November 2009 Archives

The Widget Dilemma

I am often fascinated when I have conversations with professionals in other industries as they try to make sense out of the engineering profession. Particularly when I mention that engineering skills are transferable to other industries. Inevitably, I am then told that engineers build 'widgets', "How can this be relevant to Health Care"? It boggles to mind that people do not understand that problem solving is not monolithic talent that avails itself to only manufacturing or product development. Disciplined thought is clearly advantageous and would be beneficial to any activity. Why would you limit this sort of critical thinking to an industrial environment?

It would appear that most of this misinformation is propagated by the mass media. I would assert that simply aren't enough engineers in our population who are willing to educate people about the truth. If I may digress for a moment, I do know there are many people calling themselves engineers, much like folks who call themselves web developers but only design web sites using content management tools or blog publishing engines. Classical engineers are people that studied thermodynamics, statics, basic circuits theory, linear algebra, etc. Of course this list is not exhaustive. The basic premise is that engineers are taught problem solving and critical thinking skills. Obviously, there are many engineers that push paper for a living, but that was the subject of an earlier blog entry :-)

Now why is this issue so 'widget dilemma' so intriguing? The so-called widget builder is generally understood to be someone that is a monolithic thinker who only functions within well-defined framework. Often widget building becomes a pejorative term when used to describe engineers, as it suggest that we are robots. You can always throw that exaggerated over-bite into the description for good measure too. Obviously, these perceptions are totally inaccurate. To their credit widget building is quite complicated. Think of the number and precise nature of the widgets used to build a jetliner or automobile? It is clear that any sort of malpractice or improper judgment can cost hundreds of lives.

It is not uncommon to find engineers in business, law or medical fields. So clearly, we are not just widget builders. It does irk me when when people believe stereotypes and misinformation as the gospel. There are some good examples of engineers helping to improve the level of quality provided primary care physicians.

Well, I suppose the rant is complete. I'll provide more examples of engineers providing value outside of the proverbial 'widget' factory as time progresses.

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links for 2009-11-14

30 Days with Tiki Wiki

Now that I have been using Tiki Wiki for slightly over 1 month, it probably makes sense to offer a critique at this juncture.

*From a social perspective -
I must say that I am impressed that most members of the team have eagerly challenged this pseudo new technology. Methinks learning by doing is always the key to success, particularly when the learning curve is steep. There will always be bugs or nuances that cannot quite be explained, nonetheless you have to be willing to stick your toe in the pool and then gradually wade to the deeper water.

*From a technical perspective -
I chose to hide the wiki syntax from all of the users because it can be somewhat confusing, even for those that are familiar with HTML syntax. I have also noticed that RSS modules do not seem to be working as desired. In an effort to reduce the amount of time that our team spends trudging over to Facebook and Y! Groups, I spent an inordinate amount of time playing with Y! Pipes to help syndicate the content in both areas. The result has not been very good. While the Y! pipe seems to work, when I place the resulting feed in my Bloglines news reader, I receive a weird "access denied" message. It appears to be some sort of permissions issue, but I have not been able to narrow it down. I'll keep hacking.

The wiki is indeed feature rich, it will even post on the fly email messages destined for a particular forum thread provided that you point it to a POP server. Clearly we will never make use of all its features (ie newsletter, polls, team member blogs, etc), but it is great to have the tools.

Perhaps the feature I enjoy best is that the wiki admin feature gives you a choice of saving files to the filesystem or simply writing changes back to the database. I chose the latter, thus I can save precious disk space on my web server.

Overall the response has been favorable and the experiment could be described as positive.
I suppose the next step will be making regular back-ups to the database and wiki subdirectory, so that I will not run the risk of losing our hard work.

If after 120 days we deliver a quality Silver Anniversary, I will rate the experiment a success.

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Foray into Y! Pipes


Ordinarily I don't talk much about webdev, as I simply see much of the so-called web2.0 stuff as mere tools to get jobs done. Additionally, much of the so-called web2.0 stuff tends to deal with nasty vendor lock-in, albeit disguised as ease of use or data brokering. As much as GOOG and flickr and the vast majority of social networking tools espouse to bring people together, I have found that they work very hard to profit off your data and make it very difficult to control your bits.

Case in point, I have become a class rep for my beloved BTHS. We have a reunion coming up fairly soon. As a result we have to communicate all of the events and raise money to support activities for our classmates. The challenge is that we have a very disjointed group of alumni. People on other continents and various regions in the US. Interestingly a fair amount of our high school classmates have found their way to FBOOK, but we also have a group albeit quite small using Y! Groups.

So, my initial task was to help fellow class reps collaborate more effectively and suppress all the annoying email that generates from tasks and scheduling. Email is perhaps the worse means to communicate with a large group. I don't care about email lists and email clients which can generate threaded discussions. When you are dealing with time-sensitive data, email is a very poor communication tool. You can't even archive and share group email easily without setting up some sort of mailing list. IMHO, it would have been overkill to setup a mailing list for a 4-5 month project time horizon. What to do?
Enter the wiki, more specifically tikiwiki. It was fairly trivial to install on my server. Nothing more than PHP and mysql, simple building blocks. I didn't even need to setup accounts or create special directories for data archiving, as tikiwiki provides a means to use the database as a virtual file repository. Once I provided the team with a brief overview of wiki use and its origins, they quickly understood the value proposition. Whenever you have disparate groups that must collaborate to solve problems wikis can be great tools. Since we're not slinging code, versioning is not so much of an issue. To be clear, the wiki does handle file locking and timestamping quite well. So versioning is not so much of a problem. GIT or subversion not required ;-)

Now that I've digressed from the topic, allow to get to point. As stated previously, we have a large number of classmates using FBOOK. Our class reps will be spending a significant amount of time using the wiki to communicate, and if any of them are lazy like me.. Well they will probably get tired of visiting both the wiki and FBOOK on a regular basis to check for new content. The obvious solution is RSS, but here is where the lock-in or walled garden bites you in the ass. To my knowledge, FBOOK does not generate RSS feeds for any of its content. In fact, GOOG bots or other agents scarcely crawl the content that lies therein.
So they've got your data and you can't get it and syndicate it for your use. Enter Y! pipes..
I know the web2.0 shills discovered it long ago. I suppose I first learned of it about 3yrs ago, but I never saw the value. It didn't scratch an itch of any sort. I don't use technology for technology sake, I'm all about application. Y! Pipes allows you to splice disjointed data patterns for repurposing. I suppose a loose analogy would be the venerable and uber useful Unix pipe.
The resulting pipe can be shared as a RSS feed, but the pipes engine is 100% owned by Y! Make sure you read and understand the TOS.

Now, I have feeds for the FBOOK groups, which can then be imported into our wiki for general consumption.

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Much Ado about short rest

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04:  Starting pitcher Andy...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

As the Bx Bombers stand at the precipice of their 27th Word Series Title I am bemused about all of the hoopla surrounding veteran lefty Andy Pettitte second WS start on short rest. Many talk show pundits have chosen to focus on negative than the positive. Judging from the comments, you would think that the Yanks trail the Fall Classic 3-2.

The theory is that starting pitchers are most effective on full rest vs. those that pitch on short rest. Yankee skipper Joe Girardi has rolled the dice and decided to have his most effective starters pitch on short rest in an effort to avoid using Godin, their fourth starter who last pitched nearly thirty-five days ago. I do not believe it makes much sense to avoid pitching their most seasoned veterans on short rest.

I suppose it is unfair that I write this while watching the Yanks pour it on the hapless Phils. Pettitte looks very strong now. Hideki Matsui is having a monster Game 6, quite remarkable indeed. I do believe he is in a contract year, funny how that works ;-)

Andy now has the most post-season victories of any active starting pitcher. Not bad company whatsoever. I would imagine the naysayers would be squelched with another quality start from the big left-hander. When you look at the 09' Yankees you really must marvel at the Quad Core and the talented blend of youth. Pettitte, Posada, Jeter and Mo Rivera. These guys still set the tone and show the good example. The youth corps of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano and Cabrera. Clearly reminds me of the process that made dynasties of 96-01 so formidable.
Should they emerge triumphant tonight, we could be witnessing another robust title run in the making, stay tuned..

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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