Recent blog entries for davidw

MicroConf Europe

I don't envy conference organizers these days - most of what's being said can be read the next day, for free, on line, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home, and without spending a bundle of time and money to sleep in a far away hotel.

Competing with that is not easy, but the guys at MicroConf managed to.  I would sum up the weekend by saying that it was a "very high bandwidth experience".  Every day, from breakfast until I turned in, I was chatting with people or listening to speakers during the conference itself.  That's aproximately  16 hours of being "on", and by the time I got home to Padova, I was exhausted!  But at the end of the day, I felt like it was worth it being there in person, because of all the interaction with other people.  The speakers' talks all ended up on line, more or less, but all the chatting and discussion and getting to know everyone is the human element that is tough to replicate on line, and one of the most important reasons to attend a conference in person.  Prague is also a beautiful city - I wish I had had more time there to check it out.

Here are some highlights and notes, in no particular order:

  • Rob Walling talked about actual, concrete numbers when discussing his current project's revenues.  There's a ton of handwavy stuff out there on the internet, but real numbers are tough to beat.  What makes it especially nice is that they also felt "real": they're good numbers, no doubt about it, but not stratospheric, science fiction numbers that leave you feeling like "ok, whatever, but that's not the planet I live on".  They're numbers that make you think "maybe, if things go well, I could do that too".
  • The number of "I'm from X, but live in Y" people at the conference was high.  Irish but live in Spain, American but live in Japan.  Or maybe just noticeable because I'm in that category myself.  There were people attending from the US, Europe, Japan, South Africa, and even Australia.  Impressive!
  • Almost all of the speakers had very specific, concrete advice that I can and will apply to LiberWriter, time permitting.  I read, and have read, a lot of business books.  Most of them are kind of fluffy, truth be told, in that they've got one decent idea, and a lot of filler to turn what could have been a tight, ten-page article into a book.  This was quite different in that there were a whole lot of tips and tricks being thrown out.
  • Rob's wife Sherry gave a talk about life with an entrepreneur.  Having two kids and a wonderful wife myself, it's a point of view that I was very interested in hearing about.  Judging from the people I chatted with, this was not your typical "startup" conference with a bunch of 20-somethings with no family and no ties - a lot of the other people attending had kids to think about as they launch their ventures.  A question I asked of Rob was how much of a leap he took from consulting to working on his own products, with the answer being that he's actually pretty risk adverse.  No Silicon Valley story about betting the house and everything else on the company - apparently, revenues from the web sites and products were good enough that there wasn't even really a leap to make when he quit consulting.
  • The size of the conference was just right: enough people that I didn't quite manage to meet everyone, but not so many that it was overwhelming.  In downtime between talks, and during dinners, breakfasts, lunch and so on, the speakers were very available to chat with.
  • Patrick McKenzie seems to have stumbled into his life's calling as someone working at the border of software and marketing.  The amount of advice, anecdotes, and data that he was continually spinning off was incredible.  He comes across as being a down-to-earth, approachable, friendly person.
  • Part of the balancing act the organizers have to work with is where people are at: some people had an idea but no concrete business.  Some of us (me) make some money but not too much.  Others have viable businesses that they make enough to live off of, and then there are those who seem pretty much 'set'.  It's difficult to find people to speak to each audience without losing some of the others.
  • The thing I liked the most about a lot of what was discussed was that it seems realistic.  Few people at the conference were from Silicon Valley, and yet... they're successful!  I like hearing about success stories that work out really well for the people involved, but still feel like something attainable.  People should be looking to emulate the successful guys here, not looking at extreme outliers like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
  • I'm used to tech conferences, where it's all about the technology.  There was very little actual tech talk at MicroConf - it seems like everyone knows their stuff and was interested in learning about marketing, sales, and so on.

However, since it was a business conference, I also have to put on my cold, hard accountant hat.  Will the conference pay for itself?  Only time will tell.  I learned a variety of interesting and useful things, many of which I think I can put into practice.  The problem is finding the time between consulting work and family, but that was a bottleneck before, too - I had, and have, more things to do than time.  Also, to be very direct about it, how much of what I learned could not have been learned by carefully reading accounts of the conference, slides, and other material published on the internet?  A lot of it.  I'm not sure I would have paid attention to all of it though, so the conference was definitely nice in that it exposed me to some talks and ideas that otherwise I might have brushed off before giving them a chance.  In terms of dollars and cents, I won't be able to say for a while whether it was a sensible investment or not.

Would I go again?  I'd like to - it was a lot of fun and the people were great.

Like I said, it's tough doing conferences because your competition is the internet!

Syndicated 2013-10-24 19:41:00 (Updated 2013-10-25 22:21:30) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

4 Jan 2013 (updated 14 Jan 2013 at 23:05 UTC) »

The Software Millionaire Next Door

I've been reading "The Millionaire Next Door" and have so far found it to be a pleasant book with a good message: don't waste your money on silly things and appearance (fancy suits, fancy cars, expensive boats, etc...), save what you do earn consistently and constantly, invest wisely, and so on.   Wikipedia has a good summary:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Millionaire_Next_Door

One of the things I like about it is that it focuses on "ordinary" wealthy people, those with a million or more in the bank, but not the Warren Buffets or Bill Gates types that are extreme statistical outliers.  There are plenty of people in the US who have done well by themselves by slowly but surely putting together enough money to be financially independent, without, however, being in the spotlight.   As the book says, these are the kind of people who maybe own a local chain of businesses doing something fairly ordinary, but doing it well enough to succeed.  They may very well not live in a fancy house, nor drive an expensive car, or otherwise outwardly draw much attention to themselves.

The world of software does not revolve around "dressing for success" (you noticed?), but we do tend to focus on the "big winners".  Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Larry & Sergey, Larry Ellison, and so on are the stars of the show.  Of course, the economics of software being what they are, instances of winner-take-all markets with one big fish and a lot of also-rans are not uncommon.   However, that is not the only story, and I think it'd be interesting to know more about those in our industry who have accumulated significant wealth, yet are not the guys with more money than they could possibly ever spend on things that aren't, say, country-sized chunks of real-estate.

I'm guessing they'd fall into these categories:

  • Highly paid workers who have consistently saved over the years.  There are examples in the aforementioned book about people with relatively low salaries who happened to be very frugal and invest well (and have had some luck in their investments too).  These people would probably tend to be older, as it takes a while to save up that kind of money, and since this industry is so young with so much turnover, I would not think there would be a lot of people out there like this, but who knows, maybe there are a bunch of IBMers with this kind of story.
  • Those who got in on the right IPO, like Google or Facebook or something like that.  These events not only generate billions for those at the top of the heap, but for the right person at the right place at the right time, can mean significant wealth even without being in the upper echelons of the company.  My suspicion is that this kind of IPO, where everyone cashes out, is not common enough to have a lot of people in this category, but who knows, maybe it adds up over the years.
  • Those who own or started software firms that do something that's not very visible, but nonetheless dominates some particular niche.  This is where I'd guess most of them would be, but I certainly have no data or even anecdotes to back this up.

It'd be very interesting to gather some actual data on this, although I'm not in a position to do so myself - I wouldn't even really know where to start. 

As I age, I think the third category has begun to seem appealing in many ways - I'm simply not cut out for the Big Company life, and I'm not interested in living in Silicon Valley and going "all in" on the latest startup - I already did that, and while it was fun and I don't regret it, it's not the kind of thing I'd want to do now that I'm married and have kids.   Incidentally, this more relaxed, under the radar approach is exactly what is expoused in one of my favorite books of the past few years, Start Small, Stay Small.

Edit : I finished reading the book and reviewed it here: http://davids-book-reviews.blogspot.com/

Syndicated 2013-01-04 21:55:33 (Updated 2013-01-14 22:23:44) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

16 Oct 2012 (updated 17 Oct 2012 at 20:05 UTC) »

The Dreaded Google Lockdown

It's one of those things that you read about, but are never really sure about: you think "maybe he was doing something fishy, and isn't tellling it straight in the public account of the incident".

So I'll try to stick to "just the facts".

A few weeks ago, I dug up some old book reviews I'd done, and posted to Facebook, and opened a site here: http://davids-book-reviews.blogspot.com/ as a way of collecting them.  Naturally, I also added Amazon referral links, because, hey, it helps feed my reading habit!  Last month I got enough to buy two whole Kindle books, so we're not exactly talking about "get rich quick" territory here.  We're not even talking about anything remotely close to my day job, for that matter.  But hey, if I can get a little bit extra to spend on books, it's nice.  The reviews were basically quick notes on books I read.  Nothing that I or the rest of humanity can't get along without, but I felt like writing up a little something for myself and people I know on the internet - maybe it'll help someone else find an interesting book to read.

Several days later, I believe on October 8th, I woke up to find my phone was 'not signed in to Google', and, after repeated attempts, wouldn't sign in.  Same thing with my Nexus 7.  Logging in to my computer, in something of a cold sweat at this point, I find I can't get into Gmail or anything else, either.  Luckily, on the computer, Google's system did redirect me to a page where they mentioned suspicious activity, and gave me the chance to reactivate things by sending an SMS to my phone.  This did work quickly, and did a little bit to alleviate some of my stress.  I understand that locking things down quickly is probably to my benefit as well as theirs in the event of an actual security breach of someone's account: it keeps the attacker from doing any more damage.  However, it was sure a bad way to start a Monday morning.

However, the actual 'blog' (sorry, I hate the word!) was still blocked. It too has a form to fill out to prove that you're human.  Although: as a computer guy, you'd think that with all the clever people at Google, they would be able to tell from my access patterns to the site, browser footprint, IP addresses and so forth, that...well, I am me.  In any event though, they promised to review the blog within two days.  So, I waited patiently.  A week later, still nothing.  Then, the next day, I went back to check on the status, and they had reset the review request: it no longer said anything about October 8th, when I had originally made the reinstatement request.  So I filled in their form again, asking to have my blog back.  That was yesterday, we'll see what happens next.

As far as I can tell, I did not violate their actual terms of conditions, which say nothing about referral links: http://www.blogger.com/content.g

Since the people at Google are loth to speak with their users directly, it seems as if one of the best ways of getting support is to complain loudly and publicly about this kind of shennanigan.

And to forestall the somewhat inevitable comments on anything related to Google: 1) Yes, I know I signed an agreement where they say they can do whatever the hell they want and I can f**k off if I don't like it.  Try and do anything on line with a major company and not get a contract like that, or for even more entertainment value, try and negotiate the contract with t he company.  Good luck.  If you don't say yes, you're pretty much on your own; there doesn't seem to be much of a market for "more humane terms and conditions" out there. 2) I know, I know, relying on the Google beast is a great way to set yourself up for a big fall if anything ever goes wrong, because it's impossible to appeal, or pretty much even to talk with a human.  But with a limited amount of time in my life, to date, Google has been a pretty good deal.  I suppose it's something of a "black swan" situation: everything seems fine until one day WHACK, and Google pulls the carpet from under your legs.

Conclusions?

Well, I hope someone out there can help me recover my content.  I wrote it myself, and I would like to save my book reviews somewhere.

What alternatives are there to the Google colossus?  Not too many that I can see that are anywhere at all as convenient.

Edit: 2012-10-17: I don't know what did it, but they have reinstated the site.  Strange and disconcerting, but I guess things are ok for the time being.  Thanks to whoever it was at Google that finally had a look.

Syndicated 2012-10-16 19:40:28 (Updated 2012-10-17 19:32:27) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Small Town Google Pollution

There are so many sites trying to vie for Google results for any and every town in existance in the United States that they are crowding out useful information.  They get their list of towns from census data or similar sources, and generate pages for every single entry they find, no matter how small.

During the weekend, I was poking around, looking for information on a not-quite-ghost town called Lonerock, in Oregon:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lonerock,_Oregon


I love to visit out of the way places like that when I'm back in Oregon, which we hope to do next summer.  So I was curious about it - it appears quite isolated, but seems like it might be worth a look.  According to the Wikipedia article it is a very small town, with a population of 24 people.  And yet, if you look at the Google results for it, you find a few good links at first, and then:

  • Any number of results with "city information", which is just census data with a bit of fiddling.
  • Current local time.  Gee, that's great to know.
  • Various 'homes for sale' sites: none listed.
  • Horses for sale "in Lonerock", but it turns out they're all in Heppner (30 miles away) or farther.
  • Climate statistics.
  • Bicycles for sale in Lonerock.  Surprisingly, none of those, either.
  • Attorneys at law in Lonerock. I think they ran them all out of town: there are none.
  • Truck scales and weigh stations in Lonerock.  You have to drive at least 50 miles to get to the nearest one.
  • Hotels in Lonerock: nope, none of those either.
  • Various Cable and Internet offerings (I think in reality they use this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_over_Avian_Carriers )
  • Doctors in Lonerock: Neurologists, Gastroenterologists and even Nephrologists.  Turns out there aren't any in town.
  • Car Rentals in Lonerock.   Just in case you fly in to any of the Airports in Lonerock, and want to leave rather than staying in the Hotels in Lonerock.
  • Apartments for rent in Lonerock.  A town of 24 people in the middle of the wide open west is not the kind of place you're likely to live in an apartment...
  • Relocation guides for Lonerock.

And so on and so forth.  Scattered in the middle, you can even find a few articles and photo pages by people who actually had something to say or show about the place, but finding them amidst all the crud is not an easy task.  To me this seems surprising - it doesn't seem like it'd be that hard to make sites that just happen to have entries for every town in the entire nation rank a bit lower than things written by human beings.

Google - have a look at Lonerock, and see if you can use it as a way to seperate the wheat from the chaff!

Syndicated 2012-08-24 20:50:02 (Updated 2012-08-28 21:21:03) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Simple phone alerts with Gmail and Android

I have some long running server processes that I am going to launch soonish, and I want to be alerted when they're done.  Using Gmail and Android, it's pretty easy:

  1. In Gmail, set up a new label, "Alerts" or something like that.
  2. Set up a filter in Gmail that matches messages along the lines of codered@example.com, and adds the Alerts label, does not skip the inbox and are always marked as important.
  3. Now, on your Android phone, in Gmail -> Settings -> Account settings (select the account) -> Sync inboxes and labels, and select your Alerts label.
  4. Then, go back and select Labels to Notify in settings, select "Alerts", and add it to "Notify in Status bar", select an appropriate ringtone, set vibrate to 'always', and deselect 'Notify once' - because we want to be notified any time an alert comes in.

That should do it - on your server, set up an alias in something like /etc/aliases that redirects email from the alert alias - codered in this case - to your own email address.

Now, you can script alerts that will get their own ringtone on your phone like so: echo "Dave, I can't let you do that" | mail -s "Warning, computer malfunction" codered@example.com

Pretty simple and effective if you need a simple way for your computer to let you know that it needs attention right now.

Syndicated 2012-08-18 11:35:04 (Updated 2012-08-18 11:43:59) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Up for Auction: LinuxSi.com

A number of years back, I read yet another complaint about someone having trouble finding a computer with Linux preinstalled.

So I did something about it: I created LinuxSi.com, where it is possible to register computer stores in Italy (this was an Italian Linux mailing list) that are helpful towards people wishing to buy a Linux machine.

Fast forward past getting married, having kids and buying a house, and LinuxSi.com is not something I have much time to run any more.  I still think it's a useful service, even if the site itself is a bit creaky.

In any event, I've put it up for auction with Flippa.com, and there's one week left on the auction.  Right now, it's going for just $10, which even with the low amounts of adsense income it brings in, you'd make back pretty quickly.

I hope that it goes to someone who cares about promoting Linux in Italy - if nothing else, the domain name is a good one that could be employed for many things.

Syndicated 2012-05-16 21:06:02 (Updated 2012-05-16 21:14:20) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Mr. Blank, we're outside the building, and we want eBooks!

Steve Blank is known for his teachings on the Silicon Valley type of entrepreneurship, with his ideas forming the basis for the "lean startup movement" amongst other things.  He writes frequently on entrepreneurship, and with a great deal of credibility, having been involved in various startups in a number of roles.  He has, without a doubt, walked the walk in terms of startups, and now seems to be spending his time helping other people learn how to walk the same path.  That's a noble thing to be doing when, with the money he's made, he could probably be off doing pretty much whatever he wants.

If you've heard of Steve Blank, you've probably also heard his famous phrase: "get out of the building", an admonition to startup founders to get out and talk with their customers to validate their ideas, rather than huddling in their offices building something that may or may not have a market.

With that in mind, when I saw he had a new book out, The Startup Owner's Manual, I thought "great, that's one I'll get without hesitating!".  Unfortunately, though, an eBook wont' be out until "2nd half of 2012"!  Ouch.

To me, his ignoring eBooks is indicative of a need to get a bit further outside the building, though.  "I want an eBook" was probably the biggest request on his blog post announcing the new book, along side messages of thanks for writing the book.

After reading, on Blank's blog about the availability of the book from BookDepository Ltd, who offer free worldwide shipping, I went ahead and ordered it even if I would have prefered the eBook.  Since they're in the UK, and I'm in Italy, I figure it can't take that long, right?

Wrong.  I ordered on March 15th, and as of April 13th, it still isn't here.

Compare and contrast with the other books I'm currently reading which I was able to order and start looking at in just a few minutes on my Kindle.

Granted, Steve Blank surely isn't doing this for the money, and from that point of view has little real need to listen to his customers - it's not wrong to say he's doing the world a favor by writing the book in the first place.  If he thinks a paper version is far superior, that's his perogative.  However, I think he's doing a lot of his readers a disservice by not making the eBook available sooner.  I know I would have liked to start reading what he had to say last month, rather than waiting for a paper book to make its way (by mule train?) down here to Italy.  The crux of the matter is that while he may well be right in thinking a paper book is "better", for some people, an eBook is the only option, and for them, an "inferior" eBook is a heck of a lot better than no book at all.

Also, on a more constructive note, with eBooks, you can get pretty creative.  For instance, if you have a tabular worksheet, you can simply hyperlink to it in, say, Google Docs, so that those with more advanced devices like iPads can open up the link and start working with a real, live spreadsheet immediately, rather than a chart in a printed book.  Granted, that means 'giving away' the worksheet, but presumably it's not that valuable on its own, and makes for great advertising if it gets a lot of attention.

Finally, since I actually run a business that does eBook conversions , on the blog post announcing the book, I offered to donate our services, so he'd get his book done for free, so you can't accuse me of just complaining!

Mr. Blank, get out of that building and make an eBook available, please!

Syndicated 2012-04-09 21:05:15 (Updated 2012-04-13 21:02:33) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

22 Mar 2012 (updated 22 Mar 2012 at 14:04 UTC) »

I'm not good enough to work on open source software

Actually, that's not true - I've produced plenty of open source software over the years.  However, in a sense, it is true: only the very best actually get paid to work on open source software full time, and I'm not one of them.  People like Linus Torvalds.  People like Guido van Rossum, although even he supposedly divides his time, and does not work on Python full-time.

Think about that.  Python is a hugely popular programming language used by many companies and individuals who get a lot of value out of it. But the creator doesn't even work on it full-time. Now, that's just one example - perhaps Guido enjoys the things that Google sends his way to work on outside of Python in any event - but I think it's representative of open source in general.

Back to me: I've produced some small bits of open source code that other people find useful.  Several people have even built products on Hecl that make money. But I'm not good enough to work on open source full time - I'm not one of those famous, brilliant coders who is so good that someone will find a way to pay them to work on stuff that gets given away for free.  I am, however, a good enough programmer to work on people's proprietary code, and have never had too much trouble finding someone with a project they're happy to pay me for.  Why is that?  Because it's so much easier to funnel money back into a proprietary project.  If people like the product and buy it, the company gets money, which can be used to pay the developers.  With open source, millions of people might use it and get a lot of value from it, but the developer has no right to receive any of that back as cash, which he or she can use to pay for things like food and rent.

So, I can  code tolerably well, and I could conceivably contribute more open source code, but instead I spend my time working on proprietary code because it pays the bills.  Clearly, when I can, I use open source software in these endeavors, and contribute back whenever I can, but the "secret sauce" remains closed.  That's a pair of hands lost to the creation of more open source.

I know I'm not alone in this, either - tons of people work on mostly proprietary projects the world over, but relatively few people get paid to work on open source code full time.

So when I read about people debating the utility of copyright bring up the existence of open source as some sort of counterexample, it irritates me a bit.  The right level of protection and enforcement of copyright is a complex debate that I'm not going to get into here.  What I want to point out is "that which is not seen".  Sure, open source exists.  But how much more of it would exist it there were more money to fund work on it?  How much open source software remains an idea in the developers head that does not get realized for lack of time?  People often criticize the "Linux desktop" despite its extraordinary strides in recent years.  Well, how much farther along would it be if there were more people paid to work on the 'boring stuff', like usability testing?  Ubuntu and Redhat pay a few people to do that kind of stuff, but how many more people do Microsoft and Apple have for that kind of work?

That's not to say that open source "doesn't work" or some such nonsense.  It obviously works quite well, but it really shines where the currency is code, not money.   Developers can and do give back lots, in terms of code, bug reports, suggestions, documentation, and so on to open source projects, which make them better for all involved.  Where open source doesn't seem to work quite as well are in small, fast-moving, consumer-oriented products.  My guess is that 99% of iPhone users could care less about the source code for their apps, but on the other hand, a large portion of the Emacs user base more than likely has written at least a few lines of Elisp.

In any event, the point isn't to beat up on open source software, but to counter this idea that "intellectual property" is in no way shape or form necessary because the existence of open source software somehow "proves" that "things will get made just the same".  Yes, maybe they will, but in lower quantities than consumers might find desirable.  After all, most of us aren't good enough to work on open source software.

Syndicated 2012-03-21 21:21:09 (Updated 2012-03-22 13:36:24) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

BikeChatter.com for sale

What with two kids, a new house, and LiberWriter getting some good traction, I've been looking around for things to give to a good home so as to have less stuff to deal with.

So, on the auction block goes BikeChatter.com : https://flippa.com/2696023-professional-cyclists-on-twitter-plus-2-years-of-history

BikeChatter.com is the place to go on the web to follow professional cyclists on twitter.  With 500+ racers, and nearly half a million status updates from racers like Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Mark Cavendish, and many, many more, this site is the best place to find out what's going on in the world of professional cycling, directly from the participants.

Since I like following the site myself, I really want to see it go to people who will take it and make it even better.

Syndicated 2012-02-06 11:03:31 (Updated 2012-02-06 12:39:35) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

22 Jan 2012 (updated 27 Feb 2012 at 10:04 UTC) »

Thinking at the Margin

Something I've picked up from reading about economics is the concept of "the margin".  It's a way of thinking about problems that more people ought to take into consideration.

What is "the margin"?  It's that space on a line, in the middle, between two extremes, where the transition from "yes" to "no" occurs.  If I offered you a million dollars for the computer you're reading this on (for broad definitions of 'computing device'), you'd probably take me up on the offer.  For 0 dollars, you would not.  Somewhere, in the middle, is a number where you'd change your mind from "nope, won't sell" to "well... sure, what the heck".  That is, loosely defined, a margin.

As an example, when people debate about "intellectual property", they often use terrible examples: companies like Microsoft, or performers such as Lady Gaga.  Those are bad examples because they are complete outliers, way off on one end of the curve.   It's hard to disagree with "so what if Lady Gaga earns a bit less revenue from her music, she's got plenty to live on" when you talk about copyright being a means for artists to support themselves with.  Thinking "at the margin" is about those bands that currently barely sell enough music to work professionally as musicians.  In scenario A, they are able to work creating music, thus creating more, and likely better music than if they merely pursued it as a hobby.  In scenario B, they fall on the other side of the margin and therefore have to get 'real jobs'.  This means that their music takes a back seat, and they produce less of it.

Now, copyright and company are a complex conundrum with many facets; my point is simply that when thinking about big changes, we should think what will happen at the margin, not what will happen to the outliers.

Syndicated 2012-01-21 23:45:17 (Updated 2012-02-27 09:47:36) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

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