Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Podcasting + Whiteboarding = Sketchcasting

Richard Ziade had a really clever idea - what if he combined sketching on an electronic whiteboard with a podcast? The result, sketchcasting, is yet another approach to getting your ideas out into the world. Richard was originally out for a more informal approach to publishing than blogging - and I think he's succeeded.

You can watch his first sketchcast below to get an idea of how it works. He's also published a how to sketchcast video as well.

I've actually been using a technique that's similar to this in meetings that involve off-site participants. Because I'm such a whiteboard fanatic, I find it really frustrating that I can't show people on the phone what the heck I'm talking about.

My work around for this has been to start a netspoke session (which is like GotoMeeting.com), share my screen and bring up a blank PowerPoint presentation (yes, PowerPoint). Whenever I need to get visual, I start drawing / adding text to the slide that I'm on. When we go onto a new topic, I simply create a new slide, and I'm good to go.

As crazy as it sounds, PowerPoint has actually turned out to be a good tool for this purpose. I can easily add text to various parts of the screen, and make crude drawings using just my laptop's touch pad. As a big bonus, at the end of the meeting, I can send out the whiteboard to everyone who's participated, and because it's in a standard format, they can read it.

The tricky part of sketchcasting is that it requires a Table PC or at the very least an input tablet. This is on the pricey side, no matter how you slice it. Perhaps I'll try sketchcasting with PowerPoint. What I really want is a blogger's sketch pad that supports audio too.

Thanks to Alex for the link. He's sat through more than his fair share of my PowerPoint whiteboard sessions, which I pity him for.

On to the show...

Monday, July 30, 2007

A T-Shirt With An Attitude

Big thanks to Teresa for the surprise thank you gift she gave me tonight.

Not only was it a wonderful surprise, but the gift itself is awesome: a Life Is Good T-shirt. Can you imagine an entire company devoted to spreading PMA? I love it. Just check out their inspirational letters, if you don't believe me.

Man, life is most definitely good.

Pandora.com: Personalized Internet Radio

Kelly told me about Pandora.com - an Internet radio station with a twist. Rather than just being a stream of one genre, you seed it with a particular artist or song. Pandora.com will then stream you music that is somehow related to that song or artist.

It's nothing short of amazing. As it plays songs you teach it what you like with thumbs and thumbs down buttons. Best of all, a thumbs down button skips the current song, and takes you to the next.

From my listening, it appears that there are no ads in the audio stream, just on the website. And even those are relatively painless.

The site itself makes beautiful use of Flash. The UI is really slick, and quite compact. You can start listening immediately, and register, log-in, and share songs all without an interruption..

To see what I mean, you might want to check out a station I've been tweaking these last few days: Ben's Good 'Ol Country Station. It all started with a request to hear Alan Jackson music. From there, it has branched out to other musicians - though so far it has all been country. Still, the range of songs is pretty impressive.

If I were XM Radio I would so buy these guys and learn from them. If you could combine XM's content with Pandora's approach, you'd have an unbeatable combination.

Give it a listen and then share the stations you've made in the comments. I'd love to hear what folks are listening to.

Whiteboard Leveling

That whiteboard sure looks heavy. I bet I should be checking the level instead of blogging about it.

--Ben

Review: The Cove

The Cove by Catherine Coulter is your typical FBI-super-agent-saves-the-day-gets-the-girl novel. It's got action, romance and an absurd plot. It also has some ugly content, like insane asylums and spouse abuse.

I finished this book a few days ago now and haven't been able to think of a single additional insight to add this review.

I think this just may be a case where the book is what it is: a bit of entertainment without the guilt of watching TV.

I give it a 5/10 for being passable, but not much else.

--Ben

Update: Shira assures me that Catherine Coulter is an excellent author, and that this series in particular is a good one. She did agree with me though that this particular book in the series wasn't her best.

ER Doc Definitions

I was on the phone chatting with my ER doctor brother, and he used a couple phrases that I thought were cool enough to repeat here. They may be standard ER doc terminology, Philly speak (where he lives) or even his own invention.

Push to the side
Definition: A circumstance which at first appears to be dire, but when the dust finally settles, turns out to not be significant.

Usage: When we didn't get the contract with Foo Corp. we thought were we in big trouble, but then we realized they weren't the best fit, and that we are freed up to go after Bar Corp. All in all, it was a push to the side.
Crumple
Definition: When the health of a patient starts to deteriorate very quickly and multiple systems start to collapse in short succession.

Usage: First we ran out of swap space on the machine, then programs started to crash, and finally we kernel panicked. It's amazing how fast the box crumpled.

Thanks Josh for the contribution! Now, if I really had guts, I'd use these phrases at the next board meeting I am invited to. I'd have to say them with a straight face as though they are common, everyday terms.

I know these phrases will have hit it big when they show up on the buzzword bingo card.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gonna Feel This In The Morning

Helping Nick and Lauren move in.

I have to say I'm enjoying that: (a) we are unloading and not loading
and (b) that it's not my crap we are unloading. Add to it the fact that
Nick and Lauren don't have much stuff, and are good at packing (books in
small boxes, clothes in bigger ones) and I have to say this is
painless.

You'll be glad to know that Nick's Ewok Village made it safely in the
move. As for the crystal and china, we aren't sure yet. Priorities, what
can I say.

My next website idea: chickswithhandtrucks.com. Guaranteed to be a
winner.

--Ben

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Phone Talk

Welcome Nick and Lauren to town!

We are having a critical discussion - what kind of phone should Lauren
switch to? She's going to be on the T-mobile.

She's debating between the Sidekick, Blackberry, and the Wing. Nick
loves his Treo, which he'll probably stick with.

Not shown in our comparison - my Sidekick.

I recommended the Sidekick - though with it's sub par battery life, I'm
a bit hesitent to push too hard.

Welcome guys!

--Ben

Friday, July 27, 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Unsung Technical Hero

And who's the unsung technical hero of this whole grandma medical
experience? SMS.

SMS has made a huge difference in this case...

- I could broadcast messages to the whole family in one shot and
everybody can receive them. All they needed was the most basic cell
phone.

- People actually get the messages because they go to their phones, an
item they are always checking. Had I sent broadcasts via e-mail I'd
have to deal with folks who check e-mail weekly.

- The broadcasts can turn into a private, near real-time conversation,
easily.

- The messages are asynchronous. People can drop everything to deal
with them, or wait till they are off work.

- Cell phones aren't allowed near patients - but this usually means
*talking* on cell phones is a no-no. Nobody said anything to me about
my text messaging. Being able to communicate without leaving the
hospital room is key.

- SMS message are typically brief, so you end up writing just the facts
(wbc: 3.4, hemoglin: 9.9). This has a nice circular bonus. Because the
messages are so short, you don't mind sending more of them.

Two things I'd do differently in the future:

1. Ideally, I would have set up a twitter like feed where people can
subscribe to the updates, and all I have to do is to send a single
message. But I couldn't think of a painless way to set this up that
everyone (including my Mom) could follow. This is especially true given
people's stress level. The right thing to do is probably to set up an
emergency network like this ahead of time, when folks aren't under the
gun.

2. It would have been nice to archive all the traffic, for tracking
purposes and to serve as a sort of record (did she get the Boost at 1pm
or 3pm?). When I sove 1, I'll probably get 2.

SMS, I love and appreciate you.

--Ben

Back to DC

So I'm sitting here before heading back to DC. My trip went well.
Grandma's doing better now than before I arrived (thanks to lots of will
power and drugs).

I think the House episode is coming to a close.

Of course she has a long road of recovery ahead of her, but she's got
lots of people cheering (and pushing) behind her.

Thanks to those who commented on or off the blog. All the support is
very much appreciated.


--Ben

Mini-Van Thoughts

I have to confess - I kind of enjoyed driving the mini-van around.
Sitting all high up, with my backseat a 1/4 of a mile back, you get a
different sensation driving than I do in my TSX.

That's probably the appeal of SUVs. You feel like you're driving a
cross between an Tank and a Video Game.

Luckily, filling up the gas tank snapped me back to reality. I'll take
my TSX any day.

--Ben

Airport Hell

Behold! I give you a glimpse of airport hell. Or at least the view in front of Airport Hell.

I'm sitting at gate B5 at Midway Airport. Things were looking good - I was over an hour early, and my gate wasn't the farthest one out (whoo!).

Yet, as I made myself comfortable for an hour waiting period, it hit me - for the next hour, I would need to endure the mechanical voice repeating "caution, the moving walkway is ending."

I'm not sure how much more of this I can take before I stand up and scream - "I know!!! Now Shush!"

--Ben

Tagging and Shared Global State - Two Hospital UIs

Sitting around in Grandma's hospital room I noticed two novel UI's...

1. Tagging - no not that kind of tagging. A perforated card with a string attached type of tagging. The UI is cool because it's easy to understand and impossible to screw up. Just tearing off the next segment leaves you with both an updated status and queued up to move to the next command.

2. Shared Global State - This turning chart insures that nurses are all synchronized about which side a patient should be on at any time of the day. It means that the local conditions don't need to evaluated - just do what the next state says to do.

Hospitals sure are filled with interesting design problems and novel solutions.

For those keeping track, grandma is feeling better, and may in fact be on the road to recovery.

--Ben

To Blog Or Not To Blog?

Recently, Jacob Nielsen worked with a consultant who is a "world leader in his field" on developing his website. The topic of blogging came up. Jacob's advice: skip the blog, instead focus on longer articles.

Like a good number of positions Jacob Nielsen takes, this one too is controversial. It bothered me at first too, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. The advice to write premium content isn't bad. And his logic that most content out there is crap, is probably accurate.

After two days of letting his insights cook, I think I've boiled the flaws in Jacob's reasoning to two points:

Point 1: Blogging Defined

Jacob first defines blogging in the beginning of his article:

... given limited time, this means not spending the effort to post numerous short comments on ongoing blogosphere discussions.

Weblogs have their role in business, particularly as project blogs, as exemplified on several award-winning intranets. Blogs are also fine for websites that sell cheap products. On these sites, visitors can often be easily converted and the main challenge is to raise awareness. For example, a site that sells pistachio nuts should post as much content about pistachios as possible in the hope of attracting quick hits by people searching for that information. Some percentage of these visitors will buy the nuts while visiting the site.

"Short comments on ongoing blogosphere discussions", "Project blogs", "Award-winning Intranets", "Fine for websites that sell cheap products" - whoa - where did he come up with this stuff? Is he surfing the same Internet I am? Wait, it gets better:

Blog postings will always be commodity content: there's a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment on somebody else's work. Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they're definitely easy to write. But they don't build sustainable value. Think of how disappointing it feels when you're searching for something and get directed to short postings in the middle of a debate that occurred years before, and is thus irrelevant.

I've heard a good number of definitions of blogging, but this has to be among the worst. Seriously, if this was an accurate summary of what a blog is, I'd be the first person to say don't waste your time on them. None of the blogs I follow fit this description, and hopefully, the blog I'm writing doesn't either.

How can you read Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Steve Rubel and other greats and tell me that blogging content is just commentary? That's like reading Dr. Suess and saying that all poetry is kids stuff because it's short and often rhymes. It's simply not true. How you can read great blogs and think this is beyond me.

Point 2: Find Your Voice

Let's say for a second, producing long articles instead of shorter blog posts is a grand idea. What if Mr. World Expert In His Field doesn't like writing said articles? What will naturally happen is that updates to the website won't happen. I think even Jacob would agree - a dead looking website is far worse then one with a blog that isn't producing beautiful articles. By setting the bar so high, it's easy to fail.

Instead, the world expert should focus on finding his own voice. Definitely consider longer articles, but if that doesn't work for him, try shorter ones. Or try a combination. Oh, by the way, this combination is called blogging.

Take Steve Rubel's blog, Micro Persuasion, as an example. He writes longer content on a less frequent basis, but provides link posts nearly daily. These link posts keep readers like me engaged and ready to read his longer content when he's ready to provide it.

So, Do You Need A Blog On My Website?

Here's my patent-pending system for deciding if you want to have a blog on your website.

  1. Fire the consultant you hired to tell you whether or not you should be blogging.
  2. Subscribe to 5 blogs using Bloglines. Spend a few days digging around for your 5 bloggers, pick some obscure ones and some well known ones. Here's a list of blogs to pick through to get you started.
  3. Follow these blogs for a few weeks. Drop the ones that aren't impressing you and add new ones to replace them.
  4. After a few weeks, ponder the following questions: "Am I impressed with blogging as a communication medium? What could it be useful for? Would I enjoy it? Keep it up?"

If you answered yes to the above questions, you should start a blog. If you answered no, don't bother.

The irony is not lost on me that the above blog post could probably be placedin the: "comments on ongoing blogosphere discussions" category. Oh well, what can you do.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I'm a winner...or a new scam

I'm Rich! I'm Rich! I got this note in my e-mail:

BRITISH NATIONAL LOTTERY HEADQUARTERS:
28 TAN FIELD ROAD, CROYDON,LONDON
CUSTOMER SERVICE
Ref: UK/9420X2/68 Batch: 074/05/ZY36
Dear Winner,
We happily announce to you the results of draw of the UK NATIONAL LOTTERY,Online Sweepstakes International program held on JULY 2007.All emails were gotten from diffrent email service providers online. it is yet to be claimed and you are getting the FINAL NOTIFICATION as regards this. You have therefore been approved to claim a total sum of £1,000, 000.00 in cash credited to file KTU/9023118308/03.This is from a total cash prize of £10,000,000.00 shared amongst the first Ten (10)lucky winners in this category B.All claims should be forwarded to ...

I was just about to send money to my new friend in Nigeria, but that will have to wait.

Do you think these scams really work? They must, otherwise, they wouldn't be showing up in my inbox. Who thinks this stuff up?

Getting By

The whiteboard in Grandma's room is small - but I'll make do. Think the nurses will be annoyed if I fill their whiteboard with UML?

Speaking of small....why is it that the biggest gloves this hospital provides are mediums? Do you know how tricky it is to thumb-type in gloves that are too small?

--Ben

Nurse - quick question...

Can I get internet on this sucker? Its got a keyboard and a trackball...

--Ben

Graduation Day

Grandma and I are moving from critical care to some other part of the hospital that's for less intensive care patients. Hey, we'll take the victories where we can get them.

I was tempted to ask if we could stay in the room simply because the WiFi signal was so good. But, apparently, that's not the metric they use for placing patients.

--Ben

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I just checked into my room and was greeted with this sight. Whoops.

The hotel clerk was really nice about getting a new room for me.

The hotel is an Extended Stay America. My current room is more or less fine. Though I'm quite sure it wouldn't score very high on the Shira Index Of Hotel Quality.

--Ben

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hospital Food

Grandma and I would like to lodge a complaint - they call this stuff hospital food? But dog food is probably tastier - no, wait - Grandma takes that back, that would be cruelty to animals.

On a good note, she's surviving the meals and managed to eat her fill tonight.

--Ben

Dr. Simon Is In The House

OK, I'm not a doctor, nor do play one on TV. But I can gown up like the best of them.

I'm at my Grandmother's bedside. The nurses are quite attentive, and seem to want me out of the way more than anything.

I'm here, and I'm trying my best to keep quiet. Going with the flow.

--Ben

Nice Wheels

I scored myself a free upgrade at Dollar today. Look out ladies, I'll be cruising the Chicago area in a Chrysler mini-van.

Apparently, there were no other cars available. Makes me wonder, is it still considered an upgrade if you didn't want it?

--Ben

Review: The Melting Pot

Shira, and I ate at The Melting Pot (1110 N. Glebe Road, 22201, (703) 243-4490) the other night for the first time. For those who have never been, it's an upscale fondue restaurant. They want you to have four courses: a cheese fondue, a salad, an entree fondue and of course, dessert fondue. We tried a bit of everything.

The cheese fondue was delicious. A real winner. They give you unlimited stuff to dip in your pot, which is somewhat generous of them.

Next up was the salad: Shira and I split a mushroom salad. I was really impressed - it was absolutely doused in mushrooms. It was the only time I can recall Shira really liking a salad. Again, impressive.

Next, we got the veggie entree, which basically consists of various vegetables and a bit of pasta you cook in a broth. I have to say, I wasn't particularly impressed. There's only one burner/pot at the table. This means that parties that want both a veggie and meat entree have to make do. Either cook (and eat?) all the veggies, then the meat. Or, oh wait, there aren't any other options.

I'm also not a big fan of the whole cook-for-yourself type restaurants. Flat Top Grill is another one that comes to mind. Frankly, if I wanted to cook my own food, I would have stayed home, and well, cooked my own food. Not to mention, I have no idea how to combine veggies and 6 different sauces to make a meal worthy of an $18.00 price tag. That's why I go out to eat in the first place, because the chef knows what the heck she's doing. Again, if I knew what I was doing, I would have stayed home and done it.

But this is hardly a Melting Pot specific complaint.

The dessert - now we're talking! Man it was good. And they provided all the fruit, cake and cheesecake we wanted to dip in our pot-o-chocolate. This was clearly a winner.

I found the atmosphere to be pretty unique. Take the seating: each booth felt like a private enclave, giving you a sense that you were in your own little corner of the restaurant. It all made for a slow-paced, upscale feel. When you come for dinner, you better have hours blocked off - it's going to be that kind of event. I give them a lot of credit for this. They have picked a paradigm, and they are sticking too it.

Would I go back? For the cheese and chocolate, definitely. For a whole meal with all the fix'ns? Probably not - just too much effort for not enough return.

They get a 7/10 for being so unique - if you like them, chances are, you'll love them.

--Ben

Twitter: Spam or Marketing Hack?

I've noticed that I've had a handful of e-mails from random (mostly non-English speakers) add me to their friends list. This struck me as odd, because why the heck would they want to follow my twitter messages? I'm not planning on following theirs.

Is this all just some sort of twitter noise, or is there a reason for this?

Well, I think I just figured out a (the?) reason.

I just got notified that 1PinkRibbon is now following my twitter messages. And, oh by the way, here's a link to check out 1PinkRibbon's twitter page. I couldn't resist following the link. Sure enough, it brought me to a page that says: "Thanks again for following us while we try to raise $1 Million for research and awareness! <url-to-real-website>"

Then it hit me.

By adding me as a friend, I got sent a generated e-mail with their URL and a chance to spread their message. If I like the message, I can follow their twitter stream, which consists of more marketing messages.

Add 10,000 friends and you've just sent 10,000 messages.

Clever!

A bit nasty, and I'm not sure I see a workaround for twitter to avoid this.

What the heck, I give credit to 1PinkRibbon for a bit of gorilla guerrilla marketing. Well done.

--Ben

Surprise Chicago Trip

So I'm making an unexpected trip to Chicago. My Grandmother fell ill there while on a trip, and I'm heading there to provide some additional family support.

Her medical case remained a mystery to doctors for some time, and the whole experience played out like an episode of House. We are all hoping for the standard happy ending.

--Ben

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tish'a B'Av

Tonight starts the somber holiday of Tish'a B'av.

It's a reminder that bad things beyond our imagination are possible.

I suppose it's just as important a reminder that we go on from, and remember, these same events.

The photo is from the candle lit reading of the Book of Laminations, the recounting of just such a destructive event.

--Ben

Blogging and Comments

Joel has some interesting comments on comments:

The important thing to notice here is that Dave does not see blog comments as productive to the free exchange of ideas. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don't have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else's thoughts. That's not freedom of expression, that's an infringement on their freedom of expression. Get your own space, write compelling things, and if your ideas are smart, they'll be linked to, and Google will notice, and you'll move up in PageRank, and you'll have influence and your ideas will have power.

Joel's point seems like a sane one - if you agree or disagree with a post the right thing to do is to express your own thoughts in your own space. Seeing as starting a blog is so easy, it shouldn't take much to do this.

Personally, I like comments on my blog. They give me an opportunity to easily poll my readers and to make my posts somewhat interactive. Oh, and they show that at least someone is reading what I'm writing.

Still, I'd take this suggestion as yet another reason to start a blog. So go, get cracking.

Learning Good, Stealing Bad

Browsing cool sites for ideas is a good thing. Stealing their layouts isn't.

pirated-sites.com aims to document these rip offs.

It's pretty amazing how blatantly people will steal sites.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Eco-Crime Strikes Next Door

Our next door neighboor had his Hummer vandalized. Someone scratched it
in a few places, one set of scratches spell out the words "Gore 08."

Shira tells me she's not too surprised as a group is going around
damaging Hummers in the DC area.

I'm flabbergasted. We live in a country that provides you with so many
ways to effect change. Yet these sleezebags insist on making their
point by breaking the law and harming a perfectly upright member of
society.

It's enough to have me go out and buy a Hummer.

--Ben

The Not So Starving Programmer

Helen South, the guide for Drawing / Sketching on about.com, mentioned of a useful article: Not So Starving Artist: 4 Tricks.

I think a lot of the information maps nicely from artist to freelance programmer.

The first one really caught my eye:

Trick One: Stop “Big Break” Thinking.

For a while I checked my email before bed expecting to see a letter asking if Faith Hill could buy a few of my songs. Truthfully, sudden income is hard to gain and extremely easy to lose (spend!); i.e., people who win the lottery can end up bankrupt in a year. Getting “discovered” doesn’t guarantee financial stability.

In other words, you aren't going to create the next YouTube or MySpace. Get over it and move on.

There's other good advice too, give it a read.

Bush's Medical Status

From CNN:

Doctors removed five small growths from President Bush's colon yesterday after he temporarily transferred the powers of his office to Vice President Dick Cheney under the rarely invoked 25th Amendment.

Obligatory joke: Too bad they couldn't remove his head while they were at it.

B'dump-bump

Actually, I'm thankful Bush is doing well - the last thing we need is Cheney running the country.

Man I love living in a country where you can zing your leaders. I look it as both a right and a responsibility.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Something Fishy Around Here

Lunch, with Shira. On a work day no less. Unusual. But good unusual.

And just because.

--Ben

Relearn To Drive

Last time I was traveling I noticed this odd advertisement in the airport. It was an ad for a website titled RelearnToDrive.com. I honestly couldn't tell if it was supposed to be some kind of joke, or some kind of wacky business idea.

Turns out, it was a joke - and quite a funny one at that.

The site mentioned in the ad is a series of videos where you get schooled on driving from various characters. Some sample advice: yielding is for quitters, seat belts are for sissies and never drive faster than your age.

The whole site is a campaign by BMW. Itis well done. Just interactive enough to keep your attention, but not so interactive that it's all noise.

As for who taught me to drive? Well, that would mostly be my Mom. She deserves some sort of award for doing so. Turns out, I didn't like to be wrong. No matter how egregious my mistake was, I would argue vehemently that I was indeed in the right. Man I was a pain. Sorry about that Mom.

I also took driver's ed in high school. My teacher was Harry Duckworth. To this day, any success I have parallel parking belongs to him. In fact, I still hear his voice in my head as I line up the car to start backing in.

Mr. Duckworth had the most calm demeanor of anyone I've ever met. Seriously, this guy could disarm a nuclear device without breaking a sweat. I recall one time when I was a passenger and we were in the driver ed car. Note, the car was rigged with a peddle that Harry could press to activate the car's break - that was the only protection he had against his students poor decisions. As we pulled out into traffic Harry slammed on the break. A car or two whizzed by. He slowly and calmly looked at the student and said, "OK, let's try that again, except this time let's watch for traffic."

Thanks to Adverblog for the tip.

Scheme Propaganda: Multithreaded Port Scanner

This is probably a repost, but what the heck. It's good stuff. This article introduces Scheme to a wide audience thanks to an annotated example. The example is that of a multithreaded port scanner.

Here's a snippet from the introduction:

When I tell programmers that my favorite programming language is Scheme, they tend to react as though I'd told them my favorite snack were packing styrofoam or my favorite music were junior high orchestra recordings: those who can even bring themselves to believe me mostly wonder what on Earth I could be thinking. Some wonder if I've ever programmed in a real language like C or C++ (I have), if I'm one of those academic nuts who cares more about proving theorems about programs than actually using them for real work (I'm not), or if all those parentheses have rotted my brain (probably). So what could make me like this weird language with no for loop and so many parentheses it makes you crosseyed?

In this article, I'll show you by way of example. By the time I'm finished I hope I'll also have convinced you that you might want to give it a shot yourself.

Read the entire article here.

If you are interested in learning Scheme, one option you may want to try is to read the specification. This is usually awful advice for learning a language. Could you imagine learning Java from the 688 page specification?. Don't think so. In the case of Scheme though, the spec is only 50 pages long, and is quite readable. There will be some topics mentioned in there which need more explanation, but it does provide a nice overview to get you started.

Happy Scheming.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Latest Snapshot Of The Team

Today we welcomed two new members to the dev team. We celebrated with a tasty trip to a French Cafe.

We thought it was appropriate to get the team photo in front of the Napoleon painting. Not sure what the meaning is, but it has to be significant.

--Ben

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fun In The Sun

Today we had Shira's company picnic. What fun! Here are some highlights...

Believe it or not, the cell phone stayed in the car the whole time. No IM, e-mail, SMS, blogging or surfing. I wasn't sure if I could go that many hours without being connected.

It's a measure of how much fun the picnic was that I didn't even crave connectivity.

Setting up the volleyball net. My team came in a respectable 2nd place. It took a bit of practice, but I found myself kind of getting the hang of the game. See, high school gym class wasn't all a waste of time.

Ain't she cute? Shira was in charge of the money - does that surprise anyone?

Ahhh, the dunk tank. Nothing improves morale like dunking your boss.

Much fun was had by all. I thought it was a terrific event. Though I'm a bit biased, I'm currently sleeping with one of the planners.

App Design Tip Of The Day: Ditch your warning messages

Here's some really good advice:

Replace your warning messages with undo functionality.

Read all about it here.

In general, using messaging instead of functionality is a bad idea. Make the computer do the work, not the human.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Data Recovery and Love Letters

E-mail didn't kill the love letter, the telephone did. I know this because I have a whole hard drive full of love letters I sent my girlfriend (now wife) back in college. Well, maybe they aren't love letters so much as correspondence that include everything from complaints about exams to my pledge of undying love.

There was only one itty bitty problem with this hard drive. About 7 years ago it crashed. This means that for 7 years it's been sitting on a shelf love, letters theoretically there, but inaccessible. Worse yet, when I did try to boot the drive it made this incredibly scary thunking sound. You know, the sound of data being scraped off disk platters.

Shira's been nagging me about getting this drive fixed, for, oh I don't know, the last 7 years.

Finally, as an anniversary gift, I decided to get the drive recovered.

I Googled around on the web, and for the life of me, couldn't find any recommendations for data recovery services. I found plenty of reviews for software to recover files. Unfortunately, what I needed was a hardware solution.

I finally settled on Gillware as my company of choice. Perhaps what sold me was the 24 hour phone line they offered. I called them at midnight as I was shopping around on the web. The person who answered was little more than an answering service which would read me the website and take down my contact info. But still, it sent the right message to me: we are going to be here when you call.

I filled out a contact me form on the web, and the next day they called me back. When we spoke, they said all the right things. They wouldn't charge me if they couldn't get the data back and they could provide a clean room if necessary. Most importantly, I got a generally warm and fuzzy feeling that they knew what they were doing. Data recovery is all about trust; I'm shipping off a drive to them, and I need to feel confident that they'll either get the data back or return me my drive in one piece. Oh, and I shouldn't get screwed financially in the process either.

Gillware gave me enough confidence to send off the drive. A few days later they let me know they received it. A few days after that I got a list of files that they thought they could recover from the drive.

Here's the tricky part: in order for Gillware to get that list of files they no doubt needed to do the data recovery (or part of it). But, they were still giving me the option to back out if I wanted to. It's a pretty safe bet that most people who get that far in the process are going to buy. However, I really like that they are willing to take on the risk and let the consumer have the final say as to whether or not they want to pay money for a specific set of files.

Before they started the recovery process, they required that I give them a call to talk it over. Again, the conversation was one that inspired confidence in their skills. I gave them the go ahead to get me my love letters back. A few days later, the drive and a couple of CD's (maybe DVDs?) were returned to me. All the files on the drive were there, just like I left them 7 years ago.

The only aspect of Gillware that I can't vouch for is price. I know that they originally told me that clean room time may be involved, which would cost extra. And, in the end, they didn't need to do this. They could have easily added that charge, and I would have been none the wiser. As for the actual price, I'm not sure if I could have had the work done cheaper elswhere. At the end of the day though, I wasn't looking for a bargain - I was looking for my data to be recovered. If you're price sensitive, you might want to shop around. If you just want your data back, then give Gillware a try.

As for those love letters - well, that's another story altogether. When I got the data back, I couldn't wait to scan through my writings to Shira. I was expecting to see e-mails that were somewhere between a clever blog post and a Shakespearian sonnet. Oh how wrong I was. The e-mails were awful. I mean, what syruppy, schmaltzy, mooshy trash. Seriously, it's like a love sick 13 year old girl was at the keyboard (who was also complaining about CS 141 and Turing machines.). Did I actually write this stuff?! I was hoping to post a snippet or two on the blog, but I have to say, none of the e-mails I saw were even remotely printable.

So how's this for irony. I just got done paying a company a significant amount of money to recover these files. Now I need to turn around and pay another company a significant amount of money to destroy the very same files.

Twins

Here's a tip: when you have an important project to present to senior management wear a pink shirt and make sure your female co-presenter is also wearing a pink outfit.

It really sets the mood.

--Ben

Monday, July 16, 2007

Caption Me: Current Contents Of My Food Drawer

Here it is - my "food drawer" at work. Caption away folks

--Ben

Simpsons Marketing Stunt: Monty Burns as Blogger

Lately, The Simpsons have been pulling a bunch of creative marketing stunts for their upcoming movie. My favorite, so far, is what JetBlue has put together in their CEO's weblog.

The story: Montgomery Burns has hacked into the blog and is dispensing threats and advice.

Here's an excerpt:

Hi I'm Montgomery Burns,

Here's my newest attempt at robbing a man of his livelihood. I have temporarily taken over David Neeleman's Log as I believe I have more efficient ways to run this airline. I could crush him like an ant.
...
Dear David Neeleman,
You’ve got it all backwards, Blue Boy. Smithers says you provide DIRECTV and Fox films on all your flights. Moving pictures and talkies on a flying machine… What’s next, a live performance by famed vaudevillian Baby Rose Marie?

As a young businessman in the Great Depression I learned customers are there for our entertainment. Not the other way around. I recommend poking your passengers with a sharpened twig or ridding the beverage carts of ice. It will be quite the hootenanny watching those sad saps drink their soda pop at room temperature.

It's all perfect Burns speak. Well done.

Thanks to Adrants for the tip.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Apostrophe Tips (or is it Tip's?)

Quick, is it: hang out with the Cantrell's or hang out with the Cantrells?

I had no idea, so I Googled around and found Mark's apostrophe usage page. Handy stuff.

You can even get the rules in comic form.

From my reading of Mark's page, I think it's hang out with the Cantrells. Though it would be hang out at the Cantrell's house, if I bring the house into the picture.

Of course, Christian Cantrell is an English major, so clearly, he'll correct me if I'm wrong. Right Christian?

Good Company, iPhone Glimpse And Dinner - Oh My

Tonight Shira and I got to hang out with the Cantrells. The kids were adorable, the dinner was delicious, and I got to get an up close and personal look at the iPhone. Oh, and I got to talk geek talk with Christian for a good chunk of time. Frankly, it doesn't get any better than that.

After the quick demo of thee iPhone, I have to say it really is a masterpiece. The graphics are stunning and smooth. I'm not sure how necessary it all is, but it sure makes for excellent eye candy. Between the web browser that dynamically shows what you want to see and the usable voice mail application, Apple really is on to something.

I just shake my head and wonder why the heck Microsoft or Nokia couldn't have done this ahead of them. It's like they carved out a space for Apple to just come in and fill.

It's really great having Cantrell's back in town - if only so I can play with the latest toys.

The Brazilian Joke

A joke passed on to me from Mother-in-Law:

President Bush was briefed on the war this morning.

He was told that 3 Brazilian solders were killed in Iraq.

To everyone's amazement, all the color drained from the President's face, then he collapsed onto his desk, head in hands, visibly shaken, almost in tears.

Finally, he composed himself and asked, "Just exactly how many is a Brazilian?"

I got this joke in my inbox 5 days ago, and I still chuckle when I think about it.

It also happens to fall into the sad, but could actually happen bucket, too.

Living It Up With Leslie

We had Leslie's birthday party tonight. It involved heading into a new part of DC for us and to spending the evening in trendy bar. It was all very exciting.

I'd say that it reminded me of my college days, but that would have been a lie. A trip to the computer lab and a '/usr/bin/talk' session with my girlfriend would have been a lot closer to those days.

I'm proud we lasted till after midnight. See, we aren't that old after all.

--Ben

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beamer on The Dip

Beamer adds math to The Dip. His insight: "the graph suggests that you get some result with zero effort."

This is what a marketing book looks like through developer's eyes.

--Ben

Blogs I'm Reading (And You Should Too)

Here is an up to date list of the blogs I follow. Some days I'm more caught up on them than others. Lots of goodies in here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dinner At Atilla's

It may not look like much, but Atilla's Restaurant (2705 Columbia Pike, Arlington, VA 22204) is one of our favorite Middle Eastern options.

They pass the most important tests: the pita is fresh and the hummus is delicious. Because the hummus is Turkish style it has a slightly different texture than the Israeli hummus we are used to. But either way, it's good.

Next time you have a craving for authentic Middle Eastern food, give Atilla's a try.

Warning: the cafe is almost always too hot in the summer, so plan to either pick up the food and eat at home, or sit at an outside table. Ideal on a perfect night like tonight.

--Ben

Amazon Knows Customer Service

Background: I ordered a battery charger from Amazon a while back. The postman delivered me a kind note saying that he would re-attempt delivery when I was around. I said that would be splendid and signed the card that said my signature wasn't necessary.

13 days later, the package still hasn't been delivered. I called the post office, they claim the package was sent back to Amazon. My Amazon account claims it's at the post office.

I claim I'm annoyed.

So, with 10 minutes before boarding my flight, I decided I'd dig into this issue. Here's what happened...

1) I found my way to the Amazon Help Center

2) I noticed a Contact Us link and clicked it

3) They offered to call me if I filled out a form. Mind you, it's 10pm at night and I have just minutes before I need to board. Whatever, filled out the form and clicked submit.

4) Within seconds my phone starts ringing. I know I triggered this, but still, it felt spooky.

5) Within 15 seconds, I was talking to a human. I don't recall pressing any prompts or keying in order #'s or anything else.

6) The rep asked for my order # and my address.

7) I explained the dilema above. He put me on hold to do what customer service reps do after you tell them your story. This no doubt involves putting you on hold to laugh about your case with fellow call center buddies.

8) The rep came back and explained that their records didn't show the product had been shipped to them. It was still at the post office. However, it had been over 13 days since my order had shipped and therefore he would give me a complete refund immediately. Oh, and he was sorry about the inconvenience.

9) At this point I was nearly speechless. This wasn't an Amazon issue. It was clearly a post office oops. Yet they completely and painlessly fixed the problem.

Within minutes of starting this adventure, it was resolved. I still had plenty of time to get in line for my Southwest boarding line.

So how did Amazon do? I'd say pretty amazingly. The time to rep was ideal, and the fact that they so completely solved the issue without playing the blame game was unexpected to say the least.

It's refreshing to see a big organization like Amazon using its resources to provide top notch support. Other big organizations could learn from this.

--Ben

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Final Leg Of The Trip

We landed at BWI and now I'm taking the overpriced cab ride home.

My cabbie is a bit on the quiet side. Spooky quiet, actually. *Gulp*

--Ben

Caption Me (Too)

Caption Me too, please. I'll get us started...

"This is my serious look. Take me seriously, or else."

--Ben

Caption Me

Please, caption me. I'll start us off...

"Go ahead computer, make my day"


--Ben

Southwest Saves The Day

United and USAir canceled all flights out of Albany. Southwest is still flying. In fact, they are 100% sure they are flying tonight (or, that's what they told me). That's an impressive promise to make.

So, at this moment, I have the following to be thankful for: I have a flight, dinner was OK, I got a seat in the waiting area near a power outlet, my cell phone gets service, Blogger is posting my messages to my blog, I had a really useful day at work and I'm married to the most incredible woman in the world.

How could I be anything but happy now?

--Ben

Update: Looks like Southwest is keeping their promise. We are supposed to board in just a few minutes.

Review: Web Design On A Shoestring

I wanted very much to like Carrie Bickner's book, Web Design On A Shoestring. It has quite a lot going for it. First, it's a skinny book - and I really like skinny books. Second, it's on a topic which I still have plenty to learn about: Design (which I assumed meant Graphic Design). Finally, reading even a few pages of the book showed me that Carrie is a fun writer to read.

But, there are a few key problems with the book. First, the depth is such that as a professional, there wasn't a lot of new information to pick-up. It's clearly targeted to the amateur audience, which is probably a good thing. Thankfully, I don't need to be told that requirements are important or what scope creep is. If you do, this book is for you.

Second, the book is clearly dated. It was published in 2004, which by Internet standards was nearly ancient history. Back in 04 the debate was still on between font tags and CSS. Good news, CSS won. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of timeless advice in the book and the author is arguing for Standards Compliance, which is in fact the style of the day. But, don't expect to see the latest arguments play out in this text.

In terms of a recommendation, I'd say that if you (a) can get the book cheap and (b) want another advocate for building an on-the-cheap website, by all means pick up the book. Just take the technical advice with a grain of salt. The motivational and inspirational parts of the book are still quite accurate.

I give it a 4/10 for being close, but not quite there.

--Ben

Flight News

Flight was canceled. D'oh.

--Ben

Blogging For Mom

I just looked over to my right to see a newspaper lying out. I caught the quote: "Both men, incidentally, mentioned how their mother's enjoyed reading their updates."

Whoa, I thought, that's an article about blogging - specifically, Twittering, and sure enough, it was.

The tone of the Wall Street Journal article by Lee Gomes, is basically the same perspective that I blogged about earlier. Twitter, on its own or among strangers is of limited value. Used to connect up a core group of friends or family, and the game changes.

You suddenly have "social peripheral vision" (as the folks at Twitter apparently put it). That is, you can stay connected with a minimum of effort.

As I said in my last post - this, I got to try.

I've started the first stage of this trial by starting to log my current status to Twitter. As you can see, I've added it to my blogger sidebar. This actually gives an up to the minute feel to my blog, which I suppose may be worth it on it's own.

Next, I need to add some friends. Wanna be my friend? I'm not quite sure about this part of the service. Who on Earth wants to stay that in sync with me? But, I'll figure that out eventually too.

--Ben

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