The Big Flaw in Google+

I’ve been using Google+ for almost a month now, and I’m in love with the concept.  The only way to dethrone services that are deeply embedded in people’s lives such as Twitter and Facebook is to come out with something that is clearly superior and even then you’ll have to roll with the punches for a while until the general masses realize that it is superior (just ask any fan of the git code repository system). 

The flexibility of circles as first-class citizens is exactly what makes it superior.  If I found a piece of political humor that friends of one ideology would find hilarious while another would find offensive, I get to post it without feeling like I’m performing surgery on my friend’s visibility as I would on facebook.  If wanted to mention something about tech, I have friends who would be incredibly engaged, while others would dismiss it as soon as they saw that it was techno-babble.  People who I’m connected with on facebook find that I’m quite aware of my audience when posting to my wall.

Unfortunately, not everybody is the same.  How many friends do you have on facebook who you are real friends with and want to keep in contact with all of their personal endeavors, yet they can’t go more than four hours without letting everyone know exactly how they feel about their (least-)favorite political figure?  How about a friend that you know is a good person and otherwise want to be connected to, yet all they seem to post about is how much life is screwing them over:  At first several people reply offering condolences and offering to help.  After repeat rants, those replies taper off.

In order for Google+ to be truly successful, Google+ connections need to follow their outgoing posts with the same distinction as their incoming posts.  A great example is an initiative by a TWiT (This Week In Tech) army follower who started a public Google Docs spreadsheet where people can record their Google+ accounts and allow everyone to follow each other.  A handful of people did painstakingly went through the entire list and followed everyone on the list.  Being that I consider them a tech-brother of sorts, I follow them back, and throw them into my “Techies” circle.  This means I know they’ll appreciate anything I post that is tech-related.  It also means that they probably couldn’t possibly care less about a picture of my two-year old hosting a tea party for her five dolls.  So far, it appears that many people don’t follow this level of discretion.  People I’ve never met nor will probably ever meet inundate my wall with all parts of their lives that have nothing to do with the reason we mutually connected in the first place.

Here is where the subjectivity really comes in:  Some people may really want this.  Perhaps they feel like they are now connected in ways other than tech, and appreciate pictures of them and their three buddies at a party.  As for me, however, it’s the same reason why I’ve largely abandoned Twitter: My wall is packed with white noise.  I can’t possibly follow thousands of people and keep up with every part of their lives.

Google+ has shown that making polymorphic circles for outgoing communication is the future of social media, but the real nut left to crack is how we as consumers of incoming messages are able to have the same level of control.

Plunging Into the Linux Desktop

That's it.  I'm finished with Windows as my primary desktop on my laptop.  At least, finished enough to give Ubuntu a try.  And by try I mean a dual bootable system so I can revert back to original Windows if I absolutely have to.  I've had no problems with Windows on my home desktop, but have had incredibly sluggish performance out of my laptop.  Both ran Windows 7 64-bit, both have similar horsepower and identical memory capacity.  I suppose I have more business-oriented software such as MS Office on my laptop, but have run massive memory hogs such as the IntelliJ IDEA IDE on both with no problem.  It takes scores of minutes for my laptop to fully settle down after a reboot while my hard drive viciously spins nonstop like someone hopped up on cappuccino and meth amphetamines.  After this process, sometimes the laptop would feel very snappy just like I feel it should.  Other times it felt like running a 100 meter dash with leg weights.  Heavy leg weights.  And there was nothing I could find that would appear to be the cause: Nothing discernible was hogging resources.  The stock Windows task managing software was of no help, neither were the more detailed utilities I could find from the sysinternals site.  The sum total of wasted time per week probably reaches into several man hours, and if I'm going to waste time I want it to be on my terms!  So for the first time since 2004, I took the plunge and went to Linux as my desktop OS.

This hasn't been the smoothest transition as I settle myself into a working environment.  I went with the recently (as of this writing) released Ubuntu desktop 11.04 distribution, which features the new Unity desktop manager.  If you search for reviews on Unity, you'll see that it's gone over like a fart in church.  Fortunately I haven't had any of the major problems that some folks have reported such as a jacked up grub boot loader, but I went through enough pain and suffering to find that Unity is a desktop manager that needs a lot more cooking time before it's something I can rely on.  This has been the worst part, the transition period.  Like anybody in a tech lead position, there is always more work to do than time to do it and deadlines in practice usually come to the development phase with a razor-thin margin of error.  So, deciding to take two steps back in order to take several more steps forward has proven to be a bit of a strain.  I've thought to myself "maybe right now would be a bad time to make this transition", then felt better after asking myself "well, when would actually be a good time?"

I considered the idea of lobbying very hard to get a Macbook instead.  Every other Java-based alignment team in my company has them, and seem to really enjoy using them.  I suppose several small factors played in:

  • Doing this would take time.  I'd have to convince my boss that this is a business need, not a want, and I'd need to come up with a better excuse than "Windows is so gosh darn sluggish!".  Macbooks are not the cheapest things around, and I already blew an unspoken IT purchase token by getting a YourKit license to track down a memory leak on our environments which ultimately ended up being because of a non-standard JVM.  I'm sure I could take the time to draw up a good case and build an argument, but patience is not one of my virtues and Linux is something I can control right now.
  • I'd have to abandon my two monitor setup at work, as Macbooks only allow for one monitor extension.  Developing on 25" vertical and 24" horizontal monitors with a docking station is nice.  Many people (Windows or Mac) will connect a monitor extension and then prop up their laptops with three reams of copier paper.  To each their own, but that always felt incredibly clunky to me.  It's something I've tried in the past and never really was able to get used to it.
  • Macbooks are all the rage.  Apple ranked number one in product placement for 2010 and has really branded themselves as the solution for everybody from the hippie blogger to the hard-core developer.  According to a Business Insider report, consumer PC growth is going negative for the first time ever.  Why go with the flow?  Well, I can think of a few good reasons, but none of them are fun reasons.  One of my favorite quotes is "only dead fish swim with the current".

Does this mean I don't have Mac envy?  No, it certainly exists to some degree.  If I could make a broad generalization about desktop operating systems, I'd lump them into two attributes: the it-just-works factor, and the how-much-control-do-I-really-have factor.

  • Windows: High it-just-works factor, low how-much-control-do-I-really-have factor.  Yes, I know there are plenty of situations where Windows certainly doesn't just work, but I'm speaking in a relative sense.  If there is software that you need to install, in virtually every single case there is at least a version for Windows.  Unfortunately though, it can be very difficult to pinpoint where sluggishness might occur.  My laptop with Windows was something I would describe as bi-polar.  Sometimes it was in a great mood, sometimes it was rather grumpy.  It always felt grumpy in times when I needed it to be fast the most: a high-priority issue, a WebEx meeting that I'm already a few minutes late in attending, etc.  What was causing it?  Did IT slap on extra software that was causing issues?  I have no idea!
  • Linux: Low it-just-works factor, high how-much-control-do-I-really have factor.  You can really take for granted the idea that whatever you want will support your operating system until you move to Linux.  You'll get lucky on some cases, where a piece of software you use regularly is supported and installs just as easily with Linux as with Windows or Mac.  But the majority of the time you are in for at least a small amount of pain as you kick out several browser tabs searching for a suitable Linux alternative to something that you've used and loved for the longest time.
  • Mac: High it-just-works factor, high how-much-control-do-I-really have factor.  They really got it right with this one.  Unix-level control and a stable, attractive and simple-to-operate OS.  Even setting up a local environment of our software was simple.  Need subversion? Already installed!  Need apache? Already installed!  Need Java?  Already installed.... for now.

Just like many Mac power-users, I cannot remove the need for Windows altogether.  For one, I cannot run MS Office on Linux without third party commercial software (and even then with flaws) but I'm maintaining a code base that uses the full Microsoft stack.  Cutting Windows out of my life is just not going to happen anytime soon, so I run an instance under Virtualbox.  This is an open-source alternative to VMWare and so far it has done a pretty solid job. 

Why I Traded In The Kindle For The iPad

After much thought, my Kindle DX went on eBay and an iPad was reserved at the Apple Store for this Saturday, April 3rd.  Many are understandably skeptical about the iPad and the Kindle still enjoys rave reviews, but for me the decision ended up being a no-brainer.  Let’s start out by listing all of the features that the Kindle can boast over the iPad:

  • eInk display gives you the feel that you are reading regular paper, reducing eye strain and allowing you to read in direct sunlight without glare.  It also allows for incredible battery life because power is only used when rendering a page; it can be displayed forever.
  • The Kindle comes with WhisperSync, a fancy marketing word which means “free 3G wifi through Sprint”

funny-apple-ipad1-227x300Realizing that these two points were near worthless for me was when my decision was made, for all intents and purposes.  As someone who used his  Kindle for several months, I have to say that the eInk technology looks really nice.  When I first received my device, I couldn’t believe for a minute or two that I was looking at dynamic pixels and not something static.  However, in practice there are some serious shortcomings in the technology.  For as pleasing to the eye as it is in pretending to be regular paper, it renders incredibly slowly.  If you’re going to the next page of all text, you’re looking at a noticeable-but-usable delay of maybe one-half to one second.  If your next page is a big graphic, then you could be looking at several seconds while it loads up.  But, the biggest exposure of this shortcoming comes when you want to navigate inside the page for some reason.  See, with the Kindle your form of page navigation comes in the form of a 5-way directional button.  The two big reasons for navigating are either to move your cursor to a word in order to see its definition, or to a linked footnote.  Moving your cursor around the words in the page was a painful process.  If you’ve ever had to type on a terminal over the Internet with bad lag (perhaps through a modem), the lagging frustration you feel as you have to keep telling your brain to slow down is a similar experience.

The Kindle’s WhisperSync feature single handedly makes the device near idiot-proof.  “Idiot” is probably a misleading word, a better description might be technologically-challenged-proof.  See, because of WhisperSync, there is absolutely no need for a regular user to ever connect their Kindle to their computer.  In fact, it would be perfectly fine if they had no computer or internet connection at all!  Amazon’s book store system is incredibly simple, intuitive, and it retrieves books very quickly.  My mother is a great usability litmus test as to how truly easy a piece of technology is to use.  Incidentally, several commercial software companies would probably do themselves many favors by hiring people just like my mother to perform usability testing.  As an engineer, I can do my best to try to predict what would be easiest for the user to do, but what I cannot do is truly simulate just how terrifying it is for some to use any piece of electronics that come with more than two buttons.  Working as a teacher’s assistant for an adult night class beginner’s course at Saint Louis University and spending over five minutes showing someone how to double click a mouse can give an incredibly broad perspective on the true breadth of the usability spectrum as far as technology is concerned.

But, I digress.  In short, WhisperSync’s advantages are that you remove the external computer aspect, and you can download books from anywhere.  Again as great as it sounds in theory, it was not of much practical use.  The dreams of downloading a book while out at the beach go away when you realize you only read it in your house.  And if you do travel with it, books are not something that cause you to use WhisperSync hardly any, if at all.  I’d be among the last to win any speed-reading contests, so it takes me more than a short time to read a book.  All of this time is spent off of WhisperSync.  In fact, I left WhisperSync off all of the time anyway just to save on battery.

Now that the two aforementioned exclusive selling points were largely neutralized, look at the selling points that the iPad has over the Kindle:

  • 16GB of memory compared to 4GB for the Kindle DX
  • Full color LED display, compared to 16 shades of grey for Kindle’s eInk
  • Supports the open EPUB e-book format, Kindle does not
  • Much more than an eReader, it has full support for iPhone/iTouch applications including web browsing, watching videos and email

alg_pee_wee_ipadFor almost the same price as a Kindle DX, I feel like I get the Kindle’s features (the ones that have at least a small importance to me, that is) and far more.  When Steve Jobs announced the iPad he sat in his fake living room chair with his device in his lap, presumably in the same pose that every too-cool-for-school Mac guy sits when they use their Macbooks.  It was marketed to fill the gap on technical tasks that were too big for a pocket-sized cellphone, but too small for a big clunky laptop. 

It just so happens that my life has such a gap.  With the birth of our daughter, my days of squirreling away exclusively in my office are pretty well over (at least for the next several years).  Our living room has become our ground-zero of sorts; it's where half of the inventory of Toys R Us resides, and she is far happier when playing while both of us are in the same room.  Often times I will sit on the floor and play with my Android phone while my daughter plays, as she doesn’t require you to be paying close attention to her, she just likes having you around.  Doing certain tasks on the fly is great for a smart phone such as an Android or iPhone, but when you’re down there for hours you wouldn’t mind having something bigger.  A laptop would be fine, but I’d have to make sure my power cord wasn’t too far away after a while, and apparently my daughter is attracted to laptop keyboards much in the same way that moths are attracted to flames.  So when she takes interest in that keyboard, hit Win-L to lock your keyboard and let her slap away at it until her arms get tired.  With an iPad, it would be much easier to just set it away out of arm’s reach.

Shortly the iPad will be in my hands, and I’ll post a full review.

Where Does Google Buzz Fit In Today’s Social Networking?

As many already heard, a few days ago Google threw their hat into the social networking ring with Google Buzz.  Google has a great reputation for building existing things in ways that we never thought to use before, so while their latest solution isn’t exactly being discarded, many are asking “why do we need another social networking method?”

The first thing to evaluate is how you use existing social networking now.  For me, I three primary methods: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Each of them serves a unique purpose while offering overlap:  Facebook is my outlet for friends and family that I know on a personal level to some degree, conversing with my contacts the same as if I was at a bar having a beer; LinkedIn is on the other side of the spectrum where my status messages would only be roughly what I would say in a casual job interview;  Twitter merges the two in that social messages get through, so long as it isn’t very social.  I think of Twitter as an outlet where you can talk about things such as sports or other topics so long as it is kept in the level of a casual discussion with the person in the cubicle next to you.

social-media1

With all of that being said, we’re back to our original question “Where does Google Buzz fit in?”  Let’s examine how Buzz is unique from LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook:

  • Integrates directly into GMail
  • Integrates into Google Maps so you can see where Buzzes are coming from
  • It will automatically rank buzzes based on what it thinks it knows about you and what you like

And how Buzz is similar to some but different than others:

  • Can post pictures directly into your status updates like Facebook, but not Twitter
  • Status interface is bare-bones simple like Twitter, but not Facebook
  • Automatic suggestions as to who you might want to follow like Facebook, but not Twitter (albeit in a different way.  Facebook cares more about you actually knowing the person, while Buzz heavily weighs actual content)

This is purely subjective, but it appears the best fit would be somewhere between Twitter and Facebook.  While you could squeeze a professional use in there, the plan is for your buzzes to be found based on your content, not your name.  There is no character limit that I’m aware of, but I don’t think they had blog-sized posts in mind.  You’re initially connected with your GMail friends (which for me is a small subset of my Facebook connection list), so this starts out with the intimacy of your closer friends but over time spreads to Twitter’s (I’ve-never-met-you-but-like-what-you-say) level of publicity.  With our initial question answered, it begs an even more difficult question:

How Do I Avoid Repeat-Fatigue?

Much with the overlap in the graphic above, I have a similar overlap when it comes to contacts.  Because of this, one thing I try to avoid is repeating amongst multiple feeds when not necessary.  When someone is already taking a surprisingly large chunk out of their day to checking Twitter and Facebook feeds, they certainly don’t need to be bombarded with repeat messages.  Adding Google Buzz into the mix makes this task even more daunting.  Buzz’s unique methods of finding people with similar interests makes it a bad idea to not publish the same ideas as twitter, but keeping the two perfectly in sync will duplicate your messages to your friends and followers.  I am not sure of the correct answer to this; I think it is just something that will have to be determined over time, much like social networking itself.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog and my new home page.  This was a rather long time in the building in my spare time throughout my days, so I’m glad to have this up and running. 

What do I plan on getting out of this?make-money-starting-blog-200X200

For one, to keep my writing habits sharp.  As Joel Spolsky points out in a blog article (an incredibly useful article I might add, if you are a software engineer):

I think it's because so many people don't like to write. Staring at a blank screen is horribly frustrating. Personally, I overcame my fear of writing by taking a class in college that required a 3-5 page essay once a week. Writing is a muscle. The more you write, the more you'll be able to write. If you need to write specs and you can't, start a journal, create a weblog, take a creative writing class, or just write a nice letter to every relative and college roommate you've blown off for the last 4 years. Anything that involves putting words down on paper will improve your spec writing skills. If you're a software development manager and the people who are supposed to be writing specs aren't, send them off for one of those two week creative writing classes in the mountains.

Well, god speed if you are masochistic enough to take a college class that requires a 3-5 page essay every week, but I will go with the latter suggestion.  As I write articles in which others might take interest (including this very one), I find myself sending my cursor all over the map in attempt to fill in potential gaps or better explain points.  As someone gets better at it, I would think this would be a great quality to have.

The second reason is, I have things to talk about that I think others would like to read or comment about.  I have been very late to the social media scene of blogs and twitter because I have historically been a better listener than a talker.  When the blog (and subsequent twitter) phenomenon occurred people seemed to be so ecstatic about an easy and ubiquitous mechanism to voice their opinions and thoughts, that most never stopped to realize that many of their thoughts weren’t worth mentioning.  Or at the very least, they couldn’t be bothered to put their thoughts in a structured enough of a format to make it attractive enough for anybody to really care.  This was a rather large turn-off, until I realized how great social media can be when used responsibly.

Lastly, I have built a good base of knowledge with content management systems by simply building this site.  I chose Drupal for my content management, even though for a one-man-band web site/blog such as this it is well accepted that Wordpress would be a better choice for both its popularity as a weblog engine and its simplicity.  Drupal is seen as that powerful juggernaut that can do an incredible amount of things, but with that power comes a much steeper learning curve.  I wanted a challenge!

What kinds of articles might you see on here?

Largely, either technical or sports related articles.  There will be plenty of exceptions but there will be one constant: It will only be content I think at least a sizable chunk of people I know would be interested in.  For instance, if it is an article about a tech device, it would not behoove me to get into all kinds of nitty gritty details to turn off all but the most technical of users.  Unless of course, the focus of that article demands it, but the reader would immediately know if it is the type of article that piques their interest before reading very much.  Nothing turns someone off more than skimming a paragraph or two before realizing that 20 seconds of their time was wasted.

You may see an article on politics.  But again, it will be from a neutral thought-provoking standpoint.  I have friends that range every edge of the political ideology spectrum, and I have no interest in partisan rancor.  Besides, if someone is only interested in a strict conservative or liberal slants on current events, there are plenty of places that can do it better than I would ever hope (or ever care) to do.  My interest in politics is mostly from a social engineering perspective:  What actions by a politician determine which consequences?  Which liberal senators in red states are most on the hot seat?  Questions such as these.  Another way of looking at this style would be similar to Nate Silver but with a lot less math.

Where do we go from here?

This is all a work in progress, but it is something that I think can be entertaining for some people as well as a great exercise for myself.  I look forward to any comments anybody has, either setting me straight on an assertion I made, or adding insight to a particular topic.  All I ask is that the comments are constructive.

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