Archive for the ‘Me stuff’ Category

Ex-Googlers Score with Likaholix.com

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Last night I discovered likaholix.com and was able to get an account during their beta phase testing. You can see my likaholix page here, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot down some initial thoughts about it, because I do think it’s interesting.

Likaholix makes it Mind Numbingly Easy™ to quickly “like” something. To do that, all you do is type in a title for the thing you like, and then type a short description telling people why you like it. Then, add a couple of tags so the site can easily categorize your likes, making them easier for visitors to find.

Why is this cool? Well, a few reasons:

  1. The huge masses of internet users happen to really like reading reviews. This is pretty easy to prove. Go to technorati.com and you’ll see that sites like Engadget and Gizmodo and other sites that do reviews are among the most highly trafficked sites. Other sites that aren’t blogs, like CNET, are also enormously popular. And what’s your favorite feature of Amazon? I know what mine is: customer reviews!!
  2. The huge masses of internet users don’t really write thorough reviews, because they’re long and take time and more effort than you might think. However, just about anyone can tell you in 5 seconds or less why they like something, and are usually happy to do so.
  3. The huge masses of internet users don’t really read thorough reviews, because they’re just too damn long. I mean, sure, if you’re making a major purchase in your life, you might read every letter you can find about a product, but for many things, people just want the bullet points. I’m not aware of a limit on the number of characters you can use in your descriptions on likaholics, but it certainly doesn’t encourage you to ramble on, like, say, this WordPress interface does :-)
  4. The huge masses of internet users love the idea of being a trend setter, which likaholix facilitates. Perhaps even more, they tend to follow and respond to trends, and likaholix facilitates that, too, by making it really easy to connect with other people, assigning credibility points to users making them “tastemakers” in certain areas, and making it really easy to find recommendations for whatever you’re interested in.
  5. It’s appealing to huge masses of internet users, because it is, by definition, not specialized. You can like anything, and so this becomes sort of the internet equivalent to the “show about nothing”, Seinfeld, which if you remember, was hugely popular.

Of course, with the good comes the bad. There’s nothing really bad about likaholix, and the product is still in beta, so it’s very likely that it’ll change, but here are some quirks I noted:

  1. There’s no feedback link! Why have people sign up for a beta if they have no interface to tell you what’s going on, why they like/don’t like, etc? That’s goes beyond bad into this really bizarro world of… bizarreness.
  2. When you put in a title for your new like, likaholix tries to find a URL for what you’re about to describe. If you pick one of those URL’s, it changes your title to whatever the page title is of the URL you chose. That’s bad, because a) I would say most sites don’t pay proper attention to what their page titles should look like, and b) I typed in my title for a reason. Please don’t subvert my attempt to communicate through the use of an effective title.
  3. Also, when you type in a title, while you’re typing, there’s a drop down that’ll appear with suggested completions. This is, unfortunately, too clunky and slow to be effective. Several times something would appear, and the right choice would barely have time to catch my eye before disappearing again. This is probably due to lag between results being generated and my typing. This means I’m sitting there pushing the back button, maybe a few times, then typing letter by letter very slowly until it comes back. At least the results are cached; I was usually able to get back to the right set of results and pick what I intended.
  4. You can only be a tastemaker in two categories, and that kinda sucks, but I think I understand why that is: they’d probably like you to focus on one or two areas and “own the topic”, which is a big catch-phrase in the blogosphere. I think it’s kind of lame, but it’s not a big deal, and it’ll probably change anyway.
  5. likaholix will post your likes to twitter, but with no link back to the site, and no indication that the tweet came from likaholix whatsoever! What’s the point? I’m sure this will change. I’ve disabled the feature on my account for the time being, and opted to post my likes to facebook, where people are less likely to have a real-time interface spamming them with my likes all day.

In the end, I think likaholix is a hit. I’ve never used a single site to get product reviews and recommendations, but now I might. I understand that this site only shows good reviews, but bad reviews are so easy to find that I don’t really care, and if the masses tend not to like something, then the fact that a site with (someday) millions of users mentions a product a mere 3 times will be indication enough. “If you have nothing nice to say…” and all that.

Also, if I want to know if some gadget, we’ll call it ‘foo’, sucks, Googling for “foo sucks” still works like a charm.

Marc Andreessen on Everything

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Marc Andreessen was on Charlie Rose last night, and I missed it. A buddy told me about it, and I wanted to watch, but things just got in the way. So here it is.

So, this is the very first time I’ve ever embedded video into a blog post. I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

I’ve never even heard Marc Andreessen talk until tonight, to be honest. I’ve been a huge fan of his actual technical work, and I’ve read some of his writings, and you almost can’t help but follow his career if you work with internet-related things directly, but I’ve somehow missed him at all of the conferences, never seen an interview… until now. And you know, it turns out that in this interview, he validates several posts that have been lying around on this blog for some time.

He talks about the evolution of web commerce and cloud computing and how it lowers the bar for startups.

He talks about news, newspapers and how they absolutely must kill the print edition, now.

He talks about social media, where it came from, where it’s going, “viral”, etc.

This is not to compare myself to Andreessen in any way — that’s ludicrous. But it’s nice to get some validation from on high for some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve had. Now if only I could write a tool that will lay the foundation for the next generation of human interaction, I’ll be all set 😉

It should go without saying that I learned some things, but the biggest thing I learned came from just a tiny little quip buried in the middle of the video somewhere. He says, while talking about the iPhone, that it was “beamed in from 5 years in the future”. I think problems should be thought about that way in general. I’ve adopted a new way of thinking about products and services from pondering on this for all of 5 minutes. Find a service that solves a problem now, or find a problem that exists now — either one. Now think about how that problem will be solved in 5 years. Now set a deadline for solving that problem in 1 year.

Sounds impossible? Not a chance. Impossible is just another excuse to get creative, change your perspective, rethink the problem, and produce a solution. Listening to really smart people talk can be inadvertently inspiring. Thanks Marc!

10 Mistakes in Systems Management

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

I’ve seen the inside of lots and lots of businesses over the past decade or so. Though the technology has changed somewhat dramatically in many areas of the data center, the general, high-level methodologies for building a sane environment can still be applied. While the implementation is typically done by system administrators, it also helps if their managers and people who hire systems administrators are at least moderately clueful.

While it’s true that the high-level methodologies haven’t changed, likewise, the ways in which people abuse or neglect them hasn’t really changed much either. Here’s a list of things to avoid, and things to jump on, when building and growing your environment.

  1. Don’t hire systems administrators: I have to say, that this is a problem I only used to see in very small businesses who couldn’t afford them, and perhaps didn’t warrant having one full-time, and this is changing it seems. I have now spoken with perhaps 4 managers in as many months that should really have at least one full-time sysadmin, and instead are just assigning systems tasks to volunteers from the engineering team. The results are disastrous, and get worse as time passes and the environment grows.At least develop an ongoing relationship with a systems guru and bring them in for projects as they arise — that’s worlds better than the results you get from doling out the tasks to people who don’t really have a systems background.The problem isn’t that any given task is “hard”. Most aren’t. The problem is actually multi-faceted: First, if something goes wrong, developers typically don’t have the background to understand the implications and impact of that. He also probably doesn’t have the experience to quickly fix the problem. Further, he may not know of a resource to get authoritative information on the topic (hint: online forums are not typically the best source of authoritative information for complex systems issues.)
  2. Don’t automate: I’m an advocate of investing in automation very early and very often. If you’re just starting your business, and it relies heavily on technology, the first wave of systems you buy should include a machine to facilitate automated installation in some form. The reasons for this are many, but a couple of big ones are:
    • Consistency: if your system builds are easily repeatable, you can typically set up an automated install regime to make base installs identical, and alter only those parts of the install that support some unique service the system provides. You can then be sure that, to a very large degree, all of your machines are identical in terms of the packages installed, the base service configurations, the user environment, etc.
    • Server-to-Sysadmin ratio: automating just about anything in your system environment results in less overhead in terms of man hours devoted to that task. Automating the installation, backups, monitoring, log rotation, etc., means that each system administrator you hire can manage a larger number of machines.
  3. Make security an afterthought: Security should be a very well thought out component of everything you do. People have been preaching this for eons, and yet it’s pretty clear to me that plenty (I might even say a majority) of businesses don’t even practice the basics, like keeping on top of security updates to systems and applications, removing/archiving user accounts when people leave the company, and setting up a secure means of remote access.Security breaches are a nightmare, typically. There are a lot of questions to answer when it happens, and most of them take some time and manual drudgery to answer. In addition, machines need to be reimaged, data needs to be recovered, audits need to take place, and of course, the big one: everyone has to spend time in meetings to talk about all of this, and then, magically, projects are planned to immediately insure that it never happens again… until it does, because the only time those projects gain priority is when a breach occurs. Get on top of it now, and save yourself the headaches, and costs, and other potential (and way bigger) disasters.
  4. Don’t plan for failure: “plan for failure” is presently a term bandied about in relation to building scalable, reliable services using large numbers of machines, but the phrase also applies to good old infrastructure services. For example, for some reason, there are managers out there who demand that DNS services be handled by in-house systems, and then they end up with only a single DNS server for their entire domain! I’m not kidding! I’ve seen that twice in the past year, and that’s too much. For every service you deploy, you should make a list of all of the interdependencies that arise from the use of that service. Then determine what your tolerance for downtime is for that particular service, taking into account services that might go away if this service is unavailable. Why? Because it’s going to fail. If the service itself doesn’t fail, something else will — like the hard drive — and your end users won’t know or care about the difference. They’ll just know the service is gone.
  5. Don’t communicate: as environments grow and become more complex, changes, tweaks, and modifications will be required. No systems environment I’ve ever seen is static. You’re going to want to implement services a little differently to offer more security, more reliability, a better overall user experience, or whatever. Communicating with the people you serve about these changes should be a part of the planning for projects like this. Users should know that a change is happening, how and when it’s happening, how they’ll be affected during the time of the change, and, hopefully, how their lives will be better because of the change.In addition, you should be thinking about how you’ll communicate with your systems team, and your users, in the event of a catastrophe. Do you have an out-of-bound mechanism for communication that doesn’t depend on your network being alive? If, I dunno, you lost commercial power, say, causing your UPS to kick itself on and immediately blow up, leaving your entire data center completely black, and you were the only person in the building, how would you get in touch with people to help you through the disaster? Note that this implies that your email server, automated phone routing, etc., are down as well.
  6. Don’t utilize metrics: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” holds true in systems management as well. How do you know when you’ll need more disk? How do you know when your database server will start to perform badly? How do you know when to think about that reverse proxy for your web servers? You need to monitor everything. Resource utilization metrics are a key to growing your environment in a cost-effective way while still giving services the resources they need.
  7. Don’t utilize monitoring: not metrics in this case, but service and system availability monitoring. What’s the cost to you if your website is unavailable for 1 minute? One hour? One day? If your database server, which serves your web site, goes down at 10pm and nobody knows about it until 8am, how does that affect your business? In reality, you *always* have availability monitoring: your customers will be your alert mechanism in the absence of any other monitoring solution. And what’s the cost in terms of the perception of the service you provide as a result? Monitoring can be non-trivial, but it is absolutely essential in almost all environments.
  8. Don’t use revision control: Revision control can get you and your team out of so many headaches that I can’t list them all here. I’m not even going to tell you which tools to consider, because if you’re running an environment without revision control, almost anything is better than what you have. Revision control can be used to save different versions of all of the configuration files on your systems, documentation for all of your systems, all of the code written in your environment (i.e. those scripts used for system automation, etc.), and your automated installation template files. It can also be utilized in the chain of tools used to perform rollouts of new applications in a sane way (it can also be used to do rollouts in insane ways, but that’s another post). Revision control is equal parts disaster recovery, convenience, accountability, consistency, and control. To the extent that activity can be measured, it also provides metrics.
  9. Don’t use configuration management: Depending on the size of the environment, this can come down to something as simple as an NFS mount or a set of imaging templates, with maybe some rsync-ish scripts around (in a revision control system!), or it can get complex, involving things like Puppet or CFEngine, along with other tools depending on your platform and other restrictions. The idea, though, is to abstract away some of the low-level, manual drudgery that goes along with systems management, so that you can, to quote the Puppet website, “focus more on how things should be done and less on doing them.” This ties in nicely with things like revision control, recoverability, the goals of consistency, automation, and increasing your system-to-sysadmin ratio.
  10. Don’t be a people person: All of IT, not just systems management, has historically had issues communicating with business unit personnel. Likewise, business personnel have no idea how to communicate with IT personnel. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, generally being good with people, communication, perceiving and predicting the needs of others, will be very beneficial in winning consensus and gaining support for your projects. If nothing else, your career benefits from having a reputation of having good interpersonal skills and being an “all around good guy.” I know this is a completely non-technical item, but my experience is that some very large problems in systems management are not related to technology, but rather people.

Advanced Linux Course… In Chicago… In January!

Friday, January 9th, 2009

You heard it right, folks. I’ll be in lovely downtown Chicago for two weeks. Actually, I’m teaching 4 classes, each one consisting of a week’s worth of half-day sessions. 1 beginner course, two intermediate courses, and an advanced course. I’ll also be returning in February to do an intermediate and advanced course. This was the result of a successful full-week course I delivered in NYC that was 5 full days of advanced Linux training. Of course, what’s beginner and what’s advanced, I’ve learned, varies very widely among training clients. The beginner course I’m teaching next week is geared toward power users of other OSes, so I can assume a lot of basic high-level knowledge, while another beginner course I’m doing in Feb or March for a different client assumes that the user is not even very advanced at being a Windows end user!

What determines “advanced” is different too. Once you are “Advanced”, you can be advanced in different aspects and usage scenarios. The advanced course I’m teaching one client is dealing very heavily with two main areas: scripting/data munging, and system profiling and performance. An odd mix, but I do custom content development for on-site training clients, unless I have existing modules covering the topics they need, in which case they can pick and choose to put together their course, or have me query them for information and put together a proposed package.

There’s still one nagging issue with my Linux training handout. The content is good. I’ve gotten good feedback on it from some sharp people. However, I’m using OpenOffice to put it all together, and I’m having a bear of a time putting together a good index. My belief is that all indexes, for all books, are lacking, but this goes beyond that into “wtf?”-space. The main problem is that the index generating tool in OOo lets you say that this word should be matched on the “Whole word”, but that’s the exact opposite of what I need. What that feature does is it only puts a page listing in the index if the *entire word* exists on that page. What I need is an option that says something like “standalone”, where the page isn’t listed unless the word is surrounded by a word boundary on either side. You’d be shocked at how many everyday words contain standard Linux commands in them. “rm” and “ls” are particularly troublesome. Almost every page would be listed in the index! If anyone has tips on external tools or other OOo techniques, definitely leave links or comments!!

At some point, probably while I’m in Chicago holed up in a hotel, I’ll post the modules I have put together so far on the web site of my business that I perform training out of (I have a one-man LLC these days).

2009: Waiting to Exhale

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Lots of blogs list a bunch of stuff that happened in the year just past, and I have done a year-in-review post before, but in looking back at posts on this blog and elsewhere, what strikes me most is not the big achievements that took place in technology in 2008, but rather the questions that remain unanswered. So much got started in 2008 — I’m really excited to see what happens with it all in 2009!

Cloud Computing

Technically, the various utility or ‘cloud’ computing initiatives started prior to 2008, but in my observation, they gained more traction in 2008 than at any other time. At the beginning of 2008, I was using Amazon’s S3, and testing to expand into more wide use of EC2 during my time as Technology Director for AddThis.com (pre-buyout). I was also investigating tons of other technologies that take different approaches to the higher-level problem these things all try to solve: owning, and housing (and cooling… and powering…) equipment. Professionally, I’ve used or tested heavily AppLogic, GoGrid, and all of the Amazon services. Personally, I’ve also tried Google App Engine.

2008 was a banner year for getting people to start tinkering with these technologies, and we’ve seen the launch of ‘helper’ services like RightScale, which puts a very pretty (and quite powerful) face on the Amazon services. The question now is whether the cost-benefit analyses, and the security and availability story is going to be compeling enough to lure in more and bigger users. I think 2009 is going to be the year that makes or breaks some of these initiatives.

The other question I have about cloud computing, which I’ve been asking since the last half of 2007, is “where does all of this leave the sysadmin?” It seems to me that a great many of the services being trotted out for users to play with seek to provide either user-level GUI interfaces, or low-level developer-centric interfaces to solve problems that historically have been the purview of system administrators. I’ve been wondering if it will force sysadmins to become more dev-centric, developers to become more system-savvy, if it will force more interaction between the two camps, or if it means death to sysadmins on some level, to some degree, or for some purposes.

I really think there’s a lot of hype surrounding the services, but I also think there’s enough good work being done here that 2009 could begin to reveal a sea change in how services are delivered and deployed on the web.

Drizzle

If you’re working in the web 2.0, uber-scaling space, and you’re using MySQL, chances are your relationship with your database is less ideal than it was when you were using it to run your blog or your recipe database. As you try to scale MySQL through various means, you find that there are lots of things that could be handled better to make MySQL scale more gracefully. Some extra internal accounting and instrumentation would also be nice. In many cases, it would also be nice to just cut out all of the crap you know you’re not going to use. If you’re looking to sharding, it would be good if there was a database that was born after the notion of sharding became widely understood.

Drizzle is a project started by some MySQL gurus to take a great experimental leap toward what could become a beacon in the dark sea of high scalability. At the very least, it will serve as a foundation for future work in creating databases that are more flexible, more manageable, and, more easily scaled. Of course, it’s also likely that Drizzle will be tied more closely to a slightly narrower audience, but I can say from experience that had the ideals of the Drizzle team been fully realized in an open source product prior to 2008, I may not have even installed MySQL in the first place. I had at least a passing familiarity with what I was getting myself into, and pulled the trigger to use MySQL based on criteria that deviated somewhat from pure technological merit. 😉

I don’t believe Drizzle has announced any kind of timeline for releases. I wouldn’t expect them to. Instead, the first release will probably be announced on blogs in various places with links to downloads or something. The Cirrus Milestone for the project seems to focus quite a bit on cleanup, standardization, and things that, to prospective deployers, are relatively uninteresting. But I think 2009 will at least see Drizzle getting to the point where it can support more developers, and make more progress, more quickly. In 2009, I think we’ll see people doing testing with Drizzle with more serious goals in mind than just tinkering, and I think in 2010 we’ll see production employments. Call me crazy – it’s my prediction.

Microsoft

Windows market share on the desktop, it was recently reported by IDC, has dropped below 90% for the first time in something like 15 years, to 89.6%. Mac users now represent 9.1% of the market, and the rest is owned by Linux, at a paltry 0.9%.

It would seem that OS X has eaten away a few percentage points from Windows, and done perhaps more damage to the Linux space. I have no data to back that up at the moment – I’m going by the enormous shift from Linux to OS X between OSCON 2006 and OSCON 2008. I’ll let you know what I see at LISA 2009, which I plan to attend.

But what about Microsoft? Sure, they’re the company IT wonks love to hate, but the question of how their apparent (marketed) direction will affect their products and business is one that truly fascinates me. Microsoft has become the Herbert Hoover of American software companies, while Apple is FDR, perceived as having saved many of us from the utter depression and despair of the Hoover years (insert joke about sucking here).

Microsoft is enormous. It moves horribly slowly. It has shown a stubborness in the past that would seem difficult for something so large to shake off. Their products reflect this big, slow, obstinacy. What end users need is a software company that is going to lead its users in the direction they’re all moving in already on their own. It can no longer be about “allowing users” to do things (Ballmer has used such phrasing in the past). It needs to be about enabling and empowering, and getting the hell out of the user’s way.

The big question I think 2009 will answer is whether or not Ray Ozzie can affect change to either the culture, or the mechanics of how Microsoft does business (either one is likely to have a drastic effect on the other).

Python 3.0

It’s here already. I, for one, am quite excited about it. I think that GvR, Alex Martelli, Steve Holden, and others have put forth a very admirable effort to communicate with users and developers about what changes are imminent, what they mean, and how to prepare to move forward. I think 2009 is going to require 100% of the communication effort expended in 2008 in order to continue to rally the troops. I don’t know, but would imagine that the powers that be can see that as well, and so it will be. Assuming I’m right there, adoption will increase in the community, and the community buzz resulting from the wider adoption will begin to take some of the pressure off of the really big names, who quite honestly have craploads of other things to work on!

I believe that by summer 2009 we’ll see Python 2.6 migrations happening more rapidly, and a year out from that point we’ll start to see the wave of 3.0 migrations building to more tsunami-like proportions.

Another question: is there sufficien new adoption of Python going on to register 3.0 on the usage scale? Probably not now, but hopefully in 2009…

USA Gets a CTO

I’ve read a few articles about this, but all I’ve read really just amounts to noise and speculation. What, exactly, will the CTO be charged with? I’ve seen Ed Felten floated as a candidate for the position, but he’s not a person who’s going to want to run in and try to herd cats to try to standardize their desktop computing platform. I think if the CTO position is going to take charge of the things Felten has already shown a keen interest in (namely, high-level IT policy, the effect of technology on society, privacy and security… as it relates to the former two items, etc), then there could be nobody better for the job. Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy is one of the few places (maybe the only place) I’d actually take a pay cut to join ;-P

I imagine that 2009 will answer the questions surrounding the nation’s very first CTO.

It’s The Economy!

I’m a freelance technology consultant and trainer. Anyone who is making a living freelancing is probably wondering about the state of the economy, no matter where they live (incidentally, I live in the US). The numbers aren’t good. The S&P is down something like 41% this year – the largest drop on record. The state of the markets in general, along with the failing of the banks and their subsequent appearance in Senate committee hearings, as well as the deflationary spiral in the housing market (and predicted more general deflationary spiral) invoke images of bread lines and soup kitchens… or at least very little work for freelancers.

Personally, I have a lot to lose if things *really* go south to the degree that they did in the 1930’s, but I have to say that I don’t think it’ll happen. If you’re worried about this becoming the next Great Depression and are really losing sleep over it, I recommend you read a book called “The Great Depression” by Robert S. McElvaine. There are probably tons of books you can read, but this is one I happen to like. It’s full of both fact and opinion, but the opinions are well-reasoned, and loudly advertised as being opinions (you’re not likely to find a book about any topic relating to economics that isn’t full of opinions anyway).

What I think you’ll find is that, while there are a lot of parallels between now and then, there are lots of things that *aren’t* parallel as well (partly as a result of the depression – for example, the US is no longer on the gold standard, and both banks and securities trading are infinitely more regulated now). Also, not all of the parallels are bad. For example, things began to improve (though slightly at first) almost the day a new Democratic leader replaced the outgoing Republican regime.

My advice (which I hope I can follow myself): If the market numbers bother you, don’t look. Service your customers, don’t burn any bridges, rebuild the ones you can, build new ones where you can, and above all, Do Good Work. When you don’t have work, market, volunteer, and build your network and friendships. Don’t eat lunch alone, as they say.

What are you wondering about?

My list is necessarily one-sided. A person can be into only so many things at once. What kinds of tech-related questions are you searching for answers on as we enter the new year?

Holiday Project: Plot Google Calendar Events on Google Map

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

[UPDATE: 2009/08/08]: I’ve now gotten stuck on two separate projects, trying to find a bridge between Python code that generates data, and javascript code that is apparently required in order to present it. I haven’t found such a bridge. For one project, I was able to do what I needed with ReportLab (there was no webification requirement). For this project, it’s pretty useless if it’s not on the web, imho. So until I either break down and decide to deal with the monstrosity that *is* javascript, or someone else takes this code and runs with it, here it sits. There is only a slight chance I’ll decide Javascript is something I want to deal with. I’ve written some code in javascript. I’ve never enjoyed it, and I’m not very good at it.

While putting together the US Technical Conferences calendar over the past week or two, I noticed that the location of probably 80% of them (I’m guessing – it’s probably higher) is somewhere in California. I’ve always noticed that there is this trend to hold technical conferences in California, because there’s an enormous concentration of technology workers there. But c’mon! How about an OSCON East or something?

Anyway, I have more going on this holiday season than usual, but I always try to spend some of the downtime doing something interesting, and the Google Maps API is probably one of the few Google APIs I’ve never used. What better way to expose the inequity in conference locales than to plot all of my Tech Conference calendar events on a Google Map? Oh, and it’d be useful for people to be able to visually see where conferences are, and maybe color-code the markers according to Q1 2009, Q2 2009, etc.

I’ll be doing this in Python, by the way, though I’m pretty sure I’ve decided to go ahead and use javascript for the Maps portion. There *is* a Python utility that attempts to relieve you of the hellhound that is javascript, but it’s not documented at all that I’ve seen, and wrappers that attempt to generate javascript tend to be flaky (including one I wrote myself – I’m not picking here). I’m also using geopy for the geocoding, because it provides more flexibility than hard-coding calls against the Google Maps API.

By the way, this isn’t like some new fantastic idea I had. Someone else came up with a solution that works quite some time ago, but it involved several steps including Yahoo pipes and stuff. I really just wanted a script that, called with a parameter or two, would dump the appropriate .html file into a directory, or better, would just be called directly from the browser and take input (baby steps). Later, there are aspirations of plugging it into Django, an area where Google Maps has already seen some integration work, and another victim of my recent exploration/experimentation.

So, I already have some prototype code that might be useful for others who are maybe just starting out with the Calendar API. This bit of code will create an authenticated CalendarService object and dump the title and location of events on a calendar of your choosing. The assumption here is that the location is in some form that is parseable by whatever geocoding service you decide to use. For me (for now), I’m just using city and state locations – not addresses. Here goes:

#!/usr/bin/env python

try:
  from xml.etree import ElementTree # for Python 2.5 users
except ImportError:
  from elementtree import ElementTree
import gdata.calendar.service
import gdata.service
import atom.service
import gdata.calendar
import getpass
import atom
import getopt
import sys
import string
import time
import geopy

calendar_service = gdata.calendar.service.CalendarService()
calendar_service.email = 'you@gmail.com'
calendar_service.password = getpass.getpass()
calendar_service.ProgrammaticLogin()
cal_id = 'id_from_calendar_settings_page_or_email_for_your_default_cal'
feed = calendar_service.GetCalendarEventFeed('/calendar/feeds/'+cal_id+'/private/full')
geo = geopy.geocoders.Google('your_google_api_key')

print feed.title.text  # the name of the calendar we're sucking feeds out of.
for event in feed.entry:
  print event.title.text, event.where[0].value_string # The event name, and location.
  (lat,lon) = geo.geocode(event.where[0].value_string)
  print lat,lon

It’s a start. Next I need to figure out the steps between this stage and making the actual cool stuff happen. Hopefully I’ll be back with an update right around the new year.

What Ordinary Users Think About IE: Debunked

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Point all of your chain-mail-forwarding family and friends at this post. It’s a collection of things people have said to me, or that I’ve overheard, that reveal little tidbits about what people are thinking when they use IE.

I have to use IE – it’s my internet!

IE is not your internet. IE is what’s known as a web browser. There are lots of different web browsers. IE just happens to be the one that comes with Windows. It doesn’t make it a good browser or anything. It’s just there in the event that you have no other browser. If the only browser on your system is IE, the first thing you should do is use it to download Firefox by clicking here.

If IE is so horrible, how come everyone uses it?

They don’t, actually. There was a time not too long ago where over 90% of internet users used IE. However, with the constant flood of security issues (IE usage really should be considered dangerous at this point), IE’s horrible support of web standards (which makes it hard for web developers to create cool sites for you to use), and its inability to keep up with really cool features in modern browsers, its share of the internet usage market has been declining steadily over the last couple of years. In fact, this source puts IE usage at around 45% currently, so not even a majority of people use IE anymore, if statistics are to be believed. Accurate statistics for browser use are difficult to nail down, and are probably more useful to discern a trend, not hard numbers. Still, the usage trend for IE is moving downward, steadily, and not particularly slowly. If you’re still using IE, you’re almost a dinosaur. Just about the entire tech-savvy world has migrated over to Firefox, with small contingents choosing Safari (Mac only) and Chrome (Windows only). Very small camps also use Opera and Konqueror.

This is also not to be trusted, but it’s my opinion based on observation of the IT field over the past 10 years: of the 40% of people still using IE, probably half of them are forced to use it in their offices because they don’t have the proper permissions on their office computers to install anything else. The other half probably just don’t realize they have any choice in the matter. You do. There are other browsers. I’ve named a few in this post. Go get one, or three, of them.

Will all of the sites I use still work?

It has always been exceedingly rare that a web site actually *requires* IE in order to work properly. Your online banking, email, video, pictures, shopping, etc., will all still work. The only time you might need IE around is to use the Microsoft Update website. In all likelihood, you’ll be much happier with your internet experience using something like Firefox than you ever were with IE. Think about it this way: I’m a complete geek. I use the internet for things ordinary users didn’t even know you could do. I bank, shop, communicate, manage projects, calendars and email, registered and run my business completely online. It’s difficult to think of a task that can be done on the internet that I don’t use the internet for, and I haven’t used IE in probably 8 years, and have not had any issues. If you find a web site that absolutely, positively CANNOT be used UNLESS you’re viewing it with IE, please post it in the comments, and I’ll create a “hall of shame” page to list them all, along with alternative sites you can access WITHOUT IE, which probably provide a better service anyway :)

I’m not technical enough to install another browser.

Who told you that?! That’s silly. You installed Elf Bowling didn’t you? C’mon, I know you did. Or what about that crazy toolbar that’s now fuddling up your IE window? Or those icons blinking down near the clock that you forgot the purpose of. At some point, you have installed something on your computer, and it was, in all likelihood, harder to do than installing Firefox would be. It’s simple. You go here, click on the huge Firefox logo, and it presents you with super-duper easy instructions (with pictures!) and a download. It takes less than 3 minutes to install, and you DO NOT have to know what you’re doing in any way or be geeky in any way to install it. If you can tell whether you’re computer is turned on or not, you’re overqualified to be a professional Firefox installer.

I Like IE. I have no problems with IE.

Whether you realize it or not, you have problems with IE, believe me. I had a cousin who said he had no problems with IE too. Then he came to my house one day, knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he handed me a hard drive from his computer. He said that all of his pictures of his first-born child were on there, and his computer had contracted a virus, and he couldn’t even boot from the hard drive. So it was up to me to recover the only pics he had of his only son being born. True story. Turns out, I tracked down the virus on the hard drive, and it was contracted by IE. Also, it wasn’t the only virus he had. If you think you’re safe because you have antivirus software, you’re sadly mistaken. He had it installed too, but it hadn’t been updated in 6 months, so any viruses released since the last update weren’t recognized by the antivirus software, and were allowed to roam freely onto his hard drive.

There has never, in the history of browsers, been a worse track record with regards to security than IE. Never. I promise – but you’re free to Google around for yourself. Half of the reason antivirus software even exists is purely to protect IE users (though email viruses are a problem independent of what browser you use, admittedly).

The other reason you might say you like IE is because you’ve never used anything else. As an alternative, I strongly suggest giving Firefox a shot.

Why do you care what browser I use?

I’m a technology guy. I’m one of those people that would work with technology even if he wasn’t being paid. Some people care about cooking, or quilting, or stained glass, or candlemaking, or knitting, or sewing, or horticulture, or wine. Heck, my mom cares about every single one of those things! Me, I care about technology, and I care about the internet. I want the internet to be a better place. Browsers play a non-trivial role in making the internet a better place. Also, one reason I care about technology is that it helps people do things they might otherwise be unable to do. Browsers enable users to do great things, and it allows us developers to make great things available to you. But when countless hours are spent trying to make things work with IE, it just slows everything down, and you don’t get cool stuff on the internet nearly as fast as you could.

So, it’s less about me caring what browser you use. In fact, I don’t really care if you use Firefox or not, it just happens to be the best browser out there currently. If you want to try something completely different, I encourage that too. It’s more about me caring about technology, the internet, and your browsing experience.

Open Source Technology US Conference Calendar

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

One of the best ways to keep up with your field and network at the same time is to attend conferences. It’s one of the things I look forward to every year. After learning that O’Reilly has decided to commit blasphemy and *not* hold OSCON in Portland, Oregon the same week as the Oregon Brewers Festival, I was inspired to look around at what other conferences I might attend in 2009. Turns out, this is a huge pain in the ass, because I can’t find a single, central place that lists all of the conferences I’m likely to be interested in.

So… I created a public Google Calendar. It’s called “US Technical Conferences”. It needs more conferences, but I’ve listed the interesting ones I found. In order to keep the calendar from getting overwhelmingly crowded, I’ve decided that conferences on the list should:

  • Deal with open source technology in some way. This is purposely broad.
  • Be at least 3 days in length

If you want something added to the calendar, I’d be delighted to know about more conferences, so leave a comment! If you want to subscribe to the calendar, it’s public – the xml feed is here, and ical is here.

Linux on Laptop = Epic Fail

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

I brought my MacBook Pro in for a warranty repair yesterday around noon. Since then I’ve been using a Lenovo T61 to get basic work done, and also to see if any progress has been made in the area of Linux support for my laptop. I bought this laptop specifically because a website said that it was very well supported by Linux distributions “out of the box”, including video and wireless. I was sure to make hardware choices that didn’t require special third-party drivers… I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so I have some understanding of how to buy a laptop that I plan to put Linux on. Well, this time I apparently failed.

First, I had Ubuntu installed, and I was never able to keep the wireless card working consistently. To be honest, Ubuntu is the best distro I’ve had on this thing so far. Next, I gave OpenSUSE 11 a shot, and there’s been no end to the issues. Of course, it started with the wireless card. I have an Intel 3945ABG wireless card, according to lspci and dmesg output. In fact, here’s my lspci output right here:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile PM965/GM965/GL960 Memory Controller Hub (rev 0c)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:19.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation 82566MM Gigabit Network Connection (rev 03)
00:1a.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #4 (rev 03)
00:1a.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #5 (rev 03)
00:1a.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) HD Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 2 (rev 03)
00:1c.2 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 3 (rev 03)
00:1c.3 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 4 (rev 03)
00:1c.4 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 5 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev f3)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801HBM (ICH8M-E) LPC Interface Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.1 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) IDE Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) SATA AHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) SMBus Controller (rev 03)
03:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 3945ABG Network Connection (rev 02)
15:00.0 CardBus bridge: Ricoh Co Ltd RL5c476 II (rev ba)
15:00.1 FireWire (IEEE 1394): Ricoh Co Ltd R5C832 IEEE 1394 Controller (rev 04)
15:00.2 SD Host controller: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C822 SD/SDIO/MMC/MS/MSPro Host Adapter (rev 21)
15:00.3 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C843 MMC Host Controller (rev ff)
15:00.4 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C592 Memory Stick Bus Host Adapter (rev 11)
15:00.5 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd xD-Picture Card Controller (rev 11)

I’m running the KDE4 desktop, and tried using the default NetworkManager icon that’s in the systray to get things working. From what I saw there, it appeared that my card wasn’t scanning. I put in my network details manually, and tried to connect, and it failed with no errors. In the NetworkManager log there was lots of output, but nothing particularly useful. It just said the association took to long and that it was now marking that connection as ‘invalid’. Great. So here I am, trying to use Linux on the desktop, and only 5 minutes after the very first system boot, I’m tailing log files and debugging, and basically playing sysadmin, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing on my desktop system. Restart NetworkManager, see what dhclient is doing, reboot, check /etc/modprobe.d, lsmod…. fail. Now what?

Well, I opened kwifimanager, and it said that I had indeed associated with an access point. So… I *am* scanning? Hmm. I had no IP address, so I figured I had probably fat-fingered my WEP settings somewhere. Tailing /var/log/messages agrees, saying WEP decryption is failing. So I double-check everything, all looks normal and correct to me, I try again, and No Bueno. *sigh*.

Finally, I reverted to command-line tactics, and ran this little line:

iwconfig wlan0 essid <myssid> key <mykey>

Magically, it works, where all of the GUI nonsense had failed. Now here’s a question: how the hell do you get this to “just work” at boot time? Well, I had about 10 emails to send to clients, so I put that question off and fired up a browser and…. fail. WTF?

I had an IP address, pinged my router, pinged another host on the network, all good. Pinged an external IP I know by heart, fail. Ugh. Ran ‘cat /etc/resolv.conf’ — empty. Apparently, dhclient didn’t update the information it got from my router. It also didn’t update when I set the domain in NetworkManager to ‘home’, because it still said ‘search site’. I added the proper lines in there, and tried again in the browser… fail. Now what?!?

Ran ‘netstat -rn’. I don’t have a default gateway. *sigh*…

route add default gw 192.168.1.1

And I finally have internet access.

Of course, I can’t work 24 hours a day, so I went to bed, and left my laptop running so I could get right back to work in the morning. Or not.

I had foolishly chosen to use an OpenGL screensaver. Overnight, it completely locked up the machine, rendering it useless without forcibly rebooting it. So much for getting right back to work.

Well, let’s see if I can get some of these issues fixed by updating the software, since I’m now at least connected to the internet (of course, after the forced reboot, I had to do the iwconfig->route add routine again). Ran the updater, picked some extra repositories, and it goes off to set things up. Unfortunately, it also prompts me to import probably 50 or so GPG keys. Annoying. More annoying is, after all of that, it fails to update any of my software, even though it tells me there are updates available. Why you ask? Here’s what I got…

Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click ok. Get same error again. Click ok. Get slightly different error…

Unexpected exception. Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click Ok, get another message…

Please file a bug report about this. See http://en.opensuse.org/Zypper#Troubleshooting for instructions.

I go there, the URL isn’t valid. I find the Troubleshooting page on my own, and there’s a bunch of generic troubleshooting information there. More command line sysadmin-ish stuff in there. Just the kind of stuff I don’t need to be spending otherwise billable time on. I give up and decide that I’ll just deal with it in its broken-ass state for the next 10 hours or so until I can get my beloved MacBook Pro back.

On Remote Workers and Working Remotely

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

I’ve been on both sides of the remote worker relationship. On the manager side, I’ve managed some good-sized projects using an all-remote work force. Indeed, I’ve hired, managed, fired, and promoted workers without ever knowing what they look like. On the worker side, I do most of my work remotely, and I have for some time now. Judging by the amount of repeat business I get, I’d say that I’m more than acceptably productive working remotely.

In dealing with various clients, recruiters, prospective employers, business owners, and talking to friends who manage people for a living, I’ve heard pretty much every excuse/reason there is for not wanting to deal with a remote work force. I’ve heard and experienced successes with remote workers as well, and they all have a few key things in common, which are missing from the stories of failure. I’ll talk about them in a minute.

I first want to just say that I’m not some kind of fanboy who thinks remote workers are the answer to every problem. There are valid reasons for not having remote workers. For example, it’d be hard to build cars with a remote work force. Some things (some!) just require a physical presence. Whoever maintains the printers at your company really has to be around to change out ink cartridges and stuff like that.

There are certain classes of jobs, though, that are well-suited to working remotely. There are even classes of jobs that are necessarily performed remotely to some degree (field sales and support technicians for example), that could be made 100% remote with the proper tools and processes in place.

So what makes a remote worker success story different from a story of failure?

Always be prepared…

The number one difference I’ve seen between success and failure in managing a remote work force is that  successful managers spent the time to prepare the managers, the team, the department, the organization, and the remote workers themselves to work remotely.

If you don’t prepare for a remote work force, you will fail miserably. As a result, I’m a big advocate of treating “Let’s go remote!” as an internal project with goals and milestones just like any other project. Preparing an organization to manage a remote work force takes a good deal of forethought, with a focus on communication and collaboration tools, reporting, accountability, scheduling, etc. In addition, you have to prepare the remote workers themselves, to insure they know what’s expected of them in terms of reporting their status, scheduling, communication, etc. They also need to know *about*, and *how to use* the tools they’ll be expected to use from home.

You have to plan this. You have to prepare, or you’re going to be like the HR manager who told me their company no longer allows for remote workers because “we tried it once and the guy made a complete mess of things”. When I asked the HR manager why he attributed that to the geographic location of the worker, he said “good point, he could just as well have made a mess here in the office”. You need good workers no matter where they’re going to work. The workers need expectations and goals from the manager, and the manager needs feedback and communication (and results!) from the worker. Tools help to facilitate these things. This is already a long post, so I’ll probably make a tools list in another post.

Communicate, and set expectations

Before the tools come other higher-level decisions and communication. For example, one problem I’ve heard more than once about remote workers is “we can’t hire a remote worker full-time, because then everyone will want to work from home”. As if they didn’t already all want to work from home! Everyone would love to have the option! Even if they didn’t take advantage of it, they’d consider it a really cool perk! They’d tell all of their friends about it, because it would make them jealous, and guess who their friends will contact first when they start to look for other opportunities?

You have to start somewhere, and you can’t just swing the barn doors open and let everyone go their own way on day 1. If you have an existing corporate structure in place with assets and services and regular meetings and the like, then you have to decide who can make the most benefit from a remote situation the soonest, make them the pilot group, and manage the expectations of the rest of the organization while the pilot group prepares to move to a remote workspace.

1, 10, 100, 1000

A common software application rollout strategy is to make it accessible to 1 user, then 10, then 100, then 1000, then… move up from there. In preparing your organization or department, you might consider a similar strategy.

I work for a client right now where I’m the “1”. If I can work effectively with the rest of the team (in the office), if I can produce results, remain accessible as-needed during working hours, manage the expectations of my team with regards to my presence (appointments happen), and overall be an asset to the team, then the management may decide that it can work on some larger scale – even if ‘larger’ means 2 instead of 1. It might also be useful to do a ‘remote rotation’ so that glitches can be caught early before making a physical presence in the office optional.

Success, of course, means getting together with the team and figuring out what tools will be used to best emulate an office working environment. We use IRC for 99% of our communication, falling back to email when we need to cc managers, we have a wiki for documentation and status updates, we have a trouble ticket system, everyone has everyone else’s phone number, blackberry PIN, or whatever. We’re a technical group doing system administration. It’s working wonderfully.

“But if the sysadmins work from home, the developers will want to work from home!” Maybe so. That’s where you have to manage expectations, and communicate with your workers to let them know that the company’s ‘office optional’ project is in an early alpha stage, that it’s being tested on the group most familiar with the technologies involved, and most capable of exploiting those technologies successfully to produce results. Once the geeks work out the shortcomings, and management is able to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan, the tests will become more widespread.

Really, it’s not a whole lot different from doing anything else that affects the whole company: changing payroll providers, healthcare options, software and desktop hardware upgrades and replacements… it just takes communication. The process has to be managed, just like every other process.

There’s more than one way to do it!

There’s no one solution out there. When I joined php|architect Magazine in 2003, it was run by Marco Tabini, and I was a remote editor. A couple of months after joining, I became editor in chief, and was in charge of remotely managing the magazine. I did it differently from Marco, but he still remained involved and engaged through good communication.

Python Magazine was created and managed by me, and for the entire lifespan of the magazine, I have not seen anyone else involved in its production in person. Ever. Design, production, web site admin, executive administration, tech editors, authors, accountants… time lines, budgets and planning documents… all remote, and mostly delegated. I started the magazine with the thought that at some point someone more engaged in the community and with Python should take charge — I was just a “temp” to get the vision off the ground. Sure enough, when I handed the magazine over to Doug Hellmann, he did things differently from me, and it’s working out wonderfully for him as well!

Everyone has their own management style. Don’t think that just because your management style is a little unique you can’t handle remote workers. Good managers are creative, and aren’t afraid to execute on creative solutions.