Archive for April, 2007

First look at Plone

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Spent the day checking out Plone. It is a Python based Content Management System. It looks like a very powerful and interesting system for build portals and other web applications. What I particularly like is the ability to mix structured data with unstructured content using a very elegant, unified object-based model. Most other Content Management Systems are weak when it comes to structured data support – it appears Plone has a much stronger model.

I’m going to be trying a couple of applications using Plone and will report over the next few weeks as I make progress on how it all works out. The Plone site has some really cool video demonstrations – be sure to check them out.

I have “Web Vision” – do you??

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

When surfing this evening, it suddenly occurred to me how I was quickly zooming in on specific areas within pages on sites I visit often. I was not even bothering to take in anything outside of these areas. Did not realize that I had developed “web vision” :-) Compared notes with my wife and she too reported similar behavior. Wow! Who knew??

Pondering on the topic some more, I’ve realized that I’m likely to develop web vision for the sites I visit most frequently; unfamiliar sites cause me to pause and look around to get to what I want. There is a very interesting paradox here – online advertisers pay the most to show ads on the highest traffic sites, yet if my theory is correct, these sites are also the ones where users are most likely to completely ignore them!!

Healthcare – no relief in sight

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Having spent a major portion of the past year as a self-employed entrepreneur working from home, I had an opportunity to experience all the ills of our wonderful health care system first hand. It is a real mess out there for those of you who don’t already know. I had a lot of trouble finding insurance plans that were affordable even though my family and I are reasonably healthy. Even when I found a plan that worked, the deductible was so high that I ended up paying all the bills myself – the insurance company got a few thousand dollars richer. It seems like employer provided plans are the only real option these days and it is not clear how long employers can carry the staggering burden.

While there is a lot of rhetoric around health care from politicians, I have not seen a single idea or proposal that addresses the single key issue facing us – spiraling costs. As long as there is a fantastic reward system in place for anyone making a sick person healthy, our costs can never be controlled. Individuals and corporations will continue to find more ways to declare people sick so they can be cured or keep making more expensive ways to “better cure” people! This is basic economics.

Health insurance companies were supposed to be counterbalance here – they get rewarded for keeping people healthy – but they’ve gotten to the point where they either only admit people who are very healthy in the firstplace or declare even sick people to be healthy to avoid paying their bills.

Given the old adage “prevention is better than cure” (proven to be on the mark time and again), maybe the government should foot the bill for every citizen to get full and extensive preventive care (including any necessary medications). Citizens can then purchase insurance to cover all illnesses and injuries (everyone should be able to purchase this type of insurance, the government could subsidize it for the poorest among us). This insurance coverage could be predicated on people proving they’re taking full advantage of the preventive care.

What this system would do is to put the onus of keeping healthy on us as a collective and consequently reduce the costs of health care. Afford-ability will not be an issue to keeping healthy – personal responsibility will be. Where illnesses or injuries do occur, a system like we have currently kicks in and helps out. Seems like this could work – unless I’m missing something …

Freedom at Midnight

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

I had read this wonderful book a long time back and wanted to read it again. Managed to get a copy recently and read it – as fascinating as the first time I read it. The book deals with the time period surrounding the independence of India and Pakistan (1946-1948) and is very relevant in the current context of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

The book describes the painful process of partition that the people of India and Pakistan suffered through and the role various actors played in the surrounding events. What struck me as I was reading it this time is the depth and stature of leadership that was involved in dealing with the crisis – Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. These are some of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. Mahatma Gandhi singlehandedly contained and curbed seemingly uncontrollable levels of violence by fasting on two occasions (and nearly dying on the second occasion) – such was the respect and admiration of the common man for him. No Army (even the famed British Army that had prevailed in WW II) was up to the task.

When I look at the current sectarian violence in Iraq, I see very strong parallels with what happened in India and Pakistan during 1947. However, what appears to be missing (admittedly, I have a somewhat distant view provided by mainstream media) is a strong and capable Iraqi leadership that can lead the country out of its current crisis. In such times, baser instincts rule people and an endless cycle of revenge takes hold. And, going by historic precedent, it seems like even the presence of a mighty army like ours cannot really help quell the violence. What Iraq needs most is leaders that can calm her people down and make them see sense – until then I’m afraid we will only end up wasting the precious lives of our young men and women to no avail …

I have a hammer …

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

I’ve finally gotten around to building my first real application using Ruby on Rails – had done a quick walk through a while back, but now I’m doing it at a pace that allows me to go deep. Very impressed by the amount of experience and knowledge that has gone into the framework. Frameworks typically have a learning curve associated with them and RoR is no exception. Couple of good books I’d recommend to anyone wanting to do anything serious with Ruby/RoR are:

So what’s this got to do with the title of my post? Over my years as a programmer, I’ve seen a lot of intense debate around languages and frameworks – how one is better or worse than the other (a popular debate raging these past couple of years has been around RoR versus Java/J2EE). To me, its all about the purpose. Languages and frameworks are typically optimized for a specific set of use cases. In RoR’s case, this turns out to be database based web applications built for the web in its current state of maturity.

As a good programmer, one needs to keep abreast of what’s happening in terms of language and framework development and select the best available ones for a given task at hand. Yes, this requires an open mind and lot of extra learning and work – but we owe it to ourselves and the people who pay us and rely on us to make decisions for them. There is nothing that bothers me more than the programmer who follows the “I have a hammer, so everything looks like a nail” school of thought …

Desktop more secure than Browser ?? Not!

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Last weekend after being frustrated with the performance of one of my computers, I decided to spend some time and track down the problem. Turns out I had more than my share of update agents, some of which were clogging my CPU doing who knows what …

At the Web 2.0 Expo, there were a couple of security talks that said the browser had no security model and that desktops were so much better from a security point-of-view. I am sorry to say this experience has taught me that the desktop is just as bad. I bet even after my efforts to get rid of stuff, there is still a whole bunch of stuff running on my machine and I have no clue where it came from or what it does for me (or them ??) …

Google Product Search – Not For Me

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Saw the news on Google reworking its shopping search site and decided to check it out. For a while now, I’ve been using thefind and like it – way better than all the comparison shopping sites both in terms of usability and quality of results. While Google’s Product Search is an improvement on Froogle, I think I’m going to stick with thefind for now. Here are some of my issues:

  • All the criteria that can be used to narrow search results are at the bottom of the page while valuable real estate in the right sidebar is occupied by ads. I guess Google decided to sacrifice usability for revenue (makes sense, Wall Street now drives this ship) …
  • The lists of brands, stores, etc that can be used to narrow searches seem to have quite a few errors – for example, Packard Bell was listed as a brand for “sheet sets” – when I clicked on the brand, I was shown sheet sets from Pottery Barn – wondering if the matching initials had something to do with this … I spotted a few more errors in a similar vein, leading me to believe there is some cleanup needed behind the scenes …
  • I really like thefind‘s interface better – visual information (which is really important for shopping IMO) dominates over textual information and screen real estate is used more effectively overall.

Full Disclosure: I am good friends with Nanda Kishore – ex-CEO of thefind and we have collaborated on other projects.

Web 2.0 : Time-to-value trumps TCO ??

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

As we all know, there are two fundamental issues to consider when buying/building a software solution:

  • Time-to-value (TTV) : i.e. how quickly will users realize value from the solution
  • Total cost of ownership (TCO) : i.e. how much the solution will cost upfront and over time

Users typically care much more about TTV while IT folks typically care much more about TCO.

In the IT driven pre-Web 2.0 world, TCO ruled, causing users to be fairly frustrated in many cases because TCO centric solutions tend to take longer to build and less user friendly.

In the new user driven Web 2.0 world, it seems that TTV rules, causing IT folks a great deal of worry and indigestion :-)

At some point in the future, seems like we will reach a happy medium …

Virginia Tech – What Next ?

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Now that we’ve once again seen the extent to which a madman armed with a gun can totally shatter innocent people’s lives – what are we as a society going to do about it ? I see the following options:

  1. Ban guns
  2. Arm everyone
  3. Track and imprison madmen
  4. Wear Kevlar underclothes
  5. Do nothing

We all know what we’ll choose …

Fantasy games – the new hallucinogens ??

Friday, April 20th, 2007

At the Web 2.0 Expo we had someone (cannot recall her name) who is an “Alternate Reality Game” designer talk at one of the keynote sessions about “Happiness Hacking”. The talk made little sense to me as did the Wikipedia entry on Alternate Reality Games (of course, I’m a pretty simple minded person).

Seems like people are going to great lengths to essentially escape from their real lives and live alternate, “happier” lives. Given how much time and money some people spend on these fantasy games and how “happy” they feel, it seems like we’ve got ourselves some new forms of hallucinogens that are legit, plus you don’t need to smoke, snort or shoot up 😉