Thursday, December 15, 2005

web comments extention for firefox

I've seen various attempts at this in the past, but the new Blogger Web Comments extension for Firefox might finally pull it off. Several past web services have given users the ability to add comments to web pages that can be viewed by all other users of the service, but these "metacomments" were stored at the service provider's site. I think these early experiments failed 'cause no one service ever became big enough to dominate the space.

This new extension, however, approaches this problem by searching the data space where many folks are already commenting on web pages: their blogs. The search capabilities of Google are leveraged to pull all blog entries for the page you are currently viewing in Firefox. I've tried it out with several web sites already and found several interesting postings already.

As an extra bonus, if you use Blogger, the little comment viewer box includes a link to let you add comments directly to your own blog! I used it to create this entry...


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

what am i bid?

Since the beginning of time, the Deep Cove School PAC has hosted a Christmas Fair to raise funds, and this year my dear wife volunteered to manage the Silent Auction event at the fair. Which meant, of course, that I "volunteered" as well.

Like any to-the-core card-carrying geek, I immediately focused on how to apply information technology to what is normally a low-tech affair. The requirements were deceptively simple: track between 200 to 300 items, label 'em for display at the auction, and record the winning bidders for each item. This seemed ridiculously easy: set up a spreadsheet to track the items and winning bidders, and use the mail merge function of a word processor to create labels for everything. Sweet!

So as my dear wife brought in donations, I dutifully cataloged them in the spreadsheet. This was both more time-consuming and mind-numbing than I had anticipated; I have a new respect for folks that can handle hours of data entry without going mad. Even so, any time I cursed a cramped neck or aching fingers, I consoled myself with the knowledge that this effort up front would ultimately pay off. And indeed, as I generated ID labels for items and address labels for thank-you letters, the superior fire-power of IT technology over parchment-and-quill was apparent. Marvelous!

After weeks of cataloging items (and giving up more and more space in our home), it was time for the main event: the night of the Christmas Fair. As bidders filed into the room to view items, my wife and I reviewed the bid resolution strategy we had discussed several nights before. When bidding on the items closed at 7:30pm, volunteers would gather the bids (in a paper bag) for each item, find the highest bid and record it on poster paper at the front of the room. I would crank out the list of all items and paste the printout on the poster paper so that the volunteers only need record the bidder name and amount on the paper. I would also record the winning bid in my spreadsheet, so that when the room was reopened for the waiting hordes, I could quickly tell each one all of the items they had won (if any) and pass the total to the cashier beside me. Excellent!

As the evening wore on and hundreds of bidders pawed everything in sight, I began to have doubts. I was still cataloging 20 or so items that had come in at the last moment, and my wife casually informed me that we would have 30 minutes to resolve all winning bids before the hordes would stampede back into the room. Let's see, assuming the volunteers kept feeding me with data at a constant pace, 300 items in 30 minutes yields 10 items a minute, or a sustained rate of one item every 6 seconds. Eeek!

In her infinite wisdom, my dear wife drafted a large contingent of volunteers to resolve winning bids. Moving at a frantic pace, they somehow managed to find the winning bid for each item and record it on the poster paper within half an hour. Even as this effort started, it became painfully obvious that I'd have no hope of recording all the winners in the spreadsheet before the doors were opened again. I resigned myself to capturing this information at the end of the evening - the bidders would have to scan the poster paper to see if they'd won anything. Disappointment!

When the bolts were thrown back on the doors, the bidders pouring in all had the same goal: find out if they had won anything, pay for it, and get out as quickly as possible. There is no delicate way to put this: all hell broke loose. Some bidders rushed to check favourite items they had bid on, and others crowded around the poster paper, trying to find their names. Volunteers were barraged by questions from bidders, and my dear wife and I looked at each other with the same unspoken question: what do we do now? Chaos!

And yet, somehow, against all reason, the chaos assembled itself into order. Volunteers noticed that bidders were cruising the tables looking for their items, so they simply organized the paper bags (with the winning bid taped on the outside) next to the right items. One volunteer took command of the cash box, and bidders who had retrieved their items (with the paper bag as proof that they had won the item) formed a line and payed for their stuff. We matched nearly 200 items with the winning bidders in about an hour. Redemption!

All in all, a wonderfully humbling experience. At the end of the evening, we needed to note all remaining auction items and contact the winning bidders to arrange for pickup. Those of us volunteers still remaining quickly agreed on how to best accomplish this: we walked around to each item and wrote down bidder contact information using parchment and quill. Lesson noted.

Monday, December 05, 2005

the palm in my hand

Doug seems to face never-ending torment with his PDA, and he asked (challenged?) me to list what I use mine for. I briefly considered creating the list on the Palm itself, but a whack to the head quickly brought me back to reality (and was likely less masochistic than actually creating the list using Graffiti 2). Anyhoo, here are some of the things I do with my Palm:

  1. Reading articles and papers. I started with iSilo several years ago, but have been an avid fan of Plucker ever since trying it about two years ago. I use the Sunrise offline sync tool and Firefox extension to quickly grab content for Plucker to display.
  2. Read MS Office and PDF docs offline. As I've mentioned in a past posting, Documents to Go has excellent support for native MS Office files, and the latest version adds support for native PDF files as well.
  3. Offline calendar with alarms. The original "killer app" that got me interested in PDAs in the first place. A 15-minute alarm prompting me to get to a meeting I've forgotten about has saved me more times than I'd care to admit.
  4. Offline Tasks with alarms. I use Outlook Tasks to track the stuff I have to get done, and alarm ticklers for these tasks sync'ed to my Palm mean I'm bugged at least three times more often than I otherwise would be. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is a good thing, and whether this has any impact on task completion rate [grin].
  5. Offline contact list. Now what was that phone number again? With my Palm at hand, I can quickly look up phone numbers and email addresses when I'm away from my computer. Hey, Doug, it even synchronizes photos embedded in Outlook Contacts!
  6. World clock with time zones and alarm clock. World Clock lets you set up a simultaneous display of the time in several locations around the world, and I've found the alarm clock more reliable than many of the clocks (and wake-up calls) I've come across in my travels.
  7. Carry around pictures, audio and movies. My Palm TX does come with a reasonable amount of internal memory, but a 1GB SD card gives me the space needed to carry around some mp3 tunes, podcasts, a selection of photos, and even try out the odd video. The open source TCPMP player can handle nearly any audio/video encoding, and video support on the new iPod has done much to increase the availability of digital videos formatted for smaller screens.
  8. Pass the time with games like Bejeweled 2 (which I'm finding to be a seriously addicting game).

On reflection, what I find most interesting is how I actually use my Palm vs how I thought I would before I got my first one. I anticipated using the Palm to manage appointments and tasks, with the potential to eventually replace pen and ink as my note taking tool of choice. Instead, I really treat my Palm as a portable viewer for documents, appointments, tasks and notes that I primarily create and manage on my computer.

[PS] If you use a blogging service or engine that is supported by Writely , consider trying it to create blog entries. I've posted my last few entries using Writely 'cause I like the WYSIWYG interface and whole-screen text area.

Monday, November 14, 2005

blogging hacks

In this posting Steve Rubel describes ten favourite blogging hacks, including one I used to create this post: the online document editor Writely. This editor supports a number of features I'm keen to test out for blogging, including spell check and image insertion.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

still a palm fan

My first PDA was a classic PalmPilot I received for free because I saw it in a colleague's office collecting dust and simply asked to adopt it. Ever since then, I've always kept a Palm PDA within easy reach.

I've upgraded several times since that first PalmPilot (which I still have, but now the kids play with it). I moved to a Palm IIIx and used it for years before splurging for a Tungsten E2 earlier this year, which I enjoyed thoroughly until it was stolen (along with my work laptop) several weeks ago. I knew I wanted to replace my stolen Palm with a new PDA, but I first had to face a more philosophical question: Palm OS or PocketPC?

I spent several evenings googling reviews and blogs for insight, but several factors (including Doug's recent experience with a Dell Axim) helped convince me I'm really a Palm kinda guy at heart. And the latest Palm handheld definitely stole my heart: the Palm TX, with a 320x480 colour display and built-in 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless. Synchronization with Outlook calendar, contacts and tasks has always just worked, and the included Documents To Go software is widely recognized for its excellent support of native Microsoft Office files. And the combination of the open source Plucker reader and Sunrise synchronization software makes capturing web content for later reading effortless.

It didn't take me long to decide to go with the TX - I guess I'm still a hardcore Palm fan!

Friday, November 11, 2005

lest we forget

I recently found an essay I wrote for some English course years ago, in which I describe some of the stories my Opa told me about his experiences in the Netherlands during the Second World War. Looking back now, I can see that these stories gave me a more comprehensive and personal look at the everyday impact that war had on the families that lived through it. Here is what I wrote in the essay about one of those stories:

One story my Opa often told me about was how my Aunt Joanne was nearly killed by an errant bullet while the family was staying in a bomb shelter. One way the shelters of the time were designed to protect their occupants was by the use of 90-degree turns in the entrance way. The theory was that all shrapnel would be absorbed by one of the walls before entering the living quarters.

As it turned out, one bullet somehow bounced its way through the labyrinth-like entrance to graze past my aunt, hit a fishbowl beside her, and finally lodged into a wall. One thing that strikes me as odd now as I remember this story is that my Opa told it in a humourous way, although I'm sure he didn't find the situation amusing at the time. I think my grandfather did this for the same reasons we all do when we re-tell a frightening experience: such stories show us how precious life really is, and how easily it can be destroyed, and humour helps us to face that fact.

Lest We Forget

Thursday, November 03, 2005

serving google from victoria

I never would have thunk it, but this recent post in the official Google Blog is from a guy working for Google, from Victoria! I especially like the Timbits reference he was able to slide into the post. Hmmmm, Timbits...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

a new FSM believer

I've been moved almost beyond words (you were hoping it was beyond, weren't ya?). After learning about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as an alternative theory of Intelligent Design, I've become a believer.

After all, it is hard to argue with a faith where it is considered disrespectful to teach the beliefs of the Flying Spaghetti Monster without wearing full pirate regalia. Especially when there is a graph showing the statistically significant inverse relationship between global warming and the shrinking number of pirates since the 1800s. I always thought there was some kind of link, but was worried that people would find my belief crazy...

Friday, October 21, 2005

on product feature priorities

I've enjoyed reading postings by Joel Spolsky in the past, but one of his recent articles had me laughing out loud. In Set Your Priorities, Joel talks about the challenge his product team faces in setting priorities for the next release of their flagship software product. He could have simply described the prioritization process they used and why he feels it was effective, but instead grabs and keeps your attention by first describing how not to prioritize. Here is one favourite snippet from his posting:

Custom development is that murky world where a customer tells you what to build, and you say, "are you sure?" and they say yes, and you make an absolutely beautiful spec, and say, "is this what you want?" and they say yes, and you make them sign the spec in indelible ink, nay, blood, and they do, and then you build that thing they signed off on, promptly, precisely and exactly, and they see it and they are horrified and shocked, and you spend the rest of the week reading up on whether your E&O insurance is going to cover the legal fees for the lawsuit you've gotten yourself into or merely the settlement cost. Or, if you're really lucky, the customer will smile wanly and put your code in a drawer and never use it again and never call you back.

I've had the opportunity to be involved in product development for a number of years now, and Joel's posting does a great job of highlighting why product development can be so gosh darned hard. I find his posting funny because it is all true. It's good to see that I'm not alone [grin].

Set Your Priorities [Joel on Software]

Monday, October 17, 2005

what would mom say?

I forget how I found this older article at The Onion, but it had me in giggles this evening. What would you do if your mom found your blog? I honestly can't say. Of course, since my mom is online, and since there is a chance that one of my siblings will refer her to my blog, I'm now in the same boat as "Kevin" in the Onion article.

Some favourite quotes from "Kevin" (edited to protect more sensitive readers):

"With the raw materials in my blog, she could actually construct an accurate picture of who I am. This is f***ing serious."

"Mom loves hearing every boring detail of her kids' lives," he said. "She'd want to know what I'm eating for dinner every night, if she could. This blog is like p*rn for her."

I set up my blog to be public, and this impacts the tone of my writing here. But now that my mom might find out about my blog? I may not have the courage to ever write another entry [grin]...

Mom Finds Out About Blog [The Onion]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

google reader

Each time Google comes out with a new toy I find I'm adopting it in place of the software or approach I used before. Gmail displaced my Yahoo! Mail account and Google Talk convinced me to switch away from the Jabber IM system I had been playing with. And ever since I've been using Google Desktop for search and Sidebar interface I haven't looked back.

Now Google Reader is coaxing me to use it for news feeds instead of current new aggregator (the lovely Sage extension in Firefox). Ever since experiencing the AJAX-goodness of Gmail I've been curious to see how Google might apply that same approach in other applications. I've only been experimenting with Reader for a few days now, but so far I'm liking the UI approach taken. I do like the tag-based approach to organizing your feeds, but so far find the sort mechanism a bit clunky (just give me the most used tags along the top!). Still, it passed my critical test of correctly rendering my online comic feeds, so how can I complain?

I hope Google isn't secretly planning to become an evil empire anytime soon, 'cause I'm slowly getting hooked on nearly every application they offer...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

flunking the turing test

After the dark and serious tone of my last post, I decided a quick dose of humour was warranted. Check out “How I Failed the Turing Test” for a look at one man’s frustration at proving he is human to other humans via instant messaging.

Favourite snippet:

What really killed me was that the more I tried proving my “actual” intelligence, the more my “artificial” intelligence would get called into question. Take this pivotal conversation:

jmstriegel: no, really. I’m quite human.
jmstriegel: test me if you want
shymuffin32: ok
shymuffin32: why do you like music?
jmstriegel: hmm. i’ve never really considered that.
jmstriegel: hell, i’m not going to be able to contrive a good answer for that one. ask me something else.
shymuffin32: jeesus, you’re worse than eliza

And there you have it. I’ve been intellectually humbled by a 1960s robotic psychologist.

How I Failed the Turing Test [Jason Striegel]

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

oil and the end of the modern world

I noticed this thought-provoking and entirely frightening paper several weeks ago, but just recently got around to reading it. In some ways I wish I hadn’t; ignorance is truly bliss.

This paper describes how everything we take for granted in our modern world is entirely dependent on oil, and then states that even slight shortfalls between supply and demand will wreak havoc on oil-dependent economies. Oil production/consumption follows something like a bell curve, and best estimates are that we’re gonna hit the peak within the next few years. It’s all downhill from there.

Some lovely snippets from this paper:

Because petrochemicals are key components to much more than just the gas in your car. As geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer points out in his article entitled, “Eating Fossil Fuels”, approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US.

In addition to transportation, food, water, and modern medicine, mass quantities of oil are required for all plastics, all computers and all high-tech devices.

When considering the role of oil in the production of modern technology, remember that most alternative systems of energy — including solar panels/solar-nanotechnology, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel production facilities, nuclear power plants, etc. — rely on sophisticated technology.

In short, the so called “alternatives” to oil are actually “derivatives” of oil. Without an abundant and reliable supply of oil, we have no way of scaling these alternatives to the degree necessary to power the modern world.

All of this hit home while the family and I were visiting Barkerville (a historic mining town) during our vacation. Original buildings, daily events and lively actors are all combined to provide a reasonably accurate picture of what life looked like in the 1870s. We all had a great time exploring Barkerville, but I found my interest heightened after reading the peak oil paper. The working Cornish waterwheel display would delight any engineer-at-heart, but I found myself paying much closer attention to this power source that had nearly no dependence on oil whatsoever. How exactly did the flume deliver water to the wheel? What clutching mechanism was used to couple the waterwheel to the mine pump?

Like most teenage geeks, I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on. Writers like Asimov and Clarke described a future in which ever-advancing technology played a key role in our lives: just as often nearly wiping us out as well as granting us god-like capabilities, but always playing a key role. I’ve simply always assumed that we would eventually overcome our dependence on fossil fuels and come up with a better solution, but what if we don’t do so in time? What if we are currently living in the peak of human technological achievement, soon to descend into a Dark Ages like the world has not seen for more than a thousand years? Geez - just when I finally got my Linux server up and running the way I like it…

As a side note, I’ve been rediscovering the most excellent Connections television series again, in which writer James Burke shows the connections between different technology inflection points throughout history. The first half of the first episode, “The Trigger Effect”, is guaranteed to give you the heebee-jeebees as Mr. Burke imagines the impact that a collapse in modern energy systems would have. If someone is interested in watching this episode let me know and I can lend it to you.

So, now what? How would we cope without our oil fix? Perhaps by looking to those groups that still live like they were in the mid-nineteenth century - folks like the Amish. I’m thinking now is the time to invest in all books describing Amish tools, building and farming techniques - get ‘em from Amazon before the last spark of utility-generated electricity goes out.

Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash

Saturday, August 13, 2005

the day television died

The premiere of the new Battlestar Galactica series on October 18th, 2004, was supposed to be a straightforward affair. British satellite broadcaster SkyOne had collaborated with the SciFi Channel in the US to share production costs. SkyOne premiered the series in their markets in October 2004, but SciFi Channel programmers decided that January 2005 would be a better time to air the series in their market.

It didn’t quite go as they planned. The market for a TV series like Battlestar Galactica is decidedly geeky, and within hours of the SkyOne broadcast, the premiere episode was available to the world via the Internet. Television episodes have been distributed via the Internet before, to be sure, but the impact of this alternate distribution channel may not have been felt so keenly by traditional broadcasters. I can only imagine their horror when contemplating a world in which the time and place television shows are watched are controlled by the viewer. Doesn’t that kinda, I don’t know, destroy their existing advertising revenue model?

In his article “Piracy is Good?” (part I and part II) Mark Pesce examines the impact distribution mechanisms like BitTorrent may have on traditional television distribution models, and proposes alternatives that may work in a world where television content becomes more easily accesible via the Internet. One interesting thought proposed by Mr. Pesce is that not everyone in the existing television value chain would see a new distribution model as a bad thing:

Today the broadcaster aggregates audiences, aggregates advertisers, puts commercials into the program breaks, and makes a lot of money doing this. But — and here is the central point I’m making today — wouldn’t it be economically more efficient for the advertiser to work directly with the program’s producer to distribute television programming directly to the audience, using hyperdistribution?

This all hit home for me when the kids and I became hooked on the new Doctor Who series the BBC put together. The CBC began broadcasting episodes shortly after the BBC began broadcasting, but they were always about a week behind the BBC. We would watch some on CBC, but would sometimes miss the broadcast at 8pm on Tuesdays. I thought about setting up my VCR to capture Doctor Who episodes, but had forgotten that it can no longer be programmed to record shows. Then it hit me: perhaps the Internet could be my VCR?

So I downloaded an episode. Then two. We quickly became impatient with the time skew between the BBC broadcast and CBC broadcast; we wanted to see new episodes as soon as they were available. The episodes on the Internet were made all the more tempting because they were captured in HD quality, with all traces of commercials smoothly (almost lovingly) edited out. There is something extremely compelling about being able to sit down with the kids and watch a show when it fits your schedule.

Season 2 of the new Doctor Who series starts broadcasting on the BBC early next year. I can’t bear to think about watching it the old fashioned way.

Piracy is Good? Part I Part II [Mindjack]

Friday, August 12, 2005

windows xp confession

Forgive me, Tux, for I have sinned: I’m using Windows XP as my desktop OS of choice at home, and I’m liking it. This may not be a big deal for many folks, but as a Tux-huggin’ console-sluggin’ wannabe, this affection for XP is distressing, and tastes of blasphemy.

It is not as though I’ve given up Linux completely - this blog (and several other applications) are hosted in my home office on a tired old PII server running Gentoo Linux. I’ve been running Linux on my home server for several years now, and extremely happy with it. So when we decided to replace our ancient family PC with a new notebook earlier this year, I was convinced I’d replace the pre-installed Windows XP with the latest Gentoo Linux release. Tux would have free rein in our home at last!

But from the moment I unpacked the notebook PC and turned it on, Windows XP began to seduce me. Fast user switching. USB and the built-in SD card reader, all working seamlessly. Heck, the internal wireless card works flawlessly, and I don’t even know which chipset it is using! The deal clincher, though, had to be the operational power management and suspend/resume. Support for all of these features can be accomplished under Linux, of course - you just need extensive knowledge and the patience of a saint.

Perhaps I’m becoming less adventurous in my old age - or simply increasingly lazy. But I find that the combination of Windows XP on client PCs supported by a home server running Linux hits a sweet spot that just works for me. I hope Tux will forgive me; my spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

what business can learn from open source

This marvelous essay from Paul Graham hits home on several levels, and expertly weaves humour throughout. A must-read for geeks that feel they are trapped in a Dilbert world!

Here are some of my favourite gems from this essay:

Business still reflects an older model, exemplified by the French word for working: travailler. It has an English cousin, travail, and what it means is torture.

The New York Times front page is a list of articles written by people who work for the New York Times. Delicious is a list of articles that are interesting. And it’s only now that you can see the two side by side that you notice how little overlap there is.

The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed.

To me the most demoralizing aspect of the traditional office is that you’re supposed to be there at certain times […] the basic idea behind office hours is that if you can’t make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun.

What Business Can Learn From Open Source [Paul Graham]