Archive for the ‘nerdness’ Category

Flash has jumped the shark.

Friday, April 30th, 2010

So there’s been a lot of controversy lately about why Flash is not allowed on the iPhone and iPad.  Steve Jobs just published a rant about why Apple’s not going to allow it, which to me is most interesting not for the barbs he directs at Adobe, but for the vision for the future it contains.  I read it here, though I’m sure there are tons of places to see the text.

I agree with much of it.  Flash is a technology that’s been perverted by lots of bad uses of it.  There are things that it does very well, but I agree with him: HTML5 is going to kill Flash.  It will take a while, but it will definitely happen.

I hate the fact that it’s proprietary, as Jobs says.  I learned some Flash, Flex and Actionscript while I was at Burton, and it’s too bad that knowledge and time is going to languish because I’m not getting paid to be a Flash developer for my job now, and so I’ve left the platform.  There’s no fucking way I’m paying $400 for Flex Builder.  There’s also no fucking way I would do anything with Actionscript in Flash, even if it was free.  Flash is not developer friendly by any stretch.  I guess technically they have a command-line compiler and I could write Actionscript with a plain text editor, so there’s a rudimentary free path, but the productivity slowdown that would incur makes that a no go for me.

If there isn’t a free or cheap version to develop on for your platform, you will fail, and rightfully so.  As a dev, when you take on learning a new platform and API, the barrier to entry has to be low to attract people, because the default level for programming is Free Tools.  Anything more than that, and you’ve already lost all the hobbyists and small dev shops.  And Adobe’s not really sold the platform as an “Enterprise” toolset, so you don’t have the deep pockets dev market either.  Even Microsoft has a free version of Visual Studio!  I’m admittedly developer-centric, but hey, if you don’t have people building stuff for your platform, then you won’t have any good uses for it.  If there are no good uses for your platform, it will lose mindshare with users.

Designing for touch is a good point – we web developers will have to work hard on having good mobile web UIs for our sites that looks good on small displays and that work well for touch.  It’ll be a good exercise in simplicity, and in keeping Model and Controller out of the View, to use the classic paradigm.  Most iPhone apps suck anyway – they’re just websites that have native UI controls on them, which is fucking stupid to me.  Honestly, I hope good mobile websites kill the App Store.

He’s full of shit with the openness argument, though.  Sure, Safari uses WebKit, but if they could have a stranglehold on the web without outraging web developers, I have no doubt they would.  To create those games he talks about?  You have to buy a Mac, which you can only get from Apple.  You have to use Apple’s proprietary language Objective-C that NO ONE else in the world uses for anything else but Mac stuff, to make them, and you have to build them using Apple’s XCode IDE, which again, you can only get from Apple (at least it’s free once you sign up for their developer program).  And once you build your app, you can only sell it through the Apple store, IF they approve it.

The only reason Apple’s able to maintain this stranglehold is they have the hot device right now.  Developers are willing to jump through these crazy hoops because we’ve all read those stories of people who put in a few months of late nights to make an app and then quit their jobs a month after it was released because the app was quadrupling their salary.  But gold rushes never last.  Maybe Apple’s going to be able to keep putting out the next hot device for another year or two, but I doubt it.  People are fickle.

If web developers do a good job, the web will win.  As it should.  As much as I fear Google taking over the world, I agree that the web is the platform of the future.  And I plan to keep working towards building sites that point that direction, as much as possible.  I have a long way to go, as do we all…

After 9 years, I’m leaving Burton.

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

In 2000, I moved with my new wife across the country from San Francisco to Burlington, Vermont, to work at my dream job: web developer for Burton Snowboards. I couldn’t believe my luck! I would actually be getting paid to do websites for the best snowboarding company in the world. Apparently they were getting a team together to take some of the web stuff in-house, after years of outsourcing it. I was getting in on the ground floor of something new.

I had no idea what to expect. I’d worked in a bunch of different kinds of places, from a little five person startup to a huge multinational corporation, but I figured Burton would be a different kind of gig. All I knew was that I was going to be able to combine my loves for tech and snowboarding – my only hesitation was moving across the country after having lived on the West Coast my whole life. I had been to Vermont before, but I couldn’t say what Burlington was like or if it would suit me at all. Still, I was 28, and my wife said it would be great, so that was good enough for me.

She was right.  Working for Burton for the past nine and a half years has been a dream come true (and once in a while a nightmare, as well).  I have learned more stuff, met more cool people, done more stellar projects, and enjoyed myself there more than I would have ever thought possible.

But it’s time for my run to come to an end.  I’m taking another job with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, starting on Monday, Sept 28.

It was a hard decision.  Over the years I’ve been lucky enough for opportunities to come my way, and many of them were pretty good jobs that lots of people would be glad to get a crack at.  But I’d compare them to Burton, and I was always more stoked to stay where I was than jump ship.  That’s part of what kept me there that long – I loved working there, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else.

But all good things must come to an end, they say, and this breakup is more about me than it is about Burton.  There’s no sordid tale behind my decision or anything, it’s simply time to do something else, and I have an exciting opportunity with a quickly growing company to look forward to.  I’m excited and scared shitless in equal measure.

The craziest thing about making this transition is how much my life has changed between now and then. While I’ve been working there I’ve gone from a newlywed to being 10 years in love with my wife, and we’ve had two kids that are now starting school. We own a house that we’ve lived in for five years, and I’ve now lived here longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, except for the town I grew up in.  When I started we were still doing sites in classic ASP with VBScript on machines running Windows NT.  The web crew was called the “E-team,” of all things, and there were only a few of us.  It evolved into the Burton Media Syndicate (or Syndicate) a while after that, and I can still take credit for that name – my idea won the vote we all took.  I think in retrospect we can all agree that it’s better that “Spork” didn’t win.  We moved the office three times, from the HQ to the Lake Champlain waterfront and back again.  And in the end, I worked there longer than anyone in the media Syndicate, except Greg (props to you, Syndicate Survivor!).

Lucky for me my lovely wife Kacey just started there so I still get to stay connected to all my friends.  I think that I will never really lose touch with them, since we are still local and Burton is such a big part of the Burlington scene, but it’s nice to know that for now I can still reap some of those snowboard-specific benefits and drop by sometimes to harass my former teammates.

To everyone I ever worked with at Burton, past and present: it was a pleasure and a privilege, and I salute you all.  Keep killing it and may all your days on the hill be bluebird pow with all your friends.  I will see you up there – and I’ll bring the coffee!

In defense of Burlington Telecom

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Recently on my Front Porch Forum list some people have been complaining about Burlington Telecom’s recent rate increases.  I do agree that double-digit increases are pretty questionable, and I’m not so happy about them, either, but I will be sticking with Burlington Telecom, for several reasons.

First of all, Comcast’s customer service is terrible by comparison.  I’ve always gotten really good help from Burlington Telecom, and even if they can’t do everything, they are always super willing to take the time to talk about whatever the problem is.  With Comcast, I always got the impression that they were just trying to get rid of me so they could move on to the next caller in their queue, almost as if they got paid by the number of people they could push through.

Comcast pretty much define the term “evil empire” in the telecom world.  I’m not one of those who thinks that all large corporations are by definition evil.  Vermont needs IBM and GE, for one thing, and I use my Burlington Telecom services with products from Sony, Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Cisco and many other huge corporations happily.  But Comcast has shown an aggressive disdain for one of the foundations of the Internet, something called net neutrality, something that I think is fundamental to how the Internet should work.  Because they own such a large percentage of the network infrastructure of the nation, they think they can control how people use the Internet.  And that’s not right.

Those reasons alone are good enough for me to stay with Burlington Telecom, but the best reason, in my opinion, is that the services Comcast offers are vastly inferior to Burlington Telecom’s.  I am not a user of the telephone service, so I will leave that out of this discussion for now.  But the television and internet services are better, mainly because they have a much higher bandwidth network than Comcast does.

The main advantage with the TV is picture quality.  Because Comcast services so many people over a network of copper wires, they have to “compress” the HD signal they send to you.  This will usually show up as visible blockiness in the picture.  Because Burlington Telecom has a MUCH higher capacity network, they don’t have to compress the TV signal at all, so it looks better.

Here’s a forum posting that has some screenshots as an example (as well as a looooong technical argument about the original poster’s results, if you are into that kind of thing).  There’s also a question about it on the BTV FAQ page.

The huge capacity of the Burlington Telecom network also means better Internet service.  Comcast is pretty cagey about what speeds they offer.  Their marketing frequently says “speeds up to” xxx Mbps, and yes, those speeds are faster than most Burlington Telecom plans.  But the fine print says that they are only good for the first 5 or 10 MB of a file, which may or may not be enough for you.  And their main disadvantage is that they offer “asynchronous” service, where the download speed is fast and the upload speed is slow.  For surfing the web that isn’t such a big deal because the only uploading you do is making requests to the web server for pages, and they are small.  But if you send large emails, or you work from home sometimes and need to upload large files, it makes a big difference.  And I personally find that the network is just more snappy than it ever was with Comcast (I’m on Burlington Telecom’s 5M/5M service level).

So all in all, with Comcast, you basically pay about the same, but you get much less.

why facebook won’t last

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I avoided Facebook for a long time.  Like many people, I think I thought of it as a slicker MySpace.  When I first saw it they even had a weird logo with a silhouette of a dubious-faced young man, and for some reason it creeped me out a little bit.

Once my lovely wife got going with it, however, it was really only a matter of time before she pulled me in.  Once I relented I realized why it’s so popular, and it’s probably safe to say that you probably have an account and don’t need me to explain what’s useful and fun about it.  Now, my wife and I are way more net-centric than many: I’m a web developer and she’s (among many other things) a web project manager.  But it’s not just people like us any more.

In the last six months or year it seems like it’s really taken off, not only in terms of the numbers of new users, but also in terms of how much use it’s gotten from people who don’t spend hours every day on the Net like I do.  For a lot of people, the Internet means Google, email, and Facebook.  And the web-centric community has gone absolutely gaga over it.  Dave Gibson from Propeller Media Works just said on the local radio show The Browser the other day that social networking sites like Facebook were going to be as big as email.  And Slate says “there is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook”.  They even go so far as to compare it to anti-perspirant!

It’s extremely useful, it’s really fun, it’s got millions and millions of users, natch.  But I also think that it’s still entirely possible it’s a fad, and it will almost certainly face the same sort of rise and fall as MySpace, Friendster, and every other social network so far has experienced.

In Dave’s defense he elaborates a lot of the things that separate Facebook from MySpace, and he’s right.  Facebook is much better than MySpace ever was, and it fixes a lot of the things that were wrong about MySpace.  My intial feeling that Facebook was just a slicker MySpace was wrong.   Facebook is better, but it’s still probably going to fall harder. The history of the web is littered with glittering ascents followed by staggering falls.  Don’t forget that News Corp. paid $580 million for MySpace just a few short years ago, to much fanfare.  Despite the current hysteria (and my own time investment in it!) I see no reason why the same won’t happen again.  The web is built upon the flamed-out ashes of last year’s hot new thing, and that’s really been the only constant for the last fifteen years.

Why?

There are two reasons: Facebook apps and the fact that it’s a closed system.

The apps are a masterstroke and an Achilles heel at the same time.  They’re a masterstroke because they create a platform that encourages people to make cool stuff.  And if people make cool stuff, Facebook becomes more attractive, and more people join.  But it’s an Achilles heel at the same time because they create a platform that allows people to create useless crap.  And if people create useless crap and spam their friends with it, Facebook becomes less attractive, and more people leave.  Unfortunately the history of the web shows that so far spammers end up taking over sooner or later.

The fact that it’s a closed system is why it’ll never approach the usefulness of email or the cell phone.

The SMTP standard was first published in 1982, and through the collaborative work on many people, has evolved and matured so that it’s used by nearly every Internet user in the world on a daily basis.  No one owns the standard, and anyone who wants to implement the standard can write an email server or client, leading to a competitive ecosystem that’s led to a whole galaxy of ways to slice and dice email on nearly any internet-capable device.

I know less about the technical side of cell phones, but I know that there are communication standards that handset makers and service providers agree on in order to keep the lines open, and to be able to sell more products and services.  By working on open (or at least agreed-upon) standards, a competitive cellular ecosystem exists that means you can buy a used handset from someone on Ebay and have it activated with the network of your choice.

Now Facebook is cool, but when you really get down to it, it doesn’t really do anything that you can’t do other ways.  The only real utility that it has going for it is that everyone seems to be on it.

Within a couple of years someone will come up with a way of putting text and photos together in a way that’s just a little bit slicker, and then what will Facebook have?

vt dotnet user group meeting

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

I went to my first Vermont .NET Users Group meeting last night, which was pretty interesting.  Julia Lerman, who leads the group, gave a presentation on the .NET Entity Framework, which she just finished a book about.  My boss says he’s heard that there are many Microsoft MVPs who are pretty against the EF, because it has many of the usual problems that accompany the first release of something big.  But after listening to Julia last night, it sounds like something that many of us in the .NET world will be using sooner or later.

One of the main interesting things was the fact that apparently there’s been a split between the people who created the LINQ to SQL stuff and the Entity Framework people.  They do similar things, and yet Microsoft hasn’t addressed the difference between them until recently, where they revealed that “the Entity Framework will be our recommended data access solution for LINQ to relational scenarios.”

That is why I don’t spend too much time learning Microsoft technologies until they are out of beta.  Half the time, the effort expended to learn their latest and greatest is wasted!

Click the link to read my meeting notes…

(more…)

burlington telecom

Friday, December 5th, 2008

So I’m now writing to you all from the bleeding edge of networking technology.  Yes, our little town, incredibly, is one of a small group of municipalies in the nation who have taken the step of treating Internet connectivity as a utility, like electricity or water.

To that end, Burlington Telecom was formed a few years ago and has spent the last couple of years building out a fiberoptic IP network throughout the city.  Through it, they are offering telephone, “cable” television and Internet services to anyone the network can reach.  They’re rolling it out in different neighborhoods as they get the network built, but the plan is to eventually serve all of Burlington.

In July we canceled Comcast and got Internet and TV service through Burlington Telecom.  We opted out of their telephone service because we use Vonage.

So how do their services stack up so far?

Internet:

As far as the Internet service goes, it’s incredibly awesome.  Besides the engineering radness of having a fiber optic link directly to my house, BT offers synchronous speeds, which at my service level means I have 5Mbps for both downloading and uploading.  With Comcast, I had bursts of that for downloads, but only 386Kbps for uploads.  Now, for most people this is not going to make a ton of difference.  The main internet activities for many are just requesting and loading web pages and email.  But for some things, it’s made a pretty huge difference.  Connecting to the work VPN is much much faster, and connecting to my home machine from work is also much faster.  And the main bottleneck in OpenArena seems to be my CPU now, not my network.  I’m sure if I had other more fancy multiplayer gaming needs I’d see similar results.

I don’t need a modem any more; they simply run ethernet from the fiber box on the outside of my house to a switch in my basement.  From there, ethernet simply runs to the Vonage router.  Pretty soon I’ll have to get a real wireless router instead of using the cheesy setup I have now (I’m torn between the Apple AirPort Express base station because of AirTunes and the Netgear WGR614L because it’s hackable), but things are running smoothly now.

The only real gripe I could come up with is that the DNS servers they run seemed really slow.  Web pages would spend 10 seconds saying “looking up blahblah.com” before finally loading.  Once they did, they’d often get stuck on other lookups as the pages requested other domains (like accuweather.com has some content on vortex.accuweather.com as well as coriolis.accuweather.com).  I switched them for a public DNS address I found on the Internet and all seems well.  KC says that it’s slow for her, but sometimes it’s hard to ferret out the sources of her impatience, since they are usually legion.

Television:

Now, the television service has been a mixed bag.  For the first three months or so, the service really sucked.  The channels all looked great, of course (even though we still have a pretty average standard-def TV), but the DVR service was terrible.  The UI was only semi-intuitive.  Most of it seems easy enough to find, and a month or so after we’d been subscribers, they put out a pamphlet describing how to do stuff that covered most of the bases.  The main thing that is a bummer is that when you are viewing the Guide (the grid of shows by channel and time), you can’t switch days easily.  If today is a Tuesday, and you want to record something on Sunday, you have to keep scrolling to the right, hour by hour, for all the hours between Tuesday and Sunday.  For the math-challenged, from noon Tuesday to noon Sunday is 120 hours!  That is just silly.

And that was a pretty minor gripe compared to the fact that there was a lot of random bugginess.  Shows we’d recorded would disappear, or the audio and video would be randomly corrupt in the middle of a show.  It got to the point where we didn’t really trust the thing to record stuff that we wanted to record.  Kacey ended up calling and chewing them out pretty hard, and told them that we shouldn’t have to pay for a service that just didn’t work.  To our surprise, they agreed with her, and credited us on our next bill.  They’d gotten tons of complaints and they were working with their vendor to fix stuff.  Supposedly there was going to be some software upgrade coming that was going to take care of a lot of these issues.

Now, any tech person knows that most software upgrades are bullshit.  They fix things, but Murphy’s law dictates that they never fix YOUR issue.  So imagine our delight when things magically started working not long after that phone call!  All of the random weirdness is now gone, thank goodness.

However, you still can’t change days in the guide, and it’s still just a digital VCR with a nice GUI.  When you click a show it basically just sets it to record at a certain time and channel for a given duration, and recurs if you want.  But it doesn’t know if a show is a rerun or and there’s nothing even close to having it recommend stuff like Tivo does.  But at least it works as advertised.

We have gotten a few things through their pay-per-view service, which works as advertised, but the offerings are nothing to write home about.  The times we’ve done it we’ve been looking for stuff for the kids, so maybe it’s just that category that’s not impressive, but I don’t really care about that stuff anyway.

So overall, now that their DVR issues are fixed, Burlington Telecom is well worth it.  They have offered solid tech, good customer service, and we can take comfort in knowing that we’re supporting a local company, and besides – it’s just cool as hell that we have a fiber-optic cable connected to our house.

Dear Internet Explorer 6 User:

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Dear IE6 user:

I hate you.

Nothing personal, you understand, and really I just hate your choice of browser, not you.  But that lead was too easy to resist.

You may not realize this, but you make web developers’ lives (and your own for that matter, but we’ll cover the selfish angle first) much more difficult than it needs to be.  See, when you browse to a site with IE6, innocently shopping for your widgets or reading your content or whatever it is that you’re doing, the web server dilligently records your visit, and notes the fact that you are using IE6 instead of a more recent browser.

And when that happens, dear reader, it means poor web developers like me are a little more likely to have to support IE6 when we’re making all the websites that you know and love.  And honestly, we’re tired of it.  It came out in the dark ages of the web, in 2001, when Microsoft and Netscape were in the midst of fighting with each other over what standards web browsers would support, and thus it has very poor support for web standards.  And web standards are a Good Thing for people like us, and thus for people like you who use what we build.  Web standards mean that we can build something one way and be reasonably sure it will work across various browsers and operating systems.  If that’s the case, we can build stuff in less time and for less money.  We can spend more time and money doing cool stuff instead of lame stuff like chasing down cross-browser bugs.

But you, dear IE6 user, are standing in the way of this effort.  Because those pesky web servers are logging your every visit, we know that you are out there, much as we would like to ignore you.  Sadly, your numbers are still large enough that we cannot yet ignore you, lest we lose your vaulable pageviews.  Some people in our field, you should know, have the idea that we should ignore you anyway, which is pretty tempting.  But those people generally don’t work in places where they have to answer to people who don’t care about web standards but only the money that comes in from the web channel.  So most of us still have to deal with you.

But let’s say that you don’t really care about progress on the web.  “I can still make my purchases on Amazon and read the New York Times”, you might say, “so why should I care?”  Well, there’s a personal angle here too.  Yes, dear IE6 user, you could even stand to benefit too!  IE6 has many known bugs and security vulnerabilties that newer browsers don’t have.  Microsoft tries to do a good job of patching it up to keep it from blowing stuff up, but of course they are going to put most of their energy into IE7 and the upcoming IE8.  So honestly, they are only dealing with you because they are forced to, as well.  If you upgrade to the newest version of IE, your browser will be more secure, and will be less likely to experience weird errors or even crashes.  Your computer and I will both love you a little bit more.

So if you’ve read this much of my (sorta) impassioned plea, dear IE6 user, please: just visit the IE downloads page and upgrade.  Or hey, you could upgrade to Firefox and get an even better browser.  But either one is cool – whatever’s easier for you.  And thanks!

game criticism

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

It seems like everyone is talking about how games need more critical thought than they get. And I agree. Pretty much everything could use more critical thought. For the amount of time and money that people put into making and consuming games, it would be nice to see some more justification than pure escapism.

Now, escapism is the root of any true connection with the audience, I think. A book like Moby-Dick has had staying power because it succeeds as an adventure story as well as a treatise on man’s capacity for self-destruction.

Escapism has been a good enough reason for me, but I won’t deny that it still seems like wasted time. After the machine is switched off, the experience vanishes, more or less. It won’t stay with me and inspire trains of thought the way even a relatively simple movie like Once does. Why?

Part of it is economic, but that applies to movies and novels and other things, so that can’t be part of it. Honestly, I think it’s because games are interactive, and most people are stupid, or at least lazy.

Now, anyone that says games have a similar cultural footing as the traditional media as books or movies is probably trying to sell them. There are some that try hard, and a few might even provoke some thought. But the whole idea of what a computer game is will have to get upended before they can have the potential to change lives, inspire people and live forever.

I think the game industry suffers from what the movie industry suffers from: fear of failure.  There are such large amounts of money involved in making a big game these days that game publishers and movie studios stick to the formulaic, the lowest common denominator.  So you get games and movies that are diverting, but that have no staying power at all.  There are indie movies out there that do all right, and there’s a thriving subculture around them of people who identify with the aesthetic and what they might call “indie values”.  But where are the indie game designers?  I’m sure they’re out there.  I have been meaning to check out these award-winning indie games for months and never gotten around to it.  When I do, maybe I’ll have new faith in the capacity for games to be more than mindless entertainment.

Now, pardon me, I’m off to do a little fragging…

Adobe fanboy

Friday, March 14th, 2008

I’m beginning to understand that Adobe’s corporate strategy these days is centered around unifying designers and developers, and maybe I’m starting to go along with it.

I went to this VT Flash User’s Group meeting last night and it was actually really interesting. It made me a lot more excited to learn Flex – it seems like Adobe’s really trying to address what they called “designer-developer productivity”: making it easier for designers and developers to work on stuff together, and giving us tools that we can all use collaboratively.

I did not know too much about their new product Air, but it’s basically a way of making a desktop application out of a Flex project. So you could have a Flash app that can work online or offline, and can use local files on the user’s computer, the clipboard, etc.

I came out of the meeting feeling like that’s the future of web development work – for example, a catalog product that has the depth and feel of the print work with the interactivity of the website. People could browse through community features and interact with other brand lovers while online, but they could take it with them and lovingly browse through all the product lines when they’re away from their network connection…what people create could be a catalog that can come to life.

If Flex can live up to its potential and let us bring the design and programming worlds closer together, it could transform the industry. Don’t worry though. It might be Java, ABAP or C#, but there’s always going to be a need for server-side programming. These fancy apps will need to get data from servers and there will always be a need for databases that get them. And we’re always going to need to print stuff. People like to hold things in their hands sometimes. But they’d flow from one of the Central Beautiful Functional Things that are created for each brand.

Maybe it’s the pizza I ate while I was there, but something happened last night that made me swoon over Adobe for a bit. Their RIA page has a bunch of good information too.

Manifesto over. Carry on.

P.S. For the record, yes, I won an iPod shuffle there, but no, that has nothing to do with the enthusiasm in this post. At all.

wp+palm=awesome

Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

yes! moblogging with wordpress rocks! and the site is even palm-friendly.