My favourite organiser consists of a piece of cardboard and post-it notes.

For the last four and a half years, I’ve been using the Getting Things Done approach to keep my life organised. In its simplest form, GTD has two parts: (1) capturing all things that you want to get done in a trusted system outside your head, and (2) making decisions about new inputs (emails etc) when they arrive, rather than letting them pile up. The GTD seminar that got me started on this path, and the book that goes with it have made a great difference in my life. I thought I was reasonably well-organised before, but this is so much better.

The second part of GTD is a matter of discipline and routine; the first one requires a physical system. Initially I used Outlook and a Palm Pilot for most of my organising. But over time I realised that while they were great for keeping my calendar and address book up to date, I didn’t like them for keeping track of my outstanding projects and tasks. I couldn’t get an overview, I couldn’t scribble notes on them, I could only reorder them based on rigid categories and priority levels.

So I moved to a paper-based system that gives me more flexibility. My organiser consists of an A4 piece of cardboard and post-it notes. Different categories and/or priorities get separate post-it notes. It’s simple, dirt cheap, easy to reshuffle, and I can see everything at the same time without scrolling. Adding an item is also much faster than going to Outloook and creating a new task. Some large projects get a whole temporary page of their own; likewise if my list just grows too large for one page. I usually have about 2 to 4 of these on my desk at work.

I tried to use the same for life outside the office, but for some reason it never took off. After a month or two, the list got neglected and out of date. I think this happened because I didn’t use this one list for all my non-work projects and next actions – some were still in the Palm Pilot, some just in e-mails – because I wanted to be able to see them when I was at work or out on town, or because I thought of them when I was at work.

Now I’ve finally decided to get rid of the Palm. I’ve used it very little lately, and it takes up too much space in my handbag. The first step is to move my tasks and to do lists out of the Palm. I’ve also migrated my passwords database from the Palm to a PC application (Password Manager XP). Address book, general notes and calendar are all important too, but I don’t use them constantly like I use my task list, so these can all wait until later.

The Palm had an advantage in portability over the A4 sheets – they just won’t fit into a handbag. So I’m currently experimenting with a smaller format of my paper-based organiser. The initial prototype is roughly 10 by 15 centimetres, which is just about the same size as my wallet, and large enough for two standard-sized post-it notes or seven mini-post-its. There’s a cardboard cover shaped like a book, six loose cardboard leaves inside, and the whole package is held together by a small bulldog clip.

For a prototype it’s worked surprisingly well. It’s pleasantly physical, and very convenient, so it’s more up to date than the previous solution ever was. I can add an item as soon as I think of it, because the organiser is always with me in my handbag. It’s easy to spread out all the pages to get an overview of what’s on my list.

The cardboard cover is not durable enough for long-term daily usage, so I plan to make a leather version soon. The final version will also have pockets on the inside of both covers for spare post-its and for more permanent lists (phone numbers and such). And it will hopefully be more pleasing to the eye than simple grey cardboard!

Another interview today, significantly more intense than yesterday’s. The whole thing took over 2 hours, and there were three of them. And of course one tries one’s best to be really focused, so when I got home afterwards I felt exhausted. More questions, and their questions about the business side of things required real thinking. (Is an average-price option cheaper or more expensive than a corresponding European option?) They also asked their questions in person, which takes more concentration and energy than filling in a quiz on paper in a quiet room on your own, which is what I did yesterday. On the technical side they tested actual ability rather than just theoretical knowledge. They had a list of tasks that they wanted to see me do, ranging from trivial Excel tasks (simple formulas) to some proper VBA tasks (including one that required me to write code to sort an array – and I’ve not sorted any arrays manually for over a year at least!) And again two of them were sitting there in the room, occasionally peeking over my shoulder to see what I was doing. Distracting, to say the least.

So their approach to recruiting was more professional and thorough than the others’, which is a good sign. But I don’t know if I would want that job, now that I’ve heard more about it – and more importantly, heard more about how they work, and how the place works. In particular I doubt I would learn very much there apart from nitty-gritty details about Excel. First of all the team is ring-fenced from the rest of the technology department and only works for one group of traders, so there are few contacts with other teams, i.e. no chance to learn from others, and few (if any) opportunities to move forward to new areas. Secondly they are, according to their own descriptions, so busy that they don’t have much time to show the ropes to any new hires, and rarely have time to discuss their projects with each other, much less have any training. Any learning is to be done in your spare time. Which to me indicates that training and learning is not a priority for them. And it is the top priority for me. They also mentioned that they spend 90% of their time improving and extending existing spreadsheets, which again means that it’s all about tinkering with details rather than broadening your horizons or learning to think about bigger projects and processes. On the whole it appears like a narrow role with no real room for growth.

Far more promising was a discussion I had today with my current company. I met the head of our department’s technology team, who also happens to be in charge of career development for the Technology division in Europe. Our team has worked quite a lot with him on various projects, so my manager had mentioned to him that I was considering a career change. After hearing my story, his firm opinion was that instead of trying to slowly shift from the business side towards technology, the best way forward would be to join the Tech division’s graduate programme, effectively starting from the very beginning, together with people who’ve joined straight from university.

After the initial shock of the idea wore off (“Go back 5 years and start over? Throw away almost 5 years’ worth of advancement?”) I have to agree that the idea might be a good one. It would, almost per definition, be the fastest way to learn things, because that’s what graduate programmes are about. It would also be more efficient than trying to share my time between doing my current job and at the same time trying to work my way into Technology. And it has a lot clearer and broader long-term potential than the two other jobs I’ve seen thus far, which both seemed quite focused on one relatively narrow area both in terms of technology and in terms of the business area it’s applied to.

To be continued.

Today’s interview: not bad.

Part 1 was a multiple-choice test about Excel VBA, C#, derivatives in general, and interest rate derivatives. The VBA questions were easy, things like “Which one of the following is the string concatenation operator in VBA?” and “By default, parameters are passed a) ByRef b) ByVal c) ByUse d) ByDefault”. Anybody who cannot answer these should not engage in further discussions about a VBA job.

The C# questions took more work, but I got most of them right as well – some because it’s so similar to VB.Net, and some because I’ve been reading C# code on various .NET blogs. I’ve occasionally wondered whether I might be wasting my time reading them – I guess the answer is no.

The general derivatives questions were not as basic as the VBA questions, but not particularly hard either. They were all about fundamental concepts and analytics, so even though I haven’t done much with derivatives in the last year and a half, I could dig up those memories and manage them well.

The last part was hard, because I’ve never worked with interest rate derivatives. With common sense and some lucky guessing I got just over half of them right. From his comments it sounded like the wrong ones were at least close and not too badly wrong.

Part 2, the interview itself, was relaxed. I would have been a tougher interviewer myself, definitely. The only hard part was when he started asking more technical questions about .NET, things like garbage collection and COM interop. I sort of know how these things work, but not well enough, and that was probably pretty obvious. But even there I obviously did OK, because he said he wanted me to come back for more interviews. He also asked me what bugs I had discovered in Excel, and at that moment I couldn’t think of a single one…

My own first impressions were somewhat mixed. He was obviously knowledgeable and experienced, but I didn’t sense much enthusiasm at all. Maybe he is just that kind of guy. Or maybe it was because this was late in his working day. But I’m used to working with people who are excited about what they do, and I quite like that. I’ll have to see what the other guys are like.

Now, off to read about memory management and garbage collection in .NET!

Among my daily list of blogs and news, there are two photoblogs. My favourite one is Daily Dose of Imagery. It is what it says on the tin: my daily dose of imagery. Sam Javanrouh, a Toronto-based Iranian photographer, posts a new photo daily.

The pictures are mostly city scenes. He often makes great use of colour, light, contrast and reflections, and simple shapes. I like his ability to see and capture beauty in ordinary things in ordinary places. His recent brickworks series, which I liked very much, was taken in an abandoned factory, for example, but many are just from Toronto’s streets.

Project Career Change is progressing. I will be interviewing with one firm tomorrow evening and with another one on Thursday.

I’m looking forward to the interviews – I quite like interviewing. It’s pleasant to talk to someone when both of us are entirely focused on the conversation and there are no disruptions. And the people you meet via interviews are usually intelligent, interesting and likeable.

I’ve been with my current firm for four and a half years now, but I haven’t been entirely without interview practice all this time. I’ve volunteered to interview a number of potential new hires for the firm, and an even larger number of summer intern candidates. Sitting on the other side of the table put things in a different perspective and helped me understand how things work, and what interviewers are really looking for with all their questions.

Besides, I’ve moved around within the firm. Internal movers are examined almost as thoroughly as external hires, so when I moved from one department to another (back in April 2004) I went through about 10 interviews, I believe. Not that that helped, really… After several months I realised that I was not at all the right person for the job, and the job was not at all right for me, so I quit. Sometimes I’m too persuasive for my own good and manage to convince others of my own views even though I’m completely wrong.

I quit in September 2004 and had time to apply (and interview) for one other job before I was offered a temporary and experimental job in another role in my old company, in a neighbouring team. They knew me and I knew them, so there was no interviewing as such, only a brief chat. I took the offer and have been there for the last 16 months now.

I’m also looking forward to hearing more about the jobs. Job listings will never be more than dead pieces of paper (or dead bytes) with formal facts – it’s difficult to get a feel for what the job is really about. How do the listed qualifications and requirements correlate to the real job? What do they actually develop? (These two listings weren’t too bad, but others just mention developing “tactical solutions for the trading desk” – what exactly is that?) How does the team work? What does their development process look like?

It’s becoming difficult to focus my attention on my current job.

Circus Ronaldo consists of David Ronaldo and Danny Ronaldo, Belgian mimes and comedians. In La Cucina dell’Arte, David & Danny are head chef and assistant at a pizzeria, and they present an evening’s power struggle between the polished and bossy David, and the simple, good-hearted yet sneaky Danny.

A man and a woman from the audience are invited to the pizzeria and the two attempt to make a pizza for them. This involves numerous of broken plates, juggling roundels of pizza dough, plate-spinning, and lots of gags. The show reached its peak when Danny tried to set eight plates spinning on long rods sticking up from the pizzeria table, while David expected him to take down orders for pizza that he was getting from the audience, all backed up by frantic acordion music. Danny tried to get the man from the audience to help him with the plates, but the man had obviously seen enough crashing plates for one evening and preferred taking down the pizza orders instead. He was a natural for the role, getting magnificently confused when he couldn’t hear what David was shouting, jumping away when plates crashed behind him, and eyeing plates spinning above him with great nervousness.

The stage after the show

It was a simple story with simple jokes, but so well presented that the audience was roaring with laughter, with tears in our eyes. They were good mimes/comedians/actors, very expressive, ridiculous without going too far. They also had a very relaxed attitude about audience contact – not just the people who were invited on stage but also others they “conversed” with. Mistakes in tomato juggling meant tomatoes flying towards the audience (luckily not too ripe tomatoes); likewise torn pizza dough that Danny wants to hide from David. When the show was over, the stage was a royal mess of flour, crashed plates, lumps of pizza dough and used matches.

Lots of great pictures are available via the agents of Circus Ronaldo.

We had a whale in London yesterday – according to Sky News, the first-ever whale in the Thames “since records began in 1913”.

I had never seen a whale before, and it was Friday afternoon after all, so I took some time off work and went to see it. (Once again I’m glad I cycle to work – I couldn’t have done it otherwise.) At the time BBC reported it as being near Battersea, so it would only take me around 20 minutes to get there. (The office is near Blackfriars.) Already at Vauxhall bridge I could hear helicopters, so I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding it.

And indeed after Chelsea bridge there were crowds on both sides of the river (over a thousand I think) and three helicopters hovering overhead. Half a dozen boats of various shapes and sizes marked the spot: two police boats, one harbour master, one that seemed to be filled with either journalists or biologists since they were taking photos all the time, and a few others.

The whale itself was a northern bottle-nosed whale, according to the news – 5 metres and 7 tonnes. It looked small because of the distance, but its real size was more apparent when it got close to one of the smaller boats. It wasn’t particularly co-operative when it came to photographing. It only came up to the surface very briefly, showing only its back. So my pictures aren’t particularly good, I just took them to have some memento of this event. This is the first time I’ve seen a whale in the wild… eh… in nature… well, outside of a TV in any case!

I think the boats were mostly trying to discourage the whale from moving further upstream. The whale didn’t move very far during the half-hour or so that I watched it. Comments in the BBC say that it is now exhausted and disoriented, understandably. I hope it finds its way out, or is helped out soon.

The BBC has pictures and some facts and comments. There are also pictures on Flickr, including one of mine.

  • Get an underwater camera. I want my own pictures!
  • Get a dive computer. On our previous trips, the pressure gauge has had an integrated depth gauge, but this wasn’t the case this time. I like to know where I am and what I’m doing, so I didn’t find that acceptable and rented one. Based on the price they charged, I think buying one would pay for itself after just a few trips.
  • Get a good torch. Night dives are fun, and even more so with a comfortable and strong torch. The dive centre actually ran out of torches this time, and the ones they had were not that good. (Four torches for a resort that can house a hundred – I wonder how they thought that would work?) We tried a torch by Underwater Kinetics from their Sunlight range, and it was far better than the no-name option.
  • 12 kg of weight assuming a two-part wetsuit.

Diving is like visiting another world. You’re floating around almost weightlessly, drifting slowly, hovering. You can hold yourself in place with a single finger (if there’s no current) and move up and down just by breathing in and out.

The best part, and the main joy of diving, is the fish. On dry ground you can’t get very close to anything more exciting than a beetle – as soon as you approach, all wildlife flees. Fish don’t. Perhaps they’ve learned that divers are harmless, or maybe they just don’t care. You can float through a school of goatfish, and they just let you pass. Or you can be nose to nose with a damselfish and they take no more notice of you than of a lump of stone. (Unless you get too close to their anemone, at which point they turn towards you and try to scare you away by determined posturing – which is quite funny when the fish is smaller than your hand.)

This part of the Red Sea, around Marsa Alam, had somewhat less fish than the reefs we saw near Hurghada and Sharm-el-Sheikh. Less in terms of density, that is, not in terms of variety. We bought a thorough guide to Red Sea fish last time and this time I tried to write down all the different species we spotted and were able to identify. All in all my list for this trip had over 80 species.


The range of species was slightly different, and different species dominated. Lionfish were more common than in Northern Red Sea: seeing a lionfish was a big thing on previous trips, whereas here we might see half a dozen on a single dive. The same with masked puffers and picassofish. Butterflyfish, bannerfish, groupers and damselfish were everywhere, as usual, and various surgeonfish and wrasse were common.

One difference compared to previous trips was that we saw more juvenile fish, probably due to the season. Adult clownfish / anemonefish (like Nemo) are the size of my palm, roughly, so baby anemonefish are really tiny! The smallest ones were barely larger than the tip of my thumb. They were also pale and semitransparent.

Some fish (especially some wrasses) change their markings completely when they grow up, so a juvenile doesn’t look anything like an adult version. The most extreme example I saw was the clown sand wrasse. Adults are large, greenish/black with a lighter vertical band, with a slightly ragged tail and a humped head. Juveniles on the other hand are white with black spots on the front half, and two large orange/black eyelike spots on the back. I wouldn’t even have recognised them as the same fish, if it hadn’t been for our book, and the help of one of the experienced divers in our group.

Clown sand wrasse – adult Clown sand wrasse – juvenile

Among the more interesting creatures we met were turtles. On one of the early dives on our first trip three years ago we saw one turtle pass in the distance. This time I saw two of them, up close. They turned out to be mostly like cows – placid and mostly interested in eating. One of them was, in fact, feeding on seagrass on a flat bit of sea bottom. Impressively large creatures, though, and it would be interesting to follow them for a longer while.

Stingrays were a dime a dozen in Marsa Alam – we saw them almost every day, mostly lying in the sand, not doing much. They are beautiful creatures, though. The manta ray we saw was a more impressive sight as it slowly “flew” past us: huge (at least 2 metres across), a very distinctive shape, and very majestic movements.

Oceanic white tip shark

Yet the absolute highlight, for me, was swimming with sharks. We went out to Elphinstone reef, which is further from the shore and in deeper waters. After 30-40 minutes diving along the reef we swum out “into the blue”, away from the reef, to see some larger fish. We didn’t have to wait long at all until the sharks turned up. To me they just looked like ordinary shark-shaped sharks, so to say, but I was later told that they were oceanic white-tip sharks. They looked every inch like predators and behaved accordingly, moving much faster and more alertly than the large fish we’d seen nearer the reefs. At first I found their closeness a bit unnerving, but as they just continued to circle around us, most of the time keeping a few metres’ distance between us and them, I got used to them and even felt a temptation to get closer (which I resisted). We had been told that the sharks don’t like to come too close to large groups, so we kept the group fairly tight. We also went up one by one, because a whole bunch of fluttering fins might otherwise attract the sharks’ curiosity and get us some bite marks on our fins.

The pictures in this post are not mine.

A Target store has painted a huge Target logo on their roof, so that it can be seen in satellite pictures such as those in Google Maps. (Found via BoingBoing.)

Ingeniously obvious – it’s a great way to advertise your location – and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes. We’ve already also got the Scientologists’ symbol. I’m sure we’ll soon be seeing dedicated art / installation projects that are meant to be viewed from high above.

(Sightseeing with Google Satellite Maps has many more interesting views.)

Edit: It appears that the logo was originally painted for overflying aircraft and not Google Maps. Less amusing, but the point still holds true.