Zoom is still the winner in terms of video conferencing.

I also recommend using a headset with dedicated microphone for talking through your computer. The sound quality is usually better than using the built-in microphone.

End

It can be difficult to get good at working from home. It is definitely a skill that is learned through experience and reflection. If you have any questions about working remotely, feel free to reach out on twitter or through email.

Working from home can be a great experience.


  1. A desk can be any table that you can work on that is comfortable for a reasonable amount of time. It doesn’t have to be what someone would typically think of as a desk.

  2. I used a table like this for years in college and when working an internship.

  3. These are also useful for in-person meetings.

  4. No, not the middle finger.

Auto-syncing a git repository

I’m currently keep notes on my computer using plain text and Org mode.

I keep my notes in a git repository in my home directory, ~/org/. I want my notes to be synced between my computers without me thinking about it. Historically, I’ve reached for something like Google Drive or Dropbox to do this but this time I reached for git and GitHub.

Below is the script that I ended up cobbling together from various sources found online. The script pushes and pulls changes from a remote repository and works on my macOS and linux machines.

The loop starting on line 38 does the work. Whenever a file-watcher notices a change or 10 minutes passes, the loop pulls changes from a remote repository, commits any local changes, and pushes to the remote repository. The lines before this are mostly checking that needed programs exist on the host.

I keep this running in a background terminal and I check periodically to confirm it is still running. I could do something fancier but this isn’t a critical system and the overhead of checking every couple days is nearly zero. Most of the time checking happens by accident when I accidentally maximize the terminal that runs the script.

I’ve been using this script for a long time now and I’ve found it quite useful. I hope you do too.

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#!/bin/bash

set -e

TARGETDIR="$HOME/org/"

stderr () {
    echo "$1" >&2
}

is_command() {
    command -v "$1" &>/dev/null
}

if [ "$(uname)" != "Darwin" ]; then
    INW="inotifywait";
    EVENTS="close_write,move,delete,create";
    INCOMMAND="\"$INW\" -qr -e \"$EVENTS\" --exclude \"\.git\" \"$TARGETDIR\""
else # if Mac, use fswatch
    INW="fswatch";
    # default events specified via a mask, see
    # https://emcrisostomo.github.io/fswatch/doc/1.14.0/fswatch.html/Invoking-fswatch.html#Numeric-Event-Flags
    # default of 414 = MovedTo + MovedFrom + Renamed + Removed + Updated + Created
    #                = 256 + 128+ 16 + 8 + 4 + 2
    EVENTS="--event=414"
    INCOMMAND="\"$INW\" --recursive \"$EVENTS\" --exclude \"\.git\" --one-event \"$TARGETDIR\""
fi

for cmd in "git" "$INW" "timeout"; do
    # in OSX: `timeout` => brew install coreutils
    # in OSX: `fswatch` => brew install fswatch
    is_command "$cmd" || { stderr "Error: Required command '$cmd' not found"; exit 1; }
done

cd "$TARGETDIR"
echo "$INCOMMAND"

while true; do
    eval "timeout 600 $INCOMMAND" || true
    git pull
    sleep 5
    STATUS=$(git status -s)
    if [ -n "$STATUS" ]; then
        echo "$STATUS"
        echo "commit!"
        git add .
        git commit -m "autocommit"
        git push origin
    fi
done

Reading in 2019

At the beginning of every year I reflect on the previous year of reading. I take a look at my records, fix errors, and think about reading goals for the upcoming year.

Here are links to my previous end-of-year reflections: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

I’ve continued to keep track of my reading using Goodreads. My profile has nearly the full list of the books I’ve read since 2010. This is my 2019.

2019 Goal

I have a stack of software and process books and I’d like to read through at least some of them (others are more reference books). I’m also going to bring over the 2018 goal of reading at least one book on writing. In a more general sense, I’m hoping to put some practices together that help me gain more from the books I’m reading. I’m still thinking through what that means. - Me last year

That was my goal for 2019. In list form it looks like this:

  1. Read some software or process books
  2. Read at least one book on writing
  3. Try to develop practices for getting more from books I’ve read

I read eight books related to the first goal and two (or three if I count an iffy one) related to the second. That is enough where I feel pretty good about claiming I accomplished the first two goals.

I mostly failed on the third goal. I was more aggressive about highlighting notes in my Kindle and I did occasionally look back at them. Beyond that I didn’t do anything.

Highlights

Here are my five star books from 2019. The titles are affiliate links to Amazon, so if you click one of those and make a purchase I get a small kickback1.

Accelerate: Building and Scaling High-Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim

This is a stellar book on practices of technology organizations that help build high performing companies. If you work at a company that produces software in any capacity, I’d highly recommend this book. This is a book that I’ve recommended to any coworker looking, and some not looking, for book recommendations.

Elements of Clojure by Zachary Tellman

This book has Clojure in the title but it is applicable to more than that language. The book was published a section at a time and as a result I’ve read parts of it many times. The content clearly shows that Zach has put a lot of thought into the topic.

A Tour of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup

I’ve written C++ off and on since I started programming nearly 20 years ago. Over those years, I’ve seen C++ transform as new versions were released. Earlier in 2019, I was starting to write C++ again and this book was recommended by a coworker. I had last written C++ back in 2013 and this book was a perfect way to refresh my stuck in early 2013 knowledge. There is no fluff in this book and it is full of useful information.

Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor

This is a tough read. It isn’t tough because of difficult writing. It is tough because it makes you depressed until you power through and reach the end.

This book delivers a very cynical look at corporations. It provides guidelines for getting ahead and climbing the corporate ladder.

Then the book promotes an alternative approach, that of doing your own thing and going independent. It makes a good case of it.

Beware of this one, it might make you question what you are doing with your career and life.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

There is a common theme of awareness throughout many of the books I read and this book hits that theme. This book can help you become a more thoughtful user of technology. There are many useful recommendations in this book. One of them is the suggestion that you can use social media and other technology differently than how the creators want you to use it. In 2019 I wrote about how I use social media which shows how I apply this idea.

Effective Java by Joshua Bloch

I’ve read earlier editions in the past and decided to read the latest edition when it seemed like I’d be writing Java again. This book is still good and a must read if you work with Java.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

This book covers a lot of ground.

Here is a quote from my friend Steven Deobald about this book.

Through stories and anecdotes woven into his almost unbelievably extensive research as a historian, “21 Lessons” is perhaps as entertaining and insightful as any other book I’ve read. It is accessible to anyone and the ideas presented regarding the fate of our species are stitched together beautifully. The arc of the 21 chapters has a progressive, almost orchestral, quality to it. Each chapter builds on all those which precede it and although some chapters have surprisingly variable writing styles, none feels like Harari is attempting to showboat or to force his medium into the overly artistic.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

This was a pleasure to read. I like reading books about writing and this is a good one that talks about McPhee’s approach towards creative non-fiction.

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk and Going Beyond Limits by Tommy Caldwell

What can I say? I’m a sucker for books on climbing and learning more about the icons of the sport I love. If you’ve watched the movie The Dawn Wall then some of this will be familiar to you.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

This is a great book. Go read the Goodreads page and pick it up.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book and I’m glad she did. It tells the story of the AIDs epidemic in Chicago. This is a great piece of writing. I’m not surprised at all that it has won many awards.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

This book is great. The satire just drips off the pages. There are passages in this book where you can just feel the anxiety of the characters.

Every character is despicable and it is wonderful.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

This was my second time reading this book. It is an excellent collection of short stories.

The first time I read this book, in 2016, I read the stories in order. This time I took advantage of the Kindle’s estimate of how long a chapter would take and I jumped around, picking out stories that fit how long I wanted to read. Both ways of reading this collection were excellent.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

I absolutely loved Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and was excited when this collection of stories was published. I had high hopes for this collection and I was not disappointed.

Some of the stories I had read prior to them being included in this collection but that didn’t matter. I enjoyed reading the new stories and revisiting the previously published ones.

We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.

That is a quote from a story in this collection. It felt right to include it in an article about reading.

Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age by Pierce Brown

The four titles above are books two through five in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising saga. I also read the first book in the series, Red Rising, in 2019 but it only earned a four star rating from me. I obviously enjoyed this series and devoured it.

The books tell the story of a world full of inequality. The world created is full of interesting characters and dilemmas.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

This was either my second or third time reading Animal Farm. It is still good. Reading it in 2019 and mapping in book behavior to the modern political climate was interesting.

Non-Five Star highlights

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

Yet another book that is at least somewhat about awareness. This book talks about behavioral addiction but not just addictive technology.

Is it the single book out of the handful of books I’ve read in this space that I’d recommend? No, but it is a good addition to my collection on the topic.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Snowden and what he did but I still learned more through this book. One part I particularly enjoyed was Snowden reflecting on what has changed since his actions.

Another part I particularly enjoyed was Snowden’s telling of the early Internet. This was an Internet where identities online weren’t necessarily tied to a real one. I’m approximately the same age as Snowden and had similar experiences with being a young person during the early Internet days. It was interesting to be reminded of that time while reading this book.

I highlighted a lot of passages and there are probably more I should have highlighted.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This book was so close to being five stars. I started reading this book because I mistook the title for that of a science fiction book I’ve been intending to read. I’m glad I did.

It took me a little while to get into the book but once I did I was hooked.

Here is a review from one of my friends that captures some of what I felt about this book.

I Hear You by Michael S. Sorensen

It provides some guidance towards being a more validating person. The book is short and to the point. I’ve managed to take some of its advice and I think it has been useful.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

This was really good. It is action packed and an interesting concept.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

I really enjoy this book. It tells the story of a relationship with bits of science fiction. I really enjoyed my friend Dan’s review.

Stats

The page count numbers for 2019 books are a bit screwed up so I’m only doing a books per month graph this year.

Book and pages count by month

Unsurprisingly, electronic books continue to be the dominate format.

1
2
3
4
5
|           | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 |
|-----------+------+------+------+------+------|
| ebook     |   43 |   37 |   37 |   56 |   47 |
| hardcover |    1 |    1 |    7 |    0 |    1 |
| paperback |    7 |    5 |    5 |    3 |    3 |

This year I read a noticeably higher amount of non-fiction books than in 2018.

1
2
3
4
|             | 2019 | 2018 |
|-------------+------+------|
| fiction     |   28 |   29 |
| non-fiction |   23 |   14 |

2020 Goals

I was encouraged by how many non-fiction books I read this year and how many of them ended up earning a five star rating. I’d like to continue that trend of reading high-quality non-fiction books.

I’ve also been reading a lot of books but I haven’t always been the best at trying to consciously apply the lessons from those books. I’m going to try to improve that this year.

Those are pretty fuzzy goals but I’m alright with that.


  1. I’m not really sure why I bother doing this. I’d write these posts without this incentive and I think my lifetime earnings are maybe in the double digits.

Building an Atreus keyboard

I recently built an Atreus keyboard. This keyboard is an extremely small keyboard with only 42 keys. Below is the photo of my result.

My completed Atreus keyboard

As you can see, it has a split layout and the keys are aligned vertically and staggered. Thanks to using Ergodox keyboards since 2014, I’m very used to this key layout and find it superior to traditional keyboards.

The keyboard is very small. To give you an idea of how small it is, here is a photo of it next to one of my Ergodox keyboards and with a bit of my fingers in the shot.

Atreus size comparison

Building the keyboard was pretty straight forward. The included instructions are thorough and include plenty of photos. All of the components are through-hole so the soldering is not difficult. This would be a good first keyboard project.

I already had USB cable, key switches, key caps, and a micro-controller so I purchased the partial kit from Phil. It came with everything else, except for something to coat the wood, that you need to build the keyboard. I wanted to connect the keyboard to USB C ports, so I used a micro to USB C cable.

I enjoyed the color of the laser cut wood and appreciated the burn marks. I didn’t want to lose the color or burns so I coated the wood with a water based clear polyurethane with a satin finish. This was probably the most difficult part of the build, and it was pretty easy, simply because I lack experience finishing wood.

When reading other build logs I noticed that someone else put a zip tie on their USB cable to help prevent it from tugging on the micro-controller. I have no idea how helpful this is but it seemed like a good thing to do so I also did it. To do this you basically just wrap the cable with a zip tie and cram it against the case so that the zip tie prevents tugging on the micro-controller. You can see it in the picture below.

My completed Atreus keyboard

I’ve only been typing on the keyboard for basically this blog post but I’ve already found myself adapting to it pretty quickly. I don’t intend for it to replace my Ergodox for normal usage but I think it will be a great portable keyboard.

Overall it was a fun project and I’m glad I did it. I look forward to customizing the firmware to make the key layout fit my usage.

Building a Onewheel stand

I’ve owned a Onewheel XR for about a year now. It is a one-wheeled electric skateboard-like device that is super fun for zipping around Chicago.

When I first got it, I purchased a small guitar stand. It worked but it was always a bit finicky and I was never satisfied with it. I had to sit the Onewheel on it just right to have it stay on it without causing the legs of the stand to spread too wide.

This resulted in me buying a second guitar stand and trying that out. This one was even worse.

I grew frustrated with these non-purpose built stands and started looking into purchasing a Onewheel stand. There are plenty of beautiful stands out there, both officially from Future Motion and from third party vendors like The Float Life.

Then I remembered that my old coworker, Tom Marsh, built his own and put the plans online. This inspired me to go the DIY route.

I thought that a stand made out of pipe would look pretty good and be easy to construct. It also gave me a good excuse to ride my Onewheel to Home Depot.

I explored the plumbing section of Home Depot and bought a variety of pipe and pipe fittings and took them back home to experiment with putting them together.

I ended up building the stand below.

onewheel pipe stand

onewheel in pipe stand

I think the above stand looks great and it was easy to build.

Here is the part list:

  • 2 ½ inch x 8 inch nipple
  • 1 ½ inch x 6 inch nipple
  • 2 ½ inch x 3 inch nipple
  • 2 ½ inch 90 degree elbow
  • 2 ½ inch 3-way side outlet
  • 2 ½ inch cap

I washed off the black coating using Goo Gone and then assembled the stand. This ups the risk of rust but I think that might actually look cool so I’m not too worried about it. You could optionally coat the pipes for some protection.

Once you have the parts the assembly is very straight forward. The only additional work I might do is to put some rubber feet on the bottom to prevent scratches to my floor.