Archive for December, 2010

What I’m doing & reading

I thought I’d post a few updates about what I’m doing these days. My consulting business continues to be doing well, and I’m about to start a new project for a large software company, which will involve lots of heavy XSLT work. In the mean time, I’ve been learning about how to develop apps for the iPhone and iPad, using a really excellent, free online course from Stanford, Developing Apps for iOS, by Paul Hegarty. Highly recommended. I’m also gearing up to go back to school part-time to get an M.A. in Digital Arts through Goucher College’s limited-residency/distance-learning “MADarts” program. I’ll be traveling to Baltimore next month for my first residency in this brand-new program and I’m really looking forward to it.

Here are some of the computer-related books I’ve been reading lately:

JavaScript is taking over the world, so we might as well make the best of it; Crockford’s book shows that there’s a lot to be happy about as long as you take a discriminating approach. Fowler’s book has lots of nice tidbits and insights on how to be an effective software developer, especially if you’re working for someone else. And Jenkins’ book is a fascinating study of how the role of media is changing in the age we live in, utilizing concepts such as “participatory culture” and “collective intelligence.” It’s obviously the most widely accessible of these books, with chapters about Survivor, American Idol, The Matrix, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. It’s a textbook for one of my first classes in the M.A. program, and I’m likely to blog about it some more in the future.

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This blog is going to get a lot worse…

…before it gets better. That’s because I am casting my perfectionist tendencies to the wind and will be trying out lots of different things. Quite reasonable questions pop up in my mind such as “Why would anyone want to read this?” and “Is this post actually going to be useful to anyone?” For the time being, I am going to put those questions on hold. My aim, dear reader, is to get myself in the habit of blogging and of having an abundance mindset about all the things that I could possibly write about (especially relating to technology). I am sorry if this comes off as navel-gazing or as airing my dirty technical laundry (such as all the things I know so shockingly little about), but I am just going to have to run that risk. For my own benefit. And for the benefit of readers—if not you who are reading right now, at least the ones reading later on once I’ve really got my act together (as if!). In the mean time, I’ll aim to fail early and fail often.

I’m self-employed and frankly lonely when it comes to geeking out, so I am going to start geeking out in public and see what happens. Maybe it will add an extra sense of accountability about safeguarding some of my still-unbacked-up data, or an extra level of motivation to learn more about the areas I feel deficient in. And maybe it will be intrinsically rewarding and fun. And maybe someday (I hope) I’ll start writing some things that will be interesting or useful to some readers—even if not regular readers, but someone who’s just Googling for the right solution to the problem they’re facing right now.

I’ve written before about my blogging confusion. But now I’ve got a little bit more focus and motivation, even if I haven’t quite articulated what it is, even to myself. For now, I can tell you it has something to do with this: celebrating technology.

Okay, that’s all. You’ve had your fair warning. :-)

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Test post from OneNote

This is a test post from OneNote. Let’s see how the various things look.

 
 

Here’s an outline, including some checkbox TODOs

Indent level 1 unchecked

Indent level 2

 
 

Here’s

a

table

with

three

rows

and

three

columns

 
 

The end.

Update: Hmm. Apart from the hideous formatting-ridden HTML markup (should I really be so surprised?), the effective formatting isn’t faithful to the original anyway. (There are extra line breaks for one thing.) This will need some work if it’s going to work at all. I suspect that using this “Send to Blog” feature will be an occasional choice at best. It was quick and easy though…I might have to look into the possibility of a hooking into the process. I should also try upgrading to Office 2010 first; maybe things have improved in this area… And I really wish Microsoft would release OneNote for the Mac, but that’s another story…

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Basic, handy rpm commands

Even though I’m comfortable on the command line (and regularly use Cygwin on Windows, and Terminal on the Mac), I haven’t used Red Hat Linux (or CentOS) since probably 2003, and so I’m not very familiar with rpm (“RPM Package Manager“, or formerly, “Red Hat Package Manager”). I started by looking at the man page, which is a great way to look up a particular command-line argument but is not necessarily the best way to learn just what I need right now. For that, Google often works better, and indeed this Quick Guide fit the bill perfectly.

After installing MarkLogic Server on my new EC2 instance, I wanted to poke around some. Here are the simple commands that came in handy:

rpm -i MarkLogic-4.2-1.i686.rpm
Installs MarkLogic from the RPM package
rpm -qa
Lists all the packages installed on this machine (“query all”)
rpm -qa | grep MarkLogic
Searches for “MarkLogic” among that list (revealing its title as “MarkLogic-4.2-1″)
rpm -qi MarkLogic-4.2-1
Shows info about this package (“query info”)
rpm -ql MarkLogic-4.2-1

Shows all the files created as a result of installing this package (“query list”)

Yep, very basic and nothing to write home about. But blogging about it might help me remember. Most Unix commands have a ton of options, many of which I’ll never need. But it’s good to be able to remember some of the most common ones and only visit the man page when I need to do something unusual.

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Back in the blogging saddle

I’ve got lots of ideas swirling in my head about what to blog about here. Mostly they have to do with what I’m currently learning about, particularly as it relates to technology. One idea I have is to use OneNote to track what I’m doing and then publish highlights. I heavily depend on OneNote for my day-to-day work, particularly for keeping track of my daily and weekly goals and time usage. (Maybe I’ll share my approach on that sometime.) But another way I’ve used OneNote is to help keep track of what I’m doing on an even more granular basis—to the point where I’m constantly switching back into OneNote after each little step I take. Programmers often talk about their own “stack,” meaning what they’re trying to keep in their head at any given moment, but I’ve found that OneNote works great as a persistence framework for my brain—not only for long-term storage but also as a short-term way to boost my mental RAM.

I’m not yet blogging from within OneNote, so that will be one of the next things I’ll have to look into (and updating the website design).

Until then, I’ll keep posting some random things I’m learning—in a distinctly non-comprehensive way.

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Joomla as a spiritual practice

I need to make a confession. I have a very low tolerance for badly designed user interfaces and overly complicated mis-uses of technology. We are using Joomla for The Trillium School website, and all I wanted to do was add a simple page announcing our Holiday Craft Camp next week. I’m sure it’s not just Joomla’s fault; it’s also the way our designer had shoehorned everything into Joomla’s structures. But in any case, things are way harder than they need to be. I update the website just infrequently enough that I tend to forget how things work every time.

Well, this last time, I started to notice my blood pressure rising and decided to step back, cool off, and do some thinking. “I really don’t want to learn Joomla right now; I just want to get this page created.” I didn’t have much else that’s pressing today, so I decided to take this as an opportunity to cultivate patience. Patience is often thought of as “grinning and bearing it” or waiting reluctantly with clenched teeth. But I like this definition better: “Patience is the ability to dwell gladly in the present moment when we have some desire, or what would normally be a reason to desire, to depart from it.” (Robert C. Roberts in Strengths of a Christian, p. 53)

One of the sources of my resistance is that I prefer to learn things comprehensively—or at least comprehensively within some well-defined range. That’s why I tend to enjoy smaller programming languages (like XSLT 1.0) and domain-specific languages. Joomla is a full-featured Web content management system with lots of bells and whistles. I’m not planning to use it for anything other than the school website I inherited. I’m not very inspired to learn it.

So today I found myself whining, complaining, and wanting to distract myself. This feeling caught me by surprise, because lately I’ve been really loving technology. There are so many interesting programming languages to learn, so many powerful tools and frameworks to unleash one’s creativity on. In fact, technology has been really exciting for me lately, even though it seems like it’s been years since I felt this way. I think the key for me has been gratitude. Rather than trying to hoard knowledge or get overwhelmed by all the things I won’t ever possibly learn, I somehow was able to let go of all that and begin to receive everything as a gift from God. Programming languages are part of the wonderful world we live in. I don’t have to walk in the woods (although that’s nice too) to appreciate and get excited about this planet we live on.

Learning things comprehensively can be useful (and fun), but I’m finding it’s not a good general policy to live by. For one thing, most things are impossible to learn comprehensively. For another, I don’t really operate this way. There are lots of technologies I merely learn just enough to “get by”—without understanding some of the fundamentals that would be required if I had to work with these technologies everyday: Ethernet networking, email protocols, DOS batch files, etc. So I’m fooling myself even when I say that’s how I prefer to learn things. There are lots of things I’m not an expert in, and that’s okay. :-)

Joomla can be the same way; the key is to just take some notes so I can refer back to them the next time I have a task to complete. This doesn’t have to be as painful as I’m making it. There is an underlying logic, and I can learn just enough to get by, capturing the knowledge in OneNote (what a great technology!), so I can refer back to it next time and save myself a lot of headaches.

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Running and hosting MarkLogic for free

Over the past year, I’ve done some consulting for MarkLogic Corporation, including some development using their flagship product, MarkLogic Server. I created the back-end content management system for their Developer Community website. It was a real joy working with the software, particularly with its new support for XSLT. (You can read more about my excitement here.)

Since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an application for The Trillium School (which I’ve blogged about elsewhere) to help manage Judicial Committee (JC) meetings.

Since I had created a basic but flexible framework for browser-based XML editing (using HTML forms) in the RunDMC project, I thought it would be nice to reuse that for the JC app for Trillium School. Now, Trillium doesn’t have a big budget, and this would be a volunteer project, so cost is a big consideration. Luckily, the free Community License for MarkLogic Server seems to fit the bill, allowing the development of non-commercial/personal applications. So licensing doesn’t appear to be an issue. Hosting, on the other hand, can be costly. Taking into consideration MarkLogic’s system requirements, we were looking at $50–100 per month for hosting fees. At that point, I decided that maybe MarkLogic was overkill for what I wanted to do.

Even so, I still liked the idea and was hoping to figure out a way to do it (ideally without having to host a server on campus or in my home). Then, in the last couple of days, I learned about the Amazon Web Services free usage tier. And I came across Mike Brevoort’s immensely useful screencast about how to get MarkLogic Server running on one of the Amazon EC2 “micro-instance” servers. (Mike is the one who beat me at the DemoJam earlier this year but then amazingly and graciously offered me the iPad, which I then dutifully gave to my wife.) Although I had created an AWS account in the past, I had never used EC2, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Mike’s video made it really easy and I had MarkLogic up and running on CentOS within 20 minutes. Mind you, at 613MB of RAM, the micro-instance doesn’t actually meet MarkLogic’s official system requirements, so it’s unsupported. But for the small application I’m interested in creating (small data set with very few users accessing the site approximately once per day), it just might work. So far, the server seems to be running fine. The next step is to create the application.

So I’m pretty stoked about playing with this. If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, just follow the steps in Mike’s screencast: Installing MarkLogic on an EC2 Micro Instance – Free for 1 year!

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