Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Data hygiene and personal history.  §

So I’ve just spent hours down the rabbit hole.

All of this blog maintenance inspired me to go and take a look at some of the old codebases I mentioned a couple of posts ago. Believe it or not, most of them are still online at one host or another, though nowadays thanks to redirects, they are in many cases not visible to the outside world.

But they are there. In fact, even the Drupal 6.x Academe database—my naive-and-also-inspired megadatabase-and-blog from my early Ph.D. days—is still there. And it runs. And I remembered my login. And all of that data (most of which was my own research notes and process, and never appeared on the public blog view) is still there. It’s an amazing application and it makes me tempted once again to redevelop it for the current version of Drupal and begin to use it again, because DevonThink isn’t cloud-friendly (no mobile phone access, for example) and Evernote is too limited.

Some notes on my rabbit hole evening:

  • People have often made fun of me for keeping virtually everything digital all of these years, even if it meant lots of data work to keep transitioning to new applications or platforms with metadata intact, and so on. But going over it all tonight, I’m glad once again that I have.
  • Because there are 25 years of data at issue, it’s scattered. Some of my data is basically stored as files in a filesystem tree—my old Linux /home account files—that continues to live on my live storage to this day. Other data is in DevonThink. Other data is in Evernote. Other data is in WordPress on a host. Other data is in Drupal on a host. Other data is in various cloud apps. I’m in better shape than a lot of people with respect to retention and access of old material, but a project to clean and consolidate is needed badly—some things are at risk right now of being lost if host(s) or service(s) go down or applications become obsolete enough not to run.
  • My Drupal application was developed over the course of about two weeks in 2009, and it is superb. I remember the development mania fondly, but logging in and looking around it now, I’m floored by how useful and powerful it is. Speed is an issue (it’s PHP, after all, on a shared host), but at the same time, it’s closer to the life-database application that I want than anything else I’ve come across. I don’t know what to do with that knowlede.
  • The Drupal application is also filled with old files from the Ph.D. days—lots of graphs, diagrams, illustrations, and research data, for example. I need to get together a plan to migrate all of that back down from the shared host. Right now I don’t think a lot of it exists anywhere else. I could just do an FTP grab for the files, but that would lose a lot of the context and metadata linking it all together. Hmmmmmmm…
  • I spent some time reading back through hundreds of diary entries as well, scattered around multiple locations. No, not web diary or blog entries. Yes, I actually have even more stuff that I’ve written on an ongoing basis, navel-gazing about my life, that isn’t for public consumption. That’s how incurable I am when it comes to continuously typing and using words.
  • Circling back to the question of value—it was far more than merely informative to go back through old diaries and notes. A significant portion of the hours I’ve just spent was in reading through these.

© Aron Hsiao / 2016

Obviously there is much data hygiene work to be done in the future, and obviously I should get a move on as tech is moving as rapidly as ever.

But I want to leave that behind for the moment and focus on the last point in the list above.

— § —

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but for me, a diary is an essential thing. This blog is one. My personal diary files are another. I tend to forget how essential they are for long periods of time, but the muscle memory in my fingers and the evolution-descended force of human habit keep me typing, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

Every now and then, a night like tonight happens, and I go back through all of that material and notice it. And read it. When this happens, I become enlightened. And edified.

See, I don’t know myself all that well. I like to think I do, but a self is a kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” thing. You can’t possibly remember all the things you’ve done, felt, thought, wanted, dreamed up, and so on over the years. There’s just too much going on this week, every week.

Hell, there’s too much going on today, every day.

Anything beyond seven to ten days back tends to get lost for me unless it’s pretty earth shaking. And then the thrusts of the present come to inform my general conception of the past—my past—and myself in it, on an ongoing basis.

That’s bad, because it basically means that I lose track of myself—or that my picture of who I’ve been (and thus, who I am now at the end of the path that led me here)—tends to be inaccurate.

Diaries are a corrective for this problem. A massive one. And, in fact, an easy one. Some things I’ve discovered tonight that I wouldn’t have had front-of-mind otherwise, and in many cases didn’t remember:

  • I was sad about being in an unhappy marriage all the way back in 2010, and writing myself encouraging notes about keeping life moving ahead, being strong, and working to try to make it better. But it’s clear that I was pretty miserable pretty often.
  • A lot of the problems that I spend ruminating on here on this blog, and in the late hours after an average workday, are problems that I’ve thought about before—and in many cases, problems I’ve already solved before.
  • Aside from solutions to problems, the old material is also full of wisdom that a former self had and the present self wouldn’t, but for access to said former self by way of this material. Brilliant ways to frame difficulties, important quotes, important decisions, the results of extended bouts of thinking-things-through that seriously shortcut paths that I’m having to confront now, and so on. So much is there, and it’s so helpful—yet I’d be clueless about any of it if I hadn’t saved it.
  • I’m pretty damned brilliant and I’ve done pretty damned brilliant stuff. Maybe it’s not too late for me after all. Maybe, if I play my cards right, it never will be—but I have to get started once again on the daily practice of being basically brilliant. Use it or lose it. I’m happy with that, because now I realize the degree to which I’ve already been thinking that I’d lost it, or the degree to which I’d forgotten that I ever had it to begin with.

There’s more, but I’ll stop. Point being, saving old data and thoughts is fucking fabulous. It is worth every last minute that I’ve put into the process over the years.

And it inspires me. And it motivates me.

This year is going to be a good year, I think.

Meanwhile, there are also some pretty significant data hygiene tasks to attend to. New year’s resolutions one and two, amongst several (that I expect) to come:

  1. Embark upon and successfully conclude a comprehensive data hygiene, organization, and consolidation project over the course of the year so that this stuff doesn’t get lost and becomes easier to navigate through and to access.
  2. Either find or build another “everything system” for my data. If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t it, maybe I’m back to building relational databases with Drupal and MySQL. We’ll see. But want something like that again. It makes me hungry.

As for now, it’s time for bed. But my advice to the young (who no doubt read this blog in droves in ways that somehow can’t be tracked by Google Analytics):

Diary. And save your scraps—notes, quotes, fragments, and musings. Do it every day. Maybe more than that. Seriously. You’ll thank yourself someday.