Microsoft and Tools

Had a little task I wanted to accomplish this weekend, and — since it was a pretty straight-forward file-system manipulation — I elected to go with your basic DOS batch file.

It worked fine, but since this script was not for me – but for a less savvy user – the issue of error trapping came up. Is this drive mounted, is the disc full, is the file locked, was the copy/move/delete successful and all that.

As usual, it was about five minutes for the actual work that needed to be done, and hours of error-trapping.

And it still wasn’t what I thought I needed: DOS just isn’t that flexible. Not to mention that a “black screen” popping up weirds out folks.

So I turned to VB (Visual Basic, for the uninitiated….)

Not counting the time it took me to reacquaint myself with VB (how do you refresh a file list on drive change???) and so on, using VB was a lot like using DOS (or – face it – any language): The initial work – for a user knowing exactly what to do – was relatively trivial.

Again, the error-trapping was the tough part. Think of all that could go wrong and then build in this exception handling, reseting variables, setting error messages and so on.

But with VB it was more of a problem as to exactly what I wanted to do/say, as opposed to the limitations of the language and its tool.

I’d forgotten how good Microsoft tools – mainly, Visual Studio – are. Very nice. (Note: I have Visual Studio v6; sure, I’d like Visual Studio .Net…anyone want to buy it for me??? I don’t use it enough to justify it right now.)

I’ve used a lot of tools – maybe not as many as hard-core programmers, since I’ve been doing a lot of scripting languages – but I have used a fair number.

Microsoft’s tools are, far and away, the best of the bunch. No wonder — it keeps the developers happy and coding (Image of flop-sweating Steve Balmer bouncing like a monkey on stage screaming “Developers! Developers! Developers!”)

Let’s take Java tools: Borland’s JBuilder is pretty good, but the Personnel Edition I have (free) is clunky. I’ve used Forte, which sucks. My favorite was Syamntec’s Visual Cafe. It was very much like a Visual Studio interface, a nice debugger and so on. Symantec then sold this product to WebGain, which – since it is in the process of going under – to TogetherSoft (which appears to have been acquired by Borland…shit, I can’t keep up….). I really haven’t seen the product since v1.1, but it was a great tool. (Hmm….looking at the Togethersoft site — labeled “Borland” — I can’t find a reference to Visual Cafe. *sigh* Looks like they killed it…..)

ERwin, as a data-modeling tool, is incredibly useful and I love what it can do, but — face it — the product looks like a 16-bit app. Ugly, clunky, non-intuitive but powerful. Not exactly a four-star review…

On the scripting-language side, Allaire’s (oops! Macromedia’s) Homesite and Cold Fusion Studio are, to me, the best Web editors out there. But I’m a hand coder: For HTML/scripting use, I just need a file browser, a slew of (customizable) menus and good color coding. I don’t need validators (I have the W3C) or WYSIWYG tools. I hope Macromedia keeps these tools alive…

Speaking of WYSIWYG tools, Dreamweaver is the best of the bunch that I’ve used.

I’ve used Dreamweaver most of the times I need a WYSIWYG tool (rarely); I like the way it doesn’t screw with my code. FrontPage — a Microsoft tool — is a disaster, but I can see it’s appeal for the very newest of the newbies. GoLive is fairly strong, but I still like Dreamweaver better. Probably because it’s more code-oriented than GoLive (Adobe product – more visual/drag-and-drop, which makes perfect sense).

Good tools are hard to come by, which is why some many people are so protective of their tool choices. Part of this is human nature – the refusal to change and the inability to admit wrong choices made – but part of it is just that, when you have a good tool, you hang on to it. You talk it up. You hope it lives (unlike Visual Cafe, I guess…damn…).

Still Learning

I ran across an old resume of mine the other day (using frames! – what the hell was I thinking?!?).

It’s almost exactly five years old; it was the resume I used when I left Aberdeen and joined

Outside of cringing at the look and feel and other issues, the interesting part was the “What I’ve Done” page, which is not a listing of achievements (“deployed N-tier application to….”) per se, it’s a listing of what tools I’ve used.

What I’ve done coding wise, in other words.


I split this heading into two columns: “What I Can Do”, and “What I Can’t Do (Yet)”.

While not traditional, nor am I. So it works.

I was heartened to see that, over the past half decade, I’ve expanded my depth of my skills in the “What I can do” category (example: way better and more sophisticated with JavaScript), but the really nice part was to see that just about everything I listed in “What I can’t do (yet)” I can do today.

Such as:

  • SQL: I noted I was (in 1998) currently learning it. Today I do queries in my sleep. While I still don’t consider myself a SQL guru or anything like that, I do write often complex queries, create views, script out table construction, stored procedures, views and so on. I’m a million miles from the 1998 “select * from tableName”. That’s a good thing.
  • Windows NT Administration: While I’m still not an NT admin – nor do I want to be one – I spend/have spent a lot of time with NT admin: Servers (iPlanet and IIS), databases (MS SQL Server & mySQL) and home networking. I have up to five machines on my network at any one time; two NT (Win2000), one WinME, two Linux. Again, substantial progress.
  • CGI: By this – I assume – I meant Perl CGI’s. And now that’s easy. I’m still learning Perl (isn’t everyone, including Larry Wall??), but now I user it more and more, both for CGIs, and – usually – as a scripting/parsing tool. While a page of Perl code often looks like someone threw up a mouthful of punctuation on the page, it’s a killer language. The more I learn it, the more I like it.
  • Active Server Pages (ASP): A recent addition to my computer tool belt. How did I teach myself it? A “hello world” page? No, a content-management system, complete with an admin section. How about that? Nope, it’s not perfect, but I’m learning still….
  • Server-Side Java: Sure, still weak on this, but I’ve written Java apps, JSP applications that access EJBs (Enterprise Java Beans) that I’ve written by hand. Written servlets. Not bad for learning on one’s own.
  • Visual Basic: I used this a great deal at to build little widgets that made the day easier – auto template creation, FTP/parser programs and so on. Again, not a wizard. Again, I’ve been there, done that now.
  • Perl: I think I covered this above. Having my own *nix boxes here makes this much easier (Perl runs better on *nix than on Windoze, at least to me….)
  • Unix: I’ve now worked at companies that ran either Solaris or Linux; I’ve had to use the shell extensively. And I have two boxes dedicated to this sitting right here in the home office. You learn by doing…. Hell, I have about nine shell scripts that run each night for backups (yes, I should consolidate all the CRONs into one package; in time….) – both Linux to Win2000 and the other way. So if any box craps out, I’ve got a backup on a different box/OS.
  • CSS and DHTML: Five years ago, I said the promise but I really didn’t get around to really learning them was because it wasn’t worth spending much time on, as the browser battles/differences made it somewhat worthless to deploy. I think I was correct: Only in the last year or so (at best!) are the browsers similar enough (standards…sorta…) so one can deploy CSS and DHTML (CSS & JavaScript). I’m very good at both right now. It’s very neat stuff, allows one to build very flexible, extensible sites.

I still have a lot of new things to learn (more database things [like replication], C#, Python and so on), and a lot of depth to add to the breadth I do offer.


Still, it was nice to see that I have pretty much nailed all the things I identified five years ago.

And the last five years of learning doesn’t even begin to touch the other skills I’ve added, some in depth, some not. Additional skills include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Shell scripting
  • Web server administration: IIS, iPlanet (Netscape), Apache
  • Cold Fusion (eep! – not on the radar five years ago, has been a staple of mine almost since that time…)
  • Wireless networking
  • Blogging
  • Database design/construction/maintenance (including Erwin)
  • Lasso (not my choice, but I learned it to help shepard a product along)
  • VBScript – Implied by ASP, but not required (can use JavaScript)
  • PHP – and lots of it….
  • XML – enough to be dangerous/confused, but I’ve built XML parsers and worked with XSL and SOAP
  • HTML 4.01 – transitional and strict. Very different from HTML 3.02 in many ways
  • XHTML – little done, but I grok it

It’ll be interesting to see what the next five years bring, for me and the Web in general…

Web Maturation: The Death of the WebMonkey

I’m a WebMonkey. An HTML jock, a JavaScript code, a Photoshop pixel-pusher.

I can architect a front end so it is flexible, extensible, comprehensible (i.e. maintainable) and usually user-friendly.

I’m way past the point of being dangerous with my SQL/programming/backend knowledge; I can do a lot of it with alacrity.

At the same time, I’m an anachronism:

  • I excel at HTML: So what? Who needs that anymore? GoLive, DreamWeaver MX, FrontPage etc. Hell, export/publish from MS Word. Will the code be ugly? Yes! Will it be slower? Yes? Will it matter? NO! – because the folks using these tools are not the Googles of the world, trying to carve a tenth of second off a load time. These are users who have/want a site and with few bells and whistles. I can’t argue with that.
  • I suck at Photoshop: OK, let’s qualify. I’m better than 90 percent of the population with this omnipresent tool (90 percent don’t use it…), I’m probably better than half the current Photoshop users: Hey, I’ve done magazine production and so on. I grok it. That said, I know that I can’t design a killer site graphically. I don’t have the real artist skillset. The built-in templates to a lot of these tools work fine for people (doubt that? look at all the MoveableType folks using essentially a built-in template for that tool!!). I can’t argue with that.
  • I’ve a broad range of skills: So what? Today you get hired, for the most part, for a very specific tool set. Perlscripts written to convert Oracle 8i data to flat XML files for Linux. ASP with SSL for financial firms. Etc. The broad range of skills is enormously helpful – especially to the hiring company – but it really does not play into the hiring process, let’s say. They want to be able to slap someone into a chair and have them produce by the end of the week, at worst. A new employee’s “extra” skills only come into play after the hiring process, for the most part. I can understand this to a large degree – sure, I’ll be able to pick up D+++ (how do they/I know???). *sign*
  • I can program in a wide range of scripting and compiled languages: The caveat here is that I have not done most during the job. I have done a lot of the work for jobs, but usually just to make widgits or whatever for the job that folks don’t know (VB, Perl). Or I have done extensive work with some tools, but I can’t really point to a visible project that showcases my efforts (VB, Perl:SOAP/XML, JSP, ASP, PHP, Postgres, mySQL, Linux/Linux admin, IIS admin, Netscape [iPlanet] admin, MS SQL stored procs, shell scripts, DHTML…..). My visible work – while the stuff I do currently do best (HTML, JavaScript, CSS, ColdFusion, some Perl) – is fairly small compared to what I can really point people to or is part of my offical job description (…shit…). So why should they believe or (if they are not jaded) investigate that which is difficult to see? And, sure, I’ve programmed applets/apps/EJB/JSP in Java. Want me doing it full time? I honestly don’t know, to be honest…. so why should the employer? Again, I can’t fault that….
  • I don’t lie.: Kill me now. Honesty is the poison of employment. On both sides, to differing degrees with differing employees/employers. Life goes on; get over it. Practice: Sure I can build a 12-D, browser-based, DNA-driven wormhole flight simulator in three weeks that is written in KlingonScript….and it’ll be fast and sexy
  • I can do some stuff that’s needed : Such as CSS (1&2); I understand HTML Strict vs. Transitional etc. XHTML. Big whoop. Who gives a rat’s ass?

Anachronism reality: Big companies won’t hire me because I don’t have 10 years of experience with [fill in tool that has not been around for a decade]; small companies will flinch because they will be lookign for someone to do everything (IIS config, phones, installs, intranet, extranet etc) and I’ll answer honestly saying that I’ve done some, haven’t done others and [OOOPS! TOO LATE — I said “haven’t”: I’m toast].

Oh well oh hell…

Webmonkeys of the World: Hmm. I’ve no good advice. No advice at all.

The Web Grows Up

One of the things I do in my capacity as “a person who uses the Internet a lot” (such as for a paycheck) is read, trawl, search the Web.

I see a trend that is not at all remarkable, and one that I believe that I’ve commented on before.

Or not. Whatever.

The Web is growing up: I commented on this recently (March 15, regarding BlogLash – there, I found it….one instance of…).

One result of this maturation is maturation of the ways in which the code that is parsed by servers and sent to your browser is generated.

  • Early days: Notepad, vi (!)
  • 1996ish: First editors specifically for HTML appear; one still needs to know how to code tables and so on to survive.
  • 1997-1999: Major strides in dynamic Web sites have happened. The Evil that is MS Front Page and other (some better, some equally nasty) WYSIWYG “Web-development” tools (actually just HTML tools then) appear. Bring HTML to the common man; geek still needed to tweak those nasty tables and other isues. At the same time, the first divide happens: Backend developers (Perl and Java the main dynamic tools of note) and front-end developers (HTML jockeys, often with programming/SQL skills).
  • 1999-2002ish: Programming becomes more and more specialized; backend tools (application servers, databases, datafeeds, search tools) take center stage; the presentation layer is the least complex matter. Scripting languages fall generally into five camps: 1) HTML (static sites), 2) ASP, 3) JSP/Java servlets, 4) PHP, 5) Perl (the old standby…). ColdFusion is a presence, but does well mainly with smaller sites that need dynamic content. Perfect for this use, including intranets (so no one really gets to see them).
  • 1999-2002ish Redux: At the same time HTML creation is deprecated, the rise of CSS and DHTML (CSS + JavaScript) takes off, putting a little more emphasis on the front-end development. Tools have not caught up with the technology (so need bodies). Thank god the browsers are finally getting close to similar…now if only all Netscape 4.x users will log off forever…
  • Today(ish): While Web Services has been a buzz phrase for some time, some work is actually getting done in this area: Not as much as people expected by this date, but I don’t think anyone can deny that Web Services will be huge in the future. How near this “Web Services future” is and what form the Web Services will take is way up in the air, but the over-arching concept is sound – a COBRA-type system that will allow dissimilar systems to talk to each other and garner data/content from each other without requiring a specialized parsing/access system for each. Think of it as a phone that translates what you say into the language the person on the other end of the line speaks, and converts their responses into your language. Neat.
  • Today (redux): Again, there is a schism in what is needed. Backend predominates (databases, SOAP, XML etc), but the scripting languages that actually send the material to the user (or is first parsed by server/application server) don’t yet have the robust tools needed. Actually, the backend tools don’t have the robust tools to send the material to the front-end. Yet this is sorta ignored by most back-end developers, which is why I run accross so many JavaScript errors on my Web travels.

But I babble (so?).

The upshot of all this is that the emphasis, for better or for worse, is once again squarely on the backend. The hell with the presentation layer (except for the look – NOT the feel [usability] ); that’s gravy; that can be fixed later.

To a large extent, this is not a bad way to look at things.

And – as tools get better on the backend – the tools will help the front end. I expect MS to be a big part of this, even though I hate its Front Page, as mentioned above. (Bad code generated! Bad! Bloated!)

OK, those are the (my) facts.

What are the results of this? More to follow…

All I can say is…

As I walk through

This wretched world

Searching for lies in the darkness of insanity

I ask myself

As I look lost

Is there only pain, hatred and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside

There’s one thing I want to know

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Elvis Costello, “(whats so funny ’bout) peace, love and understanding”


I’m waiting for the bloglash (blogger backlash).


Well, having been – in a tepid way – through the entire Internet boom/bust/rebirth cycle (been with the Web since Mosaic – so that’s 10 years; been with a couple startups), the blog cycle is feeling the same way.

I started blogging just under two years ago; I saw the appeal immediately, but then I got busy at work again….

My “real” blogging — a somewhat consistent blog — has been only the last few months, but I have been following it all.

Blogs are reaching critical mass, and that’s both a good and bad thing.

Good: It’s good because it is a new medium, as the Web was (is?). It’s getting some of the attention it deserves – and this will help it mature. (Bring in new people, new ideas, just the mass of users helps it.)

Bad: At the same time, blogs are getting way more attention than they deserve. That’s not a slam, it’s just that this is its “15 minutes of fame” where every paper etc. writes/talks about them — it is reaching the masses. After this overexposure, there will be a backlash and then it will settle into some sort of normalcy, much like the Web has (you don’t have to like the way the Web has settled; I also fully agree that there is a lot of untapped potential out there, some of which is currently under investigation…). The backlash is coming; very soon now.

OK, what are the signs of the impending backlash?

Basically, the backlash will be a reaction against hype. Overexposure.

In the same way that people got sick of every commercial on TV suddenly proclaiming “See our Web site at” and companies like “” getting buttloads of VC money, people are going to start getting sick of hearing about how “blogging will be a seismic event in journalism; there is no turning back” (yeah, I made up that quotation, but I bet you could find one close to it somewhere).

Anything that gets hyped the way the Web was – and, increasingly, blogs are – will suffer a setback, a backlash.

Ironicially, I wrote about this quirk of human nature (at least American humans) re: the Google purchase of Pyra etc. Before, Google was the white hat, the good guy, the cool kid in class. Once it started maturing, it – essentially the same company – turn into another Evil Empire.

This will happen to blogging itself shortly, once the buzz has gone on so long that all people can hear is a buzzing in their ears.

They’ll turn. To the next ‘Net meme. (*shrug*)

Signs of hype:

  • Academic acceptance: Hell, the Dean of Bloggers (Dave Winer) pulled up stakes and moved from the Golden State to Beantown to teach at, of all the uncreditable places, Harvard. This isn’t Smalltown Junior College offering a blogger course for English credit.
  • Interest by companies outside the industry: This goes back to Google’s purchase of Pyra (blogger/blogspot). Yes, both are Internet properties, so it’s not like Mobil Oil purchasing a restaurant chain, but there is a degree of separation. Userland or Moveable Type merging or either partnering with Pyra would have been interesting but in a “so what?” kind of way; Google purchasing Pyra raised eyebrows, increasing the visibility of both companies in everyone’s eyes.
  • Mainstream press latches onto story: Yes, of course the stories will be clueless in many cases. Hey, so is a lot of popular science writing – gross oversimplification to help get a point (often an incorrect one) across. Whatever. The mainstream press – NY Times and its ilk – is starting to catch a whiff of this blogging thing. Oh, they’ve (their more intrepid writers) been well aware of this phenomenon for some time, but until now it was not worth writing about. The unwashed masses didn’t care… All of the sudden, it’s on the News Radar.
  • Proponents are overwhelmed by the task: I’m reading more and more about how established bloggers are getting overwhelmed in some way or another by the Herclulean (sp?) task of keeping up with this all. Concerns about keeping up with the e-mail users send to the blogger to even people concerned about filters on the blog search engines/aggredizers (they want them; not a censorship issue), so they can be more easily used to target what’s interesting (to that user).

The main problem with all this attention is that nothing is good enough to make all this attention valid.

This was part of the problem with the Internet: It didn’t turn water into wine, it didn’t make you look 10 lbs. thinner, it didn’t whiten your smile.

The ‘Net was a new tool; a cool tool.

Not THE tool.

Ditto for blogs.

But now the momentum is beginning, and it’s going to change blogging forever. That’s not a bad thing, by the way – change is good, and blogging is so new it has not really found its role(s). We are entering into the shakeout period, where we find out how valid some of the claims are (my “seismic event in journalism,” for example), what ways this new(ish) tool can be leveraged.

There are other parallels between the rise of the Web and the rise of the blog, as well. Some valid, some just…well, interesting:

  • Humble roots: Whether you want to talk about the actual concept or the tools used to create either the Web or blogs, it’s an effort of a small group of individuals/collaborators. Nobody (until Google/Pyra) was tossing money at blog folks to do stuff; Tim Berners-Lee wrote HTTP just to share documents. Mosaic was a grad school project. They did it because it was interesting and worth doing. Free tools abound; people share ideas.
  • Supposed to “democracize” things: Yeah, what “things” are depends on who you talk to. And while the Internet has done this to a degree, and blogs also give the individual a voice, it’s not the great leveler people rant about. Sorry. It can be, but rarely is. (Note: In those rare cases where it does allow a single voice [person/group/cause] to rise above the institutions, it can be quite compelling. Very compelling.)
  • Not sure of role, despite the “democracize” thing: The Web is still feeling its way around on this one. Since it was hyped – and funded – to basically be all things to all people all the time, it is struggling to figure out how much of that it can really fulfill. Yes, tough row to hoe. Blogs are more targetted, as they are content (not marketplaces, not applications [ASP], not brick-and-mortar killers…). Still, content…how? And why/for what? And for what else? Interesting questions for ‘Net and blogs.
  • The ability for anyone to publish can be a less-than-compelling benefit: Yes, early Web pages were silly, often stupid, usually useless. Ditto today for blogs. I’ve stated my opinion on this one before: Bloggers are, for the most part, navel-gazers. On the other hand, so what? And why not? But just because you can publish does not mean that you should, or that it’s necessary. That’s another great lesson of the Web: While I maintain that every company (with limits) should have a Web site – like a Yellow Pages ad – there is no need to have it robust. Three pages: Page one welcome basic info (phone, address, e-mail); page two “about us” (some on page one, as well); page three whatever works for the company. Price list. Areas of specialty. Portfolio links. Awards won. Whatever. I have a blog; don’t need one. But I like it, and I do it. No one reads it. I keep writing into it. So what???
  • About Itself: Yes, the early Web was filled with dross, navel lint and a lot of pages to help you code, set up a server and so on. Closed loop, in many ways. A Web about the Web. Blogs are similar, but breaking out more quickly (because they are content). While blogs point to other bloggers (vs. CNN/ etc.) more than other types of sites – a kind of closed loop – this has rapidly changed (OK, over the two years I’ve read blogs…). As noted above, bloggers are starting to even be concerned about filtering blog search/collection areas so they can get to what they want (“You want politics with that?”). This is a very healthy sign. This type of attitude will 1) Meet with resistance (what “change” doesn’t?); 2) Promote initial eye-rolling; 3) Promote progress. My guess…
  • West Coast Phenomenon: I don’t know where blogs were invented. I know that the ‘Net was not invented in California – HTTP at CERN in Geneva, TCP/IP East Coast/BBN, Mosaic Champaign/Urbana IL etc… – but the Net has been embraced on that chunk of America that’s spozed to float off into the Pacific some day. However, like the “About Itself” point above, blogs have done better to move beyond The [Silicon] Valley than the ‘Net has. BIG in NYC, for example, but this is for two interesting (to me…) reasons:

    • NYC tried very hard – because of its publishing roots, which were “threatened” (?) by the Web – to make a Silicon Alley in NYC. So the folks were/are there.
    • As noted somewhere above, blogs are about content (not technology per se). Content capital of US of A is NYC. The intelligensia is there. Bingo.

Arrogance or Ignorance?

Dan Gillmor points out a newspaper interview with SBC’s chairman Ed Whitacre.

Dan says, among other things, the following: “Is there a more arrogant corporate chief in American [sic] than SBC Communication’s Ed Whitacre? ”

I don’t know, reading the article I was more struck by the man’s (Whitacre’s) ignorance.

He’s commenting on the February 2003 changes to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the most important telecommuncations actions since the 1996 act. And Whitacre is the head of the one of the three monster telecom companies (along with Verizon and one other – I’m not certain) — and SBC is probably the biggest.

Whitace’s response to a reporter’s question about the February changes?

The [San Francisco] Chronicle: What’s your impression of last month’s FCC ruling?

Whitacre: It’s terrible. I haven’t seen the order yet. Everything I’ve seen is based on a two-page summary.

He’s the head of the largest telecommunications company in the country and he has not read the order yet? He bases everything on a two-page summary? Agreed, he’s a busy guy, but come on….

And at the same time he spouts that the order is “terrible” he admits he has not read it.

Not exactly a creditable response, to me.