Archive for the ‘Web Services’ 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!

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.

Where Can I Go That Isn’t Twitter?

Friday, November 28th, 2008

In the few years since Twitter’s launch, they have shrunk the number of ways you can interact with it, shrunk the number of hours in the day when you can reliably get or send messages through it, and, now, shrunk the number of useful web-based services by two, with the announcement that stikkit and I Want Sandy will be shutting down, as a result of their purchase of Values of N, creators of the two sites.

I only just started trying to use twitter again in the past week or so, and my desktop client has recorded at least 3 or 4 outages in the past week. Between that, and now this news, I think I’m just going to give up. What are they planning to do — add Sandy-like features to twitter? Why? To attract more users, insuring that their availability will sink to zero-nines? Blech.

Help me pick a new feed reader

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I’ve been using Google Reader since it was created. I really love the *idea* of Google Reader. I like that scrolling through the posts marks them as read. I like that you can toggle between list and expanded views of the posts. I like that you can search within a feed or across all feeds (though selecting multiple specific feeds would be great).

All of that said, I’d like to explore other avenues, because I don’t like that there’s, like, zero flexibility in how the Google Reader interface is configured. My problem starts with large fonts…

I use relatively large fonts. If you increase the font twice up from the default size in firefox on a mac (using the cmd-+ keystroke, twice), and you have more than just a couple of feeds, you wind up with this really horrible side pane with the bottom half of it requiring a scroll bar, and the text wraps, and it just looks terrible. What makes this really REALLY REALLY annoying is that:

  1. I don’t use the features included in the *top* part of the side pane, ever, at all (like ‘trends’ and stuff), and
  2. You can’t resize or disable that part of the side pane.

I’ve used folders and some other features to try to alleviate the issue, but it’s just a compromise, and I’d rather not do that if something else would work better for me. I’ve had a couple of quick glances at just a couple of other readers, but I thought I’d get some input from the lazyweb to see what your thoughts are. Is there a browser-based feed reader that has some of Google’s niceties, but perhaps with a little bit nicer/more configurable interface? Out of curiosity, are you using a Mac-compatible fat-client reader that just totally r0cks in some way? If so, let me know in the comments.

Boto 1.5b glitch, and workaround

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Boto is a Python library for interacting with Amazon’s web services. I’ve used it in the past, and am currently using it for an ‘s3get’ implementation based on a simple example I found buried in a post on Patrick Altman’s blog.

While testing my code, I noticed I was getting import errors from boto/connection.py, because I didn’t have a module on my system named ‘hashlib’. Then I found an svn trunk commit that clued me in to the fact that I wasn’t supposed to have hashlib, because I was running a pre-2.5 version of Python. They had put in a fix for pre-2.5 users, but somehow it wasn’t being obeyed.

Then I noticed that the import errors weren’t from utils.py, where the fix was committed, but from connection.py, which was explicitly importing the module itself. Closer inspection revealed that it was also importing utils.py, which itself imports hashlib. I commented out the explicit import in connection.py (and, later, in boto/s3/key.py), and stopped getting import errors.

If you’re still having issues with Patrick’s s3get.py code, it’s probably because you need to change this line:

if name == 'main':
       main()

To this:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    main()

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.

Reunion with Drupal, Break from Django

Monday, November 17th, 2008

My Drupal Reunion

I started using drupal maybe 3-4 years ago. At the time I wasn’t all that impressed. I liked it better than Joomla (Mambo, at that time), and it was a little more featureful than PHP-Nuke. But even back then I hated that this thing was really making some sweeping, grand assumptions about what I would be using my Drupal site for. I used Drupal for LinuxLaboratory.org, and it was ok. I left Drupal once, to give MediaWiki a shot, but the truth is I didn’t want a wiki, so I went out and tested a bunch of other applications, and wound up back at Drupal. The 5.5 release was quite a bit better, and it got the job done.

About 2 weeks ago (maybe less?) I downloaded version 6.6. I poked. I prodded. I looked for new themes and found lots of them, and they were pretty cool. I looked for theme and module-building tutorials, and there were lots of them, and even entire books were published on each of the topics – even specifically for version 6 of Drupal. I looked for modules, and found a few useful ones who actually showed a trend of following the Drupal releases pretty closely. I also found that a couple of things I had used as modules in earlier releases were now built-in.

I fiddled on and off for a few days and was able to get a site together for my company’s web site that’s way, way better than the wordpress site that was there before. I’m also redoing the main LinuxLaboratory.org site using Drupal.

What about Django?

I know that lots of you were encouraging me to keep moving ahead with Django. I *will* be moving ahead with Django at some point, but what I found is that doing example projects using the dev server and deploying a real application using Apache are such vastly different beasts that doing the former doesn’t really help make you qualified to perform the latter. When I had my site ready to go, and I had it working on my locally-installed dev server, I found myself completely lost when it came time to get it working on my webfaction account. It really shouldn’t be that hard, but it is. Or it was for me.

You can all take comfort in knowing that I still hate PHP and consider it a necessary evil. For the moment, though, I have a couple of projects involving PHP coming up. By the time those projects end, I hope I can be more skilled with Django, and with Django deployment. I’m not even going to mess with the dev server anymore. It’s just a damn tease. I’m going to sit down and spend some time with Django on Apache with mod_* and finally come up with answers to all the questions I had that nobody anywhere seemed to have any reasonable answers to. When I figure them out, I’ll post here and you can all flame me or learn something new, perhaps depending on your own skill level :-)

In the mean time, while I don’t typically do book reviews, I’d recommend that anyone using Django 1.x stay away from the book “Practical Django Projects”. It’s specifically non-1.0, and you’ll be tripped up from the very first sample app, and it doesn’t get better from there. If you want to learn from the book (and there’s learning to be had from it), download 0.96.x, and use that to go through the book. When you’re done with the book, read the release notes for Django 1.0. You’ll have to make some alterations before moving your apps to 1.0, but overall you’ll be just fine.