[x]Blackmoor Vituperative

Monday, 2014-03-03

Ruminations on web design and system administration

Filed under: Programming,Work — bblackmoor @ 10:18

Now that the Kickstarter is over, I can go back to talking about other things. For example, how happy I am that I am no longer working in web design. The work I would like to do, in decreasing order of preference, is:

  • system administration
  • database administration
  • back-end programming (i.e., not Javascript)
  • project management
  • front end programming (i.e., Javascript)
  • web design

There are reasons why web design is at the bottom of the list. The biggest one is that the people who pay to have that done are too often operating under the false assumption that they know how to do it, and that they just need someone else to do the grunt work of actually using the software. Oatmeal has a pretty funny cartoon on what that’s like for a web designer.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. I am lucky that back when I did web design as my primary profession, I very rarely had clients quite that clueless. A more frequent occurrence was the “we need to Do Something” problem. Smashing Magazine has a pretty decent article on that, but if you have been a user of YahooGroups or FaceBook for any length of time, you have seen that phenomenon in action.

System administration is at the top of the list for even better reasons. For one thing, I simply enjoy it. I like making things work. It’s like working on a car and getting it to run smoothly, but you don’t bang your knuckles or get your hands dirty. Also, success is generally objective: if the system works, that’s success. None of the “that color is too aggressive” type feedback you get when doing web design (I actually had a client say that phrase to me). Of course, there are some subjective measurements of success, even in system administration. For example, you can continue throwing time and money at a database server to increase performance, and the point at which the performance is good enough is a subjective call. Even so, generally speaking, the line between “working” and “not working” is pretty clear. I like that.

Saturday, 2013-11-23

Accounting for Kickstarter

Filed under: Gaming,The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 19:47
Wallet

When it comes to accounting for the money raised through Kickstarter etc., most people seem aware of the 5% Kickstarter fee, the ~4% Amazon fee, the 1%-5% billing failure, and the potential for as much as 10% to be lost in chargebacks. What I don’t see many people mentioning is the amount of income tax the IRS is going to take of the amount raised (if you are a US citizen). In Europe, you may have VAT, which is even more complicated. Established businesses already know about this, of course, but since many people who start a Kickstarter campaign are hobbyists and startups, I thought this was a worthwhile thing to point out: keep taxes in mind when you are estimating how much you will need to raise to complete your project.

Wednesday, 2013-11-13

Remembering Xanadu

Filed under: Programming,The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 23:05
Xanadu

I was reminded recently of an interesting article from the June 1995 issue of Wired magazine. I subscribed to Wired back then: this was during the early days of the internet, while the 1990s tech bubble was inflating like gangbusters. The article is “The Curse of Xanadu“, by Gary Wolf.

It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Instead, it sucked Nelson and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing – a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair. The amazing epic tragedy.

The article begins with a brief description of the mind behind Xanadu, Ted Nelson. He is described as a very smart man with many ideas, but who has difficulty finishing his projects. Later in the article, we learn that Nelson has an extreme case of Attention Deficit Disorder.

The article then goes on to describe the goals of the Xanada project, which Nelson began working on in 1965:

Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings. And, on the very hackerish assumption that global catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu was supposed to save the world.

Yet Nelson, who invented the concept of hypertext, is not a programmer. He is a visionary. He is also appearently immensely persuasive. He convinced people to spend millions of dollars on Xanada (long before the tech bubble made that irrational behaviour seem normal), and years working on it. And it does seem that Nelson was a true visionary. In 1969, he already foresaw that technology would “overthrow” conventional publishing, and that paper would be replaced by the screen (in his mind, it already had). But he was limited by the technology of his day. “Even [in 1995], the technology to implement a worldwide Xanadu network does not exist.” In the 1970s, “[the] notion of a worldwide network of billions of quickly accessible and interlinked documents was absurd, and only Nelson’s ignorance of advanced software permitted him to pursue this fantasy.”

In the early 1970s, Nelson worked with a group of young hackers called the RESISTORS, in addition to a couple of programmers he had hired. During this period, the first real work on Xanadu was accomplished: a file access invention called the “enfilade”. What the enfilade is or exactly what it does is a mystery: unlike another famous iconoclast, Richard Stallman, Ted Nelson did not believe that “information wants to be free”. The nature of Xanadu’s enflilade, what it does, and how it is implemented is a mystery: everyone who has worked on the project has been sworn to secrecy.

In 1974, Nelson met programmer and hacker Roger Gregory. According to the article, if Nelson is the father of Xanadu, Roger Gregory is its mother. “Gregory had exactly the skills Nelson lacked: an intimate knowledge of hardware, a good amount of programming talent, and an obsessive interest in making machines work. […] through all the project’s painful deaths and rebirths, Gregory’s commitment to Nelson’s dream of a universal hypertext library never waned.” Gregory’s tale is a sad one: it’s difficult to see his involvement in Xanadu as anything other than a tragic waste of his life.

As the years go by and the 1970s become the 1980s, Nelson continued to work on Xanadu, and Xanadu continued not to be completed. By the late 1980s, the project team had dwindled and support for it was difficult to find. Nelson and Gregory would not admit failure, although Gregory struggled with thoughts of suicide. However, in 1988 Xanadu was rescued by John Walker, the founder of Autodesk. It seemed that Xanadu would at last have the benefit of serious commercial development. “In 1964,” Walker said in a 1988 press release, “Xanadu was a dream in a single mind. In 1980, it was the shared goal of a small group of brilliant technologists. By 1989, it will be a product. And by 1995, it will begin to change the world.”

It turned out that was easier said than done.

I find it interesting that one of the technical obstacles to Xanadu’s development was due to its profoundly non-free approach to the information it would make available.

The key to the Xanadu copyright and royalty scheme was that literal copying was forbidden in the Xanadu system. When a user wanted to quote a portion of document, that portion was transcluded. With fee for every reading.

Transclusion was extremely challenging to the programmers, for it meant that there could be no redundancy in the grand Xanadu library. Every text could exist only as an original.

In my opinion, this philosophy of restricting information is a key reason that Xanadu failed.

By the early 1990’s, control of the project shifted away from Gregory and the original development team, and all of the existing code was discarded. This also made Walker’s 18-month timeline explicitly unattainable.

John Walker, in retrospect, blames the failure of Xanadu on the unrealistic goals of the (new) development team.

John Walker, Xanadu’s most powerful protector, later wrote that during the Autodesk years, the Xanadu team had “hyper-warped into the techno-hubris zone.” Walker marveled at the programmers’ apparent belief that they could create “in its entirety, a system that can store all the information in every form, present and future, for quadrillions of individuals over billions of years.” Rather than push their product into the marketplace quickly, where it could compete, adapt, or die, the Xanadu programmers intended to produce their revolution ab initio.

“When this process fails,” wrote Walker in his collection of documents from and about Autodesk, “and it always does, that doesn’t seem to weaken the belief in a design process which, in reality, is as bogus as astrology. It’s always a bad manager, problems with tools, etc. – precisely the unpredictable factors which make a priori design impossible in the first place.”

In 1992, just before the release of Mosaic and the popularization of the World Wide Web, Autodesk crashed and burned, and the pipeline of funding that kept the Xanadu project going came to an end. Ownership of Xanadu reverted to Ted Nelson, Roger Gregory, and a few other long-time supporters.

A glint of hope appeared. Kinko’s (remember Kinko’s?) was interested in funding the project for their own use. But Nelson chose this time to attempt to seize control of the project. The programmers who had been subjected to Nelson’s attention-deficit management style resisted. Again, Nelson’s desire for control was destructive to the accomplishment of his dream. “By the time the battle was over, Kinko’s senior management had stopped returning phone calls, most of Autodesk’s transitional funding had been spent on lawyers fees, and the Xanadu team had managed to acquire ownership of a company that had no value.”

There was a brief respite from an insurance company, but that too soon ended in failure. After not being paid for six months, the last few developers took the hardware and quit. “With the computers gone, Xanadu was more than dead. It was dead and dismembered.”

As of 1995 (the date of the article), Nelson was in Japan, still pushing his idea of “transclusion”, still hostile to the very freedom and chaos that has made the World Wide Web the enormous success it is. I think he’s a perfect example of how someone can be both brilliant and utterly clueless.

In 2007, Project Xanadu released XanaduSpace 1.0. There is a video on YouTube of Ted Nelson demonstrating XanaduSpace. As far as I know, that was the end of the project.

Some other links that you might also find of interest:

http://xanadu.com/

http://xanadu.com.au/

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.09/rants.html

http://www.xanadu.com.au/ararat

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

http://web.archive.org/web/20090413174805/http://calliq.googlepages.com/”Xanadu Products Due Next Year”

https://archive.org/details/possiplexvideo

Friday, 2013-08-09

I dislike Git

Filed under: Programming,Work — bblackmoor @ 10:18

Once upon a time, I did not use a source code repository at all. Unless I made a backup copy, when I changed a line of code, there was no way for me to know what it had changed from. Collaboration meant sharing files and manually figuring out how to merge our changes together. It was a mess.

Then I discovered CVS (Concurrent Versioning System). It kept track of every change, and made it much easier. I had no desire whatsoever to go back to the old way. Still, CVS wasn’t perfect. There were some things it did poorly, or did not do at all.

Git workflow

Along came SVN (Subversion). Subversion was written with the goal of replacing CVS by addressing CVS’ deficiencies, while remaining as easy to use as CVS. I loved it, and promoted it among all of my colleagues (some were quicker to migrate from CVS than others). Again, I had no desire whatsoever to go back to the old way. While not perfect, my complaints about SVN were few, infrequent, and very mild.

Along came Git. Lots of people said it was great. I didn’t see anything it did better than SVN (nothing I needed to do, anyway). I used it for a couple of projects. It was really, really complicated. Ordinary day-to-day use was about twice as complicated as SVN, to do the exact same thing. More complicated tasks, such as maintaining a vendor branch (one of the tasks I perform periodically), were four times as complicated in Git.

What is the appeal of Git? Why is there such a bandwagon of people promoting it? Supposedly Git handles merges better than SVN does, but I haven’t seen it. Supposedly Git’s better because it’s “distributed“. Frankly, I think that makes it worse.

Left to my own devices, I would like to go back to Subversion, but anyone who writes code for a living does not do so in a vacuum. If the team uses Git, you use Git. Life goes on.

Saturday, 2013-08-03

The Mugs of August – Mashery mug

Filed under: Art,Food,Work — bblackmoor @ 12:38

MasheryMasheryMashery

One of the great things about my company is that they send me to conferences every so often. This mug came from php|tek 2012, which was a great convention held at a terrible hotel located an hour away from Chicago. It was a horrible location for a conference, honestly. However, the conference itself was really good.

This mug came from Mashery, which was one of the sponsors of the conferences. They provide API management for third parties. But what I think is neat is that the mug changes when you put something hot in it.

Thursday, 2013-08-01

The Mugs of August – DriveThru mug

Filed under: Art,Food,Work — bblackmoor @ 10:14

DriveThruDriveThru

This mug was made for me by a colleague. The logo on the front is DriveThru, which is the parent brand of most of sites operated by the company I work for. The most well-known of these, and the one I like best, is DriveThruRPG. I loved DriveThruRPG before I worked here, and I’ll love it after I’ve moved on.

The back of the mug has my name in a “hobbit” style font.

The details are kind of hard to see in photographs, but it looks great in person. This is one of my favorite mugs.

Tuesday, 2012-12-11

Backing up Google documents

Filed under: Software,The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 12:39

I just had a panic moment when I thought that a Google document I’d spent the better part of a week writing had vanished. This is what I plan to do from now on, once a week, until I forget about it and stop doing it.

  1. In Google Docs, go down to the far left bottom menu item, and select “More V” and then “All Items”.
  2. Click the select box at the top of the screen next to “TITLE” to select all items.
  3. Click the “More V” button at the top middle of the screen, next to the eyeball (“Preview”) icon, and select “Download”.
  4. Select “Change all formats to… OpenOffice”, and click the “Download” button.
  5. Wait a couple of minutes and then download the file somewhere.

Tuesday, 2012-10-16

Bugs and mopping

Filed under: Gaming,Home,Work,Writing — bblackmoor @ 20:06
angry mop man

What a day. I tracked down a very devious bug of my own design and fixed it, so hopefully that project I am two days behind on will be finished before I am four days behind on it.

Then I cleaned the hot tub thoroughly with a mop and a bucket of bleach-water, in the dark. Thank goodness for security lights and cotton string mops! There’s nothing quite like a cotton string mop for a job like that. Then I filled the tub and started it up. The pump is running and the tub doesn’t appear to be leaking, but there’s a lot of water splashed all over the place so I can’t be absolutely certain about the lack of leaking. The current water temperature is 58 degrees — let’s hope the temperature rises!

And now I get to spend the next couple of hours before bedtime working on the Character Sheet Helper for Bulletproof Blues. I have renamed it from “Character Builder” in the hope that the new name will better convey the notion that this spreadsheet isn’t required to play the game: its main purpose is to help make attractive, easy-to-share character sheets.

Thursday, 2012-05-31

Collaboration marketplace needed

Filed under: Books,Work,Writing — bblackmoor @ 09:01

Old booksI had an idea a couple of months ago. It would be a marketplace for writers, editors, and artists to come together as collaborators. It would be driven by the authors: in the new model of book distribution, authors are in control. They set the prices, they decide where the book will be distributed, and they are the ones that get paid by the distributors.

But authors need talented editors and gifted artists. Most authors aren’t either of those things. How is an author to find an editor with a good track record, one who sees themselves as on the authors side? How can an author find a cover artist or map artist who can meet a deadline and produce work according to spec? And how can the editors and artists find the authors who need them and who will pay on time (editors and artists want to feed their cats, too).

So my idea was a marketplace for this, where authors, artists, and editors would meet as peers. Everyone would be able to review everyone else, but only if they’d worked with them. The marketplace site would make sure that everyone got paid, and would act as the middleman to keep everyone honest. For this service, the marketplace would keep, say, 10% of the transacction (which should be enough to cover the site’s costs).

I pitched this to the company I work for, but it was too far from our current business focus to interest them. I would love to get it started, but I don’t have the start-up capital or the business acumen to make it work. I wish I did. So, here it is: a business that I believe is desperately needed. If you have the resources to start a business but just lack the idea, feel free to use this one.

Sunday, 2012-02-19

Looking at the snow, February 19, 2012

Filed under: Family,Friends,Work — bblackmoor @ 16:21
falling snow

I am here with my cat Vixen watching the snow fall, and feeling very grateful for how my life has turned out. I am not the smartest, wisest, or most hard working person I know. And yet, here I am.

I think I have generally made good decisions, but I have also made a number of mistakes. That my mistakes have not ruined my life is … I am tempted to say miraculous, but of course that’s nonsense. Good things happen to people who are better and worse than I am, and bad things happen to people who are better and worse than I am. There’s no secret plan. No hidden hands are pulling strings. Life is just chaos. We can ameliorate it a bit, but we can’t eliminate it. We can choose whether to build a house on sand, but the snow falls on the just and the unjust alike.

I’m not sure I would even want my life to have been perfect. Some of my most entertaining memories are from times when things went wrong. I once spent 24 hours in snowstorm, trapped in a crappy little Chevy S10 pickup truck that was nearly out of gas. I started the engine for a few minutes once every couple of hours, just to keep from freezing. All I had to eat was a frozen pizza I found behind the seat. I had nothing to drink at all.

It’s not 60 days in a Chilean mine, but it’s about as life-threatening as my memories get.

I have been really phenomenally lucky, all thing considered.

I wonder about my family and my friends, sometimes. They are good people, by and large. They have made decisions, some better than mine, some worse than mine. Chance and chaos have taken their toll. I look at their lives, and I would not trade with any of them. Do they feel the same way about mine? I really hope so. I hope that despite the things that have gone wrong, that they appreciate what they have, and would keep it even if offered the chance to trade.

The snow is a couple of inches deep now. I wasn’t expecting this. It was 60 degrees yesterday (15.5 degrees Celsius).

I really hated this house when we bought it. I hated it for not being what I wanted. I wanted two basins in the master bath. I wanted a vaulted ceiling in the living room. I wanted hardwood floors. And so on. I am more materialistic than I would like. I think it’s because I grew up poor (although even then, I never truly wanted for anything — I had a safe home, and food, and clothes, and toys, and parents who loved me).

Desire is the source of all suffering, or so the Buddhists say. There’s some truth in that, obviously.

yellow flower

I have been noticing more about the house than what it isn’t, the past few days. Being grateful for what is, rather than resenting what isn’t. I would like to do more of that.

I just noticed that the yellow flower that bloomed yesterday, the first flower I have seen here, is covered by snow. I am going to go put a plastic cup over it. Maybe it will survive.

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