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Decide what to do, if its doable, do it, and repeat

10 May 2015 / Filed under Productivity

Recently, I’ve picked up my first smartphone and tweaked my work habits. I am now using a pomodoro timer to get myself to do things. The idea is to set a timer for 25 minutes, work on a task for this amount of time, and then break for 5 minutes. I find that there’s a lot of inertia when I sit down in front of the computer but not quite know what I should commit to working on. I feel like 25 minutes is a good unit of time where you can reasonably get something done, but not too much of a commitment that you can just re-evaluate at the end of that period of time and change your course.

I think the break serves a few purposes other than giving you the opportunity to take an actual break from work. It forces you to put a period at the end of the sentence you are writing, so to speak. If you have a point that you still feel is important to make, you can fast-forward the timer to start the next 25-minute interval so you can keep on working. This was what I ended up doing Tuesday morning before my lab presentation. I wanted to throw in a few introductory slides to illustrate some concepts and spent some pomodori to fix an example. I think after seeing the pomodori go by and my example still not finished, I knew that I had to make a decision to wrap it up and move on. It’s nice that there’s also a long 15 minute break is also available after a four-pomodoro run – this is probably the actual time you take a break, because 5 minutes really isn’t enough time to comfortably walk away and have a chat or anything.

In combination with the pomodoro timer, I use the bullet journal to log my progress. Though it’s an analog system, I find it useful to do it electronically, and I use tiddlywiki with a few useful plugins to do the job. You can check it out from my toolbox repository on github here.

TiddlyWiki column format and vocabulary learning

07 Feb 2015 / Filed under Code Snippets

I use TiddlyWiki Classic to keep notes on everything, including new vocabulary words when studying Japanese. I log a list of vocabulary while I’m reading, one per line, which I review by scanning with Perapera Firefox plugin. But screens don’t have a lot of vertical space and I can end up scrolling a lot really quickly if I’m reading something difficult. It would be nice to have the text automatically flow into multiple columns without having to do very much. That way, I can use all of the precious horizontal screen space.

Thankfully, I’m using Firefox and this is 2015 where CSS3 features such as column-width are implemented. So I basically make a class like so:

    column-width: 300px;
    column-gap: 20px;
    -moz-column-width: 300px;
    -moz-column-gap: 20px;

You add this to a the StyleSheet tiddler. Then, for a block of content you’d like to flow,

...content goes here...

This is TiddlyWiki syntax for wrapping a block of content in a div with class wordlist, which will have the style applied. You get equally sized columns like this:

This reminds me of the Vocabulary Builder on the Amazon Kindle.

What I like about it is that it actually records the context in which you see each word. I also like the Flashcards mode, which shows you the vocabulary word in the primary tab, and in a secondary tab, you can scan through the contexts in which you looked up those words. This is something I wish for the Perapera plugins. Currently, you can save wordlists, but as an extension, it should save the sentence it came from. Another thing I’ve been thinking about for a while (as a former student of Chinese) is for kanji lookups to show Cangjie input codes. I suppose it’s a moot point if you have it digitized and can mouse over it, but sometimes it’s helpful for hunting similar kanji that you don’t know how to pronounce. But I digress…

It’s hard to manage batches of words, though. You have to manage flashcards individually, it seems, and there isn’t anything obvious that you can edit by looking at the Kindle as a USB device. There’s enough delay and clunkiness in the interface to discourage me from managing it.

Jekyll Popup Image Helper Tag

21 Jan 2015 / Filed under Code Snippets

In LaTeX, you can define macros to help ease typing things that have low content-to-markup. (By the way, holy crap, how the hell do I include LaTeX snippets without making Liquid cry tears of blood?) Anyways, I needed to define a helper tag for myself to wrap my images so that they pop up. And it should optionally take a caption so when you mouse over, it shows up the text. Here’s what I did:

module Jekyll
    class PopupImageMacroTag < Liquid::Tag
        def initialize(tag_name, text, tokens)
            bits = text.split
            @href = bits[0]
            @title = ''
            if bits.size > 1
                @title = bits.slice(1, bits.size).join(' ')

        def render(context)
            baseurl = context.registers[:site].config['baseurl']
            @href = "#{baseurl}/#{@href}"
            img_text = "<img src=\"#{@href}\""
            if @title.size > 0
                img_text += " title=\"#{@title}\""
            img_text += " />"
            "<a href=\"#{@href}\" class=\"image-link\">#{img_text}</a>"
Liquid::Template.register_tag('popup_image', Jekyll::PopupImageMacroTag)

So it’s a little weird because you need to parse the arguments yourself, i.e. you can’t specify the different parameters like in LaTeX because it just comes in as a single string. So you need to be careful parsing it out manually and depending on what you’re doing, it might not work, but this is enough for simple cases.

Categories in Shiori

03 Jan 2015 / Filed under Code Reading

To kick off my code reading blog series for the year, I write about my first impression hacking on category pages to the Shiori theme that I use for my sites. You can view the demo for now for details about what I made – basically, the theme didn’t show the categories that the post belongs to, so I added those.

First, a code example to look at:

  # Adds some extra filters used during the category creation process.
  module Filters

    # Outputs a list of categories as comma-separated <a> links. This is used
    # to output the category list for each post on a category page.
    #  +categories+ is the list of categories to format.
    # Returns string
    def category_links(categories)
      categories = categories.sort!.map do |category|
        capitalized_category = category.split(' ').each { |word|
        }.join(' ')
        category_dir = category_link(category)
        "<a class='category' href='#{category_dir}/'>#{capitalized_category}</a>"

      case categories.length
      when 0
      when 1
        categories.join(', ')

It feels really nice to be able to chain apply transformations on categories as in the beginning of category_links. It flows a little bit nicer with the map attached to the List, so you can just type away, just a little nicer than Python map. Having done a lot of bash scripting in past months, the pattern is very familiar to the pipe chains feeding into while loops. It’s also familiar to be able to substitute variables into strings on the spot, too. Also, the return value being the value of the last expression in the block is familiar.

The other part that I really felt home with was working with Liquid.

<h1 class="category">Categories in Shiori</h1>
<ul class="posts">
{% for post in site.categories[page.category] %}
    <li><a class="post-title-archive" href="{{ post.url | prepend:site.baseurl }}">{{ post.title }}</a>
    <small class="text-muted">{{ post.date | date_to_string }}</small>
{% endfor %}

You can iterate over data and apply filters with a familiar pipe syntax, and that’s about it, which is a good idea. It forces you to write a custom filter if you need anything, which is straightforward (e.g. the first snippet defines the category_links filter).

When I was making reports a few months ago, I actually opted to use Jinja, which is Python’s Liquid. I didn’t really pursue it and wrote out a whole set of bash scripts because filesystem manipulation and unix tool usage was too clunky, but looking at what Ruby has [1] [2] strikes me as very nice. I really must take the plunge with Ruby for an object-oriented pipeline experience that I’m missing out on working with just bash.

  1. http://stackoverflow.com/a/166854/364977
  2. http://stackoverflow.com/a/2400/364977

2015 Kickoff

01 Jan 2015 / Filed under Diary

For old times sake, I ran about two and a half miles from home to Montgomery Hill to see the sunrise.

In the end, I didn’t stay long enough to see it peek over the mountains and it was too cold to sit still for any longer, but it was a nice change of pace to run someplace with elevation, with mountains on the horizon.

I’ve been thinking about my new year’s resolutions and I list some here in the form of weekly goals:

  1. Work out twice a week. No excuses, even imminent deadlines. I will make time for this because it’s important.
  2. Write a Japanese blog once a week. lang-8 is just an amazing discovery that I will be sure to run with.
  3. Write a code reading blog once a week. This is in addition to the weekly updates that I do on github.io to force myself to maintain my projects. I really need to read more in general, so this is the most practical spin I can put on this resolution.

There are some other things that I want to accomplish, too, but don’t really know exactly how I’m going to go about accomplishing them:

  1. Graduate by the end of the year. I’m crossing my fingers on the submission we have in the air, and I’ll get to work on the next contribution as soon as I can.
  2. Find a job that ideally allows me to go to Asia. I spent a lot of time in a massage chair doing some soul searching this winter break, and it seems like I would be happiest if I could send myself to Japan for work. I know the economic news and prospect is scary, but I would love to live in Japan. Alternatively, and probably more wisely, I can establish some stability at home first and keep on the lookout for opportunities.
  3. Pick up a Ruby project. This can probably be folded into code reading. It seems practical.

Thesis writing is prerequistie for graduation, so maybe I can get a head start on that with some weekly writing goal:

  1. Write at least a paragraph a day.

I feel like I need to make a lot of things happen this year. I really don’t have any time to waste, but things are looking up and life is good.

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Alex Tsui

Alex Tsui

Computer science grad student at UC Davis, writes C++, enjoys learning languages, and occasionally video games.