Simon Palmer’s blog

January 7, 2010

Clever little fella

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 2:52 pm

I was talking to Jack this morning and he was repeating back to me what I said. Then he suddenly started changing the odd word so that it was funny. This is a nice little game that he and I play quite often and I’m sure is quite common between parents and kids. It causes him to belly laugh when he finds a word which changes the meaning of the sentence and makes it funny.

If you think about it a sense of humour is a very sophisticated layer of communication which sits above mastering the mechanics of speaking, the detail of language and the meaning of words.

I was amazed. 6 months ago he was in nappies and barely able to talk. Now we are playing word games and he is deciding what is funny. That sort of transformation must belie a huge change inside his head.

I think I subscribe to the Noam Chomsky, Stephen Pinker view of the world that we have an innate ability to master language, and I suspect that the real key to it all is the development of memory. If you consider everything that is necessary to be able to communicate, vocabulary, syntax, grammar etc. it is all predicated on being able to remember things. I suspect that the transformation I have witnessed in Jack is the development of his memory.

He suddenly has an amazing vocabulary. Yesterday as he was struggling with unzipping his coat and he said quite clearly “absolutely ridiculous”. Later that day he was sitting on the loo and he looked at me and said “concentrate”. These are very sophisticated ideas and there is a complex context necessary for them to be applied appropriately, which they were.

Memory development is supported by the other amazing things he has started to do which is remember directions and locations. If we drive out from our home towards the North of London he can now tell whether we are going to the shopping mall, the chinese grocery store or Nanny’s house by the route we take right at the last moment.

So I’m obviously a proud dad – he’s only 2 1/2 – but I am also an amazed observer of the rate of development of the human brain.

December 20, 2009

Google Wave. Ho Hum.

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 9:54 pm

My wave account is now a month old. I have about 20 fellow waving friends. We don’t use it. As far as I can tell they don’t use it either. In fact, who does use it, other than the development team who built it? I never remember to check it and it doesn’t flag activity to me via email, which I’m sure is deliberate and would be tautological in the eyes of the wave creators.

I was talking to a software friend based in California at the start of this week. She has people developing software in pretty much all the major centres in the world. I asked whether she either used, or intended to use Google Wave and she didn’t. Not because it may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but primarily because she already had processes and systems in place which worked perfectly well and which were embedded into her teams.

Of course that presumes that she had concluded what it was that Google Wave does, and when I asked she waffled a bit but basically said “collaboration”. That’s a big space, but it seems to be where most people place Google Wave when thinking about mapping it into their world.

It is generally a big ask to have all your teams switch working practices, especially core traits like how they communicate with peers and document that communication. Contemplating such a switch generally requires a backdrop of discontinuous change or profound dysfunction, to make it worthwhile, and I guess Google may claim ground as agents of discontinuous change with Wave. I’m not convinced though.

I’ll keep my account of course, but until I find a need it remains a Faberge egg. A fascinating, if useless, enigma.

November 12, 2009

Google Wave

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 4:59 pm

So I got my Google Wave invitation today (from the same person who invited me to GMail many moons ago – mucho gracias fooch) and I logged in for the first time today. Here are my first observations…

Ouch, scrollbars don’t work properly in Firefox 3.0.15, pretty fundamental and visible feature and surprised they don’t have a commodity widget like that working. Even more surprisingly, when I try to run it in IE to see if it works there I’m asked to install the Chrome Frame plug-in. Small things perhaps, but shop-window problems which make it feel pre-beta.

Layout is simple and clean and in the Google mould. Bits of my gmail profile, picture and contacts for instance, have made it across. It is obvious how to create a new Wave and add people to it and I have started a couple with the contacts I have which appear to have wave accounts. I have a simon.palmer@googlewave.com address, which mirrors my gmail address, so I try and send an email to it to see what happens. So far nothing has happened. It didn’t bounce and nothing arrived.

Weirdly I was expecting to see my gmail inbox in here. I don’t know why really, I was just expecting it. And that leads me to the obvious question. If this isn’t email, then what is it? What can I wave that I can’t email?

I have a couple of waves already set up, several welcome ones from Dr Wave (c’mon, are we really patients? or does it need a PhD to figure it out) containing video clip tutorials and explanations. After watching a few the idea seems to be a cross between multi-party email and chat, with sharing of documents, pictures etc. and the whole in a chronological sequence of evolution of the interaction. You can (apparently, and eventually) use it for collaboration on documents, creating events and the like. I’m beginning to get the picture.

Trying to map it into the MS Office world, I think it sits somewhere between Sharepoint, BPM, MSN, Word and Outlook. It is certainly a different take. I think my main issue at the moment is that the benefit is not clearly articulated. How is it better than working the old way, because let’s face it, most of us do most of these things today, and there is overlap between them already?

It may make corporate buyers look again before investing in collaboration infrastructure like Sharepoint, although it is the smaller players in that market, and the open source projects that are likely to feel the ripples from the wave, not Microsoft.

So those are my first immediate impressions and I’m going to hedge my bets at this point. There may yet be something very illuminating underneath it which I am yet to see. Maybe, as we all take to smaller devices, there is some new way of working which wave is anticipating.

However, it has more than a little of the segway about it, and unfortunately a bit of the Sinclair C5 too. Innovative and clever? Undoubtedly. Challenging to established norms? Certainly. Paradigm-shifting? Hmm, maybe not. I have the feeling that we are all still going to be emailing in 5 years time. Google Wave will almost certainly find a niche in some CaliTechy communities, as has the segway, but I’m still walking and driving rather than segwaying, and I can’t see my wavebox displacing my inbox. Yet at least.

October 5, 2009

LinkedIn. Sigh.

Filed under: personal — simonpalmer @ 4:32 pm

I’ve had a LinkedIn profile since 5th March, 2005. In that time I have gathered 70 connections and 3 recommendations. I have joined numerous groups and have engaged in dialogue in all of them.

I say dialogue, but the reality is that communication happening in LinkedIn is not a dialogue at all. At best it is a didactic monologue conducted in a forum where everyone is shouting. At worst it is a set of very thinly veiled adverts for people or companies who clearly think they are operating at the bleeding edge of guerilla marketing. And unfortunately the worst is also the most common.

After years of patience with it, repeatedly giving it another chance, and following the updates where my first circle of contacts are connecting with, well, my first circle of contacts (with whom I know they already have alternative connections) I have finally had the veil of web 2.0 drawn back from my eyes and asked myself, objectively, what’s the point?

I’ve done some evaulation of the number of outbound vs. inbound contacts I have had in the last 4 years, and the extent of those which have resulted in a contacts for which I have no other contact than LinkedIn, or would otherwise not have made contact with those people. My measure of its value as a networking tool is the extent to which it has extended my network, rather than just confirmed it in another medium. I have subtracted anyone who I found elsewhere and thereafter connected with on LInkedIn.

It makes dismal reading.

Of my 70 contacts…
21 are friends
26 are ex-colleagues
14 I met elsewhere
8 are current colleagues

and

1 I found on LinkedIn (I have not heard from him since the initial contact in 2007)

I have been a member of 23 groups, all but one of which I have left because they were thinly veiled self-publicisation for the founder and members. I’m about to leave the remaining one for the same reason, just as soon as I stop ranting.

Maybe my version of networking is out of touch with what everyone else calls networking. Maybe I’m just using it as a version of Facebook without the silly games and photos. But as far as I can tell, so is everyone else. If I look at the second circle beyond mine, which is indeed a large number of people (9,500) they have a similar profile of connections to my connections, namely friends and colleagues.

The groups seem to be populated by people who believe that if they word their advertisement as a question the rest of us will be completely fooled by it and will follow the link to their web site. How stupid do you think we are, and how far from networking can you get? For an answer please go to my web site http://www.WhatSortOfMoronsAskQuestionsLikeThatAndThinkItIsClever.com

The questions section is no better. The questions are asked by people who clearly think they have the answer already and conveniently provide you with a link to their web site to supply it. They are then answered by other people who think they too have the perfect solution which, surprise surprise, you can find by clicking on the link to their web site.

In what possible way can this be construed as networking? It’s not even advertising or marketing or PR. It’s just aimless posting. If you want to do that why not have a blog?

Lastly to the jobs. I have optimistically bought the notion that people who advertise open positions on LinkedIn are genuinely interested in people responding who have the right skills and experience. It may be true, but I am yet to see evidence to support the assertion.

I wanted to test out the efficacy of LinkedIn as a tool to help in a job search. I am genuinely in a position where I would benefit from having a network of people look at my CV and I am in the job seeking market. I brushed up my CV, updated my profile, cleaned up my blog and links and then set about applying for positions for which I thought I would be a suitable candidate, and for which I am eminently qualified.

So far I have I applied for 46 positions. I have done research into each company and written a cover letter with each application, and have a named individual to whom I am writing. I’m an experienced guy who knows how to write and knows a bit about business, especially the business I have been in for the last 20-something years.

I have had ZERO responses. Not even a single courtesy note saying “no thank you”. The closest I got was an out of office.

Maybe I’ve got an unappealing profile and I am applying for things that are inappropriate given my background. Maybe my cover letters are not good enough and my CV doesn’t make me stand out. Maybe the prevailing economic conditions mean that the job market is bad. Maybe.

But maybe, just maybe, LinkedIn doesn’t work. Maybe people use it as either a last resort or as a way of pretending they are doing something when they are not, or as a lazy way of avoiding making a real network. Maybe there are some mavens for whom their 1,435 direct contacts are the source of valuable business, but maybe peoples’ contacts are little more than their personal phone book or contact list tapped into a web site. Maybe, like mine and pretty much everyone else I know and am connected to, they are little more than a online map charting our recent business past.

For me the promise has definitely not delivered. I have had absolutely no return for the investment of time and effort I have made in attempting to conjure a network on LinkedIn. I think I have used it in a fairly typical way and at a fairly typical level of activity. I think my job search was probably characteristic of what someone might do if they were serious about using it as a tool for job hunting. If it can’t deliver benefit in that domain then what exactly is the point?

In spite of this I will keep my profile. The somewhat un-dis-provable argument of it not doing any harm will mean that I may as well. I want it to work, I really do, however it doesn’t, and I doubt I am alone in being disenchanted with the reality.

LinkedIn. Sigh.

August 24, 2009

Office 2007 Ribbon

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — simonpalmer @ 11:55 am

I know I am a bit behind the rest of the world with this, but I just switched to Office 2007 (still on XP, I have seen nothing about Vista that I like or need). The really big change is the ribbon, which was a bold UI step given that you have to completely re-learn how to use the Office tools.

I’m not sure whether I like the ribbon or not, but I can see how I will get used to it. Truth be known, I can’t really claim to like the “classic” office menus either, it is more that I am familiar with them. If the ribbon had appeared before classic menus then the switch in the other direction would probably feel worse, so I don’t want to bash the ribbon – I just need to get used to it and I’m sure I will.

However, what I really don’t like is the amount of space that the ribbon takes up. I wouldn’t mind so much, but you can’t customise that element of it, so you are stuck with a good portion of the screen taken up by a bunch of controls you probably will never use.

I took the time to read a bit about what other people say about the ribbons as I was looking for ways to customise it. I think most of the reasoning was somewhat specious and self-serving since it ignores the fact that the real change is in the degree to which you can customise the ribbon bar and recover the real estate that it takes up. Pretty much all the hard-core Office users I know, particularly Excel users, have customised their toolbars to maximise real-estate and remove clutter, so, sorry, but I don’t buy the argument.

I just switched to a netbook with a 10.1″ screen and I really care about screen real estate. I was rueing the fact that I lost all the control I loked with the old classic toolbar and beginning to curse the ribbon when all was redeemed by mistakenly hitting CTRL-F1.

What CTRL-F1 does is shrink the ribbon so it only shows when you press on the menu item. Maybe I’m just attuned to this because I have a small screen, but it looks like a much better default setting to me…

McAfee Anti-spam toolbar in Outlook 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — simonpalmer @ 11:30 am

The burning question is… how do you switch it off? You can hide the toolbar with a right-click and an un-check, but next time you start Outlook, it’s back again. Grr.

This is suddenly important because I just bought a netbook for email and Office activity and the screen size means that I am very protective of the amount of space taken up by things I never asked for. The McAfee toolbar seems to think it needs a whole horizontal line and I disagree, so I just want to get rid of it.

After much searching on the internet, without a great deal of success, I finally figured it out and thought I would post it here so I don’t forget for the next time I need to do it, and so it may help some other poor soul. And of course it is easy once you know how.

The McAfee anti-spam toolbar is a sort of add-in, so, from the Outlook menu select Tools -> Trust Centre. Then click on the link that says Add-ins and you will notice that it is not there. That’s because it is not a COM add-in but an Exchange Client Extension, of course, so at the bottom select “Exchange Client Extension” and press GO.

You should then get a dialog box with a list of your special add-ins and you just un-check McAfee and press OK… and then OK again from the Trust Centre screen and voila, it has gone for good – or until you want to turn it back on.

That worked for me and the greedy McAfee toolbar has finally disappeared!

January 19, 2009

Sorting flex Arrays by Date

Filed under: code, Flex — simonpalmer @ 2:11 pm

I have been wanting to figure out a reliable way of doing this for a while, and suddenly the necessity arose for me to do it, so I have a solution. As far as I can tell if you have a date field in an object and an array of those objects, then the results of sorting the array are indeterminate.


public class myClass
{
    public var some_date: Date;
}

var myArray:Array = new Array();
myArray.push(new myClass);

myArray.sortOn("some_date");
myArray.sortOn("some_date", Array.NUMERIC);

The above code (so long as the some_date field was populated) never gave me reliable result for the sort order. I googled in vain for a solution and found a couple, but was never really happy with them. I had a flash of inspiration this morning which is really very obvious now I have done it, but is a nice elegant way of handling this situation.

Basically I add a public getter for a new field which just returns the Date objects time value as a Number, e.g.

public class myClass
{
    public var some_date: Date;
    [Transient] public function get some_date_time():Number
    {
        return some_date.time;
    }
}

var myArray:Array = new Array();
myArray.push(new myClass);
myArray.sortOn("some_date_time", Array.NUMERIC);

This works a treat and gives me reliable sorting results every time.

In case you are wondering why I use [Transient] it is because I am using RPC and remote objects for the connection back to my server and my classes are generally [Managed]. Without the (undocumented) [Transient] metadata some_date_time would be treated as a legitimate field and an attempt would be made to serialise it back to the server across the RPC boundary. This causes a warning to be thrown in the Flex server framework code which clogs up my logs and feels unprofessional.

January 4, 2009

Domain fatigue

Filed under: comment, personal — simonpalmer @ 11:50 pm

There are a few irritants in my professional world and one in particular that bothers me, namely domain squatting. This is done by people who want to exploit their sernedipitous luck at having registered someone else’s name before them and then try to make a fast buck out of it by selling it back to the rightful owner and the only person in the world for whom it has genuine value.

A .com domain is a valuable marketing and branding tool and a key part of a companies online marque. For someone else to be able to swoop in and steal it, just because it is on the web, is frankly ridiculous.

In any other walk of life this behaviour would be called blackmail or extortion, but because the names are available in an apparently free market on a first-come, first-served basis – even if you have spent a hundred years building a brand – it is seen as a tolerable and even legitimate practice. If I happen to have lodged the name CocaCola.com before The CocaCola Company did I would legitimately own the rights to the domain. I can’t help but feel that is morally wrong.

Why are domain names not covered by a branch of the law adjacent to trademarks or even copyright?

I am discovering that this entirely pointless and negative industry stoops even lower. If you trip up in registering a domain name there are people watching – God knows how – who will step in and pinch it from under your nose and then try and sell it back to you above market price. This is an empty, opportunistic, negative, amoral scam. It is tantamount to theft by people who have nothing positive to add to the world of commerce. The perpetrators ought to be hunted down and banned from holding domains.

And it doesn’t stop at domains. Registration of company names is subject to the same corrosive and intellectually and morally bankrupt activity. My startup’s name is Dialectyx Solutions Ltd. It is that because Dialectyx Ltd., which was our original choice, was registered by someone else in the 72 hours between us doing a search and submitting the registration papers. That company name is now registered with a firm of solicitors in a small town about 25 miles away from us. Dialectyx Ltd. does not actively trade.

Coincidence? Hardly.

And right now I wait with baited breath while my latest domain registration attempt lingers in the odd limbo between paying for it and it actually starting to work. According to whois, the domain is still available. According to my registrant I have been billed. Right now I have no idea where I stand. Surely there’s a better way to do it than this? Surely there should be some protection against the shameless scammers who are sitting on valuable corporate assets?

December 16, 2008

Firefox, here’s your chance

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 12:40 pm

Looks like someone has publicly been bold enough to recommend what many of the technorati did a long time ago, namely ditch IE. This news ought to be the final straw for the ubiquitous browser. It has been the Typhoid Mary for the majority of serious viruses and annoying malware attacks that I have had the misfortune to have witnessed over the last few years.

When friends notice that I use Firefox I am aften asked why. I could once dribble on about the Mozilla browser code base being superior, sticking to standards, not trying to impose proprietary things on unsuspecting users, openness and competition, and even once tabbed browsing and a host of little usability features. But at the end I wound up with a very unconvincing it’s just better.

Now I have a better answer.

So Firefox, this is your big chance. It is possible to imagine a scenario where a few corporations say, “look, we are fed up with constantly having to patch users computers with IE security fixes. The automatic updates are a nightmare and are responsible for the gradual slide in to inoperability of Windows itself. Let’s just do one last upgrade over to Firefox and switch IE off for good”.

A couple of those in the press – maybe a public sector institution or two – and suddenly a tide of interest in Firefox will follow.

I’m sure the clever folks at Firefox are way ahead of me, so here’s hoping that they have some canny marketing around this once in a lifetime opportunity. They couldn’t have written a better script for the demise of the incumbent Gorilla.

December 15, 2008

Shirlock Holmes and the case of the broken salesforce.com API

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 9:43 pm

I’ve been adding integration points between my apps and salesforce.com for the last couple of years and I think that it is cool that you can create mashups with a real piece of a company’s operational infrastructure. There’s no doubt that having their API available publicly across the web affords me some very intriguing opportunities in terms of value added application creation.

And, I have also managed to almost completely remove the need for any Administration interface in my application because I can devolve the data acquisition tasks to my users – even though they aren’t the most patient or technically able crowd. This makes a great story, and a much simpler solution.

I have grand visions of supplanting the entire salesforce.com user experience piece by piece by building it into process driven appealing interfaces that people will enjoy interacting with and are designed to fit in with people’s day to day activity – rather than the reverse. But that’s naked ambition. I’ll get there, but it’ll take me a while.

And meanwhile I have the sticky issue of suddenly being unable to access their API at all through the front door due to a bug which they must have introduced with a recent change to the cross domain security policy they enforce.

My particular situation may be reasonably unique in that I am writing Flex interfaces and hosting them on my own servers, i.e. I am not using the force.com platform, nor visualforce or anything like that, I am standing on my own little planet and relying on then keeping the radio on at their end so I can continue talking to them.

Just recently they changed channels. All of a sudden access to their app from outside stopped working from within my app. After posting on the force.com developer boards (here and here) I spent a frustrating couple of weeks in complete darkness. I even posted on StackOverflow (here and here), but (predictably) didn’t really get what I needed.

So, I dug out my curly pipe, put my deerstalker and cape on and turned detective.  I followed a few of the responders links back to their blogs and posted questions there to see if they would divulge the names of their salesforce.com contacts to me. At the same time I trawled the open source code I use for the Flex / salesforce.com bridge looking for any unsuspecting email addresses embedded in code headers. Sure enough I found some.

After about a week of sending out my messages in bottles, all of a sudden I got lucky and was put in touch with a support engineer and one of the original developers on the flex interface.

From that point on it was just a matter of proving that the issue was not just me being stupid and to create a test case which was reproducible outside my software. Thanks to James Ward’s furryhappymonsters.com I could show that me and all my users hadn’t just forgotten our passwords and security tokens in some mass amnesia event, but there genuinely was a problem.

Turns out that they did introduce an issue which means that if you connect to the API through the www front door you will get bounced because it cannot resolve you to your designated server (you have a designated server because they balance traffic load by providing affinity between accounts and servers at their end).

The workround I have had to implement until they fix the issue is to get my users to provide the server that they are attached to. This is a *horrible* thing to ask them to do as it makes me and my software look techy and klunky and if they get it wrong it fails and I look buggy and… sigh. Fortunately all they need to do to get their server is log in to salesforce.com directly and they can see it in their browser address bar, but even so, it is a horrible experience and exactly the opposite of the carefully crafted non-technical image I am trying to present.

As for a fix; now that salesforce.com has acknowledged there is a problem – which they did very graciously, I add – I don’t have a way of tracking it. And I think this is the most frustrating part of all. Unless you are really in the family it is hard to get much traction with them developer to developer. I think that if they really want their platform to take off they are going to have to move a long way towards the immediacy that you get from an open source developers forum trying to do the same thing.

Actually, at the end of the day, I think that they are likely to fail in their aspirations to make the force.com platform the operating system of the enterprise web future precisely because they are not culturally disposed to the mindset of openness and freedom that is relied upon by developers.  And that will turn developers off. Until that changes they’ll remain an expensive clique.

As for me tracking my issue, I am supposed to contact my partner representative (a person I have never had any contact with and from the spam I get has changed 9 times since I started working with their API) and get a tracking number. It would have been a lot easier for me if the support person I was talking to could have done that, but hey, that’s all part of what salesforce.com have to learn before they get it right.

Meanwhile I check daily in case they have done it yet.

Try it yourself if you have a salesforce.com account, I have posted details and instructions here.

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