Archive for April, 2006

The More Things Change…

April 30th, 2006 No comments

Like any industry, ours likes to pretend that today’s problems are new and unique – it’s part of how we justify our salaries! And while the demands on what we are expected to do with technology continues to exceed the gains made with improved languages and hardware, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, take collaborative work environments. With today’s focus on outsourcing, far flung offices, and distributed supply chains, using technology to help distributed teams work together is a must. While some people might think this is a relatively new phenomena, in truth, Douglas Engelbart was working on this issue back in the early 60′s. A while back, I stumbled upon these two videos (part 1 and part 2 from here) of a presentation from Alan Kay circa 1987. About a third of the way through the first part, Kay shows a video of Engelbart demonstrating some really amazing stuff. In the presentation, Engelbart works with a colleague located about 30 miles away – along with sharing the desktop, they’ve got full audio and video connectivity. Needless to say, I was pretty wowed.

Further along, you see some amazing applications developed by school children! While some of this may seem trivial today, you have to consider when this was filmed. I’ve long been fascinated by novel ways technology is applied in the classroom – something beyond using a word processor or doing some research on the web. I have to wonder what has become of programs like those discussed in this talk…

These days you can’t swing a short iron without running into some discussion of patent law and how it applies to software (or more often doesn’t apply) but I was really surprised to hear it come up in the Q&A! To paraphrase Alan, while he feels that protecting inventions is good, he’s dead on when he says: “there is enormous confusion between what’s an idea and what’s an invention”. He argues that there should be some protection but that it can be (and is) abused.

A little later, he argues for a more than just a technical education and as a graduate of a small liberal arts college, I was very pleased to hear him urge computer scientists to get a liberal arts background. He argues that the challenge is to find the aesthetic. Frankly, I think my BA in computer science makes me a far more well rounded individual and has allowed me to perform a wider variety of duties. For instance, these days I spend a lot of my time moderating meetings and giving presentations – with a strictly technical background, I might not be quite as adept playing that role.

Anyway, a very fascinating presentation by a giant of computing. I highly recommend you take the time to watch these; despite their age, they are still quite timely.

Categories: Off Topic, Software, Talks, Usability Tags:

More Ajax and Scalability

April 24th, 2006 2 comments

Well, more than a few people have picked up on the various articles floating around regarding Ajax and scalability. Thanks to Michael Mahemoff for reading my piece and reposting it (check the comments). Stuart Halloway over on Relevance also picked up on the thread (alas he didn’t notice my commentary…) and made a great point – the server vendors win in this game! Interestingly, this is the second time in less than a week that I’ve read a variant of this quote (though it’s not attributed in Stuart’s article, according to wikipedia, it’s Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut).

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.

Anyway, good call on the server vendors – they should all be lining up behind Ajax (is it a coincidence that IBM leads the Open Ajax project?) Dave Johnson also gets into the mix with Scaling AJAX. I liked his allusion to Spider Man but he made a great I was really glad to see him refer to the MacRumors post on handling the Macworld keynote (see the overview as well).

It took a few days, but seems like this issue has gotten some visibility!

Scott over on the Zimbra blog has a great take on Ajax and scaling. I particularly like referring to Ajax apps as “husky” as opposed to thin or thick and he’s dead on with this comment:

In terms of its broader application architecture, the Web platform looks a lot more like a mainframe application: Yes, the 3270 green screen is replaced by a far richer browser and hypertext mark-up, but more of the UI and virtually all of the business logic (modulo Javascript field validation) is done on the server.

At one point, I had a CIO that called our web apps “lipstick on a pig” – we were just webifying mainframe apps… That said, most of my customers really enjoyed not having a character limit to their screens!

Categories: Ajax, Development, Software Tags:

Ajax and Server Load

April 20th, 2006 99 comments

At OTUG on Tuesday, we got the “but does it scale” question regarding Ajax; a topic that has actually come up at work in regards to the Google Suggest functionality (incidentally, Joel’s article about Google Suggest first triggered my interest in the XHR object). Now, I’ve talked about this a bit in the past and we basically said – of course it scales…if you do it right. Obviously, Ajax can get “chatty” and I really do have some concerns about dozens of fine grained calls – to this end, I brought up the initial forays into EJB land that resulted in good old Data Transfer Objects. All in all, I’m of the opinion that Ajax should increase performance by lazily fetching data and, when properly architected, scale horizontally quite well. Interestingly enough, it turns out that this very question is making its way around the blogosphere…

Today, Tim Bray posted The Cost of AJAX where he refers to a post from James Governor essentially asking for thoughts about WebSphere guru Billy Newport‘s recent writings. Billy got things started with the innocently titled: AJAX and its impact on servers. Now, I’ve tracked Billy’s blog on and off (I worked on WebSphere based apps for many years) but I’m not really sure what he’s basing this quote on:

I think it’s becoming clear now that AJAX enabled applications generate a higher load on an application server than a non AJAX application.

Really? Considering that Basecamp ran on one server for its first year, I’m curious what causes him to make a statement like that. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth to it, but I haven’t been hearing any screaming about this issue; I’m not sure, but I suspect Gmail gets a few hits a day and it seems to be doing OK… Of course maybe he’s just trying to sell more IBM gear ;)

Distributed caching is a critical piece of the toolkit to help with this. Technologies like ObjectGrid allow an application server to pull data from a remote ObjectGrid cluster in under a ms.

In the followup The hidden costs of lazy fetch with AJAX, Billy once again plugs ObjectGrid but he also challenges us to consider patterns for client/server interaction (might I suggest Michael Mahemoff‘s AjaxPatterns site). Billy mentions that every database call has a fixed cost so executing more than is necessary can have a negative impact on your application. But he rightly states this is nothing new – frankly, just like the security issues that occasionally crop up in the Ajax space. Hey, this isn’t rocket surgery, the same rules still apply. Now that we can finally give our users a truly rich interface while still retaining the benefits of a server based app doesn’t mean we can forget all the lessons we’ve learned the last decade.

So back to Tim who wanders in and points out that most web pages are already making multiple calls! I especially like this quote:

So saying “AJAX is expensive” (or that it’s cheap) is like saying “A mountain bike is slower than a battle tank” (or that it’s faster). The truth depends on what you’re doing with it.

That said, I am interested in what Ajax means for load testing. If we say our application needs to support 100 concurrent users, what happens when said users are making 20 calls each instead of say, 5? Ajax isn’t a cure for cancer and adding it to your application won’t instantly make you the target of a takeover bid from Google. But, used properly, it can significantly improve your user experience. There’s a chance you might have to add more hardware, but frankly that’s a nice problem to have.

You know, what I really love about Dilbert is how Scott Adams seems to be writing about things that are happening in my workplace when they happen…what I love about the blogosphere is how questions that come up in the course of my day are debated by the likes of Tim and Billy! For whatever reason, this thread doesn’t seem to have been picked up by the “major” Ajax sites but this is important stuff. I echo calls from the comments to back up the claims with data – but I’ll leave you with this thought from Josh Peters:

In the end though, it’s really nothing new: unless you understand a technology you cannot expect to weild it well.

Well said.

Categories: Ajax, Development, Software Tags:

OTUG Slides

April 20th, 2006 No comments

On Tuesday, Ryan and I had the distinct pleasure of speaking at the Object Technology User Group (OTUG) – many thanks to Aleh Matus for having us. If you’ve never checked out OTUG, I really recommend it. They’ve had quite a string of amazing speakers including Michael Feathers, Andy Hunt, Obie Fernandez, Gavin King, Eric Evans, and Martin Fowler. The gorgeous weather we’ve been having lately kept the crowd a little sparse but we got some great questions including “does Ajax scale” which I’ll discuss in a bit.

There were some friendly faces in the crowd including my protege and former coffee buddy Joe Athman (’bout time you came, sorry you didn’t win something), my manager Scott Rens along with those rabble rousers Jason Selby and Eric Vossler (apologies if I’ve misspelled any names). Taconite user and contributor Eric Olson was also present – thanks for making the long drive, hope the weather held off! We had a great time and really enjoyed ourselves – thanks to all that came. Of course I was a little concerned that my SJU license plates would draw unwanted attention to my vehicle – after all, OTUG is hosted by arch rival St. Thomas…

Anyway, here are the slides – as usual, this is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Creative Commons License

By the way, if you host a user group or similar gathering and you’re looking for a speaker, please let Ryan or me know – we’re always interested and we work cheap ;)

Categories: Ajax, Software, Talks Tags:

FoA Reviewed On Relevance

April 15th, 2006 No comments

Justin Gehtland recently posted some reviews of the first round of Ajax books; for his take on Foundations of Ajax click here (thanks to Brent Ashley for pointing these out to me – Justin must have switched his RSS feed recently because I had to modify my subscription in Bloglines). First off, I appreciate Justin’s kind words about me personally and as I think is obvious from my NF Quotes post and my summary of day 2 entry, the feeling is mutual! All in all, I like Justin’s take on the book and he’s one of the few that really got what we were trying to do – Ryan and I have always felt that the real strengths of FoA are the tools chapters. While IDEs are catching up, we’re largely on our own when it comes to coding JavaScript – which is why we spent a good chunk of the book writing about the developer’s toolbox.

As I mentioned in the comments, we would have covered the libraries in more depth than a short appendix but at the time we wrote the book (nearly a year ago now…wow, time really flies) it really wasn’t clear who the “winners” would be and while the space is still wide open, there is at least some consolidation around frameworks like Dojo, Prototype, and That said, we *will* be covering them (along with others) in our next book – Pro Ajax with Java (more of that soon!). If we ever write a second edition of FoA, we will certainly keep Justin’s remarks in mind.

Anyway, thanks for the review Justin and I really hope we’ll have some time to chat at RailsConf!

Categories: Ajax, Book Reviews Tags:

PaD is Out!

April 15th, 2006 No comments

I meant to post this earlier (I’m a little behind on my blogging) but…Practices of an Agile Developer (Amazon link) is now availalbe! For my take on PaD, see my earlier post, take a look at Andy’s announcement (looking forward to those podcasts Andy!) as well as Venkat‘s. This really is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. Congratulations to Andy and Venkat for writing such a great book!

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:


April 15th, 2006 No comments

This little blog recently crossed some magic threshold – despite very few incoming links (sigh) I’ve recently been inundated with blog spam. When I first started this little project, I would occasionally have something waiting in WordPress‘s moderated comment area but things got so bad a few weeks back that I had to install a couple of plugins (thus why you’ll now have to answer a simple math question to post a comment). It appears that this has choked off the spammers and I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause the three of you that occasionally comment here but I got tired of having to go in an delete three pages of crap…

Though completely unrelated, I’ve noticed the amount of spam coming into one of my accounts has gone up recently (not sure how that one was released to the wild but so be it). While a nuisance, I really don’t get how people get caught up in some of the schemes. For instance, I’ve been getting a lot of mail warning me that my “online credit card” has high-risk activity on it. Of course I’m not really sure what they mean by my online credit card (though I do indeed use one card primarily used for web based purchases) and they make a vague reference to my Chase Bank User Agreement… While this is quite obviously fake, I can see why the body of the email *might* entice someone into clicking on the link however, don’t people bother to look at the from address? Does anyone honestly think that a real Chase rep would be emailing me from a freakin Yahoo account? Never mind that there are several email addresses in the to line… It really amazes me how easy it is to fool some people – though with email being essentially free, you don’t need many people to fall for the trap.

I’ve also seen a recent twist on the “help us launder some money” scam. This time, someone’s father was killed on the way to see the family of the late president of Togo (amazingly, they actually reference a real person and the actual date of his death – even spammers can use the Internet for research!) and the family fled to somewhere in Africa (why is it always Africa? what’s wrong with eastern Europe?) For the privilege of stashing a cool 8.5 million I can get 20% of the take! Wow, who could possibly pass that up? Ahh the insanity. And don’t even get me started on the volumes of crap that come into our Foundations email account – seriously someone must have posted that somewhere. Sigh.

Categories: Off Topic, Rants Tags:

Brain Games

April 6th, 2006 No comments

If you’ve checked out my recent reads page, you’ll notice that Everything Bad is Good for You is near the top of the list. First off, this is really a great book – one I highly recomend. Now if you aren’t familiar with the premise, you might be a bit put off, but Steve Johnson essentially says that TV and video games might not be as bad for our brain as we think. Of course he isn’t advocating we all stop reading Shakespeare in favor of vegging out to the latest “reality” show but he has some really good points. First, have you ever noticed the level of complexity found in today’s most popular shows? Just count the number of characters and plot lines in Lost, 24, or Sopranos and get back to me…

Yesterday I had lunch with one of my closest friends and on the way over I was listening to NPR (I know, it’s yet another sign I’m getting older) when All Things Considered covered Nintendo’s new game Brain Age (give a listen here). Though only released in Japan (why is almost all the cool stuff released in Europe or Asia first?) the premise is that playing the game regularly will make you smarter. Quite interesting stuff… Shortly after I sent this link to frequent brain blogger Kathy Sierra, I ran into Can a game make you smarter? over on Clive Thompson‘s blog. In this post, Clive points to his most recent Wired column (along with a podcast) where he also touches on Brain Age and similar topics. Of course Clive mentions Steve Johnson’s book! You’ve got to love convergence huh?

I’m certainly no expert on brains or games and I certainly think “today’s youth” spend WAY too much time in the virtual world (told you I was getting older) but there’s definitely something to this. The future is rushing at us faster and faster – we aren’t in Kansas anymore and the skills and techniques that we’ll need to thrive (heck even cope) with the next 50 years are certainly different than those of the last 50. We may not agree with some of the violence and attitudes displayed in games but considering the impact game technology is having on society, we best not dismiss it out of hand.

Categories: Brain, Games Tags:

What Did we Meet About?

April 2nd, 2006 4 comments

I’ve written about meetings on more than one occasion (here, here, and here) but I recently ran into a very interesting article by Jared Spool called The One-Minute Test. Jared describes a technique his team uses at the end of meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Given a 60 second time limit, every participant is asked to write down their answers to the following questions:

  1. What was the big idea? (What was the most important thing you heard at the meeting?)
  2. What was your big surprise? (What was the thing you saw or heard that surprised you the most?)
  3. What’s your big question? (What’s the biggest unanswered question you have at this time?)

Each person then share their answers with everyone else (or a moderator can read them as well)…and you can guess what often happens. As expected, you can get some pretty diverse answers – answers that can often save you some trouble later. How often have you walked out of a meeting assuming one thing only to discover that your coworker (or worse your boss) was assuming something totally different? Has that every caused you some pain?

To me, this feels like something that David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) might propose – it would certainly help flesh out the action items. As much as I’d love to apply this approach to my work, our meetings are so packed, I can’t imagine anyone being to keen on me carving off 10-15 minutes to discuss the meeting! Though I think it might actually save time in the long run, I bet that’d be a tough sell… Anyway, I thought this was a pretty interesting approach – one that I hope to employ at some point.

Categories: Off Topic, Rants Tags:

Google Romance

April 1st, 2006 1 comment

Just when you think Google has added every service imaginable, they announce Google Romance. Using special search algorithms and Contextual Dating, even geeks can now find love. Seriously, if we let Google organize our most personal files and emails, why not our love life? Quoting the press release:

“Our mission, as you might have heard, is to organize the world’s information,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s senior vice president, product management. “And let’s face it: in what area of life is the world’s information more disorganized than romance? We thought we could use our search technology to help you find that special someone, then send you on a date and use contextual ads to help you, ya know – close the deal.”

Thanks to targeted ads, you even get a free romantic evening out of the deal – man, how do you beat a free date? I’m sure this will take off so you better upload your profile soon, they’ll probably experience huge demand and have to close off the service for a while. Man, it’s amazing what those Google engineers dream up with their 20% projects! Oh…and in case you haven’t figured this out yet…check the darn calendar.

Categories: Off Topic Tags: