2009-09-06

Innocents Abroad

This weekend, wifey and I decided to take the tribe to the Omni, a nice resort about an hour and a half from our home. This particular Omni has been a favorite of our family's for several years now as a weekend getaway spot, complete with a selection of three pools including a large 2-story water-slide, kids activities, golf, nice restaurants, a Starbucks, and beautiful grounds and rooms.

As is my custom, I planned on spending most of my time in a cabana by the "grown-up" pool while reading, smoking cigars, and enjoying whatever libations and sights the Good Lord sent my way. The cigars necessary for the weekend's enjoyment were already waiting in my humidor at home; some very nice Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur Maduro No. 1s (7.5"x54). My humidor at home is now bereft of any quality sticks, now only containing a few thin Connecticut wrapped Don Linos which are more suitable as humidity regulators than after-dinner smokes. I don't get to smoke that often, so when I do, I want a great cigar, not something that is aimed at old men in West Tampa mowing their lawns. I was at a loss, however, when it came to reading material for the weekend, with no unfinished books of fiction or non-fiction and being at point of pause in my Ruby on Rails book which I refuse to read further until I can find an appropriate project to use it on, lest I forget what I read.

While gathering cigars for the trip, I was reminded however of some anecdote I had read about Mark Twain decrying the low quality of cigars to be found on his travels thus accounting for the thousands he reportedly took with him on all of his lengthy voyages. The Mark Twain anecdote came to mind again the next day when I strolled into Books-A-Million looking for something to read over the weekend, so I went straight for the fiction section to the T's. That's where I found the book that I didn't know existed, "Innocents Abroad" (ISBN: 978-0-8129-6705-0). I hadn't wanted any of is classics, and here this one copy of this gem awaited me. Excellent!

The book itself is a construct whose materials are a series of articles Twain wrote for the Daily Alta California and the New York Times. Twain, at the age of thirty-two, had gotten the Daily Alta Californian, a San Francisco based paper to pay his passage on the worlds first organized tourist cruise. It was a first of the kind concept, a pleasure cruise crossing the globe and seeing the greatest sights of Europe and the East and returning. The trip marks the point is his career where he evolves from the pugnacious quick-hit humorist to the more philosophic commentator on human nature who used humor as more of means than as an end itself. This is where he went from writing well to writing for the good.

Innocents Abroad is informative, funny, and thought-provoking. In Twain's own words, he wrote this honestly. In my opinion, he wrote this book so honestly as both a man and an American that it affects a great deal of introspection as one reads it and identifies pieces of himself in the brief though sharp caricatures Twain draws of his fellow passengers, the natives of foreign lands they meet, vendors and servants they do business with, foreign official/diplomats, and fellow Americans met far from home and observed at a polite distance. His observations are of wonder, kindness, derision, humor, and self-remonstration.

I highly recommend the book, though, I do warn that you should not underestimate the time it will take to read it. Between the introspection, the time my mind takes to map Twain's caricatures to the characters in my own life, and the time to decode and ponder Twain's wondrous turns of phrase in the near limitless metaphorical style of his period, the book, whose size is suggestive of an afternoon read, has lasted several afternoons. It's not the reading, but the digestion.

2009-08-05

TechSlave

What started as two sisters, grown and with families of their own, collaborating on a New York Yankees themed cake for their Father on Father's Day, has grown, slowly at first, gaining initial ground imperceptibly, fighting the inertia of work and family, propelled by the prospect of a possible true-calling finally fulfilled into the freshly burst-open bloom of a new custom cake business. This small venture, as any new business, has needs:

  • Ordering forms
  • Business cards
  • Cake photo albums
  • Contact lists
  • Web site
  • Email
  • File Sharing
  • Group calendaring

Unfortunately, I'm the only IT guy or for that matter computer-literate person in the family. So guess what that means, yep if you're in IT you guessed it. I'm now the official TechSlave for my wife's business. For those who are not in the industry, a TechSlave is the person that for some reason, ends up working for free on anything and everything even remotely technology related for endless hours just to make sure things get done right; in a flexible, extensible, scalable manner, and maintainable.

So, here I am, working long hours at night, after my "real" work is over; working for an non-paying client, a client that feels free to argue with my assessments without regard for possible future charge-backs; a client for whom I will worker harder for than any other to find the cheapest possible solution because I will have to make any expenditures with my own money.

TechSlave

To date, I've set them up with Google Apps for software, Gmail for email, Google Voice for their phone number, LegalZoom.com for their legal needs, GIMP for their marketing graphics (I'm the graphic artist too), and GoDaddy.com for their LAMP stack based website hosting (I'm the web-designer, marketer, web-programmer, and SEO professional).

It's been an interesting experiment so far in family bonds, open source, technology immersion training, and patience. The girls have come pretty far even doing their own viral marketing via Facebook and Twitter. We'll see where it goes.

So, if you need a great custom cake for your wedding, birthday, graduation, holiday party or any special occasion, check them out at Show Me the Cake!. The girls make some beautiful and delicious cakes and even throw a crumb to their TechSlaves every once in a while.

2009-07-02

The Progressive Property Appraiser

The other day, while wearing my GIS hat, I received a request for updated parcel and land use data for Alachua County Florida. After locating our current geodatabase for that county, finding it neatly organized and fully documented, I scanned the meta-data seeking to establish both the temporal relevance of what data we have and the contact information for the publisher of the data, in this case the Alachua County Property Appraiser's office. Having already determined the need for updated data and it place of origin, I accordingly proceeded to visit the aforementioned agency's web site to download a newer set of data.

Alachua County Property Appraiser's Web Site

Being a veteran in the practice of GIS data acquisition and maintenance for our data library for several years, I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by the contents of the Property Appraiser's web site but was instead surprised to see a professionally done site that was useful, navigable, accessible, and replete with pertinent information and most important of all, my coin-of-the-realm, data. This was a truly rare find awash in a sea of what can only be described as LSD inspired web sites, timid in effort, ill-considered in scope, and self-serving in implementation. This site, however, was good and moreover it was designed and implemented with the public good in mind. The data was easy to find, well packaged, available in multiple formats, and even documented with meta-data. They even did their SEO right and were the top result in Google unlike sadly so many others in their same shoes.

In keeping with my karmic outlook on life, I do on occasion try to point out the things that people do well as a balance to the myriad of occasions wherein I unabashedly point out the ill-considered and more beef-witted activities and results that the winds of happenstance leave at my doorstep. Accordingly, I wrote a quick message, an email, to the Property Appraiser using the email address offered to visitors via the "Contact Us" page.

Sadly, finding such a site is such a rarity that yes it warranted both an email and a blog post. Good job Alachua County!

2009-03-06

Recovery

I remember being a teenager and reading the late Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. This fantastic tale detailing the discovery of a science called Psychohistory, it's brilliant mathematical elegance, and its dire ramifications, caused my mind to wander along the philosophical ether of what-if and guided me to a life-long fondness of statistical demographics which in turn drew me into the world of GIS. Psycohistory was a fictional blend of statistical analysis on the actions of large populations over time being used to predict future actions with a degree of certainty. Lately, I've been reminded of that daydream with a prescient frequency.

It seems that everything we hear over any medium has to do with the recession and the anticipated recovery. We are constantly being bombarded by tales of companies closing, employees being laid off, people losing their homes, families being torn apart. But why?

Well, people watch the news and hear about the economic calamity around them. They then get worried for their own welfare. The logical thing to do when worried for your job and ability to provide for yourself and your family is to cut back on your spending and maximize your savings. This, writ large over a statistically significant population, causes a downfall in revenue for consumer goods sales, causing companies to take the logical corresponding action of checking their expenses including payroll. Layoffs ensue, it gets picked up by the news, the cycle continues.

The newsies are looking for something to fill their timeslots with, there's just not that much news of general interest to fill NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN, and MSNBC, plus all the other outlets including radio, newspapers, podcasts, and websites. So, here we are, being pelted with the negativity in this self-fulfilling prophesy of despair. Something has to give.

President Obama and the rest of those Fine Individuals in Congress don't seem to get it either. They are the only ones with a bully-enough pulpit to turn this tide around. They could both put out a positive spin stating that we have "seen the bottom", and do it in a newsworthy enough fashion to get all the news outlets to repeat it in their quest for content and their now out-of-the-closet love affair with current Administration. But it hasn't happened yet, why is that? Who can benefit from a prolonged downward spiral or a delayed recovery. In every crisis, opportunity? I'd hate to think that, but it makes me really wonder about all the huge legislative missives being thrown around lately and whether "In the name of the Stimulus" will be the new cover-all mantra of the big-governmenty.

Now, I'm not being particularly partisan here, both sides do it equally. I can easily see some things passed "to prevent another 9/11" being no more than a power grab or an excuse to forward an old agenda too. The people in Congress are all career politicians after all, the true reticent statesman is an extinct breed. I sincerely hope that I'm wrong. But then we'd need an answer as to why the huge psychological aspect of this problem is not being tackled head-on.

I wish I could talk to Seldon about this.

2009-02-24

Customer Relations

In the type of work we do, in any economic climate, we have to consider our customers first. It is their faith and goodwill that selects us to provide our services to them and their satisfaction with our services that gets our bills paid on time. Their repeat business is, in addition, dependant upon our ability to understand their needs and their business model and ply our trades in a way that maximizes their profit while minimizing their liability and effort.

There is nothing special in that business approach. I doubt we were the first or will be the last organization to embrace it. Incredibly though, these simple, seemingly common sense based tennents, appear to be totally alien concepts to software companies. Where service based firms have clients, software firms have Revenue Streams. Where service firms strive to become seamless, dependable, and effective extensions of their clients capabilities, software companies seek contractually enforced Lock-In.

It has been this way for some time, but now, in the current economic climate, these contrasts become inescapably distinct. IT professionals, from CIOs to Systems Administrators, are all looking to aid their companies in both finding and assisting new clients while cutting costs. To our clients which have hit hard times, we meet them with creative options for getting their work done at a reduced cost while yet still increasing the number of value of services provided. As far as our two major software suppliers are concerned, it's business as usual.

All of our software suppliers, Autodesk, our ERP vendor, et al. have held fast the line. Our ERP vendor, I must admit, did offer to bend a bit on their lump-sum terms and offered a quarterly payment option. Autodesk, however would not bend in the slightest with regards to pricing, terms, or structure. Even worse, as a hedge against losing recurring revenue streams, Autodesk is engaging in even more bullying tactics like trying to disallow license resale and invalidating licenses that are out of maintenance. This despite last year's U.S. District Court ruling against them.

Our Autodesk reseller though, Advanced Technologies Solutions (atsicad.com), bent over backwards to make the deal work for us. ATSI cut their margins, sought out their own 0% quarterly payment option, and offered value added services such as additional training. They displayed an understanding of our needs and wants and took action accordingly.

The software publishing industry just doesn't get it. I do believe however that the combination of their attitudes, a poor economy, and the proliferation of quality unockable Open Source software will prove a perfect storm causing a sea change in the way many of their "Revenue Streams" use, acquire, and indeed generate software in the future.

Software should be a tool like any other. You should not be chained to it any more than you are super-glued to a hammer. I wonder; would the late Peter Drucker applaud their ferocity, lament their short-sightedness, or identify and champion the opportunity for Innovation and Entrepreneurship