I recently had a call with some people who are interested in
contributing to the Real World Open Source and Real World Linux communities here one
developerWorks! Yay! I would like to see a lot more input by people in
these places. As a part of that conversation they requested me to
outline my recommendations for people new to writing in this
environment. I decided that this might be of interest to the general
public, so I'm posting here rather than privately through email.
Writing in developerWorks is not like having your own Wordpress or
other blog. You can do a good deal of customization to make it fit your
own preferences, but you will need to fit into the overall
developerWorks framework. This framework may change around you, so the
general rule of thumb is "Keep It Super Simple". Your content is what
is most important here, not any bells and whistles that you might add,
so write things that do well with plain, clean HTML. I prefer to do my
writing in an HTML editor, actually. I tend to use Kompozer, an
open-source editor. Unfortunately, development on this project seems to
have stalled out, but it's still my favorite editor. It produces clean
HTML with no muss or fuss and allows me to easily put something
together which I can just paste into place. You can use any editor that
you choose which can save HTML. However, bear these things in mind:
Don't use a lot of styles and parameters on the HTML. Sometimes
you need to, but keep it to a minimum. This will make your article
behave better when it's published.
Be cautious about what comes out of a word processor. When I
write something in LibreOffice and them paste it into the blog there is
a lot of hidden style information that ends up in the HTML. This is
ugly and bulky and will do weird things to your entries. Be prepared to
clean up anything that you do.
Including images is good, but you will be working with a simpler
subset of formatting options. You will also need to upload your image
to the developerWorks server or reference the link externally.
Posting audio and video is good, but remember that this can
sometimes be unpredictable. For example, when posting a YouTube video,
you must use the old-school <object>
code rather than a simpler <iframe>.
Someday this may change, but for now it is necessary. Some embeds
simply will not work.
The included HTML editor is decent, but a little thin for me. I
have two browser plugins that I use to help me write entries that I
have not pre-written in Kompozer.
Write Area - This plugin will give you a
fuller editor that you can invoke in any text area with a right-click.
It provides more formatting options for links and images. Unfortunately
it does not include a spell checker, though. so be sure to double-check
your work. I use this a lot! (I'm using it now). It's been a real help
to get around any site that has a limited window in which to write.
It's free for Firefox. I'm sure that people with other browser
preference will find similar add-ons. I'm just telling you what I use.
Scribefire - This plugin provides more than
just an editor. It is a blog management system, allowing you to work
with various blogs on different sites. It will give me a list of the
blogs that I use and let me edit or create a new entry for any of them.
This can be handy, but it sometimes does some strange things with more
advanced formatting. (Remember, I said to keep it simple?) Another
feature is that it will allow me to simultaneously publish the same
thing on multiple blogs at once. I did run into one issue, which I
mentioned in a previous post. Do not use the '#' symbol in your article
titles with Scribefire. This caused it to get lost when trying to
agregate my existing entries. That was very frustrating for quite a
while until I tracked down the issue.
There are other blogging tools which are compatible with
developerWorks, but these are the ones that I generally use.
Any pictures that you want to use need to either live on the system
or be linked with the URL. For some content, especially copywrited
content, I just link to it. That saves some of the usage hassles and
acts as an automatic credit to the owner. For example, Dilbert cartoons
are a great thing to include from time to time and they have a simple
method for linking to their content.
If you're going to do things like this, you should expect to have
to tweak the HTML from time to time. Sometimes developerWorks seems to
alter things that are not entered through the raw HTML view. (That's
the <h> button in your toolbar if you are using the default blog
editor.) HTML is nothing to be afraid of, and many of you are technical
people anyway, so you should feel comfortable with it.
For some pictures, though, it's best to upload them. If you are
using the default editor, uploading is automatic. You click the icon to
insert a picture and it gives you a chance to upload your picture. I
will often use this step just to get the picture up and then go into
Write Area to manipulate it and make it look nice with the article.
Add image tool.
You can also upload an image file directly. Select the Settings
link, next to New Entry. On the Create & Edit tab you'll
find File Uploads. You can manage everything here. Note that
this interface acts much like old-school FTP, so you can't overwrite
If you need to change something you need to delete it and then
upload the new one. That provides a window where the file may not
exist, but it's pretty quick.
Copy the link for an existing file and you can use a conventional <img>
tag to include it.
Bookmarking major links
I quickly got annoyed by some of the steps to getting to areas like
file management. They are easy to find, but require a number of
clicks to get there. This was easily remedied with a few book
marks. I have bookmarks set up for my main blog and the entries
page. These reside in a folder on my bookmark toolbar, so it's
pretty easy to jump right to the spot I want. If I did more file
management I'd probably set up a bookmark for it as well, but it's just
as easy to go to the entries page and then click over to files.
(Two quick clicks versus three slow ones.) It seems like such a
silly thing, but it really helped me a lot.
Contributing to the Real World communities
That should get you started with basic blogging. If there are
questions that I have raised rather than answered I'll be happy to
address them. You can email
me or comment here. I may make this a living document and update it
rather than writing additional chapters. I've set up the Real World Open Source and Real World Linux communities so that any member
can draft an article. Simply become a member and start one. When you
submit it, I'll be notified and can release it. Feel free to use this
to post a great topical discovery or idea without taking on the burden
of maintaining your own blog. If you decide to start your own, let me
know and I'll follow it.
This is just a quick one. I've started a week of System Z training, to better understand this technology. I think System Z is a bigger deal than people imagine and there is a lot of our future that could benefit greatly by more people being aware of and taking advantage of this powerful computing technology.
On the one hand, I was aware that this is not for the squeamish. It's true that System Z can create a powerful computing environment that allows many people to simply do what they do without having to worry about everything that runs under the hood. However, to manage such a universe takes some willingness to get your hands dirty. It reminded me of some of my earliest days of computing, where one had to be so close to the moving parts to connect to networks and do anything besides simply run one application at a time.
Yes, there is a lot to successfully harnessing the power of a System Z environment, but it's not really beyond anyone who has a basic grounding in technology. Like anything worthwhile, it takes some focus, and some work... and practice... but the rewards can be so great. Personally, I think open, highly mobile devices on the front end with plenty of Big Iron type of power on the back end is the shortest distance between here and Star Trek. There is still plenty of room for openness in such an environment... though I'm wrestling a little with my classmates on that one.
Today was pretty brain-filling though. Off to enjoy some amazing chili at Tolbert's with my parents. Then more brain stuffing tomorrow.
Fear not... more on blogging coming soon... just not enough brain for it right now.
In a previous post I mentioned the Humble Bundle and how Linux users seemed to be quite willing to contribute cash for games. The latest bundle is out and I just started my downloads. I think this is a great model and I enjoy participating. Of course, these games are available for multiple platforms and the directly reward the creators and charities. As of this writing, Linux contributors are still willing to pay more than those who designated themselves as Mac or Windows users, significantly more. Perhaps Linux users have a greater appreciation for the work and a greater desire to reward it. Perhaps they just have more money because they are technical and already leverage things for free. :-)
Seriously, though. It's a great cause and worth checking out.
Build your own distribution
One of the confusing elements of Linux for some people is the concept of the "distribution". Often people see Red Hat and Ubuntu and other variants of Linux as completely different universes, like choosing Mac or Windows. However, it is much more like choosing Ford over Chevrolet or Brand X of canned peas over Brand Y. There are differences, which can be frustrating in particular circumstances, but it all largely works the same. I'm especiallin intrigued by the sort of "black box" kinds of distributions like ArtistX, which is aimed at people doing video production, and the specialty distributions like Scientific Linux, which brings together packages for people working with genetics and other scientific problems. The goal of these is to provide a sort of "solution Linux" which will just boot and do what you want.
Imagine being able to create your own internal distributions of Linux that were role-based. They all have the common base, but contain the default packages appropriate for the required role. You install them and they just work. Yocto is one of the ways to do this. Check out the article "Build custom embedded Linux distributions with the Yocto Project", live now on developerWorks. It will lead you through the concept and empower you to make your own. If you want to pop it up on DistroWatch and share it with the world you can. You can also put it in your tool belt for your own use.
I owe you some more thoughts on blogging and some information about last week's System Z experience. Be patient as I catch up with a few things and I promise you'll hear more.
Things have been pretty weird around here. I went and spent a week in Dallas learning about mainframes to support an upcoming project. If you've always been curious about the mainframe but not had the opportunity you're going to love it. I'll have more for you on that later... like later in the year... so you'll just have to be a little patient.
I know this makes me an old guy, but I grew up watching reruns of the original Star Trek series. I didn't watch them first run, so that makes me slightly less old, I suppose. Today, Google included a tribute to the original series.
It's interesting to me how much I was influenced by the ideas on that early program. It provided such a positive view of how technology and society might evolve. It's amazing how close we've gotten. Here are a few things that jump out at me:
The computer had the answers to everything. It doesn't talk to me, but with the Internet there's an awful lot of information at my fingertips with more of it becoming interconnected, interactive, and intuitive.
Tricorders could tell you all kinds of information about your location and local conditions. My smart phone has a GPS and through the network can tap into lots of other information. It also has sensors that can be be used to detect magnets, measure velocity and more. (There was actually very cool program that applied several of these sensors in a mock-up of a Star Trek the Next Generation. Unfortunately CBS decided that this was an infringement on their intellectual property so it is no longer available. I will try not to digress about how this attitude is potentially stifling to people who are trying to turn science fiction into science fact.)
Everyone talked to each other through video phones. Yesterday I had a video call with an older (read retired) friend. He is unable to leave the house because of his health, but we were able to have a face-to-face conversation... me on my laptop and he on his tablet.
People had these flat panels of information that they could use to read or sign off. We have a number of options. A giant library of books can all be held in a small device.
They had massive ammounts of data stored on little plastic cards, including video. They got this wrong... it's all actually smaller.
Depending on your situation you might argue with me that we are intergrated between races and cultures. I work regularly with people from all over the world. I don't have any colleagues from other planets yet. Star Trek was the first thing I ever saw that showed this as a natural environment.
Star Trek taught me that curiosity and exploration were good things. Honor and duty mattered. You could not judge things simply by their appearance and differences were things to be worked through. Yes, there was some pretty heavy-handed storytelling and the special effects are no match for today's standards. However, Star Trek put me on the road to wanting to make a difference in the world in ways that nothing else did. It is worth celebrating.
Today I was hit by several pieces of information that just gave me profound sadness. First was the announcement about the football tragedy in Liverpool twenty-three years ago where the responsibility for the deaths of ninety-six fans was finally correctly placed with the authorities and planners who made a number of mistakes and miscalculations. It was made all the worse by a collective cover which made it seem as it was all unavoidable. In reality, many of those people might have been saved. You can read the Prime Minister's full statement to the House of Commons.
Secondly are the news statements about the deaths of US ambassadors in Libya. I won't get into the politics of any of this. I'll just say that all of it makes me very sad.
I am a believer in openness and technology. I see these as tools which transport people into better versions of themselves. To me, and ideal world is one in which everyone explores their curiosity and works to meet their own challenges, whatever those may be. In this world, no one is denied the opportunity to educate themselves and discovery is openly shared. We find a balance between what everyone needs, wants and provides. I know that there are major obstacles to such a world, and human nature is one of them.
All of these reminders of people at their worst do not define people as a whole. We are making progress and things are getting better. Today I'm just reminded of how much more is needed. I wish there was a way to remove the fear and greed that makes people feel the need to control each other.
I was going to add some other related things here, but I suppose that won't really be fair to them. I'll give myself a chance to reset a little and I'll give them their own place.
Have you followed the Spring Roo series? As an editor I don't always have the opportunity to recreate the labs and examples in articles that I publish. I get sufficient information to see that they should work and then let them go. With the Spring Roo articles I found myself playing with the examples a little because it was so easy to just try them.
If I was more involved in application development today-- as in hands-on, having to crank out results-- I would probably be taking a serious look at this technology. It's not for everything, but in the areas where it is a good fit it promises some quick, easy development to solve problems that will run on a variety of environments. This really matters as we move into the Cloud world. Honestly, you are going to need more than Java in a Cloud world.
We just published that final two pieces on this series and it provides a good overview to start making you productive. See all the articles in the "Introducing Spring Roo" series.
Did you ever get an email about a study that made you say "Wow! How do I get paid to do a study as obvious as that?" I got an email with the results of a study which claimed "Tech Fuels Success for Business Travelers". In it, we are treated to such startling discoveries as it can be hard to get a healty meal on the road, people who travel a lot miss personal things in their lives and mobile technology is really helpful to people on the road. Perhaps this is for people who have never done any business travel. Maybe I'm just not the target audience. I didn't disagree with anything they showed, it just seemed to be in the "many people seem to have two eyes" sort of category.
Firefox on my phone
I loaded Firefox on my Droid Bionic and it seems to do OK. Dolphin HD has been my browser of choice for a while, but Firefox has some niceties. They do a really good job of auto zooming on collumns and modules of information so I can read them. If the page doesn't have the information divided, though, it can be a little challenging. The pinch-zoom functions are pretty spry, so it's easy to adjust. (That is assuming that I will still be permitted to use such a function or if someone will have to invent an "innovation" such as jumping up and down while I wave the phone about in order to zoom because pinch-zooming has been "taken". Did you know that cabinet makers had rounded rectangles long before smart phones did? I digress.)
I like the way that Firefox is very obvious about areas where there are flash components and that you need to click the object to activate it. Dolphin can be quirky there and sometimes just shows blank space, which looks broken, when it's actually an unloaded object.
Navigation is pretty straightforward and it does better with some form-based pages. I'll certainly keep it. It looks like I my use different browsers for different purposes, however. I'll bet it's a better experience on a tablet.
Turn the eDGe loose!
I got a great deal on an Entourage Pocket eDGe tablet... because I bought it in a "deal" just as the were going out of business. For the price I figured it would be worth tinkering with, and it was fun enough. However, their approach to setting up Android has made it proprietary enough that it can't be upgraded. Furthermore, Google has decided not to allow it access to their software repository so I have to install everything through 3rd party app stores. The Amazon app store is pretty good, but many application developers choose only to release through the Google store, so that makes for a lot of unnecessary hacking.
Of course, there are enthusiasts out there who would probably make short order of all of these kinds of updates if the information about the hardware was released. I understand the business reasons for not releasing the information. But the technology side of me would love to see what would happen if such things were turned loose into the wild. The eDGe is a nifty little device and could probably do well if it could be updated a bit more.
Right now I'm letting my daughter use it as an internet device as she works her way toward a laptop. The built-in book reader is a nice touch and I'm setting her up with some material there... like the entire Oz series by L. Frank Baum.
I look around and see that there is a devoted base for the Commodore Amiga... who seem to continue to make discoveries. I wonder what it is about such devices that let them live so much more easily. Alas. I'll squeeze what I can out of it. I suppose people create this technology to be disposable... the opposite of the main frame.
I get a lot of oddball mail through my ibm.com address. Today I got the following note:
UNITED STATES HOMELAND SECURITY
CARGO ANALYSES AND INSPECTION UNIT
Chautauqua County Office Of The Sheriff
15 E. Chautauqua Street P.O. Box 128 Mayville,
New York, NY 14757, USA.
OUR REF: UHS/WB/XX125/0011/10.
10th September 2012
We Intercepted a Parcel Containing an ATM CARD in Your Name
Greetings from the County Office of the Sheriff, Mayville,
New York. One of our Officer attached to the FedEx Courier
Cargo Inspection Unit discovered a parcel containing an
ATM CARD/PIN worth $1.5Million US Dollars at our Facility
in HOUSTON, TX, US. We verified the content of the parcel and
it was made clear that you have been waiting for very long
while for the fund to arrive your location.
However, our reason for contacting you on this day is to
inform you on the location of the ATM CARD and the
requirement necessary to claim it. The parcel was dispatched
through UPS Courier Service on the 25th of July,2012, but one
Mr. Clide Stewart intercepted the parcel claiming that he was
your representative and that you gave him due authorization to
receive the package on your behalf. For your information, the
parcel is presently in Transit at HOUSTON, TX, US and is scheduled
for Delivery to your Home Address.
To verify this Notification, Log in to www.ups.com and insert
the Tracking Number below to view delivery status;-(
If we do not hear from you it will be assumed that you authorized
the claim by Mr. Clide; but if otherwise, you are advised to
contact the FedEx Courier Officer in Nigeria with the information
REV. DELE ROBERT
Direct Telephone: +234 809 142 4401
As soon as you establish a contact with him, ensure that you
provide your present address as below to the contact in other
for the Officer to effect the change and Re-direct the parcel
to your home address. Also ensure that you call the Officer so
that he can be aware of your correspondence,
Please be aware that the only document requirement necessary to
effect the Re-direction of the Parcel is a Re-direction Fee $160
US Dollars. Once you contact Rev. Dele Robert, he will instruct
you on how to make the payment.
As soon as the Re-direction fee is paid, you shall not be required
to pay any further fees because the parcel is already in the
NB: Stop all further communication with anyone claiming to be
sending your fund because you ATM CARD is already in USA.
We expect your urgent attention to this email to enable us
monitor this delivery effectively.
Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace
Assistant Director, Cargo Inspection.
Chautauqua County Office Of The Sheriff
NEW YORK. USA.
The interesting thing about this is that when I go to the UPS site and look up this tracking number, the delivery tracking is consistent with a package received from outside the US and delivered to Houston. That's a nice detail. I've decided to let the $1.5 million dollars go, though it would have been nice to go ahead and get the big Harry Potter movie collection.
Today I was pointed to the article "How would you fix the Linux desktop?" through slashdot. (Yes, another one of those articles.) I am quite comfortable using a Linux desktop and have been for nearly a decade, so it's not very mysterious to me. My family also uses Linux as a desktop with no real complaints. However, this seems to remain a controversy. It reminds me a little about my daughter talking about her school lunch.
My daughter just turned ten. The other day she was talking about all of the terrible things they are doing at the school cafeteria. They've removed some of the dishes she liked and put, in her opinion, poor alternatives in their place. I should say that my daughter is not a pizza and hot dogs sort of diner. She likes sushi and different kinds of vegetables when they are well prepared. Her description of what was going on did sound a little poor, but it's an institution's approach to being told to provide more "healthy choices" while also adhering to a giant list of restrictions, primarily budgetary. I would probably eat it, but not look forward to it. I suggested that my daughter could always take her lunch and we could keep them interesting. I don't think she even heard me.
We have a lot of choices that we would rather not act on. "I hate my job," says someone... but doesn't really want to leave and find another one. "I hate the environment in my city," says another... but won't move someplace where they say they'd be happier. We complain, but we don't act, because we are not so unsatisfied that we think it's worth the effort to make a change. This truth means that most complaints fall on deaf ears because providers know that we likely won't do anything. If Walmart knew that "I'm never shopping here again" didn't have a silent "unless I find that I'm desparate for something and everyplace else is closed, or I happen to be somewhere and Walmart is the only place I recognize, or I know I need something cheap" then they would probably be a lot more attentive.
So, in desktop land, though people might be disapointed with their Windows or MacOS experience, they likely won't really try to make a move. Once the disappointment is voiced it has been served and one can simply get on with things.
Some say that the problem is not enough applications and that there are barriers to writing applications that work across Linux desktops. I don't know how true that is. I regularly play with different desktops on my Linux installation (you can change it every time you log in if desired). All of the programs I run work fine across the desktops... though the experience changes slightly as the desktop features rearrange. It seems that it is largely a matter of the application letting go of the things that the desktop does rather than trying to emulate them. Maybe I'm missing something.
There are really only about a dozen things that most people do with a computer. Applications exist for those. Developers of popular software could provide a LInux version as easily as they provide a version for Windows and Mac OS. Arguably, if they started to use some of the existing open development techniques that are used for Linux applications they could more easily write things that run on all of the operating systems with single code base. There are several examples of this in existing open-source software.
People don't use the Linux desktop because they just don't care for the most part. They use whatever they're given. If IT turned around and gave them a Linux desktop and managent said it was the new policy people would use it. Oh, they would complain, just like people do about the store they go back to again and again, but they wouldn't quit their job over it. As long as someone has to make an effort to be different, it will only be those who already do that sort of thing in their lives who take on Linux, and discover the benefits it gives them. Everyone who prefers to "go with the flow" can discover what flows downhill.
Before I get to the BOSSies (Best Open Source Software awards), I saw this article today: "Brand-new hardware -- now with malware pre-installed!" That's a terrific time saver! Imagine being able to participate in denial of service (DoS) attacks and SPAM profligation without all the pesky poking around in malicious web sites.
The author concludes that you should stick to the big players when buying hardware. I conclude that you should always take control of your own security. That's why I like building things from scratch and why the first thing I do when I get a system is erase the drive and load Linux. With the way things are today, manufacturing and assembly spread all over the world, you should make no assumptions about your system when you get it. Do some verifications on your own.
The BOSSies are in, and the winners are...
Every year, InfoWorld presents the BOSSies, awards for the Best Open Source Software in a variety of categories. While this is as scientific as about any awards system out there (which is to say not very), it is a great way to see what's making waves in the Open Source world. I get validation on things I already use and introductions to stuff I haven't yet discovered.
These are presented as slide shows, which is a little annoying. Here are the winners:
WordPress and Joomla are my two default content management environments for quick web sites. I want to like Drupal, but have just not had as much success with it. I'll keep tinkering, though. Typo3 looked interesting too.
I've worked with SugarCRM and liked it. Right now I don't have as much need, but if I have to do that sort of tracking again I will likely make use of it. vTiger might also be worth a look. I may also be tinkering with Magento for some things.
I'm perpetually curious about accounting systems. I'll probably look at FrontAccounting.
I'm also curious about Diaspora. There were several other tools that looked really interesting but dealt with situations outside of my world.
I've heard quite a bit about OpenStack. I don't know that I'll get to do much with it, but it intrigues me. CloudStack as well. We've had a little article coverage on Cloud Foundry, so I will probably look at it too. Lots of options!
Puppet seems like my style. I may actually have a project where it could be useful. I'm curious about Juju and Chef as well. I'm intrigued about deployment automation since I oversaw the Y2K rollout at the Texas Lottery Commission.
OpenRemote is intriguing and may offer some solutions to problems unique to my household.
Fun gaming options in 0 A.D., Warzone 2100 and Stella . Naev also reminds me of a game I used to play on my Commodore 64. I can't remember its name, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. (I'm sure someone will remind me. It's just on the edge of my memory.
I loveCalibre using it with my Kindle, and my Sony Book Reader before that. Outstanding application. Be warned, it gets an update constantly. I wish they would set it up to auto-update and save me the trouble.
An Arduino kit is sitting, waiting for my attention. I really want to play with it. Upcoming articles about that too.
I'll probably check out Lightworks as well when the Linux version is available.
Clearly people did not get as excited as I did about the Bossies, the Open Source Software awards, that I wrote about in my last entry. Perhaps it's just not very compelling, or perhaps there is just a general lack of curiosity in such things.
I've had my world shaken and stirred a little with recent events-- in a good way. The first has been my involvement in developing a Knowledge Path for System Z (mainframes) where I have had to dive a little bit into that mysterious world. I remember when I worked at the Texas Lottery Commission and the mainframe guys were "over there". The operators were pretty decent, but the admins were scary dudes.
Picture a scene from an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. The sysadmin is dressed in black, with an ornate, but well-used six gun prominently displayed on his hip. I wander up as a wide-eyed kid dressed like Huckleberry Finn. "How do I learn more about the mainframe?" I would ask.
This is met with either a steely-eyed stare as the sysadmin says through clenched teeth "You don't... and pray never have to." He then strides away, the wind whipping his long coat around him, but miraculously having no affect on his hat. Later, there are gunshots.
It has been very nice to come into contact with much less scary people in the mainframe world. People who are excited about mainframes and who reward curiosity, but it is still a precious and rare resource and there are many gateways. It's a shame, because there are many interesting ways in which a mainframe could take the place of a number of computing resources, consolidating them together. Imagine a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) world where I don't have to worry so much about your device being completely secure because I'm not actually running my software there... I'm providing a central resource and using your device as a fancy terminal. How could that make a difference?
In any case, this is very exciting to me and I'm enjoying the chance to see the outstanding engineering that makes the System Z what it is. It is amazing that people were able to think things through so completely... a vast difference from today's rush to market.
The other thing I am working with is a group of hgh school students in a security contest called CyberPatriot. The idea is to get kids interested in technology to have a greater appreciation for how computer security works. I'm a mentor in the group, drawn in because of my Linux background. (Apparently the team was hit with an Ubuntu image last year and they were very confused by being met with a console prompt and a blinking cursor.) It's been interesting, but so far all of the samples have been Windows-based... forcing me to dust off some of my brain cells, since I haven't really had to administer Windows machines with any seriousness for a while now! (There are advantages to being a long-haired techno-freak.)
One of the things that has intrigued me is the difference between how young people approach technology today and how I remember approaching it in my youth. I suppose that part of working with technology in the Eighties was that you really had to know how to make things work or it didn't. Windows was a ways off yet and the blinking cursor on my Commodore 64 or the school's Apple IIe (or the TRS80s) gave you no comfort, no clues as to what to do next. You really had to know something about the moving parts. Interestingly, many of those parts are still there, but buried within all the menus and icons.
It intrigues me that some of these students, who are clearly clever and interested in technology, seem to be experiencing these moving parts fo the first time. Ports and processes were always a part of my computing world. Some of them seem to be discovering these things for the first time. How is that possible? All of them embrace the knowledge eagerly and they are doing great, but it amazes me that one could learn about technology without developing an understanding about how these things work... especially if you are more of a techie type.
Curiosity is one of our most valuable assets as humans. We have always dug deeper as a species, finding out how things work and new ways to apply what we learn. We take things apart. We invent. We misapply what we know in wonderful ways to create new discoveries. It seems to me that some of this curiosity is waning. We seem to be waiting for experts to tell us what to do. Experts are great, but how do you know if they're right unless you've tried on your own?
I encourage everyone to try to dig a little deeper into technology. Don't let anyone tell you that you don't need to understand something and that it will all be handled by "top men", especially in these BYOD days! What you don't know can be used to exploit you in so may ways. Bad guys use it to steal your information and resources. Employers use it to make you give up your Facebook information and spy on your personal computers and phones. Governments and commerical interest use it to accumulate information about you and game you. I don't mean to be alarmist and I think that much of this is done with good intentions... but you can't defend yourself or make your own decisions unless you engage a little.
Technology is our servant. We should all be able to take advantage of mainframes or keep our email safe from bad guys. Solutions are there for the using, but we have to be curious and we have to not take "No" for an answer. Go do a search right now for a technical topic that you don't but would like to understand. The first two or three things may be way over your head, but you will ifnd something that introduces it to you correctly. (Don't be surprised if some of the better ones are on developerWorks.) Dig, learn, play, ask questions, get answers. You will be amazed at what you can find and do.
On Sunday, October 14, 2012, my family watched Felix Baumgartner plummet from more than 120,000 feet into history. If you missed this fascinating event, here is the video. Interestingly it comes in at just about the same time that we tuned in, so you get to see the same thing that I saw. At 12:16 or so in the video there was a sudden cut away with silence that was very alarming. I thought something had gone wrong.
What an event. The touchdown was so smooth and perfect! My daughter and I talked about the precision of the checklist and all of the planning that had gone into this.
While this is amazing, what also interests me is how we came to watch it. A number of things fell into place that would have not been available even a few years ago. It's an interesting example of how my life has changed due to social media.
First, I had not heard about this jump. I guess I don't follow the correct news. A friend on Facebook pointed out that it was going to happen, expressing her dismay that this was not being covered seriously by the news. I noted it with interest, but apparently not enough interest to mark the time. I got distracted.
Later, my family was sitting down to watch the special features on the Avengers Blue-ray disk, and I happened to check Facebook on my phone. My friend had posted again that the jump was happening now and being broadcast live on the Discovery Channel. Excitedly, we adjusted our plans and decided the special features could happen at any time. We went to switch over, only to find that part of our cutting back our TV subscription (we watch little "normal" TV) removed the Discover Channel. How inconvenient!
Fortunately, it was easy enough for me to find a Live YouTube broadcast of the event. (This is a fairly new addition to YouTube.) I was struggling to get it to come up through our TV player, but it was no problem to bring it up full screen on my laptop. The three of us sat and watched fascinated as Felix dropped himself from that weather balloon in yet another example of space becoming accessible to the rest of us.
I often become frustrated at the ways my work technologies and personal technologies can clash and how things don't always work the way I'd like. Yet this is an example of how it all came together. That's really amazing!
POSIX Semaphore APIs using System V Semaphores APIs
As I noted above, the world is changing. My experience with the Freefall event was an interesting combination of interfaces with mysterious technological services. Yes, I have some idea of how they are likely implemented, but I don't really care about the details. My TV, my phone and my laptop all have the potential to interact with these things through Android and Linux and who knows what. I have no idea where the actual bits and bytes are processed and I don't really care. It's magic. It's Star Trek. It's just there!
This is increasingly the way that our world works today. What used to be a specific application on a specific server becomes a series of whatevers running wherever. A side-effect that you may not expect from this is that functions that used to be dispersed on multiple servers with their own raison d'être may get consolidated onto mainframe systems. I know developers who never imagined that they would be working on mainframes. Of course, System z has done a lot to incorporate various environments so one may be working on a System z and never know it.
However, there are times when moving an app into that environment, specifically from Intel to POWER, may require some rethinking of things. Today, on developerWorks, is an article that helps with such transitions, showing how you can implement POSIX Semaphore APIs using System V Semaphore APIs. The technique could save some trouble for people trying to port applications and make it easier for your whatever to run wherever.
Bash tricks and tips
It may be because I'm an "old guy" but I find that I can read things faster than I can watch them on video and that I can type things faster than I can point around with a mouse. So, I relish the way that even a Linux desktop makes it easy for me to jump to someplace that I can type. Of course, that also gives me access to some nifty automation and other things. Typing really isn't that bad or scary. I wish more people would dive into it.
For those who are discovering the joys of the command line, there is a nice introduction to some BASH (that's the typical Linux shell) tips and tricks. There's a lot of good stuff in the Real World Linux community by our contributing moderator, Himanshu, and others. Check it out... or better yet... join and contribute.
Himanshu has also been busy in the Real World Open Source community. This week, he's looking at VLC, a media player (and server, and converter) that I like. I've used VLC for doing all kinds of strange things, including streaming video. It's muli-platform and pretty capable.
Halloween comes only once a year, but you can carry it in your heart all year round. I've always enjoyed the spooky stuff and there are those who really go all out to celebrate that season. As it turns out, people are applying a lot of do-it-yourself technology to make their own spooky effects. Some are just front port surprises. Others are in very professional haunted attractions. Unless you are extremely industrious and don't need sleep it's probably too late for you to do much with these ideas, but it's never too early to start for next year.
I'm actually thinking about doing something with web cams and a laptop. It could be fun!
Mirror, mirror on the wall...
Mirrors have long played a part in horror tales. Here is a genius way to create your own ghostly mirror effect. With LED monitors as cheap as they are now this is actually not too difficult to manage. Here is video and then a link to the instructions.
One of my most vivid memories from Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion is the singing statues. This enterprising individual has figured out a way to recreate this effect on his porch activated through an arduino circuit!
Of course, not all of these things are incredibly high tech. You could probably accomplish this one over the weekend with a few parts from the discount store. It shows how to set up a poor-person's gobo (a light with a shape in it) using a pen light, a cheap compact fromt he makeup department and some clip art. How simple is that? Of course it would be easy enough to make the light something that was not battery operated and even control it through some switching. The mirror technique is handy, though. I'd always seen this done through lensing.
Of course, if you have the means to be a more sophisticated projection you can use techniques similar to those used by the Bates Haunt. He talks about Photoshop, but it would be perfectly simple to use open-source GIMP instead.
I receive a lot of SPAM in my email. Some of it is fairly entertaining. Here his one I got today:
ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL CRIME COMMISSION (EFCC)
#15 AWOLOWO ROAD,
IKOYI, LAGOS. NIGERIA
Motto:Eagle Eye Of The Law.
We are writing to know if it is true that you are DEAD? Because we received a notification from one Mr.Graham Simon Brad of United Kingdom stating that you are DEAD and you gave him the right to claim your compensation funds which you have with us.He also stated you died in a Train Crash in India and he has been calling our office regarding this issue, but we cannot proceed with him until we confirm this by not hearing from you after 7days.We would like you to know that this is the second time we are notifying you about your compensation fund but we do not want to assume until after this final notice because, we have with us his international passport which he sent to us and also his bank account details where he wants the money transferred into.
Be advised that we have made all arrangements for you to receive and confirm your funds without any stress and delay.All we want to know now is whether you are dead or still alive because Mr.Graham Simon Brad message came as a shock to us and we can not just proceed with him until we confirm if what he said is real and if it happens that we do not hear from you in 7days then we say: MAY YOUR SOUL REST IN PERFECT PEACE.
May the peace of the Lord be with you wherever you may be now.
... and my response:
Mr. Graham is correct. I was crushed beneath the wreckage in that train crash in what was a blessedly quick death. I have been communicating with him by Ouija board to make arrangements for him to receive these funds to help arrange for special vacations to expose Goth kids to sunlight and upbeat music.
Please cooperate with him in this matter in every way. Should you need to contact me further, please arrange a séance and I will endeavor to answer any questions you may have.
I got a message when I tried to run a browser-based application that was truly out of Dilbert:
XXXXXXXXXX is temporarily unavailable at this time for any of the following reasons:
Status and additional information are posted on the XXXXXXXXXX System Status page. We apologize for the inconvenience and will bring the application online as soon as possible. Please try again later.
The status page did tell me what was going on, but the first read was a little silly.
Update to Ubuntu 12.10
The other day I did my update to Ubuntu 12.10 on my laptop. The update went smoothly, though it took a while. The one wish that I had was that there was a way to have it automatically use the recommended response for dealing with config files on the updates. The way it works now I have to hit a button from time to time. I'm sure there is a way to do this, but I haven't researched it. Maybe someone out there can point me.
Overall things seem OK. I'm getting some mysterious system component crashes that seem par for the course with an update on this laptop (Lenovo w500). Whatever is crashing doesn't seem to be affecting my normal activity, so it's not troublesome. I expect the next serious round of updates to magically make all of those things go away. I feel that a few things are a little more spry (especially in the Unity desktop) but I have no measurable benchmark.
I have to say that I really like updating Linux. In Windows and other systems where a major upgrade is actually the purchasing of a new product it always seemd a pain. (I'm seeing all sorts of unrest about Windows 8 and am thankful that I don't have to play there.) In Linux I get a little note saying that there's a major distribution update and I hit the button. It's been very pleasant.
Of course, I have a server at a church that suffered some neglect for a while that needs to be updated by hand because it fell too far behind. That is inconvenient, but workable. If you keep things up to date it generally all goes pretty well.
PDFs on the fly
I use PDFs all the time. I think they are a terrific way to share documents. They save trees but provide a controlled look and feel and their openness makes them easy for anyone to read regardless of tools or operating systems. I trust PDF as an archival format much more than I trust any of the word processing formats out there, even open document, I'm sorry to say.
I started working with PDFs a lot when I started using OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice and the like. It was difficult to convince others that they needed to download software, even if it was free, to read my documents. Then I realized that the vast majority of the time that I don't really need someone to edit the document, just view it. All my open document tools had a PDF button built in so, voila! Easy sharing with no complaints.
Generating PDFs has become more common and there's no reason why you can't include that functionality in your own programs. The developerWorks article "Generate PDF files from Java applications dynamically" has just been updated by the author to include the latest techniques. Take a look and see how you might be able to harness this power for yourself.
Do you smell that burning? That's all of the passion of people on a US Presidential election day. Pardon us if everyone is a little weird today. Of course, one of the discussions that I find pretty interesting is the "Vote, but only vote for someone who matters" discussion. It contains phrases like "Unless you vote for someone on this list you are throwing your vote away."
No, I'm not turning the blog political today, but I am going to spin this thinking a little. Essentially the idea is that you should only vote for someone who has a chance of winning. Does that mean that if your candidate loses that you "threw your vote away?" You have to vote for what works for you and you run the risk that you might not be in the majority.
Ready for the spin? Here it comes!
I see being a GNU/Linux and open-source software user to be the same kind of thing. I use software to get things done. Sometimes I have a business requirement to use a particular tool, but often the finished product is all that matters. I have consistently been able to explore new skill and do things that I had never tried before simply because I could download an open tool without having to wrangle money or licenses from my organization. It is true that the majority of computing is done on two specific platforms and there are clearly leading tools for specific tasks. However, in my quest to get things done I still have all my choices open. In most cases I'm able to do things in a way that is compatible with people who use commercial tools, so no one has to worry about it. In any case I'm learning about a particular skill in the tried and true fashion of simply exploring.
If you are voting today you should vote your conscience and not worry about whether your vote will count. They all count... even if they are only recognized by the people who received them... a sign that they shouldn't give up their cause, even if they don't win. If you are trying to get something done or build skills and you can't get your hands on the "right stuff" look around for open alternatives. You will accomplish something and either find that it works well enough for your needs or that you can more clearly demonstrate the value of having the tool that you want. "I did this with what I have, but if you buy me that I can do these other things."
Doing something almost always accomplishes more than doing nothing.
There's a Storm brewing
I want to take a quick opportunity to send my heart out to the people who are victims of the storms along the East coast in the United States. Nature is a tremendous force that we do not fully appreciate until there are events like this. I hope your family and friends are safe and unharmed. My condolences to all who did not make it through unscathed.
I'm going to turn to a different storm, now. Twitter has created the interesting phenomenon of a massive stream of real-time data from people all over the world. There is an incredible wealth of information in there, if only you could get it out. One of the tools which might help is Twitter Storm. While not brand new it's a relatively new player in the data space. M. Tim Jones takes some time to introduce it and lead you into the basics in this developerWorks article, "Process real-time big data with Twitter Storm - An introduction to streaming big data". Take a look at it and other material in the Open Source section.