Miscellaneous Updates for February 2008

I’m doing an extremely bad job of keeping the site fresh over the last few months or so. I figured I’d give a quick update of things going on.

I’m Still Not Smoking

I finally started the Step 3 of the Nicoderm CQ program. This one has been rough. This is where you really start physically feeling the consequences of nicotine being removed from your system. I’ve been completely exhausted for the last week. Apparently, that there nicotine is one powerful stimulant and really screws with your metabolism. Your body takes some time to equalize itself and get itself back to where it needs to be naturally. I’m hoping mine gets there soon – because I’ve not had a good time over the past week.

The interesting thing about these “stop smoking aids” is that they defer you dealing with the real issue until you have so much skin in the game that you can’t start again without feeling an intense feeling of failure. Brilliant, but I can tell you that first step gives you an overly simplified view of what it takes to quit smoking. It starts getting a little harsher at step 2 and now at step 3 you really start PHYSICALLY feeling it. The only thing worse will be when Step 3 is over and my body starts eliminating nicotine all together.

Like I said though, I have too much skin in the game now to restart – I think.

New iPhone User

Address Book on iPhoneJonna bought me an iPhone for our anniversary, and I have to say that aside from the GPS she got me for Christmas, which allows me to go out by myself and still be able to get home, it is about the coolest thing for me from a productivity perspective that we have added to my highly disorganized life.

I’m finally able to get all my contact information in one place where it is accessible at any time. I can take notes, I can look things up on the web and I can check personal email. From a browsing perspective, I can get to things that are a part of my life but are blocked at the firewall at work (which is great as well). I feel free.

Now, it hasn’t been without its problems. The 1.1.3 software that came with the phone dropped a lot of calls. It wound up pretty frustrating and I kept my work supplied cell phone so that I could actually hold calls without them getting dumped. The 1.1.4 update took care of this though and now it works like a real phone.

I love the contact management included in the phone. Support for multiple numbers per contact and custom labelled information (including notes) lets me keep track of all the information I could ever want about someone. I can even attach a picture. Integration with the Mac Address book allows me to keep my contacts up to date without having to type into the phone.

And speaking of typing into the phone – I love not having to type on a standard phone keypad. The automatic spell-checking sometimes gives me a run for my money, and more often than not makes me sound retarded, like this little exchange with Jonna:

Trouble With Abbreviations

<Insert large sigh from Jonna because I don’t listen or read>

Overall though, I think between the GPS for Christmas and the iPhone this month, I’ve received the two most useful (and really most used) gifts ever.

As an aside, for those who are obsessed with not scratching or smudging their iPhone or other Apple products, Jonna also picked up a skin called Best Skins Ever for both Kelsi and myself, which we applied a couple of weeks ago. Kind of scary at first (you need to use water to apply it), but they really are the best skins ever. You don’t even know they’re there. I’m definitely going to pick up one for my iPod, as soon as I get a round tuit.

Well thats it from the Labs for last month. I’m sure as the weather starts to warm and the nicotine continues to seep out of my system, I’ll have more energy to blog about useful things.

Building Scalable Web Sites by Cal Henderson

I have about three books that I am reading on and off but have been unable to focus on any of them for any length of time. Tom The Architect mentioned a book to me a few months ago called Building Scalable Web Sites: Building, Scaling, and Optimizing the Next Generation of Web Applications by Cal Henderson, engineering manager for the Flickr photo service, a service that I have used extensively since being turned on to it by, you guessed it, Tom The Architect.

This was the first book in a long time that I couldn’t put down, mainly because everything in the book is geared towards teaching you about how to create really, really, big web sites and the issues involved in scaling them. It was also quite intriguing because the book covers tools you use all of the time, like PHP and MySQL that are hard to find really good books about how they scale.

Cal covers a lot of material in this book, from layering your web application architecture, to creating an environment for developers to work in, which includes source control, issue tracking, coding standards and the like. This section was quite encouraging to me, as we have implemented almost everything that Cal mentions in the book (sometimes its nice to get some external validation). Cal then goes on to talk about internationalization and localization, data integrity and security, using email as an alternate entrance into your application, and how to build remote services.

All of this was great, but the next few chapters I found really valuable. Cal talks about identifying bottlenecks in your web application, scaling applications such as MySQL (where he covers quite a few replication strategies) and scaling storage. He also covers measurements, statistics and monitoring. Finally, Cal talks about adding API’s into your application to support mobile applications, web services, etc.

Cal references quite a few tools that are freely available in these discussions – tools that I didn’t even know were out there, that you can use to simplify your monitoring environment. I was most intrigued with the Spread Toolkit, a self described “a unified message bus for distributed applications” that allows you to unify logging across your applications. Anyone who has tried to debug an issue on a site that has more than one box would appreciate knowing about this tool.

This is the first book that I’ve read in a long time, technology wise, that hit the sweet spot between talking about real issues that I have been facing and possible solutions. I highly recommend grabbing this book and in the very least just keeping it on your book shelf for future reference. This is one thats going to be a constant companion for me in the coming months.

iTunes Music Store Faster on a Mac?

I’ve been meaning to throw this question up here for a while. Is it just me, or is the iTunes Music store a hell of a lot faster on a Mac than it is on Windows?

While I like the convenience of iTunes, I absolutely dreaded hitting the music store on my Windows machine. It felt like it took forever to get any decent results. Since moving to the Mac though, the Music Store responds extremely quickly and I have no qualms about doing searches and browsing around now.

I’m just curious – has anyone else that has both types of machines noticed this behavior, or is it just my mind playing tricks on me?

iTunes Finally Converted to MacBook

iTunes Converted - Song List

Well, after about two days of file copying, I finally got all of my iTunes stuff moved over to the new Mac. Why did it take so long you ask? I’m not really sure.

Copying between the Windows box and the MacIntosh using Windows File Sharing just didn’t work unattended. It kept failing for some reason. After about three tries at that, I decided to install cwRSync so that I could restart incrementally, but for some reason, this would not run unattended either, and I didn’t want to spend forever running back and forth between the family room and the living room (where my desk is).

Finally I decided to copy my iTunes library up to the Linux server. I started it at about 7:00am and by 7:30-8:00pm on Tuesday the file copy had completed with no interruptions. On Wednesday, I started an rsync from the Linux server to the MacBook. Another 12 hours later and that was complete.

I had heard horror stories about moving this stuff around if you had purchased music and was a little worried that I would have to spend a lot of time getting the machine authorized and stuff like that. Not so. As a matter of fact, I found these instructions on moving your iTunes library with metadata and they worked without a hitch. I now have all of my music on the MacBook. Nice!

I really do like this environment a lot better than anything I’ve used in the past. I’m not clear as to why I had all of the copy failures I had from machine to machine, but thankfully I’ve got the trusty SuSE server to back me up.

Its the little things you notice …

Now that I have a few days on the Mac using it full time, I figured I’d post up some first impressions from a new user. More than that, observations from a new user who resisted the Mac when all his friends told him to go that way in the first place.

  1. When the light in the room gets too low, the keyboard lights up. At first glance this seems completely insignificant, but again, one of those little things that shows the care that goes into the design. It was definitely a pleasant surprise. In a normal company, something this “frilly” would have been cut to remove costs – but as a customer I was absolutely delighted by it.
  2. I like not having a key on the keyboard for every little thing. The modifier key thing is totally working for me for page up / down, etc. Its extremely intuitive once you figure it out (and it doesn’t take long to figure it out).
  3. Using two fingers to scroll with the mouse. Tom the Architect told me about this one. Much more intuitive than a touchpad with the right side dedicated to scrolling.
  4. For years I’ve been irritated with people turning auto hide on the Windows taskbar. For some reason, auto hide makes sense to me with the dock bar. Not sure why, but the whole metaphor of the docking bar works for me on levels that I couldn’t get with Windows
  5. I love the idea of one menu at the top of the screen, rather than a menu in every application. This also works for me on a number of levels.
  6. The overall look of things on the screen is beautiful compared to my Gateway box. Same applications, completely different feeling when looking at them.
  7. Installing software is really a brain dead process. Its the way software should work. On the other hand, I’m going to have to get used to not needing so much detail to get something working. I think I’m finally at the point where I’m ok with this. Must be a sign of getting old.
  8. There is absolutely no need for a “View Full Screen” option on any of these applications. I have enough of the application visible whenever I need it. I can even collapse the top of the window to get more room. Its a little thing, but another one of those “Wow” moments.

Overall, I’m completely impressed. While my initial resistance to going Mac had a lot to do with the price, there are so many little things that I’m finding that are valuable enough to make me feel better about the purchase price. You get what you pay for and I’m quite happy with the new purchase.