Oy, Again With The Moving…

Using Dreamhost is quickly turning into nightmare. It’s a cheap, full featured and generous web host, except only good for websites that do not matter (and I think that mine do). There is no upgrade path to a virtual private server (which is one step below a dedicated machine both in price and performance), their overall uptime is not something I’d trust, and their blog is just driving me nuts. At the suggestion of a friend I’m moving over to Webintellects.

As a web developer I specialize in content management systems. I have wasted many years of my career on Microsoft technologies, although my personal website was always built using open source tools. In recent years, when faced with the twin horrors of Sharepoint and MS CMS, I just could not go on any more. I just can’t imagine an entrepreneur who would willingly use this stuff to build a business. I quit my job of almost 6 years, took some time off and went on to a job that allows me to use open source tools. We’ve had quite a bit of success with Drupal, a leading open source CMS.

WordPress is a great tool for blogs, but it makes good sense for me to start using Drupal for my own sites, as well as at work. Drupal grows at an astronomical rate, improving in leaps and bounds. I have a couple of modules almost ready for contribution (once I make them a little neater and better documented). Drupal is very scalable, very well designed and has a huge following. I could not be happier with it as a developer.

In the five years that my website existed in blog format I moved 3 times. Livejournal -> Movable Type -> WordPress. Now it’s Drupal‘s turn.

I apologize in advance for any annoying symptoms of the move, like refreshing of the RSS feed where already read articles might show up as new, etc. Please bear with me.

Where’s My Flying Car Part I : KABOOM!

“Celebrating Gertsen, we clearly see three generations,
three classes acting in the Russian Revolution. First –
noblemen and landowners, Decembrists and Herzen.
Horribly distant from the people. But their work was not in wain.
Decembrists woke Herzen. Herzen began revolutionary agitation.”
V.I. Lenin

Computers have existed like for 200,000 years in Internet time, yet the innovation in computer technology seems to be a little slow. Brick and mortar slow. Let me present to you an approximate timeline:

In 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article As We May Think about a device called the Memex.

In 1960 Theodor Holm Nelson, inspired by Bush, coined the term “hypertext” and started on Project Xanadu, a vaporware Superinternet.

In 1968 Dr. Douglas Engelbart delivered the MOAD, demonstrating videoconferencing, email, hypertext, copy and paste, as well as some novel input devices including a mouse.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart show a progression from a dream into reality. Bush was a pure dreamer – he never intended to actually try and build the Memex. Nelson at least tried to build Xanadu, although he failed miserably. He could not even get to the demo stage. Engelbart actually built enough stuff to make very impressive demos, although never to build actual successful products except the mouse. These guys suffered from the RAND Corporation syndrome–the common joke went that RAND stood for Reasearch And No Development.

The problem with these three was that they could not focus on individual problems. Luckily for us, next came Xerox PARC. Xerox corporation had money coming out of its wazoo, decided to invest in a world class R&D center. They used the same approach that Google is using today: spend the extra money on hiring the brightest technologists around and let them run free and wild.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart were a lot like a character named Manilov in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Manilov was an owner of a large rundown estate. He spent his days dreaming about improving it. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a bridge over the river and on it build little merchant booths so that the peasants could buy stuff there. Of course, none of his projects ever went anywhere, and if they did, they were quickly abandoned.

PARC engineers were men of action. Each concentrated on a particular aspect, and they’ve built working models of many things that we enjoy today: personal computer with GUI interfaces, Ethernet, WYSIWYG text editor, laser printer, and even a computer animation system amongst other things. Sadly, Xerox was able to capitalize mostly on the laser printer, which actually probably paid for all of PARC’s expenses. PARC indirectly influenced Apple and Microsoft in the development of GUI OS. Also Charles Simonyi left PARC to develop Word and Excel for Microsoft, thus creating an enormous amount of wealth. Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs also left PARC, took Ethernet and turned it into 3COM. John Warnock and Charles Geschke left PARC, took PostScript and created a little company called Adobe Systems. Well, you get the picture.

To give you another analogy, the technological revolution of the 60s, 70s and 80s was like a hydrogen bomb. A hydrogen bomb is made of three bombs: a conventional explosive that ignites a fission explosive that in turn ignites a fusion explosion. Semiconductor industry created by William Shockley and the Traitorous Eight was the fuel, Bush and Company–the conventional explosion, PARC–fission, what came after–fusion. KABOOM!

The Microsoft Movie Conspiracy

Robert Scoble is the most powerful Microsoft blogger. One word from him and hordes of bloggers start typing gibberish, hoping to make it into the A-list. Must there be anything he can’t do? Yep. Apparently there is a building at the Microsoft campus where his badge does not work.

That top secret facility produces the best Microsofts products I’ve ever seen. They make (amongst other things) short movies shown to attendees at shows like PDC and CES. Sadly, once shown, those movies do not make it onto Microsoft’s website or into the bundles of MSDN subscription cds (I’ve checked). They get suppressed for some reason.

I believe there’s a conspiracy to hide the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer left the company a long time ago. I mean think about it, would you continue to work if you had that kind of money? My theory is that they were replaced by two top notch actors. The actors must get bored from time to time, so they are given a high quality production crew and a possibility to create short movies from time to time.

I can’t find the link now, but IMDB listed Steve Ballmer cast as a possible villain in Batman: Year One movie that never got filmed.

In any case, the convention shown movies sometimes leak out. Matrix spoof, the latest one, for instance is partially available at this website (if you scroll down there are screenshots from the full version). In it Linux agents are interrogating hacker known as Steve-O.

In previous years there was the Volkswagen commercial spoof, where Gates and Ballmer are cruising around the neighbourhood in a Jetta, pick up a discarded Sun server from the curb, but then, after a few blocks and a few whiffs of something stinky inside the server, they deposit it back on the side of the road. I saw that one at a PDC event, and it was preceded by a never aired IBM commercial in which Mike the Lawyer and friends are cramming a huge server in a small elevator.

There were also the Napoleon Dynamite spoof and the Austin Powers spoof which I can’t find anywhere for some reason. Are there any others that I’m missing?

By the way, impersonating Austin Powers seems to be a favorite pastime of gazillionairs.

Technology To Die For

I learned from a very interesting book called “Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton” that during the development of Apple Newton one engineer committed suicide. Being ahead of its time, Newton did not become popular, although it was engineered so well, that to this day many enthusiasts still use it, write software, and even make new hardware for it. I am actually thinking of buying one on eBay still.

I don’t know if anyone got hurt during the development of iPod, but it was involved in several fatalities for sure.

First, a woman beat her boyfriend to death with the device. This is reminiscent of Russian Emperor Paul I being killed with a snuff box. I was recently watching Leonid Parfenov’s awesome “Russian Empire” series, where he showed the infamous snuff box. I always thought that it was rather large, but it turns out to be about the size on an iPod.
[update] Apparently this was a hoax.

Also, a kid in Brooklyn died from a knife wound when he was being robbed of his iPod. NYPD and MTA reacted by this wonderfully cryptic ad. Without actually mentioning Apple or iPod they are urging hipsters to swap out the distinctive white iPod headphones for ugly Radioshack ones. Maybe they should also suggest buying Creative’s (or Microsoft’s when they come out) players – nobody will probably want to kill for one.


It Sucked Back Then Too.

I see that a lot of people add “programming” tag to my blog in del.icio.us. And as they might have noticed, there are very few posts about computers and programming in this blog. So far, my favorite note in del.icio.us is “a NY programmer, I guess, doing you know, stuff”. Anyway, here is an exclusion from the rule, a post about computer technology.

There’s a computer book that I was looking for for a long time. I remember having it in my dad’s library, but it probably was left behind. I finally found a source of used books in Russia, alib.ru, so I finally replaced it.

“Personal Electronic Calculating Machines in Engineering Practice” by Krenkel, Kogan and Taratorin, Moscow 1989, Radio and Communications. I mostly bough it for a certain infamous passage attributed to Dr. Taratorin, a fellow immigrant and Livejournal deserter. If you can read Russian, here is a collection of his prose(he is extremely talented) and here is his blog.

So, let’s see, it’s 1989. Dr. Taratorin is writing these immortal words (my translation follows):

“One example of unwieldy, and in authors’ opinion useless add-ons is integrated WINDOWS system by Microsoft. The system takes up almost 1 Megabyte of disk space and was designed primarily to be used with devices of “mouse” type . It unites in itself functions of a file catalog browser, text editor, calculator, calendar, graphics editor and allows to load different other applications . Because this system integrates different subsystems and allows data passing amongst them it’s often called operating system wrapper (see paragraph 2.9). It seems that the usefulness of such wrapper in the ability of the user to load a few different programs and organize data sharing amongst them. For instance, after editing a text, you can pass it to an electronic table editing program (translator’s note: I think the word “spreadsheet” did not enter Russian vocabulary back then), database, etc.

Work with WINDOWS, of course, is rather impressive: during waiting (subsystem loading, file writing) a symbol of waiting, hourglass, appears on the screen, during file erasing a picture of a trashcan appears, backgrounds and font colors change, helper windows overlap, etc. In our opinion, the symbol of extreme esthetism and unwieldiness is the time-telling subsystem. When invoked, this system shows a pretty clock with familiar clock face and moving hands… But you always have to pay for prettiness. In WINDOWS system the price is long wait times for switching between applications, bloatedness of switching constructs (translator’s note: no idea) and large amount of memory needed from the Electronic Calculating Machine.”

Ahh, nice vintage Windows bashing. Warms my heart.


Lake Bill II : Just When You Thought You Were Safe

Microsoft seems to have outinnovated itself again. Not only does MS Virtual Earth have a slightly higher close-up resolution in some places – hey, I think I can see Ballmer going for a swim in lake Bill here, but also showing the supersecret walkway that goes right over buildings 1 and 3. At this resolution you can almost make out the letters on the Microsoft Bob walk of fame tile. Sadly, this resolution is not available for Brooklyn.

My earlier post about Lake Bill is here.


Listen, people. Let me do a little follow up, and then I’ll shut up about Starbucks and logos for a little while. Honest.

Firstly, earlier I wrote an article about the progression of the NASA logo – the Meatball, the Worm and the Vector.

Secondly, MTA logo is nicknamed the “Pacman” because it looks like the 25 year old video game character. Waka-waka-waka, watch out for the ghosts.

Thirdly, I wrote about the Roslyn Bank, the Blibbet and Starbucks logos too. All I can add to that are these two fine logos of the Microsoft products of the day gone by:

Funny enough this Microsoft product allows to bring Microsoft BOB back to life. Melinda Getes’ legacy endures beyound Clippy!

Fourthly, Amazon is selling this:

Incredibly, they also have Women of Wal-Mart and Women of Enron.

So, How My Day Went, You Ask?

I spend a miserable morning working with Microsoft Sharepoint. A “smart quote” in a code sample from a KB article really chocolate-flavored my morning. Flavored it so much that I just had to send a profanity laced (virtually every sentence), but informative email to the MSDN keepers.

The funny thing about MS though is that interestingly enough they read and reply to feedback rather quickly. Just watch this: there will be a reply in my comments from Scoble in a day or two. Apple, Google, as well as the company where I work don’t really dedicate many people to answering customer complaints. Especially publicly. Yep, MS is funny that way – they even have real, live people looking at those crash error reports. And I hear that the suggestions and general emails get read and answered quicker than one might expect.

There’s even a link to “Request a Microsoft Executive to speak at events and functions” (notice capitalization), but sadly it does not work in Firefox. Too bad – I was gonna request that Ballmer give me and my co-workers a “Developers! Developers! Developers!” pep talk over lunch tomorrow.

Actually, here’s a little known fact for ya – if you write to One Microsoft Way and ask for Gates’ or Ballmer’s autograph, they’ll send you an Autopen-signed photo. I obtained Gates’ photo like this once, but I used it up as a birthday card for a Microsoft-loathing friend. I wonder if this trick will work on distinguished engineers past and present. I’d totally want Dave Cutler’s autograph.

In the evening I decided to go and replace my phone featured in this quaint still life from my cube’s desk. I mostly use the slide rule for pointing at the screen, poking my co-workers who having agreed to go out to lunch insist on sending one more email and drawing straight lines. I even learned how to do simple multiplication on it.

Being one of those people who insist on getting burned on new technology and then feeling resentful (thank you, Acer for making your first Tablet PC with a 256 meg ram limit and you, Microsoft developers, for using memory-hungry Win XP for the tablet’s OS) I finally decided that maybe it’s a good time to forgive Handspring for the disappointment that was the original Visor Phone. Oh, that stupid thing. It only worked when I didn’t need it and crashed whenever I did. Bulky, ugly, nasty thing. After one more crash/memory loss I sold off my Treo and my Visor phone and started using a different kind of PDA. I just shudder when I remember how Jeff Hawkins arrogantly told everyone that handheld users should mould themselves into using stupid graffiti script instead of giving us good thumb keyboards like smart people at RIM.

Well, I thought I’d get a Treo 650. I need something to type in on the train. The keyboard is not very comfortable compared to Blackberry or Danger (which design I like a lot more). But once again it’s the choice of better design vs an OS which is easier to develop for. Sadly I choose the latter way too frequently.

Also, in New York you can either pick a cellphone company that has better prices, phones and customer service or you can pick one that has good reception. Yes, everything about Verizon sucks. But they have so many damn tower that even though you get shafted on everything else, at least you get a phone that works better than others. You can actually send or receive a call in most places, even in some shallow subway stations.

Unfortunately it turned out that they want $25 extra per month for 10 megs of data, and in conjunction with a 2 year contract and $400 phone this just did not look like a good deal to me, so I passed. I guess I a destined to live with a bricky ol’ phone that is only good for making phone calls. Sadly it looks like to get better PDA features cheaper I’d need to sacrifice Verizon’s good reception.

Then I spent 3 hours this evening cleaning out spyware from a friend’s computer. I failed miserably – Adaware, Microsoft Antispyware Tool and Search & Destroy could not clean out all the crap even on multiple passes. Looks like I’ll have to reinstall.

Rank and File

Since a comprehensive list of Microsoft codenames already exists, I would like to move on to another taxonomy project that fascinates me. I would like to collect a list of weird titles so common in many big-name corporations. Here are some notes that I collected already.

Also I am adding a little note about certain not very publicized rules that the company has that might help you get better service, or so to say to hack the system. You’ll see what I mean.

Every employee carries a title of “Co-worker”. Employees use the term Kinkoid instead.

Kinko’s hacks:
All Kinkoids seem to live in fear of “mystery shoppers”. The corporate mothership sends special agents that pose as customers, and then evaluate the Co-workers. On at least several occasions I asked for some collating and printing jobs and quoted long wait times by Co-workers, which strangely had a change of heart and did the work right away. Your job is to make a Co-worker suspect that you are a “mystery shopper”. How? I don’t know, but apparently I managed to pull it off a couple of times.

Generic title: Crew Member. There are special non-management Crew Members with many years of experience called Crew Superstars. Managers carry the title of Crew Leader.

Fast Food Hacks:
This is a little known fact, but almost all soda fountains have a special button that will dispense seltzer. So technically the soda choice include seltzer. Sometimes when I am not in the mood for caramel coloring and phosphoric acid, I buy a medium soda and then ask them to find the button (most employees don’t know about it).

Barristas are known as Hourly Partners. I’ve seen a title of Coffee Master on a manager’s card.

Starbucks Hacks:
There’s an 8oz cup called “Short” as opposed to the holy trinity of Tall-Grande-Venti. It’s never advertised, but I successfully ordered it on occasion.

I learned a new trick, which I am not planning on using, but which surprised me. I found a tiny sticker which outlined Starbucks refill policy. It reminded me that Spongebob episode where Bubble Bass pointed out to the microscopic print on the Crusty Crab menu that outlined the refund policy. Anyway, it seems like the rule is that if you finish your drink within the hour, you can ask for a refill in the same cup at an unspecified reduced price. How will they know if you consumed your drink in an hour? There’s a label on the cup that records the time when the drink was ordered. You can also apparently bring in your own cup and have it filled at 30 cents off or so.

You can ask for free coffee grinds at any Starbucks store to use as fertilizer for your garden or farm.

Barnes and Noble:
This is a surprising one. All B&N employees carry the title of “bookseller”. Even computer programmers and janitors. Thank you, anonymous tipster for this slice of corporate weirdness.

Most employees at Disney World are titled “Cast Members”. “Face” characters, like Cinderella and the like are “Union Actors”. Disney weirdness is too huge to discuss here, there are whole sites dedicated to the subject. “No Disney Cast member at the Disney reservation center has the same name. If there are more then two with the same then they are given a name.” Whoa.
Thank you, Merlin!

Pacific Theaters
Ushers and the like carry the title of “Talent”.
Thanks you, Greg!

This calls for a gratuitous Spongebob quote:
“Squidward: Repeat after me. “I have no talent”
Spongebob: I have no talent.
Squidward: “Mr. Tentacles has all the talent”.
Spongebob: Mr. Tentacles has all the talent.
Squidward: “If I’m lucky, some of Mr. Tentacles talent can rub off on me”.
Spongebob: If I’m lucky, Mr. Talent can…rub…his tentacles on my…art… (smiles)”

Toyota Canada
Salesmen carry the title of “New Vehicle Advisor ”
Thank you, Aidan R.

WL Gore & Associates
Every employee is – you guessed it – an “Associate”.
Thank you, Joe Grossberg.

Gouvernment employees are called “Guvvies” and contractors are called “Swaliens” (because they are frequently from Swales Aerospace.

Thank you, anonimous commenter.

IKEA employees have the same designation as Kinkos – “Co-worker”. I am not sure if this is a recent development or not.

If you have any information like this, please let me know.