Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The reasoning behind Lumberjack

So why, in 2009, in a world of RIA frameworks, web-based applications, and a wide variety of blogging engines to choose from, would I write a desktop application in Java targeted exclusively for one company's proprietary blog platform?

First of all, it was tempting to write this as an Adobe AIR application. It would have fit my requirement that it be cross-platform and run as a desktop application, but I've never written anything with Adobe development tools before. Given the limited time I had on weekends to work on it, I wanted to get something written as quickly as possible rather than spending all my time learning a new platform. With Java, I could just hit the ground running, and it was just a matter of referencing the Swing-specific documentation. It boiled down to what was expedient and familiar because it would allow me to build something quickly.

With respect to the issue of making this application web-based, the main point is that I didn't want to start up a browser just to create new posts on Blogger. There's the Blogger Dashboard for that. Now, it's true that one could write a slimmer, lighter, faster-loading web-based client for Blogger without all the heavy clutter of the Blogger Dashboard, but it would still require that I start up a web browser; in the end, I wouldn't end up using it much. I wanted to build something that I would use and keep on using. (I have also been writing web applications for the past five years, and thought it would be fun to write something that ran on the desktop for once.)

Finally, there's the issue of this program being a client specifically for one company's proprietary blogging engine. Why not make it work for WordPress, TypePad, Posterous, and all the other major and popular blogging platforms? For that matter, why am I still using Blogger when there are so many newer, slicker platforms to choose from? I have to admit that I was tempted to switch out from Blogger — WordPress and Posterous in particular have impressed me the most — but when it comes down to it I'd rather have my blog on Google infrastructure than anywhere else. With that said, not everyone feels this way, so they choose newer, snazzier blogging software — which is how Blogger ended up neglected by hobbyist software developers. To this day, I still can't even log in to my Blogger account using Drivel, a desktop client with support for all sorts of blogging engines.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Introducing Lumberjack, a desktop client for Google Blogger

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I was working on a desktop application, a client for Google Blogger, written in Java with the Swing GUI toolkit.

I recently found some time to work on the enhancements that I said I wanted to do during my last update, and I'm ready to release the application to the world. Get a ready-to-run file at the Lumberjack download page. Just download the JAR file, save it, and run it; it will work as long as you have a Java runtime installed. If you're running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, you probably do.

If you have trouble logging in, you may have to solve a Google CAPTCHA first. You should only have to do it once.

If you're a developer, you'll find the source code at the Lumberjack GitHub repository. Simply run ant to build the application. (Yes, I put a lot of effort into getting this one-step build working.)

Patches, questions, and suggestions are most welcome. Just leave a comment on this post.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Idealism and retreat

When I'm by myself, when it's quiet with no distractions pulling me in a million directions, I automatically start to dream and envision great things. All of my scattered realizations and fleeting memories somehow just coalesce to give me more clarity about myself and what I'd like to do. It's as if a master blueprint is forming in my mind. It's not a time for questions about implementation or feasibility, but for consideration of what should be done simply because it's the right thing to do. There's no cacophony pressing from without, clamoring that it can't be done or that it's not worth the time, effort, or attention.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Organic thankfulness

I've always had trouble keeping my sentimental cycles synchronized with what the calendar officially sanctions. This year is no different. I got into a very thankful mood early — well before Thanksgiving Day rolled around. Days before Thanksgiving proper, I was working on writing the bulk of my post-wedding "Thank You" cards.

True to my high ideals and impractically grand ambitions, I didn't want to just write a generic, canned response to everyone; I wanted each card to be sincere and personalized for each recipient. For I follow the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If I am deeply insulted and take personal offense whenever someone sends me a generic message disguised as a customized one, why would I inflict the same on others?

Faced with the task of writing so many customized notes to so many people, it was hard to even get started — but good old engineering experience soon kicked in. Whenever I find it hard to get started on something, I try to build momentum by doing the easy part first. Then, to maintain that momentum and to keep my focus tight, I periodically stop and ask myself what the main objective is, and re-align accordingly.

So, I started with what was easy. I simply read the card that each person sent, so I could see what was written. That would give me something to riff off of. And sure enough, this worked in giving me something to start off with. But the unexpected (and much more helpful) side effect of reading these cards was that they just naturally made me feel thankful. Writing the response just seemed like the natural next step — in contrast to painfully extracting whatever random remnants of goodness I had left in me, or emotionally manufacturing shoddy imitations of good cheer for putting on paper.

The trouble with letting nature run her course and supply material for us is this: what she supplies seldom fits our purposes exactly.

And so, I had to rein in my overflowing thankfulness to keep it focused on thanking people specifically, rather than letting my responses meander all over the place.

I remember one specific instance of an older relative, widowed for a couple of years now, whose long and happy marriage had instilled in me a deep and lasting belief that marriage in this day and age could work. She and her late husband had so many excellent qualities that I could easily have filled her card by heaping random praise on them. But by focusing on thanking her first, I actually had the chance to keep the note shorter and more meaningful by zeroing in on how they inspired me through their marriage specifically, rather than listing their virtues as individuals.

I'm almost done writing these cards. Each card gives me a chance to take a natural sense of gratitude and then channel it in a way that renders it more meaningful by doing a better job of making it known.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Automated summaries and excerpts

You've seen them around the web: they're the blocks of text appearing under the headlines, giving you a little more information on what the linked article is about. If the headline didn't tell you enough, the summary or excerpt is supposed to serve as a sort of fall-back mechanism to tell you a little bit more.

The websites of such longtime print titans such as The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal tend to have good summaries beneath their headlines. They know how summaries should be written — by hand. They are, after all, the professional producers of such content and have a vested interest in getting that content viewed.

Those who are a few steps removed from the production of such content, on the other hand, make it readily apparent that they just don't care. Two of the most surprising offenders are Google and Apple — ironically, two media darlings who appear regularly in feature articles.

A quick jaunt over to Google Finance gives us an example of their automated summary text. If news articles could get circumcised, then Google Finance summaries would be the equivalent of the unwanted foreskins.

By Brian Love PARIS, July 5 (Reuters) - World leaders are bound to express the hope that the worst of the global economic crisis is passing when they meet this week, but they are under pressure, too, to manage a Chinese challenge to<br />decades of dollar ...

Where do we even begin when trying to enumerate what's wrong with this? First of all, the summary text is much too long to reasonably hold the attention of the typical reader who is scanning the page; it's unreasonable to even call it a summary.

And even if you read the entire thing, it doesn't make sense because it trails off. Decades of dollar what?

And then there's the extraneous information: the name of the author, the location where the article was wired from, and the name of the wire service. I'm sure the author is a swell guy, that Paris is a lovely city, and that Reuters is excellent at what it does, but what is all that doing in the summary text?

Oh, but Google is all about automating stuff, even if it turns out a little ugly. Let's look at what Apple does; we know they've got a better sense of design than anyone around.

Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the headlines on the Apple start page don't fare much better. Here's just one entry from the entire embarrassing list.

If you'd like to try something both delicious and healthy this holiday weekend, this about serving your guests Barbecue Glazed Alaska Salmon with...

Well, if anything could be called an improvement, I suppose we can give this one a little bit of credit. The summary is at least short enough to read and doesn't contain extra cruft. But it still doesn't make sense when considered as a self-contained sentence. Barbecue Glazed Alaska Salmon with what? Why should I click “Learn more” when you can't even bother taking the time to edit the summary to give me a coherent sentence up front? Is this entire article made up of sentences that are going to trail off and leave me hanging just like the summary did?

Why, in the middle of 2009, do we still see these amateur-looking automated excerpts on websites run by widely respected technology companies?

I'm not the one making decisions inside the conference rooms in these companies, so I can't say for sure. But I can venture a guess. These two companies are highly respected, to a large extent, because they're also highly profitable. Assuming that people don't really care whether the summaries are readable or not, it certainly makes sense to cut costs and forgo hand-editing of summaries. And being technology companies, of course they'd want an automated, technological solution; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So these world-class companies knowingly produce these barely passable, poor excuses for excerpts. What does that mean? What's the implication? From this, we can conclude that these excerpts aren't meant to be read. If they aren't meant to be read, then they aren't meant to be taken seriously. They're merely filler text, a cheap imitation of what big-boy news organizations have done for years. Maybe in the age of continuous partial attention, this makes sense for a new kind of audience.

As for me, I'm going to remain stubborn and demand only the best from my news sources — including summaries and excerpts. Is it really too much to ask for a complete sentence these days?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Finely tuned collective effort

As someone who is rabidly individualistic, working with other people isn't something that's hard-wired into me. For this, I've been chided by friends and family members who hold collective effort up as a sacred cow. They cannot possibly fathom why anyone would question the merits of working together.

I remember reading (probably in the Harvard Business Review) that this teamwork mindset is prevalent especially among my generation, which grew up playing team sports and doing group projects in school. Contrast this with the modus operandi of previous generations of workers, who were much more individualistic: put your nose to the grindstone, pull your weight in the organization, and let your merits stand on their own.

In this sense, I am very much a traditionalist.

But I've been through some fiery projects in school and during my consulting days working with clients. Massive requirements and short deadlines have a way of focusing the mind and forcing the casting aside of closely held ideology. I've seen teams coming together to accomplish something that was more than the sum of the parts, and seeing that in action made me more open to the idea.

Still, I maintain what I consider a healthy skepticism towards a widespread and blind allegiance to the nebulous concept of collective effort.

I acknowledge that it produces tremendous benefits as many sets of eyes and differing perspectives hammer away to solve problems, and that work can be parceled out and done in parallel, resulting in undeniable time savings. Knowledge can be shared to increase the human capital of everyone involved; it makes everyone better off by increasing the raw capability of the team so that the team's maximum output doesn't merely hold constant.

But reaping these benefits does not come automatically.

Any time you pool resources to exert greater leverage, you also put yourself at risk of exercising power in the wrong direction or of misallocating those resources so that all you're left with is a colossal heap of waste. Capital intensive industries such as auto manufacturing earn billions in profit in good times, but when crisis strikes, the cost of all that unused capacity is crippling.

I don't want to come off sounding alarmist or overly pessimistic about teamwork gone wrong. Truth be told, it rarely ends in a blazing mess. Even the most dysfunctional team is just a misconfigured engine that nonetheless manages to sputter along, misfiring occasionally, but still operational. I'd guess that this is how most haphazardly assembled teams manage to get by.

If you choose to go it alone, it's like pedaling along on a bike: you can get in and out of places, but even the car with the misfiring engine can go faster than you can. Working alone feels much more elegant and affords the independent worker more agility. This is where the continued appeal of individual effort arises from. But for most undertakings worth their salt these days? A team effort is the smart choice, just like you need a car to really enjoy all that Southern California has to offer.

But again, let's be honest. Driving a car with a misfiring engine isn't very much fun. It's nerve-wracking, and the only people amused by it are the people who are laughing at you from a safe distance.

What can you do to pull off collective effort like a finely tuned engine?

Share knowledge. This makes you better equipped for the future.

Exploit different strengths and don't strive for homogeneity. This is where differing viewpoints and other sets of eyes can really come in handy.

Implement systems of coordination and common convention to maintain coherence. It's ridiculously easy for everyone to start doing things their own way.

Know the difference between parallel and serial tasks. As tasks in this knowledge-based economy become increasingly complex, it's not as easy as painting a room and asking everyone to take one wall.

Gather the right people for what you want to do. It does you no good to get an excellent tax accountant when what you need is a good plumber. No offense to tax accountants.

Question your assumptions: do you really need a team for what you're trying to do? Do you really need a large one, or would a small one suffice? And are you prepared to put in the hard work for everyone involved to get the maximum benefit out of the experience?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Enough with civility: confronting line cutters and queue jumpers

Last Saturday, Sophia and I went to Disneyland to celebrate my birthday and to spend some time together, since our work schedules haven't really overlapped favorably in recent weeks.

We were in line for the Matterhorn, and as decent, upstanding Disneyland patrons, we took our places at the back of the snaking line.

It was a long line, but it was what one would expect for a Saturday at Disneyland. It was moving at a good clip — faster than the 405 near Santa Monica during rush hour, anyway.

About halfway through, a suspicious looking Asian guy wearing sunglasses sidled up next to me from out of nowhere. For a good three seconds, he stood there without saying a word. I thought that he was expecting to be recognized, but upon closer inspection I could recall no previous association with him.

When he finally said something, he said, "Hey man, you mind if I get behind you? The line is really long and I don't want to wait in the back."

Flabbergasted at the audacity of the request, my verbal faculties sputtered, and the first thing to come up was, "No."

As I realized that I had actually issued an unintentionally affirmative and welcoming response, I stepped in to clarify. "I mean, yes, I do mind. And I mean that no, it is not fine with me if you get behind me."

He responded, "Oh, come on. Why not?"

"Because we began at the back of the line, like everyone else, and so should you," I said with an annoyed and furrowed brow. (At this point, it was only one brow. That's how annoyed I was: unibrow annoyed.) I gestured to the very back of the line. "You should start heading over there. You shouldn't be here."

He kept a straight face. "Oh, alright." And that was that.

Or so I thought. I turned around five minutes later, and he was just standing there — right behind me!

I looked at the people right behind him to see if they were upset in any way. It was a wholesome-looking white American family, and they didn't seem bothered by anything at all. It looked like they were having a good time.

I am certain that the scumbag probably chose to ask me because white people would be more likely to think we were together since we were Asian — which is a reasonable assumption to make. But the guy was alone, and I felt a little sorry for him; maybe someone close to him died. You never know what the story is with people, I figured, so I decided to forget about it.

But five minutes later, the scumbag's wench joined him. At this point, I was fuming, and was very close to causing a scene. Sophia told me to just forget about it since we were there to have a good time, and I knew that anger tends to make me act irrationally, so I just fumed for a while and hoped it would pass.

It has been a week, and it has not passed.

While writing this up, I found out that queue jumpers get away with it most of the time. In the future, please do everyone a favor and cause a scene, and I will do the same.

Now, I understand that it may be difficult to think quickly of what to do. If you need some ideas, here are a few things you can do to people who cut in line.

Wait until you get to the front of the line and then tell the people in charge. Make the cutters return to the back of the line all over again.

Loudly and clearly proclaim to everyone behind the cutters of what they have done. Populist outrage is a powerful force, and public humiliation is a long neglected tool. Put them together and you've got a great combination.

Take a picture of the cutters. If they cut in pretending to know you, why not play along? Say loudly, "Oh, hey, what does your new driver's license picture look like?" Remember their names, and then post their names, their pictures, and what they did, so that employers can find them when they perform background checks. (Make the page SEO friendly so these dirtbags are easier to find.)

Get physical. The line cutters don't belong there, so you're just righting a wrong and putting things back as they should be. A simple shove should do the trick, but be prepared for some pugilism should you go this route. This is particularly well-suited for those of you who don't resort to violence — because it's your first choice, not a last resort.

It's about time these scoundrels get what they deserve. If it helps, just bottle up whatever road rage you have, and instead dish it out to someone who actually deserves it. Disneyland may be the happiest place on earth, but happiness will remain incomplete as long as we remain complacent about people who blithely dismiss the ideals of justice and fairness.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Vision and chaos

Among the key elements of my father's network of enterprises are the fixer-upper houses which he rents out. As soon as my brother and I were old enough to be of use on these construction sites, Dad would take us along.

I hated the messiness of the building process. The floor would typically be littered with drywall chunks. Shattered roof tiles sat in piles on the front yard, and sawdust was sprinkled over everything.

When it was all done, though, with everything cleaned up, I felt accomplished for having been a part of bringing about the final outcome. It was more than easy to forget the messy process that brought about the end result: forgetting was automatic. It actually took me conscious effort to remember what it took to get there.

While I was in the thick of it, it was discouraging to see the mess in front of me, because it just didn't seem possible that everything could be made right again. All I saw was a seemingly intractable mess. My father, on the other hand, never seemed fazed by it. His vision of the end result was not clouded by temporary worry because he was certain of what we were working toward. He saw things not as they were, but as they should be.

Over the years, I learned to embrace the temporary mess, provided there was a plan and a vision for building something beautiful from it. Still, this sort of unflinching confidence doesn't just come at the flip of a switch. It took many messes and subsequent turnarounds to deeply ingrain this kind of optimism in myself. Even now, I need a conscious and intentional self-reminder not to be overwhelmed when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable task.

The boy knows he is a man when he can see not only what is in front of him, but what he's going to make of it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My automobile's cooling system and its plastic parts

I've learned a lot about my car's cooling system over the past couple of weeks. There's nothing like the prospect of a melted engine to focus the mind. Typically, I would be content to leave it to the mechanic, but the cooling system has many moving parts, and I'm the one who sees firsthand all the symptoms when driving it in various situations.

At the very least, anyone in my position would have to take careful note of which circumstances triggered certain events. Such diagnostic tips can help the mechanic narrow things down so that he won't charge you as much for diagnosing the problem. Ideally, we'd also prefer that he fix everything that's wrong with a component as vital as the cooling system.

I've had to watch the reading on the temperature sensor, for one. The key is to never let the needle hit the red zone at the top of the temperature gauge. If it does, your engine's head gasket and other crucial parts are in critical danger of melting, distorting, or breaking. The repairs for those problems are much more expensive than those to the cooling system.

When I went to the mechanic this morning, I took in various observations that would help him narrow down the problem and know where to look. I noticed that the fans were going full speed because of the higher running temperature, so I told him that the fans were extremely loud after a short drive. From various sources online, I made sure to observe any difference between city driving and high speed freeway driving, but there was none, so this meant there was one less option to consider.

With the cooling system in my car, things have been failing left and right in a sort of chain reaction as the increased running temperature of the car's engine puts a lot of parts under extra stress. Whatever parts failed and needed replacing were just worn out and should have been replaced long ago. Rubber rings had become as hard as plastic. One plastic pipe had become so brittle from age that it broke off; I had to re-fasten the hose clamp just to keep the engine running cool enough to drive to the mechanic. Metal parts such as the thermostat housing and the water pump showed signs of corrosion; in the case of the thermostat, it wouldn't open to let coolant flow as it should.

The mechanic told me some interesting tidbits while we were ruminating aloud on the absurdity of car makers — including Daimler and BMW — using so many plastic parts all over the cooling system. According to him, the move towards plastic parts is justified by lower cost of materials and making the car lighter so the engine doesn't have to pull as much weight. One thing he observed was the increasing failure rate of newer cars — and he said it wasn't unusual for people with new cars still under warranty to come to his shop with worn out plastic parts.

Suffice it to say, that made me very hesitant about paying a premium for a newer model Mercedes-Benz or a BMW. If I end up buying a new car soon, it may well be a Hyundai, a Honda, or a Toyota. If everyone's using plastic parts, I may as well pay less.

In any case, I'm surprised that my old car has lasted this long, considering the long distances I drive on a regular basis. It's a 1996 Mercedes-Benz C220. I've been very fortunate to have the car running within its prescribed temperature limits, despite all the hand-wringing and pulling over to the side of the road, fraught with worry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Feisty Ford Focus

People who drive small cars sure have colorful personalities. Yesterday, on the way to work, I saw a Ford Focus with a license plate frame that said, "Don't laugh. It's paid for." It was refreshing to see someone being flashy about their financial responsibility — a quality which is rarely flaunted.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lessons from refactoring

I enjoy the process of refactoring software — especially software that was written by other people. It forces me to understand things inside and out (which is a tough point to arrive at when all you do on that code is the occasional drive-by bug fix). On top of that, since the desired functionality is known already, it's all redesigning of the data model and writing code. There are fewer product-level questions that come up. The specification is pretty much set.

For this particular project, though, I have the unique challenge of making the new design pass muster with multiple parties. People are picky and they always have something to say, so I took special care this time to anticipate any objections and address them so they'd get a better sense of my thought process. I've still had to make changes — and I make them gladly — but I've found that having to explain each decision I'm making generally serves to clarify my thought process.

It certainly helps to have some time to think hard about these changes, too. It's a healthy thing to let a data model sit for a bit and soak into the minds of all stakeholders while their input is incorporated. It also helps when people are interested enough to give detailed and insightful feedback. Sure, it generally doesn't hurt to have more sets of eyes looking at a plan, but having a team of people analyzing it harnesses collective historical memory — great for backward compatibility — and makes the plan more bulletproof by ensuring that it addresses concerns from many points of view.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blogger client as a Java Swing desktop application

Ever since I started using Blogger, I've been looking for a decent, no-nonsense desktop client to write my posts. I personally find it to be a lot of hassle to load up a big, heavy web browser and log in to Blogger to make my posts. (To be fair, Drivel was quite excellent in the past, but doesn't look like it's maintained anymore.)

After a little poking around at Google's API documentation, I am pleased to announce that I'm writing this post from a desktop application of my own making. It's a Java desktop application using Swing, so it will run on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and any other major desktop platform with a Java runtime.

So far, I can select from a list of blogs, write in post titles (to be friendly to those search engines), write post content, and submit new posts. It's really basic, but it's quite a milestone and a major motivator for me to at least have gotten this far.

Soon to come on the feature front, I'm aiming for loading old posts to update, deleting posts, and smoothing out the user experience. (Right now, the app looks and feels like the weekend side project that it is. It doesn't even scroll when the text is too long.)

On the code quality front before I release this thing out into the wild, I'd like to do some release engineering, automate the build process, and just separate the various concerns (like GUI drawing code, network connections, and application logic.)

In any case, it feels good to have my software development methodology validated: get a dirty prototype up and running, and count on the morale boost to spur further development. So far, it feels pretty good. The hardest part is done and the challenge from now on is just finding spare moments to work on refining this thing.

Update 02/20/2009: I've implemented updating existing posts, and I'm updating from the improved client right now. Of course, to get to that point, it had to load up old posts. A cleanup of the code base before proceeding is probably in order, because I'm kind of going nuts trying to figure out where everything is and where new things should go.

Update 02/22/2009: I've created the build system to use Ant and package the app into a neat little .jar file. I also fixed a minor usability bug to make the app more pleasant to post with and give you feedback when a post has been submitted. The refactoring into a better architecture will have to wait; my mind's capacity for refactoring is mostly taken up by a big refactoring proposal I'm putting together at work.

Update 12/16/2009: It's open to the public! Please see the Lumberjack release announcement. The code has been cleaned up, made more maintainable, and a few features have even been added to make the application more pleasant to use.