Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Buying Innovation

The truth behind Yahoo's acquisition of Flickr and del.icio.us:
The truth is, I think, that Yahoo bought 'Entrepreneurial Spirit'. Ok, these small companies also have some technology, a few members, a little revenue and great PR but that wasn't the main reason to buy them. The truth is that big companies don't innovate. They can't.
Interesting perspective.

(via Ben Poole and Volker Weber)

Monday, January 30, 2006


DSC03308Over the past several months, I've occasionally posted photographs to this blog. I've carefully crafted a thumbnail for each photo, uploaded the images to my ISP web space, and hacked the HTML for each image. I guess I've been doing it the hard way.

I've known about Flickr for months -- I've even used it to search for photos -- but this weekend I finally got around to posting some photos of my own. It's great! The Flickr uploader tool is easy to use and it is dirt simple to create photo sets. You don't have to diddle with image editing and HTML. For example, here's a small set of pictures I've taken this winter.

Flickr has been generating buzz for months. It is often cited as a successful example of a service fueled by a bottom-up taxonomy or folksonomy. I'm still not sold on the idea of folksonomies for organizing data, but Flickr is great. It's the photo sharing, stupid!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Roving Mars

A couple of nights ago NHPR's The Front Porch aired an interview with George Burton, the documentary filmmaker from Holderness, New Hampshire. Burton is well known for making Pumping Iron (1977) and The Endurance (2000) among other films. This Friday his new film, Roving Mars, opens in IMAX theaters nationwide.

Roving Mars tells the story of the NASA mission that sent the rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars in 2004. According to the NHPR interview, it includes plenty of footage from Mars itself, high-definition images transmitted by the rovers. This sounds great. Unfortunately, it won't be opening at an IMAX theater near me. It looks like the closest showing is at the IMAX theater in Providence.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Online, Over Fed, and Under Surveillance

I'm a bit overwhelmed with life online. I guess I'm not the only one. Pete recently wrote about unplugging some his information feeds. Before that, Rands wrote about Repetitive Information Injury. I can relate. Lately, I think I've been spending too much time checking my feeds at Bloglines. I need to get that under control.

But it's not just conspicuous consumption that worries me. I'm also worried about conspicuous production. I am just beginning to realize how much of an electronic trail I leave online every day. For instance, I let Google store my personal email and blog entries. That part of my electronic trail is intentional and I have a degree of control over it. But I also post comments to a handful of other blogs, enter all of my runs in an online running log, participate in discussions on various forums, and manage a queue of DVDs at Netflix. That's just off the top of my head. There may be more.

The problem is much of this electronic trail is beyond my control. If someone took the time to stitch all of the data together, they would essentially own my electronic identity. Antonio and Ned see some potential in helping "unwitting bloggers" establish a cohesive online identity. As Ned said:
People are more and more willing to have bits of themselves online. Some are more than willing, they are eager, but need help getting started with a substantial presence. I think there's lots that online services could do to turn members into unwitting bloggers. There's lots of exciting stuff coming down the pike.
Exciting, yes, but I keep getting stuck on that one word. Unwitting. I don't like the idea of someone else controlling my identity.

Om Malik recently wrote about the dangers of keeping too much of your life online:
Somewhere on some server, in some SAN your life is cached. We are living a cached life. And it is going to get even more cached, as we turn to always-on wireless devices. Our RSS will be cached somewhere. So will be our thoughts that appear on blogs. Our TiVo watching patterns to music listening patterns in iTunes, and other such new conveniences are part of a new cached, convenient albeit less private life.
Don't get me wrong. Life online is great. I like the convenience of Gmail, Netflix and other services, but we all need to be careful when trading privacy for convenience. Is your online data in good hands?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Kids Today!

The Wall Street Journal Online reports some Computer Science students are using the Internet to outsource their homework. Some use a service called RentACoder to put their homework out to bid. For example:
"I need a simple console-based program and a PHP script written that uses the openssl library."

"I need 2 algorithms filtering -- median and Gaussian."

"A C++ program that will implement a billing system using threads. Needs to be completed tonight if possible."

RentACoder is normally used for legitimate business purposes. The report stresses that a only tiny minority of students use services like RentACoder.

(Via Slashdot where there are plenty of comments about the offenders' bright future in middle management.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Interfaces Overvalued in Java API Design

In Java API Design Guidelines, Eamonn McManus says:
There's a certain style of API design that's very popular in the Java world, where everything is expressed in terms of Java interfaces (as opposed to classes). Interfaces have their place, but it is basically never a good idea for an entire API to be expressed in terms of them. A type should only be an interface if you have a good reason for it to be.

McManus goes on to explain the problems with interfaces and to list the cases where interfaces make sense. This is the best explanation of the tradeoffs I have seen anywhere.

Of course, the article isn't just about interfaces. It includes lots of other guidelines for Java API design. Good stuff.

Happy Birthday, Ben

Today, January 17, is the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth. Although he lived in Philadelphia most of his life, don't forget he was born in Boston.

Here are some words of wisdom from Mr. Franklin:
"Beware of the young doctor and the old barber."

"If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect."

"Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

There are many more Franklin quotes here.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Starbucks Media Empire

Apparently their profitable Hear Music division, has Starbucks executives dreaming of a media empire. As reported by the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Starbucks plans to promote movies starting with the spring release of Akeelah and the Bee. An NPR story I heard last night claimed Starbucks also has plans to sell books at some of their 10,000 coffee shops.

I like Starbucks cappuccino. Although I've never bought a music CD at one of their stores, I also like the "Starbucks sound" and I can see the logic in their peddling music with coffee. But I think it's a stretch for Starbucks to be tying in other media. It feels like they want to dictate good taste in coffee, music, books and movies.

Since it is Starbucks, I won't bet against their success, but I don't like where this is heading.

Misuse of Chinese Characters

Over the years, I have worked with many engineers from Japan, China and Korea. I am always amazed by their ability to speak two (or more) languages fluently. I feel stupid by comparison.

Still, I get a chuckle whenever I visit Engrish.com. It's a collection of unintentionally funny English phrases discovered in Japan and other Asian countries. I think it's mostly a good natured collection. Hopefully, it's not offensive to Asians.

The good news is it is just as funny when the shoe is on the other foot. Hanzi Smatter is a site "dedicated to the misuse of chinese characters in western culture". The site specializes in translating chinese characters tattooed on gullible westerners. The tattoos don't always mean what their owners think they mean.

Photo from Hanzi Smatter

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Best Database of 2005: Alpha Five V7

CRN recently named Alpha Five V7 the Best Database of 2005. It beat FileMaker Version 8 and Microsoft Access for the top honor.

I was fortunate enough to work on Alpha Five starting with version 1.0 about fourteen years ago. Selwyn, Pete, and Doug deserve credit for designing the original product. I left Alpha Software almost 10 years ago. I wonder how much of the original code is still in V7.

In any case, congratulations to Richard, Selwyn, Cian and others for the CRN award. It's great to see a small company taking on the bigger players and winning in the SMB Database market.

(via Pete @ DevelopingStorm)

Friday, January 06, 2006

I Love Lotus Notes

Lotus Notes is a truly great software product. It is slicker than black ice in New England in January. It may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but is better than anything invented before sliced bread. Alright, I may be over compensating to counter the claims at Lotus Notes Sucks (and elsewhere), but I really do love Notes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I worked on Notes from 1996 through 2002. As a software developer, I contributed to versions 4.5, 4.6, 5.0 and 6.0. Obviously, I don't like to hear people bash the product I worked on. On the other hand, I have also used Lotus Notes every working day for almost ten years. It is not and never will be a perfect product, but it also isn't nearly as bad as some people make it out to be.

Let's look at some indisputable facts:
  • When it was introduced in 1989, Notes pioneered the concept of groupware.
  • It is one the most successful desktop applications ever. For example, in 2000, Network Computing named Notes one of the top ten products of the 1990s.
  • Unlike many products of its vintage, Notes is still going strong. According to Ed Brill, Notes still has 120 million seats (see comment #9). Microsoft in particular has repeatedly tried to kill Notes, and Microsoft has a history of obliterating the competition in many market segments (think Wordperfect, Lotus 123 and Netscape Navigator). How many products have been able to withstand sustained competition from Microsoft? Notes and Quicken are the only two products that come to mind.
So why do many people dislike Notes? Why does the anonymous owner of Lotus Notes Sucks spend hours on his web site? Why does Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror fame rant against Notes on his other blog? Are evil CIOs intentionally torturing their users with a defective product? That would be ironic considering the early adoption of Notes was viral**.

In my opinion, people dislike Notes because their expectations don't jive with the original intent of the product. At its core, Notes is a runtime environment for collaborative applications, but when people complain about Notes, they are usually not talking about core Notes at all. They are talking about the Notes Mail and Calendar applications.

Why does this distinction matter? It matters because the Notes core is what a lot of people really love. The three core features I really like are:
  1. Replication. This is what lets you disconnect from the network and continue to read and send mail. It's also what lets Domino servers maintain multiple copies of your mail file. I don't think any product does replication as well as Notes and Domino.
  2. Security. Notes security was way ahead of it's time in 1989. It is still rock solid.
  3. Programmability. You don't like the way Notes Mail works? Programmability lets you (or an IT developer) fix small problems and add completely new features in mail. It's also what lets you build entirely new applications for your business.
None of this means IBM should disregard people's complaints about Notes Mail and Calendar. Far from it. I know IBM takes these complaints very seriously. The Mail and Calendar applications have consistently improved from one release to the next. As a relatively new Notes 7 user, I am very impressed with the new features and quality of Mail and Calendar.

Here's what I am really saying to people who dislike Notes: Grow up please. You may have preferred the mail application you used in your last job. You may have a dozen small complaints about how Notes works. But don't say Notes sucks and recommend throwing it out. That's like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Chances are your IT department has many good reasons for sticking with Notes. Have you asked what those reasons are?

** I mean viral in a good way. In the early days, small groups in large companies used Notes to solve real business problems they couldn't otherwise tackle. At first, this drove central IT departments crazy. Eventually, the IT departments understood the business justification and adopted Notes themselves.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

So Long, Weather Notebook

The last edition of The Weather Notebook aired on Friday, December 30. In case the name is unfamiliar to you, it was a two-minute radio show produced from the weather station on top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington. It's mission was to educate the public about meteorology and weather-related issues. The show aired on more than three hundred radio stations nationwide.

The Weather Notebook received most of its funding from Subaru and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Recently the NSF decided not to renew it's commitment. I find this troubling. The show was a perfect vehicle for the NSF's mission to "promote the progress of science". I wonder whether the decision is a result of budget cuts, or the perception The Weather Notebook violated the NSF's advocacy guidelines (pure speculation!), or something else.

In any case, you can still read The Weather Notebook Archives online. And perhaps the producers will secure enough funding to return the show to the radio. I hope so.