Geeking out!

Having wrapped up my previous gig as VP of Engineering at UniversityNow earlier this month, I’ve been spending my free time over the past couple of weeks geeking out a bit, something I haven’t done with any real intensity in ages.

First up has been moving this here blog to EC2. I made heavy use of this writeup – extremely helpful.

I’ve been toying with moving my mail server to EC2 using node.js-backed Haraka. I’ve got the configuration working as I’d like, but I’m still negotiating with Amazon over the parts that they need to do to encourage other mail hosts (I’m looking at you, Yahoo mail) to believe that my server is a legitimate source of email and not a spambot. It’s unclear whether this will be successful, but it’s been educational nonetheless.

I also got myself a new laptop and have been happily hacking away on that too. I dumped my personal vim configuration in favor of the Janus distribution and am still working my way back to proficiency with the new key bindings: “Thumb-tied and twisted, just a vim-bound misfit, I”

I’m also planning to set up a bootcamp/VirtualBox instance so I can run the occasional Windows program, like IE.

Nathalie is puzzled at what all the fuss is about, but I can begin to feel the power flowing again, which is nice. Better, stronger, faster.

 

Big Day for my Small Company

My company, Foxmarks, was featured today in the Wall Street Journal in a column by Walt Mossberg, who covers personal technology for the Journal. The column, “Synchronizing Your Bookmarks on All Your PCs,” has some nice things to say about what we do, calling our Foxmarks

a clever, well-done product that can help users of multiple computers and multiple browsers to keep their Web lives in order.

Foxmarks has grown up on the web as a grass-roots product with lots of fans (especially amongst the digerati), but this is the first time we’ve received such substantial exposure in the national non-tech media. Check it out!

Political Analogies

I’m looking for additional options to round out the following:
George W. Bush is to Albania as…

  1. Jerry Lewis is to France
  2. David Hasselhoff is to Germany
  3. … ?

Feel free to submit your ideas for evaluation in the comments.

Boston’s Brad Delp: 1951-2007

I just learned that Brad Delp, vocalist for the band Boston, died in his home yesterday at age 55.

Though I was only 9 years old when Boston’s eponymous album was released, I would still count that band in the top contributors to my musical coming of age, Aerosmith and The Beatles being the other two. It’s no great surprise to learn that Delp considered The Beatles to be one of his top influences, and had in fact been fronting an apparently popular Beatles tribute band called Beatlejuice since the mid-90′s.

It’s been such a long time,
I think I should be goin’.
‘Cause time doesn’t wait for me,
It keeps on rollin’.

R.I.P.

Understanding Iraq

Joe Costello recently pointed me to this article. If you — like me — have been scratching your head for four years over why the US invaded Iraq, I think this essay provides a good framework for understanding. It’s an interesting read.

Free shipping on amazon.com

I like shopping on amazon — they’ve got a great selection and they’re super-reliable. But I am suspicious at how often my checkout tally comes out just below $25, which is the point at which their free shipping kicks in.

Fear not! There’s a site that can help you find items on Amazon that cost just those few pennies you need to bump your order over the limit. I’ve used this a few times before, and it works fine. I do feel guilty about tossing out the bit of garbage that I have to buy to qualify for free shipping, but what’s a guy to do? If there were some way of having them add a dollar to my order that they would then give to a charitable cause, I’d be all over that. Alas, they don’t appear to be that enlightened yet.

It’s alive!

Spurred on by Bob’s having blog-tagged me, I decided to dust off this WordPress installation and take it for a spin. That involved upgrading to the latest version of WordPress and, in the spirit of the New Year, grabbing a new theme, Ocadia. What do you think? The little swirly icon in the theme makes me think of both Tolkien and the Artist FKaP. It’s probably some unforgivably offensive curse in a druid language, and now I’m going to have a bunch of angry trolls swinging axes around.

The internets can be a dangerous place.

Apropos of nothing, I leave you with this important lesson in history. Warning: this is not work safe.

Anybody home?

Percy Cabello has posted an interview with Mitch Kapor over at Mozilla Links, in which Mitch talks about Foxmarks, a project that he and I have been collaborating on. There’s a nod in that interview to this blog, which as you can see has been fairly dormant for months. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to post back in here, mostly so it doesn’t look so cob-webbed.

And maybe I’ll start posting rants here again, much like I did back in the day (i.e., this summer). But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Not that you would, of course. Just a figure of speech. If you want to read more about Foxmarks, we’re blogging it here.

Cringeley on Web 2.0

Robert X. Cringeley writes about Web 2.0, focusing on the ideas of metacontent, distributed authorship, and aggregation. Too bad he doesn’t mention microformats, especially when he refers to
“the Tower of Babel effect in which every metadata tagger can use his or her own tagging system, none of which are necessarily readable by the others”, exactly the sort of problem that Micoformats aim to solve.

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Priming the Microformat Aggregation Pump

The wonderful, liberating thing about microformats is that anyone, anywhere can author an instance. Whether you create by hand or use one of the ever-expanding set of tools, the fact that microformats are XHTML means that you can slip them — typically unnoticed by their host — into any system that accepts HTML. Planning an event? Simply drop an hCalendar instance into your blog, and voila!

Voila? Normally, that expression is accompanied by a rabit being pulled out of a hat. It suggests that something magic and satisfying is going to happen. Having gone to the slight extra trouble of describing my event using hCalendar, what further benefit do I derive?

Well, there is at least one “voila!” effect that you can enjoy from your hCalendar instance: someone reading your blog post where you have encoded an event using hCalendar can use Brian Suda’s cool X2V to transform that hCalendar item into an iCalendar item, and thus get it into your desktop calendar. Eric Meyer shows how.

That’s a cool private benefit, but I want more. And I believe there need to be more demonstrable, immediate, and compelling benefits before the virtuous cycle driving adoption of microformats becomes self-sustaining. We have yet to see something compelling for microformats like hCalendar, hCard, and hReview.

On the other hand, we have seen a compelling application for another microformat: relTags. By adding a little bit of markup to my blog post, my post appears on Technorati’s search results pages and tag pages in such a way that it’s much more likely to be seen by my targeted audience. I get more people reading my post, I get more comments, and that, dear reader, is worthy of a “voila!”

The key difference between these two examples is aggregation. Microformats allow the stealthy, distributed, deployment of semantically rich data, but there’s not much value to using them until someone is aggregating them, collecting them from the far reaches of the web into a large pile that can be searched, categorized, etc. As a consumer, I don’t want to have to go looking in a thousand blogs to find an hCalendar event that I can add to my desktop calendar.

But therein lies the rub. If you want to develop an application that aggregates a certain type of microformat from blog postings, you’re going to have to scan every blog posting. The vast majority of posts won’t contain what you’re looking for. And that would be fine if there weren’t so many posts to scan, with their number increasing exponentially. What kind of hardware and bandwidth do you need today to scan all new blog posts? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s safe to assume that if it’s reasonable now, it won’t be in 6 months. And the real kicker is that if you were to go looking for hCalendar events, today you’d likely find only dozens — if that many. What’s your cost per item aggregated? Much too high, I’d wager.

Andy Baio, the creator of upcoming.org, has already set up his service to produce hCalendar marked-up events based on information that users have manually entered into his database. Even though there’s no compelling reason for him to have done so (other than the private benefit described above), it was easy to do, so he did it. On the other hand, aggegating hCalendar events, which would be much more valuable, is something he’s waiting to do until hCalendar becomes more widely used. Why? Because it’s too hard and too expensive. But imagine if it were otherwise, and Andy added aggregation as an additional means for getting content into upcoming.org: I drop an hCalendar event into my blog and it shows up, minutes later, as an event in upcoming.org. Now that would be worthy of a “voila!” — exactly the kind of benefit that’s needed to drive adoption.

So the question I pose is this: in the face of rising number of blog posts, how do we reduce the cost of aggregation of microformats to enable more services to aggregate? One thought is this: deploy a service tied into ping-o-matic that scans all new blog postings looking for microformats of a variety of types. When it finds a post containing one of those microformats, it turns around and pings a list of clients who are interested in that microformat type. So, for example, I drop an hCalendar event in my blog, my blog pings ping-o-matic, which in turn pings the “Microformat Router,” which scans the content, sees that it contains an hCalendar, and then pings upcoming.org, which retrieves the content and creates a new entry in upcoming.org’s database of event listings. Voila!

Now, you’re probably wondering how this reduces the cost of aggregating content. True, someone still has to scan through all the content looking for microformats. But that only has to happen once; each new client application adds only marginal cost. Further, this is something that could easily be deployed by a company that’s already scanning through all new blog postings. Don’t make me name names.

Alternatively, this could be set up as an independent service, much like ping-o-matic, serving the common good. Licensing terms could be established for client companies that successfully make use of the aggregation service to subsidize its cost of operation. Regardless, the efficiency gains that would result would be eventually recoupable somehow, and the availability of the service would really allow Microformats to deliver on their ultimate promise of making content more useful and discoverable.

And that, too, would be worthy of a “Voila!” Any takers?

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