Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nice Write Up On Cash 4 Gold has a nice write up of an experience trying to sell some 'scrap' gold to Cash 4 Gold.

Cash 4 Gold is a company that advertises during the late night demographic and during some of the shows I watch--not sure why they think the science show demographic would be interested in their business. The sales pitch goes like this: send us your gold and we'll send you money. They show people with cash and they look happy.

Cash 4 Gold does claim that they have their own furnaces and can therefore offer excellent prices. They really ought to explain how they can deliver and insure sending gold through the mail.

In the linked article, the authors had some gold appraised at a pawn shop for approximately $200. They sent their gold in to Cash 4 Gold and received an offer of $60. I wonder if the $140 is to pay for the postage.

The authors called Cash 4 Gold and refused the offer. Cash 4 Gold offered to tamper with the paperwork and make it look like the gold is really worth $178. Ooh, I feel naughty, they messed with the numbers. Don't tell the boss or you might get fired. That better deal is still a good $20 less than the pawn shop would give them.

Now here comes the fun part of the transaction, getting your gold back. The authors didn't state whether they ultimately accepted the offer. I'd like to know how Cash 4 Gold plans to return gold if an agreement can't be reached. If they are like other businesses that drag their feet or worse when doing things that don't make them money, people could be looking at a long wait, lots of frustration, and lots of uncertainty.

Caveat Emptor. Please, if you think about doing business with someone over the television, check them out first.

EDIT: here's more information about Cash 4 Gold from a former employee. Surprise, he says they're shady.

I can't think of a good reason why a person would want to business with an outfit like Cash 4 Gold or the Goldkit people.

Friday, January 30, 2009

From Lifehacker: Instructions for setting up Boxee on an Apple TV

Lifehacker has a nice set of instructions for setting up the free media center software Boxee on an Apple TV.

The cost of an Apple TV is about $200 and the software is free.

There seem to be quite a bit of sources for getting content that don't run the risk of civil litigation. It might be worth trying out.

They claim that it makes a good replacement for cable and satellite television service. I'm intrigued whether I could ever break my addiction to live television. If watching my college team playing football were not such an irrationally high priority for me, I'd probably be happy with dumping the television service.

I wonder if Boxee will make a suitable replacement for the HBO subscription I have now. There really isn't anything on HBO that I feel I need to watch anymore. It seems that every show I really liked has run its course or been canceled.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Not Sure What to Serve This Superbowl? How About A Snack Stadium

For less than $90 you can get over 24,000 calories of snack, over 1,200 grams of fat, and the most awesome arrangement of snacks ever made.

Behold the snack stadium.

For what it's worth, I think the summer sausage blimp is not optional.

JQuery 1.3 Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheets are awesome.
Here's one for JQuery 1.3.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Social and Market Norms in the workplace, OR How to play with fire with payroll costs

I've been reading Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. It's an outstanding book that looks at why people act in irrational ways.

Predictably irrational gives fascinating insight into some of the forces that cause people to act against what an objective observer might judge to be their best interests.

Each of the chapters is excellent, but one that really struck a chord with me is the one regarding social and market norms. In this chapter Ariely cites an example from Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt, the one where an Israeli daycare provider found that issuing fines for parents picking up their children late had an effect that is contrary to the providers' intent.

Nutshell synopsis, daycare provider wants parents to pick up their kids on time. Daycare provider issues a fine to late parents. More parents are late after the fine is imposed.

What happened? Levitt and Ariely believe that the parents felt obliged to pick up their children in a timely manner because social norms influenced their decision. When the fee was imposed, the parents felt that they no longer had a social obligation to pick up their children on time. Instead, they could evaluate whether their time is worth the fee. What is more surprising is after the fine is revoked, there was no noticeable decline in late parents. The genie was let out of the bottle. Once the relationship moved to a market relationship, the social norms went out the door.

Social norms are truly a powerful force. Social norms are the social rules that we observe because we feel it is the right thing to do. Often, social norms coincide with other rules. For example, there are legal and social rules that strongly discourage murder.

The interesting thing about social norms and market norms is the social norms are more effective than the market norms for motivating people, but once the market norms are introduced into the equation, the social norms lose their value.

Take occupations like teachers for example. Relative to other professions, teachers aren't particularly well compensated. Any teacher who got into teaching because of the money, probably shouldn't be teaching. Not because they aren't doing it for the benefit of educating children, but because getting into education because of the money brings to question serious deficiencies in one's ability to make sound decisions. Who knows what kind of crazy things such a person would try to teach children.

I digress. It's fair to say that money is not what drives our teachers to do what they do. If teaching were about financial compensation and only about financial compensation, there would be a shortage of good teachers of crisis proportions. Either the median salary of teachers would need to rise or the quality of education would continue to dwindle to make up for the difference in the market.

It's also fair to say that there must be significant social benefits that our teachers receive. There just isn't a logical explanation for why so many well qualified, capable, and intelligent individuals choose a profession that does not compensate them competitively. The same can be said for other professions, such as police officers and fire fighters.

What Ariely postulates is that introducing more market norms to the equation will introduce a negative effect. By adding incentives for getting students to reach higher test scores or meet other performance metrics, the focus of educating will no longer be on educating children, but on meeting those performance metrics.

What would the net effect of nullifying social compensation and increasing market compensation? I predict that more good teachers will leave the profession and the quality of our children's education will continue to decline. Plainly put, if you make the job about money and meeting performance metrics the job will only be about money and meeting performance metrics. Considering what is at stake in our education system, any decline is a tragedy.

How does this affect the rest of us? We all receive social compensation for our work. We often do not realize it, but it is real and it is powerful. Social compensation is fragile.

You Can Do It, We Don't Care

Take a look at Home Depot. People who worked at the Pre-Nardelli Home Depot say that the environment of that business was about helping people and following the motto "Do the right thing." Many retired tradespeople chose to work at Home Depot because they enjoyed the job and they enjoyed helping people. By most accounts I've heard from people who worked at Home Depots, they all claim that they didn't want to leave until Nardelli came in.

There isn't enough room to discuss all the things Nardelli did to change Home Depot, but one thing that did change was the atmosphere. Cutting the number of people on staff and changing their focus from customer service to other tasks does more than reduce costs, it completely changed the personality of the store. In short time Home Depot changed from a store where a do it yourselfer could go in to a store and not only get good service, but also good advice on how to do a home improvement project to a gigantic store that is staff anemic and lousy with automatic checkout lanes.

The Home Depot changed from a warm friendly store to, well just go to one and you'll see. Friends of mine who used to work there said their return policies were so generous that enterprising fraudsters would take items off the shelves and go directly to the customer service counter to return them. They wouldn't even bother shoplifting and the store would give them cash. When was the last time a business was that willing to provide an outstanding customer experience?

When Home Depot had these policies and staffed helpful people who had time to be helpful I used to almost exclusively shop there for my home improvement needs. It was great, I couldn't look at a shelf full of products without having someone ask if I had any questions. When the staffing was cut at Home Depot it really changed how I viewed the shopping experience. We went from having copious help to insufficient.

I remember one experience where my wife and I waited a good twenty minutes in a nearly empty store to order some blinds for our windows. We waited because the one person working there was juggling helping the customer who was there before us, and answering drive by questions by other customers. The person did the best she could, but still our experience wasn't very good. Without the service value I began comparing my experiences shopping at Home Depot with my experiences shopping at Menards.

Save Big Money

Menards is cheaper. Menards doesn't have exceptionally knowledgeable people working there, but they know their products. There are also quite a few people working there. I've never had trouble finding someone to help me. The inventory at Menards isn't as high end as what I see at Home Depot. There are some cheap things at Menards, but there are also some good things there too. The inventory isn't always as organized as it could be, but there's a lot of it. The Menards stores in my area have done a good job improving the way that their items are organized. There are still the occasional areas where you need to hunt through the displays to find what you want, but it's been a while since I've seen a pile of mixed plumbing fittings in an area.

After comparing the two stores I prefer Menards. If I can get what I need there I'm happy to do it. The Home Depots just don't give me anything extra that I want.

What happened there? At one point I was willing to ignore the allure of lower prices, and a shorter drive to shop at the Home Depot instead of Menards. The value of good service outweighed the price and convenience. Once my perception of Home Depot changed through my own experiences and some of the Nardelli era snafus I saw no advantage of shopping at Home Depot over Menards. Once my perception that my business was unimportant to Home Depot, they couldn't compete.

I have friends who worked at Home Depot during the pre Nardelli times. They look back on it fondly. My friend Keith, a retired electrician, said that a single sentence directed them back then: "Do the right thing." He laments that it was all about helping people, back then the customers were happy, the employees were happy, and the stores were doing well.

Now, when I see a Home Depot commercial that shows customers getting hands on help from a Home Depot employee it has an effect that is what I think is the exact opposite of what the commercial makers' intent is. I imagine that the images of a friendly and ethnically diverse group of helpful, clean, and competent Home Depot employees thoroughly explaining and educating a couple of delighted customers would create a positive image in my mind of what shopping at the Home Depot is. It's funny though. I think about how much the commercial misrepresents my experiences at Home Depot. I think about how the commercials are not a factual representation of my experiences or their reputation. In fact, their reputation is the opposite image from the commercials.

The net effect on me is I believe that not only is the assertion that customer service at Home Depot is the opposite of what I see on the commercials, but everything else asserted with the commercial is also equally inaccurate. Why the hard feelings? I think it's a natural reaction of my emotions. The Home Depot used to sell itself, and deliver, on the fact that doing business with them is more than just doing business. They played with social norms. It feels personal. The company chose to no longer continue selling the social norms and it feels like we lost something. It's like an old friend is trying to cheat us. It hurts.

Social Norms in the Workplace

How does this apply to the workplace? Well, a lot of the same forces are in play in the workplace. Many of us do not view our employment as strictly a professional endeavor that is devoid of any personal interaction. We form relationships with our colleagues, our managers, and our subordinates. We form friendships, romances, and acquaintanceships through the workplace. It happens, we're social animals. Different companies have different cultures, but the vast majority of them try to define their culture as being more than just a 9 to 5 job.

There are many advantages to selling the social benefits to a job. Defining a corporate culture is a way to displace workers demands for higher pay. Look at Google and Apple. Both of them have a reputation for bringing in some of the most talented people in their fields. Nobody can compete with Apple's industrial designers. They make beautiful functional products. Google's web applications are world class. Would it surprise you to hear that the base salaries isn't that great at either of these companies? The reputation is that most people take a pay cut to go work for Apple or Google. There are the exceptional few who got in early and made millions from the companies, but there are also the many who are simply doing well. Why do people choose to work for Apple and Google, the interesting work is one big reason, but I posit that the allure of the cultures at Apple and Google is just as attractive if not more.

If a company can get excellent people to work for 10% less than their market value by spending 1% of their market value on expenses that define a corporate culture: e.g., free meals, corporate outings, onsite speakers and events. If you can get away with hiring an exceptional engineer who could make upwards of $200,000 for $180,000 plus spending $2,000 a year on free onsite meals doesn't it make financial sense? That's an $18,000 savings.

Obviously it makes sense, many successful companies do this. The people who made the decisions to provide these benefits may not be aware of the sociological explanation for why defining a culture through perks and benefits makes financial sense, but they do see value in it. The real value is the social relationships and the connections the people feel through the culture. That's what displaces the difference between the actual and market values for the employees. The stronger the culture, the wider the gap can be between the market and what people will be willing to enthusiastically accept.

Salary is the most expensive benefit. Salary can make up for a lack of culture or a negative culture, but it's very expensive.

There is a catch to displacing salary with culture. If the social compensation is reduced, subverted, or eliminated it can have a catastrophic effect. The effects are not only damaging to morale, but they can actually raise payroll above market rates.

Consider the following two points: Once people think about their work in market terms, they tend to ignore social benefits. People tend to be satisfied with what they have if they are not thinking about what their external options are. Both of these points are covered in Ariely's book, and are backed with sociological experiments.

Think about them this way: we're happy to help people for free. We're happy to help until we find out the the other people helping are getting paid. If we're getting paid to help, we're happy with it until we find out that everyone else is making more than we are.

One of the seemingly obvious opportunities to cut expenses is to discontinue the seemingly unnecessary 'perks'. The 'perks' have a value and an ROI. The value can be measured by subtracting the salary of each employee from the perceived market salary of each employee. If the employees aren't constantly issuing ultimatums for more money, the value of the perks/culture can be defined as the difference.

That's All Well and Good, but Money Doesn't Grow on Trees

It is not surprising that perks tend to get cut during down economies. The obvious reason is that perks are perceived to be unessential expenses. When funds are tight, people would rather have jobs than free coffee. This only works when groups of companies are cutting costs. People are willing to make sacrifices to preserve their social compensation.

It's difficult to differentiate the essential from the ceremony in what defines social compensation. Cutting perks, may only remove the ceremony, but preserve the essence. Conversely, it may kill the social compensation.

The perks aren't the social compensation, they just facilitate them. That's the thing about the perks, the real value is how they bring people together and form relationships.

To ignore the value of social relations, culture, and how they relate to perks and social compensation is to misunderstand people and to neglect an asset.

If highly skilled workers find themselves not only without the social benefits that they to which they became accustomed and valued, and making less than their market value; consider the situation. The worker feels that they not only lost something they enjoy, but also they feel like they are not being fairly compensated. Should that employee procure an employment offer, it's safe to assume that they will find something at or near their market value. To keep that employee the employer would need to match or, more likely beat the market offer. This isn't the end though, there are two side effects that further move to increase the cost of employment: 1) the social norms are gone for the first employee, he will likely continue to court other potential employers. The employer will find the act of matching offers a more regular occurrence. 2) Other employees will find that they can be in the situation of the first employee. Before long, most of the employees will be thinking about their job in market norms and looking to upgrade.

Providing culture as compensation is like playing with fire. An employer can reap tremendous value by providing perks and benefits that facilitate or spawn social compensation. An employer can also lose that value and more by subverting foundations of the social compensation.

My advice to those employers who find themselves in a position where budget cuts need to be made is this: the goodwill that is generated through the social compensation can be preserved if the market norms are not introduced into the equation. The perks can be removed so long as the culture is maintained. If a 'We're all in this together.' attitude is sincerely projected from an employer, the employees will sacrifice and stay loyal through tough times. A wise leader, will demonstrate that those at the top are sacrificing as much as those below them, if not more. That will preserve or grow the culture and the social compensation.

It's only when the employees feel that they are sacrificing disproportionately to the managers that the social compensation is eroded.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Handy Python Cheat Sheet

Added Bytes has a handy cheat sheet for Python programming. I love these things even if I never really use them.

WHAT?!!? Those Amish Made Miracle Heaters Don't Run On Special Amish Magic

I hope that none of this is a surprise, but there are people who actually believe television ads that sell products that claim to produce free energy. There are people who aren't instantly skeptical of any product that is not sold in stores and is sold directly through television.

If you take anything I say to heart, please take the following: 1. If you are concerned with getting the best value for your money, you will not be well served buying unfamiliar products through television.
2. If a free, or nearly free source of energy were available, wouldn't everybody be using that source and stop using coal, oil, and the other sources?

With that said, I read a nice write up about those magic Amish heaters.

The Amish are not well known for their prowess in the applied sciences. I don't think that they have any Nobel Laureates to claim as a community yet. In fact, I think they have some sort of a religious aversion to science. According to some people's beliefs, God made everything, and if I recall correctly, science is a thing, so that means God made science. If we are to honor the things that God made, shouldn't we embrace science. Isn't that a divine gift? But I digress.

Anyhow, the Amish don't have a reputation as proficient technologists. Even if they did, why really sell the fact that the product is Amish made? As the original ads read, the heaters were more efficient than other heat sources and if you'd buy the Amish made mantle, they'd throw in the magic heat source for free.

Hmm, all I need to do is buy the mantle at a price that is not readily disclosed and I get free magic Amish heat. Sounds like a heck of a deal.

As it turns out, the magical Amish heater is really a regular electric space heater with a non-functional Amish made wooden mantle. Scientists still have not identified the magic, but it does seem to produce just as much heat as other electric heaters for about the same cost.

For the low low low price of ~$300 to $350, free magical heat sounds wonderful. I will use it to power a generator to provide all of my household electrical and heating needs.

That all sounds wonderful, but there is little substance to the claims. The heaters are about the same as the ones that you can get at a store and the mantles don't add any functional value to the equation.

I would venture to guess that the reason that the products are sold as Amish is because we, as a people, are unfamiliar with the Amish. We also tend to think of them favorably as good, honest, hard-working people. Why would these good people rip us off?

The company that sells the products is likely not an Amish company. They purchase one of their parts from Amish people and market the whole appliance in such a way that can easily confuse people to believe that it is an Amish product.

I would advise anyone who is considering purchasing this product to take another look at what's being sold and not make a purchase that may disappoint them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Collection of Code Smells

Here's a nice collection of code smells. It's been a while since I've had to suffer the stench of really bad code smells.

The non-obvious-names smell is my own least favorite. I remember wondering what the class was supposed to do. Apparently it was meant to complement the logic in

I can't recall the exact logic that was doing, but I think it had something to do with assigning drugs to a benefit plan, or some such. Like doctors, health insurance companies get to bury their mistakes.

Photos From Ecuador: The cost of ungreen energy

Wired has an 11 photo gallery that captures some of the human costs of their oil industry.

The pictures remind me of photos of people who live in areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

It disturbs me that some people suffer incredible health problems because they live in an area that is affected by the needs/wants of others.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good Read: 12 Web Design Patterns with Examples

Here's a page containing a dozen web design patterns with examples.

It's from Theresa Neil who co authored Designing Web Interfaces: Principles and Patterns for Rich Interactions. If I get into more UI work I think I'll try to give it a read.

It's been a while since I've had to discuss UI design at this level, but it's nice to have a different vocabulary than comparing a set of functionality to the name of a Microsoft product that does the same thing, e.g. I'd like to do a page that's like Windows Explorer only with...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good tools: Personal Brain

At Code Freeze 2009, Neil Ford recommended using mind mapping software to organize the things we try to remember. Personal Brain is the software that Ford recommended in his talk. He called the process of storing the information using an exo-cortex.

I gave it a go and installed Personal Brain at home. I started mapping the people I run into at conferences and user groups. It didn't take very long before I had an intricate graph of the relationships that I have with people I run into. For example: I attended Code Freeze 2008 with a colleague from PTC. He and I also attended the No Fluff Just Stuff conference in Spring of 2007. He and about 30 other former colleagues from PTC.

With a mind map I was able to create a list of the people I remembered seeing and form links between them and the other events I may have attended with them. In addition to events, other common links can be created. I'm on a bowling team with a bunch of the PTC people, so I linked them with a bowling team 'thought'.

After a few minutes of adding different 'thoughts' I had a pretty extensive model of the people and events that I've attended for the past couple of years. Personal Brain does a really good job keeping the interface and the presentation smooth. From my brief use of the tool I am left with a very positive reaction.

My only question on the tool is what the differences are between the free and pay versions. Personal Brain comes in a free and a couple of pay versions. I really can't tell what the differences are. The thing that gets a little confusing is, the free version is also a trial version of the pay version. I assume that there are features that are only available to the pay versions that will be disabled after the trial period ends.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Interesting Read: Why Googlers Quit

Here's a collection of responses from people who resigned from Google regarding why they resigned from Google.

Their responses are not all that surprising. Many felt that the perks did not make up for lesser wages and lesser benefits. Another frustration is the colossally inefficient hiring process.

What I got from reading the responses is, Google isn't all that different from other employers. They go their own direction, but they also aren't perfect.

Google has been incredibly successful in branding itself as the greatest place to work. Maybe it is, but it isn't always the perfect place to work.

I still hold firm on my prediction that the down market will reveal the true character of Google. When the cash flow slows we will see what the true priorities of the company are. We're seeing a reduction of perks in food services and other areas. More are sure to follow.

Will the few at the top sacrifice their perks/compensation to help preserve the many below them? We will see soon enough.

I wish that Google will survive this downturn with the character and reputation of being one of the best places to work. They do a lot of wonderful things and I hope the continue to.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

This guy doesn't like how encryption is portrayed in movies

Here's an enjoyable criticism of how the entertainment industry handles the topic of encryption within film and television.

Like the author of the essay, I am curious enough about encryption to chuckle at its use as a dramatic plot device. I've kind of resigned my interest in entertainment media enough to accept that any sort of technical information that is communicated within a dramatic work is likely to be factually inaccurate.

I believe that most dramatic writers do not have an interest in understanding technical issues more than they need to. Technical information to them falls in the realm of setting. It's decoration to give the story flavor. The writers will research just enough technical information to sprinkle a few technical terms into their stories. It's meant to pass as genuinely technical to the broad, and largely ignorant, audience. I believe that the level of technical sophistication within most dramatic works is just high enough to be outside the level of technical comprehension for most audiences and well below the level of people who are actually knowledgeable about the field.

The only work of drama that comes to mind that handles technical information well within their stories is Numb3rs. Even though I really don't watch the show much, I appreciate what Numb3rs' creators are doing. I kind of see it as an exhibition of different mathematical curiosities that works a dramatic story into the show.

One question that challenges me about technology being misrepresented within entertainment media is whether it's a good thing. I am reminded of a conversation I had a number of years ago with a public relations person for a propane gas trade group. She told me that every time they saw propane gas misrepresented, i.e., exploding, within film and television that part of her job would be to send the people responsible for the misrepresentation an informative letter. It's hard to say whether propane gas continues to be misrepresented with film and television. I certainly don't see actors commonly remarking about how nice it is to have a clean, useful, and reliable energy source all thanks to propane gas.

What is the damage of misrepresenting encryption and other pieces of technology? The most damage is the proliferation of people who believe that dramatic elements are applicable within the real world. The way that we as people interpret our fiction is kind of funny that many people cannot differentiate sufficiently advanced technology from magic.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Dedication With Which One Plies Their Trade

At the time that I am writing this it is -11 degrees Fahrenheit. For those of you who do not live in a climate that regularly reaches this temperature, it is damn cold. I could take a cup of water outside and throw it straight in the air and not get wet. It will freeze before it hits me.

This is frost bite weather. You don't want to risk injury in this cold.

Even without the risk to skin the air is another matter. When I shoveled my driveway this morning it took me about 20 minutes to fully catch my breath. To put this in perspective, I regularly run on an elliptical machine between 20 and 60 minutes. I'd like to think that I'm in fairly good cardiovascular shape. However the cold dry air causes my lungs to reel as though I'm suffering an asthma attack.

I admire the determination of those who head outside in this weather. My proximity to the door allows me an opportunity to admire a group of determined folks who are not going to let a little bit of subzero weather stop them.

These folks are the smokers. Wow, I wish I could dedicate myself to a constructive activity the way they are dedicating themselves to theirs.

I don't smoke anymore, but when I did I would have gone out in this type of weather to put down a heater. I can't imagine doing that now that I do not smoke anymore. It's odd how a little time between being afflicted with an addiction and being free can change one's perspective.

Daily Git Tips, and what the hell, why don't I ramble about source control for a while

Gitready features daily tips for using the greener grass of Git. I like daily tips, they are easy to digest.

I'm really itching to try out Git in a project. The benefits of it as I understand them is Git is a distributed source control tool that is designed around easy branching and merging. I really should see if anyone's compiled a set of reason's why they think Git is better than x. I've read that Git's performance is competitive with other source control tools out there.

The idea of a trivial branch is very attractive to me. One area that I would love to see a branch in my own development practices is right before I commit a set of files. The one bug that seems to bite me the worst is when I have a set of files ready to be committed and I overlook one. My local unit tests won't pick up the omission because the overlooked file is on my system. It isn't until either the continuous build server finds the missing file or one of my colleagues finds the missing file that I must contritely fix the issue. If I could quickly create a branch, a commit branch if you will, that consists of the files that I'm ready to commit and the main branch that I'm working on I can run tests against that commit branch and verify that I'm not going to mess anything up. I think that would be very nice.

Here are a few quick thoughts on the other source control tools that I've used.

CVS has been the source control tool that my current client uses and my two previous employers use. Before CVS, I worked for a company that uses HOLY CRAP! $4380 a year per seat! Aye, I think we would have preferred getting a $4380 raise and using something that was free! Clearcase.

I think each tool has its merits. CVS fits the budgetary constraints. It's also a mature and reliable platform. Chances are, you aren't going to use CVS in a clever new way that's going to get you in trouble. You may very well use CVS in a way that isn't so clever that will get you in trouble though, e.g., put more content and users on a server than it can handle.

Clearcase, I thought, was a pain in the butt to configure, but once it was set up it was a pretty nice tool. The learning curve was a little steeper than I prefer with my tools. The transition for me was difficult to digest for many reasons, I would say that Clearcase and the way that Clearcase was used then contributed equally to my harsh experience. My other criticism is probably not appropriate for the tool per se. Clearcase's performance wasn't great, however it was also managing close to 100,000 files over multiple branches and supporting multiple development facilities across the globe. Clearcase's ability to perform clearly was not a key consideration when the logistics of this company's concurrent distributed software development process was planned out.

I thought the way that Clearcase handled managing branches and merges is as good as I've seen any other source control tool. The administrators of that Clearcase server were able to configure it to help enforce software engineering policies--branches could be locked down to prevent accidental/unauthorized commits.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Morning Gripe: my mouse doesn't listen to me

There's something messed up with my mouse at work. I've suspected that my computer has been experiencing performance problems for a while. One of the key symptoms is unresponsive mouse clicks.

To be clear, mouse clicks are unresponsive, but mouse movements are not. This occurs when my workstation is under medium to high load. I can understand programs not responding when the system resources are not available. That shouldn't be often though, this should only be when the processor is pegged.

I began suspecting a problem with the mouse drivers, some version of the Microsoft Intellipoint drivers, because the system seems to ignore some clicks. I was able to rule out the system resources by plugging in a wired mouse and leaving it over by my left hand. This is one of the times when being left handed is awesome--I can take over control with the wired mouse with my left hand and force clicks if the gremlins decide it's time to ignore the right mouse.

It's frustrating when the computer doesn't accept my input. I kind of take it personally. When I use the computer I expect it to obey my every command without exception. It's my kingdom. My click is law damnit. The mouse is trying to subvert my authority. I curse that mettlesome mouse.

I don't think it is a mechanical issue or a battery issue. For the most part the mouse does its job. It only seems to fail when I use it to switch between programs.

The thing that makes me think it's a driver issue is that I'm on XP64. I don't think that XP64 drivers are all that well maintained. It's a minor operating system and the focus of drivers tend to be on either regular XP or Vista.

I would use the other mouse, however it only has 3 buttons. I prefer the non-wired mouse because it has a tilt wheel and 5 buttons.

My compromise is to buy a new mouse with lots of buttons and let it run on the regular drivers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Launchy, You Broke My Heart

I have a confession to make. I accused the remote system administration tools at my work of regularly monopolizing the system resources every 10 minutes.

As it turns out, it was actually one of my favorite programs, Launchy. It seems that the default configuration for Launchy to rebuild its catalogue is 10 minutes. That is to say that Launchy will read a whole lot of files every 10 minutes. I believe that doing that was overwhelming my system to the point where it became unresponsive.

Part/all of this is my fault. I configured the catalog to point to some directories that contained lots of files. As a result, the catalog consisted of over 2000 entries. That's probably outside the boundaries for which Launchy was designed.

The way I worked around this hurdle is to set the catalogue rebuilding to manual. Another alternative is to define the scope of the catalogue to a reduced area.

Even after crushing my system performance. I forgive Launchy. It is an awesome tool.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Excellent Read: Outliers: The Story of Success

I try not to shill too much stuff, but I can say that Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success is a fantastic read, or in my case listen.

There are many books that are the biographies of successful people. I think a lot of us read those books because they are interesting and we hope to learn what it is about these people that makes them the successes that they are. Early in the book Gladwell differentiates his book from the other biographies by stating that it is focused more about the environment around the successful people than the people themselves. Gladwell makes a compelling argument that environment has more to do with success than innate ability.

Outliers reminds me of a friend from college. The friend, whom we called The Captain, had a bit of a problem recalling his achievements and experiences accurately. One might go so far as to call him a compulsive liar. I prefer to think of him as a master storyteller with a protagonist based loosely on himself. Once I accepted the fact that The Captain wasn't trying to deceive me out of malice I was able to enjoy his yarns as works of entertaining fiction.

A recurring pattern of The Captain's stories is he would be put in a situation where he is inexperienced with people who are very experienced. The story would go that in quick time The Captain was outperforming the experienced people at such a rate that they accused him of trying to hustle them. Regardless of the situation, The Captain would step in and show the 'experts' how it's really done.

To put the level of his boasting into perspective, The Captain claimed that he repeatedly crushed chess grandmaster Roman Dzindzinchashvili at blitz one night online when The Captain was a little drunk. To put that claim into perspective, the Chess Rating of Roman peaked at 2703, at the time of the claim, The Captain had a rating of about 1500. For the benefit of argument, let's just say that my memory is not giving him credit and that his rating was closer to 1700. That's only a 1000 point difference. Those ratings would mandate that The Captain would win once every 317 games against a player with a rating that is 1000 points higher than his own. The odds get even worse when you look at successive wins, 2 wins in a row roughly have a 1 in 100,000 odds, three times in a row, we're looking at one in 31 million. That's amazing!

If that were not unlikely enough The Captain further handicapped himself. He claimed that he played a little drunk, and by a little drunk, he meant he had a few pints. A few pints of Vodka. This guy should play the lottery with all his luck.

Further digression: the pint of vodka stories actually turned out to be true. I will attest to that. I thought I'd call him on his vodka stories one night at his favorite watering hole. When The Captain ordered 'a vodka drink' I told the waitress that I would like to have the same thing. I should have known that The Captain was telling the truth by her reaction. She looked at him and asked if I knew what I was doing and if I could handle it. The Captain vouched for me. She came back with a $18 pint of vodka and Roses Lime juice. That about did me for the night.

That's the model of a typical Captain story, he's a natural and better than the best in the world at their own game. It's the typical story of the prodigy, the natural.

Gladwell challenges this myth that there are people who are naturals with innate ability. Obviously my friend was a bit delusional, but Gladwell claims that there isn't anybody who has achieved that kind of skill on their own abilities.

Gladwell introduces the 10,000 hour rule. He claims that for anyone who has achieved a world class status at their field that they spend at a minimum 10,000 hours practicing.

The hard work leads to success message is nothing new though. Where Outliers hits its sweet spot is the argument that ability and hard work are not enough to be world class. The opportunity must be there also.

Like Blink and The Tipping Point, Outliers contains Malcolm Gladwell's signature writing style. Outliers is a light read that is peppered with tidbits of interesting facts. I recommend the book and the audiobook.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Quick thought on XP, I think it could use a better name

Instead of calling the methodology known as eXtreme Programming eXtreme Programming, I think it would be better to call it Best Practices Programming, or BPP

Sure the programmers will scoff at it, but I think the directors and VPs who are looking to integrate a concept of best practices into their organization would love to be able to say that they've been so successful at bringing in best practices that they've not only got them on a wiki somewhere, their organization is so best practice oriented that they are using Best Practice Programming as the way they do all of their work.