Technology

Use Thunderbird for your RSS needs

If you have weblogs (or web sites) that you read regularly and support RSS, Thunderbird makes life MUCH easier. Sure, some web browsers support live bookmarks, and that’s all well and good for high volume sites (such as ESPN), where you might want to just see what articles are new, and jump straight to the one of interest. I would contend, however, that for lower volume sites, such as weblogs, The Server Side, etc., the paradigm of a newsgroup is more fitting. You want to know when a new entry is posted – normally you either end up checking too often, with no new entries, or forgetting about it, missing things that you would want to read. This is precisely how Thunderbird treats RSS feeds.

Once you subscribe to an RSS feed in Thunderbird, it checks your feeds at a configurable interval, and displays the number of new entries for each feed. You read the entry, without even opening a web browser, and it’s marked as read. You can either delete the entry from the folder, or keep it around for later reference. There’s still some work to be done so far as allowing you to sort and catalog the saved entries, but it’s worlds better than periodically checking your favorite blogs hoping there’s a new entry there, or even the ill-suited live bookmark concept.

Java

java.security.KeyStore.getKey() can be expensive

We were looking at some code today that pulls some encrypted information from a database and decrypts it, considering strategies to improve performance. Currently, when a certain report is run, it brings the system to its knees, pulling out each row and decrypting it.

Some tests led to the clear conclusion that the bottleneck had little to do with computing the encryption algorithm, and far more to do with a single line of code, that grabbed the SecretKey from the KeyStore. Changing the code to cache this key led to performance improvements of 1500%-3000%, depending on sample size. Performance was generally comparable whether using 3DES or AES. So if you’re seeing some performance issues in your JCE encryption/decryption code, start with the simple, and realize that getKey() can take some serious time.

Sports

Why did Ron Artest leave the game early?

(Punch line is coming.) I’m very excited to have been given club seats and a parking pass to tonight’s Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers game. As a Pacers fan, I’d wish the players would have had more restraint so I could see an undepleted Pacers squad out there instead of a team sliding downhill fast, hanging on for dear life until they get 2 of their starters back and try to salvage a playoff spot.

For those of you just here for the joke, the answer is, “So he could beat the crowd.”

General

The NFL Pisses on its fans… again

Someone in the front offices of the NFL is obsessed with exclusivity, no matter how much they screw fans in the process. Their decision to grant exclusive licensing rights to EA Sports for both the teams and the players is just another example of this. I find it difficult to believe that a single, exclusive, sweetheart deal such as this is worth more than licensing deals with multiple game studios. The NFL is in the position of power here – they hold the rights that EA absolutely needs to maintain the success of Madden. Whatever they’re charging EA for exclusivity, they could probably strongarm them into paying that much just for non-exclusive rights. The Madden franchise isn’t popular because gamers like listening to a senile, bloated, has-been coach spout the blatently obvious about computer graphics, it’s popular because it is a VERY well executed simulation of the game people love to watch on Sunday. They can play as their home team, play against their hated rival, trade for the player they always wanted on their team. They can pass with precision like Peyton Manning, fake everyone out with Michael Vick. Playing with “#7” for “Atlanta” doesn’t cut it. This exclusive deal may spawn interesting other flavors of football games, but it will do little but stagnate the NFL football simulation genre, drive prices up (EA won’t have to cut Madden to $30 to complete with Sega next year), and lower the total number of people playing NFL football on their game systems.

You can’t blame EA. They’re serving their customers just fine – Madden fans want to play Madden 2005/6/7/8/9 with the teams and players they see on TV, exclusive or not. The NFL is to blame here, and they have shown time and again their desire to serve corporate interests before they serve the fans whose devotion makes those corporate interests lucrative. Consider first, the blackout rules. In a city like Atlanta, dominated by transplants who didn’t grow up on Falcons football, it takes some extra work to get people to care about the local team. Until Vick came to town, most home games weren’t sold out, and when a game isn’t sold out, it doesn’t get televised locally. As a casual fan of the Bucs and Colts, why am I going to plunk own $40 for 2 tickets to see the local team that I have NO ties to play another team I have no ties to? I won’t. And if I can’t watch them on TV, I won’t DEVELOP ties to the team either. Brilliant. But the league would rather cave to paranoid, short-sighted owners, who somehow believe that the game being on TV keeps droves of people from buying tickets.

But that isn’t even the half of it. Let’s talk NFL Sunday Ticket, where people pay $200+ to be able to watch any NFL game from home for the entire season. But only if they’re on DirecTV. Dish Network and cable subscribers are completely excluded until something like 2010 – the NFL just signed an extension on this. Once again, I question whether the exclusivity money paid by DirecTV is REALLY that much more than the sum of the non-exclusive fees that could be extracted from all satellite providers, cable operators, and perhaps even webcasters. Some people can’t even get DirecTV, due to dish aiming issues, but the league would rather follow the guaranteed path. This also ignores intangible benefits. As a Bucs fan in Atlanta, and the Bucs not being very good this year, they haven’t been on broadcast TV very often. If I were more in touch with the team, I’d be more excited about them, I’d purchase more licensed merchandise, I might go out of my way to go to a game. As it stands, I can’t tell you too much about how the team is developing this year since I don’t have DirecTV and haven’t spent every Sunday at a sports bar. The combined audience for Dish, DirecTV, and digital cable would be absolutely huge, and could further bolster the popularity of the NFL. As it stands, Sunday Ticket is just some novelty that you heard your friend’s friend has.

Lastly, there are the TV contracts, with their byzantine restrictions. Most weeks, there are 14 games played in the 1 pm and 4 pm slots on Sunday. The MOST you can see of those is *3*. There are 11 games you cannot watch even if you want to. CBS and Fox have exclusive rights on these games, and in any given week, only one of them can show a “doubleheader”. If your local team is playing an early game at home on the doubleheader station, you don’t get the late game, even if the game is a sell out. What, people who have tickets to the game are going to skip it so they can watch the late game on TV? And even if they do, they’ve already paid for their ticket. Who cares? If the local team isn’t sold out, you don’t get that game either. You’re down to 1 out of 14 available games. What’s the alternative? Secondary rights. How many hundred stations are there on digital cable and satellite now? CBS and Fox are still going to pay big money if you give them first dibs on each week’s games in each market. Let TNT, ESPN2, Fox Sports, MTV, etc. bid on the rights to pick up the games that the local CBS/FOX declines to air. The effect would certainly be a net increase in the total number of viewers on Sunday. There is probably an assumption somewhere that people are going to watch whatever game is shown, which may be true for extremely hardcore fans. I like football. A lot. But if the 1 PM games suck, I’m going out to run errands. If the 4 PM games suck, I’m spending time with family and friends instead. Give me more options, and I’m more likely to carve out time for a game I find worth watching.

Not only does this arrangement suck, they just renewed their contracts with CBS and Fox for several more years, without a bidding process. How is this good for the NFL side of things? You can either extend a contract with networks, paying little more than their current rates, or you can have networks compete over who will have broadcast rights to one of the hottest commodities in sports. I wonder which would net more money? But why ask that, when the NFL has can grant exclusive rights instead.

Without fans, the NFL has nothing to sell. There are many networks, many broadcast mediums, game manufacturers, but only one NFL – they hold the power in those relationships. It’s the fans who are fickle, the fans give them influence over the distributors, so why do they continue to bow to these interests instead of recognizing simple ways to increase their fan base, thus improving the product they have to sell?

General

Fleeing Bureaucracy

A recent trend, though possibly localized to my corner of the world, has been one of younger employees leaving larger companies for smaller ones as they get fed up with the inefficiency of large organizations. With tomorrow as my last day at a larger company, I can say that red tape wasn’t my main reason for leaving, but it made it easier to consider other opportunities as they rolled in. I know one friend leaving a management job at a large company for a development job at a small one. I have coworkers who are about to explode from frustration they have because they just want to be allowed to do their job, and can’t. I have brainstormed some possible reasons for this:

  • Increasing Job Choices – A recovering job market is opening up more opportunities, and employees no longer feel the pressure to attach themselves to the safety of a large company.
  • The “Office Space” Complex – while older, more traditional workers are accustomed to the ins and outs of corporate America, younger employees, no longer inculcated with ideals of loyalty to one company, are refusing to accept such ways of doing business.
  • Government Induced Overhead – While larger, public companies have always been subject to higher government scrutiny, recent monstrosities such as the Sarbannes-Oxley Act have added a weighty new layer of overhead. This new height of regulation is driving off employees.
  • Learned Complacence – It could be that a certain tolerance for inefficiency is built up over the years, and the people I see moving simply haven’t acquired this yet, but will eventually.
  • Increased Sensitivity – I might just be noticing other people’s similar transitions because of heightened awareness.
  • Coincidence – It may be a complete non-trend, and just a localized spike.

Any other thoughts, suggestions, trends, or data points?

General

Feeling Like a Poker King

I’m surprised more technologists aren’t interested in poker. It’s a game based on statistics, on outsmarting your opponents, and it’s different every time. That being said, I had the pleasue one week ago of winning my first poker tournament. Nothing earth-shattering, a simple free tournament at a local bar. Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in combining luck with skill to beat 79 other competitors for a $40 bar tab and a 1 in 16 shot at a trip to Vegas.

Since this isn’t a poker weblog, I won’t get into the gritty details of it all. I will encourage anyone who’s curious to look into it a little more. Between online sites and local free tournaments, there are plenty of opportunities give it a try without putting money on the line. Do some reading on starting hand selection if you don’t want to completely waste your time.

General

Logical Inconsistency in America

According to a Newsweek poll, 79% of Americans believe that Jesus was birthed by a virgin mother. Furthermore, 67% believe the entire Christmas story is true, including the angels proclaiming his birth to the shepherds, the guiding Star of Bethlehem, and the visit of the wise men. Now here’s where it gets interesting – 82% believe that he was God or the Son of God. So at least 3% of the people polled believe that though God walked this Earth in human form, that he wasn’t born of a virgin – who do these people think fathered Jesus?

55% of the people polled believe the Bible is literally true, while 52% of the people polled believe that Jesus will come back. Are at least 3% of these people unaware that Jesus says in the Bible that he’s coming back to this Earth, and why can’t they accept a small miracle compared to the larger miracle of God walking this Earth?

And as for these other people, just what is it about the Bible that is so hard to swallow? They apparently believe that God sent himself or his Son to this planet in human form, yet is incapable of ensuring that His instructions for how we should live our lives are recorded accurately enough that they can be taken literally? Who do these people believe that Jesus is, and what strange limitations have they put on God? 62% of people polled believe we should teach creation science in schools, while only 55% of the people believe the Bible is literally true. Who are the 7+% of people who don’t believe the Bible should be taken literally, but believe we should teach creation in schools? If you can believe the creation story literally, what other part of the Bible is not to be believed, what is impossible for a God that can create the universe?

Are you one of those people whose belief in the virgin birth is inconsistent with your other beliefs? If you believe Jesus was born by a miracle, as God walking this earth, doesn’t logic suggest that your life should be lived in a way consistent with what He said? (If you think it’s all false, I think you’re wrong, but at least that’s a logically consistent viewpoint.)

General

And for my next job…

…perhaps I’ll work for myself. With the thinking that goes along with changing jobs as I am, I’ve been contemplating my next move. Some people love technology for the sake of technology. I love technology because of the things it enables – the new ways of solving problems, the efficiencies added to inefficient processes. The technology is a compelling means to an end, something that I enjoy learning in order to get the job done efficiently.

So why not work my way up the food chain into a leadership role in a company? Well, that option’s certainly on the table, especially at my new job. Small, growing companies can offer incredible opportunities for accelerated growth and strong input into the company’s vision. But I’m a strong proponent of maximizing the available options, maximizing options is one reason I’m changing jobs – broadening my skill set for the unknown future. Giving 100% of your effort and time to your job is critical while you’re at work, but if that’s your only career focus, you won’t be ready for that next step. The next step forward could be back to the company I’m leaving, applying the expertise I’ll be developing in scalability to their new order management system, it could be at any number of Atlanta’s Fortune 500 or even 100 companies, it could be in destroying the incremental cost of developing new web sites and back office systems for small business with Tailored Technologies, a venture my bold friend Stuart will be devoting some of his time to as he chooses to leave a guaranteed paycheck behind and build the businesses he believes in.

What really gets my blood pumping is solving problems with technology, preferably big problems that relate to my interests. What interests me? Music, Christianity, stewardship, distribution networks, and Yuengling, to name a few things. Without tipping my hand too far, I’ll simply say that I have a few passionate ideas in these areas that I’m looking to pursue. I’d love to turn something up, in the spirit of The Bootstrapper’s Bible, and have it succeed at least enough to make it my day job. But why stop there? Some of the ideas are revolutionary, paradigm changing – so much so that they would be considered improbable if not impossible – too challenging to existing traditions and habits. But who would ever think that people would buy books from a place where they can’t skim the introduction to see if they want it (until recently), or buy trinkets in an auction from a complete stranger. There’s plenty of interesting problems yet to solve with technology. Why not make a living from it?

General

A New Job for the New Year

Now that the news has been broken to my coworkers, I can post the news for anyone to see. After being carpet-bombed by recruiters for months with unsolicited contract-to-perm opportunities, a nice gem of an opportunity developing software with Proficient Systems came out of nowhere. Is making the move from a 156 year old, Fortune 500 subsidiary to a 4 year old, VC backed startup the safest thing in the world? Not necessarily, but for experienced Java developers in Atlanta, I believe the market is strong – at least strong enough that one could find a short or mid-term contract within a week or two.

So why not take a risk? The team there seems sharp, pragmatic, and composed of interesting individuals. The challenge before us is significant but achievable – scaling a product to boost capacity tenfold and beyond to meet growing customer needs. The location is ideal – a 15 minute commute in Atlanta is cause for celebration. The opportunity for growth is critical – interviewing with them opened my eyes to many gaps I have in my resume as a technologist, gaps that are hard to fill as the most senior member of the team in my current job. The easy path would be to stay put. This company treats me well, with nice benefits, a manager who actively looks out for our interests, and near-guaranteed raises. But the raises were a danger as well – collect those long enough, without growing my skills, and I’m stuck with the golden handcuffs, a salary that doesn’t match my skills in the job market.

They seem to have a good balance of the late 90’s work environment and actual business sense. Dress is casual, the structure isn’t rigid, free cokes and razor scooters in the office, but without hiring twice as many people as they need, wasting money on extravagant office space and parties, burning VC like it’s manna from heaven, or squeezing employees into 60-80 hour work weeks.

The last major perk is a matter of personal preference. My experience in both corporate IT jobs and smaller software company jobs has me developing a preference for the latter. I like the open communication, the need for each person to perform multiple roles, the agility to change plans to match actual business priorities, the clarity of purpose, and the closer relationships with co-workers. Elements of big IT drive me nuts – the idiocy of corporate politics, for one. Competing in the marketplace is challening enough, and is only made harder by the inefficiencies of internal maneuvering. I will not miss the stupidity that is the Sarbannes-Oxley Act, and the obscene amount of overhead it requires. We have numerous people whose jobs are entirely dedicating to overhead – deciding which web sites we should and shouldn’t be able to see from work (ESPN is BAD), acting as traffic cops in overly complicated business processes, scanning people’s PCs for unauthorized software, monitoring network packets to identify anything that might not be business related. Small companies don’t have time for that. Each person understands that their job is essential, that their contribution is significant. They don’t have time for internal micromanagement or infighting. They care that the work gets done, not how long your lunch hour was. I enjoy the cross-disciplinary interaction in software companies. At Air2Web, it wasn’t unusual to be on a conference call with a customer, our CEO, and the VP of Marketing. Big IT focuses on funneling interdepartmental interaction through help desks.

Could I find occasion to move back into big IT down the road? Possibly. Would I recommend that someone work for my (soon to be former) employer? Absolutely, especially under my manager and with my co-workers. In the mean time, I’m going to fill the gaps in my skills, take a risk with a smaller company, and help them succeed. I have no illusions of instant or even deferred riches through stock options. Is it risky starting over, having to prove myself all over again? Slightly. But it seems like precisely the shock my career needs to keep moving forward.