Comments on “‘Real Throwbacks’ comment response”

Well, I was going to trackback this post, but Nancy doesn’t have that enabled, so I’ll just comment here. Much anger in this one.

The problem with raging about radio is that it’s a *free* service. What do you pay for the time you listen to the radio? Now, of course ClearChannel is pop pap and there’s a lot of consolidation happening in the radio business, with generally negative impacts on quality. Don’t blame CC–they’re just reacting to the mandates of the market. (Your media can be free, diverse, or equal, pick any two.)

If you don’t like that-which-was-KTCL, blame the government for taking a public good and whoring it out without thinking about the consequences or having any more justification than ‘the market always does right.’ If there’s one thing we should have learned from the last couple of centuries, it’s that while capitalism may the least of the evils, it’s still evil. Of course, this isn’t a new thing.


Harpers

I was at a friend’s house a few months ago and ran across a copy of Harper’s magazine. I’d read it before, mostly in dentists’ offices and such, but I read this one cover to cover. There was an especially hilarious piece, Beware of Dogg by Dr. Ninjaforkian, in the Readings section (which has apparently been posted on /. and MetaFilter). Since then, there’ve been bits on ClearChannel, the food chain, Korean sayings, and the coming election. Eclectic, no?

I just found out that one of my favorite sections is online: Harpers Index displays fascinating facts and gives you the source for every one. Just what you need at parties!

“Percentage of Chinese exports to the U.S. accounted for by merchandise sold at Wal-Mart : 10 [Wal-Mart (Bentonville, Ark.)/Department of Commerce (Washington) ]

Number of factory jobs that China has lost since 1995 : 25,000,000 [Alliance Capital Management Corporation (N.Y.C.) ]”
from Feb 2004

“Number of Canadian prison inmates who overdosed in March on fellow prisoners’ methadone-laced vomit: 2 [Saskatchewan Department of Corrections (Regina, Canada)]

Number of inmates charged with drug trafficking for providing the vomit: 3 [Saskatchewan Department of Corrections (Regina, Canada)]”
from Sep 2003

I didn’t see the sources online, but they’re there in the HTML source, and hence in the cut-and-paste above (I don’t really understand why they weren’t showing up; neither Mozilla nor IE displayed them). Go ahead, read them all.


IPTraf

Hey, I like to work at the higher levels of the 7 Layer Burrito, the Application, Presentation and Session layers. But every so often, you have to dig a bit deeper. Currently, I’m troubleshooting a ColdFusion application that was converted from a local mysql database to a remote postgresql database. There are quite a few docs about optimizing postgresql, but the focus on query and local database optimization, and I think the issue was the network traffic (based on load average of both the local and remote boxes). Anyway, I found this neat tool called IPTraf which gives you real time monitoring of ip traffic. Pretty nice, but avoid the US mirror of the binary build, since it’s not complete.


What are EJBs good for?

Dion had a good post about what EJBs are good for. I’ve only used EJBs seldom (and peripherally), but it’s my understanding, from reading the literature, that EJBs are appropriately named–that is, good for enterprise situations. In that case, what on earth are these folks thinking? They demonstrate using an EJB in JSP. What?


Publishing power

You have to give the web credit for making information distribution a lot cheaper. Whether it’s a small business distributing forms via the web or BlockBuster distributing rental coupons via email, it’s just plain simpler to get information distributed over the internet.

A friend just forwarded me the expected US budgets for the next 5 years. And then he forwarded me budgets going back to 1996. An invaluable resource, to be certain. What other countries allow you to look at their budget on the web? The UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, India, Fiji….

Wow. And all this was found with half an hour of searching. Wonderful!


An IM application server

I’ve written before about IM in the workplace. It’s becoming more and more prevalent, and other people have noticed this as well. IM is something that’s easy to use, and gives you the immediate response of the phone without be nearly as intrusive.

Now, in the past, using IRC, it was relatively easy to have a program, or bot, that would listen to conversations, or that you could ask questions of. They were dumb, but they worked. In the world of IM, I wasn’t aware of any easy way to do this. However, browsing freshmeat yesterday I discovered an easy way to write IM applications.

It’s called the SDBA Revolution Instant Messaging Application Server and building IM applications is fantastically easy if you use this perl framework. I was able to download it, and build a simple application in about 30 minutes. And that includes signing up for the usernames from AOL. It uses a perlish syntax and doesn’t support extremely complicated applications, but does offer enough to be useful. If you can code a php website, you can build an IM application. The author even provides six or so sample applications, including a database interface (scary!). The only issues I found with the IM app server were:

1. It doesn’t support Yahoo! That’s because the Yahoo! IM perl module has been unmaintained since the last Yahoo! protocol update.

2. I’m not sure of the legality of using a bot on a public service like AIM, MSN, or Yahoo!. Violations of these license agreements happen all the time, but, if you’re a stickler for those darn license agreements, this application server appears to work with Jabber.

Just goes to show you that 30 minutes a week browsing freshmeat or SourceForge will almost never be wasted. A bit of slack to do this will probably pay off in the long run.


PowerPoint and presentations

I went to an ACM meeting last Tuesday at NREL. The topic was “The Role of Computational Science in Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Research” by Dr. Steve Hammond. It was an interesting talk–NREL is doing some neat stuff with alternative energy sources (one thing that Dr. Hammond mentioned was an algae that produces hydrogen gas–a possible clean, renewable, easily scalable source of that element).

Now, I definitely don’t want to single out Dr. Hammond. He did a good job explaining the value of computing to energy research, as well as fielding questions that were out of his expertise from nitpicking engineers (are there any other kind?). However, his presentation just drove home to me how easy it is to let PowerPoint drive a presentation. And how doing that really detracts from the speaker’s points. I’m certainly not the first person to mention this. But I just wanted to point out this very very good article about speaking during a presentation, rather than just reading from slides.

Hey buddy, I can probably read those slides faster than you can say them, and it’s a lot less boring for me. Instead, explain the slides to me in a way that makes the talk more of a conversation. Don’t let the technology drive the presentation; it may be easier to read the slides, but it makes for a much poorer presentation.


SQL Server JDBC driver troubles

I’m responsible for a small struts application for one of my clients. The application was originally coded on Windows against a SQL Server 2000 database. When I was contracted to roll it to production, a Linux box talking to a SQL Server 7 database, I found I couldn’t use the existing MS JDBC drivers, which only support SQL Server 2000. So, I went looking for SQL Server 7 JDBC drivers. There are a ton of choices out there, but most are commercial. I looked at jTDS, but that didn’t work because, at the time, jTDS did not support CallableStatements, which were used extensively by this application. (Apparently, jTDS does now.)

So, I looked at a few commercial drivers, and decided that Opta2000 offered the best feature set for the price ($800 for unlimited web application connections). Then, the database was upgraded from SQL Server 7 to SQL Server 2000. Luckily, we hadn’t bought the JDBC driver yet, so, hey, let’s use MS JDBC drivers–they’re free! Fantastic. The installation went fine (not that it was that complicated–dropping some new jars in the WEB-INF/lib directory and changing some lines in the struts-config.xmlTomcat (version 4.1.24) started behaving badly. With IE (and, to a lesser extent, with Mozilla), the pages started loading very slowly after Tomcat had been running for a while. A restart alleviated this symptom, but didn’t obviously solve the problem. Initially, we thought it was the load, and some misconfiguration of tomcat (tomcat was serving images–not usually considered its strong point, though benchmarks are needed to tell the full tale), but nothing seemed to change the behavior. We tried changing how tomcat was passed requests (mod_jk, mod_proxy), but nothing seemed to work. A colleague of mine looked at when the instability started, and it correlated with the installation of the MS JDBC drivers. So, we switched back to Opta. The application returned to a stable state, and we haven’t seen the problems since. (We plan to purchase the drivers now, although we may take a look at jTDS.)


Control of core business functions considered vital

I know I’ve commented on offshoring before, but I was talking to a friend last night, and he mentioned that his department, which maintained a suite of products for a very large software vendor, was gong to be re-organized. The new boss was the fellow tasked with offshoring. [cue jaws theme]

On a related note, I read this article by Joel On Software about Not Invented Here syndrome. In the article, he makes very good points about giving up control of vital business functions. Actually, Joel puts it very succinctly: “If it’s a core business function — do it yourself, no matter what.”

In some sense, that’s what you do when you buy software off the shelf. You trade control for cost savings. I know that in several cases at a former company, we built software on top of a vendor’s platform, but what we were building was so focused that we ended up twisting the platform all out of shape. I think it would have been better to focus the energy, money and time that went to learning and reshaping the platform into understanding the business domain better and building more features on a custom platform.

In general, giving up control of vital business functions is a bad idea. So, offshoring (or outsourcing) customer service is a good idea if customer service isn’t a vital business function (right!). And vice versa.

The question then becomes, what’s a core business function? Ask that question of any large business, and depending on what department you’re in, you’ll get some different answers. I was talking to a guy a year ago who worked for a pipe construction company (you know, water pipes, beer pipes) in the accounting department. We touched on offshoring, and he mentioned that his company was planning to move all of their accounts payable to India, but, “thank you very much, we’ll keep the accounts receivable close to home.” Getting paid is probably vital business function for everybody.

So, where does this leave all of the folks in IT? Well, Bob Lewis writes a lot about IT as a force for business change, and that sounds like a vital business function to me. Where does this leave my friend in the maintenance department? I don’t know.


Book Review: Hackers

Hackers, by Steven Levy, should be required reading for anyone who programs computers for a living. Starting from the late 1950s, when the first hackers wrote code for the TX-0 and every instruction counted, to the early 1980s, when computers fully entered the consumer mainstream, and it was marketing rather than hacking which mattered. Levy divides this time into three eras: that of the ‘True Hackers,’ who lived in the AI lab at MIT and spent most of their time on the PDP series, the ‘Hardware Hackers,’ mostly situated in Silicon Valley and responsible for enhancing the Altair and creating the Apple, and the ‘Game Hackers,’ who were also centered in California; expert at getting the most out of computer hardware, they were also the first to make gobs and gobs of money hacking.

The reason everyone who codes should read this book is to gain a sense of history. Because the field changes so quickly, it’s easy to forget that there is a history, and, as Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” It’s also very humbling, at least for me, to see what kind of shenanigans were undertaken to get the last bit of performance from a piece of hardware that was amazing for its time, but now would be junked without a thought. And a third takeaway was the transformation that the game industry went through in the early 80s: first you needed technical brilliance, because the hardware was slow and new techniques needed to be discovered. However, at some point, the hard work was all done, and the business types took over. To me, this corresponds to the 1997-2001 time period, with the web rather than games being the focus.

That’s one of my beefs–the version I read was written in 1983, and republished, with a new afterword in 1993. So, there’s no mention of the new ‘4th generation’ of hackers, who didn’t have the close knit communities of the Homebrew Computer Club or the AI lab, but did have a far flung, global fellowship via email and newsgroups. It would be a fascinating read.

Beyond the dated nature of the book, Levy omits several developments that I think were fundamental to the development of the hacker mindset. There’s only one mention of Unix in the entire book, and no mention of C. In fact, the only languages he mentions are lisp, basic and assembly. No smalltalk, and no C. I also feel that he overemphasizes ‘hacking’ as a way that folks viewed and interacted with the world, without defining it. For instance, he talks about Ken Williams, founder of Sierra Online, ‘hacking’ the company, when it looked to me like it was simple mismanagement.

For all that, it was a fantastic read. The more you identify with the geeky, single males who were in tune with the computer, the easier and more fun a read it will be, but I still think that everyone who uses a computer could benefit from reading Hackers, because of the increased understanding of the folks that we all depend on to create great software.



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