I’d like to start a user group about programming, but I have two problems:  I’m lazy and my ideas are a bit off the beaten path.  So far, it’s the first one that’s stopped me from trying.  I’m busy.  Most programmers are.  I’m happy to chat about the possibility and poll a couple of friends.  I’ll even make convincing gestures with my hands.  But actually organizing such a thing involves work, a very scary proposition indeed.  However, I’m now being nudged into action and suddenly wondering if my odd ideas are anything more than just that.

User groups have a couple of problems in my opinion, the biggest of which is that they are about something, something too specific.  That something is usually a programming language.  We build our forts out of Java or .NET sticks and don’t bother much to peek out the windows.

On paper at least, this is practical, even desired.  The compiler of a typical programmer rarely changes in a typical week, month, or occasional decade.  Why shouldn’t the user group match the contents of the hard drive?   But this insular focus on a particular technology or language first limits the potential audience for the group (in a way not unlike a binary search) and ignores something incredibly fundamental.  Most of us are doing a lot of very same things.

We’re searching the contents of a database.  We’re organizing a project that got much larger than originally expected.  We’re trying to make an interface better for our users, moving a widget here and changing a color there.  We’re dealing with a tangle of code written by someone else.  We’re wondering if we are doing this or that the right way or, in my case at least, the most interesting way.

These are the types of things I’d like to discuss and not only because my current job can lead me between database maintenance, a web application written in Java, multiple .NET platforms, and, lately, an Objective C application for the iPhone in a typical week.   I just enjoy discussing technology.  It’s what made me a geek.  There’s a ton of programming topics to discuss and debate, both common and uncommon alike, that don’t center around a single programming language.

The other problem is that user groups are boring, boring in both topic and presentation.  I don’t think I’m the only person that has stumbled into a group meeting after a long day at work and spent the next hour wishing I was home with my kids.

A narrow focus on a specific language often leads to equally narrow and specific topics.  Sit me down in an extended session about something I’ll never, ever use and I’ll show you someone more interested in their cell phone than the voice coming from front of the room.

In fact, sit me in an extended session about anything after the hour of six in the afternoon and yawns often result.  I need a kick start after work and I don’t mean pizza, even though it certainly helps.  A long form presentation is the very opposite.

I see any decent user group as a great opportunity for discussion and debate.  Let’s talk about something.  Let’s experiment with presentation styles created by people as bored as I and make something worth the attention and feedback of the folks still seated in the room.  Let’s argue about religious topics and foster participation.  Folks willing to spend their free time in a user group are often quite passionate about what they do.  I want to hear some of it.

In a lot of ways, I just want to chat.  About stuff.  Programming stuff.

I might just be interested enough to attend such a chat after work.  Add pizza to the mix and we are golden.

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To the Point

Feb 3, 2005

UweBoll.com is one of the funniest web sites I’ve seen a while. Short really can be sweet.

(Background: For those who don’t know (probably all of you), Uwe Boll is a director who is quickly becoming famous for taking good licenses and making absolutely horrible movies about them. He’s recently turned his attention to the games industry, creating a movies like Alone in the Dark, that have nothing to do with the source material. Go to the link again. Funny now, isn’t it? No? Well, it is to me.)

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Jan 28, 2005

I seem to be spending a lot of time these days downloading software
from Google’s website. Considering the fact that I was only faintly
aware that Google even produced desktop software until just recently,
I’m surprised to find not one but three pieces of Google branded software on my hard drive.

It all started with Google’s desktop search program. I kind of came across it by accident a while ago, somehow missing all the commotion surrounding desktop search tools. Microsoft, Yahoo, and others have since entered the fray but I haven’t found either the time or desire to check out other offerings.

As for Google’s tool, I’ve found it very useful. Searching files on my computer used to be like watching glaciers move. This thing is so snappy you almost assume it’s broken. There are some flaws, e.g. I wish it could search non-Outlook related email and I wish it would search my C# code files, but I’ll live.

As for the feature itself, it’s pretty easy to predict something such as this becoming standard for all operating systems from this point on, likely leaving third-party software begging for scraps. That might not mean good things for Google and friends but that’s ok. It does mean I’ll spend a lot less time staring at a progress bar both today and tomorrow.

Google’s little picture program, Picasa, was next on my list. Picasa, which I’d like to retitle Your Mother-in-law’s Picture Program, is a great compliment to my current suite of picture editing programs, which include Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, and Gimp. Picasa’s focus is rather different from those programs, choosing to worry about things like photo albums and organization rather than hardcore editing. Because of this, it offers a bunch of neat, whizzbang features that are just perfect for the casual user. Create slideshows or picture collages in a couple of buttons. Enhance your pictures using a couple of simple, but effective, visual effects. All of this is wrapped in one of the better user interfaces I’ve seen for these types of programs in years.

The feature that really puts it over the top is its ability to send pictures via email in approximately one button press. Select your pictures and press go. Picasa will open your favorite email program, create a new message, and attach your selected photos to that email in a web-optimized form. That is, the pictures are generally smaller, in both file size and resolution.

For me, this saves me the cumbersome steps of opening Photoshop, altering a picture, saving my work, and attaching its altered form to a new email. For casual users, like my mother-in-law, this really opens up picture sharing on the web. She doesn’t have to worry about file sizes. She doesn’t have to care about the resolution of the photos her 2 megapixel camera belts out. She just has to hit the send button. Amen to that.

Heavy use of Picasa, led me to Hello, another Google tool. Hello can best be described as an instant messenger program with pictures. Think of it as AOL IM with a visual element. Chat with your friends and send them pictures, fully aided by Picasa. One feature that I really liked was the fact that you could spy on your friend; Hello’s filmstrip presentation provides a little indicator of what they are currently eyeing. I also really like the concept of including a thumbnail of the currently viewed picture in the chat log. That simple feature makes the conversation about something. Very cool.

If anyone is looking for some software to whittle away some hours in, these are all good candidates. I’m not sure I’m done looking for a desktop search tool quite yet (for example, Copernic’s offering looks pretty nice, but I bet Picasa gets real comfortable on my computer. As far as Hello goes, don’t be surprised to see an invite show up in your email, provided I actually want to see your pictures.

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Tomes of Knowledge

Mar 11, 2004

It doesn’t surprise me that encyclopedias are going the way of the Dodo. In my last year or so of college, I avoided those tomes – instead favoring UMBC’s deal with the online version of Britannica to fuel my research projects. That’s right. Even in 1996, I was favoring virtual books over real ones.

I found it amusing that I happened upon this story just days after the wife and I spent a Saturday cleaning out the shed. While doing so, I came across two cardboard boxes of encyclopedias, previously purchased one at a time from the local grocery store by my mother in an effort to instill some of them smarts in the younger members of the family. I’m not so sure it worked and, while moving those heavy boxes from one place to another, I realized that not only did I not have any desire to move these books into the house, I didn’t know if I’d ever see them displayed on the shelf again. I have a young child. Surely, I’d assumed that I’d need them at some point.

The problem, of course, is by the time my child gets his first book report, encyclopedias may be missing from even the dusty corners of the local library. They may be gone entirely, replaced by search box displayed prominently on a computer screen. Card catalogues have already gone this route. That series of giant tomes from Funk & Wagnalls are sure to be next, if they aren’t already.

As a computer scientist, the advantages of a computer and the internet are very apparent. A searchable CD is a lot more user friendly than 20 separate books. The internet provides the world’s most massive source of knowledge. Despite some inherent problems with the internet (e.g. the validity of your source must still be ascertained and is often in question), the amount of information available to my fingertips makes the encyclopedias of the world seem like pathetic attempts at categorization. The multimedia aspect that computers bring to the table are the icing on a very sweet cake.

And as a parent with financial constraints, I know how my dollars will be spent. At $70, as opposed to $1000, and a single CD case, as opposed to entire shelf in my bookcase, something like Encarta is an easy choice. My child may never be witness to the toil of paging through those giant tomes in the library and the requirement to learn the alphabet to find what you want but the decision is really a no-brainer – quite possibly in more ways than one.

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Speaking of Attacks

Jan 30, 2004

Warning: Lots of geekiness below. Hold on to your hats, or fedoras, if you have them.

This week my blog came under attack and it was a nasty one. The attack was spam related which is no surprise; my blog is frequently home to comments featuring diatribes of penis size and mortgage purchases. What was a surprise was the scale of the attack. This wasn’t just one comment about love in all the hard places. It was more than 150 of them.

In fact, it was one comment for every single blog entry on the site. It wasn’t creative but it definitely was a pain in my ass. The most scraping hemorrhoid was that Movable Type, my blog tool of choice, has no efficient interface for deleting multiple comments across blog entries. I’d have to do this one by one. It could take a while — a long while.

I turned to a friend for assistance while I downloaded the newest version of Movable Type. See, Movable Type isn’t blind to the problem and I’m not the first person to be annoyed. The kind folks who write MT are working on the problem. They are just a little behind the spammers at this point.

One useful weapon already included with MT is IP blocking. Basically, I can stop someone from a specific IP address from posting comments. I’ve already added the IP address of my aggressor. This, however, is far from comprehesive. IP addresses are often handed out dynamically. That is, you get a new one every time you hop onto the internet. Worse, some spammers are already working around this, manually switching IP addresses every time they add another advertisement-laced comment. It’s really only one way to slow down the flood.

Mt-Blacklist is another weapon in the fight and was a lifesaver in light of my problems. It checks each comment in your blog against a large set of expressions that are normally included in spam. From my tests, it seems to do a good job. Even better, it provides an interface to delete the guilty parties all at once. One click and my trash went away. In the future, a tool like this or a bayesian equivalent will almost be required to keep the mosquito-like spammers away.

I’m not as excited about a coming feature of Movable Type that would surely deal with the problem of spam much more efficiently: comment registration. The basic idea is that a blog author could force commenters to register with their site, providing a user name and password of some sort. This provides the ability to screen prospective commenters and provides an extra barrier to the scripts that take advantage of blogging’s open architecture. What doesn’t thrill me is that barriers are placed not just between myself and the spammers; they are placed between my blog and any potential reader with something to say. I get few enough comments as it is. Add a registration progress and my site statistics may be the only way I can tell that anyone at all is even stopping by (you can never be sure that anyone actually reads anything).

It is nice, however, to see the MT’s authors attempting to tackle the problem. In the coming years, the problem of spam must be addressed directly by the tool, not just by an optional plug-in.

Speaking of attacks, I’ve acquired an almost flu like symtom in the last week in the form of a tiny penguin. I’ve suddenly acquired the Linux bug. This isn’t the first time. This seems to happen in regular intervals of about 6 to 9 months. I wake up one day and have a strong desire to acquire the latest distribution. There no warning and, generally, no real reason behind my want. My inner geek must supply my computer with an entirely new system of operation.

So I installed the newest version of Fedora this week. That install was fairly painless but things didn’t work on my first, or second, attempt. I first thought I’d try out Suse Linux. A friend of mine seemed to like it and I’m always up for a new flavor of lollipop – God knows there are nearly the same number of flavors of Linux. It wasn’t happening. Suse doesn’t want to hand you the keys. They want you to download them during installation. This, in my mind, is fine. Every distribution involves some amount of downloading. What isn’t fine is when the base install can’t seem to find the proper drivers for my network card. The math was simple: No network card == no operating system.

My next attempt involved Mandrake 9.2. This would be an upgrade for my second computer. Again, I ran into troubles and, again, it was hardware related. Mandrake 8.0 didn’t like my Logitech MouseMan+. Neither did its younger brother. Some not-so-quality time with XFree86Config convinced me to go another direction.

So, Fedora, Red Hat’s free little cousin is now safely installed. I have to say I’m impressed. Linux makes neat leaps and bounds every time I spend my time away from it. Driver support improves and every new version sports a fancy feature, or fancy widget, I’m glad to see included. It’s almost like watching someone you know lose weight. If you saw them every day, you’d hardly notice. Introduce time and distance and the changes are readily apparent. I now have a new sandbox and I must play.

And play I have. Between the time it took to secure my blog and my new operating system installations, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the computer fiddling with switches. That’s not surprising in my household but it’s certainly different than doing something more my style, like playing Diablo II.

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Wireless Whining

Dec 30, 2003

AT&T is no longer my friend. It’s not like we were good buddies before but at least we had an understanding. I sent them a check every month and they provided a service. Times went bad and they left me in the cold. I’ve been spurned by a telco – the horror.

It all started when the wife’s phone up and died. Some battery swapping between the wife and I uncovered the problem: her battery was dead. It would never return to this world. A new battery would cost about $30. That hardly seemed worth it. Her contract was up and mine soon would be. Let’s just sign a new contact and get some new phones. It sounded easy enough.

It wasn’t.

AT&T has a ton of cool offers on their web site. Phones are free or provided for a deep discount. This wasn’t a surprise. All wireless carriers — Verizon, T-Mobile, Cingular — pimp out their phones to get that elusive contract. The first bit of crack is free. After that, poney up.

The problem is that, with AT&T at least, these deals are for new customers only. If you are a current customer or, in our case, a faithful customer of more than three years, they have little interest in talking to you. They offered me a couple of measly discounts to sign a new contract but no offer even approached what I could get if I wasn’t already an AT&T Wireless customer. It just wasn’t right.

I even mentioned this to the customer service rep. Why on earth would I accept this deal when any of your competitors would give me a much better one? Just get on the web. Take a look. Even you kick your own ass.

They didn’t even want to compete. Maybe AT&T assumes customers like them so much they don’t want to switch. I’m guessing their stock price is tied to the amount of new subscribers they acquire. Turnover rate is probably assumed to be high. Why fight it?

They should fight it because I’m now a Cingular customer. I have two pretty new phones and a plan that is $10 cheaper a month with more than twice the number of minutes. I’m upset that I had to spend the time to shop around and that I’ll spend the next month handing out a new number (I didn’t keep my previous number for a couple of reasons) but I can’t get too out of shape. They actually did me a favor.

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Computer Meltdown

Oct 15, 2003

It always seems that when things really get interesting, I really don’t have time for writing, especially that of the blogging kind. Some late nights at work, a hectic weekend, and a computer meltdown has left me little time to dawdle. I don’t mean to take vacations of a week at a time. It’s just that, I’ve been a little too busy doing things to write about them.

I’d blame my computer meltdown for my absence if I could. I was practicing for my Monday night NASCAR race when my computer stopped. There were no sparks and no odd whirling noises. No fanfare was provided to clue me in on the problem. It turned off and wouldn’t turn back on. A silent box stared back at me. All I could get was a brief whirl of the fans and an occasional USB light to shine in the back. I’m done, Sherlock. You built me. Now fix me.

Computer problems are serious business in the Wootton household, normally throwing me into an obsessive problem solving mode. That eating thing is going to have to wait. We have a problem. This time, however, I wasn’t that broken up about it. I’m almost certain I can hear my inner geek crying but I had better things to do. A long day at work lay ahead tomorrow. Let’s go watch TV.

Of course, that didn’t mean it wasn’t on my mind. It’s assumed that any computer problem will be fixed and fixed in short order. I think the wife accepts this. My friend likened it to the illness of a pet. You have pay the vet bill. You won’t like it but you’ll stomach it. My computer isn’t far off. In some ways, it is its own little electrical member of the family. And, heck, it’s what I do for a living. Leaving it broken would be like a having a mechanic with a broken car (and without transportation – and Battlefield 1942 – to boot).

On Wednesday, after a tidal wave of work had passed I finally got around to solving the problem. I figured it was one of three things: the power supply, the motherboard, or the processor. I’d start at the beginning and work my way forward. A problem with the power supply would be the best case scenario. It’s the easiest thing to pick up at a local store – any Best Buy or Comp USA has them in stock — and, of the three, it’s the easiest to replace.

Problems with the motherboard or processor are much more difficult to diagnose. To start, one goes with the other. It’s hard to tell if the motherboard is working without a working chip and vice versa. Finding either component locally is a bit more difficult. The web or one of a couple specialty stores in the area would be my best bets. And what would I do after I discovered the problem? I didn’t want to end up with an extra motherboard or processor floating around the computer room. These things are expensive. God forbid it was the motherboard. That would require an operating system reinstall.

It turned out that my plan was well conceived. I ripped the power supply out of my second computer and hooked everything up. Presto. Everything came back online. A trip to CompUSA garnered a new 400 watt power supply and a new fan (ooo, pretty) to take care of some recent temperature issues I’ve been having. She’s better than new, thankfully. Oh yes, it’s a she. My computer sees my fingertips way too much to be a dude.

Now that the computer is back up, I’m back to writing, although I suppose that a brief rest from work has more to do about it than anything. Hopefully, I’ll even get around to detailing my weekend before the next one is upon us. Cambell had a busy time and I have just the cutest picture to share. Trust me.

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I Want It

Jun 4, 2003

Early in the study of economics, students are often confronted with an interesting presupposition: if you don’t have it, you don’t want it. The premise being that if you really wanted something, it would already be in your figurative pocket, even if it meant structuring your entire life around attaining the prize. What we normally perceive as want is just a bit of whining about the conscious choices we’ve already made. By soliciting a new study on software piracy, the Business Software Alliance added a new twist: if you want it and don’t have it, you’ve pirated it.

Here’s a snippet of the Yahoo news article that talks about the rigorous methods of the study:

The study was conducted for the Business Software Alliance by International Planning and Research Corp. The piracy rate was calculated by comparing the researchers’ estimates on demand with data on actual software sales.

Basically, any gap between what they say you need and what you have is filled with thievery and deception. Wouldn’t the used car salesmen of the universe just love to capture that logic in a bottle? I can hear the RIAA dialing the phone right now.

Just imagine if this theory could be applied to other industries. You pirated that fancy sports car. Didn’t you? Best Buy is just full of folks pirating those big screen high definition televisions. I’m pirating that mansion on the beach right now.

I’d say this study was really an analysis of the simple laws of supply and demand but that would be irresponsible. Any analysis should include hard facts and rely more on long term trends than the results of a tarot card reading.

From a business perspective, what the study should tell the BSA is why these companies pirate their software if, in fact, any of them are doing so. Supply and demand are way out of whack. Prices are much too high for what is being offered. Why should we pay $399 for Office XP? Word 6.0 suits us just fine.

The results of this study lie in the land of fiction, alongside astrology and the novels of Harry Potter on the believability scale. And I believe J.K. Rowling makes a whole lot more sense.

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May 17, 2003

Last weekend I made a bold move on the computer front: I purchased a new video card. A visit to the computer show isn’t complete without a purchase of some kind. This purchase was a doosey. A brand new Radeon 9700 Pro All-in-Wonder now sits in this very computer.

For those who aren’t familiar with the 9700 Pro, it can easily be referred to as a speed demon. It’s a monster, churning byte after bite into screens of glory. High resolution gaming is now the norm. Anti-aliasing is no longer an option reserved for slide shows. It’s reality, combined with frame rates that scream.

I’ll spare you the most of the geeky details but, rest assured, I’m impressed. I’ll now run my Nascar races anti-aliased at 1280×1024 and watch the cars fall behind at over 70 frames/sec. Freelancer will stare back at me with 1920000 pixels at a time. Battlefield 1942 will look even sweeter than before. Morrowind‘s extended vistas are finally available to me.

The All-in-Wonder part of the equation is also quite a treat. My cable feed now has a new input, which turns my PC into a high storage Personal Video Recorder (PVR). It’s a TIVO without the monthly fees. Pause that thing. I have to pee.

An interesting side note to all of this is what happened to the card that previously rested in my PC. It now sits at work along with the second monitor it powered. My Radeon 8500 supports dual monitors out of the box, something that the integrated piece of junk in my work PC couldn’t hope to do. That’s right. I have some extra room on my desk at home and a two-headed beast at work.

From a functional perspective, this set up makes a lot more sense. Dual monitors at home was a novelty. Having that extra monitor at work will be extremely useful. All that extra screen real estate will definitely be put to good use. Besides, the density of geeks is much greater at work. It will finally be in an environment where it can be appreciated.

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Too Many Inputs

May 9, 2003

The latest Penny Arcade made me roar. It’s semblance to reality is uncanny. The mess of wires that run behind my television form a maze of incredible proportions. Only the Matrix itself rivals it in its complexity.

It didn’t start that way. At one point, there was a simple TV. There were no video ins, no video outs. The VCR, a most complex addition in its day, began the cycle. Game consoles, DVD players, a new TV, and a surround sound system later all hope is lost. The last time we had our carpet replaced it took me hours to set up. It’s a jungle in there. Little electronic monkeys swing to and fro on the cables that connect this to that. There are only 5 consoles hooked to my television. You’d think it would all be better organized.

In truth, my cable traffic jam is a badge of honor. Every device within 3 feet of my television can be activated by following a couple of easy steps, most controlled by a handy universal remote. And the remote glows blue. You just can’t help but be impressed.

Still the comic rings true. Let’s use the example in the comic and judge its merit:

If you were to play Mario Party at my house – besides the fact that you would have to stop by Best Buy or Blockbuster and pick up a copy – here’s the steps you’d have to take:

  1. Turn on the TV.
  2. Put the TV on video.
  3. Turn on the Receiver.
  4. Put the receiver on Video 1.
  5. Put the console switch box (that would be the first console switch box, found on the left above the receiver) on Input 1.
  6. Turn on the GameCube.
  7. Insert disc.
  8. I’d suggest the WaveBird controller. The fact that it is wireless is just cool. Don’t forget to turn it on.

See? Simple.

I can assure you all that these steps make perfect sense. Men, particularly men with a geekly slant, will nod knowingly. Most women roll their eyes. You do what?

My setup leads to confusion when I leave my wife alone with the TV (though, I must admit I’ve never seen a woman more able to work a remote – you work it girl). It creates anarchy for babysitters of the grandparent variety. You want to watch a DVD? All you need to do is put the TV on video. Power up the receiver and select the DVD input. Now open the second cabinet on the left and turn on the Xbox within. Load the DVD on its tray and you are off. Keep in mind that every device can be controlled with the remote, except the Xbox power. For that you need to hit the button on the big black box. Oh, and only the volume of the receiver will work with DVDs. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.

The last time we came home we found the grandparents right where we expected them to be: watching TV upstairs. It’s the one TV in the house that has only a single remote. What’s the fun in that?

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