On the road again
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On the road again

I’m taking a trip for the next few days and won’t be back in the saddle here until January 4. Expect to see my exciting 2006 predictions at that time. (I’d have already posted them but I’m having trouble thinking them up.)

In the meantime, happy New Year!

Intel Inside?
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Intel Inside?

I was a bit surprised to learn that Intel is ditching the Intel inside marketing slogan in favor of the meaningless “Leap ahead.” About 10 years ago, when my anti-Microsoft and anti-Intel feelings were at their height, I thought that “Intel inside” was the most brilliant marketing slogan ever conceived. Given that I thought that the PowerPC, MIPS, Sparc, and just about every other processor available at that time were superior to the old x86, I was incredibly irritated that Intel was so incredibly successful. At the time, I put that down to the fact that Intel, through one simple marketing slogan, had managed to convince people that the maker of their processor actually mattered. These days, it seems like Intel is facing more competition than ever from AMD, and they’re abandoning the branding strategy that led people to think that the maker of a completely interchangeable computer part actually mattered. It seems like bad timing to me.

The perils of introspection
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The perils of introspection

The New York Times has an op-ed today on the benefits of self-examination, or lack thereof:

What can we do to improve ourselves and feel happier? Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle’s observation that “We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.” If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people – unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

This is what I was talking about the other day when I said I don’t care why Bill and Melinda Gates give all that they do to help others. Not only is the benefit to the people receiving the aid the same regardless of the motives of the giver, but it also seems like just the act of giving has a positive effect on the giver.

As for the article’s general argument that self-examination can do more harm than good, I leave you with the words of Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham: “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

Rails deployment picture looking rosier
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Rails deployment picture looking rosier

Apache committer Brian McCallister is taking over distribution of the FastCGI module for Apache 2, and moving it into the core Apache distribution. Given the ever increasing interest in Rails, I expected that at some point someone would take up this challenge, and I think that having a reliable, non-hackish deployment option for Apache will increase interest in Rails even more. I’m very enthusiastic about Rails, but the somewhat shaky deployment story almost put me off of it. I know that LightHTTPD is supposed to work like a charm, but I don’t like the idea of throwing away all of my Apache experience, and I expect that most system administrators don’t either.

The value of predictions
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The value of predictions

I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some value in making predictions as a form of exercise for the brain. I have hypothesized that making predictions and then going back and revisiting those predictions later should improve your ability to think about the future. I think it’s the post mortem that provides the value, and that’s where most prognosticators fail. You see this a lot in sports — people make all sorts of predictions before the season but they never go back and really take a close look at how accurate thos predictions were and why the ones that were busts failed to come to fruition. If nothing else, such analysis should give you an idea whether your biases generally tend to be too pessimistic, optimistic, or otherwise out of line with reality, or if you just tend to say things without really thinking about them.

Anyway, I’m going to try to come up with a list of predictions for 2006 and post them here, and then this time next year I’ll go back and see how I did.

As far as recent predictions go, it will be interesting to see whether I was right about the Motorola RAZR V3i becoming available not long after Christmas.

Rails Milestone
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Rails Milestone

I hit a little milestone with the Ruby on Rails application I’m working on today — our team put the first development release up on a live server and sent out the URL. Until now we had it running on our local development machines, now it’s deployed on a Linux box running Apache 2 (using CGI, not FastCGI) connecting to a real database. One thing’s for sure, an application feels a lot more real when it’s running on a server, even if it’s just in test mode and nobody is supposed to enter real data in it.

And just so this post isn’t all about praising myself, I’ll provide some technical information that you can probably find elsewhere. One cool feature of Ruby on Rails is that an awareness of the application environment is built in. The application connects to different databases and behaves differently if you tell it that it’s running in development, production, or testing. The development environment is the default and it knows to use the testing environment when you’re running automated tests. The question is how to tell it that it’s supposed to run in production mode.

Rails knows to look at the RAILS_ENV environment variable, so you can set that. You can also set the environment by editing the environment.rb configuration file directly. Editing environment.rb is the wrong way to do it. One of my goals is to be able to export our files directly from Subversion to the deployment directory and have everything running without having to edit any files. If you specify the environment in environment.rb, it makes it hard to do that.

The better choice is to use RAILS_ENV and the best place to set it is in the .htaccess file, where the Rails configuration directives for Apache live anyway. You can use the SetEnv directive to set the variable, and everything works like a charm. (I have .htaccess in version control too, but under a different name so that it, like database.yml, doesn’t get overwritten when I deploy the application.)

I have gone soft on Microsoft
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I have gone soft on Microsoft

On the occasion of Bill and Melinda Gates sharing Time Person of the Year honors with Bono, I thought I’d talk a bit about my own attitude toward Microsoft. People who have been reading rc3.org since the beginning know that for a long time one of my major preoccupations was bashing Microsoft for its abuse of its monopoly power. (These days I seem to spend a lot of my time bashing President Bush for his abuse of executive power. What can I say, I fought the law and the law won.)

Anyway, I thought I’d talk about why Microsoft is not only no longer subject to my ire but really not even that much on my radar screen. The big watershed moment for me was when Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his findings of fact in the Microsoft antitrust case. Even though Microsoft was never penalized, really, the simple fact that a judge who had heard both sides present their case in court agreed with me about Microsoft’s business practices was pretty much all I need to move on.

The second thing is that one of my main fears about Microsoft turned out to be completely unfounded. For some time I was gripped with paranoia about Microsoft simply taking over the entire IT landscape. There was widespread fear that soon if you wanted to develop software, you’d be using Visual Studio and Visual Basic or Visual J++ or ASP or whatever, and that if you wanted to surf the Web you’d have to use Internet Explorer because every Web site would be using Microsoft’s proprietary extensions. Of course, Microsoft’s general PR strategy was to promote the idea that this was inevitable, and at the time, Microsoft was rolling over its competitors like a steamroller.

Mostly, I have the rise of open source software to thank for releasing me from that fear. Not only because its explosive growth, but because it’s immune to the competitive tactics that Microsoft employed so effectively against other corporations. Open source software is fine as long as people want to use and improve it, and of course these days it’s easy to make a very productive career for yourself based only on your ability to work on open source platforms. When that became feasible, suddenly there was a lot less reason to fear Microsoft’s market power forcing you into working with tools that don’t really interest you.

Blogging by Microsoft employees has also made a huge difference to me. I don’t read that many Microsoft blogs, but the ones I have read put a human face on the company that it once lacked. It’s a lot harder to categorically detest a company that employs people like Raymond Chen, Don Box, and plenty of others who I won’t bother to list.

The final reason brings me back around to the Time Person of the Year thing. It’s hard to be too angry at Bill Gates when he’s throwing billions of dollars at problems that plague the people in the world who are most in need of help. Maybe he does so because he doesn’t want to be remembered as a rampaging monopolist, as some people assert, but I think he does it because it’s a good thing to do. More importantly, I don’t really care why he does it. If people want to give away their riches to worthy causes in order to burnish their legacies, I approve. I’ll be happy to assist in the burnishing, in fact.

I still don’t approve of everything Microsoft does, but these days I see the company more as a gravitational force that has to be accounted for rather than as an evil entity that has to be resisted. Microsoft exerts a huge influence on our industry, but these days it’s just not a great concern. I’m happy to have arrived at that point.

Schneier followup
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Schneier followup

Bruce Schneier: The Security Threat of Unchecked Presidential Power. Yet another must read, including this explanation of why this not a partisan issue:

This is not a partisan issue between Democrats and Republicans; it’s a president unilaterally overriding the Fourth Amendment, Congress and the Supreme Court. Unchecked presidential power has nothing to do with how much you either love or hate George W. Bush. You have to imagine this power in the hands of the person you most don’t want to see as president, whether it be Dick Cheney or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.

Bruce Schneier wiretapping backgrounder
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Bruce Schneier wiretapping backgrounder

Bruce Schneier has written one post to rule them all of the wiretapping controversy. Quit wasting time here and go read it. (I’ve been reading everything I can find on this topic for the past couple of days and I still learned a lot from it.)

Update: Brendan Nyhan catches President Bush repeatedly asserting that all wiretaps require court orders, right up until this weekend when he admitted that he has reauthorized the program allowing warrantless wiretaps 30 times.

Update: More useful information and outbound links at DefenseTech.