Archive for Computers

Google Wave: it’s a big one

Anyone who’s talked with me about computers and communication know that I have wanted to rewrite the email architecture and have a lot of good ideas about what is needed to make it happen. Well, yesterday the folks at google trumped me. And boy did they.

Now I’m not one to generally proclaim ahead of time that something is going to be the next big something. In fact the first time I opened a web page back in the 90s long before most people had heard of “http” I merely thought “yeah, that’s nice but nothing amazingly new”. Even http was a minor improvement on other things. The famous web 2.0, that brought us many cool webpages like google maps, facebook, etc, were really just minor steps forward in technology that I again thought were cool, but nothing outstanding.

For the first time, I’m here to say: Google Wave will indeed change the world. Or the way we work with it. It’s the first technology that has ever caught me completely off guard.

Learn About It

The best way to learn about it is to watch the demo video. You probably want to watch at least from about 0:05 to 0:15 on it to get a feel for how cool it is. The trick, I think, will be to stop watching it as it keeps rolling out new things as you watch it (the interesting non-geeky content is a full hour long, out of the hour and a half). Though the video is targeted for developers (and as a developer it targets me perfectly), but it’s not so geeky that everyone else will be annoyed.

I May Actually Quit Using My Current Mail Reader

I’ve tried, over the years, to move away from the mail reader I use today (something 99% of the population have never heard of: Gnus). The reason I have never succeeded in finding anything else that would fit my bill is that gnus helps me manage email like nothing else can. Yesterday, on May 28th 2009, I received 4661 pieces of email. Now, certainly a large portion of that is spam. But a lot of it was stuff I needed to at least consider and the power of gnus lets me sort it appropriately so I can actually handle the load. But that’s a whole other subject for another time (many people wonder how I do it; I should write it up sometime too).

Google Wave, on the other hand, may finally offer enough of a new enough complete change in the way communication happens that I’ll actually be able to keep up with the level of communication that I need.

Features

It provides real-time updates, shared tagging, proper thread control, reduced bandwidth, retroactive publishing a conversation to a new person. All these features are likely enough to actually pull me over. There are issues as well, and I’ll probably document those later, but on the whole they’re a fantastic change in thinking and are a lot along the lines of how I’ve wanted to revamp things but I think they’ve succeeded in taking to a level further than I was thinking.

It’s really like mixing email, web, chat, and usenet news all together in a single form. Or it looks like it at least. Kudos on taking the best of all those highly useful worlds and actually getting them to fit together.

And they already have it working on android and the iphone!

The Right Developmental Path

One of the reasons that I don’t use gmail much, or many other web-based solutions is that I don’t necessarily think that http and javascript are always the right tool for every job. Yes, javascript turns websites into wonderfully interactive sites, but in the end I still prefer writing text/editing into speedy local applications (I’m saying this while typing into a web page, oddly enough).

With waves, however, they’re extending both the web API and the protocol definition itself to the world. The protocol is based on XMPP, which is the standardized version of Jabber, and this is huge. This means that people will be able to write import/export components for waves and thus you can actually continue to edit in something else and publish it as a wave later.

Kudos to their forward thinking about the realm of standardization and allowing data access to other types of applications and programming languages. This is what will make it huge.

There is always a but…

I do wonder about some of the negative communication aspects that could happen. Centralized data storage about a conversation thread is a great thing when the data is generally public in the first place.

However, we still need to be careful when transmitting important information. Wave provides the ability to grant someone retroactive access to a wave. Imagine having a wave discussion and then suddenly excluding person X from a branch of it and then later intentionally or accidentally granting person X access again. Imagine how they’d feel when they realize they’ve been excluded. This happens all the time in email, but when in email when person X sees part of the conversation again he likely didn’t see the message that said “I’ve excluded person X because …”. This is really just a new management issue, but by far the benefit outweighs the negative.

(and there are more odd use cases, but certainly the benefits will outweigh the oddities of them as well)

I Can’t Wait…

And I’m not sure I’ve ever said that before about an upcoming technology.

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Why computers don’t save us time…

It’s been long debated how much time computers actually save in our lives. Multiple productivity studies have shown that after spending quite a bit of cash to bring an office into the modern age the increase in productivity is actually very low (if I recall, most studies said around 8%). But I’d argue they’re still worth the cost outlay but not because they provide an increase in productivity.

Pencil, Paper and Typewriters

Our tools were simple before computers. If you needed to do a bit of math, you simply did it. Those were the days! The problem came when you needed to do a whole lot of math. Repeatedly. Over and over. Sure it could still be done but it was mind-numbingling boring. Calculators improved things by removing the tediousness of the math calculations and allowed significant improvements in the data crunching per hour metric. Calculators actually provided significant increases in productivity, for the few that actually needed them for their job. Certainly McDonalds couldn’t possibly serve so many customers if the cashiers actually had to calculate the correct change for every transaction.

Enter the Modern Era

And then came computers (big ones at first that only did small things followed by small ones that do big things). Computers, like calculators, save time for certain tasks (but be careful what tasks you pick, which is likely going to be a future topic in its own right). Now when you’re plugging away on your budget and trying to figure out how to assign more money to the important mini-golf green-fees row you can twiddle all the other rows as needed until everything balances out ok (who needs healthy organic food when there is balls to hit into a castle). And remember when you wrote that paper in college (about the average hair density on a baby bunny vs a adult bunny or something like that)? That backspace key sure saved you compared to the time it would have taken you to use a typewriter. (for those that never had to use a typewriter, you’ll have to trust me on this one; for those that couldn’t use computers to write college papers, you’ll have to trust me too.)

But did you really save time?

Or did you simply redirect your time?

Virtual Housecleaning

Congratulations, you now inhabit two residences. You’re physical residence is probably getting slowly covered in dust and dirty dishes. It requires regular cleaning and maintenance to stay on top of it all. Well, I hate to tell ya but you probably spend a measurable amount of time cleaning up you desktop, organizing your bookmarks, deleting old files, installing and upgrading software, training yourself how to create power-point slides full of animated circles and arrows. (If you’re not doing these things, your disk is probably a mess. But hey, maybe your house is a mess too.)

When was the last time you moved? Some of you are hopefully quickly wondering “did he mean move physically or virtually?” Well, both. They both take a lot of effort. When you get a spiffy new machine, you have to move your old data (boxes of unused junk) from your old residence to your new one. You need to replace older software (cat-scratched furniture) with better versions with fancy-dancy graphics (untorn fabric with polka-dots).

But who cares?

Ok, now that I’ve convinced you that you haven’t saved any time by owning a computer (I have convinced you, right) you should disregard your sudden depression about this and exchange it for relief that you’re no longer bored. Everyone at some point has a chore so monotonous that you’ve nearly fallen asleep doing it. (Or maybe actually fell asleep!) Computers relieve much of the boredom and monotony and replace it with mind-expanding tasks like learning where your menu item moved to when you upgraded. Your boredom may have changed to anger when that animated paperclip poped up yet again. So the next time you’re dragging text around as you reorganize a well composed email just think back to the days when you retyped an entire paper because you forgot the transitioning sentence between the 3rd and 4th paragraphs. Put on a smile the next time you defragment your hard disk to speed up your aging equipment since it may someday save you from the monotonous chore of manually recalculating your household budget. And most importantly: where there is less monotony in life there is more learning and more brain activity. This will keep your brain healthier into your old age (assuming you at those organic veggies). Now go check you email and clean out your inbox. It’s been a while. Poking someone on facebook can wait while you do your virtual chores.

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My Auto-Delete System

This is by far one of my best computer-based inventions, and yet is the most simple think I’ve ever come up with and installed. The origin is simple: I hate cleaning up old files on my system. When I started thinking about it, most of my files were things that I really only expected to have a short life-expectancy. You know, like those silly pictures people send you. Or Word documents you need to open and read once. Or … you get the point. I decided that most of these fell into four basic timing categories:

  1. Files that were truly intended to be short-lived.  On the order of hours.
  2. Files that I needed only for today.
  3. Files that I needed for a bit longer, but not a really long time.  Like a week.
  4. Files that I needed for something on the order of a month.

So I created 4 directories (folders to some of you) and made them be auto-cleaned on a regular basis.  The cleaner would remove things that hadn’t been looked at within the time period I selected for the folder.  It’s as simple as that.  The 4 directories I created were called h, d, w and m.  You can probably guess what each one means.  I put them as subdirectiories of ~/tmp but you could put them anywhere.

This example implementation assumes unix-like OS which is pretty much everything but windows. But I know there are cron systems out there for windows too. The important aspect of cron is that it lets you run commands on a regular and scheduled basis.

Here’s the crontab entries for my auto-cleaning system.  I used tmpwatch on my system but you just as easily use the find utility as well.

11 2,7,11,15,19 * * * /usr/sbin/tmpwatch 1 /users/hardaker/tmp/h
21 2,7,11,15,19 * * * /usr/sbin/tmpwatch 24 /users/hardaker/tmp/d
31 2,7,11,15,19 * * * /usr/sbin/tmpwatch 168 /users/hardaker/tmp/w
41 2,7,11,15,19 * * * /usr/sbin/tmpwatch 744 /users/hardaker/tmp/m

That’s it!  Drop things in the various folders based on how fast you want them auto-removed and you’re done.

The month based folder is the most interesting.  Basically stuff I put there is stuff that I expected to look at but if I forget to ever look at it within a month, it’s likely I never will.

For those needing first help with cron, run crontab -e and cut and past that into your editor when it pops up. Done!

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