December 2008

Update, January 5, 2008: Captain David Faggard, Chief of Emerging Technology for the U.S. Air Force, sent me an updated version of their chart, whose changes are based on your comments. The chart appears in this article, and you can click on it to download a full-sized PDF version.

You’ve probably seen many articles on companies and organizations saying that they take social media seriously. Here’s one such organization that you might not expect: the United States Air Force. Take a look at the Air Force Blog Assessment chart, reproduced below:

U.S. Air Force's "Web Posting Response Assessment V.2" chart
Click the diagram to download the PDF version (455K).

The “rules of engagement” are quite good. You might find them to be useful for your own blogs, whether personal or corporate.

WebInkNow recently covered the Air Force’s approach to social media, which is far more involved than many companies who only pay lip service to the idea. They’ve assigned someone the role of “Chief of Emerging Technology”, whose job is to develop strategy, policy and plans for the Air Force’s “communicators” and whose mission is to use or build web applications as a means of engaging Airmen and the general public in conversation. The goal is to make every single Airman a communicator.

The Air Force has quite a presence on the web, which includes:

As with the Blog Assessment chart, you might want to use the Air Force’s social media strategy as a model for your own. Check out WebInkNow’s article for more.

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The Old Univac Ad, Remixed

by Joey deVilla on December 30, 2008

Call me easily entertained, but I still find remixes inspired by the movie 300 funny, such as Brian Jepson’s remix of the Univac ad from the previous entry:

tonight_we_divide_by_zero

You can click the photo above to see the remix at full size or here to see it in Brian Jepson’s Flickr collection.

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An Old Univac Ad: “You’re Trying to Divide by Zero”

by Joey deVilla on December 30, 2008

Here’s a computer ad from 1956 – it’s for Univac computers, a brand name that was as synonymous with “computer” in the same way that “Xerox” was once synonymous with “photocopier”:

Old Univac ad: "You're Trying to Divide by Zero"
Click the ad to see it at full size.
Ad courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

Here’s the text of the ad. If it seems a little strange to your modern sensibilities, it’s because it’s ad copy from the era of Mad Men — that’s just how advertising was back then. Note that lack of technical jargon or specs, neither of which would’ve been useful back then, when very few people would’ve known what they meant:

“You’re Trying to Divide by Zero”

A scientist, testing a formula on Univac recently, was amazed to see the computing system stop, then automatically type the reproof: “You’re trying to divide by zero.” A quick check proved that Univac, as always, was right.

This graphic demonstration points out just one of the many Remington Rand refinements in the art of computer programming and operation. For Univac has been trained to spot human errors. It can now carry out commands given in simple business English. It can even manufacture its own program of instructions automatically – at electronic speeds, with unparalleled accuracy.

These skills have been developed as a direct result of Univac’s unique position in the field of electronic data-processing. Because, with every Univac delivered goes 10 years’ experience in electronic computing…5 years’ experience in the commercial type of data-processing. This wealth of background in programming and operation is unobtainable elsewhere.

The unprecedented savings of Univac data-processing have been proved by solving actual consumer problems – not by working out theoretical solutions with non-existent computers. You can be sure that, when you install the Univac, you’ll get under way faster, surer and more economically because the System has already handled similar work.

Univac is now at work in leading organizations throughout the country. And, in today’s competitive market, the company which cuts its overhead first comes out on top. So don’t wait until 1957…1958…or 1959 to cash in on the tremendous savings available to you now with the Remington Rand Univac System.

Some observations:

  • Error messages: while old hat to even modern laypeople, must’ve seemed like a great leap forward back then.
  • “Univac, as always, was right.” Can you imagine even Apple’s blowing-sunshine-up-your-ass ads making that claim about their machines today?
  • “It can now carry out commands given in simple business English.” I’m guessing that they mean COBOL. One era’s technological wonder is another era’s coding horror.

    [Update: Looks like I got my programming language timelines wrong. “mistercow” points out on Reddit that COBOL didn’t appear until 1959 and suggests that the “commands in simple business English” language is probably FLOW-MATIC, one of COBOL’s predecessors.]

  • “…with every Univac delivered goes 10 years’ experience in electronic computing…5 years’ experience in the commercial type of data-processing". These short timeframes may seem quaint, but keep in mind that the concept of what is computable isn’t even 100 years old yet. You should also note that web applications are only slightly older than 10 years and that XMLHttpRequest, which makes Ajax possible, turns ten in the new year (it was released by Microsoft as an ActiveX object for Internet Explorer 5 for Outlook Web Access in 1999).

And finally, two things that a programmer in today’s economy should keep in mind. It’s almost as if they’re special messages sent through time:

  1. “The unprecedented savings of Univac data-processing have been proved by solving actual consumer problems – not by working out theoretical solutions with non-existent computers.”
  2. “…in today’s competitive market, the company which cuts its overhead first comes out on top.”

Although these statements were made back when computers were rare and extremely expensive and well before there was a computer on every office desk – in fact, well before computers could even fit on desks – they hold true today. If you’re a programmer looking to make a living in 2009, it’ll pay to develop applications that solve actual problems and either help people make money or save it. To borrow a line from Don Dodge at Startup Empire, make sure your applications are aspirin (must-haves), not vitamins (nice-to-haves)!

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Off for the Holidays

by Joey deVilla on December 24, 2008

The aftermath of a Santa/U.F.O. collision with Santa filing a report and the cops hauling an alien away

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve got a lot of family stuff to do over the next couple of days. You never know, I just might get the chance to sneak in a blog entry or two, but I’m going to play it safe and say that Global Nerdy (and its bigger, older brother blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century) will return on Monday, December 29th.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Festivus, Happy Holidays – however you choose to spend the next couple of days, stay safe, enjoy yourself, and I’ll see you soon!

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Ruby on Rails and Merb Merge!

by Joey deVilla on December 23, 2008

The Merb/Rails rivalry could’ve gone as depicted on the cover of the science fiction “classic” shown below…

the_human_bat_v_the_robot_gangster

 

(I think Merb would be the Human Bat and Rails would be the Robot Gangster.)

…but instead, the two projects have merged! The result will be the upcoming Rails 3.

The merger is commemorated on a “plaque” page on the Rails site titled The Day Merb Joined Rails, which I’ve excerpted below:

Merb was started two years ago by Ezra Zygmuntowicz as a tiny framework to serve ERb templates from Mongrel. This quickly grew into much more and carved out a niche as an alternative Rails stack. Merbists focused on among other things a small speedy core, being ORM/JavaScript agnostic, and having a rigorous API for extensions.

Along with the expansion in ambition came the fact that Merb and Rails started sharing more and more of the same ideas and even implementation. This lead to a fair amount of unnecessary duplication on both sides of the fence and lead to some paradox of choice. When do I choose one over the other and when?

Rails 3

On December 23rd, we decided to end the duplication and the paradox of choice. That was the day we declared our intentions of bringing the best ideas of Merb into Rails 3. That was the day we announced our commitment to work together.

It’s nice to see this sort of thing happening. It’s more common to see projects forking over the tiniest disagreements, a la “The People’s Front of Judea” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

It’s a win for both projects, as well as the users. Rails gets some much-needed optimization, the ability to shed excess weight for speed, framework agnosticism and an API that won’t break with upgrades, and Merb gets a much bigger development community and mindshare momentum that Rails enjoys. Better still, the merger now has both teams’ big brains working on the same project, and isn’t that what the spirit of the DRY principle is all about?

Congratulations to both the Merb and Rails teams! And hey, congrats to all you Ruby/Rails/Merb developers out there too! 2009 just got a little more interesting for all of us.

Links

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O’Reilly’s “Head First” Books Now Available in PDF

by Joey deVilla on December 20, 2008

head_first_books

These days, I try to get the PDF version of a computer book when it makes sense. When it comes to more timeless books — say Code Complete (the book from which Jeff Atwood gets the name for his blog, Coding Horror) and The Pragmatic ProgrammerI think I’d still prefer a dead-tree edition. For books on a specific version of a language, platform or tool, which have a limited lifespan, I would argue that the PDF version is the better choice. I used to hate reading PDFs onscreen, but in these days of LCD screens with resolutions at least 1200 pixels wide, and especially with a dual-monitor setup, I find them pretty readable.

One book series that I wished was available in PDF form is O’Reilly’s Head First series. A co-creation of Kathy Sierra, who knows how to communicate knowledge and passion at the same time, this series features lively prose, story-telling and pictures aplenty to create some of the most comprehensible and enjoyable tech books out there. Consider the original “Gang of Four” book on design patterns and Head First Design Patterns: while the former is considerably meatier and more rigorous, I consult it rarely, and only as a reference work. The Head First book? I pick it up every now and again and re-read it just for kicks, and it’s the book I send people to when they ask about design patterns. It’s that way with all their books; when I was taking a project management course, Head First PMP was the only book that didn’t anaesthetize me.

O’Reilly has just announced that the entire Head First series is now available in PDF form – even the books that aren’t available in dead-tree format yet, namely:

The PDFs are all priced around US$30, which is about $10 cheaper than the print editions. These prices seem a bit steep compared to the PDF editions of Pragmatic Programmers books, which hover around US$20, but then again, the Pragmatics’ print books are also $10 cheaper than O’Reilly’s. Still it’s nice to have the Head First series available as PDFs. If you’re doing some last-minute Christmas shopping for a geek friend, you could always give one of these PDFs (especially for one of the not-yet-in-print books). If you’re feeling especially generous, you could give it on a USB key.

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HoHoTO

by Joey deVilla on December 16, 2008

hohoto_logo

What happens when Toronto geeks decide to throw a party on short notice to raise money for the local food bank, using Twitter to put forth the initial idea and as a way to publicize the event? HoHoTO happens, and 600 people show up and over CAD$20,000 gets raised!

To find out more, go read my article on the HoHoTO on my personal blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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