DMCA for Canada ? Act now !

2008/06/02

I have got a letter from Online Rights Canada. I believe that what is about to hapen, may have pretty deep implications down the stream. Minimum thing I can do is try to help spreading the word.

Here is the message:

Dear Online Rights Canada Supporter,

We understand that the government will imminently introduce legislation to amend the Copyright Act – and it intends to push it through quickly. We at Online Rights Canada wanted to let you know what was ahead in the next few weeks, and what you can do to protect Canada from a new DMCA.

When we do get a copyright bill, we need a period to study the bill, and we need thorough Committee hearings that offer a wide range of stakeholders the opportunity to present their views to the Canadian government. We need to challenge Parliament to give provide oversight. If the current government tries to rush this bill through the Summer, we need to stop it in its tracks.

All the signs suggest that the bill will be a Canadian version of the American DMCA with a veneer of consumer concessions. The bill will likely include laws modeled on the DMCA instead of the approach adopted by earlier Canadian proposals. Concessions may include a time-shifting right and a format-shifting right, legalizing consumer use of the VCR and iPod after all these years. However, by protecting DRM at the same time, the government kills those consumer rights anywhere the content is locked down!

What can you do? Advocacy! Contact your MP – use the advocacy tools at http://www.CopyrightforCanadians.ca and the Facebook group, Fair Copyright for Canadians http://www.faircopyrightforcanada.ca/ to make sure Ottawa knows your views.

And get others to do so, as well – we’ll need a summer full of copyright activism to make sure that Ottawa knows that Canada’s copyright laws have to put Canadians’ interests first!

To start, take two minutes to send our first letter to MPs about the impending bill.

Just visit:

http://www.onlinerights.ca/get_active/copyright_for_canadians/

and start spreading the word to your Member of Parliament!

Thanks again,

Online Rights Canada

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Quote of the day

2008/04/09

Program managers want an infinite number of features in zero time, testers and service operations staff want zero features over infinite time, and developers just want to be left alone to code cool stuff.

From I. M. Wright’s “Hard Code”
by Eric Brechner


Joel’s gems

2007/12/20

One of the most readable, original blogers out there, writing on software development practice and techniques – Joel Spolsky – published an excellent 3 part Talk at Yale: Part1, Part2 and Part3.

You will find out:

– what two computer science courses were most useful in his university studies
(one that was not really a comp-sci and one he decided to drop)
– why is it tough to be an in-house programmer
– why is the quality of many in-house systems so bad
– what is this “quality thing” anyway
– why is specification futile

Highly recommended.


An advice to a fellow developer – 2

2007/12/14

The part 1 of the post is here.

— continuing —

So back again – different coffee shop (Starbucks at Carling), freshly charged battery, Grande Latte and no internet connection (which means no distractions from emails and the Web) – here we go again, part 2.

If I should single out one or two technologies that I think I have neglected and should have paid much more attention to it would be the Web trio of HTML/JavaScript/CSS as one and the SQL as second.

Let’s look at the Web trio first. It sounds weird – how can THIS be neglected, everybody knows HTML, right ? Wrong. What I mean is to have deep understanding of the HTML markup, so that you know when to use (and when not to use) tables, how to properly layout your page, fully understand the possibilities and implications of div and span, the box model and what can and cannot be done with styles and CSS. And I do not mean using Dreamweaver like tools or (god forbid) Frontpage to create the markup, I mean actually writing the markup. Ability to produce and maintain clean markup is very important for application lifecycle and evolution. Clean markup is at the beginning of every good looking site. Even if you get the first mockup version from your  designer, it is up to *you* to componentize the pages, convert them to JSP or ASP.NET or RHTML (or what server side stack you are using). And it is up to you not to mess it up in the process.

The CSS is trickier – it is considered to be “designer’s thing” between us, developers. And designers, they are those slightly weird artistic folks with Photoshop magic lassos and Macbooks that just somehow make things look great for no particular reason. They are so different species and us, developers who recognize 16 basic colors and do not mind using Times New Roman for everything will never be able to match their skills … This is partially true. It is hard to learn creative design. But even if you never will, it is still important to understand ENOUGH of CSS to know what can or cannot be done with it, so that you can maintain and enhance the design of the page without messing up the styles or the markup. You would not believe how big PITA it is to go through 100+ pages just to extract hard-coded font and size references, inserted there by the previous contractor who did not know any better … Do not do that to the guys that will maintain the app after you, it is very bad thing for your karma.

The HTML/CSS/JavaScript is also very important because it is the third platform, and despite JavaFX, SilverLight, Apollo and Flex flexing the muscles (pun intended) and a lot of buzz about the RIA, the traditional web technologies it is not going to go away any time soon. Listen to David H. Hansson interview for more. This stack is all you need to create Firefox extensions, new social network apps (like Facebook) and it will be important for the iPhone/iTouch and alike devices.

JavaScript is particularly tricky: the language itself is actually great and very powerful but got very bad reputation. Partly because it makes very easy to write very bad code, but mostly because many people using it have not enough experience or programming background and produce terrible mess. Not enough good books also contributes. I mean there are many books on JavaScript, but most of them bad or mediocre. We really need to learn or re-learn JavaScript and use it the proper way. I personally would pick JavaScript against Visual Basic any time.

The reason that I mention SQL is because most developers know just one part of it – how to select some data, insert or update. There is another part – that deals with creating tables, indexes etc and is usually “owned” by the professional DBA’s. Which is OK if you have one (and, btw, NEVER EVER trust a “DBA” that cannot create your database tables by ssh-ing to console on the server). In absence of dedicated database pros, many developers rely on GUI tools to get to initial stage of database structure, create tables, views etc. Problem in this that GUI tools cannot be version controlled and without having actual script that creates your database from scratch and loads all test data, your project environment is incomplete and you can never create good enough unit tests that will work. I have seen this to be an issue so many times that it is not even funny. Look at the migrations in Rails and how elegantly these guys solved the problem for Ruby world.

But enough about technologies, I’d like to add few closing more general remarks and mention some good books and sites.

Software development is a discipline somewhere between engineering and creative writing (it stubbornly resists applications of engineering methods like precise estimations :-)). Same as with writing, similar path will lead you to improvement of your skills. If you want to become great writer, read a lot. Read and dissect the text, think about the storyline, plot, setup, way how the dialogs are constructed and words used. If you want to become great developer, you also need to read a lot – not only books (we will get to that), but also code. Reading good code is crucial and is very intellectually stimulating. Reading means understanding how it is designed, thinking about the relations, architecture, idioms and noting nice tricks and howtos. As with literature, the ease of reading will depend on the language (you are native Java speaker) and your preferences / predispositions. In both cases it is important to select high quality reading material. Fortunately, that is easier that it looks like as with books because there is a consensus how should good code look like. In Java world, going through the source code of Spring Framework will teach you a lot. Look at the source code repositories that do some pre-selection of the projects such as CodeHaus rather than general sites such as SourceForge. For .NET world, look at the CodeProject, select one of the highly rated contributions and chances are very high that you will be OK.

Last but not least – few books and sites.

One great book that would be IMHO just right for where you are at is Refactoring from Martin Fowler. This is very easy way how get the spirit of the design patterns – IMHO better than reading the Gang of Four as the start – which is absolutely a great book to read, but maybe not the ideal to start with.

There few great books covering the “craft” of software development. The classic Pragmatic Programmer (which started the whole company) and Software Craftsmanship will give you more good advice on career of software developer than you may ever need :-). from Microsoft camp – even bigger classic  is Code Complete.

As for sites and blogs – there are way too many blogs and feeds of interest, email me, I will send you my blog feed from Google Reader. From programmer’s news I am keeping and eye on Dzone, InfoQ, TheServerside.com and theserverside.net. They may be not the best, but I found out that to actually get some time to do some coding and code reading, one must limit the news consumption …

Thats about it.

Happy coding, may the Source be with you 😉

PS: Thanks to all who managed to read until here and even bigger thanks for emails and comments to the part I. Your feedback is appreciated.


An advice to a fellow developer – 1

2007/12/12

We are recently interviewing quite a lot in anticipation of the great things coming. It is sort of similar task as we did year and something ago, but I enjoy this round much better. This time, rather than “we have to assemble the project team ASAP”, we have the luxury of longer term view and focus more on hiring the people that will be great match to the company culture, will be with us for longer period and will grow with the company.

What I really like about interviews is an opportunity talking to smart people, who are usually very interested and passionate about technology. In every one of our meetings, I like to give the candidates a good opportunity to ask questions, not only to answer them. One of questions I got few times, is “given my resume, what technology, programming language, platform, area etc would you recommend me to look at to make progress ?”.

I answered it, but after doing it second time, I got back to reviewing and expanding my answers. And because the “given resume’s” were not too far apart, I decided to answer it one more time this way. So here we have, Joe Developer, a solid intermediate software engineer with good foundation and few years of Java under his belt. Joe knows the platform quite well, has done some Web application (JSP) but not too large variety of them, and also used Java in non-Web environment, e.g. GUI or some networking stuff. Joe did some scripting, a bit SQL and some basic system administration, but so far did not encounter the “true enterprise” technology jungle.

So, what should I look at, asks Joe ?

Given your solid Java background, build on your strength. Java may not have the sexappeal of the “language of the week” (which seems to be Haskell or F# or Erlang …), but is solid, very dependable with good market penetration and it is here to stay. Making Java the center of your skillset is a good choice. If you have not look at Java 5, do it. I mean look at the NEW things available like generics, annotations, new API’s for concurrency, etc.

In Java Enterprise space, one single most important thing happening is Spring framework. There are way too many frameworks for anything you can imagine so it is risky bet to pick one and rely on its longevity – but Spring is safe bet. Currently in version 2.5, it pretty much sums up all important trends of 2004-2007: inversion of control, aspect oriented programming, design by interface, test driven development, agile design techniques support, extending Java platform by Domain Specific Languages. It does NOT implement everything, but it provides a glue, platform that can be found everywhere. And you can find it pretty much everywhere – from Web applications to rich clients. Solid understanding of principles it represents will make your programs easier to understand, integrate, test and enhance. Spring was even influencer of Java standards – the new, radically different EJB 3 is (roughly speaking) Spring plus ORM – not that I had too high opinion about this EJB idea :-).

In Web application development – if you stay on Java platform – Spring has also much to offer. The Spring own MVC implementation is one of the very clean and extremely flexible approaches available for building your Web layer. Pluggable view technologies (you can mix and match the JSP/JSTL, Freemarker, Velocity, PDF), support for workflows (via Webflow), availability of security enhancements (Aecegi) makes it worthy exploring.

But what else than Java ? There are so many other languages – which are worth the time investment ? My take on this that you should not learn a new language that does not change your views about programming. Unless, of course you have very convincing reason to do so – like having is a long term project with dare need of this skill – this is how I learned VBA back in 1993.

There is a lot of “software enlightement” value to be found in exotic languages, that are often impractical and unsuitable for commercial skill marketplace, such as Lisp, Smalltalk or Prolog. Lot of fun and little money. Good middle ground between educational value, beauty and commercial usability is Ruby. It is real fun to use, gives you power of Perl (without the cryptic syntax), elegance of Python (with added cleanness and consistency). Ruby is also available in JVM implementation (JRuby) and offers an inroad to something really novel and interesting – Rails.

From this point of view, mastering “the other platform” (.NET) will not teach you too much. The C# 2.0 is so close to Java that learning it for experienced Java programmer is a no-issue (of course, mastering libraries and frameworks available is completely different story). The really new additions into Windows development toolkit with .NET framework 3.x are features as LINQ (in many areas – SQL, XML) and WPF (as replacement for Winforms ??). Certainly interesting, but they are often “me too” solutions than something really new. They are not bad, if your projects bind you to .NET platform, they are certainly worth of learning – but IMHO the real fun is elsewhere.

Unfortunately, one cannot avoid the feeling that not too much innovation is coming from Redmond in last couple of years – just check Zune vs iPod, Vista vs OS-x, Windows Live vs. Google offering etc. On the positive side, there is strong market demand for Windows based solutions, from Enterprise point of view, their server products are often better than their reputation. SQL Server 2005 has great price/performance ratio and is generally very good database server, development environments (VS 2005/2008) and comparable and close to what the Java world has (Eclipse, Idea, Netbeans).

In Web development on Windows – aka ASP.NET – an experienced Java developer will feel both surprised (by very rich controls offering) and limited (by not so great pagecentric postback-based navigational model and lack of usable MVC implementation). Compared to richness of Web framework implementations in Java, this is very sobering experience. Currently, even Microsoft seems to feel the need to address this – see Scott Guthrie and first Beta versions of true Model-View-Controller for ASP.NET. It’s about time …

What you need to be aware of is that in long term, Microsoft loves to do these right-angle-technology-turns (RATTs) that will invalidate your investment into mastering particular technology. I learned it the hard way – none of the expertise in MFC and C++, ATL or COM/DCOM has too much market value today. As Joel On Software outlines, I am not alone (read more here). And I have the nagging feeling that maybe transition from Winforms to WPF may be yet another RATT. But I may be wrong, I have not really spent enough time in WPF (unlike in Winforms). To sum it up – from opportunities perspective, Microsoft technologies are good investment and tradeoff for pretty much guarantee of more opportunities coupled with (usually) less fun.

Both Java and C# are language of similar “altitude” or expressive power. Quite often trying to rise your altitude and work with very high level language is quite eye-opening experience. There are many scripting languages out there, I would pick two. First is (obviously) already mentioned Ruby. If you want to stay closer to Java integration, look at Groovy – an in-JVM high level scripting language, with not as pretty syntax, but easier to intermix with Java – although as we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, the Groovy folks seem to be copying implementing ruby-esque features like crazy, including the killer app, which is in Groovy named Grails :-).

Hmm, looking back, this post is getting pretty long and battery in my MacbookPro is running low (I am typing this in Zavida Coffee which has free WiFi but only few tables where you can plugin your power supply. I guess I finish it tomorrow.
— to be continued —


Absurdity of the DMCA

2007/12/11

If the world of physical objects would governed with the same rules as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does impose on all things digital, scissors would be illegal and you could end up in jail for manufacturing, and maybe even owning or using them. Crazy ? Well, see this presentation and judge for yourself.

This “law” is currently impacting our friends south of the border only, but it is very real that it will soon become a law in Canada as well.

If you think that DMCA is a bad idea, here is couple of things you CAN do about it.


Taking the pain off installation

2007/12/08

I was trying to set up an Oracle appliance – install the Oracle Express XE into a virtual machine. What (in my mind) should be smooth and straightforward process was something very different. I should have been forewarned warned after seeing the discussion … To make long story short, the installer failed on three different Linux VM’s I had available – because of unavailable dependencies, too small swap space etc, etc.

I am not picking neither on Linux nor on Oracle as there is no such thing as standard or predictable Linux installation. Even within single distribution (like Fedora 7) it is completely up to the user which subset of 1500+ packages will get selected during initial install. The installers are sophisticated enough to add missing dependencies, but nothing will prevent you not to install some seemingly unimportant package, without which the Oracle will not run. Given enough time, you can go and add the missing dependency (and it’s dependency and so on – up to the transitive closure of all missing libs), but that makes the 30 minutes installation more like 3 hours project.

What I ended up doing is loading the XP VM and the Oracle was up and running in less than 15 minutes. The Windows configuration is given (no user meddling possible) and the MSI installers do great job. The price to pay is the nagging feeling that each install may bring that huge binary blob called registry closer to it’s death … but in VM’s that is a non-issue.

There are two ways how to avoid issues like this. The option is go for pre-configured virtual appliance. Lots of appliances are available for VMWARE or for Microsoft Virtual Server.

If there is no appliance, next best thing is to go for “stack install”. Many software packages are now available bundled as stacks – e.g. LAMP/MAMP/WAMP stack (Apache with PHP and MySQL on Linux, Mac or Windows). There is good website BitNami offering many more stacks, including Liferay portal, Alfresco, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress or Ruby stack … This in combination with an “empty” VM should really ease the pain.