Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

As noted in a previous post, I’ve revamped my List-O-Books™ pages to include IndieBound affiliate links, instead of unaffiliated links to Amazon.  Creating these list pages became more difficult via  Amazon, IndieBound has a good affiliate program, and philosophically I prefer to support independent book stores.  That was my rational behind changing the List-o-Books pages.  The remainder of this post deals with how I implemented those changes.

I normally don’t write technical articles; the depth of my technical knowledge is surpassed many times over if you scan the web looking for tech articles.  But, the process of revamping these pages may be useful to others who want to switch to IndieBound links on their blogs, and it is a good, practical introduction to regular expressions, an handy tool in a blogger’s toolbox.  If this doesn’t interest you, please, check out the rest of my site, skipping what will otherwise a very boring post.

Note:  Writing this article was a tedious exercise, due mostly to my inexperience using the somewhat limited code editing capabilities through WordPress.com.  If you happen to use the regular expression I annotate herein and find an error, please let me know.  I’d appreciate the opportunity to hear your feedback.

Read on…

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Reluctantly ignoring fabulous almost-spring weather and Carolina blue skies, I spent most of my day indoors at the NC jQuery & Javascript Camp, a sold out event attended by about 150 people, according to our talented (and very busy!) host, Rebecca Murphey.   The event was held at the Durham Arts Council, in downtown Durham.  Built in 1906, the DAC building has a lovely renovated entrance added in 1988, and was renovated extensively at that time.  I’m not sure when the air conditioning was last updated, but with 150 people and nearly as many humming laptops, the HVAC equipment could barely keep up today.  That being said, the event went very smoothly, thanks to Rebecca and a very helpful gaggle of geeks lending a hand.

While I’ve been a Javascript twiddler for a several years, I’ve become enchanted with the user experience capabilities offered by the newest crop of Javascript frameworks, notably jQuery.  Some of the talent that put these powerful tools together were in the room, and to hear the genuine excitement from them about Javascript was amazing.  I’ve worked with Microsoft products for most of my professional IT career, and I’ve been to quite a few Microsoft events.  None matched the palpable excitement I felt in the room at today’s event.  I’m fully convinced:  if you are looking for innovation, quit looking to Redmond.  The in-the-trenches designers and coders I met today are unstoppable.  Microsoft has money, but you can’t buy enthusiasm like I saw today.

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Score One for Microsoft

I use a lot of Microsoft products, usually because I am compelled to at work.  But, particularly with Microsoft Office software, I usually have a lot of complaints.  It is not bugs, particularly, but the overwhelming feature sets built into their products that always surprise me, especially since there isn’t usually an easy way to work in “simple-mode” where unnecessary distractions like footnote tools and grammar checking as you type are disabled. 

Practically the last tool category I expected Microsoft to excel in was offline blog editing software.  So, I tried BlogDesk, and Zoundry Raven, two products that others had raved about.  But neither of them were very compelling.  Both had a few nice features, but for some tasks, like editing a table, I found it as easy to just edit online in WordPress.com, my target blog software.  If an offline editor isn’t better than the online editor, then why bother?

Then I tried Microsoft’s Live Writer, and was pleasantly surprised at how much the programmers at Microsoft got right.  The interface is simple and uncluttered, the UI utilizes the online CSS styles for colors, and there is a relatively broad set of community supported plug-ins to extend the capabilities of Live Writer.

It still doesn’t quite do everything I want.  I’d like to see more awareness of online CSS, for example. But hats off to the Redmond programmers, they got it right this time.

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Digital Soul by Thomas Georges, cover Image

Digital Soul by Thomas Georges, cover Image

In his book Digital Soul: Intelligent Machines and Human Values (isbn: 081334266X), Thomas Georges takes readers on a tour of the ethical, moral, and philosophical problems we may encounter as computer technology advances toward sentience.   Georges dives into the field of artificial intelligence, in particular the idea of strong AI, a constructed intelligence capable of self-awareness.  But while the tour is informative, many of the questions Georges raises are left unanswered.

We live reasonably comfortably today with expert systems that demonstrate rudimentary weak AI.  Amazon.com regulary updates my personalized home page with book suggestions based on what I’ve ordered from them in the past, and what other people with similar tastes have ordered.  If you work with databases, this seems far from magical or intelligent.   Certainly Amazon has sophisticated algorithms to match your tastes, but in the end these algorithms boil down to relatively straightforward database queries.

Read on…

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Sharepoint Summit 2009

Thanks to the largesse of my employer, I had the good fortune to attend Sharepoint Summit 2009 in Montreal.  It was not as large as Microsoft’s annual conference, but the smaller conference size allowed for greater interaction with speakers and vendors.

Mike Fitzmaurice of Nintex gave one of the more interesting talks, as part of the keynote speaker’s round-table.  Fitzmaurice is current V.P. of Product Technology for Nintex, a Sharepoint work-flow application vendor.  Previously, he spent ten years working at Microsoft.  Much of his talk focused on the way software is developed at his previous employer, particularly as it relates to Sharepoint.

As Fitzmaurice described Microsoft’s process, Sharepoint and other major server products from Microsoft have a three year development cycle.  This three year cycle is driven in by Microsoft’s three year software assurance contracts to major customers.  Planning for each three year development cycle begins during the third year of the previous cycle. 

Read on…

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A Simple Perl Tool

I’ve been using WordPress.com for almost two months.  I decided to use WordPress.com rather than the complete WordPress software in order to keep the focus on writing, rather than tweaking with software.  WordPress.com is limited, but those limits have a certain benefit if you can learn to live with them.

I ran into one case where WordPress.com as it exists today is too limited.  My tweak-geek side got the best of me, of course, and the end result expanded beyond my initial goals.  But, the end result works well enough.  You can see an example of how I used it on the books page, above.

The problem I was running into was the pain of pasting  lists of data into a post or page.  You might want to do this if you had a spreadsheet, or database query.  If you were using a self-hosted or one-click install of WordPress, you would add some more plugins, or hack the code to bring in some data.

I just wanted a relatively long list of information displayed as a HTML table, or maybe as an HTML list.  This is classic text processing: convert a CSV file to HTML.  Nothing complicated, and when I think of text processing, I think of Perl.  So I wrote a simple Perl script to do this. 

But wait…there’s more!

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Wishful Thinking

I have an Amazon Wish List, which is a great convenience for my out-of-town friends and family at the holidays.  And it is convenient for me, as well.  I think of it as a handy shopping list for when I win the lottery.

Recently, a relative purchased a gift for me that he said was purchased from my wish list. However, it was easy to see that it wasn’t on my wish list, and I certainly had no memory of putting it on the my list.

As it happens, the purchased book was one of the top search results when you search for my name  on Amazon.  Now if your name was Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, no doubt your closest friends would quickly see their mistake and not buy a book for you that you wrote. 

But Amazon is in the sales business, so if you search on their site for just about anything, they will show you something that they will be happy to ship to your doorstep.  As it turns out, the top two results were by authors with my last name.  There are so many different ways to browse and search on Amazon, that is easy to see how my relative was confused.

How could Amazon fix this? Or should they fix it? To them, even if I was mistakenly gifted a book I didn’t care for, it is still a sale. I can always return it. From a business perspective, there is no problem.

But, from a customer satisfaction standpoint there is, I think. We want to use a wish list to help satisfy our desire to be giving friends, even though we really don’t have the time to think about what Aunt Tilly wants for Christmas.  We use the wish list to smooth out the awkward act of giving, when we don’t really know what to give.  We can forget about the Totes gloves, instead we buy Aunt Tilly something from her wish list.

But if the outcome is a mistake, it just gives away the deception of the situation, and makes us all feel a little foolish. We didn’t have time to think about Aunt Tilly, so we just bought something, who knows what it is, but it arrived on time.   I would argue that a simpler interface might help.  There are too many ways to get something you don’t want with just one click.  

I now have a book I didn’t wish for, and a humorous story to tell about it.  But that isn’t the outcome anyone, including Amazon, really wanted.

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