Sunday, November 25, 2007

Drive Halo's Warthog

I'm not the one to post motor news. I was never taken with cars. To me they are just a way to get from A to B faster. I could care less for horse powers, turbos, and hood ornaments.

But this was too good to let it go. Chrysler just published its concept for a new vehicle called the Jeep Renegade 2008. It's supposed to combine an electric and diesel engines and achieve a maximum speed of 110 MPG. So far, I could care less, but then I saw the concept drawing:
And this threw me immediately into the world of Halo, the Xbox 360 game I'm playing right now. You see, the game's protagonist, the Master Chief, gets around the map on a vehicle dubbed "the Warthog" that looks like this:

Am I the only one seeing the similarities, or have the Chrysler designers came up with this design during an evening of hot, hard multiplayer action? smile

PS: as far as I know, Chrysler does not offer a Gatling gun as an option with the Renegade. But who knows? if enough people ask for it... Could be a great way to clear a traffic jam wink.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Alarm Clock

A short tip: if you want to use your Blackberry as an alarm clock and you use the built in app (shortcut key: 'r'), don't forget to turn the "Active on Weekends" flag to "yes". It's "no" by default, as I have just found out neutral.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Technological Digest IV

Here's a nice tech digest to read by your turkey (it's Thanksgiving in the US - also known as "turkey massacre night").

  1. My Kindle ran out - to learn what the Kindle is, read this post. However, if you want one, you're out of luck. Within 5.5 hours after putting out the first Kindle, Amazon ran out of them. You can, however, go to the product's page, and add yourself to the queue.
    In other (happier) shopping news, the Everex (the $199 computer) is back in stock. I consider getting one, upping the memory to 2GB and making it a Web/NAS server.

  2. We'll never lose your mail again - the US Postal Office intends to equip letters with GPS systems so they can track them all over the US. This is still in pilot phase, but it looks like the tiny, smart GPS devices, in conjunction with Google Maps, can mean no more lost letter. But could they please lose my bills? See the device here.

  3. "I'm sorry sir, but your genes show you have no aptitude for programming" - sounds scary? Well, we've taken a big step in that direction last week, when a company called 23andMe (a pun on the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the human DNA), backed by $3.5M from Google, launched a service, allowing you to map your DNA for $999 and analyze it for genetic anomalies, find your genealogy and help you get blond kids with blue eyes (I'm kidding about the last bit). All it takes is a swab of saliva. If you can't see why I dislike this service, please go and watch the movie Gattaca, come back here and leave me a comment. Here's their site.
    And a juicy piece of gossip: the company's CEO is Sergey Brin's wife. Yep, that guy from Google.

  4. Hasta la Vista? - You probably have read my mixed reviews of Vista. But this latest survey is probably making a lot of people bang their heads against walls in Redmond.
    This Computer World article shows that 90% of IT professional surveyed have concerns about deploying Vista and how only 50% are seriously pursuing it. This ITWorld article details how many IT analysts are just waiting for the next release, Windows 7, and may skip Vista altogether. And finally, a Forrester report showing that 44% of those professionals are considering Windows alternatives like Linux and Mac OS. Ouch.

  5. Anything you can do, I can do better - Microsoft had a "silent launch" last week of a new Live service called CommunityBuilder. What it is, is essentially Google Apps for Your Domain (i.e. email, photos and a web site for your specific domain). Unlike Google's service, there's no charge (Google charges for premium services). Also unlike Google, this currently works in IE only.
    And while on this subject, a startup called Transmedia launched an online spreadsheet ysterday and intends to take on both Google AND Microsoft with more online office apps. Good luck to the, I say. Read more here.
That's all for now, folks. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Get Yourself a Static IP

If you, like me, have a computer constantly connected to the internet, no doubt you've thought of using it as a server.

Possible uses for your computer could be:
Regardless of the use, you probably ran into the following problem: your dynamic IP changes every time your computer connects to the network. There's no way for you to "ping" your computer remotely, or even get to it. Unless you have a generous ISP who provides you with a static IP, that privilege would cost you a nice sum. You see, ISPs are ok with you downloading stuff - they're not so keen on you uploading. For that, you "should" get a business account...

But services like DynDNS and No-IP solve that problem for you. They provide a static URL of your choice (limited to certain extensions) that gets mapped to your dynamic IP. By installing a small client on your computer (or, in the case of some routers, by enabling an option in the router configuration) the server gets notified every time the IP changes, and updates a DNS (Domain Name Server) accordingly.

I use both services (one on my Mac, one on the PC) and use the free service in both (it has a nag feature, where every 60 days you get notified that the service will expire unless you login within 24 hours and verify your address) - the premium service, with more available address, shorter TTL and extra features costs $9.95/year.

Download This! - Slim Server

I have several GBs of music (MP3 and Apple iTunes AAC files), lying all around: on my laptop, my Mac, my backup HDs, etc.

Yes, I can can carry my collection on my laptop's auxiliary HD - but then I won't have place for another VM when I need to test yet another new OS smile. So I came up with a solution from the past: a streaming server.

You see, back in the days, when I had a 20GB internal HD (and Windows and its cohorts took half of that), I decided to try my hand at streaming. At first I tried using the MS Streaming Server - but that requires running a server version of Windows (2000, 2003) on a computer at home. I tested several Linux based solutions - but finally stopped at Slim Server.

Slim Server is a free streaming server created and supported by Slim Devices - a company that makes and sells devices that can play streamed music, wireless or connected (see image).
They were acquired by Logitech - meaning those devices are not going away soon.

Back to the server side: although originally intended as a back end for their devices, Slim Server can stream music to any player that can play streamed MP3 (Windows Media Player, WinAmp, Miro etc.). Installing Slim Server is extremely easy. I've installed it on my Mac in literally seconds. It deploys a web application (for Apache on Mac and Linux, IIS on Windows) and is accessible from any device/computer (if your firewall is configured correctly).

Slim Server will go through an entire directory structure and index the music files within (may take a few minutes before the server is available the first time, or when you choose to re-index).
Another thing you can do, is allow the server to communicate with iTunes directly and gain access to your library. Be aware that locked (DRM) iTunes songs are not available for streaming though, only non-DRM iTunes Plus songs will be available.

Few things you should know:
  1. The server won't stream unless a client is demanding a stream (took me some time to figure that out - and to that greater people than me would say: RTFM).
    So, start your client, point it to the URL of the server and only then click "Play" in the web interface.
  2. Don't forget to configure your firewall (on both the server and the client). You can change the server's port easily.
  3. My suggestion: enable the password protection.
  4. If you feel brave, download the Perl source code, and tinker with the look-and-feel.
  5. Most of us don't have a static IP address. To bypass this problem, try this Tech Tip.
Download all versions of Slim Server here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Are There Monkeys Working in R&D?

While downloading Visual Studio 2008 (released today as promised. 21% downloaded - yeah baby!), I decided to share some of the fun sites and and articles I read over the weekend.

There's really no connection between the links, other than their obvious tech appeal and that I found them funny.
  • 10 types of programmers you’ll encounter in the field - ouch! This one is too close to the real world. If I recall correctly, type #9 - Mediocre Man - a developer who does just enough to survive and can never be fired - used to be called Klingon in the past. No, it has nothing to do with the Star Trek alien race. It comes from "cling-on" - a person who just won't let go smile.

  • The Warning Label Generator - will allow you to generate useful, and funny warning labels:

  • What do profile photos on social networks really mean?

  • Just a funny thing I read about a guy commenting on the low level of developers in his R&D organization: "when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" biggrin.

  • Despite what it claims, this site - what to do in an emergency - has nothing to do with Homeland Security.

  • If you really want everyone to hate you, try one of these 32 ways sure to tick people off.

  • The Evolution of the programmer - sad, but true. We start with Basic, we end up writing documents and boring emails about TPS reports (Office Space reference - if you haven't seen this movie yet, stop wasting your time here and go watch!).

  • Courtroom quotations - If even half is true, we're in trouble...

  • And finally, all of the 6 Rocky movies in 5 seconds. I pity the fool!
    (This link is dedicated to my friend Mr. T - get well soon!)
At 58% download - either I write slowly, or my internet connection is great.

A Kindle in the Wind

Amazon today announced its widely anticipated book reader, the Kindle.

The book reader supports a technology called Electronic Paper - an LCD display that resembles a printed page, to a degree that would allow extended reading without discomfort.

The device can display PDF, Word, HTML, JPEG and various other document and image formats. It can play Audible audio books and MP3 files. It has a rechargeable, replaceable battery. Instead of the rumored WiFi access, it has a mobile network access through Sprint (US only). The rest of the world will have to sync through a computer.

It's smaller in size than a hardcover book and weighs like a paperback, yet can contain more than 200 books in it (so you'll never run out of reading material on the road).

Amazon intends to sell e-books for $10 a pop, newspaper subscriptions, and blog access (sadly, paid access - would you pay several cents a month to read my blog offline?). The price includes the mobile access fees, as you can download books over the air. A nice feature would allow for several Kindles to subscribe to one account (so all people in your household can share books - if they each have a Kindle).

The Kindle costs $399 and you can buy it here.

To me, the price point is too high. If the whole idea is to save (paper, storage place), why not price the books at $4.99 and compete with the $5.99 price point of a paperback. I also don't get the mobile access angle. WiFi access would have allowed free access to free content. As it is, people can read this blog for free on their computer or smart phone. Why would they pay $1/month to get it on another device?

The competitor, the Sony Book Reader costs $299 and offers the same functionality sans remote access (you have to sync it), or Amazon content. I've recently had a chance to try the SBR and it's highly readable and very intuitive. And it has an added feature: the screen does not consume battery. Battery power is only used when you move to the next page, but once the screen stabilizes, it can stay on that page forever, without consuming power - allowing for a long use time between recharges.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I just finished reading Professor Adi Shamir's analysis of a new way one can (presumably) break the RSA encryption algorithm, based on a hardware bug (to get the less scientific description, read this short NY Times item).

Prof. Shamir's short analysis gets so much attention, due to the fact he was one of RSA's designers (he's the 'S', the other two are Ron Rivest and Leonard Adelman). RSA is the base to all public-key algorithms, including the one you use every time you browse to a secure site. A breach in this algorithm could bring the entire online commerce to a halt.

Prof. Shamir cites similar cases from recent history, such as the Intel Pentium debacle and the more recent Excel multiplication bug (read about both in an earlier post).

If the above (RSA, public-key, encryption, etc.) sounds like Chinese to you, I'd like to recommend the book The Code Book, by Simon Singh. Singh discusses encryption's history and it's uses - from the ancient world, through middle ages, to the invention of the computer, and onward - to quantum computing and the future of encryption.

Throughout the book are interesting stories, examples and puzzles that would get you involved more and more in this interesting field. Sadly, the final challenge Singh poses in the last chapter has been broken, but you can still take a whack at it and test your skills. I can promise you'll know more about RSA when you finish this fun and educating book. The book has been added to the Amazon Widget on the left.

PS: Thanks to Yaniv, for sending me the original announcement by Prof. Shamir.

Day Trip to Coe Park

Fall is here. Leaves are changing their colors to amazing reddish hues, before falling into my patio. It's still sunny, but distinctively colder. In such weather, my friend Gil and I decided to go and hike in Coe park.

Coe park is the largest park in northern California. With varied terrain, ranging from mountains to woods to lakes. You can go hiking, biking, fishing, or strolling. Read more about it here.

Even from afar, we could see a cloud sitting at the top of the mountain where the park is. But, it being sunny and all, we proceeded up the 10 mile winding road (be sure to honk your horn when arriving at blind turns - the road is barely wide enough). The higher we went, the worst our visibility got. We debated turning around several times, but there was no space to turn. We got all the way up, to the park's gate. Got out of the car and realized we can't see our hands in front of our face, due to the fog.

We abandoned our hiking plans and slowly drove down the mountain to Coyote Lake. And it might as well been in another continent. The sun was shining, people were sitting by the lake's side and even windsurfing across it.

I found it very funny, that the bridge we crossed to get back to the road, had a "Do not jump off bridge" sign (I wonder if guns have a "do not shoot yourself" warning). We even saw some deer at the side of the road, finally explaining this sign that I've been seeing all over the US.

We ate a nice lunch at the Pasta? (yes, the ? is part of the name) Italian restaurant in Mountain View, where the nice waitress spoke to us in Italian and tried teaching us how to order and pay in that language. All in all, a nice way to spend one of the last sunny days of this year.

To see all these images and more, in a better resolution, click here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Download This! - SysInternals Suite

In the past, I'v recommended several of the SysInternals utilities, like Process Explorer and TcpView. But they have many more useful tools and I could probably fill countless posts about them.

Well, it looks like I won't have to anymore. Introducing the SysInternals Suite - one download (9mb) that includes all the useful tools (by "useful", I mean it does not include prank apps like the BSOD Screen Saver - kids, DO try this at home, it's fun and harmless).

The "suite" is actually one zip file that includes the various exe files (non of SysInternals applications require installation - another reason why I like them). To see the full list of tools included and read about their function, click here.

Here's what I do: unzip them all into a directory called "tools" on my main partition. Add that directory to my path. Now I can launch each tool from the command line or from the run command (Windows Key + R). the easiest way to do that:
  1. right-click "My Computer" and choose "Properties"
  2. Choose the "Advanced" tab
  3. At the bottom, click the "Environment Variables" button
  4. From the upper list, chose "path" and click the edit button
  5. at the end of the line, add ";c:\tools"
  6. Click the various Ok buttons
  7. Add any other application that requires no installation, to that folder
To download the suite, click here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

(Too) Smart Phone

I've seen many hacking demonstrations over the years. I've even tried several tools (don't expect names and URLs here biggrin). But the one you can see in the attached video takes the cake.

The more "smart" our phones and PDAs get, the more complex their systems get and the more vulnerable to hacking they get. Both the Blackberry and the The iPhone have their own operating systems, with firewalls and security software. In the case of the iPhone, it's a Unix kernel, with the phone's user operating in root mode (the equivalent to a Windows administrator). If you take control of that user, you can do whatever you want with the phone.

And here's where the scary part starts: Rik Farrow a Unix consultant and security specialist, gives new meaning to "taking over a phone". Not only can he read all your messages, emails, and browser history, but he can actually listen to every conversation you make.

But Rik takes it one step further, he actually can tap into the iPhone's microphone and listen in on converstaions made in the room.

All of it starts by answering an SMS or email containing a Trojan, browsing to a malicious web site, or using your wireless network to browse to a non-secure hotspot.

While this demonstration uses the iPhone as a playing ground, other phones can be compromised in a similar manner. Think about that when purchasing the Blackberry 8830 (the wireless model) or the Nokia N95 (a phone with a Symbian/Linux OS).

Geeky Fun

If you understand what's funny in the next strip, consider yourself a geek.
If you need further convincing, take the Nerd Test.

I've had this strip hanging in my office for over 4 years now. I cut it out of a regular daily newspaper, and always wondered what percentage of the readers really understood it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Read PDFs on the Web Without a Reader

PDF (Portable Document Format) has been with us for a while, and is the de-facto cross platform document format (especially now, that the Open Document Foundation dissolved without deciding on a single format).

The problem is, to read a PDF, you need a Reader - a client application that will render the document, since it's essentially just a set of vector instructions (give it a try, open a PDF in a text editor).

You would either use Adobe Acrobat Reader (a bloated piece of software, that gets bigger and bigger over versions and consumes endless amounts of resources) or free readers, like the lightweight Foxit Reader. But still, the fact remains you have to download the PDF document and open it in a Reader, or use a BHO (Browser Helper Object - an ActiveX for IE or an add-on for Firefox) - which is essentially the same.

Macromedia FlashPaper allows you to save any document you want as a Flash file. It is viewable in a Flash player, which you probably already have in any browser you use, on any OS available. Here's a sample I've just created of the Gettysburg Address:

You can zoom in and out (+ and - buttons), browse through the document, search in it, copy from it and print it.

Using the application is very simple: drag any document (text, Word, or a PDF) into the single window, and select "save as FlashPaper". Alternatively, the program adds a device driver to Windows, so you can print directly to FlashPaper from any application.

You can download a trial version (30 free days) of FlashPaper from Adobe and play with it.
Look at my Résumé page for another quick impression. [link removed 11/2/2012]

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Download This! - Heartbeat Monitor

Let's say you leave your computer alone for a while, working on a task (uploading content to your site, downloading a large VM appliance etc.). You return after a couple of hours to find out your computer disconnected from the internet and the entire job failed.

Or let's say you're like me, on the road 80% of your time. You leave your computer at home on - and connect to it from the road through VNC. Only, if the computer disconnected from the internet, due to a DSL drop - you're screwed.

That was the problem I've encountered about a year ago: I was working in Europe, limited, in many places, to modem-speed connection. I therefore used it to connect to my home computer and order it to do the heavy lifting.

About once a week, my ISP dropped my DSL connection (I later found out it's their a policy: if you have a private account, you're not supposed to be connected 24X7 - because that would imply you're a business, and then you need to pay for a business account) and I could not connect to my computer until I returned home.

This pissed me off to no end for several months, until I decided to solve it. [Yes, this post's tool was written by me].

I wrote a small application called Heartbeat Monitor that runs in the background (minimized to the tray) and pings a certain address (one that's supposed to be up 99.999% of the time, say If the ping operation failed, the program launched a script that called the internet dialer and resumed the connection. If it was an actual line problem, it would keep trying to run the script every n minutes. Eventually, it resumed the internet connection (unless there was a complete power failure) and I could reach my computer again.

The application is written as a .Net 2.0 console application and I've allowed myself to play with GUI nuts and bolts (such as an in-memory cyclic log, taskbar icon, gradiant-colored form etc.).
I planned to write a CodeProject article on it - and I may soon, when I have the time (see my other CodeProject articles).

The script that the application runs in case of a ping failure can be any executable or Windows batch. It can even restart the machine.

I published the application to SourceForge about a year ago and had several hundred downloads. So far, 3 people wrote to me, describing how they're using it. One is an IT consultant who installs it for every customer he has, to maintain connection to a central server. Another, who wrote me 2 days ago, used it to prove to his ISP that his DSL connection is constantly dropped, by showing them the log file.

Here's a link to a page I put up, describing the application, and providing some script samples.
You can also download the application - and its source from the same page.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

We've all seen paragraphs upon paragraphs filled with "Lorem ipsum..." - in templates, font samples and web sites mock-ups.

Whenever someone wants to say "here will be text", they use this "dummy text". But have you ever asked yourself what does it mean?

Well, strictly speaking, it means nothing. It has been used by print typesetters since the 1500s, to demonstrate the quality of their fonts. It's has been alleged that this text was selected because it contains all the available characters in the alphabet and sounds Latin (which it's not) - making it look sophisticated.

But when Richard McClintock, a Latin professor at Hampden-Sydney College started looking for old occurrences of "lorem", he came across a real Latin paragraph. It turns up one of Cicero's writings (specifically "treatise on the theory of ethics" written in 45 BC) starts like this
"Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit..." (meaning "There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain..." - clearly Cicero never heard of Masochists smile). To read more about Cicero, look at this book recommendation.

The funny thing about "lorem" is that it made the jump across technologies, over 500 years, from typesetting, to print, to typewriters and finally to computers. I wonder if Cicero thought that one day, every person in the world (who has a computer) will have a copy of his treatise.

Read more about it here and visit this site, the Lipsum Generator - tell it how long you want it and it'll generate paragraphs for you. Great for your next web site design project, when you want to see how your CSS holds for long texts.

Download This! - Sandboxie

We have no control over crap program leave behind on our disk. Some leave cookies, other logs and some even bigger and scarier files. Some change registry settings that may affect other applications. The worst kind, are those that delete files - even those not belonging to them.

One way to deal with this problem is to run your app in a VM (such as VMWare's Browser Appliance). Another, is to use an application called Sandboxie.

Sandboxie will allow you to add applications to a 'sandbox' - anything they try to write to the hard disk or the registry, will remain in the sandbox. Sandboxie achieves this by installing a driver in your system, that captures all the write commands and redirecting them to a temporary storage locations. Read commands go through normally (although they are logged), allowing applications to access their data.

You can assign any application you'd like to run in Sandboxie. By default, it allows you to run a web browser or an email client - with no configuration. You can add programs by selecting them from the Windows start menu, or by pointing at their window (so you can actually sandbox an application that's already running - let's say, if you point your browser at a site you don't trust - and then release it).

Sandboxie is free and can be downloaded here.

Update (12/7/07):
A new version (3.21) relaxes the domain licensing restrictions to allow unrestricted use on portable computers. Get it at the same link above.

Get Your Hands on the Visual Studio 2008 Source

About a month ago I discussed how Microsoft intends to take an open source approach with the .Net Framework 3.5 code - to allow for easier debugging.

Now it looks like Microsoft will actually share the source for Visual Studio 2008 with select partners.

The program is limited to "premier partners in the Visual Studio Industry Partner Program" a tier that currently covers around 85 partners and costs $10k/year with a 3 year minimum (what I would call "give us $30k" program).

The good news here are, that for the first time, partners are allowed to develop VS applications and plugins or on other environments than Microsoft's Windows (maybe an integration with Linux tools? VS on Mac?)

I sure hope my company has access to that source (have to find out what level of partnership we have) - this could prove very interesting.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oracle VM

Tomorrow, Oracle will release its new product, Oracle VM.
Yes, another Virtual Machine server, to compete with VMWare, MS Virtual Server and Xen.

In a very a "humble" announcement, Oracle introduced the product as
Oracle VM is server virtualization software which fully supports both Oracle and non-Oracle applications, and is three times more efficient than other server virtualization products.
Yes, you've heard it here (well, actually on Oracle's site) first: Oracle VM is three times more efficient than VMWare! Yay!

Anyway, check out this link tomorrow and download a free version. I know I would - just to see what I've been missing so far biggrin.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Cheapest PC Available (Currently)

If you're on a budget, but would still like to edit Word documents, surf the web and chat with friends, then the Wal-Mart Everex is for you.

This PC costs $199 (no monitor provided), comes with a 1.5GHz Via processor, 512Mb Ram (expendable to 2Gb), a DVD-RW, a NIC and 80GB HD.

While this is not an ideal Windows machine, it comes with Linux pre-installed (gOS - can easily be changed to Ubuntu) and Open Office.

How popular is this computer? Wal-Mart's stock ran out, almost as soon as it was announced (although some branches may still have a few). If you look at the reviews page, you'll see most people really love it. The components are supposed to consume less electricity than comparable PCs, allowing you to use it as a server machine at home. For a $100 more you can get 1Gb of RAM and a Vista Home license (but why would you want that?)

In a future post I'll discuss how you can install Windows XP even on such a limited machine - making this purchase very attractive.

Find out more on the product page - good luck finding one!

Technological Digest III

Another weekend passed, and here's another batch of tech and business headlines that piqued my interest over the weekend:
  1. FireFox, no longer the poor little contender - The New York Times has an interesting article about the financial situation of FireFox. The browser has become quite a contender to IE, with 15-20% market share (especially in Europe). It seems that the Mozilla Foundation (creators of FireFox), originally a nonprofit organization, is pulling in $66 million in revenue. Most of it from Google, who's using FF as part of their cold war with Microsoft. So is the open-source project turning into a corporation? And how much do executives in Mozilla earn? (use bugmenot to avoid registration).

  2. Think of a number, any number - a team from the Haifa university in Israel, has proven that the Random Number Generator (RNG) used in the Windows operating systems, is not random. Not only did they manage to predict the next number coming out of the algorithm (negating its randomality), they've also managed to use that info to decipher an encrypted communication - the main use for the RNG. Read more here.

  3. Are we there yet? - despite Microsoft promising that no Vista patches will come out until SP1 in January '08, they're releasing 3 major patches on Tuesday. Contributing to stability, wireless connectivity and, one of the biggest pet peeve with users, waking up from hibernation (the only OS so far where shutting down and restarting is faster than using hibernation). As one of the reader commented on this "Just think: in a year or two Vista will be amazing. Keep on patchin' that baby!". Read more here.

  4. What do YOU want to see in the next version of Windows? - well, if you have no idea, why not take a peek at the feature request list for Windows 7, that was leaked today?
    I wonder who leaked it (well, I have my opinion) - and also what percentage of those features will be implemented. In case you forgot what Windows 7 is, read this and this.

  5. The right place at the right time - This NYT article interviews a masseuse who turned into a multimillionaire from rubbing engineers' shoulders for a couple of years.
    The secret? She was working for Google 6 years ago, and got stock options, when the stock was at $85 (over $700 today). She has retired and is using her money for traveling around the world and publishing a book about her story. Luck cannot be bought.

  6. IBM to acquire Cognos - IBM announced today that it has acquired Cognos for $4.9bn in cash. Cognos develops BI and reporting applications. What grabbed my interest was the similar deal last month, where SAP acquired Business Objects - Cognos's direct competitor - for $4.8bn. Both IBM and SAP estimate that integrating BI solutions into their existing enterprise suites would increase the range of their offerings.
    To make the deals seem even more identical, there's the fact that both companies are based in Canada (Cognos in Ottawa, ON - BO in Vancouver, BC). Interesting, eh?

  7. Reminder - just a reminder that the OLPC "Buy One Give One" deal starts today and will be available until November 26th. As an added bonus, T-Mobile will throw in a year of free access to any T-Mobile hotspot. Read more about the deal here, or buy one here.

Win $10 Million from Google

Google today released the Android SDK for hand held devices.

The SDK will work on x86 systems (Windows, Mac OS X, Ubuntu) and will allow development of mobile applications. Google hope it would become a valid alternative to Windows Mobile, Symbian ad the other mobile OS out there.

Google has taken a further step in encouraging the development community to adopt the new framework, by offering prizes, ranging from $25k to $275K (totaling $10m) to individuals developing Android applications. A committee would judge apps and award the prize money.

This, to me, sounds like the best approach for companies with new technologies, or paradigms to push. Spread some incentives (money, comps, licenses etc.) and tie the strong open source community to your product.

A call to Microsoft: take a page out of Google's book. With .Net Framework 3.5 coming out this month, why not encourage people to pick it up?

Update: apparently, not everyone is taken with Android. Here's Scoble's post on the subject. To summarize it, he thinks Android is vaporware and does not really risk iPhone, with its impending SDK.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Alternate Realities

No, this is not a sci-fi post. It actually has to do with a recent (and past) frustration I'm facing.

You know how some people cannot be talked to? And I don't just mean "can't be convinced". I'm talking about people who'll argue that a square is round and that 1 + 1 == 3, until they're blue in the face. People who'll not accept your opinion, if God himself descended from heaven an pointed at you.

Let me tell you about one such occurrence in a company I worked for in the past (obviously I cannot discuss present experiences smile):

2 team leaders decided that our current infrastructure and communication layers were poorly written (as opposed to buggy or inefficient - which I could understand). They wanted to insert a new technology (untested and open sourced) instead.

Me and a fellow team leader did our best to convince them otherwise. We explained that it would hurt our delivery schedule, add a lot of bugs and noise to the existing system and that rewriting something from scratch would throw our hard-earned stability out the window.

To no avail. They've convinced the Dev manager, explained that it would all be refactored nicely (and boy, do I remember the hundreds of white boards full of UML diagrams) and scalable.

At that point, it seemed like logic left the building. They've turned every discussion into a personal argument. Those who haven't sided with them (and by this time, a group of developers voiced their concern as well), were deemed ignorants and fools. It has become a personal issue.

I, of course, blame the Dev manager. Even in 1-on-1 discussions with him, he'd listen to my arguments politely, but you could see in his eyes his mind was elsewhere. It was as if his brain was counting the seconds until I left his room.

The results were dire. We missed the release date of the next version by several months. The application crashed several times - at customer sites (sadly, with me at one such deployment). Rewrite upon rewrite followed, with a lot of money spent on consultants who "mastered" that technology. Finally, the Coup de grâce: our largest customer asked us to please downgrade him to the previous version, as he feels it was more stable.

We lost that customer soon after that and several others to boot. The Dev team entered a cycle of rewrites upon rewrite - all unnecessary. Those who suggested moving back to the old infrastructure were summarily shot (kidding razz - but it came pretty close to that). Good people left. And several months later the company went belly up.

The point? Beware people who "live in their own universe". People who will not be dissuaded by reality are dangerous. If you can't convince them using simple, unchallenged facts - avoid talking to them. Bypass them, if possible - or just look for some people who live in your universe for an assist.

As for me, whenever I'm on a phone call with one such "visionary", I mute my phone and carry on talking. It has the same effect biggrin.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Online Project Management Tools

Whether you're a freelance consultant, or a project manager at a big company, I hope you use some kind of tool to manage your projects, calendars and customers, other than sticky notes.

We manage over a 100 projects a year in my department. A couple of months back, we've decided to have a customer-facing project management site per project, allowing us and the customer to closely follow the progress of our project and share documents and resources.

I started digging into available solutions, with the assistance of someone who did a similar research in the past (thanks Matt - see Matt's profile on LinkedIn). In the end, we've both arrived at the same conclusion.

Here are some of the alternatives I've checked, along with the reasons I didn't choose them.
I hope you can benefit from this short description, and make the right choice for your projects. (Click on the screenshots to enlarge).

  1. Microsoft Project Server - essentially an online version of MS Project. Easy to use and integrate with other MS products.
    But raise your hand if you ever changed a tiny detail in your Project Gantt chart, only to find the entire chart dancing the rumba and moving the end date to January 3rd, 2099 at 3:10pm.
    Add to that the fact you need a per user license and host the server yourself. Customer facing capabilities a re limited. But if you're already using Project in-house, by all means install the server, so all documents are shared and synchronized.
    Also refer to Joel's anecdote about Project's usage within Microsoft.
    Price: you have to buy a license (per server and per user).
    Try-before-you-buy: if you have an MSDN subscription.

  2. Planview Portfolio Management - Planview provides a set oif online tools and a suite to include them all (project, services and business process management). The problem is, my company is already using Planview as a time tracking tool and the UI and usability are so... miserable, I just gave this option the skip.
    Price: geared towards the enterprise, not individuals. This is a suite, so expect a hefty price.
    Try-before-you-buy: no.

  3. GoPlan - Very nice interface, very customer oriented. But response times were iffy. The whole site and attitude (and a .Org extension) kind of scared me about investing time and money in this site.
    Price: various plans, from $10/month for individuals, to $100/month for companies.
    Try-before-you-buy: a free plan allows you to manage up to 2 projects.
  4. Smartsheet - other than the unfortunate name (see other sites who could have picked better URLs here), this site is one of my favorites. It comes as close as possible to an MS Project document or an Excel spreadsheet. The interface is clean and professional. The reporting module is very usable. Many project templates are available.
    What detracted me was that this site doesn't lend itself to a customer facing environment. I'd definitely use it to manage my own projects, though.
    As an added bonus, the entire site is encrypted (HTTPS).
    Price: various plans from $25-$150/month, based on number of projects and storage capacity.
    Try-before-you-buy: an account limited to 2 sheets is available for free.

  5. Basecamp - created by 37signals, this web application looks a bit spartan in interface, compared to the competition, but when it comes to sharing with customers, this is just what the doctor ordered. A very easy interface means integration effort and education are minimal. Uploading and sharing files is as easy as clicking a button. Managing to-do lists and milestones is a snap. Sending messages to the customers, or even chatting, are readily available (though for real time chat, you'd have to get a Campfire account - an extra charge. So don't discard your Live Messenger just yet).

    The calendar can be exported as an iCal format (an XML calendar format - read more here). Easily integrated within Google Calendar, or Outlook 2007. (If you have an older Outlook version, try RemoteCalendars, a free Outlook 2003 plugin that allows iCal integration).

    Every customer gets his own separate site. The URL is configurable. And HTTPS supported.
    Price: $12-$150/month, based on number of projects and storage space.
    Try-before-you-buy: a free account, limited to one project, with a URL, but no HTTPS.
Basecamp was my recommendation 4 months ago. Today we have over 20 projects hosted on it. Customers generally like the idea and we're doing our best to educate them (for example, documents are uploaded to the site and not emailed anymore). Most people in the team have no problem with the interface and we're starting to see the level of details growing.

But, by all means, don't just take my word for it. Try these different services. Register for free and manage a full project (mock or real) before deciding.
Drop me a note with your recommendations. Good luck!

Friday, November 9, 2007

What Can You Buy On This Site?

I just watched the latest episode of QI (Quite Interesting), Stephen Fry's BBC show.
One of the most entertaining and educating things on TV, it brings together every week 4 comedians to deal with general knowledge questions - pretty hard ones at that. Points are awarded not for right answers, but for the most interesting and funny replies.

So, this week, they had a segment called "what's sold on this web site?" and here are some sites, with unfortunate names:
  1. - is it for finding rapists, or therapists?
  2. - find out which agent represents certain celebrities, or buy gifts for your favorite ...?
  3. - get yourself a nice pen, or a nice penis?
  4. - I've been using this site for years, and never thought of parsing the name differently (expert-sex-change)
  5. - is it speed of art, or speedo f...?
Anyway kids, be careful what you call your web site! And for God's sake, use hyphens.

PS: Stephen Fry is one of the most talented and educated comedians out there. He started with Hugh Laurie (another talented comedian, now playing Dr. House on TV) a little show called "A bit of Fry and Laurie", continued with him to "Jeeves and Wooster" (highly recommended, if you like P.G. Wodhouse - and even if you don't) and is now presenting QI on BBC (with fellow comedian Alan Davies) and writing an entertaining blog (here's his take on the iPhone).

Don't Get Mad, Get Even

We've all heard of Wi-fi stealing. Some of us have suffered from it, some of us have even practised it lol.

But this guy, decided to do something about it. As he himself admits, the easiest thing to do would be to encrypt the signal (and please people, use WPA or WPA2 - WEP has been broken by kids a long time ago). But he found a better way to confuse the thieves - play with the content.

Using a simple Perl script, he turns every image on all HTTP connections upside down, or blurs it in a way that'd give you a headache. Of course, he makes sure it happens just to uninvited users.

I love this prank for its simplicity and the sheer fun this guy has - without causing real damage to anyone.

PS: If you'd like to know more about steal.. er, borrowing Wi Fi signals, check out this helpful article wink