Saturday, March 29, 2008

Upgraded to WordPress 2.5

Drafting this new post in the WordPress 2.5, and I have to say that it’s the most impressive upgrade to date. Already a number of “minor” (no clue how much code it took) tweaks that make a big difference:

  • As soon as you start drafting the post, it auto-saves the post, updates the page to show you the permalink to the post and redraws the screen with context-sensitive buttons (preview, save, publish). It’s seamless and elegant… and all are nice usability enhancements. (For instance, in the rare cases when you need to know the permalink before you complete the post – having the permalink ahead of time is a great help.)

  • The media integration looks awesome – a powerful blend of file uploader and media manager. Click “add media” and you’re given the option of uploading a new file or browsing existing uploads. This is a huge improvement over past attempts at doing this.

  • I’ve finally gotten around to converting some categories (which I started using with Movable Type 4 years ago) to tags. I honestly don’t know if this matters or not, but it seems to be more lightweight and easier to manage as you compose a post. We’ll see. (If you’re already using WordPress, go to “Settings | Import | Convert Categories to Tags”. From there, pick the categories you want to convert, and click. Presto.)

  • If you’re using WordPress on your own server and you’re not using WordPress Automatic Upgrade, stop what you’re doing and install it. There have been times when I’ve gone weeks (in one case, I’m embarassed to admit, more than a month) before upgrading to the most recent version. It led directly to getting hacked, likely a result of a vulnerability in the older version.) Install the plugin, and every upgrade from there on in will take you all of 5 minutes and a half dozen clicks. Seriously, do it. You’ll thank me.

One thing that isn’t working for me, which I was really looking forward to: the plugin auto-updater. Whenever I click “upgrade automatically”, I get the following:

Fatal error: Cannot redeclare pclziputilpathreduction() (previously declared in /xxxx/yyyyyyy/public_html/tins/wp-content/plugins/wordpress-automatic-upgrade/lib/pclzip.lib.php:5421) in /xxxx/yyyyyyy/public_html/tins/wp-admin/includes/class-pclzip.php on line 5489

Anyone have any idea what that could be?

Overall, I’m really impressed. The upgrade was smooth and the interface enhancements are terrific. If I can get the plugin updater to work it’ll be a homerun.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Living green in California

Robin’s birthday is this weekend, and with the in-laws in town, it means we have babysitters. We’re going to do a quick trip up to Napa (it’s just an hour from our house) for a birthday dinner, a night sans kids, and a visit to a few wineries. Can’t wait.

The hotel is what is most intriguing: we’ll be staying at the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel, the first “green” hotel built in the state of California (it opened last month). Expedia had a $70/night sale which seemed way too good to pass up… and after reading about the hotel, I’m pretty excited to see it. I’ll report back after we make the trip.

Speaking of being green, I can’t remember if I mentioned that our house in California has solar panels. The builder (Lennar Homes) has made a big commitment to solar power in California, and our house is generating about 20% of its own electricity every day (news flash: it tends to be sunny here). On days that we actually generate a surplus of energy, it’s sold back into the grid at a dollar-for-dollar credit. The panels are also wired into the home’s network, which gives me real-time monitoring over the Internet of our home’s energy consumption (and production), which is helping us identify additional opportunities for conservation.

In other news, Google continues to be a leader in this space, which is gratifying. I drove one of our plug-in hybrid electric vehicles yesterday for the first time. I love that Google makes it so efficient to be responsible on this stuff: the shuttle makes my commute productive, which is a beautiful thing. When I’m on campus I have access to the RechargeIT PHEVs if I need them, and our solar panels generate a significant portion of our on-campus consumption.

Kermit was wrong. It is easy being green. (Sorry.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Amazon Kindle

Can’t explain why, but lately I’m increasingly eager to buy a Kindle. Anyone have any experiences they care to share good/bad/otherwise? Don is sure that the iPhone will be a great ebook experience, but I’m not so sure.

Eager to hear what you have to say…

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Superdelegates site - KML now vastly improved

Wanted to call attention to a huge improvement over at Bob Rose (an engineer at Google), with help from the ever-helpful Juliano Ravasi (developer of the original KMLExport extension for Mediawiki), has radically improved the KML layer. Whereas the prior version gave little details other than the delegates name, the current version now includes the entire contents of the wiki page within the KML layer itself.


You can now browse the entire wiki from within Google Maps or Google Earth, and see all of the delegate’s relevant info. (I admit to a particularly geeky thrill in watching videos of endorsements (courtesy of YouTube) from within Google Earth.)

If you’re interested in making your own enhancements to the site, just let me know. (If you’re not a developer, you could always add some more biographical data to the site so that there’s more background on the delegates.) Thanks to Bob for the huge improvement!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thoroughly enjoying The Book of Air and Shadows

21g5jyj68hl_aa_sl160_.jpgI’m a few hundred pages into Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows and am loving it. (It’s after midnight, I should be sleeping, yet I’m… not.) I think it was the presence of the word “cryptography” on the front cover (in an excerpted review from the Washington Post) that initially piqued my curiosity. I first got into cryptography when I was in law school, working for the EFF. I was fascinated by it, and eventually took a class at the Smithsonian, given by the NSA, on the history of cryptography. (If memory serves, it was the first year the NSA admitted that they existed. Made for fun classes, that’s for sure.)

Back to the book. If I was intrigued by the presence of crypto on the cover, the author’s bio sealed it: “Michael Gruber has been a marine biologist, a restaurant cook, a federal government official, and a political speechwriter. He lives in Seattle, Washington.”

I won’t spoil the story by revealing any plot points (I’m still working throug hit, so I couldn’t spoil much anyway) – suffice it to say, if you enjoy smart thrillers and appreciate it when the author doesn’t skimp on details (historical or technical), you’ll almost certainly enjoy this.

Oh, and what prompted me to write this in the middle of reading it? One of the main characters mentioned La Femme Nikita (the film, not the TV show, don’t you dare confuse the two) in the same breath as Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon. Positively. This guy’s good.

TechStars - two weeks left to apply

A while back, Brad Feld asked Don and I to be mentors for TechStars. (Don was a mentor last year as well.) The list of mentors is impressive (my participation notwithstanding!), and the overall program is a fantastic idea. In short: 10 startups get picked from among hundreds, receive seed funding, and get access to dozens of mentors who’ve been through the start-up cycle before. (More details here.)

I’ll be in Boulder in early June along with Don and Dick to share some stories about what worked (and what didn’t) at FeedBurner and life at Google, and am eager to get involved. Do you think your new idea is the Next Best Thing? You have two weeks left to apply. Get to it!

Monday, March 17, 2008

A belated Happy St. Patrick's Day

Really wish I’d remembered this promise earlier today, so I could have tried to get Erik to dye his hair green. Damn.

(Lawyer that he is, he’ll claim that since I’m at Google now instead of FeedBurner, the bet’s off. But I’d argue that my continuity of employment is clear – I was even answering FeedBurner support e-mails over the weekend! – and he’s obliged to follow through.)

And just because this made me laugh almost as much as the thought of Erik Heels with green hair did, I’m sharing this wonderful tribute to St. Patrick’s Day:

[youtube OCbuRA_D3KU]
(Click through for the video, it’s worth it.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Keith Olbermann Special Comment

Thank you, Keith. Well said:

(If you can’t see the video, it’s here.)

LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini 500 GB review

LaCie 301269U Ethernet Disk Mini Home Edition 500 GB Network Attached Storage Hard DriveBought the LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini (500GB) over the weekend, and got it hooked up last night. So far I’m very impressed. I copied over my MP3 library, and activated LaCie’s built-in media server: every copy of iTunes on the network immediately saw the share, and my Sonos was able to index all of the MP3s so that they’re playable through any music station on the Sonos net. So far, so good.

I chose this disk over some slightly less expensive external hard drives because it supports ethernet as a connection. I didn’t want the hard drive tethered to a PC on the network… both Robin and I use laptops exclusively, and I wanted our central storage to be independent of our computers. Erik will be proud of me: for the first time ever I’m getting serious about a comprehensive storage approach for the entire family.  (Yes, I flirted with the Mirra several years ago, but ran into resource issues – the app just slowed down my PC to the point that I couldn’t keep it installed – and I’ve had two (two!) hard drive failures since then. In the end I’ve only lost a few months’ worth of files – I’d backed up everything on to my iPod late last summer – but it was well past time to get my act together.

So: for less than $200 I’ve got 500 gigs of storage, reachable from any PC/component on my network. The ethernet connection is a big deal: in addition to our PCs, I have the Sonos, my TiVo, and my Sage Media  Extender which are all using ethernet to send/receive data. In the next few days, I’m going to get all of our digital photos moved over (currently scattered on 3 different machines, 2 photo sharing services and a handful of DVDs and CDROMs). After that, I’ll transition off the Mirra for Robin and get our PCs regularly backing up to the LaCie.

Unknowns: is there any way to use this for direct storage for the TiVo? I don’t think so, haven’t looked into it yet. Can the Sage stream video stored on the LaCie to my TV? Also unknown.

Anything you want to know about the LaCie? Oh, one other comparison to the Mirra: it’s about 10% of the size, and 0% of the noise. Seriously, it was beginning to sound like we had a jet landing in our closet (where my router lives and where all the ethernet connections in the house terminate).


Superdelegates wiki, lessons learned

I’ve had a lot of fun cultivating the site over the last month, and wanted to document some of what I did to get the site started, and how I iterated to add functionality. I’ve learned quite a bit about Mediawiki in the process, and a few things about Google products that might be worth sharing.

(Disclaimer, for those who don’t know me: I joined Google by way of the FeedBurner acquisition. I’m not an engineer, and my programming skills are very limited. I consider myself more of a copy/paste hacker than an actual programmer – I understand how web apps are built, and can often use Google effectively enough to find snippets of code to do what I need, then paste them into the right place.)

When I found the original list of superdelegates at DemConWatch, I put the list into Excel, and did some simple search/replace edits so that every delegate name had double brackets around them: [[Eliot Spitzer]], [[Ted Kennedy]], etc. This was critical because Mediawiki sees [[page]] as an indication that “page” is a linked page. Now every delegate name became an active hyperlink to a placeholder page which could later be edited.

As time went on, Mediawiki’s “wanted pages” (Special:WantedPages) was a great way to find out which delegates had not yet been profiled: Wanted Pages just looked for [[pages]] where the page has no content. A group of 5 of us knocked out the remaining 100 delegates over the weekend using this technique.

Mediawiki’s“extensions”: proved invaluable in customizing the wiki to my needs. Juliano Ravasi’s KMLExport is (I would argue) thereason the site got so much attention from CNN, Wired and others: it made otherwise dull text come alive in a useful interface. (By the way, a Google engineer and I are working with Juliano to figure out how to make this more useful, stay tuned on that.) Other extensions I’m using include the VideoFlash extension (so that I can embed YouTube videos within the wiki pages), and the Google Chart extension which uses the Google Chart API to create graphs. (The pie chart on the home page is created using this extension; I’d really like it to graph category counts in real time rather than create charts based on manually-entered data… can’t figure out how to do that yet.)

Earlier this week I had another idea: why not figure out a way to include news about each superdelegate on their page? While I’d hope that major news (like an endorsement, or, I don’t know, a terribly ironic event that might result in a superdelegate losing his superdelegate status) would get added to the page itself, it would still be nice to see the most recent news stories involving that superdelegate. (In a perfect world, these headlines might lead a visitor to see “new” news and update the wiki.) I couldn’t find an extension to enable this, so I just hacked my own solution: using the Google Newsbar AJAX wizard, I obtained the code necessary to display a newsbar on the site. In place of the static query that the wizard produced, I replaced it with the PHP statement that Mediawiki uses to title the page:

text('title') ?>
Once the newsbar code (and the php variable) were added to the Mediawiki template (I’ve stuck with the default monobook theme), every superdelegate page now includes a scrolling ticker of recent news about the superdelegate. Not bad! The end result? A powerful news resource, integrated with a number of Google products courtesy of simple APIs (and elegant extensions built by third parties).

A few notes on questions people have asked: yeah, this took a little time. I don’t know how much – several weekend afternoons/evenings, and a number of nights during the week over the month of February. A number of other people have chipped in (see the contributors page for details, and if you helped and aren’t listed there, please add your name!), whose help I’m immensely grateful for. Ultimately, I did this for two reasons: one, nothing like this existed at the time. (Soon after started, another site emerged to do something similar: the Superdelegate Transparency Project. I love their approach in particular to identify situations where the delegate’s endosrement is at odds with the popular vote in their district. And Wikipedia’s superdelegates info has beefed up considerably.) Two, it was a great opportunity to learn a new platform (Mediawiki) and a number of Google services that are quite relevant to my day job (News, Maps/Earth, Youtube). On both counts, it was wildly successful.

The site has had extraordinarily few cases of vandalism. Mostly it’s been adult sites trying to automatically add links to their sites from the Main Page’s “talk” section… those were easily rolled back. Other than that, the edits people have made have been both useful and timely (I wrote about this last week), and I’m amazed that the site is, for all intents and purposes, complete in a month’s time. It can certainly expand – many delegates need more biographical data, for instance – but it’s already serving a useful purpose and I think has meaningfully contributed to a better understanding of who the delegates are and how the process works.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

My life as a pundit

So much for that. NBC just called Texas for Hillary, giving her 3 of 4 states. Big wins in Rhode Island and Ohio, but a narrow win in Texas.

She’s still going to end the night behind in pledged delegates – and once the votes are counted and the caucus in Texas is factored in, I think he could pick up delegates.

But the fact remained, neither candidate scored a knock-out tonight. He’s still ahead on points. But she had a strong round…

When will this end? Sheesh.

My wiki moment

A few weeks ago, writing about, Mike Gotta wrote about a wiki moment:

[The site] evolves into a participatory environment – beginning with your own social network of friends that contribute their perspectives. But the wiki has the potential for network effects to kick in as friends invite friends and so on to the point where perhaps the wiki will “‘go viral”. At some point – the community gets noticed more broadly and mainstream conversations are altered as a result.

The press coverage has surely helped – the site received nearly 500,000 page views in February and is averaging more than 2,000 people per day. But this morning I had a wiki moment of my own: while riding the shuttle in to work, I saw this post in the Obama campaign blog feed. The item was just a few minutes old, so I jumped over to update Carol Fowler’s page at… only to find that someone else had already done so, five minutes prior.

That’s really cool. It’s not the first time I’ve had someone else update the site before me – but the fact that this was, in effect, “breaking” news, made it even more apparent that once a site like this hits critical mass, it really will work. For those wondering what “critical mass” is when it comes to crowdsourced apps like this, Jimmy Wales says that all it takes is five committed individuals. (Interesting.)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tuesday is it

I think three posts in an entire month is a new low for me… partly you can blame Twitter, where I post more frequently (albeit in shorter bursts), but mostly it’s Google’s fault.


Some quick thoughts on how Tuesday is going to play out: Texas has an insanely complex system, where they hold a primary during the day and a caucus at night. Delegates are allocated at both – meaning that for either candidate to do well coming out of Texas, they need to have both a significant (+5 or more percentage points) gap in the popular vote as well as a strong field operation to turn out the bodies for the caucus.

The fact that Barack has closed a 25 point gap in Texas in the last 8 weeks and now is either tied or slightly ahead means, to me anyway, that Hillary’s campaign is over. Even if she pulls out a slim lead in Texas (which I don’t think is likely), she’d have to somehow overcome an incredibly coordinated ground operation in Texas to get delegates at the caucus. In short: it’s not going to happen.

Let’s say Barack wins Texas by 5-8 points. (Caveat: the popular vote is far less important than the delegate results; I think his strength in caucuses and his group operation give him a huge advantage that is worth a couple extra delegates.) That means he leaves Texas with a net pickup of 15; for Hillary to erase that gap and keep Barack’s lead the same as it is today she would need to win in Ohio by almost 20 points. The three most recent polls have her up 2-8 points, but 20 points? I just don’t see it.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that she wins Ohio by a blowout and gets 15 more delegates than Barack. Sure, there’d be some press talking about a comeback (muted, perhaps, by Texas, but let’s play this out) – but the net result would be that she’d be no closer to the nomination Tuesday night than she is today. (Slate has a great delegate calculator that lets you model out how the remaining contests might allocate delegates… very helpful if you want to play the ‘what if’ game.)

Here’s how the next 48 hours play out: I’m betting Barack’s campaign leaks their February fundraising haul tomorrow. It’s rumored to be a big number. Big as in $50m, $60m or even (gasp) $70m. Keep in mind that in 2004, Howard Dean raised $59m. For the entire primary season.

If Barack outraises Hillary 2-1 in February that’ll be a big deal. (Yes, that’s an understatement.) And it’ll be the last news cycle before the voting booths open in Texas and Ohio… leading to lots of obvious conclusions that he’s going to bury her in the upcoming contests. (He’s already on the air in a number of mid-March contests.)

I think Barack wins Texas, and I think Hillary narrowly beats him in Ohio. Barack will pick up more delegates than Hillary, giving him a little more breathing room. If Hillary does not drop out by Wednesday, then I think you’ll start seeing a number of undecided superdelegates come out and endorse Barack, furthering his lead. By the end of the week it will be clear that she cannot win the nomination, and it will just be a matter of time before she suspends her campaign. (And let’s not forget, both Bill and Carville said just a couple weeks ago that Hillary must win Texas and Ohio or she’s done.)

I’ll check back in on Tuesday.