On Hiatus

As you can quickly deduce from the frequency of posts to this blog, I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus for the past six months. I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, and keeping my blog updated is pretty far down my list of priorities. After having a blog for a bit, I naturally arrived at some ideas for making it better. And in a way these ideas have contributed to my laxity. I have a mental picture of my new blog (which is much improved) and so posting to this, my “old” blog, is now somehow a little less appealing than it was before. I feel like I need to do some renovation around here, but I just haven’t had enough free hours strung together to sit down and do it.

But in the last two weeks or so, I’ve had three separate people comment on the lack of posts to my blog. Two of these were strangers I had never met before, candidates interviewing for positions (by the way: frog is hiring) who had Googled my name prior to their interview. Knowing that some people are still reading these pages gives me motivation to tidy things and update a bit more frequently. Spring break is coming up, I’ve requested a few days of vacation, and we’ve farmed all three of our kids off to visit their grand parents. Colleen and I aren’t quite sure what we’ll do with ourselves, without having to shuttle kids around to school, baseball practice and birthday parties. So with any luck, I’ll squeeze in some time to work on flowdelic.

One other thorn in my side, that has soured me a bit to the whole idea of blogging is comment spam. I’ve got comment moderation turned on, and I’ve never let a spammy comment get through, yet I still get 50 or spam comments a week here. Continually having to delete advertisements for online pharamacies and poker sites (and worse) has made this a little more of chore and a bit less of a joy than I had hoped for.


Re: Blogs, bosses and bucks

Somewhere in my surfing today, I ran across a link to Scott Rosenburg’s post titled “[Blogs, bosses and bucks][bbb].” This caught my eye, because in my [thesis][] research, I’ve been thinking about the role money and power structures have on collaboration amongst virtual teams.

In my research, I’ve been studying successful “open” collaborative communities like the Apache Software Foundation and Wikipedia, looking for “new” practices that could be applied to help virtual teams be more successful in a corporate setting. But what I’ve found is that the practices used by these organizations have, for the most part, already been widely documented in business and academic literature. These include things like have a well-defined purpose, clearly defined roles and responsiblities, recognition of achievement, etc.

It is not that these groups are doing anything drastically different, yet it does appear to be the case that good management practices seem to occur more naturally in these contexts. Why? Ultimately, I think it ties back to two key things:

  1. Volunteer organizations are easier to leave. Volunteers who lose interest in the project will simply move on to something else
  2. Criticism and alternate ideas are freely shared, because no one is afraid of losing their jobs in retaliation

I’m sure there is more to than this, but these two factors play together as well to promote strong leadership. In these organizations, leaders emerge not because the wield the power to over someone else’s paycheck, but rather based on their ability to build consensus and the value their own contributions to the project. When leadership fails in an open organization, it is obvious if not immediate. Failing projects are identified by recurring flame wars and by an inability to keep a steady, stable group of contributors involved in the project.

My point is not that leaders in volunteer organizations are better than their corporate counterparts, but rather that the role of money can mask poor leadership in an organization. Is everyone involved because they want to be? Or are they just drawing paychecks until they can find a better position somewhere else? Is the lack of debate a sign of silent agreement or fear of retailiation?

To tie this back to Scott’s article — I agree that in many organizations, the fear of being fired is going to keep people from blogging. But I would also argue that creating an environment that punishes criticism and curbs open debate can also put a company at a distinct disadvantage.

I agree with Tim Bray’s statement that companies who don’t adopt blogging will be playing “catch-up” — not because blogging itself is inherently advantageous (though it may be), but because it is an outward symptom of a company that internally values open sharing of ideas and criticism.

[thesis]: /archives/2004/05/my-thesis-topic/


So far so good…

I had planned to spend a few hours this weekend converting this blog from [MoveableType][mt] (the software I was previously using to write this blog) to [Wordpress] (the software I am using now) and customizing my blog a bit in the process.

As it happened, I ended up having a better weekend that I had planned. The weather was terrific, and I spent most of my time outdoors with family and friends, including the better part of Sunday floating in the cool, clear waters of the Blanco river.

So I didn’t end up with much time for blogging this weekend, but I’m not complaining. Nevertheless, I’ve got WordPress installed and my MT data converted, all in a little less than 30 minutes since I started. Very nice. Now that I’ve got it running, I’m finding there is a lot to like in WordPress. I’m looking forward to hierarchical categorization, link management, and comment moderation in particular. I’ll being squeezing an hour here and there this week to finalize the conversion and customize the look and feel.



Goodbye MT, Hello WordPress

Warning: MoveableType techno-rant ahead…

Lately, every time I save a new post I get an “Internal Server Error” message from MoveableType. The error in my server log reads: “Premature end of script headers: /var/www/html/mt/mt.cgi”. After a lot of Googling I found a mention somewhere (can’t seem to find it right now) that indicated SmartyPants might be the culprit.

SmartyPants is a MT plug-in I use, which converts straight-and-boring quotes (“) to typographically-correct curly, or smart, quotes “like so.” I removed SmartyPants, grudgingly, as I like to be typographically correct, and the problem disappeared, for a while. Now it is back.

Unfortunately, because I had set “Markdown + SmartyPants” as my default text format, when I re-rendered my site, all my postings reverted to the “None” formatting option. Blech. Worse — all my RSS feeds were updated, with raw, unprocessed [Markdown] code in them. My apologies to everyone who may have seen a “flowdelic” update in their RSS readers, only to find a bunch of old posts, but stripped of formatting.

So last weekend I planned to take a crack at learning the MT template language and finally customizing my templates. But instead, I spent my time tracking down Internal Server Errors. Sorry kids.

All is not lost however, I think I have found my solution — WordPress. WordPress is open-source blogging software that has gotten a lot of recognition of late, and it has typographical-correctness built in! The fact that it is written in PHP is appealing too, as I am much more comfortable with PHP than Perl.

So rather than investing in wrestling with/learning MT when it looks like many are leaving in the wake of the new MT 3.0 licensing brouhaha, I’ll be trying my hand at WordPress this weekend. Wish me luck!


Another door opens

Scripting News: “At some point in the next few months, there will be an open source release of the Frontier kernel.”

Congratulations to Dave Winer on reaching a new milestone in the history of Frontier. Another loop closes as a new door opens.

The roots of blogging today can be traced back, in part at least, to the release of Aretha in May 1995. At that time, Frontier was locked away, unused, unprofitable and largely unappreciated. It could have ended there. But Dave made the software free (as in beer) and so started a chain of events that eventually lead to Clay Basket, Manila, Radio, XML-RPC and RSS. It also helped launch the career of Brent Simmons, the author of NetNewsWire.

Of course, that is not the whole story of blogging, but Frontier and Aretha are clearly high up in the Blog family tree. I’m glad to see Dave and Userland taking it a step further and I look forward to seeing where this journey takes us. Thank you and good luck. Let a thousand flowers bloom.


Google, the fallback for trackback?

Sometime yesterday or early this morning, flowdelic was added to the Google index. It’s official — I’m now “in the book” as it were. Yeah.

As I expected, my site is in the top spot (easy to do with an invented word I guess), but I also found some sites that that pointed here that I didn’t see previously. Thanks and thanks.

It’s great to see those other links — but I wonder, why did I have to wait on Google to find them? Having been a reader of blogs for some time (okay a really, really long time), but not an author, I had thought that trackback links were more automated than they appear to be. I found the very helpful How TrackBack Works — but it really just confirmed what I’d recently discovered — trackback is a very manual, error-prone process. (BTW — I’m also using MoveableType)

That’s not what I expected. My expectation was that if I linked to another blog’s post in my blog entry, that link would be extracted when I posted the entry, and a trackback “ping” would be sent to the referenced article automatically. I understand that trackback URLs are different than permalinks — but shouldn’t the remote blog system be able to map permalinks to postings?

Why do I, the user, need to go track down a special URL? Is this how all blogging systems work — or is this something specific to MoveableType?

Before I got the hang of this I was entering permalinks into the “URLs to ping” box in my editing interface. (Why should I need to type these in at all?) MT gladly accepted these and dutifully “pinged” the incorrect URLs I had given it without a hiccup. I would have expected to see some kind of error message if the ping wasn’t accepted. At least then I would have know I was “doing it wrong” and could have learned faster how to do it right.

I see trackback as a crucial feature of the blogsphere. It enables readers to follow a conversation from blog to blog. Wouldn’t it be cool if RSS readers could organize posts by thread as well as by blog? Without that I feel like I’m missing part of the conversation (and I probably am). Why should the burden fall on users to discover and follow cross-blog threads? If any RSS readers do threading, I’d like to know, I just haven’t seen it yet.

It seems obvious to me that trackback is a useful feature of blogging — but to be really useful, it has got to be reliable. And if the reliability is based on trusting blog authors everywhere to track down and correctly use trackback URLs, well we’re going to have to continue to rely on Google to piece together strands of conversations for us for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: I found “A Beginner’s Guide to Trackback” on the MoveableType site. There, I found that there is an auto-discovery feature that works how I would expect it to work. Nice. But — if that’s how it works, why didn’t I get trackback pings from all the sites that linked to my posts? It still seems that trackback reliability leaves something to be desired.

Also, I wish I could use the bookmarklets too, but they don’t work in Safari. (My laptop at work is Windows XP, but at home I have a G4 PowerBook with Mac OS X.)


Blogs: The Other Half of Customer Relationship

I’ve been reading with great interest recent posts by Robert Scoble and Tim Bray about blogging in a corporate context.

As Scoble and others have shown, blogs are a powerful way to quickly react to negative publicity, to establish real credibility, and build lasting bonds with customers and the community. For all the millions upon millions of dollars that companies have poured into customer relationship management (CRM) systems, it is surprising more haven’t encouraged their employees to blog. Companies seem to willing to talk the one-to-one talk, but when it comes to empowering, and trusting, their employees to connect directly to customers on a mass scale, the commitment usually whithers away.

Isn’t it ironic that companies will spend big bucks to build “relationships” by compiling and cross-indexing information about their customers, without realizing that a relationship, by definition, is inheritently reciprocal? Does having a website greet me by name make me feel like I have a closer relationship with that company? No it doesn’t—in fact it kinda spooks me out. Why? Because it lays bare the fact that my “relationship” with said company is out of balance—they know a lot more about me than I know about them.

While CRM systems may help you know more about your customers — they don’t build relationships because they don’t help your customers know more about you.

And that is the beautiful thing about employee blogs. It is one way to bring some much-needed parity to the customer relationship. All companies are ultimately organized collections of people. And by getting to know some of those people a little better, we (the customers) get to know the company better.

I can think of no better example of this than the Channel 9 site at the Microsoft Developer Network. I feel like I know infinitely more about Microsoft now because of this site. Getting to listen in on interesting conversations between people who have built and are buliding tools I use everyday is very valuable to me. I am so glad Microsoft decided to do that instead of making sure I see a “Welcome, Mason Hale” message everytime I visit their website.