Best Wishes for the New Year

Usually, when I write articles for Linux Journal, they are of a patently technical nature. This article is going to be quite a bit different. As we head into the Holiday Season and the start of a new year, I've begun to think about what I want to do in the next year, and what I wish I had done with this year.

I've come up with a list of three things that I intend to do in the next year. I'm sharing them here in hopes that my list, and the reasoning behind it, will inspire you to make a similar list, and to accomplish great things in 2009.

So here we go.

These days, there is an almost unfathomable number of ways in which to communicate. I have a telephone, email, snail mail, and a multitude of Instant Messaging accounts. I have a cell phone and can send and receive text messages. I'm on MySpace. I can receive phone calls over the Internet via SIP. I'm on IRC and various mailing lists. You would think that I use these wonderful tools to keep in touch with friends and family. But I have to confess that I don't do such a good job in this area, and I'll bet that you don't do as well in this department as you could, either. The fact that I work in communications makes it doubly ironic that I do it so poorly.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that almost all of the technology that we work with from day to day, was created to bring people closer together. The telephone and email are great examples of bringing people closer together. Most of the problems that we tackle as System Administrators, or DBA's, or Hardware Technicians, are problems that need to be solved in order to enable people to communicate more effectively. Yet we, as the technical people that we are, tend to get caught up in the problem, and not the core value of the solution.

I think it's almost funny that we communicate with total strangers more frequently than we do with our friends and family. Most of us are on email lists for various topics. We tend to call to make reservations at a restaurant rather than have to wait for a table and spend time with the people we intend to eat with. Communication has become so inexpensive and ubiquitous, that we take it for granted and even forget how valuable it really is.

So for 2009, I've resolved to do a better job of keeping in touch with those people who are actually important in my life. I don't think anyone really expects, or needs, a formal letter once a week, but a simple IM once in a while would be perfect. So, I'm going to send my contact information (all of it) to all of my friends and family. I'm also going to try to gather the same information from them. Finally, I'm hoping to develop the habit of “just saying hi,” for no other reason than to “just say hi.”

As technical people, we have an immense power to improve the lives of others. I know the economy is tight; I'm sure feeling it, myself. But there are people and organizations out there that are truly needy. There are nursing homes where people need to learn how to use email so they can catch up with their grandchildren. One of the homeless shelters here in Albuquerque is trying to build a computer lab so their guests can learn a job skill. The problem is that they don't have the expertise to build it.

If you're reading this, you probably have a skill that could help someone, and you may not even know it. I recently volunteered to help a local charity. My job was to stuff newsletters into envelopes so they could be mailed. However, by the time I left, I was aware of just how profound their need was for technical help. They had a database where they managed their membership, but no one on staff who understood databases. They had no way of even “de-duping” their mailing list. Most of these organizations can't afford to upgrade their hardware in order to run the latest offerings from Redmond, but their existing equipment will probably run Linux and Open Office with little difficulty. These organizations don't have an IT staff, so they don't understand the importance of virus protection, system patches, and firewalls. I'm beginning to realize that most charitable organizations are in the same boat.

Those of us who saw Spider Man have heard that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Even though we all aren't Super Heroes, this statement is very apropos to us as Linux users, or Open Source Advocates. We are technical people and we live in the Information Age. You my be a Linux Expert, or a Web Developer, a Programmer, or a Multi-media producer. That's like being Healer during the Dark Ages, an Inventor during the Mechanical Revolution, or a Blacksmith during the Iron Age! So, I'm going to encourage you to use your powers responsibly and try to do some good in the world.

There are lots of places to volunteer. I've identified a few organizations where I think I can do some good, and that's my second goal for 2009. I don't want to try to tell you where, but I would like to encourage you to find somewhere that needs your technical skills and put them to work.

The computer field has been good to me. It's provided me with interesting problems to solve and I've made a good living in it for over 20 years now. I've enjoyed playing and working with Linux since I first installed version .83; that was back when Linux would boot off of a 5.25” DD floppy disk. Remember those? I, like many of you, wake up in the morning looking forward to solving the technical problems that lay ahead. Sometimes, I even go to bed thinking about the problems that didn't get solved. This type of thinking comes naturally to most Linux users. But, it's easy to become complacent.

Sometimes, you just have to step out of your comfort-zone and try something new, something that you've never done before, nor ever imagined that you would. I'll tell you a bit about a time when I tried something completely crazy. One day a few years ago, mainly for career reasons, I decided to try to do some writing. Now many of you might not think that's so crazy. But for me, it was. You see, I almost flunked highschool English. I have a degree in Mathematics. So I made a, very short, list of magazines that I felt I'd be even remotely qualified to write for. Then, I took the first name on my list, came up with a topic, and pitched an article. To my absolute astonishment, they accepted and published my article! And to my horror, I've discovered that I actually enjoy writing. Now I find myself in the unique position of getting to regularly write for one of the few magazines that I actually read. Of course, I'm referring to Linux Journal. I've been writing for them for some time now, and I've found them to be some of the nicest, easy to work with, people you could imagine.

And all this because I decided to do something crazy.

This year, I'm going to do something else crazy; I'm going to learn to play a musical instrument. I have a 5-string electric bass guitar that's been sitting in my living room for years now. This year, I'm going to learn to play it. So as my final suggestion for the New Year, I'd like to recommend that you try something new, something that is completely out of the norm. Maybe you want to learn to speak, or program, in a new language. Maybe you want to learn a new technology. I hear that Internet thing is going to be big. Perhaps run a marathon? Whatever it is, give it a try. You might fail; you might not even finish. But you will have tried, and that's more than many people can say. On the other hand, you may be successful beyond your wildest dreams. There's but one way to find out.

So there you have it, my plans for the next year. I'm sure you can come up with a list of your own. In the mean time, I wanted to take a moment to wish you all the best during the holiday season and the very best in 2009.

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