I’m moving

Or rather, I’ve moved. From now on I won’t be updating this blog, instead I’ll be (hopefully) regularly writing bits of rubbish on my website which has had a makeover especially for the occasion. So that means you’ll have to update your RSS feeds.

If anyone is wondering if this signals an end to my relationship with the Wibsite, of course it doesn’t. However for various reasons – one of the largest of which is my increasingly busy self employment – I needed to bring everything blog-wise under one roof, as ’twere. I’ll still be involved in the Wib-world, however my time to do very much at the moment is EXTREMELY short.

So thanks Dave, you’ve been a gent to let me have this corner of the web for so long as a digital playground. Long may all this continue.

End of year roundup

This is a traditional new years eve for me, involving a couple of bottles of beer, Jools Holland and watching hundreds of fireworks explode across the valley. Living at the top of a hill with such a good view is great by day and by night.

This last year has been pretty noteworthy on a number of fronts. For one thing our son Reuben was born, we got officially hitched, and we made a new home for ourselves here at The Mill. I also did some major things at work, the biggest of which was handing my notice in – I start my new job in a few days time. All in all 2006 will remain in my memory for being the year I felt I’d finally come out of the tunnel into the light, started a new path properly and left the past behind. It feels good, and I have high hopes for 2007.

There’s be a lot of changes around here over the next few weeks, but I’ll let you know about all those as they happen. I’ll just finish 2006 by thanking you for reading and wish you all the very best for the coming year.

In memory of Alan

I found out tonight a friend of mine died today. His name was Alan, he and his wife Mary have been friends of my wife for many years, and I have got to know then quite well over the last couple of years. Alan was diabetic, and although his health has not been good for a long time this has been an upsetting piece of news.

I have to say I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked to. I knew he had a love of music, in fact he taught several children I know to play the piano, and last Christmas he invited me to play in a brass band with him, which was fun. But it was only during a conversation last week I discovered he had a particular love for jazz, especially jazz piano. I’d just popped round to drop off their card and presents and we got chatting about Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and a few others. He wanted to find a recording of Art Tatum playing "Tiger Rag" which I’m sure either my dad or I have got somewhere. We were going to arrange a session listening to jazz music, and probably drinking whisky. That will never happen now.

I’m glad I knew Alan even for a short time, and can only pray that he is finally at peace. However I’d appreciate your prayers for Mary who is going to have to learn to cope with life alone after more than half a century with Alan by her side.

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I’m going to be off-line for at least a week, so I hope you all have an enjoyable, relaxing and fulfilling Christmas and New Year.

The right way to market

One of my favourite blogs, and I’m sure many people will agree with me, is Scott Adams’ blog. He’s the guy that draws the Dilbert cartoons, but I find his textual ramblings just as incisive, inane and funny as anything he draws. Long may it continue.

In general Scott stays away from his "day job" as a topic of conversation, and when he does mention it it’s with a refreshing undercurrent of ‘I can’t quite believe they pay me to have so much fun’. But still he has a roof over his head to pay for, so he can be forgiven for occasionally mentioning the thing that pays for that roof.

And, let’s face it, when he does it in such a nice way, how can anyone turn him down?

Give yourselves a pat on the back

It’s official – you lot are immensely influential. So says Time magazine, who have been producing an award for ‘Person of the Year’ since 1929, and this year it’s … you.

Yes, you. You’re ranked alongside Queen Elizabeth, Gerald Ford, Albert Einstein many other great names. You, or rather we are rightly to be praised for changing the world. Whether you did it through writing about your cat, posting pictures of your feet or videos of falling off skateboards, you’ve changed the world.

I found out about this on the BBC, right alongside the article that says blogging will peak next year, but eventually wane in popularity. Of course part of me (the stupid part) says that can’t be true, but the great thing about this current socio-internet revolution is it’s always changing. Of course blogs will get less popular – as the next thing takes hold.

But what we can’t say is that the new-found ability for people to speak with the rest of the world will get less popular. No, instead we’ll see more and more that the People of the Years to come will be ordinary Joes. Not politicians or famous scientists but normal, every day people. This is the age of the global neighbourhood.

Thought processes

I’ve been really busy lately, hence the lack of posts. I won’t apologise as by now you’re probably really bored of me writing “sorry I haven’t written anything in a while” posts. Instead, I’ll give you this brain-squelcher of a problem I’m currently solving. It might seem simple, and it’s something that a lot of web developers have to do a lot, but the complexities when you get into the nitty-gritty are pretty … complex.

So what is this? Well, you know when you’re placing an order online and you get to a page where you have to type in your address details? My page does a little bit more than that; you can log into your account from there, and supply a password if you want to create an account as well as placing your order. Let’s think about some of the possibilities for processing this page.

1) If the user is logging in, is their username and password correct?
2) Is the users supplied email address valid?
3) If the user is just placing an order, have they filled in the required fields (address, email address etc)?
4) If the user is just placing an order and their email address belongs to a registered account, do you display a message to say this order has been placed on behalf of their account and also send them a password reminder email?
5) If the user wants to create an account, have they filled in the required fields?
6) If the user wants to create an account, have they supplied a valid password (and password confirmation)?
7) If the user wants to create an account and their email address already belongs to a registered account, do you display a message to say this order has been placed on behalf of their account and also send them a password reminder email?

And then of course there’s all the usual filling of the form with the users details if needed, checking the form has actually been submitted (is the request POST), protecting the database from rogue input and all the rest of it.

Something I think the job of a developer is as much about thought processes as it is about technology.

What to get the man who has everything

Silly Season is among us, and you need look no further for proof than the swarming hordes who are currently marauding over every retail outlet in the country searching for that “perfect” gift. Oh, in case you’re wondering, the perfect gift for me this Christmas would be to make Christmas last for just the 12 days it’s meant to, rather than the 4 months it seems to. Hah bumhug, or words to that effect.

Earlier on today I found myself in a rather up-market place which stuffily calls itself a “lifestyle shopping location“. Amongst the replica antique Japanese furniture and pricey glass vases I found…

Mr Site. No 'h' in there, no sireeThis. Yes, ‘Mr Site’ hits a store near you. Immediately my stomach lurched as I thought of the endless possibilities for hideous code, but, surprisingly, the actual website is built with standards. Things could be looking up. Until you take a look at the source code of a sample Mr Site site. It’s not so pretty.

But then again if someone is going to spend 30 quid on a boxed product that offers them the chance to have their own website with no technical jargon, full standards compliance isn’t going to be top of their lists, is it? I bet pretty much all Mr Site customers don’t even know there are international standards by which website should be made. The fact is they shouldn’t need to, but Mr Site sure as heck ought to – and they ought to be making all the efforts they can to mke sure their customers sites are build as well as they can be.

The really strange thing is that pretty much everything they are offering for a fee (£2.49 a month for the second year onward, yes: every month, which is [calculates] £29.88 per year) you can already get for free. Blogging and site content management – check. E-commerce system – check. Forums – check. You get the picture.

The problem is, while all these services us geeks know well and love, the rest of the world hasn’t. They are more likely to see and use a boxed product from a shop that offers all this in one easy package than do the legwork to find and then use all these different (but better) services.

Which brings me onto my idea. Why don’t we – the Open Source community – do the same, but better? For a small fee we could produce a website that will help people; ordinary, non-techy people; to set up a WordPress (or equivalent) website with a Vanilla (or equivalent) forum, a photo gallery, a Shopify site (or equivalent, using their WordPress theme) on a friendly hosting company. We get to increase the user base of our products, and much more importantly break out of the geek-savvy market into the real world more.

So just like Ubuntu has taken some of the best open source software and wrapped it up in a friendly OS package, we could do the equivalent for the web. Bring high-quality, open source software to the masses.

Are we going in the right direction?

A very well respected member of the web world, Andy Rutledge, has recently been asking some very interesting questions. Firstly about social (or anti-social) media and secondly the moral questions surrounding technology being the way we are slowly killing ourselves.

Both essays are well worth reading. And you know what, I have to agree with a lot of the points he makes. We’re rapidly approaching the point where a large percentage of the Western population have a lack of basic communication and real-life social skills, responsibility and awareness of wider isues because of the comfortable cacoon that the current technological civilisation affords them. It should not be that way.

There’s a fable about the frog sat in a pan of water I heard once. As the water gradually warms up he enjoys himself, thinking how lucky he is to have his own private heated pool. It’s only when the water is reaching boiling point he realises his mistake. How far are we from boiling point?

Moving on

Right, the time has come to go official. In January I will be starting a new job at an exciting new software company. I can’t give details, partly because there aren’t any, and partly because it’s all Under Wraps for the time being. But suffice to say we’ll be changing the world :0)

So because of that I’ve had to come to a difficult decision with regard to the Wiblogs. No, I’m not going to stop writing (you don’t get rid of my inane ramblings that easily) but I have had to scrap development of the new Wiblog system. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that the paying stuff has to come first, and there are only so many hours in a day. I’ve explained more over on the Wiblog Newsroom along with details of some plans we’re discussing for the future. So don’t worry, we’re not even close to closing anything down. Long may the Wiblog reign :0)

Off-road web technologies

The internet is often described as an information superhighway. And on any highway there are vehicles, lots of different types of vehicles. I started to think about this over the last few days and realised that the two (server-side development) technologies I spend most of my time using these days represent two wildly different ‘vehicles’. And because I’m not averse to writing ill-thought out ramblings about the web, here are my thoughts.

ASP.net is a SUV

ASP.net is Microsoft latest attempt to take a lead role in web development. It’s a newer, shinier and much more powerful version of the old Classic ASP which I spent too many years using (and still do, regularly). It’s big and clever, does all manner of things for you, comes with a huge array of complex features, and is very picky what it runs on. The latest version of IIS for Windows only, please. (And yes, I know about Mono. Just bear with me.)

In short, ASP.net is a lot like this:

Sports utility vehicle

Yes, the Sports Utility Vehicle. Big, shiny, covered in chrome and brushed titanium. An interior made of plush leather with rare wood facias, and lots of slick gadgets. They say it will take you off-road anywhere, but let’s face it: these things are only owned by rich people living in posh suburbia. The dreaded Chelsea tractor factor, as some people have said.

They guzzle fuel, pollute the landscape, and if something goes wrong it goes really wrong and needs an expensive trip to the specialist garage to mend. No hacking away with a spanner and roll of gaffa tape on these, no way. But they have their good points. They are incredibly sophisticated, so don’t worry about reversing into a lamp-post because before you hit it a polite computerised voice will say “You’re just about to hit a lamp-post. Are you sure you want to do that?” and then offer you a latte.

They are comfortable; really really comfortable. You get so used to being inside one that when you have to drive in a Lesser Automobile you feel dirty. In fact they are so clean and nice to be in that you forget there’s an engine with messy things like oil and fuel squirting around in little tubes. Unscrew a little cap to check the oil? Not me, I just say “E-mail me a current oil level reading, car” and it does it.

And, let’s face it, everybody is jealous. They see me driving one of these and they know I’ve Made It. I must be some celebrity, or a director of a large company, because those sorts of people are the sorts of people to have these kinds of cars. I see them stare at the car from behind my tinted windows, as I press a touch-sensitive button to turn the air-con down just a fraction. And when I get home, I just twitch my left nostril a bit and the wrought-iron gates leading to my 400-yard drive swing open, and my digital TV automatically turns itself on to Footballers Wives. Bliss.

PHP is a Land Rover

PHP, on the other hand, is an old technology. Originally put together by just one bloke, and is now one of the foremost technologies in use on the web. From the page linked above:

Today, PHP is being used by hundreds of thousands of developers (estimated), and several million sites report as having it installed, which accounts for over 20% of the domains on the Internet.

Its open source roots, huge collective of developers, and ‘hackable’ nature have meant it is often the first server-side technology beginners have been able to get into without a steep learning curve.

In essence, PHP is quite like this:

Land Rover, the original and best

The classic British Land Rover. Originally built to be as simple to fix as possible, it has been a stalwart of not just the British Army, but many armies around the world, for over 50 years. It’s basic, uncomplicated, rugged and tough – exactly what you need for driving across difficult terrain. It’s so modular that what you can’t fix or find spares for you could probably make yourself. In fact I have a friend who makes spares for his Land Rovers in his garage using nothing but some simple tools.

So there you are, parts of your engine strewn across the desert floor after a particularly amorous rhino mistook you for a mate. It could have been worse – you have a set of spanners, a roll of gaffa tape and a flask of tea. Two hours later you’re back on your merry way, stroking your goatee in satisfaction and thinking of your collection of model steal engines waiting for you back in good old Blighty. What-ho.

Landys are classics, up there with Spitfires and red telephone boxes, pints of bitter and fish ‘n’ chips. They are reliable, and even when it does break you don’t need Jim to Fix It for you). But they aren’t comfortable or plush or stylish. They aren’t the sort of thing you turn up in to take a young lady to a restaurant. But they are just the thing to pull a posh SUV out of a muddy field with.

People also stare when you drive a Landy. Most people wonder why you don’t buy a ‘decent’ car, but those in the know understand. It’s not about the bells and whistles, the leather and chrome. It’s about an intimacy with the vehicle – knowing the nooks and crannies, knowing not just what everything does, but how and why. Landy’s hardly impress anyone, and turning up to a high-powered sales meeting in one will make people think you’re losing the plot. But put one up a mountain or in a desert and you’ll see why the heard of a free beast must run wild.