Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Download This! - Old News

Sometimes new is not necessarily good. I distinctly remember a case where a customer, presented with a newer version of our software, demanded a downgrade - he liked the look & feel and stability of the older version.

This happens with downloaded software more and more often: add new features, take away the stability - that's the common trade off. But if you need an older version of a software, you may find that most download sites and the vendor's site only carry the latest version.

Enter VersionTracker, a site dedicated to preserving old software versions. You can download almost every available version of many shareware/freeware applications, some going all the way back to the year 2000.

The site covers Windows, Mac and Palm software. It also provides a service to get alerts when new versions of your favorite apps are available.

Update: my favorite download site FileHippo also provides up to 10 versions back on any app on the site. The selection, though, is quite limited, compared to VersionTracker's collection.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quake

I have to share with you an experience I just went through.

About an hour ago, while I was playing "Call of Duty 3" on my Xbox 360. Suddenly, as I was covering my teammates and taking severe enemy fire, I felt a strong shaking. "Damn", I said, "this force feedback controller has got a pretty strong kick". And then I've noticed that it's not just my hands that are shaking, it was the entire house.

I've been living in California for a little over a year now, but this was my first major earthquake - and it was scary as hell. The adrenaline still floats in my system. It lasted over 2 minutes and almost every thing that wasn't nailed down shook. Even when I stepped out, I was still wobbly.

I later verified that not only was this a strong quake (5.6 on the Richter scale), but it's epicenter was 5 miles (8Km) from me, in San Jose. Here's a link to "my quake" which the government named "event nc40204628" and categorized as a "moderate earthquake". I find the mere fact that there is a site that can show you those "events" in near-realtime quite frightening.

And I was told to expect aftershocks. Hope I can sleep tonight...

Update: seems like I'm not the only one who has experienced this earthquake.

Very Funny, Apple - Not!

I guess someone at Apple must have thought he was very funny.

If you're using the new Leopard system (reviewed here), and connect your Mac to a network with Windows PCs on it, the icon that will represent the PCs is a monitor with a BSOD ("Blue Screen of Death") on it (see the image on the left, named public.generic-pc.icns).

Of course, all Apple users believe their operating system is better than the competition. But this, too me (a Mac user and a Windows developer) looks extremely smug and childish.

And of course, there remains the point that this would have been much funnier, had Mac OS users haven't experienced BSODs of their own when first installing Leopard.

If you have Leopard installed, and like me, you think this icon is immature, follow the steps outlined here to change the icon.

Yo World!

Just a fun site I ran across. This site has a collection of 350 "Hello World" programs, in almost every programming language available. It also has translations of the phrase into 58 human languages.

For people who haven't programmed before, a program printing out the phrase "Hello World" is traditionally the first program you learn to write, when taught a new language. This tradition started with the book "The C Programming Language" by Kernighan & Ritchie, the first, and definitive book on that language (I still have a copy even though I've long since advanced to C++ and later C#).

What I find interesting is how long can a program be, that prints out a phrase. You could understand the assemblers taking that long, being low-level languages, but look at COBOL and JCL, for wasted declaration steps. I also found the PDF representation interesting (first look for me into this vector-oriented language) and the Logo graphical depiction was fun to remember.

Ah, the good old programming days...

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Big Drive in the Sky

A couple of days ago I've described a way to utilize your GMail space as storage. Today, I found myself in need of sharing a large (over 10Mb) file with a colleague. Rather than utilize FTP, I decided to try SkyDrive, Microsoft online storage.

A very easy way to manage online files, SkyDrive allows you to create folders, upload files and share them with specific people or with the rest of the world. Visitors can either change the file or access it as readers only.

To use SkyDrive you need a Live ID (the same one used for Hotmail, and the other Live services). This will buy you 1GB of online storage (here's hoping that Microsoft will increase it in the future, a-la Google's 4.5GB GMail accounts).

One piece of advice: the automatic email sent to a person, when you share a file with him, tends to be flagged as spam by mail clients. Make sure you email the link to your friends from an email address they trust.

Prism: the Future of Offline Web Apps?


The Mozila Foundation, makers of Firefox, announced Prism, an application that allows users to run web applications as standalone apps. Essentially, you get an icon on your desktop (or start menu) that will run a web app (GMail, Facebook etc.) inside a window, without the need to open a browser. Cookies and setting will be saved for each app separately.

Currently, it works only on Windows, but other operating systems are coming soon. It's based on Firefox and XUL (the XML UI Language at the base of FF and the other Mozilla apps). It's open source, so you can download it and improve it (actually, that's what they like you to do).

It took me 2 minutes to realize why this sounded so familiar. If you've been using Internet Explorer for at last 8 years, you must have heard of HTA (HTML Application), a file format that allows you to run an HTML app in a non IE window, including Javascripts and an icon, giving it the appearance of a standalone application.

So 8 years later, Mozilla re-invented the HTA. The good thing about it is Mozilla claims Prism just a basis for a future offline type of application, intending to add 3D graphics capabilities to the client-side and better web service access - making it a real off/on line app.

My suggestion: don't invent the wheel. Why not use an existing framework? How about Google Gears? Gears allows you to save online data locally, in a searchable database. Essentially, allowing you to continue using the application, even if your computer is disconnected from the internet.

Maybe that's the way to go. Or maybe, in the future, wireless connection will be as ubiquitous as air, and this entire discussion will be rendered moot. Until then, I think this type of development would take hold, especially with the prevalence of mobile devices.

For further reading on this type of applications, read the Microsoft Smart Client FAQ.

In Search of an Accurate Schedule


A while back, I attempted to explain Evidence Based Scheduling, the new approach taken by Joel Spolsky's FogBugz software (see FogBugz Will Estimate Your Estimation Abilities).

If you are interested in learning more, here's a link to a detailed post by Joel, explaining his approach.


As for me, I'll stick to Wexelblat's Scheduling Algorithm:

Choose two:

  • Good
  • Fast
  • Cheap
[meant to be used when asked by a manager when will the software be ready].

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Online Traveler Tools

This is a pretty straight-forward post. No hidden agenda or ideologies. In this column I'll list the web sites that make my traveling life easier.

Information, tips, guides and predictions - all are out there on many sites, but these few - some have been around for years - serve me the best:
  1. Weather - Accuweather provides worldwide weather predictions, for up to 10 days ahead, in Celsius and Fahrenheit. Add to that the fact that it can be neatly integrated into Firefox using an add-on called ForecastFox.

  2. Currency - XE.com will provide currency conversion, between any two currencies, with up-to-date rates. As an addition, you can use their conversion service to your site or app (as a web service).

  3. Time - until recently, I've used The World Clock, now I've switched to Time Zone Check (I just like the Flash interface). However, if you need to access from a mobile device, definitely go with the plainer site.

  4. Electricity - this site will tell you what current is used anywhere around the world and what shape of socket to expect. Used it first on my trip to Australia and it served me well since.

  5. Plane Seats - ever wondered which seat you should try to grab on your next flight? Look at SeatGuru to find the seat configuration, on any plane, of every airline. Also, you'd find great tips and recommendations, like which seats are too close to the restroom, which have the video equipment stowed under them, and which can't recline. (Here's one tip from me: if you ever fly in those tiny regional jets, like the Embraer, skip the window rows A and C. The plane is so narrow that the curvature will make seating uncomfortable. Try for the B aisle row. And on international Continental flights, go for rows lower than 23, if you'd like a power socket for your laptop).

  6. Maps - while Google Maps and Live Maps are great in US and Canada and both have mobile versions, 3D versions and satellite imaging (useful if you intend to bomb your destination). But they are a bit thin on Europe and Asia.
    Streetmap
    is great for the UK, especially within London. Map24 - great for Europe and Asia, with a nice Java animation that will show you your route and expected turns (notice that by default it will show you a map of the country you are browsing from).

  7. Travel Guides - for travel guides for my destinations (if I have some free time, otherwise I just whisk in and out, never bothering to smell the roses) I use Fodor's Travel Guides, or the old favorite Lonely Planet.

  8. Trains - not so common in the US, trains are considered a major form of transportation in Europe. In the past I've used this site for trains in the UK, this site for trains in Germany and this site for trains in Austria. Since many European countries allow train travel to one another, the sites usually cover travel between major capital (i.e., I've used the Austrian site to book a travel from Vienna to Prague to Budapest and back to Vienna).

  9. Itineraries - this site was pointed out to me by a couple of my colleagues (hey Ryan!). World Mate Live works in a unique way: you add a plugin to your Outlook mail client and download an application to your Blackberry. By selecting certain email in your mailbox (those you receive from your travel agent, containing your air, hotel and car bookings. It will even parse PDF files - like the ones you may receive from American Express travel), the site collects all the information and builds and maintains an itinerary for the trip. The mobile app means insures that this info (including dates, addresses and phones) is always available. The client also shows time and date for multiple locations, weather and limited currency conversion. This service is free. For a $100 a year, you'll get real live alerts about delayed or canceled flights, or severe weather conditions at your destination.
    I've just started using the service and will give it a try.

  10. Airlines and cars - I have plenty of bookmarks to all the airlines I use - and probably so do you, so I won't bother listing them here. What I did want to mention are Orbitz and Expedia, 2 sites I use to find all the available flight alternatives between me and my destination, so I'll know which flights to book. I do the same for cars.

  11. Hotels - I usually book directly with the hotel sites and I try to stick to chains that allow me to collect points (no need to pay for any vacation hotel). But to compare prices or find availability, I use Hotels.com and Travelocity.
I hope you'll find these sites helpful. Drop me a comment or email with any suggestions for sites you use. I'll either add them to this post or to a future list.

Life and Death at the End of the Toungue

I've promised to never review a book unless I've finished it and this is the reason this post is slightly delayed (when you're jet lagged, it's hard to read at night).

The book I'd like to recommend today is Imperium by Robert Harris (link and picture on the left).

I've loved Harris' work on Fatherland (a what-if scenario of the results of World War II) and Enigma (about the British efforts to break the German's code machine). Archangel has also been good (although this is probably the only time I can say the TV series was better than a book - watch Daniel Craig, in his pre-Bond days, solve one of Russia's greatest mysteries).

The book follows the life of the greatest Roman orator Cicero, from a stuttering boy to the height of his political and advocacy career. It is written from the point of view of his slave Tiro, himself a learned man and writer and inventor of shorthand (used by stenographers in court until today).

We learn a lot about speech delivery (the way Cicero is taught to memorize his long speeches - some took days to deliver, and he never used notes - is amazing), politics, alliances, and spirit.

Having not come from an aristocratic family, Cicero had to prove himself to his peers and to the people on a daily basis. At a time when if you were too smart and a better speaker than your enemies, they would simply murder you, he took great risks and faced them down smartly. Some of his observations are still true today (e.g. "beware a politician who says he entered public service not for himself, but for the greater good - he's the vainest of them all" and my favorite: "if it's loyalty you want - get a dog").

Most of Cicero's speeches and letters were recorded for posterity and are available. But if you have no time for dry rhetorics and historical facts, just read this book. Adding a personal side to this complex, controversial, ambitious and smart person and coloring the entire period when people could literally live or die but what they've said (hence the title of the post).

PS: my fascination with the Roman empire times started by reading Robert Graves' "I Claudius", the greatest Roman novel in my humble opinion. And if you want to get to the source of these 2 great novels, look no further than Suetonius' "Twelve Caesars", arguably the best piece of gossip ever written, by a person who survived some the 12 first Caesars of Rome (showing you how resourceful he was and also how short lived were they).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Disposable Email

A while ago, I was discussing one way to avoid the need to register for every site.
Here's another, geared towards those pesky sites that require an email to register or get a download link.

Guerrilla Mail will give you a temporary email address, good for 15 minutes (can be extended further, if needed). Just specify that on the registration form, log into the mailbox from the site and collect the information you need.

Great idea. Simple and clean interface. Now can someone please give an disposable mailbox I can SEND email from? :)

OS War - Fair and Balanced

The post's title may be familiar to any Fox News watcher (although usually they are neither).
Last week, I've blogged about 2 Vista competitors (Leopard and Gutsy Gibbon). My intentions were not to bash Microsoft (or Vista), just to demonstrate that there are other alternatives out there and that, perhaps, Microsoft lost this round in the OS war (and I mean quality-wise, not sales-wise).

Here are some news items that will show that nothing is perfect in the other camp as well:
  1. Many people who tried upgrading their Mac OS X to Leopard this weekend, got a... blue screen of death??? Wait a second, isn't the BSOD trademarked by Microsoft?
    It appears there is a problem with some upgrades. Apple Support people are flooded with calls. They have a workaround, that would require you to open a terminal window (for the Windows-only crowd: that's like a command window) and delete some files. Still, not the best way to launch anew OS. Read about it here, here and on Apple Support forums here.

  2. Not everyone seems to be blown away by Leopard's new interface. This guy thinks it's actually a step back.

  3. An IPv6 issue with release 7.10 of Ubuntu forces some users to downgrade to 7.04. I'm sure it's a fixable issue, but the title attracted my attention ("not so gutsy").
Being a software developer, I know that not everything is perfect the first time around (although a major issue in a major release can usually be tracked back to poor QA).
Apple and Ubuntu will surely fix those issues soon. I'm still waiting for SP1 for Vista to see if Microsoft can fix their annoyances.

A Cruel Trick

I know there is at least one active trickster in my reading audience, but I sure hope he won't take this post as a recommendation :)

On a recent TWIT episode, John C. Dvorak suggested a very cruel trick you can pull on a friend about to board a plane:
  1. take a thin sheet of lead.
  2. cut a piece shaped (roughly) like a gun.
  3. slide it between the pages of your friend's book.
  4. try to be behind him in the security line when the TSA agent uses the X-Ray machine :)
Disclaimer: The Traveling Tech Guy does not condone this, or any other tricks. Especially not ones involving TSA agents.

What's the Time?

Just "stumbled upon" around, and reached this amazing site: Time Zone Check.

A beautiful flash interface allows you to find the time anywhere around the world, either graphically, or by searching for a city name (for the geographically-challenged :)).

The site that served me well so far (especially on transatlantic conference calls, when you don't know whether it's "good morning", "good evening", or "sorry that I woke you up" on the other side) is The World Clock, showing date and time at major cities.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Download This! - GMail Drive

For newcomers to the blog: first, welcome and I hope you'll stick around. This particular post seems to have generated a lot of traffic, mostly through StumbleUpon. It is one in a series of articles, titled "Download This!", covering free utilities worth downloading. Find the rest in the series here, or by clicking the "Downloads" tab at the top.
Also try some book recommendations, travel tips and tech tips.

Enjoy your stay and come back soon!


I've written several posts about Google services and APIs (here's one about GData). Here's a tool that shows usefulness and initiative.

Over time, my GMail account grew in capacity, from 1GB to 1.5, 2 and today it stands proudly at 4.2GB. Frankly, I don't have that much email. But isn't this just underutilized online storage, waiting to be harnessed?

That's exactly what this tool's developer thought. Utilizing Google's interface, he'll allow you to treat your entire GMail account as a big online depot.

After installation, the software manifests itself as just another drive in the My Computer screen. Right click it and enter the GMail account's username and password and you're all set. Now you can drag-n-drop files onto the icon or treat it like another disk on your machine.
Every time you copy a file, it translates into an email with an attachment. But you don't need to care - all you see are files, as if they are in Explorer.

Install it on more than one computer - and it's a great way to have access to files you need on the fly. Create a shared account with your friends - and you'd be able to share those files. And best of all - you can always create another GMail account == limitless disks :).

Since attachments are limited by Google (specifically to block storage abuse) to 10MB, this will be the maximum file size you'd be able to upload. I just use an archive software (like WinRar) to break the file into 10MB pieces.

Uninstallation (if needed) is painless. Like I've said useful, free and shows great use of an API for other purposes than those it was designed for.

Download GMAil Drive here.

Update
I've had several people comment that an alternative called GSpace performs the same function. GSpace is a Firefox extension and behaves like a file transfer program inside your browser. It allows multiple GMail account management. For my money, I'll stick to GMail Drive - smaller and better integrated with the OS. Also does not require me to open the browser to use.

Important Update! (11/9/07)
Google just changed something in the GMail log-in sequence, as preparation for launching GMail 2.0. Please download the latest version of GMail Drive (1.12 - not the beta) that deals with the change.

Another Update (11/18/07)
My GMail box just crossed the 5GB threshold! Go Google Go!

Scary Update (12/7/07 7:30am)
Someone in Google UK just spent 13 minutes reading this post. Why? I do not know. Hopefully to enjoy the great review (and NOT to block this API). Click here to see the DNS entry I received.

Guy's 4-S Rule

On Sunday, I told the story of how I was charged $175 to be allowed off a flight from Chicago to Madison. Yesterday, I witnessed the other end of the farce.

I've just returned my rental car at the Madison airport and prepared to board my United flight to Chicago, and from there start my trip back west. 'Ah-ah' said the counter dude, 'there's no Guy registered on this flight'.

WTF?!? Well after some inquiries, he called his supervisor and she found the root cause: the brainiac who canceled my flight to Madison must have decided that I don't need a flight back, and canceled that one as well.

I tried explaining my predicament. I produced the $175 receipt to prove that I was already fined enough, I tried everything - no joy. I was about to lose my patience (not a good thing to happen in a US airport nowadays). Finally I've uttered a sentence that I'd like carved on my headstone:
'Someone Screwed Something Somewhere', I said, 'Fix it'.

5 minutes later I had a boarding pass to Chicago. 'Of course', said the supervisor, 'I don't have to do this - it's a favor'.

There's nothing I hate more than receiving the service I deserve and having been told it's a favor, or that I didn't deserve it in the first place. It happens all the time (especially with government services, that love treating your money as if it's already theirs). It's about time someone answered one of those people (not me - I needed to get to Chicago :)).

So, anyway, since I dealt with named adages (see "Obey Murphy - It's the Law!" and "Watch Out For the Razor!"), I decided to name this "Guy's 4-S Rule":

The adage: Someone Screwed Something Somewhere.
The person: Traveling Tech Guy.
Background: being screwed up by United Airlines and about to miss his connection to Chicago and a good night sleep at his own bed, a desperate guy utters a desperate cry to the universe to correct the predicament.
General interpretation: I have no idea how I got into this situation. Someone else is to blame. Fix it dammit, or feel my wrath!
Reality: add your own story here (or post a comment).
Recommended reading: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

Well, got home at midnight. Will recover over the weekend and will attempt to review some books and a game...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Monkey Ate My Vista

Yes, I know I've posted before that I kinda like Vista (see "Now Written on Windows Vista"), but after a long period of giving it a chance, I can see why people (and tech columnists) are complaining.

It's slow, incompatible with some of my devices (no video conferencing for me - it hates both my Creative and my generic cameras - and no driver update in sight), but mostly, it drinks memory like a Hummer drinks gas.

So, since I started this day by comparing Leopard (Apple's new OS for the Mac) to Vista (see "The Leopard Ate My Vista"), let's finish it by comparing Vista to another animal: the latest release of Ubuntu 7.10 - codename "Gutsy Gibbon" (hence the gibbon picture).

Ubuntu (African word meaning "humanity to others") currently runs on one of my VMs and I'm looking for an old (cheap) computer to install it on permanently (hardware requirements are quite low).

What can I say? Of all the Linux distros I've sampled over the last 13 years, this has been the easiest to install, most gratifying to use, and the most resembling an OS I may install for my parents. Oh, and did I mention it's FREE?? And open sourced?


Installing Ubuntu takes 5-10 minutes (depending of what add-ons you want installed). It's been the easiest OS installation I've ever experienced. No need to know anything about partitioning, formatting, devices etc. Gone are the days of recompiling the kernel to proceed. In fact, the only time I needed to open a console window was when I've installed VMWare tools on the OS (instructions can be found here), and that's due to VMWare's fault.

Installing and uninstalling applications is a piece of cake, with a unified Add/Remove control panel, that allows categorizing, sorting and searching through installed applications easily and even download new applications. The automatic download also works smoothly, something I hope to see on a Windows platform in the future (Ah, Windows Update... must be the clunkiest web interface designed in Redmond) and since it's free, no "Windows Genuine Advantage" will call you a thief :)

Ubuntu comes pre-installed with Firefox, Open Office,multimedia applications and a slew of accessories. You can, of course, remove and add applications later. Drivers exist for many common devices, but like Vista, don't expect every device to be supported. The good news: device makers started realizing Linux is not a dirty word, and usually ship drivers with, or close to the Windows version.

About the only thing this OS won't do for you is games. But for that I have my trusty Xbox 360 (see? this is not a Microsoft bashing column ;)).

Finally, if you want another opinion on Ubuntu, Vista and even Mac OS X, try Rupert Goodwins' column "Vista Vs. the Gutsy Gibbon".

You can find out more about Ubuntu, its development philosophy and download the latest release at ubuntu.com.

The Leopard Ate My Vista

Tomorrow Apple releases Leopard (OS X 10.5) the latest update to OS X.

From all I've seen so far, it looks great and I was about to write a full post on it, but then got across Walt Mossberg's column Mossberg is the Wall Street Journal's technology guru and is one of the most respected and feared tech columnists in the US (feared, because one bad review from him can kill a product).

So, instead of wasting bandwidth by repeating everything, you can either read the column, or better yet, watch this short video:


Bottom line? Leopard is much better than Vista. But there wasn't much surprise there, was there?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Watch Out for the Razor!

In my previous adages column (see "Obey Murphy - It's the Law!") I started down the road of discovering and discussing those "named laws".

While there are many more adages out there, here are a few I found worth mentioning:

  1. Name: Ockham's Razor (sometimes called "Occam").
    The adage: "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" (Explanations should never multiply assumptions without necessity).
    The person: William of Ockham
    Background: William was a Franciscan friar from the village of Ockham in England, and one of the major medieval philosophers.
    General interpretation: When two explanations are offered for a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is preferable.
    The term "razor" is used to "shave off" the unwanted explanations.
    Reality: Yes, it's possible that aliens stole your car. It's more probable that you forgot where you parked it.
    In software development: you can write this amazing recursive algorithm to sort through your amazingly well designed new data structure in O(nlogn), or you can use a standard collection and call the Sort() method...
    Recommended reading: What is Ockham's Razor?
  2. Name: Clark's Law.
    The adage: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    The Person: Arthur C. Clark.
    Background: a leading Sci-Fi writer (2001: A Space Odyssey) and an inventor/scientist.
    General interpretation: when no easy explanation is available, people will attribute any phenomenon to a higher power. Think of the light bulb. Now think what would be the reaction to it had you introduced it a 1000 years ago to a superstitious crowd.
    Reality: I'm not stepping into this trap :).
    Recommended Reading: Benford's Law.
  3. Name: Peter's Principle.
    The adage: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
    The Person: Laurence J. Peter.
    Background: Peter was an educator specializing in hierarchies and bureaucracies. He first introduced the principle in his 1969 book titled... "The Peter Principle".
    General interpretation: people in an organization are always at one level above where they should be. Some team leads would be excellent developers. Some managers were excellent consultants. Sadly, they do not fit their current position.
    Reality: I'm not stepping into this one either :).
    Recommended reading: The Peter Principle.
  4. Name: Brook's Law.
    The adage: adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
    The person: Fred Brook.
    Background: Fred Brook was one of IBM's lead developers and in charge of its greatest undertaking in the 60's: the IBM 360 project. He documented his many experiences of that complex project in "The Mythical Man-month" - a book that became the cornerstone of project management books.
    Reality: from my experience, this is a true observation. New people, dropped into a late project, lack the history and knowledge of the project's requirements and origins. They also tend to think of themselves as "the solution" and the existing group as "the problem". Even if everyone play nice together, expensive time will be wasted on inter-team knowledge transfer.
    Recommended reading: The Mythical Man Month.
  5. Name: Stigler's law of eponymy.
    The adage: No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.
    The person: Stephen Stigler, a University of Chicago statistics professor.
    The background: Stigler published his law in a 1980 paper titled... "Stigler's law of eponymy".
    General interpretation: throughout history, people published results based on others' research, plagiarized papers, or just plainly stole the works of others.
    Stigler's law just states the obvious: the person whose name is associated with a theory is either the last in line to work on in, or the first in line to steal it.
    Reality: funny enough, the full law should read "No scientific discovery, not even Stigler's law, is named after its original discoverer" - since Stigler attributed the original law to Robert K. Merton - a renowned sociologist.
    Recommended reading: What is eponymy?

Well, I had to finish with Stigler's law - as it may render the rest moot :)
That's it for now. More in the future (?)

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Rat with Good PR

No, this post will not deal with CEOs, or politicians. It's all about squirrels. Yep, those furry little animals (Sciurus carolinensis) that hop from tree to tree, collect nuts, and are considered "cute" just because it has a nice tail (i.e. good PR).

As someone who comes from a warm country, I was fascinated with squirrels ever since I first saw them roaming around my cousin's yard in Montreal. Industrious, smart, quick - and sporting a furry tail. Gray ones on the east coast, black ones on the west (called Douglas Squirrels, or Tamiasciurus douglasii), and scone-and-tea guzzling squirrels in the London parks :).

Yesterday, I went to pick up my mail. I'm standing there, rifling through the huge pile of spam (How come no one has invented a spam filter for a real mailbox yet?) when I hear a strange yowl. After a couple of more times, I looked up, and saw a squirrel trying to carry a pine cone twice its size up a branch. Every time it tugged and couldn't move it, it yowled again in frustration.

Some instinct told me to jump aside and indeed, just as I did, the squirrel threw that pine cone at me. Missed my head by an inch. This was only the second time in my life I've seen a squirrel attack a person (the first was in London. Word of advice: if you offer a squirrel a nut, don't pull your hand back. Once it has seen it - it's his).

There's no specific point I'm trying to make, just wanted to share this funny story.
But just to keep this post funny, have you ever heard of Squirrel Fishing?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Déjà Vu All Over Again

And here I am, exactly a week after my Holland post, in the same seat, at SJC, terminal C, writing a post. I traveled to Europe and back to California and now I'm en route to Madison Wisconsin, through Chicago. Seems like I've decided to give my jet lag a jet lag :(

I'm a bit pissed off right now. Someone offered me a ride from Chicago to Madison. Great, I've said, all I need to do is exit the Chicago airport and continue by car. WRONG! If you're a now-show for a flight, the rest of your ticket (i.e. the return trip) is automatically canceled (lucky I've checked that).

So, I went to the United Airlines stand and let them know that their services to Madison will not be required tonight. Surprise #2: I had to pay $175 for a re-ticketing. Apparently, flying from A to C through B, is cheaper than flying just to B (and if you feel confused, imagine how baffled am I).

It's about time someone kicks the @$$ of these airlines and make them streamline their ticketing and price models. A similar move has started with the mobile carriers.
Oh well, I'll try not to think too much about it, whilst I'm stuck in a middle seat (another price to pay for a late booking :( ).

Hillary Visits the Traveling Tech Guy

Those of you who browsed my blog late Saturday night, could have seen this banner. Please pay attention to the "Ads by Google" caption. Just wanted to make you aware of the fact that I don't control the content of these ads.

I just give Google a 200X200 pixel square, in which to display their ads. Basically, all I can do is ask for certain categories (and Google's interpetation of those is quite wide - observe a political ad in a "technology" spot) and that no adult content be displayed.

I have nothing against Mrs. Clinton, and I wish her good luck in the coming elections, but this is an a-political blog (other than my own personal politics. So, I love freedom - sue me :)). If anyone ever finds any offending banner on my blog, look for the "Google" caption - I'm blameless :)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Help a Child (and Help Yourself to a Laptop)

In case you haven't heard of Nicholas Negroponte's initiative "One Laptop Per Child" (also dubbed "the $100 laptop project"), the idea is to build a cheap laptop and equip children in 3rd world nations with an advanced education platform.

The project will start shipping actual laptops (codename XOPC) in December. The price of each unit will actually be $200, but even with a 100% budgetary miss, this is a wonderful machine:
  1. It's rugged, can survive high temperatures and even be dropped repeatability (although, it's not recommended).
  2. It has a camera and microphone buit in.
  3. It's unique battery can run for 6 hours, if you play sound and video. Or 20 if you just read documents. It can be charged and discharged 2000 times (compared to 500 on a normal laptop battery).
  4. Since the laptop will be operated in areas that have little or no electricity, it has a hand crank (like old cars). A minute of cranking will get you 10 minutes of battery power.
  5. Not only does the laptop support regular wireless network, but it also supports mesh network. This means you can turn on your computer and automatically see and connect to anyone who has a similar laptop. This would allow sharing documents, video conferencing (think of a teacher finally able to talk to illiterate parents face-to-face) and is extremely well suited for class (or village environment). Furthermore, if even one computer in the mesh connects to the internet, the rest can share that connection, The more laptops connected, the better the bandwidth (see a demo here).
  6. The operating system is a minimal, customized Linux. It's very resilient and made to run and support unique education applications and games, in many non-common languages. All software is open source and developed by volunteers.
  7. Finally, my favorite feature: one key on the keyboard reveals the source of every application on the machine. The user can then change the software and test the results. If he makes a mess of things, the machine can easily restore the original.
    This feature will go a long way towards teaching kids to program, and get poor countries to start using their best resource: brains.
All this, and much more (full spec here) for $200! Granted, this is quite a slow machine and quite useless for common office or multimedia uses in the northern hemisphere (although I wish someone would copy the battery technology to regular laptops). More than that, to make it appeal to kids, it was designed like a toy: green box with 2 horns (actually the wireless antennae). As David Pogue put it, it looks like Shrek's laptop.

But remember who's the target crowd for this laptop: kids in poor countries. If they like it and use it, they can start joining the rest of the world.

So far, according to Pogue, 3 factors are preventing this project from turning into a rolling success:
  1. Education ministers in poor countries - if people have these computers, they might actually have to start working. Not to mention the fact that access to the internet might give people bizarre ideas like "peace", "freedom", "knowledge", "travel" etc.
  2. Big computer companies - Microsoft, Dell, Sun etc. Some of these guys have made nothing but bad comments about the project so far. Of course, giving such laptops with operating systems on them, "steals" a potential crowd of 3 billion people and educates them to things like "freeware" and "open source" (almost as worse as "freedom"...)
  3. Critics - many humanitarians claim that there are bigger problems in those regions: war, famine, diseases, lack of water... How can a laptop solve those? Why not just give the money to those governments? Negroponte replies that usually results start with education. I would add that pouring money into those (mostly corrupt) governments, is akin to pouring money into the ocean.
This laptop will not be sold in the US. But, for a limited time in November, you can join the "Give 1 Get 1" offering: for $399, you'll donate a laptop to a child in a developing country and get one yourself (along with a tax deduction receipt for those in the US). You can donate as many laptops as you feel like. I just registered to donate one. I wonder if my nephews would appreciate this unbreakable laptop...

War Games Die Hard

"War Games" was my favorite movie as a kid. The idea that anyone with a modem can change his school marks, or start a thermonuclear war, blew me away.

I just started watching "Die Hard 4", the latest Bruce Willis action flick (don't worry, no spoilers), when a credit blinked before my eyes, and I had to rewind and read it again: "Based on the article 'A Farewell to Arms' by John Carlin".

A couple of seconds later, I found the link to the article. Fascinating material, written in 1997, it predicts a total war, waged entirely through computers, bring the enemy to its knees - without firing a single shot.

Frighteningly enough, it predicted what would happen 10 years later:
In April this year, Estonia, a small country in East Europe, decided to remove a Russian monument from it's capital. For 2 weeks after that, the country was put under massive DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) and other net attacks, shutting down main banks, infrastructure and communication. Russia was involved, but later, NATO security experts found that several crime organizations and suspected terrorists took part in this attacks. But above all, this proved that the nightmare described in Carlin's article can become true: a country can be shut down by harming its network and communications. Read more about the Estonia attacks here.

I shudder to think what a similar attack on the US would cause. Think about the "Millennium Bug", only with bad guys with something to gain...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Last Post from Schiphol - Sanitation Solutions

Well, actually I wrote this post in Schiphol, but couldn't upload it in time. So the upload time would show this was uploaded from the Houston TX airport, where I'm sitting in the lounge after I missed my connection (damn Continental - they allow an hour connection from an international flight to a domestic one - absolutely no way to make it, especially with the long lines at border control).

Three last thoughts about Schiphol:
  1. The lounges - absolutely no way to compare them to the drab Continental or Delta lounges in the US. Bigger, nicer, and with real food. The only lounge I've been to that was better than Schiphol's is in Zurich. Ah Europe...

  2. Being late - every couple of seconds, you hear the following message on the speakers "Mr. Smith, flying to London on flight 123, you are delaying the flight. Make your way to gate G3. We'll proceed to offload your luggage.". Not "or we'll proceed...". It seems like if your name is called out, you're screwed (or else, English syntax is not their strong suite) :)

    If there are any lady readers in the crowd, please skip this item - it's meant for men's eyes only.

  3. Urinals - the Schiphol sanitary department seems to have found the solution to the problem bothering mankind for thousands of years:
    men missing the urinal while answering nature's call. The solution? every urinal has a small fly sticker inside. The male instinct, since the hunter-gatherer's days, is to try and hit targets. If you hit the fly, the floor remains dry (hey, I just made a slogan :) -
    here's another one: Don't miss when you Piss ;) ).

That's it - back to the US...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Social Bookmarks

If you look at the bottom of every post, you'll see links to several social bookmark services.
DiggTechnoratidel.icio.usStumbleuponRedditBlinklistFurlSpurlYahooSimpy

If you're a member in any of those, feel free to bookmark any post there.

If you are not yet aware of these services, here's a brief overview:
These web sites allow you to save bookmarks, comment on them, share them with whoever you like (or the entire world) and open the content to discussion. Here are some examples:
  1. Digg - the leader of the pack, with literally millions hits a day and a snazzy AJAX set of tools, this is Kevin Rose's main enterprise.
    Each article you submit can be "dugg" (favored by readers) and the most dugg stories appear on the front page - a status many geeks work hard to achieve :). So far, my posts yield , on average a modest 3-4 diggs (you need over a 1000 to be front page material).

  2. Technorati - I've already discussed this technical blog aggregator, and you can either "fave" the entire blog (link on the right), or now, specific posts.

  3. Del.icio.us - the bookmark site that started them all. With a brilliant url (its name is its address), and a very spartan interface. I've been using this site for 3-4 years now, mainly to share my bookmarks across computers, or see what other people recommend in relation to my bookmark. Give it a try.

  4. StumbleUpon - a very nice idea, built around a Firefox toolbar. It slowly learns your web browsing preferences, and backed by reader recommendations, allows you to click a button, and "stumble" into a site you've never visited before - but would still fit your interests (sort of like getting lost on purpose in a new neighborhood you've moved into - just so you can learn the lay of the land).

  5. Reddit - this is Joel Spolsky's attempt at a social site. Due to the nature of his blog, this site turned out to be much more technical and software-development oriented than the rest (which is why I like it).
I do not use any of the rest, but if any of my reader do, you're welcome to bookmark my posts there.

More Details About 7 Are Revealed

Back in July, I shared with you the name of Microsoft's next OS: 7.
Last week, in the University of Illinois, Eric Traut, a lead MS engineer, actually gave a demo of several features of the new OS, several years before it's release.

Eric discusses MiniWin - Microsoft new attempt to create a clean, minimal Windows kernel. I love the idea. Also covered are hypervisors (see my Windows 2008 post).

I'm not sure he intended for it to be filmed and shared. Still, MS has been known to "test the waters" that way before, demoing new technologies, generating buzz, or killing said technology if the buzz was extremely negative (Anyone remembers MS Bob?)

The presentation can be downloaded here. It's about an hour long, and covers a lot of ground. Or you can watch the 8 most interesting minutes online.

Technological Digest

Here are some news items that grabbed my attention over the last couple of days. Since I can hardly keep my eyes open (jet lag), I'll give you a brief overview and a link. Follow it if you're interested.
  1. Logo turns 40 - man, NOW I feel old. I still remember playing with Logo as a 12 years old, on my Apple IIc. I believe it was the MIT version. For those of you who don't know what it is, Logo is a graphical programming language, designed to teach kids the basics of programming (algorithms, loops, conditions), by having them drive a graphical cursor (called "the turtle" for some reason) on a black screen.
    For example, drawing a square, means repeating the commands "forward" and "turn right 90 degrees" 4 times.
    You can download a working version of Logo here, and look at this tiny program, that still beats today's nifty languages here.

  2. In space, no one can hear you scream "damn this blue screen!" - in this IEEE Spectrum article, James Oberg, a 22 years NASA veteran, tries to analyze that moment in June when all computers on the ISS (International Space Station) stopped working. Other than the technical aspects, and sheer horror of having your oxygen regulation system crash, there were politics involved (the computers were Russian). The drill down to the root cause of this error is fascinating, as is the fact that this error could cost a lot more than a wasted afternoon of re-installing Windows.

  3. No need to rip - for the first time ever, a movie DVD (Bruce Willis's Die Hard 4) would ship with the digital version of the movie, allowing you to download it to a computer, a mobile player, an Xbox 360 etc. Moreover, it'd be DRM free! Another step towards the studios realizing that not everyone who rips a DVD is a pirate (he may just want to watch in on an airplane). Read more here.

  4. The fly is out of the bag - I've been beta testing Popfly, Microsoft mashup Web 2.0 site, for a while now. Similar to Yahoo Pipes, it allows you to mash together several data streams from different sources, presenting a solution to question such as "what apartments are available to rent in my zip code? (and show them on a Google map)", "what's the weather at SJC? (and offer alternatives)" etc. All that can be achieved with a pure drag-and-drop smart interface that allows you to develop a full application without writing a single line.
    Today, Steve Ballmer announced Popfly to the world. I'm waiting for an API that will allow me to integrate Popfly into my apps.

  5. Amazon loses a patent - a pissed off shopper from New Zealand manages to overthrow Amazon's "One Click" patent. Good job, mate.
    Read about it here.
That's it for tonight. Next time, a longer post.

Last Night in Amsterdam

Boy, jet lag hits you harder the older you get. I can't remember a single trip to Europe where I was more tired than now. Luckily, this lethargic state did not harm my work (yay! I can still develop a web service that uploads a binary file in 10 minutes!), but I've been pretty much done at the end of every day. Hence, no pictures from this European trip.

Sadly, the hotel (if it can be called such) was horrible. Apparently the words "clean", "comfortable", and even "sanitary" are not in this hotel's lexicon. I switched room once, got more of the same and gave up. Avoid the Golden Tulip in Zoetemeer like the plague (or you may end up getting one).

Tonight I'm staying at the Courtyard by Schiphol airport. Pretty decent. I don't intend to write a column on hotel qualities and differences between continents, but I guess I got spoiled by some of the hotels in the US, enough to forget the single beds (Queen-size? King-size? - forget about it) of Europe.

Enough with the complaints. Tomorrow, I'm starting my long trip home. I didn't want to finish this week without a technical post, so my next post will be a digest of sorts, cramming together several (non-related) items.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Live Search for Blackberry - Correction

In yesterday's Search post, I gave the wrong address for the OTA (over-the-air) Blackberry Live Search download.
It's wls.live.com (not mls as stated originally). I guess when you're jetlagged, W and M look the same :)
Of course, I've corrected the original post as well.

And thanks to Damian for catching this.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Phone has a Blue Screen

Bill Gates announced today Microsoft's new initiative: UC -Unified Communications.
The MS UC serevr is intended to replace your office's PBX and serve as a focal point of phone and video communications.

According to Gates, this server is a "magic of software". Apparently he's forgetting his competition: Cisco, Alcatel, etc., whose servers have been used for years now. Not to mention open source solutions like Asterisk.

Read more here.

Search and Ye Shall Find

Microsoft announced today a slew of new search capabilities.
Mobile search has gotten much better - go here to read about it, or type wls.live.com into your Blackberry's browser to download the latest - which I found better in directions and interface than Google Maps. I'll be keeping it around for a while.

They've also, like Google, added voice search. Just call 1-800-call-411 and you'll get automatic search results and directions, either by voice, or sent to your phone/mobile device.

If you want to try the competition, BTW, call 1-800-GOOG-411. Great for locating businesses around you.

A new version of Virtual Earth 3D is also available. But unlike Google, MS also released the Virtual Earth SDK - allowing you to include mapping and location based services into any application you develop.

I'm currently testing both Ask.com (improved interface) and Hakia.com (using a semantic search engine - yielding more accurate results - try this.) as I know that I would rarely find what I really need on the first page of a Google search results.
One of these (or maybe Yahoo's alpha customizable search - currently in beta :)), will replace Google as my default search engine in the Firefox search bar. Stay tuned.

Navigator

No, this post is not about the big @$$ Ford SUV.

I got a hard case of déjà vu yesterday, when I got the news that Netscape just released the latest version of their famous browser, Navigator 9.0.

I still remember the days when we were playing with the first browser (with graphical interface) called Mosaic. That was a wholly unique experience that brought the Internet to life for me (it was before the term "the web" was coined). Until today, if you go to your IE's about box, you'll see this:

Netscape started soon afterwards, around 1993. It kept the same interface we have today: Home, Back, Refresh and Stop buttons. A big white space in the middle to show the page. And as time went by, bookmark features - now that you had actual sites to bookmark.

I've used it on Sun Solaris, Mac OS and later on Windows (3.0 I believe) and for a time, Netscape WAS the web. Each version brought on new features (a tiny lock for https pages, email client etc.).

But then Marc Andreesen, Netscape's CEO, had to go and tease Bill Gates, saying to whoever wanted to hear, that operating systems, specifically Windows, were a thing of the past.
That in the future, the content will be on the web and all you'll need is a browser to access it (Netscape's, of course).

The browser wars officially started when Gates issued an internal memo, calling all of Microsoft to arms, and resulting in Internet Explorer 1.0 - at that time, something you took one look at, and started looking at how you can remove it without re-installing Windows.

But Microsoft, being Microsoft, has time and money. Version 3 of IE started getting good reviews. At the same time, Netscape's browser, now called "Navigator", started bloating. The extra features meant it grew and grew in size, just like the SUV. Simple tasks took forever to execute. IE started looking like a valid alternative.

Netscape then committed the most capital crime of the software industry: they've announced they're going to rewrite from scratch their entire code base. Normally, this is a stupid thing to do, since you lose years of history, bug resolutions and QA effort. During a war, it's suicidal.

By the time Netscape came back with a leaner, C++ based Navigator, the war was over. IE 5 killed it on every front. Not to mention the fact IE came pre-packaged and free with the world's most common OS (later leading to an anti-trust case against MS).

Several years of bizarre business behavior later (acquired by AOL, core team leaves, news sites erected and taken down), Netscape released its code to the open source foundation, called Mozilla. That yielded the Firefox browser, now proudly taking on IE 7.
The war goes on, and for my account, FF rules.
(You can read the full Netscape-MS story in the book "In Search of Stupidity" - Amazon link on the left).

Yesterday, Netscape released Navigator 9 (download it here).
And what's new, you may ask? Nothing. It looks and behaves just like Firefox, with a Netscape skin. It's small (~6MB) and behaves better memory-consuming-wise. Few nice features - that can be added to FF as add-ons. All in all, nothing to write home about.
I'm using it now to write this post - but am not sure I'll keep it around.

Still, a blast from the past...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Obey Murphy - It's the Law!

[image removed]

For quite some time, I've taken great interest in those famous adages, whose name is associated with a person's name, and ends with the word "Law".
I've decided to take a closer look at some of them. For each such adage, I'll try to locate it's source, background, give a general interpretation and see how holds up to reality.
  1. Name: Moore's Law.
    The adage: "The number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double itself approximately every 24 months."
  2. The person: Gordon E. Moore, an electrical engineer, one of Intel's founders.
    Background: Moore tried predicting the direction and complexity of ICs (integrated circuits) in 1965.
    General interpretation: Technology's capabilities will double itself every 2 years.
    Reality: the curve of technologies leaps and bounds is much steeper than 24 months. As can be seen in this article, it's closer to every 18 months.
    Also, it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as hardware manufacturers hold back advances to obey the law (and how stupid is that?).
    Recommended reading: Intel's page, with Gordon Moore's original graph, in his handwriting.

  3. Name: Murphy's Law.
    The adage: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (and with the worst consequences possible)".
    The person: much controversy about the identity of the real Murphy, if there ever was one. Supposedly, the comment was made by Edward Murphy, an Air Force engineer at Edwards AFB (read more here).
    Background: during one of the speed tests at Edwards AFB, one of Murphy's engineers has put all the measurement devices on a rig backwards, getting a frustrated Murphy to utter his famous adage.
    General interpretation: pretty much self explanatory - a very pessimistic outlook at life, that rarely disappoint.
    Reality: my take on pessimism is that when a pessimist is surprised by something, it's always a good surprise. When dealing with complex projects and undertakings, I'd rather be a pessimist than an idiot.
    Recommended reading: A History of Murphy's Law, by Nick T Spark.
  4. Name: Benford's Law of controversy (NOT to be confused with the statistics-related Benford's Law).
    The adage: "Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available."
    The person: Physicist and novelist Gregory Benford.
    Background: quoted from one of his sci-fi novels, Timescape.
    General interpretation: when an argument takes place, people who are the most vociferous, are the least knowledgeable.
    Or in plain English: the less a person knows, the louder he shouts.
    Reality: there's just no arguing with zealots. And for that matter, with idiots.
    Corollary: avoid religious debates like the plague.
    My corollary: when someone tells you to do something "because I told you so", don't waste your breath arguing your point. You can be 100% right, but at this point the argument crossed the boundaries of logic into the uncharted territories of emotion. Just do it and in the immortal words of Mr. T, pity the fool. Also, make sure you document the incident well, so you can have your "I told you so" moment in the future :).
  5. Name: Goodwin's Law.
    The adage: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
    The person: Mike Goodwin, an attorney and author (currently counseling the Wikipedia foundation).
    Background: An observation Goodwin made as far back as 1990.
    General interpretation: essentially, the longer and more involved an online argument (comments, talkbacks) gets, the higher the chance one of the sides would compare the other to a Nazi. see Benford's Law above, to understand how any argument can deteriorate into exaggeration and zealotry.
    Reality: oh yeah, we've all seen those long threads of comments that at one point deteriorate into a flame war. Nazis being the ultimate evil this world has seen (so far), they are easy to compare someone to.
  6. Name: Pareto Principle ("the 80/20 rule") for Software Development.
    The adage: "For every software, 80% of the users use 20% of the features".
    The person: Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.
    Background: Pareto observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population.
    General interpretation: the 80/20 rule has been used and abused by many people in many disciplines. In software development, it's usually taken to show that most people use a small subgroup of features - therefore development should focus on maintaining those, rather than busy itself adding expensive, but ultimately useless features.
    Reality: this is an impossible to prove law, that tries to put life into numbers. Good for statisticians, politicians and product mangers, bad for the rest of humanity. In my experience this is pure BS. 80% of your users may care about 20% of your features, but not with the same intensity and not the same 20%. Your biggest customer may actually care very much about a feature you're about to discard, rendering the whole statistical game moot.
Well, that's it for now. I have several more of these, but I didn't want the post to be too long. Comments are welcome.

Update: look for the second part of this post - Watch out for that razor!

Ah, the Wonderful Town of Zoetermeer!

After an uneventful flight to Houston and a sleepless flight to Amsterdam, I finally arrived at Schiphol airport. I sat next to a cool Swedish marketing guy (hi Denis!), who works for a sports equipment company. We had a lot in common (travel, favorite shows, he's a Mac addict like me), but after a while, he discovered I'm an IT consultant and tried to get my opinion on which CRM system his company should purchase. I pointed him at some options - some are current costumers of ours :)

It made me feel a bit like a doctor or a lawyer at a party: everyone has just one little question... I should start charging for the occasional professional advice :) I'm kidding of course - feel free to ask me anything.

Well, 3 trains later (apparently, the woman at railway information sent me to the wrong train), I got to Zoetermeer, close to Den Haag (or The Hague. The word "The" is actually part of the city's name, translated into English as "the bush"). The reason you don't see any picture here, is because there's nothing to take a picture of. A gray, dreary industrial town. Oh well, 4 more days to go :)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Heading Out to Holland

At a bit of a short notice, I'll be heading out to the Netherlands today. Right now I'm at the SJC airport, waiting to board. Usually, I look forward to trips to that part of the world, but I've been a bit under the weather this weekend. Also, I couldn't get a direct flight for a normal price (unless you call $3500 normal. As my grandma would probably say, it's cheaper to walk...) and I'm stuck with this connection in Houston.

I actually called to cancel the flight, but while holding the call, I started imagining what this week would look like: lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, drinking way too much OJ.

Nope. Better to spend 17 hours in the air and give everyone on board whatever bug I have - I am the Traveling Tech Guy, after all... :)

So, this week's posts will be a bit untimely. They may seem either early or late (I'm not changing my laptop's clock, so it will still figure I'm in California). But I'll do my best to post some tips and pictures, if possible.

Have a great week!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I'm NOT Crazy!

...well, at least I'm not alone...

For a while now, I've been feeling vibrations in my hip area - the area where my Blackberry holster hangs from my belt. I'd reach down, pull the BB out and find out... that nothing was sent, emailed, SMSed since I last checked the damn device.

This started happening more often. And then it started happening when my BB was on the desk in front of me. That freaked me out.

Ido just sent me a link to this CNN article. Apparently, I'm not alone. They call it "Phantom Vibrations", "ringxiety" or "fauxcellarm". And many other people report it. Including Scott Adams, Dilbert's writer.

I'm not crazy, I'm in good company :)

Get What You Need From Tech Support

Yes, we're all big technology buffs. We know how to take our computer appart blindfolded, install 3 different operating systems and look at a core dump to find the root cause of a blue screen.

But when something goes wrong, when a piece of software or hardware misbehaves, we're reduced back to elementary school when talkink on the phone with your friendl tech support represenative.


"Is it connected to power?", "Can you please restart it?", "Are you sure it worked before?" are some questions that can drive you mad. Couple that with the fact most tech support departkments are handled in parts of the world where English is not a first language, and you've got an explosive situation in the making.


ExtremeTech published these 10 tips oif dealing with Tech Support (the link points to the printer-ready version, to save you repeatedly clicking "next"). I especially liked the image attaced to the article, presented here for your enjoyment :)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Another Beautiful PC

A while back, I took a whack at writing a design-oriented article, under the guise of looking for a beautiful PC. Well, here's one I saw yesterday at the local Fry's. It's Sony's Vaio PC/TV series.
Amazing design, can be hung on a wall, price ranges from $1900 to $2900 based on specifications.

Certainly, Sony's performance has been than stellar (serving Rootkits to the masses, exploding laptop batteries, attempting to change the competition's reviews in Wikipedia and one more word PS3). But when it comes to design, Sony is only second to Apple.

Few More Blog Updates

Here are a few short updates to the Traveling Tech Guy:
  1. A list of the 5 most favorite articles has been added on the right. The statistics are based on search engines data. I may publish some of it soon, so you'd get a feeling about your fellow blog readers.
    Right now, number 1 on the list is 1-800-BIG-SCAM - I guess scam attempts are up. Most people reach it by searching for one of the 800 numbers mentioned in the post.
    Number 2 is my American Express RFID post. The data is from the last month only, so numbers are a bit skewed. The situation will improve over time.
  2. A link to fave this blog on Technorati - right now I have 5 references. Technorati is a Technical Blog aggregator. Give it a try and fave the blog :)
  3. The number of ads has been cut down. All I have right now are 2 Google ads and a GetACoder banner in the header.
    Give it a try - you can either offer your services as a freelance developer, or hire freelance developers through the site. Become a subscriber by clicking the banner.

Easter Eggs

It's not Easter, still I was reminded of Easter Eggs when I came across the following image. If you watch the movie Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton and freeze the movie right after the inane FBI warning slide, you'll see this (click to enlarge):

Other than the fact that this matches the subversive atmosphere of the movie, I find it very appropriate. To find this and many more Easter Eggs, I refer you to the Easter Eggs Archive. Enjoy!

AT&T Issues an Apology

In a surprise move, that probably came after enough people published posts like this, AT&T today recanted from their draconian language in their term of service.

In this post, you can find AT&T's apology, along with the new paragraph 5.1 (Suspension/Termination clause) language.

I especially liked the following quote:
AT&T will clarify the language in its Internet Terms of Service agreements to reiterate the company's commitment to freedom of speech and open dialogue...whether that be via the Internet or elsewhere on the AT&T network.

AT&T's Terms of Service follow the company's longstanding respect for our customers' freedom of speech, and clarifies that we will not terminate or suspend a customers' Internet access service based upon their political views or criticism of AT&T.


Longstanding respect... yeah right...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

FogBugz Will Estimate Your Estimation Abilities

Today I've attended a demo of FogBugz 6.0 given by Joel Spolsky, at Mountain View, CA.
FogBugz used to be an issue tracking system and has evolved into a product management software.

Initially I went there just to meet Joel and chat a little, but I found myself getting more and more interested in some of FogBugz's features. Here are some of the things that I found most interesting in the latest release:

  1. A Wiki application handles specs and communication between team members. This Wiki has been done extremely well, with a nice, friendly interface and some cool editing and comparison features.
  2. A new feature called Evidence Based Scheduling (EBS) allows you to predict release dates, based on estimation from developers. Each developer estimates the time it'll take him/her to complete a task. The real time is measured as well.
    As time goes by, your estimations are divided by the actual time, for each task. This produces a measurement called "Velocity".
    The closer your velocity is to 1, the better you are at estimation. This has absolutely no reflection on how good or bad a developer you are, just on how well do you estimate. All the velocities in your team are then input into a Monte Carlo prediction algorithm that attempts to predict when will your software be ready to release (see image).
    You can then play with the parameters in order to get a more suitable release date.
  3. Everything you can do through the web application is exposed through a REST API.
  4. The search engine is smart and versatile, allowing to report or focus on any criterion or field. It's also integrated into the browser as a search engine (saw it working on FireFox - I assume the same is available for IE7).
  5. EVERYTHING can be subscribed to through RSS. Even filters you create on issues.
  6. Full integration with source control systems, means that every bug fixed can show the filenames involved and any file name can show all the issues connected to it.
What lacked, in my opinion, are tester roles and estimations. We all know that a bug fix time includes testing, coding and re-testing. FogBugz seems to be focused on the coding part, but time blocks can be entered for the tester parts to make up the full picture.

You can try FogBugz here.

As for meeting Joel, I found him every ounce as entertaining and knowledgeable as his blog persona.

He stuck around for an hour after the presentation to answer various questions.
My question was: in this post, he claimed that every measurement system designed to measure developers can and will be "gamed" in the end, because developers are ingenious and impervious to measurement. How does that sit with ESB?

His reply was that they've made every effort possible to make sure FogBugz will not yield individual-based reports, that ESB can only attest to a developer's estimation skills and that ultimately, it's what managers do with that data that counts.
If I were to paraphrase it, a-la the NRA: Data doesn't judge people. People judge people :).

We also heard a funny anecdote from his Microsoft development days, about the MS Project 1.0 team. They were forced by their managers to use Project in their project (eat their own dog food). The first Gantt chart they've produced, predicted that Project will be coming out in 2018. They were henceforth excused from using it on Project in any project... :)

Fanboy confession: I originally intended to ask Joel to autograph my copy of "Smart and Get Things Done", but kinda chickened out when I saw all the people around. Next time...