Unraveling Obfuscation

ob fus cate – 1. to confuse, bewilder, or stupefy 2. to make obscure or unclear

GMail Tip, and an observation

Posted by Todd McKinney on May 12, 2008

Gmail

I just helped my wife through this one, and I thought it might be potentially helpful to someone out there using GMail and having this issue. The problem that we ran across is that a draft that she had saved was “sort of” vanished. In the summary view, you could read the first line of the mail, but when you open the draft it’s just a blank screen. Puzzling. Turns out that it’s a “known issue”. The latest and greatest version does this, apparently if the draft is saved without a subject. GMail has it written up as a problem they know about and are working on, so I expect it will be fixed pretty quickly. The workaround is to use the old version of gmail that is linked in the help topic on this issue.

So, that’s the tip, now for the observation. I’ve used gmail a lot over the past couple of years. It’s a really useful application. There are many, many good things I have to say about it. It does sometimes feel a little spooky, however, to depend on something that only exists on some server that I can’t see across a network I can’t control that is being run by people I don’t know and have never even directly dealt with. The simple fact of the matter is that it can be torpedoed at any time for any number of reasons and there’s not really much I can do to work around it.

Mini-Rant

Upgrading a web application is supposed to be easier than bits on a desktop. I agree with the basic premise. The ease of pushing out some new release in the age of the web application still comes with a pretty heavy burden for testing and validation. I guess it’s still not nearly as big a deal as releasing MS Office from a test perspective, but still, there is a lot of havoc and grief that can be caused if you release something with some goofy defect and you’ve got millions of users depending on it. I guess the reason that I felt compelled to write this is that I obviously wasn’t the first person to come across the “all my hard work is lost” feeling of having a draft vaporize. Enough people have been stranded by this problem to have it bubble up pretty close to the top of the known issues list, and I’m sure that a lot of them had a more painful time of it that I did. After all, someone had to hit this thing when there wasn’t any help doc to point the way out.

Anyhow, to anyone responsible for day to day operations of web applications like this, first of all thanks. I know how difficult it is to be in a position where the thing has to be kept running all the time, and your effort should be commended. Also, you already know this, but please be thorough when you test your application. It’s really painful for a lot of people when you mess things up, even a little bit. Just because it’s easier than releasing something like MS Office doesn’t let you off the hook. In my view, it makes it a bigger deal. Look, you’ve got it relatively easy compared to a lot of product teams that have to be painstakingly thorough before they release something. It’s not asking too much for you to get it right.

Ah, well, at least the price is right. Probably why it’s still in beta after half a decade.

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Gaping (twitter) Void

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 10, 2008

Hugh deleted his twitter account. Is the world coming to an end? Oh wait, maybe it’s not so bad.

I had to nod in agreement when I read Frederic’s take on the situation, which was a nice follow up to my laughing out loud just at the title of Steven Hodson’s analysis. The obliteration of twitter might even have been part of the equation when Hugh recently drew this:

enrich - simplify

It seems the reasoning behind it was simple. The way I parse his post is that it (twitter) is a time sink, and was getting in the way. Clearing the decks and focusing on what is truly important is a really useful exercise. I suspect this kind of cost/benefit analysis will become increasingly common and also increasingly important to each of us as the social aspects of the internet are becoming more abundant and easier to participate in with each passing day.

Not long ago, I was working on a blog post and my wife asked me “so what do you expect to get out of doing that?”. Pretty good question, and one that applies to just about everything. It’s ok if the answer is simply “personal enjoyment”, life isn’t just about making a buck. It is important for me to answer the question, however, if I’m going to have any clear sense of priorities. We’ve only got so many hours to spend. It’s certainly worth questioning the value of our purchases every once in a while.

 

photo (drawering) credit: Hugh

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Subdomain hijacked? Standard practice for NetworkSolutions

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 8, 2008

At the risk of this really becoming a pet peeve of mine, I just can’t keep my mouth shut about the ways that Network Solutions is pushing the edge of the envelope. This company is not content to sit back and copy what someone else is doing – not a chance. They’re innovating. It just so happens that they’re finding innovative new ways to profit at other people’s expense. Most often, it’s their own customers they take advantage of. Here’s the story on TechCrunch, I won’t bother rehashing the whole thing here.

The good news is that the grief seems to be limited to NetSol hosting customers from my limited testing so far.

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A world market for about 5 computers

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 8, 2008

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The old quote commonly attributed to Thomas Watson, which he probably never made, just looks more and more relevant with every day that goes by. Pendulum swings are nothing new in technology and we seem to be on a tear towards consolidation of anything and everything into massive services in the cloud.

500 lb Gorrilas

The news about Google’s entry into this market seems pretty predictable – it’s not like you need to be the amazing Kreskin to imagine that they think cloud computing is significant. The news is also flying all over today, so it’s kind of unavoidable. If you heard there were 10,000 free signups available, they were gone pretty much immediately. There is a wait list, so if you like that sort of thing, go here.

Probably the most interesting thing to me about this development is what does it mean for developers. I really enjoyed the early perspective by Bob Warfield on the SmoothSpan blog. In response to people complaining that it’s Python only, he offers this:

…it doesn’t take Google very many languages before there are few complainers left.  Add Ruby on Rails and PHP, for example, and most of the Web 2.0 world is now in your camp.  Add Java and what’s really left?  Microsoft will be more isolated than ever on their .NET platform.

I think that is a really significant point, and it’s one that hi-lights what is really at stake here. In essence, it’s shaping up to be a platform war. The barriers to entry for platform wars of the past were creating a modern, robust operating system and gaining enough users to make the environment interesting then providing tools and an ecosystem for developers to be productive and make money. Today, it also looks like you need to build multi-billions of dollars worth of datacenter infrastructure too.

What’s in it for me?

In typical Google fashion, they have changed the game quite a bit here. It seems kind of simple, but the strategy of “free ’til you get big” is very powerful. I’ve personally been very aware of Amazon’s cloud platform and following with great interest. I’ve also not built anything using it because it would require me to commit to paying for storage and bandwidth bills. Even though it’s supposedly cheap at low volumes, I’ve not been compelled to take on that kind of commitment just to play around with something that I could maybe find useful someday. Better just to wait until I really need it to figure it out. With the Google model, there’s no hurdle. Sign me up. It might even be fun doing a little Python coding for a change.

What Microsoft will end up doing with this remains to be seen. They are undoubtedly heading for the same turf, it’s just too important to ignore. There is probably lots of really interesting cloud strategy tied up in the Yahoo acquisition. This latest development from Google definitely raises the bar. I really think that’s a good thing. Agree, disagree or think that’s all just obvious? Let me know in the comments, or over on FriendFeed.

 

photo (drawing?) credit Ethan Hein

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Serendipity – and new friends

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 4, 2008

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How it starts

It’s really funny how easy it is to get lost in my current toolset. I’ve got 21 browser tabs open, google talk windows popping up out of nowhere, twhirl going off with news about twhirl being acquired. It just doesn’t let up. Not that I’m saying I’m overwhelmed, it’s just that sometimes I can’t exactly trace my steps when I’m concurrently following so many avenues to interesting stuff. So it always strikes me as a happy moment when I come across something really good and unexpected.

How it ends up

The thing I accidentally came across today was just pretty cool. I followed somebody’s tweet from Twhirl to twitter to who knows how many other people. Trying to get both sides of a conversation can be a challenge sometimes. Part of the conversation ended up being a fascinating series of messages from someone who’s a professional musician and also very plugged in to technology. Without really even expecting it, I found a blog and a twitter stream to subscribe to that will undoubtedly make me a better guitar player (not hard to do) and enrich my view of technology and music at the same time. Happy accident, that. This twitter thing is starting to get kinda fun.

So, with that, here’s a link to one of my new friends who doesn’t know me:

Beautiful Bass Blog

jeffschmidt on twitter

photo credit Violator3
update: careful with that flickr link for photo credit – some of it is a bit edgy

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Living in the Cloud(s)

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 2, 2008

There was a discussion going around some parts of the blogosphere late last year about data archiving. I haven’t seen much about it lately. Partially inspired by my own vulnerability to data loss, and also by sympathy for Corvida retooling due to hosting problems, I think it’s about time to bring this back up.

 

Same coin, two sidesimage

The original discussion from last year that I was remembering was triggered by the tragic death of Marc Orchant. Not very long afterwards, the discussion turned to the fact that it would be a shame if all his work just disappeared. Scoble and Winer both weighed in with a call to figure this out, and Frederic had a down-to-earth suggestion that we should just print what we want preserved if we really want to survive technology changes. Frederic has a pretty good point, but I would really like to have something that is a bit more discoverable over the network than a pile of paper. The paper backup is probably a really reasonable redundancy step, however.

The other side of this coin has a lot less to do with preserving a legacy for future anthropology studies, and a lot more to do with preserving our sanity in the here and now. With a lot of content that gets generated nowadays, we really have a serious lack of redundancy built in. In the age of Google and seemingly endless disk capacity out in the cloud(s), would it really be so difficult to do something like RAID 1 for web data?

 

So, who’s fixing this?

The one voice that I hear consistently talking about the need for a solution to this problem is John Udell. Is there anywhere else I should be looking to find the people that are diligently working to come up with an answer? I’m just starting down the road to looking into it more deeply, so any pointers would be appreciated. One thing does seem obvious about this – there’s a clear need here that seems to resonate with people. It also seems likely that if a reasonable solution was in place, it would be easy enough to find. Even if I couldn’t hunt it down I would expect that well-connected smart people like those I’ve linked to above would have come up with something. Those factors alone make this seem like an area that has a lot of potential for “innovation”. I’ve also got enough faith in our industry to expect that someone is going to knock this one out of the park (at which point we will all look back and say “gee, that was obvious”).

 

photo credit Kables

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Irresistible technology – the tale of two browsers

Posted by Todd McKinney on April 1, 2008

We interrupt your regularly scheduled april fools day nonsense to bring you actual blog content. There have been quite a few recent software developments that keep gently calling to me, quietly urging a switch. This has been giving me a feeling of being drawn like a moth to a flame.

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photo credit ul Marga

FriendFeed definitely tops the list, and is really becoming a must-have service for me. There are some collateral needs that grow out of my recent adoption of tools like FriendFeed, however, and I’m still resisting many of them. One good example of this is Disqus. Disqus itself, I’m using, and it’s really quite valuable. That’s what makes life complicated.

Blog hosting used to be a simple question for me. I love the freedom to manipulate every detail of blog software, and I’ve been down that path a couple of times. When I started up this blog I unequivocally decided to NOT host it myself. I just know that I would spend hours fiddling and tweaking and changing things, and I’d rather just have someone else handle it. Especially when it’s free. Now, the decision doesn’t seem so simple. I can’t see a clear way to get disqus to integrate with a hosted WP blog, and probably never will. Also, despite the fact that for me blogging=RSS it seems there is a certain value to having a well done design and the standard templates just don’t quite get there. Weighed against the pain that I know comes with self-hosting, I’m still just not ready for this kind of a hassle in my life. Score one for sticking to my guns.

The point of this post, though, is a change that I just have to make. I’m switching browsers again. It’s not because Jeff thinks my browser is lame :), but what is really driving me back to Firefox as my primary browser is the terrific collection of GreaseMonkey scripts that engtech has put out for FriendFeed. I’ve installed some of these tools and tried them out. Now, I just can’t use FriendFeed without them. The autopage fetching and comment expansion is really helpful, but the Twitter improvements are really the killer feature. Fixes the default setting on the reply checkbox and includes a handy character counter. Simple, and hard to live without. Well done.

I’ve written before about my increasing concern about browser memory appetites, and FireFox certainly does its part to keep my memory fully utilized. That, and the random browser crashes are probably the things that drove me away from firefox as my default browser the last time. Still, there’s so much to love about the multitude of available plugins, and engtech just pushed me over the edge.

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A watched pot never…

Posted by Todd McKinney on March 29, 2008

…boils. You knew that.

I have been following a bit of the conversation on FriendFeed this past week, and had the germ of an idea for a really great post. Techmeme, according to Gabe, is particularly susceptible to a “bitchmeme” on the weekend. The reason is simple, there’s no news, so any petty squabble that generates a ton of links from bloggers shoots right up to the top.

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(photo: omglia)

Armed with this little tidbit of knowledge, my blogosphere domination plan started to have some legs. All I need to do is generate some kind of controversy on Friday afternoon, and pretty soon I’ll have Arrington griping about how much VC money I’m getting for blogging.

As I’m sure you’ve seen, there were a couple of hurdles that completely derailed this otherwise perfect plan.

1. On Friday afternoon, I was busy actually working and completely missed the window of opportunity to start things rolling.

2. Fredreic not only stole my idea without realizing it, but he executed in a way that made my humble posting aspirations seem trivial in comparison. See for yourself, in all it’s glory, not just an open invitation to the weekend bitchmeme, but a full-blown history of the phenomenon.

3. Nothing happened.

Not a peep. The top story on Techmeme right now (subject to change of course) is the WordPress 2.5 upgrade. The next most interesting thing to my eye is Fred Wilson’s blog metrics. The only thing that has a glimmer of hope is the story about ex-Googlers turning on their former employers, but it just doesn’t have the necessary elements to really be a bitchmeme.

Maybe next week.

Update:  I wouldn’t have thought so late on Saturday, but I was premature. Gabe said it best on Sunday evening “A little late in coming, Bitchmeme has officially arrived.” Catch it here: Mark Evans- Why Original Blog Thought is so Difficult. Or here on techmeme. Whew, that was close 🙂

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FriendFeed really is that good

Posted by Todd McKinney on March 27, 2008

image I know I’m a little late to the party with this gushing endorsement. So much has already been said about the service that we’re quickly heading towards “over-hyped”. I just have one simple point that I want to make that demonstrates why I find FriendFeed so compelling. Amid all of the other things that FF does so well, they have managed to strike a terrific balance between ease of use and noise filtering. It’s done through an interface that is obvious and does exactly what you expect. Most notably in my experience, when compared to Twitter it is far easier to jump in and participate in a conversation. The key difference is that FriendFeed leans more towards an opt-out model for keeping the noise to signal ratio manageable. As a result, anyone can jump in and participate in a conversation with almost no effort. Here’s how it works:

  1. Create account

  2. Find some people to follow/subscribe

  3. Click comment when you see something interesting

Compare that to Twitter, and it’s like night and day. I’m finally coming up the learning curve so that Twitter actually works for me, but it’s been a bit of a frustrating experience that sent me off to find the “user’s manual” to be able to know what’s going on. As a quick aside, I did come across a well written series that fills in the details about how to use Twitter. Ugh, I would hate to have to explain all that to my Grandma. I’ll take clean, simple and intuitive any day. When it comes to “mainstream potential”, I think that’s a powerful advantage.

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Rapid Innovation

Posted by Todd McKinney on March 18, 2008

I dropped by the water cooler a few minutes ago, and noticed that Benjamin Golub is adding functionality to RSSmeme at a breakneck pace. I still have my concerns about this entire category being swallowed whole by Google if/when the reader team implements something similar, but for now there’s some really fascinating things going on around shared feeds. If the rapid rollout of new features keeps up like this, there may be a defensible position for these “first movers“.

Oh, yeah. The thing that caught my attention today was the addition of a FeedBurner feedflare on RSSmeme.

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