A daring fireball of a miss: Gruber on Mullenweg
July 30th, 2009 by ravi

In an earlier post I gave my take on why Matt Mullenweg is spot on in his criticism of Dan Jalkut’s criticism of the GPL. Shortly after Matt’s post, John Gruber of Daring Fireball chimed in with his thoughts. First he quotes Matt, which I reproduce in entirety below (to be clear, this is Matt’s text):

  1. I’ve never encountered a serious client who chose not to use WordPress because it was GPL-licensed, and I think it’s hard to argue that WordPress’s license has had a dampening effect on its adoption, given its success over competitors with widely varying licenses.
  2. I think we have an incredibly strong third-party extension, plugin, and theme community that has flourished, not in spite of the GPL license, but because of it.
  3. I’ve seen the absence of GPL in practice; there have been times in the WordPress world when parts of the community have “gone dark” and claimed their code was under more restrictive licenses, like used to be common with themes. Every time this cycle starts it basically kills innovation in that part of the WordPress world until people start opening up their code again or until a GPL equivalent is available. I’ve seen this firsthand several times now.

Read the rest of this entry »

Makers vs Managers
July 29th, 2009 by ravi

A long time ago (2007 I think) I was in a conversation with one of the technical leaders in a startup that I was working at. The subject of our discussion was process and I was flogging my pet religion: efficiency via automation, infrastructure and tools, all focused on the developers/engineers and ease of use from their perspective.

I argued, no doubt unoriginally, that most process is designed by managers and consciously or subconsciously built to meet the needs of the manager, answer his questions, give him a view of how things stand, etc., and that this was a fatal mistake. The main job of the manager is to collect, analyse and act on this information, and yet, he was designing a process, and mandating the use of tools, that made his task easier by passing the work to the engineers whose real function was radically different.

Not only did this waste the time of developers, but it turned a potential positive — the use of well-integrated tools that could help the engineer — to a negative: the daily wrestling with tools and process,  filling out bureaucratic bits of information, that in no way aided the developer, but generated second-order data for the manager that could have easily been derived from a more productive development infrastructure. There are echoes of this malaise in most IT environments as well, but that’s a topic worthy of its own post.

The person I was speaking with thought otherwise, taking such an environment as unnecessary pampering of techies. He seemed more at ease with the traditional model that put the manager’s tracking, risk assessment, and other activities at the center (and key to the success) of the organisation’s effort. I didn’t win that friendly debate, and these days I try not to get embroiled in religious wars.

However, a recent link on Daring Fireball to a piece by Paul Graham of Y Combinator, had me nodding in agreement, especially with regard to the bluntest[!] tool in the manager’s arsenal: the “meeting”. Here are some good bits (keep in mind that Graham is a programmer  turned VC partner). Graham starts out by differentiating between the “maker’s schedule” and the “manager’s schedule”:

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

And goes on:

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.


I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

He ends on a hopeful note:

Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

I am not that hopeful.

GPL FUD round N+1
July 18th, 2009 by ravi

If there is one thing more predictable than a Goldman Sachs profit, it’s the annual witchhunt against the GPL by luminaries in the Open Source and related communities. The latest entrant is one Daniel Jalkut, founder of Red Sweater Software now owners of once (and still?) popular blog client MarsEdit (more on MarsEdit in my upcoming comparison against Blogo and other similar tools).

In a passionate post that drew a response from Matt Mullenweg (who, graciously, did not mimic Jack Nicholson: “I would rather that you just thanked me and went on your way!”), Jalkut lays out his objection:

Violating the GPL is easy. All you have to do is write some code, intermingle it with some GPL code, distribute a changed copy of the original, and refuse to share your contributions. Bam! You’re toast. Assuming the original authors discover your violation and decide to pursue a resolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

Headline: an RSS/newsreader for Mac
July 16th, 2009 by ravi

Every year MacHeist offers tightwads an opportunity to score a lot of software for the Mac for next to nothing. One of the applications made available this year was an interesting new RSS/newsfeed reader for the Mac called Headline which retails for $19.95.

At a time when NewsGator has let loose NetNewsWire (not just the Lite version) for free, and was quickly followed suit by NewsFire — and the brilliant Vienna has always been free — is it possible to make a go of selling an RSS reader for ~ $20? Aren’t desktop clients passe in this new age of web applications (in this instance, Google Reader)?

Well, Doseido, the makers of Headline, think so, and I wish them the best. They are not alone in this game. There’s NewsLife, Endo, and other optimists as well. Does Headline deliver $20 worth of goods?

The problem for Headline, as already noted, is what it is up against. In a different world, $20 seems a fair price for a useful piece of software. But not in a world where NetNewsWire is free, not to mention a whole other universe of AIR apps like the amazingly slick if CPU hungry Snackr.

What is worse, Headline, despite its very pleasing and useful pop-out preview, sorely lacks certain simple features, which makes for constant irritation, given its natural use as a news alert tool. What I mean by that is that Headline’s ability to pop-up as a small window, as and when new articles are available, and provide short previews, makes it a good tool for “as it happens” alerts. This is the one differentiator that makes Headline interesting to me. But for such usage to be productive, Headline needs:

  • Open article in background: if Headline pops up 15 new articles, you need the ability to scan through them, opening ones on you want to read in detail in your browser, but doing so in the background, so you can continue scanning the headlines. Unfortunately this is not possible. This could be a limitation of the mechanism for invocation of the browser (Safari, in my case), but the experience is annoying.
  • Choose and act on a range of headlines: say you scan through the list and want to mark a bunch of articles as read. Or even hide them altogether from your view. That’s not easily done. In order to mark an article read, you have to visit the item in the list and stay on it for a second or more (perhaps an understandable precaution to avoid marking something as read just because you “arrow”ed over it). And to hide read articles, you have to trick the app by selecting a different option for the filter (top left) and then selecting “Unread”. Your only other resort is to “Mark all as Read” (Command-Option-R).
  • Other issues: if the apps refresh kicks in while you are on an item, the screen scrolls to newer items and the one you were reading disappears in the list (though its preview remains in the preview pop out). Headline also seems to get confused when my laptop is alternated between monitors with different screen resolutions.

Headline is an interesting idea and a beautiful implementation (aesthetically speaking). But the limitations of its UI make the cost questionable. If all you need is a pop-up alert for updated news feeds, you can consider the free tool FeedPopper. If you would like something a bit more detailed and fancy, you can bite the CPU bullet and consider Snackr. For most use cases, NetNewsWire will most likely do the trick.

Tracking blog comments
July 7th, 2009 by ravi

Remember email? The Internet application that would send you messages from various sources that you could view in a sophisticated interface that let you filter, highlight, search and perform other functions on these messages? That was an awesome idea wasn’t it? Too bad its dead.

Today, conversations occur in a zillion fractured places: Facebook, blog posts (comments on blog posts), Twitter, Tumblr, so on (Posterous is a happy exception, but more on Posterous in a separate post). Which means you have to visit these individual sites to keep track of who is saying what in response to something you said. Well, not entirely, since many of them provide RSS feeds, which in this context, can be considered the equivalent of an email message — many RSS readers even mimic an email interface and conversely many email applications (Apple’s Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird) are very capable RSS readers.

Nonetheless, a problem remains: you still need to subscribe to RSS feeds (where available) for each of these conversation threads. Some of these sites do not provide RSS feeds at all, or some provide truncated feeds which require you to click on a link to visit the site to read a response (hey, they need the eyeballs to generate revenue), and by its very nature (or its implementation thus far) this is a subscribe model, not a publish/respond one.

RSS feeds of conversation threads do have an advantage: they let you easily subscribe or unsubscribe to threads based on your level of interest. Anyone who has been on a mailing list for a good bit of time (especially a political discussion list) knows the value of this capability! However, the pain involved in adding and managing subscriptions, especially in the case of blog posts littered all over the Internet is quite daunting.

Fortunately (or perhaps not as we shall soon learn) services have sprung up that provide simple tools that let you track responses to comments on blogs and a few of them are listed and discussed below, and their current status will reveal that the situation may not be so fortunate after all.


Joined the dead pool. RIP.

Author's ChoiceBloppy

Bloppy got sloppy. Forgot to renew their domain and its parked!

A pity since it was the best of the available options and included email notification. Remember email?

BlogFlux Commentful

This service is so buggy that their Join/Login screens lead to Apache error pages.


Few things you can say for coComments: their domain has been renewed, site is alive, and their login screen works. But the buck stops there. In order to use the service you need to use a Firefox extension or a bookmarklet. Unfortunately the bookmarklet throws up an error “The coComment script could not be loaded”. So if you use Chrome, or Safari, or Opera you are mostly SOL.


Yacktrack takes it one step beyond coComments. It works. There’s a bookmarklet, clicking on it brings up a relevant form … all good. But for some strange reason, even if you sign up for a YackTrack account, the access to your searches/entries is provided via RSS per search/entry. So, if you added comments to 50 independent blog posts, added them to your YackTrack list (“dashboard”), you cannot really get updates for all of them via one RSS feed. The point of the service eludes me… if I wanted an RSS feed per post that I commented on, then I could just have subscribed to the comment feed per post!

Update: see comments from the YackTrack developer below on the purpose of the service.

Author's ChoiceBacktype

Backtype is slick. Looks like one of those dandy new Ruby on Rails UIs. This is a great site for gathering all your comments together in one place, or as an alternative if Google Alerts somehow does not cut it for you. It’s a “conversational search engine”. Which doesn’t always suit nicely the needs of someone trying to just follow comments on a few blog posts (for instance, backtype notifies me via email of new comments on posts I am subscribed to, but does not include any text from those comments). The vagueness of my comment reflects my inability (quite possibly my own weakness) to figure out how to work this beast to my needs.

Closing thoughts

Apart from these, there are a few other options: some blogs provide a built-in mechanism to be notified of additional comments. You could also, as mentioned above, subscribe to the comment feeds for blog posts. You might even wish to just set up a Google Alert of some sort to track the post. But right now, there doesn’t seem to be a well-suited mechanism to quickly add blog posts to track and be notified (preferably via email) of comments against them.

If you know better, please educate us in the comments!

Correction: backtype does include details in its new comments notification. Given this bit of info, I think backtype is a pretty good solution to this problem.

Virtualisation and the Verger
July 6th, 2009 by ravi

Focus your interest, if you can, on the IT manager. This once docile creature, who used to oversee the functioning of a server room or a machine room, has recently morphed, at least in jargon, to master and owner of (drumroll please), “The Enterprise Data Center“. From a 7-11 to a WalMart… lots more aisles, same old crap. And so he sat astride this beast, enjoying a newly minted cabinet-level position (CIO). An example of what came next in his evolutionary story, a veritable Cambrian explosion that should please the late Stephen Jay Gould, shall be described soon.

But first, I must clear something up: this new breed is no longer the ubergeek that you might have in mind, purveyor of magical solutions dredged up from the bowels of operating systems to cure any and all ailments of the voracious end user. This is a new man. And a new man needs a new language, and the English language, in case you have not been informed, is today taught in the School of Business Management — perhaps not taught, but more than that… researched — and this English is a language of rampant capitalisation and short span: TCO, ROI, KPI, and other 3 letter words that identify the IT stalwart as a man of heft and substance.

And so, armed with metrics and spreadsheets this new man went looking for a new problem, and sure enough he found one. Or rather, so as not to ruffle the Armani, McKinsey and Co obligingly found him one.

McKinsey, in case you are unaware of this line of profession, is one of a set of organisations that enables the outsourcing of thought. It is the Deepak Chopra to corporate angst. It is the homeopathy of business medicine. Say your car company (let us call it, hmm… so many choices… how about Ford) makes gas guzzling ill-designed cars that nobody wants to buy even if you offer to sell it to them for $2000 lesser than a competitor’s equivalent vehicle. In the days before McKinsey, you had no option but to examine your design and manufacturing processes, the performance of your top managers, your advertising and marketing… frankly the sort of tedious activities that are beneath a Harvard man like you. The advent of McKinsey was a moment of fairness in a lop-sided world lacking Live Aid concerts for Exective Vice Presidents. So you turned the issue over to McKinsey, and sure enough, within 3 weeks, the credentialed but unsung heroes within turned out a report identifying your problem: worker pay and retirement benefits. The brilliance of McKinsey’s solutions was the unerring serendipity of their prescriptions seen in light of your own innermost desires.

Sometimes, on very rare instances, when the cosmos is aligned just about right, reality takes a bite out of this entire scheme, as happened to a close sibling of McKinsey’s, by name Arthur Anderson / Anderson Consulting, also known as MBAs Sans Frontiers, whose name you might vaguely associate with that of a now black-holed hot gas giant, Enron. But one cannot build a model of the universe and go about life on the basis of singularities and exceptions.

And so, we return to McKinsey and our Windsor knotted spreadsheet chomping champion of computing.

“Listen”, says McKinsey to our erstwhile comrade, “you have a problem”.

Not one to be caught napping, our new leader responds: “I know that!”.

And then adds: “What is it? Is it domain squatting? Mitigating enterprise data mining synergy downtime? Not Intellectual Property infraction weaknesses. Please say it ain’t so”.

The McKinsey man is known not merely for finding a question to fit his answer, he is also endowed with the best of bedside manners, and with a warm pat on the shoulder he offers his alarmed client some specifics: “Do you recall our humanware optimisation strategy from last spring when we identified surplus functionality in IT services, transitioned users to a self-service model and achieved gains in payroll loss reduction?”.

“Do I remember”, grins our chap, “I thank you for it each time I climb into the XJ8 I bought from my bonus that year”.

“I think”, the McKinsey man’s manner turns brooding, “it is time to apply that same analysis to your hardware”.

“You mean?” stutters the leader.

6%“, bellows McKinsey Jr, shooting up from his chair, in righteous wrath. “6% is what I mean!” his voice trembles in outrage and incredulity.

The leader is still at loss, but feels the promise of next year’s bonus suffusing warmth through his limbs. “That doesn’t sound right!”, he responds in indignation.

“It’s sacrilege”, says the manager-whisperer, “and it is the current utilisation percentage of your enterprise data center“.

“That’s bad”, nods the new organisation man, “…. right?”.

“Terrible”, comes the assurance, “just terrible. Here you have all this spare CPU capacity going waste.” (he considers adding: “There are children in India who don’t have a single CPU cycle and you are wasting 94% of it each minute, each hour, each day” — but then decides against it. The McKinsey boys are known in the underworld for their soft touch).

“Should we run more apps”, offers our hero, “we can run more apps. We could convert the code base to C++ or Java and that’s like 4 times the CPU cycles. I could call the boys up at Microsoft — their new product Basic Limited Office Add-on Tools gets like the highest bars in all those performance benchmarks”.

“No, no”, McKinsey Jr is not satisfied, “we cannot always fall back on Microsoft to solve our problems, and we are moving away from C++ as a revenue generation source”.

Allowing for a pregnant pause to underscore the heft of his proposal, the hired brain leans forward.

Virtualisation“, he intones, assuming the voice of the Dalai Lama, whose teachings, it had turned out, were invaluable to the aspiring technology leader, and were made available for free with the purchase of a full set of Taylor Made clubs.

“What?”, the confusion was understandable, for the word “virtue” had not enjoyed any prominence in prior consultations, “Virtual liaison?”, the manager had always liked the word “liaison” and his hopes shot up.

“No, no”, muttered the peeved boy genius. “Virtual-i-sation. What we do is we separate the OS from the hardware… introduce an abstraction layer between them.”

“Ah, and that fixes the CPU under-utilisation”.

“Well yes, but…”, the man from McKinsey was a decent sort and one did not just blurt it out like that, “what you really gain is the power of virtualisation. Think about this for a second. You take all your hundreds of servers, and you buy one big honking server — with lots of redundancy of course so the hardware doesn’t fail — and migrate all of your applications and services to virtual machines running on this big honking server. Now you have a single point of failure … no I mean you have…”, he dug deep into his mind searching for the bullet list that he recalled from slide 3 at the training session, “you have improved manageability, yes, improved manageability, consolidation, efficient resource utilisation, expandability. And, and… you can migrate your virtual machine with all its services to another server at any time. That’s the beauty of virtualisation. You can just plonk the VM on any of your servers”.

“Woah”, the manager falls back reeling in amazement.

“That’s right”, the management guru-in-the-making moves in for the kill, “let me just say that again: you can consolidate all your servers into one server, saving hardware cost, but then at the same time you can distribute your services across many many servers by virtualising them”.

“Awesome… I have always been worried by Moore’s Law. This is just, I mean, just amazing technology to solve it. I think we should bring in my sys admin, er I mean, IT architect”.

The call goes out for the IT architect and in walks a bearded bloke with a T-shirt depicting some sort of a red devilish figure holding a trident.

“We need to implement virtualisation for our data centre”, declares the pioneering captain of enterprise computing.

The McKinsey man steps in, “Imagine“, he stretches out his arms wide, “all your tens of servers consolidated into one single server”. His arms implode, his hands meet to form a cup (within which we presume the single server resides).

But…”, the IT architect starts to object.

“I know”, nods the consultant, “I know. How? Yes? Virtualisation. That’s how”.

But…”, the IT architect persists.

“I know”, smiles the consultant, “what about security? That’s your concern, yes? It’s all built secure from the bottom up. AAA certified by Moody’s Computing”.

“But”, says the IT architect, finally squeezing in a larger part of his sentence, “we don’t have tens of servers. We have three servers which implement our core services including DNS, Mail, web applications, …”.

“Three?”, the McKinsey wunderkind turns pale, “Three? That can’t be. A study by our team has demonstrated that an enterprise of your size has a computing hardware resource overhead of 43.5″.

“So, we can’t do virtualisation?”, the boss is crushed and puzzled.

“Clearly”, McKinsey’s voice took on a steely tone, “you are not yet ready for advanced technology such as this when you are not able to even meet industry standards on such a simple metric as computing hardware resource overhead”.

“Can I go now”, asks the sys admin, “we have a performance issue on one of the servers that you said we had no budget to upgrade, and I have to move the DNS service to the secondary, while I add memory scrounged from other systems to the first server”.

“Oh”, the consultant is curious, “how will you migrate your … what did you call it? … DNS service?”

“Change the config file and bring it up as the master”, replies the sys admin as he heads for the door.

“Oh my God”, the whiz stares at the IT geek as if he were some prehistoric monster, “I wonder if you had virtualisation what you could be!”.

A verger?”, quips the hacker as he waves goodbye.

Ahimsa for Tumblr 0.8
July 5th, 2009 by ravi

Below is the download link for version 0.8 of the Ahimsa theme for Tumblr. Note that it was rejected by the powers at Tumblr for not meeting their aesthetic standards (ouch!), so use at your own risk. Don’t know what Tumblr is? It’s a “tumblelog” service, a sort of mini-blog, for posting quick notes, pictures, etc. Another player in this space is Posterous, a fast expanding service that provides unique email based posting and commenting and a range of other great features.

Download Ahimsa 0.8 for Tumblr
Ahimsa for Tumblr
Version 0.8

If you are curious about how it looks, check out Ahren Code on Tumblr.

Fix: broken feed links at the top of the Ahimsa theme
July 4th, 2009 by ravi

The Ahimsa WordPress theme has a bug that renders the “Site” and “Comments” feed links at the top right unusable (by adding a “feed:” at the front of the URL). This will be fixed in the next release, but in the meantime, you can make the following change to overcome the problem.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to add an image in the Ahimsa Theme header
July 1st, 2009 by ravi

One question that crops up in the comments or via email is how you might add an image (such as a logo) to the red header bar of the Ahimsa theme. This is a tricky issue, because how you accomplish this depends on what the function of the image is and how large it is. Perhaps you want the image to be a background image for the header, like is the case for many WordPress themes. Or perhaps the image is a small logo. The changes to be made to the header code vary correspondingly.

Read the rest of this entry »

»  Substance: WordPress  »  Style: Ahren Ahimsa