Older blog entries for davidw (starting at number 428)

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

2011 in Books

Since I got my Kindle a bit more than a year ago, I have finally been able to slake my thirst for reading materials, something that was prohibitively expensive when ordering English language books via Amazon.co.uk, and took lots of time to boot.

Here are some of the interesting books I've happened on in the past year:

The big one was "Start Small, Stay Small": which has tons of ideas on how to do small, niche startups, "for the rest of us".  Those of us who aren't in Silicon Valley, who aren't seeking millions in VC funding, those who don't want to aim for "astronomically rich", but just a comfortable lifestyle with more control over our own destiny.  This book gets special mention for being a big inspiration for LiberWriter.

Here is a list of the others.

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow: http://amzn.to/sXQGSR - probably makes my list because I just finished it, and as he writes, "what you see is all there is" - we're biased towards things that come to mind easily. Actually, it is a pretty good book even looking through all the others I've read.

  • 1491: http://amzn.to/uaR0yf - about the Americas prior to the arrival of "Cristoforo Colombo". I have the sequel, 1493 in my reading list, but haven't gotten to it just yet.

  • Built to Sell: http://amzn.to/ukmyNP - how to create a business that is something that you can sell because it can exist without you. Not quite so relevant to startups working on a product, but some good concepts nonetheless. A good summary is probably just as good as reading the book, as the core concepts are fairly simple.

  • A History of the World in 6 Glasses: http://amzn.to/vF9FgN and An Edible History of the World: http://amzn.to/w1kTg3 - two interesting looks at the history of the world based on what we drink and eat.

  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World: http://amzn.to/tVvltK the history of the world as seen through languages. It's interesting to read about why some languages lasted so long even though their speakers were conquered, why others swept all before them and disappeared, and so on.

  • The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East: http://amzn.to/spQCF7 - a look at how the legal systems of 'the west' and the middle east differed and the results those systems led to. Limited liability companies are an important innovation. The book can be a bit dry and repetitive at times, but the material is very interesting.

  • Warlord: http://amzn.to/spjf73 - Winston Churchill's "war years".

  • Positioning: http://amzn.to/sSJRnw - a classic about branding.

  • The Intelligent Investor: http://amzn.to/tffzgJ and A Random Walk Down Wall Street: http://amzn.to/vXIsTT two classics on investing. I'm more inclined towards the 'random' view of things myself.

  • The Great Stagnation: http://amzn.to/vccI3c about "what ails us" as a country. One of the recommendations is that we need to "raise the social status of scientists."

  • The Party: http://amzn.to/tWX1hA an interesting, and balanced (well, it seemed that way to me, but knowing essentially nothing about the place I could be completely wrong) book on how China is run.

And for fun, a variety of Sci fi and Western books, but nothing particularly noteworthy. Neal Stephenson's REAMDE was fun, but I'm not sure I'd read it more than once, like some of his other books.

Here are my Amazon wishlists of things I'm considering reading at some point in the future. Comments welcome on the value of the books listed.

"Regular" books: http://amzn.com/w/20I0Y1YGD1FUB and random fun books and movies.

Business books: http://amzn.com/w/5B2JQOP8VZEW - although some of them are not strictly business books.

Yes, if you're curious, the book links do have referral codes in them, to help sustain my reading habit.

Syndicated 2011-12-27 22:11:15 (Updated 2011-12-27 23:11:09) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

8 Sep 2011 (updated 9 Sep 2011 at 09:03 UTC) »

Zero to Profitable - LiberWriter Lessons Learned

Here's how I have created the beginnings of a profitable Kindle formatting and conversion service, LiberWriter, from scratch.

Last Winter, I read one of the best business books I have read in a long time, Rob Walling's Start Small, Stay Small:

Rather than being a "big idea" book that includes one big idea and lots of stories to support it, it's a very practical book on how to go about creating a small online business. I've always been someone who loves to build things, from various open source projects, to diverse web sites that people have found valuable.  However, I am not a "business guy".  I'm not that good at making money, so the simple approach in the book is really better for people like me: make something and sell it.  Advertising can certainly work, but it's so much harder to figure out the numbers compared with a product, where you can compare the cost of providing the product to the price people will pay for it.  And that's just one thing; the book has tons of ideas about practical ways of going about putting together a profitable small online business.  It's not a "get rich quick" book - part of the idea is that if you are looking at a niche that is fairly small, it will simply not be of interest to larger companies, so you aren't going to get outspent and outcompeted by them.

In any event, though, at about the same time I read the book, I was poking around looking at Amazon's KDP, which allows you to self publish for the Kindle, and noticing how difficult the process is.  The native format of Amazon's books is HTML with several XML files thrown in for good measure.  Now, for someone technical, that's certainly not an insurmountable obstacle, but for many authors, it's a very unpleasant prospect.  Granted, you can also manipulate a Word file to make it suitable for the KDP, but even that is something that many people dont' find to be a productive use of their time.  They're authors, and they want to write.

Having spotted a niche that looked interesting - I love to read, and I like the idea of helping out authors - I discarded the book idea I was looking at myself and did some writing of my own: source code for a project that would automate the process of converting and formatting Kindle books.

The core of the system was a fun evenings/weekends project, and soon it was able to produce pretty good books.  After "inflicting" the beta version of the system on several people, such as Rich Bowen (thanks again, Rich!), I got it beat into shape and started accepting the first paying customers.  It's very exciting to have those first few people pay for something you made - it's a great feeling!

Initially, my thought was to sell it as a way to write books directly for the Kindle, however, it soon became evident that 99% of people have already written their books with Microsoft Word, so what they were really interested in was a conversion and formatting system that would take a Word document, poke and prod, stitch and stretch it some, and output a nice looking book for the Kindle.

One of the lessons from Rob's book was that stuff doesn't have to be perfect if it works.  Initially, I had people putting their word documents into LiberWriter not with the smooth(ish) upload process we have now, but by cutting and pasting in their documents!  As a computer guy, doing things in a hacky way is sometimes very unpleasant, but you know what?  It worked, and it was easy for people to handle, so I ran with it until a better system was in place.

Writing code was the easy part, and definitely within my "comfort zone".  Some of the other things I've had to do have been much more difficult, and as a consequence, more of a learning experience.

For instance, I realized early on that the process would never be 100% automatic, so I'd have to get some people to work on the books, with the idea being to provide them tools to make the process as simple, quick, and easy as possible.  I'm always on the lookout for new things to script within the system.

However, need people it does, and finding them and engaging them has been a difficult process.  As per the book's suggestion, I've primarily used oDesk to find contractors, and have grardually begun to find some people who work really well. It has taken time, and has not been easy, though.  I'm not an introvert, but in some ways I'm happiest when doing my own thing.  Being the 'boss' is new.  One of the tricky aspects of oDesk is that pretty much any job posting gets tons of responses, some of them from people who appear to have barely read the posting.  One trick I learned is to request that the potential contractor creates an account with LiberWriter.  Very simple and not a waste of time, and yet a majority of applicants ignored the request.

Through most of the spring and summer, LiberWriter remained something strictly for the evenings and weekends, as I was busy with client work during the days, and with my daughter during the afternoons, but as August rolled around, I found some more time on my hands, and really started investing more energy in LiberWriter.  It has been very rewarding to see a corresponding increase in the number of customers.  We (at this point, between myself and the contractors, LiberWriter is a group, and no longer "I") also raised prices - another valuable piece of advice from the book, and... pretty much anyone who writes for people jumping into online businesses.  As tech people, we often tend to aim low in terms of prices.  Indeed, soonish, prices will likely go up again.

Another challenge has been turning it as much as possible into a "productized service".  Since Kindle books are fairly simple in what you can do with them, as long as you don't get too fancy, it's possible to automate *most* things, but not everything, so it's not just a product that people buy and it works and that's that; there's a human element involved, which means more communication, and more potential for things to go off the rails.  I've been investing time in automating the workflow of the system, but have a lot more to do on that front.  Also, one of the things our customers love about the service is being able to deal with "real people", something that is more difficult at Amazon.  That's good for us in one way, but in the future, it will be critical to document things and make them as simple as possible to avoid generating unneccessary support requests, as it can easily take up a lot of time.

Indeed, because LiberWriter does attract customers who are often not all that technical, making the user experience as easy and straightforward for them as possible (and then some) is extremely important.  It can be exasperating once in a while, but I do my best to channel any frustrated energy on my part into making the site ever easier and ever more straightforward.  In other words, instead of "how the heck do they not get that?!" it's "what can I do to make sure the tools and information they need are even easier for them to get?".  There's lots to do on that front, but on the whole it's actually part of the project that I've grown to like a lot.  Rather than dealing with other techies like myself, our customers are people who really benefit from what we offer because we can save them so much time and frustration.

Marketing the system is fun, but another area where I have a lot to learn: I'm not a natural when it comes to marketing or selling.  One thing that has worked well so far is finding forums where your target users hang out, and then.... spam them as often as possible?  No way!  Be yourself, and provide genuine help and value to people in the forums.  By being on the level, and not trying to sell! sell! sell! people are friendlier and more receptive to your message.  It can be time consuming, but I suppose it's the sort of thing where taking the wrong short cut could be very detrimental over the long haul.

Without disclosing too much, I don't think I'll ever get rich from LiberWriter, but it is incredibly satisfying to have created and marketed a product of my own that goes beyond just selling my own time.  LiberWriter doesn't bring in as much as consulting, yet, but it feels like much more of an investment, something that will have some momentum of its own, and of course it has been an incredible learning experience.  I like programming, but being outside of my "comfort zone", doing stuff that's new and challenging is also a very positive part of the project.  If things continue to grow the way they have been, I could envision depending on LiberWriter as my primary source of income in the very near future.  That's a bit of a jump into the unknown in some ways, but I'd love it.  I have worked very hard on it lately, and one of the things I am enjoying is always having new ideas about how to improve every aspect of the system, from customer service to the mechanics of the conversion process, to tracking the finances.  In some ways it's tiring because I'm thinking about it *all* the time, but it's that "good kind of tired".

It's been a tumultous summer, and in the past few weeks we (well, my wife much more than me!) had a new baby boy, and bought a house here in Padova.  To keep things interesting for the future, I applied to the Startup Chile program with LiberWriter.  I suspect they're more interested in startups with high growth potential, but I feel strongly that the approach outlined in Rob's book is one that people outside of Silicon Valley, without easy access to venture capital and the huge talent pool that area has, should consider, rather than trying to copy what makes Silicon Valley work like it does. 

Whether I get accepted or not, LiberWriter will continue to grow, and, I sincerely hope, thrive.  A big thanks to all our customers, and to my wife Ilenia, and children, Helen and Daniel for tollerating all the time I spend with the computer.

I wrestled a bit with writing this post, as I don't want to "jinx things", and I've only just got a small taste of "success", but I've always enjoyed reading about how "ordinary people" have managed to create their own small businesses, people like those behind Balsamiq, "Bingo Card Creator", and the like, and I figure that writing up my own experiences is a way of "paying it forward".

Syndicated 2011-09-08 14:27:04 (Updated 2011-09-09 08:10:56) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Pranks that are actually funny

I saw this link on Hacker News:


http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/30/speaking-of-dropbox-heres-my-no-1-phone-prank/


And couldn't help but thinking it was singularly unfunny.  He changed the guy's password - ha ha!

I'm sure most people can do better.  Here's one off the top of my head:

I was due to leave a company in a few days, prior to our move to Austria.  One of my colleagues in the programming department was tasked, in that period, with doing a bunch of work with Drupal, which he found singularly unpleasant and a pain in the neck to work with, which was compounded by the boss asking often about the status of the project.

My colleague tended to be an early riser and would get into the office to get some work done early, before it got noisy and people started hassling him about this, that or the other thing.

So on my soon-to-be-abandoned workstation, I set up a cron job that would, during those hours, randomly play a sound file I recorded while he was out, with my impression of a ghostly voice saying "druuuuuuuppaaaaaaallll".

He said it scared the pants off him the first couple of times it went off.

Syndicated 2011-08-31 07:25:36 (Updated 2011-08-31 07:32:38) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

Why I prefer text to video

Videos are becoming more and more common on the internet, and for some things, like mentos and diet pepsi, they're hard to beat.  For things I'm seriously interested in, though, I prefer text.  Here's why:

  • Text goes at my speed.  I read quickly, and certainly faster than people can talk.  If I want to slow down and reread something, I can do that too.
  • Video, outside of actual video chats, is not interactive, so I don't get the benefits of being there, being able to interrupt, ask questions, and so on, that can make the 'in person' experience superior to just reading about something.
  • Text is searchable and indexable.  I can search within a page, and it's also more likely to be visible to search engines.
  • Text is easy to scan and glance at.
  • Given the ease of scanning text, it's also easier to filter: "is this something I want to invest more time in reading?".  In the time many videos use for people to simply introduce themselves, I could have already got an idea of a document is worth further perusal.
  • Text is easy to manipulate; cutting, pasting, quoting, etc... are all easy.
  • I don't have to put on headphones to read text if my wife is sleeping and I'm working late.
  • Text has good, and highly visible conventions (various headings and subheadings) for indicating subsections of a large document and what they may be about.

Syndicated 2011-07-25 21:07:42 (Updated 2011-07-25 21:16:57) from David's Computer Stuff Journal

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