A Fresh Coat of Paint

It’s strange to think that I started this blog 4 years ago. I designed it myself in the summer of 2007 and started officially blogging on it in August during medical school orientation. I based the design on the Default WordPress theme, which was in-turn based on the venerable Kubrick theme. Last year, after many years of updates, WordPress finally retired its Default theme with the vision of creating a visually refreshed default theme, which they dubbed Twenty Ten. The idea was that WordPress developers should design a new theme every year.

It was about the same time that I began to notice some of the cruft in my own design. But my design had a personality to it that I liked. Plus, the design took a considerable amount of work on my part, and this was neither something I was willing to throw away haphazardly nor something I had time to recreate from scratch in a more modern fashion. And so the cruft lingered on and got even cruftier.

Encephalosponge New Design

Encephalosponge: New Design

A few months ago, a stunning theme called Duster appeared on WordPress.com. I knew this would be the theme that I based my next site design on. Little did I know that WordPress developers had the same idea, and they recently released their new default theme, Twenty Eleven, which is based on Duster. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visually refresh my site based on a WordPress default theme that I love. In the new design, I wanted to highlight some personal changes that I’ve gone through over the past 4 years, and I also addressed some things I learned along the way. The timing is right, too, since I am transitioning from medical school into residency.

Encephalosponge Old Design

Encephalosponge: Old Design

WordPress has changed a lot for the better over the past few years. I’ve been able to keep up with most of the major new features, but keeping up with new features can be a time-consuming job. Now using Child Themes, I can customize my WordPress theme without altering the original. When I created my last site design, I basically copied and altered all of Kubrick. This meant that when any fixes or upgrades were released, I had to do them manually, which usually meant they didn’t get done. With a Child Theme, the Parent is automatically kept up to date without messing up the customizations that you’ve made. Additionally, many WordPress themes now include easy ways to customize the theme’s background, header image, link color and fonts. This provides an easy way to make your site look unique without having to create an entire theme. By adopting a well-maintained theme, I will also get the benefit of having new WordPress features added without any additional work. These themes are also generally designed appropriately so that plug-ins work well and so that they work across multiple operating systems and browsers, including mobile browsers.

Over the past few years, I’ve embraced Free Software and the Creative Commons. With my old design, I used graphics and fonts that were licensed under restrictive copyright terms. This made redistributing my design impossible. I now use a free computer operating system, create graphics in a free graphics suite and choose images that are free to redistribute and remix. For my header image, I found a macro photo of some Brain Coral that I remixed to fit my color scheme. It doesn’t have as much personality as my previous design, but it works well with my new, more reserved one. It is also easily replaced if I come up with something better down the line. I also use Google’s Web Fonts project to bring my design to life with open-source typography and not embedding my non-traditional typography in images.

My final revisions are a work-in-progress. I am refining the content of this site to be my primary blog, but not my primary online point of contact. I set up my own site on Blackhall Family Sites, where I would like to host a more appropriate bio, contact page, and stream of personal news. I will continue to use this site for blogging about interesting topics and I will reserve that site for information about me. I would also like to continue to refine the content of this site to a more narrow set of topics and types of posts.

So as the content of this site undergoes revision, I thought it was a good time for it to get a good facelift as well. The archive isn’t going anywhere, but I thought everything could use a fresh coat of paint and a good buff to shine. Let me know how it looks.

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Empathy

Ubuntu’s built-in messaging application is called Empathy. Messaging in Ubuntu is great for a lot of reasons. In fact, I could write a whole post on it. I know that because I almost just did. Then, I remembered that the point of this series isn’t to evangelize an application. It’s about my computer making me feel an emotion.

I’ll be the first to admit that web-based messaging like Google Chat and Facebook Chat are extremely convenient. It allows instant communcation no matter what computer you’re on. It facilitates context-based conversations (“Hey, let’s chat about this email”). But do you know what annoys me? It’s when I’m in the middle of writing a blog post and I hear the “ding” of an instant message. Now, I have to go figure out where it came from. It’s not just that it interrupts my work. Often I want to chat. The problem is that I’m usually in the middle of something else, in this case writing a blog post. Now I have to switch tabs every few seconds to keep up with the conversation. And if I get a Google Chat and a Facebook Chat going at the same time? Oh, save me now!

Despite the convenience of web-based messaging, their chats are constrained. You’re stuck with a little box on a website. Am I in prison? If I switch contexts, I constantly have to come back to that site to continue the conversation. Are we playing telephone? I want direct communication with people, and I want my chat to have its own window.

Ubuntu can empathize. It has messaging built right into it. I’ve already mentioned its slick notifications. It also lets me chat on a bunch of different networks (Google, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo!, etc.) with one application. Messaging is nicely integrated into Ubuntu, much like music. Empathy nestles itself quietly into the “Messaging menu” (envelope icon), where it waits until I need it (or until someone needs me!). It’s easy to change my chat status to “Busy” or “Away” across multilple networks with the “Me menu,” whose icon looks like a speech bubble. In other words, when people chat with me on Ubuntu, it feels like a natural part of my computer, not just some website I have open.

All of the little details are great, but today Ubuntu made me happy because it lets people chat with me on my computer, not on a website.

Ubuntu has Empathy

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Wallpapers

Ubuntu is built by a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. A company called Canonical funds a significant portion of Ubuntu’s development, but a large community of volunteers also contribute to it. These groups of people with varying interests and skill sets come together to create something great. The community of Ubuntu users and developers is vast, and despite some misconceptions you may have, you don’t really need to know anything about programming (or even computers!) to contribute to Ubuntu.

As an example, community photographers contribute their work. For each new release, which come every six months, the design team asks for photograph submissions on Flickr. They sort through a plethora of excellent candidates and include 17 new photo wallpapers with each Ubuntu release. For people like me who always love them all, they also have a “wallpaper slide show” that changes the wallpaper photo a few times per day. This way I can experience all of the photos without having to choose, and I constantly have a fresh new wallpaper to see.

When I first start my computer or when I get everything else out of my way, I want to have something sleek and refreshing to look at. Ubuntu made me a happy because it gives me beautiful photographs for my desktop wallpaper. [Larger individual photos]

Wallpapers for Ubuntu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Notifications

Ubuntu is good at staying out of my way. The last thing I need when I’m writing an important email is something popping up and breaking my concentration by saying “You should install this update (or tell me you’ll do it later).” When I’m working, I want to work. I don’t want my computer creating distractions for me. For this reason, when it’s time to install some updates Ubuntu’s Update Manager always starts behind all of your running applications. It’s there to remind you to update, but it never steals your focus. While software updates are important, they never require immediate attention, so I like that Ubuntu doesn’t nag me to install them.

Sometimes notifications are time-sensitive, and they require an interruption. Since it’s often difficult to tell which notifications are important to me, Ubuntu notifies me without completely interrupting me. A shaded box appears at the top right corner of my screen with a message. It’s there if I have time to look at it, but it quickly disappears and does not nag me if I don’t. If I need to click on something behind the box, it nearly disappears and stays out of my way.

As an example, Empathy, Ubuntu’s instant messaging application, shows me the contents of a new instant message without disrupting my work. In addition to notifying me, it also turns the Messaging Menu icon (grey envelope at the top right of the screen) a bright blue so that if I temporarily ignore a message I don’t forget to reply to it later when I have some free time. Also, I like that the notification shows me who is messaging and what they want. This means that I don’t have to switch over to a different browser tab or open an application to figure out whether it’s something I can ignore. Ubuntu made me happy because its notifications do not intrude on my work.

Ubuntu Notifications

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Sound Menu

Ubuntu’s music player is called Banshee. It’s really great. It caught my attention because it feels like an integral part of Ubuntu, not just another music player like iTunes or Winamp. When I click on the volume button at the top right part of my screen, of course I can change the volume. However, I also see a picture of what music is playing in Banshee. I can pause, skip songs, or choose a new playlist. And I can do it without having to fully open Banshee. Banshee itself may get mentioned later in this series, but for today Ubuntu made me happy because my music player feels like it was built right into it.

Ubuntu Sound Menu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy Because…

During the development of Firefox 4, Mozilla added a button so that users testing it could easily share their thoughts about Firefox’s design. You could either click on “Firefox made me happy because…” or “Firefox made me sad because…” and share your feedback with Mozilla. This is a really user-friendly way to gather feedback about software. I liked its simplicity and the way it addressed an emotional response to using a computer. Humans are emotional beings, and let’s face it: computers can be frustrating. It taught me to pay attention when a computer makes me feel an emotion.

As you may be aware, Ubuntu 11.04 was released a few weeks ago.  It received a completely revamped user-interface. While using it, I’ve begun to notice the thoughtfulness that Ubuntu developers put into its design, and I would like to share some of the things that caught my attention. Not all of them are new in Ubuntu 11.04, but they all deserve acknowledging. This is an introduction to a new series of short, non-technical blog posts, usually accompanied by a screenshot. I hope you enjoy them!

Review: I Will Teach You To Be Rich

A few years ago, I saw Ramit Sethi on The Daily Show promoting his book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. It sounded very helpful and like a book I should probably read. I filed it away on my Amazon Wishlist and forgot about it for a while. Since I recently got a job with actual income, I decided to buy the book and see what it was all about.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit SethiI’ll start by saying that this book blew me away. Since I’m busy studying medicine, I had not put much effort into learning about finance. I am still pretty young (ahem!), and I thought the topic was too complicated and something I could put off worrying about until later. In essence, Sethi wrote this book for people like me. It’s meant for people in their 20’s, and he points out a number of ways that you’re an idiot if you put off starting to save until it’s too late. While I assumed that “starting early helps,” I had no idea how much. He demonstrates with a nice chart that a person who invests $100/month for only 10 years starting at age 25 will have a lot more money at retirement than a person who invests $100/month for 30 years starting at age 35. That’s right. You have to save for 3 times as long if you delay starting for 10 years, and you still end up with less money!

The book is broken down into a 6-week program. You’re given tasks to complete each week. Tasks cover budgeting; tackling credit card debt and improving your credit history; setting up a no-fee, high-interest savings account; opening a 401(k) and an IRA; and learning to invest appropriately.

Besides just giving plain, old “good advice,” there are a lot of reasons that this book succeeds. First, he addresses perfection. Most people know they should do this stuff but don’t want to get started because the topic is overwhelming and they’re afraid they’ll do something wrong. They say, “I don’t want to make a mistake. I’ll just worry about it later.” Sethi advocates the 85% approach, wherein doing something 85% right is still a lot better than doing nothing, which equates to 0%. When addressing your budget, he doesn’t advocate being an all-around cheap penny-pincher. He proposes “conscious spending.” After socking away an appropriate percentage of your paycheck to savings and paying your bills, he tells you to consciously spend what’s left on things you love and avoid spending on things you don’t. He provides an example of a friend who spends $21,000/year on going out to bars. Granted this friend has a 6-figure salary, but Sethi makes his point. As long as you’re putting enough into long-term and short-term savings, it doesn’t really matter what you spend the rest on. He also breaks down overwhelming topics into digestible chunks and gives you timed, task-oriented directions. Importantly, he tackles a lot of common misconceptions around finances. For example, investing is not about picking stocks! He demonstrates thorough evidence that, aside from a very elite few, no person is able to consistently predict the stock market. Instead of losing thousands of dollars per year on fees to investment companies, he shows you how to create a portfolio that will return 8% on your investments long-term. This has been the average return for the last 80 years on the stock market, and you won’t do any better unless your name is Warren Buffett.

The best part about Sethi’s program is that he advocates for minimal effort. The last thing I wanted to read was a book telling me how I need to spend hours a week pouring over my finances, checking stocks, and doing financial research. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He teaches you how to make things happen automatically, so that after working through his 6 week schedule, everything is done. You’re making money without even thinking about it, doing things that you actually like, such as being with friends and family. He teaches you how to automatically direct money from every paycheck into savings so that you don’t even miss it. He teaches you how to automate investing so that you only have to think about your investments for about an hour per year (if that!).

I can’t speak highly enough of this book, and I can’t wait to put the rest of it into action. I need actual income for parts of it :). I know I’m being weird, but I want to convince almost everyone I know to read it: Sadie, my sister, my cousins, my friends. While it’s geared towards young people, I think middle-aged people could get a lot of benefit from reading this book too, especially on understanding investing and changing investments as you get closer to retirement. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Go out and buy a copy right now. Once you’re financially secure, you can start making decisions about life and your career based on what is in your best interest, not what will make you the most money to pay the bills. Define what “rich” means to you and make it happen!


January Books Read

In honor of my finishing a personal record 6 books in the month of January and in homage to Sadie-Jean:

January Books Read

Total Books Read: 6

Favorite Book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Least Favorite Book: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Hunger Games was a close second. Also, I feel like I should point out that two of the books that I “read” were audio books. I downloaded them (for free!) from Librivox and listened to them while I drove. Sadie says this still counts, but I’m tempted to be less generous about it. Still, hooray for reading!

Back to the roots of Firefox

I started using Firefox for pretty much one reason: it correctly interpreted HTML and CSS (the code that web pages are written in). When I was learning to design web sites in high school and college, Internet Explorer was annoying because it doesn’t conform to web standards set forth by the W3C. It was a fairly ubiquitous browser that set its own standards for how the web should work. Firefox was the first browser I had come across that took web standards seriously and did their best to interpret a website’s code properly. From a design perspective, it meant I could code my sites according to the W3C’s specifications and not have to cater them to individual browsers.

With the birth of Internet Explorer 7 and now Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft has taken some steps to conform with these web standards. At the same time, Mozilla’s Firefox browser has gained significant ground against Internet Explorer, especially with the younger generation. This is at least in part due to the fact that fun new websites are designed to work best when viewed in a browser that is standards-compliant. At the same time, Mozilla has worked on improving the browsing experience by adding fantastic new features to their browser. Now, over 10 years after the finalization of the HTML 4 specification, the W3C is hard at work ironing out the details of an HTML 5 specification. Firefox is first in line to implement some of these exciting new design techniques in their soon-to-be-released Firefox 3.5, as can be seen on the Mozhacks blog. I’m excited to see Mozilla getting back to the roots of what makes Firefox the best browser on the Internet. Their latest browser is not only blindingly fast, but it’s helping designers advance the web.

Curious what you have to look forward to in Firefox 3.5? My personal favorite things are being able to embed a font in my website so that I can type in any font I want, the ability to play embedded OGG audio and Theora video directly so that I can avoid using Adobe Flash, and some crazy SVG stuff. Check out more at hacks.mozilla.org!

My Last Spring Break

Well, it looks like this is my last year with a “Spring Break.” I say this with quotes because with the USMLE Step 1 looming in the distance (June 15th), it’s not going to be much of a break. With only 3 months to go until my big exam, unfortunately I think I’m going to have to spend at least part of my days studying. Here are some other random things that I’d like to do:

  • Shadow 2 physicians (an Anesthesiologist and an Interventional Radiologist)
  • Write at least 5 new blogs posts
  • Upgrade RMstudents.com
  • Finish reading A Man Without a Country and start and finish Kite Runner or The Fountainhead
  • File my taxes and FAFSA
  • Fix a thing or two on this website and maybe add some new features
  • Visit Harmony, Tim, and Lily and get a bunch of new pictures of my niece
  • Spend time relaxing with Sadie
  • Buy some new coffee from Intelligentsia
  • Finish season 2 of The West Wing and possibly season 3 (fantastic show if you haven’t seen it)
  • Upgrade to Ubuntu 9.04 beta (3/26) and possibly reformat to use the new, faster Ext4 file system
  • Test out my plan to use Skype to reduce my phone bill
  • Make a concrete study plan for Step 1

Well, that looks like a lot of stuff. I should get started! Comments and suggestions for things to add are welcome!