Privacy, Handles and Social

Remember back about 15 years ago when everybody’s online identity was private? Having a handle was the cool thing to do. The first handle I remember having was spam444. This was before spam was widely used as a term for junk email. I just thought it was a cool word because of its use in Monty Python and its utility as the perfect camping food. I used this handle mostly for AIM and IRC chat. A couple of years later, I moved to using the handle cron57, which is still in use today as one of my email addresses.

One of my favorite lines from the movie Hackers is when Joey says, “I need a handle, man. I don’t have an identity until I have a handle.” I think in the hacker and cracker communities (as well as online forums), individual’s identities are still wrapped up in their handle. However, over the last decade there has been a movement in the general population (especially among creative and self-employed professionals) nurture an online identity that reflects an individual’s true identity (or a portion thereof).

For instance, I own the domain stevezeidner.com, my Twitter username is @stevezeidner and my Facebook page can be found at http://www.facebook.com/stevezeidner.

I remember a lot of talk in the past about how important personal privacy is. However, reality has shown us that there are benefits to giving up some privacy. The large benefit that people have noticed recently is social on the web. It’s so easy now to stay in touch with acquaintances, collaborate on a project and keep a central address book. The problem now is that social media has turned into a bunch of disparate systems. Every popular social platform is a closed system with separate “namespacing” and logins. The login issue is one I think we will always have to deal with. The namespacing problem however is a much larger issue – it is already tough to namespace based on your given name if it is fairly common. We need some sort of “domain” separation (like email or jabber). Maybe it is time for another bearhug?

Anyway, what are your thoughts on the topic? Do you think giving up some privacy is worth the benefits gained? What do you think should be done about the namespacing issue?

Creative or Technical?

I spend a lot of time on the computer. My job requires me to be in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. When I get home, in addition to online bill payments, blogging, catching up on news feeds, Twitter posts and Facebook, I often spend time working on web (or design or programming) projects here and there and watching online content (much more choice than TV). Besides all of the time-wasting stuff (ahem….Facebook), when it comes down to working on a computer, you can really take 2 very different approaches:

  1. Technical: Programming, development, IT/Network management, etc…
    – or –
  2. Creative: Graphic design, web design, video/photo editing, etc…

Technical

I’ve been interested in software and hardware and how they inter-operate for quite a while. I remember scouring the ticalc.org forums every day for new advances in assembly programming on the Texas Instruments graphing calculators. It was so amazing to me that someone had found a hole in every one of the TI graphic calculators to get around the limited Basic programming with its slow interpreter and be able to run machine code straight on the Z80 processor (or Motorolla 68000 in the newer models).

Once I was in college, I learned how a pipeline on a processor worked, how machine code was interpreted, and even how to write a compiler. Pretty cool stuff academically, but you would have to learn a lot more if you were going to go into any specific field relating to one of these topics.

In most work situations, the technical side of computers means software development (and this kind of work varies a lot depending on the language, platform and scale of the projects you work on) or IT kind of things like deploying servers/server clusters, security testing, network design or a support role.

Now, there can be a creative side to the technical as well. When designing a network, server room or even end-user protocols, there are always constraints (time, money, etc…). To get around these constraints and still achieve the desired results, you often have to get creative as an engineer and figure out a way to get the project finished with the given resources.

Creative

While I started out my career in a more technical role, recently I have been focusing more on the creative side of what computers can do. In particular, my focus has been on web design.

When juxtaposed to the black and white world of the technical/engineering, this right-brained creative culture seemed totally out of place to me at first. This was until I had a conversation about originality in creativity. For a long time, I strived to come up with unique designs and found myself falling way short or just having very few ideas that actually worked out. I heard from someone very knowledgeable that there are actually very, very few innovators in any particular field. These are the people that have established themselves as experts over many years of producing works that are recognized by many to be the best (original or not) among their competitors. It’s that whole thing that Pablo Picasso said: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.” My interpretation of this is to copy work, but make it your own. Sounds kind of counter-intuitive, but it’s all about totally acknowledging that there are many other people in your field who are better than you and who you can learn from and it’s OK to steal the ideas and innovations that they came up with because after all, there are very few people who truly innovate and even fewer who are recognized in their lifetime for the work they have done.

So, just as the technical side of computing must embrace some creativity, so the creative also has a lot of logic to it. There are many rules to follow (which I am still learning as I did not go to art school). Rules like complimentary colors, how to effectively use white space and what fonts to use when. I’ve found that a wonderful resource for learning how some of these rules are used in modern web design is Smashing Magazine. Another logical aspect of design (well, web design in particular) is that all designs eventually have to be turned into code, and if you want to make any changes to that code over time, it should be made to be quite organized and re-usable. Of course, CSS is often not logical because not all browsers interpret it in the same way, but that is another story for another day.

What are you?

What do you prefer? Do you like the technical or the creative side of things better? As you can see there is a lot of overlap and if you learn to embrace them both for what they are, you will not only have learned a new skill, you will have improved the one you already have.

These are a few of my favorite expressions.

New words are created every day in the English language. If you think about it, there are endless combinations of words that can be made out of the 26 letters in the alphabet because there is no restriction on the number of letters that can be in a word and the letters can be repeated. Hence, the number of permutations of letters in our alphabet is 26!/(26-infinity)! = ?? (OK, basically it equals an infinite number of words). Now, my math teacher would have berated me for not using “grows large without bounds” instead of “infinity” – fortunately, this not math class. Many of these words and phrases (or new uses for words) are born in online communities. Here are a few of my favorite exclamations that people have come up with:


  • Huzzah! – Another word for hooray! I’ve commonly heard it from DigitalKitty (Colleen Kelly of TWiT).
  • Woot! – Yes, Woot! is a website that sells one item a day at a blowout price. It’s also short for “Wow, loot!” from old RPGs (table-top), but gets used today as a general term of excitement.
  • Screw You! – One of my favorites. This was exclaimed by Leo Laporte (aimed at Mike Arrington of Techcrunch) on 6/6/2009 during a recording of the Gillmor Gang.
  • OMG!!! PONIES!!! – April 1st, 2006, Slashdot went way above and beyond their classic April Fools pranks of fake news stories and turned the whole site pink. Hence, OMG!!! PONIES!!! was born.
  • Why I oughta! – I’m not sure exactly when this phrase came into popularity, but it was often used by the Three Stooges as a curmudgeony expression. It’s part of the whole old man culture…you know..like “get offa my lawn!”. It has been heard online from the likes of Veronica Belmont and I Can Has Cheezburger?.
  • Fail! – There is a whole blog dedicated to failures that are often funny. I first heard the derivation of this phrase, “failure”, from Mark H. Back in the Explorer Micro days. It’s used very widely now with one of the most prevalent references being the Twitter Fail Whale.
  • Oh hai! – Another Lolcats phrase made famous. This word has become almost as ubiquitous as “indeed” in my everyday language. According to the Urban Dictionary: “Or ‘Oh Hi’ Derived from the epic pictures of lolcats. Used when something the cat, dog, aardvark, long cat, etc. sees something surprising or interesting yet is not limited to.”

So, there you have it. A few of my favorite exclamations. What are yours? Do you know if any other languages (like German) have similar funny little expressions?

Why you should pay attention to cloud computing.

Have you heard of cloud computing? Sure you have. Do you use Gmail? That’s cloud computing. Anytime data is stored somewhere “on the internet” or a computation is done without using your local computer…that’s cloud computing.

So, why should you care about this term that has popped up recently for describing a service that has been around in one form or another for quite a few years now? Well, it’s more than just a new word…it’s a way of thinking about how we store data, about what kind of computers we purchase in the future, about how we scale applications, it’s about having data centers and supercomputing clusters with usable interfaces in every home.

So, who offers cloud computing? One of the largest proponents of this revolutionary implementation of technology surprisingly has been Amazon. Yes, Amazon.com – that place that got started by selling books online. Why in the world would they be into the cloud computing business? Well, every company’s core competency is eventually trumped at some point by another business that can do the same thing faster and cheaper. So, while Amazon realizes that an online marketplace is a pretty good business right now, they also see that there will always be competition from the niche markets who can run their own store with better knowledge of their products and better ways to market them. While their algorithm for the mass online retail market has been pretty well optimized (like Walmart), Amazon realized that they have this huge, underutilized resource in the server farms used to run their marketplace. Processing power is always underutilized when what is really needed (and is also the least expensive) in a hosting environment is memory and disk space. Innovations in server virtualization (Xen in particular) made reselling this extra computing power all that simpler and more attractive for a business like Amazon that needed another business model to make them to stand out in the wild wild World Wide Web. Today, they really are the leaders and innovators in the world of cloud computing, offering cloud hosting, databases, storage, computing and more, all with an intuitive, consistent developer interface.

Of course, there are other plenty of other companies doing the whole cloud hosting thing. Scalable hosting in the cloud (only using the resources that you need when you need them) makes so much more sense than cramming a bunch of virtual server instances into finite slices on a single server. Companies like Media Temple, Rackspace, GoGrid and more are already doing this quite effectively at a reasonable price. So, this brings us back to the question of why you should care about cloud computing.

You should care because the obvious implementation in hosting is only the beginning of the application of this technology. Everything you are doing on your desktop at home today is going to be done better faster and cheaper online in 10 years (or less) and all the data and other content you generate will be accessible to you from anywhere at any time. This also means that it is (technically) accessible to anyone with some computer experience and a little ingenuity in their back pocket. Think about how much of your email, your banking info (online bill pay), your personal life (facebook) is stored online right now. Imagine the default storage of every piece of information being somewhere in the cloud.

But, don’t worry. In my opinion, security will never be what it should be, but I will never worry about it as much as the doomsday security experts tell me I need to worry. Why? Life is really too short to worry if someone will get a hold of my personal data. If you are transparent and have little to hide…sure we all have our bank acct. #’s and other sensitive information…but, if you are transparent about the rest of your life, you have very little to fear when cloud computing is unleashed in full force. Instead, you should enjoy the future benefits of being able to run all of the latest and greatest applications online without having to upgrade your computer every 3 weeks. You should appreciate the fact that the power grids won’t be totally overextended by adding more processing power to them, but rather by more efficiently using existing resources. You should be excited that you will soon be able to get unlimited Blu-Ray (or higher) quality content streamed to your TV at less cost because there is less overhead in the distribution.

Now, there are probably 30 more reasons that you should be excited about cloud computing…so, please let me know what they are. And while you’re at it, let me know how you are using cloud computing right now.

Web 2.0 Fashion

Fashion has typically been ignored by geeks, nerds and the like in the past. However, now that so many startup companies these days revolve around technology (either as a product or a service), they often have young/hip CEOs that don’t wear the traditional suit and tie that has been the staple of business professionals for so long. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of Web 2.0 styles.

The first example comes from a tweet that Jason Calacanis (the CEO of a few startups himself) made on June 1st, 2009. He tweeted, “Web 2.0 uniform: blue blazer, pressed white shirts, dark jeans, black ankle-high boots. #cmsummit @fredwilson @johnbattelle” and referred to the image shown to the left of Fred Wilson and John Battelle. Fred is a blogger and venture capitalist that has invested in companies such as Twitter, Etsy and Feedburner. John was one of the founders of Wired Magazine and is a published tech writer/journalist. While they are a little older than some of their fellow CEOs in the web sphere, they give off that look that says (as one commenter of this photo put it), “I care, but not that much.”
1868-tee_large

Another way that fashion has been influenced by Web 2.0 (post dot-com bubble) is in the prints that go on t-shirts. T-shirts have always been a way to express your personality and silently share a message with all who read them. Twitter alone has spurned a whole new wave of T-shirt designs. Threadless for example has a section of their online store devoted to “Twitter Tees”. They even have a contest for best tweets to put on a T-shirt.

As a side note, it’s interesting that in the pre dot-com era, the media often portrayed computer geeks as either rebels or losers and dressed them to fit those stereotypes. The rebels were “cyberpunks” and the freeloaders looked like hobos. Hackers (1995) is a great portrayal of the cyberpunk style. Motorcycle jackets, tight-fitting pants and crazy hair styles were all a part of this teen subculture. Take a look at the portrayal of Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicone Valley (1999) or Alex Lowe in Takedown (2000).

My Web 2.0 style? I keep it pretty simple with my chuck taylors, jeans, and maybe the occasional white button-up shirt. What’s yours?


Material Computer

Material Computer

The culture surrounding computers and programmers and sub-cultures that grow up in various corners of the internet have been a growing interest to me as of late. Wikipedia refers to these type of cultures as Cybercultures.

At some point, I am going to set up a separate blog (Material Computer) dedicated solely to observations, analysis and possibly some original contributions to this internet culture. I will be looking at various parts of life that this culture has shaped, including language, clothing, lifestyles, law, music, businesses and much more. Until I get the Material Computer website up and running, I’ll start putting content on this blog under the “Culture” category.

I thought I would start with a top 10 list of technologies that have fostered the growth of internet subcultures:

  1. World Wide Web – The WWW is made up of web pages that you can see through your favorite web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Safari, etc…). Duh, without this we would not have websites like Facebook or Twitter which is where you probably spend most of your time online.
  2. Instant Messaging (IM) – First made popular by AOL in 1997 (although the technology itself actually started as chat rooms in the early 90’s which birthed the first client/server IM software – ICQ in 1996), IM soon became a platform on which a new language of emoticons and abbreviations for frequently used words and phrases was born.
  3. Digital Video (and Still) Cameras – These consumer devices enable anyone to easily create content to share with the rest of the world. Without these, we would not have YouTube.
  4. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) – IRC is protocol that has enabled a huge (and I mean massive) chat room community to grow and develop into all kinds of niche communities of its own.
  5. Blogging – It’s such a simple concept – write something and publish it online for free. As simple as this may be, bloggers have molded and influenced thinking on the internet in many of the same ways that traditional media so influences our thoughts in the offline world.
  6. Email – This technology has totally revolutionized business communication. While the kids don’t use it as much as their parents do, email is still around in almost the same form it was at its inception.
  7. Adobe Flash – A technology that not only provides rich website interfaces, but also powers much of the online video delivery that communities such as YouTube are built on.
  8. RSS – Really Simple Syndication. Not really much of a technology, but its simplicity has made online content much more easily accessible.
  9. Podcasting – Built on the simple technology of RSS for notification of content delivery, the new media of podcasting is enabling audio and video content creators to shape the online world in much the same way that bloggers have done in the past.
  10. Open Source Software – The community around open source software is brilliant because by nature, most open source projects are community driven. Just ask Jono Bacon the Ubuntu Community Manager.

My Website Design Workflow

fireworks1

Although I’ve been programming for the web since 1999, I’ve only been doing website design for the past year. I was handed the Adobe creative suite for the web, so that is the software package I based my workflow on. As much as I like FOSS (free open source software), I think Adobe products just do the job a little bit better than their free alternatives. So, here are the programs in particular that I use in my web design workflow:

  1. Fireworks
  2. Photoshop
  3. Dreamweaver

If you want FOSS alternatives to these programs, here is what I would suggest (although I haven’t tested them with this particular workflow, so YMMV):

  1. Xara Xtreme
  2. GIMP
  3. Kompozer (or your favorite text editor…Vim anyone?). Matt Brett’s barebone CSS files are a good CSS/XHMTL starting point.

Now, I also use Flash for animations and interactive content, but I like to use this in limited amounts and am going to try in the future to use more AJAX instead. If anyone has any AJAX toolkit recommendations, I would love to hear them.

OK, now that you know the programs I use, here is a brief overview of my workflow using these applications:

  1. I begin with fireworks and lay out the entire page. If I know all of the content that will go on the website to begin with, I’ll lay out every page in the site as it makes it easier when visualize when turning the pages into code.
  2. Once everything has been laid out and I’ve settled on the final design, I open up dreamweaver and use one of their page layout templates to get started. This just gives you a basic framework for the HTML and CSS of the page to get things started. I typically used fixed size layouts in either one or two columns (you should only use the number of columns that will be present on the entire site, not on an individual page). I’ll get the basic layout of the site (based on my fireworks design) set up in HTML and CSS (rarely using the actual WYSIWYG editor in dreamweaver).
  3. As I set up the site in dreamweaver, I also cut out images from fireworks to use on the website by copying and pasting them into photoshop. Then, I’ll save these images for the web as their appropriate type (PNG, JPEG, etc…).
  4. Once the site is all built as static HTML and CSS with the images from the original fireworks design, I’ll take this code and merge it with a default wordpress or drupal template. Then, I’ll fill in the rest of the content for each page in the appropriate content manager.

That’s it in a nutshell. I will be diving a little deeper into each of the steps of this workflow as well as giving you a few design tips that I’ve picked up in future posts.

Update: I was asked the question about how specifically to export images from Fireworks. Here is a little more detail on the matter. I don’t typically export from fireworks as I don’t like the code it produces. Here is my process for getting the images themselves out of fireworks:

  1. Think about which images are background (repeatable) and which are static images. Think also about which need transparency and which do not (to think about ie6 compatibility issues)
  2. Select the image you want to export (make sure you set the optimize settings to something that will work for you – I use png 24)
  3. Copy the selection
  4. If it does not have/need transparency, paste directly into a new photoshop document and edit to size and then save for web and devices.
  5. If it does need transparency, paste into a new fireworks file, save and then open in photoshop (otherwise photoshop will replace the transparency with a background color – at least in CS3).

Once all of the images are saved into their proper formats, I build the HTML/CSS with a notepad editor – see this post for an update on the text editor I am now using instead of Dreamweaver.