Older blog entries for prla (starting at number 108)

9 Mar 2006 (updated 22 May 2006 at 10:45 UTC) »
Building Platforms

More work than I can muster, getting kind of overwhelmed around here but probably my organizational skills - as usual - are to blame. I should really make good on my TODO and check out some tools for GTD. But considering others blog every other day about how difficult it gets, I should probably not think too much about it and generally hope for the best. In Portuguese we have an expression that roughly describes what I feel like right now and it literally reads something like “everyone on a heap and faith in God”. And as with every literally translated expression, it just reads and sounds so foolish, especially to those who understand the original phrase. Feel free to write in the comments if you know the proper translation for this.

But anyway, there’s some degree of help provided by iCal and I’m generally getting by. Enough with the whining, already!

Great Reads

Despite the freak schedule I’m still trying hard to neatly separate days from nights, so I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading around the web most evenings leaving real work to earlier in the day when my brain fires up most cylinders, I find the web is burgeoning with really interesting insights from different necks of the woods and this new so-called Web 2.0 is just so damn innovative and exciting (I sound like it’s a completely new thing that has just come about. I know that’s not the deal, but if you’ve been following you know what I mean). So, that said, if you also feel these are exciting times, that we’re actually living through the dawn of an amazing new era and adding to that you have the entrepeneur in you, I suggest you take a look at these…

  • Five Things I May or May Not Know - excellent post by fellow Planet Tao poster, Daniel Jalkut in which he lets us in on a few insights he gathered from his own experiences in the technology business. Instead of feeling diminished by those who are so much better than ourselves, I believe we should be thrilled to have the chance to learn with them and we have the web to thank for it being so easy and accessible these days.

  • Entrepreneurial Proverbs - straight from O'Reilly's Radar yet again, Marc echoes some points he’s made on his “Entrepreneuring for Geeks” talk on this year’s ETech. Great quotes abound, but I found this one especially thought-provoking:

entrepreneurs too often worry about keeping their brilliant secrets locked away; we should all worry much more about springing a surprise on a disinterested market (anyone remember the Segway?). To quote Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

This is something I’ve always been particular wary of, but deep down have always tried to think otherwise. I’m still not convinced, though. How long should you keep your shiny new app (regardless of its real value) secret? Too long and you’re wasting time you could be using to gather users. Too little and it’ll be too simplistic allowing others to easily build a better app on top of the exact same idea (assuming it’s a good one). Am I making sense here or am I just delusional?

  • Pattern Languages - thinking in patterns is not a new thing but it’s being rehashed quite a lot. This website is particularly interesting and provides dozens of patterns and common solutions to commom problems when developing web apps (again via Marc at the Radar).

  • The Art of the Start - by Guy Kawasaki. I haven’t read this one yet but I’ll surely get around to it sooner or later (if someone wants to buy it for me, don’t think twice, always on the lookout for gifts, ya know). Sure it’s self promotion on the author’s website but this particular quote struck me:

This book is a weapon of mass construction.

Awww. Sexy.

That’s it for now. Quick note to state that the app is coming along nicely and we’re soon opening it up to some testers. Currently there are some layout bugs that need to be ironed out, especially where it concerns IE and Safari (the first is the mess everyone knows about and the second is surprisingly broken when it comes to Javascript and Ajax requests).

There’s some discussion I’d like to ignite about real world web apps development - as my meager blog audience allows - but a quick glance at the clock tells me it’ll have to be left for tomorrow or some other time.

Technorati Tags: gtd, ical, web2.0, oreilly, etech, ie, safari, javascript, ajax

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7 Mar 2006 (updated 22 May 2006 at 10:46 UTC) »
This and... That

As you probably already know from reading previous entries here on this website, I’ve been putting some effort into building a, shall we say, buzzword-compliant web application. Unfortunately this hasn’t left me much time to write here, not as much as I would want to anyway, and even my daily news browsing has suffered a massive blow.

No matter. Not that I want to make a big deal about it (because it isn’t), but soon we’ll unveil what we’ve been working on. We think it’s a cute little app that has the potential of enhancing people’s lives in some way or another. Also, we have a lot of ideas to build upon it but we’ll let the users speak their mind about that. One of the things that makes web apps truly beautiful is how you can just expand, improve or fix them at will and the users get the enhancements instantly. We believe that the so-called Web 2.0 has provided the tools to build really interesting and rich user experiences and despite our own inexperience (no pun intended), we’re taking the plunge and contribute our own bit from our own neck of the woods.

Bionic Software

Speaking of web apps, from reading O'Reilly Radar earlier on, there’s a cool little post from Tim on what he calls Bionic Software:

one of the things that distinguishes web applications from PC-era applications is the fact that web applications actually have people inside them, working daily as part of the application. Without the programmers running the crawl at Google, filtering out the spam, and tuning the algorithms, the application stops working. Without the users feeding the spiders by continuously linking to new sites, the crawl turns up nothing new. In a profound way, the users are part of the application. This turns out to be true in one form or another for almost every breakthrough web application.

This, I believe, is a definite departure from the way desktop apps work not only technically but organically aswell. Without the web, apps end up feeling like islands and you have trouble trying to contact whoever lives in the island - the software makers. In an interconnected world such as the web, things are much more personal. The web is a crowded place everywhere you go and in a web application that kind of feedback translates into comfort for the end user. In a sense, it’s much easier to let the developers know what bothers you as a user and in fact many problems with the app can be deduced in real time from its usage and user base behavior.

Fresh Looks

One thing we’ve been paying a lot of attention (or at least trying) to while developing this application is the way it looks. There’s certainly a trend of slick, uncluttered, light designs and we intended to stick with it. If we succeed or not, that’s something our users will have to tell us but while it’s obvious that if the subject matter sucks no one will pick the app up, I do believe a particularly good UI design and interface is a very big slice of the success pie. DropSend, Beagle and many other websites embody this quite well.

In the meantime, it seems both Google and Yahoo! are testing new designs:

I’m partial to the latter. I think it looks really cool. Google designs, on the other hand, have always striked me as too simplistic and this one is no exception. But hey, there’s a reason why it loads so darn fast, right? I don’t know how credible these screenshots are anyway.

Do Features Really Matter?

Reading one of Pedro Figueiredo’s latest posts, I wonder why audiophiles (like me, mind you) expect quality acessories for the iPod when the parent product doesn’t sound that good to begin with. And hey, I splashed a truck load of money on a Nano, by the way. But this reminded me of an article I got hinted at a couple of days ago, which argues that nowadays, features don't matter anymore:

The iPod was never sold on the grounds of its technical merits: Apple hit a gold-mine by marketing a cool new way of integrating music in your life. Even when Apple announced the iPod with video, it presented it not as the best multi-media player in the universe, but as a cool new way of watching “Desperate Housewives” and other TV shows.

As much as it saddens me that the world at large is increasingly driven by trends and flavors of the month, I wholeheartedly agree.

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26 Feb 2006 (updated 22 May 2006 at 10:46 UTC) »
On Python and More

Paul Prescod has written an interesting article focusing on why he thinks Python is the way to go right now. He presents a lot of different reasons, most of which I identify myself with and despite the somewhat accented evangelical tone, I’m also a believer that Python is fundamentally the best language out there for most purposes. As for the other purposes, I think Paul nails some of them:

On the other hand, I can see a role for small, focused languages like ANSI C for speed, Python for ease and abstraction, Web template languages for Web delivery, and so forth.

I’ve been increasingly relying on Python lately (through heavy TurboGears usage - which, by the way, got itself a new alpha release) and even if I’ve only barely scratched the surface, it’s been one hell of a ride. Don’t you just love it when you’re writing code and the language insists in removing itself from your way while systematically getting the work done? I do. That’s one of the reasons why I’m constantly amazed - in a derogatory manner, of course - at people advocating Java for pretty much every conceivable purpose in the world. Repeat after me: Java is one of the most obtrusive mainstream programming language in existence. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Java is the reincarnation of evil. In fact, you can do pretty much everything you want to do with it. It’s just how painful it is most of the time that keeps me at bay.

Speaking of TurboGears, it seems there is work underway for allowing developers to use an ORM other than SQLObject, in this case SQLAlchemy. I confess that the former has never bit me during my development (maybe because in terms of database backend the app I’m working on is dead simple) but I’ve often read in various mailing lists that the latter does a much better job. The good thing here is that if you intended to develop using TurboGears, you can now use any of them with minimal fuss.

Finally, via Tim O'Reilly over at O'Reilly Radar, a very nice extension of Flickr usage called Zonetag straight from Yahoo! Research. With it, you can automatically tag your photos with the location they were taken at. All just by using your camera phone. Neat!

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The Slightest Bit of Escapism

A few links I forgot to post last night, while I had my rant cap on…

  • Pre-orders for the new MacBook Pro are now reaching their respective owners and it seems dissecting them is a new favorite sport. These look incredibly slick, alright, but as somebody pointed out, there’s little point in paying good money to beta test it for Apple. On the other hand I’m considerably more interested in the upcoming Intel iBook, or some variation thereof.

  • Ever wondered how Google Earth does its magic? This article scratches the surface (no pun intended) in simple terms and goes some way to explain one of the tricks behind rendering the entire globe seamlessly on a regular desktop machine.

Back to the hacking bench, now.

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Deceivingly Easy

Amidst trying to grok mathematical formulas and other assorted mischief from my university work, I came across this post commenting on how easy it is to install Plone on Ubuntu Linux nowadays and this got me thinking… so, let me put up the big red rant alert. You’ve been warned, now.

Despite all its virtues, Linux has always been known to not make things particularly easy for the end user when he’s attempting to install software. Traditionally, an operating system from hackers to hackers from day 0, desperately trying to adapt from the moment it perceived its own brilliance and how appealing to the layman computer user it could be. Surely this has improved over the years and perhaps I’m not even the best person in the world to talk about it considering all the years I spent using Slackware which is know for not having proper package management. That kind of spoilt me the wrong way, as I had this weird tendency to compile everything from source, frequently losing track of what I had - and had not - in my system.

Granted, nowadays software in Linux is becoming easier and easier to install:

  • Python applications are usually installed with minimal fuss simply by typing python setup.py install. More recently, setuptools even takes care of finding the most up-to-date package out there, downloading it, compiling it, if need be, and installing it in the appropriate location. All with a simple easy_install <package name>.
  • RPM-based distributions provide adequate package management and any given package is usually a breeze to install.
  • And of course, by now Debian and Debian-based distributions users are screaming bloody murder. sudo apt-get install <pkg> or its younger, more evolved cousin Synaptic pretty much rule their world.

I’m sure there are other kinds of apps that have entirely their own brand of easy installation. Now, this is all fine and dandy but I still see one slight itch: as with much else concerning Linux and the open source community in general, it lacks a unified view of what installing software should be. Afterall, the underlying OS is the same for everyone, is it not? Why then should installing different applications vary wildly, even if most are easy to begin with?

OK, I hear you say: “hey, I’ve been using Debian for so long and I just apt-get install everything the same way, be it Python apps, or anything else.” Sure you do, but then there’s a dozen other major distributions which do things their own easy way, which differs in subtle and often deceiving ways. Plus, Linux is not just Debian, though it properly includes it.

The point may be moot but honestly, coming from a Linux background I find that this is one of the biggest problems keeping it from seriously challenging both MacOS X and XP/Vista on the desktop. If the single most used aspect of any OS for the end user, which is installing software, can be enigmatic, how can the OS truly be from hackers to users and not just to other hackers?

Unfortunately, different installation procedures for different apps on the same operating system is just one of example of many such disparities - surely freedom and multitude of choice can be good things, but why are there so many full-featured window managers for Linux and none getting it fundamentally right after all these years?

This is not bashing any project in particular, not even the community in general. Like, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, in a way. The very nature of Linux, its development being highly distributed, instigates design by comittee which, more often than not, doesn’t yield optimal results - thus both GNOME and KDE being good pieces of software, but hardly posing a real challenge to the big players in their market. Obviously, this reasoning doesn’t apply to smaller pieces of software such as blog, wiki, chat or mail software - no one can beat open source on that in my book. I’m talking larger-scale engineering here, afterall the building blocks of the OS for the consumer.

So, it seems the problem is far from trivial - otherwise it would have been solved already, right? It seems the reason why the open source community has worked so well thus far is the very same that ultimately keeps it from truly conquering the real market out there in its many fronts. How can the open source community work towards this unified view I find lacking without losing its most valuable asset? Not tooting anyone’s horn, but one such example comes precisely from the Debian community: the DCC Alliance aims to unify Debian-based distributions into a cohesive whole while promoting independent development of its individual members. Shouldn’t an effort like this be amplified and applied to the community as a whole bringing together the best players in the different key areas while leveraging their own individual virtues at the same time?

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Cleaning Out The Closet

And while we’re at it, there’s some things I’d like… me to know. And you too, possibly.

I used to follow the Linux Kernel development very closely (I’ve subscribe and unsubscribed to the Linux Kernel Mailing List countless times in the past, because either you follow it or you better unsubscribe considering the insane traffic) but since a couple of years ago my focus pretty much shifted. I still have a soft spot for operating system theory and implementation, though, so if you’re a major Linux distribution willing to splash, oh say a fifty grand per month, on a fairly average kernel programmer, by all means, drop me a line. ;-)

Anyway, the point here is that somehow I got to know that Linus has put out 2.6.16-rc4 and the release email to the list is hilarious:

The bulk of it is some SCSI driver updates (have you ever seen a diffstat without the qla driver taking the top spot? No? Neither have I), with a few architectures thrown in, and a number of mostly trivial fixes for good measure. (…) It is, as we say in the business, a “perfect” release. No bugs. No sirree. But just to verify that, you should all immediately download and test it. Since, quite frankly, what else do you have to do over the weekend?

The Linux Kernel humor can be quite twisted indeed - I need to find a collection of pearls from the LKML me and a friend put together a few years back and post them here - and probably this doesn’t really strike my meager blog audience as particularly funny. No worries. This is not public service anyway, now is it?

Other pointers tonight:

  • Time magazine has an interesting article on Google, which I was fortunate enough to get my hands on (thanks, honey). Early this evening I found out that the photos from that piece are up on their website, so you can take a peek at the lovely swim-in-place pool or other lovely areas that comprise the Googleplex.

  • Javascript development is gearing towards version 2 (ECMAScript Edition 4) and how lovely it is to see it looking like Python.

  • This is obviously legally loaded, but automatically downloading new episodes of selected TV shows via BitTorrent (pretty much like iTunes deals with podcasts) is neat.

And last, but definitely not least, it’s cool to see the birth of Tiago’s first Dashboard Widget: the GameKnot Widget. If you like playing chess but have trouble finding a challenger, GameKnot is the way to go. This widget allows you to follow your ongoing challenges from the Dashboard, see its page for more info. He also took the chance to write some lengthy but insightful documentation on coding for Dashboard. Much appreciated.

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21 Feb 2006 (updated 28 Feb 2007 at 20:47 UTC) »
Combinatorial Explosion

First of all, a quick thank you to Rui for opening the gates of Planet Tao for me and a quick hello to everyone there. I’m proud to be among a bunch of great bloggers. Spend the day playing around with TurboGears and Ajax and I guess I’m falling in love with these newer web frameworks. The small application I’m developing - which derives from the bigger project I’ve been hinting about for a while now - relies on some DOM manipulation, asynchronous requests and whatnot. It’s the first time I’m using TurboGears to build a web app and so far, it’s been very helpful, not getting in the way at all. I’ll be blogging more extensively about this framework at some point in the future - after I get the chance of getting to the bottom of it - but for now suffice to say that it implements the MVC (Model-View-Controller) architecture fairly well and that contributes to a definite speed-up in development. This surely comes across as old news to the majority of people, but sadly this reasoning hardly applies to where I come from. On another note, I’ve been increasingly thinking about all the Web Service frenzy out there and wondering what cool ideas are just waiting to be had by people. What I mean is, we already know of a lot of interesting so-called “mashups” among different web services: take HousingMaps for instance, which glues Google Maps and Craigslist together in dazzling fashion. Now, the idea of moving applications “up the stack” is also not new, but it’s a fact that the major services in different key areas are exposing APIs and otherwise their data to the world at large: Amazon provides their data through REST, the same is true for IMDb, not to mention how the major players, Google and Yahoo! are exposing APIs for a lot of their great services - Flickr being a good example. So my point is: take all these web services out there and all possible combinations between them. While many such mashups have already been implemented to great effect, many more are still out there dying to be found and realized - given the technical know-how, but more importantly the business accuracy and sense of opportunity. In a talk on the Web 2.0 Conference back in 2004, Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, said that unlike Web 1.0, the next generation is about making the Web better for computers. I concur. The means for bringing web applications up a notch, by relying on interesting third-party data - mostly made by users - is out there, up for grabs. And the possibilities are far from being exhausted.

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Is There Anybody Out... Here?

I’ve been increasingly flaky updating my humble corner of the web but I guess that’s for a good reason. The stuff I’m working on - apart from University - has picked up a lot of speed and we’re actively pushing the proverbial envelope. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about it at greater length soon.

Anyway, while we’re at it…

  • Ajax is one year old. Well, not really, considering the underlying technologies have all been around for a good while. But the term was coined exactly a year ago, so happy birthday to the stuff that enabled a true revolution on the web.
  • Apple has switched to Intel and all, but why should you wait for tomorrow when you can get yourself a used - but perfectly fine - 17" PPC Powerbook today? Sure, it’s got a cracked screen, but with 17 inches, who needs it all? (via BoingBoing, where else…)
  • The ultimate geek desk. I’m very picky about my work space and I don’t really know how something like this would do for me, but it’s still cool as hell. Check out the Aura one. Groovy…
  • I never tried doing any SDL programming, but being able to do it using Perl sounds alright. Might give it a shot sometime just for kicks.

There’s a few reflections of my own about the so-called Web 2.0 I want to post on this weblog, but that’ll have to be postponed until a) I get some more free time and b) I get my ideas together, something clearly lacking right now.

Technorati Tags: ajax <apple powerbook sdl perl web2.0

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A Quick One

I think it’s well worth to give a little more emphasis around here to Yahoo!’s release of their User Interface library, after no more than a passing reference in this morning's post. Alongside this library, they also released a comprehensive resource on web development patterns: see the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library. Together, this is an invaluable addition to the open source community and personally something I welcome with wide open arms. Not that there was any shortage of Ajax development tools, but having a big player like Yahoo! opening up at least part of their Web 2.0 development arsenal is a rather welcome event in many different ways. In effect, the proverbial win-win situation.

Insightful as always - I can’t get tired of lavishing praise over his blog posts - Simon Willison has posted about this release. Despite being a Yahoo! employee he maintains an objective view of this new release with additional pointers of interest.

And finally, to accompany this, Yahoo! also launched the User Interface Blog. Cool stuff!

In other news…

Finally, a passing remark to something that’s been bothering me, to a certain degree of course, for a while. I’ve been following Jeremy Zawodny’s writings for some time now and despite respecting him a lot I can’t help feeling tired of reading his posts mentioning or linking to Google bashing articles or other blog posts. Everyone in the technological blogosphore, so to speak, knows him - he’s a key figure within Yahoo! search department - and his blog audience is huge but it strikes me as kinda lame (for lack of a better adjective) to be taking advantage of his large auditorium to throw dirt at a direct competitor. Of course, there’s all the free speech and the “stop reading if you don’t like it” rant but that’s not the point here. As an avid of all his other work-unrelated posts, I feel a bit cheated as this is something I do not see in any other important blog (maybe I’m blind or not looking hard enough?). In case you think I’m fundamentally wrong or missing some important point here, let me know.

Not that it matters. I’m just another guy out there and an humble blog writer.

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14 Feb 2006 (updated 14 Feb 2006 at 09:42 UTC) »
Where Does The Time Go?

No, I mean seriously. Lately I’m under the impression someone in a high place rev’ed up the time and it’s all going like twice faster. Not funny. Well, I guess that gives even more meaning to the Carpe Diem stuff, right?

Truth is, I haven’t really had much inclination for writing the past few days and that’s basically down to my focus shifting to reading instead of writing. Mostly technical stuff, opinion on the current trends of technology and all that. For the project I’m working on (I can’t disclose any details yet, not that you really wanted to know anyway) I’m all over the current trend of so-called Web 2.0 applications. What I’m working on is not exactly Web 2.0 in the same sense services as Flickr are, but it does share a lot of the same principles - or at least I’m trying to make it head that way.

I’ve read an interesting observation a couple of days ago on why Ajax may in fact be the Real Deal™ and that’s naturally due to Paul Graham:

(…) in 1996 the story about Java was that it represented a new model of software. Instead of desktop applications, you’d run Java “applets” delivered from a server.

This plan collapsed under its own weight. Microsoft helped kill it, but it would have died anyway. There was no uptake among hackers. When you find PR firms promoting something as the next development platform, you can be sure it’s not. If it were, you wouldn’t need PR firms to tell you, because hackers would already be writing stuff on top of it, the way sites like Busmonster used Google Maps as a platform before Google even meant it to be one.

The proof that Ajax is the next hot platform is that thousands of hackers have spontaneously started building things on top of it. Mikey likes it.

It seems particularly trendy these days to be exploiting the Google Maps API and building different applications on top of it. Bus Monster is an example, but so is HousingMaps and I’m sure a few others I haven’t heard of yet. So it’s interesting to see how the value is shifting up the stack in many ways and different levels:

  • profitable businesses can be built from simply gluing together different powerful components - themselves built around Web 2.0 principles - and coming up with a cohesive whole that is at least equal to the sum of its parts. Obviously, the better the components you’re working with are, the more valuable your application potentially is.

  • On the other hand, the “big fish” are, by default, not getting new programmers to work on the next ground-breaking feature of their services but instead buying out that two-kid startup that did just The Right Thing™. And everyone is happy in the end, especially the kids who turned millionaires - and wonder-kids-media-darlings sometimes. So, again, value shifting up the stack and the game being played one level above than it used to be.

  • Even on the pure technological arena, implementing products and applications from the ground up sounds just so old-fashioned now. “Design patterns” are a hot buzzword these days - Yahoo! has just released their Design Pattern Library aswell as their UI Library - and developing Ajax apps can become quite a hairy business. Libraries have been sprouting from everywhere and many seem to do wonders - being more, or less, difficult to work with. Web Frameworks have also become better abstractions in the sense that they too harness the power of different lower level components ending up with a final product that enables developers to do a lot of stuff at once - take TurboGears for instance, which seems to do a pretty good job at stitching together a template system, an object-relational mapper, a Javascript library and a Python interface for good measure.

So these are definitely interesting times we’re living in. While performing cool hacks with Ajax technologies doesn’t seem to be too hard - and therein probably lies one of the secrets of its widespread acceptance - developing big apps using them seems to be an entirely different matter. As the amount of (mostly Javascript) code increases exponentially, careful structuring needs to be taken into account - something with which I find myself struggling with lately but is in a way understandable providing we’re dealing with a new technology, which is in fact a bundle of a lot of different components (see? Again!).

So for me, I guess it’s time to take a good look at the current state of frameworks/libraries out there and actually find the one that works best for what I want to do.

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