#Ramblings

Goodbye GoDaddy

Using GoDaddy as my registrar is one of those things I’ve always felt vaguely ashamed of. Something I knew all the “cool kids” didn’t do, but I was already so neck-deep in them that I didn’t want to transfer. Not to mention I had my DNS hosted with them as well so the thought of going through all that trouble to move just seemed like too much of a hassle to deal with without good reason. In my last entry, I talked about setting up your own DNS server. This was the first part of my attack on moving my domains away from GoDaddy. But I didn’t have a real timeline to move away from them. Then came the news of GoDaddy’s support for SOPA - one of the worst attacks on the Internet since 1996’s Communications Decency Act. Now, to be sure, GoDaddy’s position on SOPA was not the first thing they’ve done to anger me. Their overtly misogynistic advertising has always bothered me, and their CEO Bob Parsons’ elephant killing and shameless exploitation of the natives angered me so badly that I almost left in April. But their aggressive support of SOPA was the final straw for me. I’d been a customer since 2003, but I simply could not take it anymore. So over the course of about 4 days, I transferred all my domains to Namecheap. Having never transferred a domain before, the process was surprisingly quick and easy. Once again, it makes me wonder why I haven’t done it sooner.

Do Version Numbers Matter?

The recent announcement by Linus Torvalds that the next release of Linux will be 3.0 has provoked rather furious discussion around the Internets about whether or not the incrementing of the version number is warranted. Linus himself has said that “absolutely nothing” has changed. “It will get released close enough to the 20-year mark, which is excuse enough for me, although honestly, the real reason is just that I can no longer comfortably count as high as 40.” This got me to thinking about the nature of version numbers. Once upon a time (when versions were driven more by engineers and convention, and less by marketing), a version number meant something. Major, minor, revision. A major new release that modified significant portions of the code from the previous release incremented a major version number. Version numbers less than 0 were beta releases. Linux has been at 2.x since 1996, and at 2.6.x since 2003. Mac OS has been at 10.x since 2001 (even though the current version of OS X is significantly different from the original release in 2001). Meanwhile, Google Chrome has blasted through major 11 “versions” in three years. Mozilla is planning to release versions 5, 6, and 7 of Firefox this year. You can’t tell me that they are going to change major parts of Firefox three times this year. In this case, version numbers are purely being driven by marketing. They need to “catch up” to Chrome and Internet Explorer. But we live in a different world now. One where, arguably, version numbers are becoming less and less important. The growth of “app stores,” I think, is desensitizing your average user to a version number. While apps in the app store still have versions, I couldn’t tell you what “version” any of the apps on my iPhone are (other than the OS), and I bet you can’t either. Any of the apps I’ve installed from the Mac App Store I could not tell you the version of them. I just know that, when I see the number on the icon, I know I need to do updates. The updates happen, and I get a new version with whatever new features are there (or, in the case of the Twitter app, whatever features have been removed). Then there are web apps which are versionless. What version of Gmail do you use? You don’t. You use Gmail. Sure, there’s probably a revision number or something in the background, but the user has no clue what version they’re using. And they don’t need to, because there’s no action they need to take. So version are numbered in a wide variety of ways depending on the product and overall seem to be becoming less important as the growth of broadband, “app stores,” web apps, and automatic updates make thinking about version numbers less important. So why does it matter if Linus ups Linux to 3.0? Ultimately, it’s just a number.

Interview Questions for Programmers

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of blog posts relating to common questions that should be asked of programmers. Obviously, this is going to depend on exactly what position you are hiring for, but there are some good “gateway” questions that can be used to determine whether or not an applicant you are interviewing can … well … even program at all. If they even have the mindset that makes a good developer. A common one I’ve seen tossed around is Fizz Buzz. The challenge goes something like this: Write a program that prints the numbers from 1 to 100. But for multiples of three print “Fizz” instead of the number and for the multiples of five print “Buzz”. For numbers which are multiples of both three and five print “FizzBuzz”. Now, to anyone who even has a basic understanding of programming, this is super simple to solve using a modulus operator. But apparently many people applying for even entry-level development jobs cannot solve this problem. According to the article linked above, even one “senior developer” took 15 minutes to solve this problem. Earlier today, a friend posted something on Facebook that inspired what I think it another good, intermediate to difficult level programming question that also looks for pattern recognition. The relevant part of the post began by stating: “This year July has 5 Fridays 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays.” There is the question! It would go something like this: The month of July 2011 has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. Calculate the next 50 times there will be a month that has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. Woah, so how to go about solving this problem? Well, look at a picture of July 2011. Notice something interesting about this month in relation to the question? This month has 31 days (the most any month can have), begins on a Friday and ends on a Sunday. And that’s the solution! It’s any month with 31 days that begins on a Friday! With this in mind, it’s pretty easy to come up with a PHP solution: <?php $count = 0; $num_found = array(); while(count($num_found) < 50) { $count++; $ts = strtotime("$count months"); if(date("t", $ts) == 31 && date("N", strtotime(date("Y-m-01", $ts))) == 5) { $num_found[] = date("F Y", $ts); } } print_r($num_found); ?> Note that I make use of PHP’s strtotime function, because it is the Swiss Army Knife of date manipulation in PHP. This would need to be adapted for use in another language. So now tell me: what are some other questions you’ve been asked or asked in an interview?

Xcode 4

So today, out of nowhere, Xcode 4 finally landed as an official release. After seemingly forever in beta, and me quipping more than once about it’s similarity to Duke Nukem Forever, Apple finally pulled the trigger and released it. But something changed. Xcode now has a price. And that has left me, as both a Mac user and a Mac developer, with a lot of questions. It’s either $4.99 if you’re not a registered, paid Apple developer, or free if you are a registered, paid Apple developer (with all its $99 per year price tag glory). Supposedly there’s some crazy accounting reason that they have to charge for it. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that Xcode will soon be free again once OS X 10.7 arrives. But, it also leaves open the possibility that Xcode will no longer be distributed with OS X and will always have a price tag. It may not even stay $4.99. It may be $49.99 or $499.99. There are additional questions, too. Does this mean that Apple is still distributing Xcode as a bundle with GNU GCC? Because there are things (such as MacPorts) that rely on the underlying foundation provided by the developer bundle that don’t actually use Xcode. Before, those were completely free. Now, they cost $4.99 unless they have split the underlying compiler from the IDE. And if they are still distributing it with GCC, that leads to all kinds of crazy interesting licensing questions. But I think the worst part is that there is now a barrier to entry, however low, to being a developer on a platform that is already a minority in market share. I can’t understand how Apple potentially believes that it is good and right to trade short term profits for long term growth in the number of potential developers. For the future of the Mac platform, I sure hope this isn’t their line of reasoning. So, let me tell you a little story. My first dabbling in programming came courtesy of QuickBASIC back in the MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 days. This was the late 80s or early 90s, so I would have been 10 or 11 at the time. I stumbled across the Qbasic environment included with MS-DOS by accident and found Nibbles. And, after playing it, I discovered that I could change things by making changes to the strange text presented on the screen. I could change colors and speeds. But it would be a couple of years before I really understood what I was doing. When Windows 95 came out (and along with it, Visual Basic 4), I talked my parents into getting me a copy. I don’t remember how much it cost but it was probably a lot because it was one of the few Christmas presents I got that year. But boy did I run with it. I’ve periodically felt guilty over that expense because I didn’t actually make anything really useful with it, but it was instrumental in furthering my education. Now I could do things on my computer far beyond what poor ol’ Qbasic was capable of. So I wrote lots of silly little programs. I put together a “family newsletter” one year that was installed and ran as a piece of software. I was pretty proud of that. I even wrote some software for my high school as part of a software development and AP Computer Science courses. Eventually, I would move on to other things. Other versions of Visual Basic, Java, C, a brief foray into LISP and Forth-based languages for programming MUDs, and eventually web programming. First in Perl, then in PHP. I even landed my first paying programming job while still in high school, writing applications for a local transit contractor. At first, these were Visual Basic applications. But by the time I left (August of 2000) everything was going to the web and so were we. But I can trace everything - my entire career, and my consuming passion for software engineering - back to Qbasic and Nibbles. A silly little game about a block snake, and a free development environment included with the operating system. Had I not stumbled on Qbasic and Nibbles, there’s a chance I would never have been a developer. This is not about $4.99. I spend more on coffee in a week than that. My worry is about that 11 year old kid out there somewhere who may never get the opportunity to stumble across Xcode or the sample applications in /Developer and realize the raw power they possess. This is an area where Apple, a company with billions in cash on hand, should be happy to show a loss. It would be to the benefit of their platform, both now and in the future. One of the great benefits of the Mac platform has been it’s low barriers of entry to developers. Sure, one could argue that the hardware is more expensive (and I could counter-argue that, for the quality of the equipment you are getting a bargain), but the development tools have always been freely available online and included with the machine. You could dabble in programming to your heart’s content. Sure, if you want to put something in the app store(s), you had to pay for admission, but there was nothing stopping you from getting all the way to that point, or even distributing your creations on your own. But this new trend of charging for the development tools - even if it is a paltry sum - sends, to me, a worrying signal about the course Apple intends to tread. They’ve now moved the gate from the last step to the first step. It’s a course that Microsoft, as above, once tread. Microsoft? They now give away a version of Visual Studio for free.

Ping and Social Overload

Two days ago Apple announced Ping: a social network geared towards music sharing. And a bunch of iPods too. Personally, I was more excited by the new AppleTV (I have two of them and absolutely love them) but more on that later. This is about Ping. My thoughts on **Ping: Apple’s first real attempt at social networking reminds me of Google’s countless attempts to get into the social networking space: they’re like that guy that shows up to the party really late - I mean beyond fashionably late - when the party is already over and everyone else is already drunk and thinking about stumbling across the street to IHOP or Taco Bell. They say they were at the library studying and now they want to go out and drink, but the keg has floated, the bars and liquor stores are already closed and all you want to do is eat a burrito supreme and find some sofa to pass out on. Ping is a good first start, but it has some problems: What is the target here? Am I supposed to follow people or artists or both or what? And what are they supposed to do? All this feels like is Twitter or Facebook + iTunes. The people I’m following can share messages and pictures? Yep. Twitter in iTunes. I can like and share and post comments? Yep. Facebook in iTunes. Why not allow independent artists into the fold? Some of my favorite artists (such as Matthew Ebel - check him out if you love piano rock) are independent. Right now there are like 10 artists you can follow, and that Lady Gaga is one of them makes me want to break something. The only ones on there I’m remotely interested in following is Dave Matthews Band and maybe U2. I can’t access it in any way other than in iTunes. No web access. While this means I can fire it up myself on my computer and laptop, and (currently) on my iPhone via the iTunes application, I can’t check Ping at a friend’s house. I can’t go to the Apple store and check Ping. Everything has to go through iTunes, and this absolutely cripples it. Think that’s overkill? Go to the Apple store and watch for  15 minutes how many people walk in and use one of the computers to check Facebook. I can only “like” and “share” content I purchased from iTunes. I have purchased 58 songs from iTunes over the years, out of 3,621 songs in my library. About 1% of my library is available. If Apple fixes these (and other, more minor) problems, Ping could be really cool. The problem is that these aren’t code fixes. They’re not something they can test and roll out a change for. These are conceptual problems relating to what their idea of Ping is versus the what the rest of the world is going to use it as. The question is, will they be Google and throw this out here, not maintain it and mercifully kill it a year later (a la Google Wave and the impending death of Google Buzz), or will they adapt and change it to better suit the needs of the public? Because that’s the thing about social networking: you have to embrace the users thoughts, opinions, and ideas. It’s a lesson digg just learned the hard way and a lesson that frankly, given Apple’s reputation as wanting to control everything, I don’t see them embracing. As a side note, I will however salute Apple for not giving into Facebook if the rumor is true. Facebook plays fast and loose with people’s information, and I really don’t like how it seems to have become the de facto standard for social network usage (and thus the reason you can comment with your Facebook login). That, and Zuckerberg. I hate that guy. Still, Ping is yet another player in this social networking space. A space that is becoming increasingly full … Social Overload I’m already Facebooked, Myspaced and Twittered. I’m LiveJournaled, Wordpressed, and Youtube’d. I’m Flickr’d, LinkedIn’d, Vimeo’d, Last.fm’d and Gowalla’d. I’m on any number of dozens of message boards and mailing lists that predate “Web 2.0” and the social networking “revolution,” and I follow nearly 100 various blogs and other feeds via RSS. They’re on my desktop, on my laptop, on my tablet and in my phone. And now, apparently, I’m Ping’d as well. Le sigh. Now, to be fair, I don’t check all these sites. I last logged into Myspace about 9 months ago. I last used Gowalla about a year ago. I usually only look at Youtube, Flickr or Vimeo when I need something, and haven’t updated a LiveJournal in about 3 years. But at what point does all this interaction - this social networking - become social overload? Are any of these services adding value to my life? And at what point does a social network - Ping, in this case - simply become yet another thing I have to think about and check? Or will it become yet another service I sign up for, try for awhile and ignore?

Why Bing Sucks

So I see Microsoft’s is attempting to rebrand the old Windows Live Search as bing.com. The commercials on TV are advertising it as a different type of search engine - a “decision engine.” Yeah, when I heard that, I, too, wondered exactly what a “decision engine” was. But the commercials are clever and somewhat funny to anyone who has ever spent time searching through hundreds of results for a single missing piece. But where’s the meat? My coworker Brian, a few weeks ago, provided a great example of how this claim of being a “decision engine” is kind of a joke. And it can be summed up in a single sentence: “How big is the sun?” Maybe now you’re confused about what I’m talking about. What does the sun have to do with search engines? Well, try plugging that sentence, word for word, into your favorite search engine. Our of curiosity, I ran this search on a number of top and up-and-coming engines to see what they returned. Google is obviously the 900-pound gorilla in this space, so they’re a logical place to start. When you ask Google “How big is the Sun?” Big Brother Google replies, right at the top “Mass: 1.9891 ×1030 KG 332 946 Earths,” with most of the results relevant to the question at hand. In fact, all but two of the results were directly relevant to the question asked. Yahoo didn’t return a nice little piece of math like Google did, but all but one of the search results is _directly _relevant to the question asked. The only result that wasn’t relevant was that VH1 has some videos by a band called Big Sun, but that was torwards the bottom of the SERP. The newcomer Wolfram Alpha, which bills itself as a “knowledge engine” gives you a simple result, 432,200 miles, along with a handy formula for conversion. Not a traditional search engine, but closer to a “decision engine” than Bing … And finally, the “decision engine” Bing. So how does the vaunted “decision engine” handle knowing how big the sun is?It doesn’t. The first result is a garden furniture store in Austin, Texas. The second result is an Equine Product Store in Florida. The third was pictures of the sun from the Boston Globe - okay, that one was close. The next results are a realty company in Florida and an athletic conference. Only then, six results down, do we get into the meat of the question. Look, it’s easy to hate on Microsoft. It’s no challenge anymore. I, personally, am not exactly a fan of Microsoft, but I’m hardly an enemy either. At worst, I’m indifferent. And, as an aside, I really feel sorry for the poor guy they send to the OSCON keynote every year who literally gets hammered for no good reason by what can only be described as nerd rage from the questioners. And yet every year, they come back with more money and more people. I almost posted an entry about it last year. It was really kind of sad to watch. Anyways, the point is, there are some things that Microsoft _has _done well. Office? Great productivity suite. Windows 7? From what I’ve seen, it looks pretty good. The XBOX and gaming units at Microsoft do gangbusters. But it just seems like they’re irrationally pursuing this search thing, out of spite, at this point to the detriment of the rest of their business. Considering that bing doesn’t appear, at the surface, to be any different from Windows Live Search in terms of its usefulness (that is to say, not), Microsoft is throwing tons of money in the form of development and marketing to something that just isn’t very good when they could be focusing on the core parts of their business. But, then again, I’m not Ballmer.

Drama? In My Developer Community?

… it’s more likely than you think! And here I thought drama was isolated to fandom mailing lists and MySpace! I was not at php tek this year. I keep meaning to make it to that conference, but, let’s face it, the week before Memorial Day is a really lousy time to have a conference. I usually like to take that Friday off to make it a long weekend. I may finally make tek next year, though. But, even if I went, I don’t usually get invited to the cool parties. It’s really for the best, though. I usually end up drunk in a bar listening to good music rather than trying to discuss functions and benchmarking after having imbibed a large quantity of booze or making an ass out of myself by diving into bushes. Ask me about that some other time. Apparently, at php tek, at one of these “cool-people-only” parties (okay, it was apparently an after-hours panel), a bunch of people cooked up this idea of having a uniform PHP coding standards amomg their own projects with the goal of having them adopted as some type of official standard. Now, in and of itself, this sounds like a good idea. Most other languages have at least a suggested best practices (Sun’s coding conventions for Java or Apple’s for Cocoa come to mind) even if you don’t use them. Every job I’ve worked in has had some standard, even if I had to write it. Most of them were derived from the PEAR standard, including what we do at dealnews. But hey, variety is the spice of life, right? What’s the harm in another choice? Nothing. So we’ve established that the idea of havng a[nother] PHP coding standard is not necessarily bad. The problem, as with all things, is what happened next… Somehow, they managed to get a closed mailing list on php.net. Think about that for just a second. This group, composed of some guys from some projects with no official relation to PHP other than being users of it, somehow ended up with [email protected] WTF? I would love to know how that happened.More to the point, this will cause conceptual confusion among new, and even existing users. When I first heard about this, my first thought was, hey, this is on PHP.net, right? It must have some kind of official recognition, right? Well, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t. It’s just … some guys. Put yourself in the shoes of a new PHP user, visiting PHP.net for all your manual needs. Oh, what’s this? Standards? Well, I better use those! It was a suspiciously closed action for such an open-source project. The original mailing list was a closed list until Rasmus himself opened it, and the members don’t exactly seem keen on welcoming any input from anyone outside their little clique.Some of the things being said by the “PHP Standards Group,” quite frankly, make me very suspicious of their motives. Things like “All of us are too busy, both with real jobs and our various projects, to fight the battles that come of trying to make this a completely open process where anyone with an email address can contribute” reek of self-aggrandizing nonsense. I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. Plain and simple. And the fact that no one else in the group has stood up to say otherwise speaks volumes. There’s a phenomenon that I have seen occur on mailing list called implicit acceptance. If you don’t stand up and say otherwise, you are implicitly agreeing with the stated course of action. So, if anyone in this group disagrees with the stated opinions, guys, now’s the time to man up. If you’re going to have a mailing list on php.net, and call yourselves the “PHP Standards Group,” you need to welcome input from the PHP community - all of us - not just your group. Otherwise, you don’t need to be on php.net, and you don’t need to be calling yourselves the “PHP Standards Group.” It is overly focused on OO. I know a lot of people think that objects are the answer to everything. I have strong disagreements, but I will save those for a later post. But (kind of tying into my previous point) there are a _lot _of people using PHP in a strictly functional way or in a way that sanely mixes functional and object oriented programming. Any standard - if it’s going to be called a PHP Standard - needs to take all widespread uses of PHP into accout, and not just OO. Now, as I said before, I’m not a “cool person.” I don’t have CVS commit access. I don’t have thousands of followers on Twitter or a cool blog (no offense to my five regular readers - you guys rule and I’ll buy you a round sometime!). I’m just some guy who’s been writing PHP for the last nine years or so. So, while it appears this “group” probably won’t care what I have to say anwyays, here is my humble suggestion for a path forward.** **Figure out the semantics. **Notice that all this stuff we’re talking is appearances and semantics. Nobody is discussing the actual proposals (as they have been made) so far, just the actions of the people involved. What exactly is this project trying to accomplish? Are you trying to write a standard for your project(s), or are you trying to produce something useful for the community? If this is just for your project(s), move it off php.net, call it something else (“The Shared Standards Working Group” or some other such nonsense), and do whatever the hell you want. But if you’re going to call yourselves the “PHP Standards Group,” and have your project on PHP.net, you have to welcome input from the community, even if you ultimately discard it. The thing I don’t understand is why this group appears so afraid of public input? Okay, the signal-to-noise ratio can get pretty high sometimes, sure. But for every ten, hundred or five hundred bogus suggestions you get, you may get one really good one. One you might not have thought of yourself or no one in your tight little circle might have seen. And this is the true power of any open-source project. I would urge the “PHP Standards Group” to overcome their fear of public input and let us - the users - have an input in the community process. As always, this represents my own views only, and not those of my employer, the beer I’m drinking (Fat Tire Amber) or my cat.

Angry Rob is Angry

… or, beware of deals that look too good to be true. In my professional career, I have now found only two things that have a 100% failure rate. The first was a batch of Digium TDM-400P FXO/FXS card. Every single one we deployed from that batch at my previous employer failed. I hear they don’t have those problems anymore - using a different fab shop now, I guess. But I still don’t like that card for that specific reason. The second 100% failure rate came just this evening. The culprit is this little POS: Dual Xeon 2.4GHz 2GB ECC 120GB 1U Rack Mount Server being sold by Geeks.com. Look, it’s a 1U for $375. I’m not expecting the universe out of these things. With that in mind, let me document the last two days of my life. I ordered two of these little guys about a week ago, and they arrived on Tuesday. I intended to turn one into a general purpose test and development box, and one was going to go to Atlanta to replace the 1U Celeron in my friends’ data center. So I get the machines home, unpack them and try to boot. The first one won’t POST. No beep, no video, just a bright orange surrender HD light. Research tells me that the motherboard is fried. The other one booted up fine. I figured I was just unlucky, so I RMA’d the first one today and was going to put the OS on this one. Well, the OS install went fine but when it came time to reboot … presto. The exact same thing as the first. No video, no beep, orange HD light. Of two machines ordered, both of them failed within 48 hours and both in the exact same way. So now I’m out at least $60 in RMA shipping charges - and I have no servers - just because this company apparently has no Q.A. So take my experience as an example of what not to do when ordering a server. A good deal can turn into a major headache incredibly fast. Me? I’m ordering Dells from now on.