Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Quick Review

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for those who don’t know is a movie about a 23-year old played by Michael Cera who finds the girl of his dreams in his dreams and has to defeat her seven ex-boyfriends in order be with her. For more information on the synopsis, go to IMDB, because I am not going to do the explanation justice without ruining it.

This movie was a must see for me.  Michael Cera is one of those actors whom I enjoy in just about anything he has done.  The idea of a movie which borrows very heavily from a video game plot is refreshing and the production, while ridiculous, was necessary.  Being a gamer myself, I didn’t get insulted.  There wasn’t a moment where I felt the writers and producers have never played a video game before.

The production value was excellent.  The fight scenes were well choreographed and the video game elements were great, and not too obvious.  If you are not a big fan of fighting movies, there not enough fighting where you couldn’t enjoy the movie.

The movie wasn’t overly sexualized either.  Video games sometimes tend to overdo it (impractical clothing for women and stupid “that’s what she said” stereotypes for men for example). Anything ‘sexy’ between any characters felt necessary and important to the plot.

My only complaint about the movie is the ending.  I am not going to spoil it (it’s probably obvious from the synopsis what the conclusion is) but it seemed like it was wrapped up funny.  Then again, it did remind me of some of those “awesome” retro video game endings. I am probably over-thinking it.

If you are in the mood to try something different, love Michael Cera or love video games, this is a must watch.  For the rest of you, go check out the trailer, I think you’d enjoy it.

New happenings

Just figured I’d post quick since I haven’t in a while and I wanted to ‘touch base’ with my blog:

  • I have finally moved to Long Island and am working remotely full time.  It’s a weird experience, but not one I hate, at least not yet.
  • The weather down here has been very nice, and where I am living is beautiful.  I’ve also enjoyed watching the Mets both make me happy and break my heart.
  • I am getting an iPad.  Remember my previous post, Where’s my iTablet? Yeah, I played with the gadget in the Apple store and was very impressed with it.  Also, the announcements of the Courier and the Slate being canned basically made this decision pretty easy.  I still want a pen, I still want something I can use next to my desk to jot quick scribbles down (and not with my finger) but I believe iPad experience will be awesome and I cannot wait until I get it.  Apple wins, yet again.
  • That personal website is on hiatus until I get a big chunk of time to work on it.  I cannot wait until it’s done however, it’s my first Django application.

Keep It Simple!

It’s getting closer to move date. My fiancée and I have created a large list of things we need to do before going. Change addresses, cancel utilities, and notify people we care about of our move.

While there’s a lot of excitement, I cannot help but be a little overwhelmed. Every time I try to fix what should be a simple “hey, this is our new address” or “we need to cancel service x”, we seem to be met with another task! I just want to cancel my service! I don’t want to do homework! We tried getting a PO Box for to forward mail to two weeks ago, and we STILL do not have a resolution!

Then comes Time Warner Cable. I gave them a call, and ask them the process. “All you have to do is come in, drop your box, modem, remote and plugs off, give us a forwarding address and we will prorate your account and cancel it.”

Wow. So you are telling me is my expectation is the reality? In amidst of all the hard work I have to do, Time Warner decided to help me out with a very simple, easy to understand process, AND give me back money for the time I don’t use the service.

Simplicity is key in a world filled with complex problems and processes. By just keeping it simple, you can hold onto a customer, draw one in, or have one leave on good terms.

Programmers learning something new: a simple guide

I struggle a lot to learn new programming languages on my own.  It’s not that I’m not smart (I want to believe I am VERY smart) but it’s the combination of lack of time, lack of desire and having no answer to the question: “Great, I’ve learned X… now what?”

I’ve started to learn about Django, and I believe it will be DIFFERENT this time.  Why?  Because I have created a simple guide to learning something new from a programming perspective:

STEP 1: Accept that you may burn out and ask “why bother” and figure out the answer to it before starting

I had stated before:  It’s hard for me to learn something new when I expect to do precisely nothing with it.  This is what happened with me and Ruby on Rails.  Ruby is a cool language and Ruby on Rails was really awesome to build scaffolding with.  However, I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do with it.  I suppose I could have learned it’s cool AJAX capabilities that go with it, but really, it just didn’t appeal to me.  Therefore, it went on the infinite back-burner

Back when LINQ was new, I struggled to learn it as well, because even though I do .NET professionally, I was so knee-deep into what I was doing that it would have been almost a waste of time to really sufficiently learn it.  I finally got a project in which allowed me to utilize LINQ to SQL effectively and easily and since then I wouldn’t know what I’d do without it. Again, once purpose settled in, I was ready and very willing to learn.

Your ‘why bother’ may be different.  Your success may be dependent on how you handle it.

STEP 2: Do the tutorials

These days, it’s pretty hard to find popular frameworks which have no or incomplete tutorials (I’m sure anyone could find examples where this isn’t true, but in general, it’s true).  Also, framework creators know that a quick and simple tutorial is the best chance for a developer to get on board, especially in the framework’s early stages.  Django has a wonderful tutorial, split up into four parts building a poll system (I feel like poll systems are the hello world of the web development world).

Here are reasons why I don’t like to just “dive into the code”:

  • You cannot be guaranteed what you are looking at is the correct way to do it
  • Most of us are lazy, and there may be certain things hidden by shortcuts which obfuscate key basic techniques used by the framework/programming language
  • There is more impact in doing it yourself, seeing what works and what doesn’t, rather than just reading through it and trusting it works
  • It’s less fun!

Tutorials are the best way to get yourself acclimated, set up your environment, and ultimately help you decide “why bother?”

STEP 3: Research technology on StackOverflow

I am a HUGE fan of StackOverflow.  I’ve never met a bigger group of developers, all willing to write great questions and thorough yet quick responses.  The reputation system is awesome.  Any developer not utilizing StackOverflow is SERIOUSLY missing out.

StackOverflow is a great way to see what difficulties most users have, as well as to see how these user’s issues are resolved.  While it’s not immediately helpful, you will drill back into your head, and all of a sudden, you’ll come up to a problem where you say “wow, I remember this on StackOverflow!”

StackOverflow is a great place to see how a technology stacks (get it) up.  For example, a quick search of Django immediately show questions about scalability, whether a user should use Django or X and configuration questions. A few quick searches and research will give you a sense of what type of framework Django is.

STEP 4: Think Small

I picked Django because I had an idea for a website and needed a specific framework.  I discussed the idea with a buddy of mine, a developer who uses Django, and he sold me the benefits of using Django.  I owned hosting which could support Django but not .NET, so it looked like a good choice.  Also, I was in the ‘market’ to learn something new.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just dive in because I needed to learn Python as well as the basics of the framework.  Therefore, I decided to table the original idea for now and decided to build a personal website for myself entirely in Django.  It took hours to do, I had to read up on a lot of how Django and Pyhton works, but the idea was simple enough to wrap my head around so I was successful.  You should see a site hopefully by the end of next week.  Because it’s my own personal website (and not a large, professional site), it’s okay if it has a few problems with it or if I did it incorrectly;  it’s all part of the learning process.

STEP 5: Have a buddy help you learn

It’s nice to be able to send code to someone, even if it is just a file or two, for them to kindly message you back and say “get out of your .NET world, here’s a better way to handle what you are trying to do.”  Having a human allows you to do a sanity check as well as to see if you’ve missed any nuances.  It’s also nice to have someone to ask for help on really simple yet bothersome problems.  It’s a lot harder to do this using the Internet.

STEP 6: Have fun!

Every blog post with steps needs a cop-out answer.  Here is mine.  Most of us are learning new languages because ultimately we want to.  You should have fun with your learning experience!

My Name is Matthew Doyle, and I am Moving

So it’s been a while since I have posted.  Every  blog ‘dos and donts’ post tell you a) stick to a schedule and b) to not apologize for your lack of posts.  Rule breaking time:  I haven’t stuck to any schedule and I apologize for my absence.  I am mainly sorry to myself:  blogging makes me happy most of all, gets me focused on what I think is important.

When I started this blog, I tried to keep it mostly professional.  I am finding this to be too difficult.  Who I am as a person and my personal life is very important to me.  Therefore, I will start blogging about me;  that which makes me human.

My name is Matthew Doyle.  I currently live in Rochester, NY with my fiancee, Elise and two cats named Rupee and Craig.  I own every latest generation gaming console, but don’t consider myself a hardcore gamer, and I hate online play.  I don’t read books often but I read many blogs, I like to laugh, and I have a dry, offbeat sense of humor which quite frankly I think to be charming.  I am not very political, but if a gun was held to my head, I’d say I lean Republican, although I think the current divided political structure is crap and would give up any title to stop arguing and start making changes.  I am an avid fan of baseball and cannot stand watching football.  I think that’s about how much I want to say about myself.  Oh, and I program.

Montauk PointI also happen to be moving.  After thinking about our situation here in Rochester, my fiancee and I have decided to pack up and move to Long Island.  We both were up in Rochester for our college years:  I went to RIT and she went to SUNY Geneseo.  We both had a lot of great experiences.  We are both employed.

I grew up on Long Island, and she grew up in a nice suburban area in Maryland similar to where I lived.  Our jobs hold us to Rochester, and we’ve determined that family is important to us. It’s time to move on.

So what will become of me?  I don’t know, and that’s perfectly fine with me!  It’s usually the case where I err on the side of caution and it feels exciting to try something different.  These things happen for a reason and I am ready for the challenge.

What will become of my blog?  I cannot say.  I don’t want it to become purely personal as my goals are to grow professionally through it.  I also don’t want it to become just another techie’s blog.  I think what I will do is try to post at least 3 things monthly that relate to tech, such as current projects I am working on.  However, within those posts I will aim to post some stuff that is going on personally.  For example, I want to post about my experience trying to get movers eventually (hint:  it’s a ton of work and I cannot decide if I like how it’s going yet or not).

Thank you for reading, and see you on the island!

Where’s my iTablet!

Disclaimer:  I am not an Apple hater:  I’ve owned two Apple laptops, a 3rd generation iPod, and two iPhones, and loved each and every device.

I’ll admit, when the rumor mill started about the Apple tablet (you know, like years ago) I was excited.  I have always wanted a tablet:  I’ve always wanted a device smaller than my work laptop, where I can take to meetings or on the road with me where I can jot down notes, perform simple tasks such as email and surf the web, and look at documents if need be.

I have two device types current which I depend on throughout my entire day:  my iPhone, which is a quick reference guide to my life and any information I may need no matter where I am, and my laptop, which is where I conduct business.

What is missing, from an organizational standpoint, is a middle ground.  The iPhone is just too slow for me to jot down notes throughout the day, and voice recording is sometimes impossible.   My computer is not always next to me and when it is, sometimes it’s not in a state where I can easily access the information I need or where I can jot down notes.

For years I’ve thought that the tablet PC was the answer to this problem.  The concept of flipping the monitor around and hand writing notes and diagrams has always appealed to me.  However, I was never really comfortable with the price, especially when most of the tablets had Microsoft Windows on them (nothing against it, I just felt the computers were underpowered to handle a full OS)

Fast forward to this year, where I was practically PROMISED an Apple tablet.  I own a Macbook Pro, and love how quickly I go from opening the lid to using the computer.  I love the interface, the usability.  It’s clean, usable and all in all fun. If it had tablet functionality, I’d be all set!  Finally the announcement came, and we were presented the iPad.  I guess the device is cool and has its uses, but there’s one problem:

IT’S NOT A TABLET!

Aside from my opinions of the device itself (ahem, iTouch XL), it’s missing key components which make a tablet PC great:  stylus functionality and multitasking.  The operating system should have been a slightly stripped down version of OS X, and not a beefed up version of the iPhone OS.

Am I asking for too much from Apple?  I don’t think so, because I, like the rest of the world was anticipating a tablet.  An Apple tablet would have been awesome.  Knowing Apple, they would have refined the handwriting detection, it would be a dream to use, and I would be excited to get my hands on one.

I guess I will have to wait for that day to come… I will NOT be getting an iPad.  Sorry Apple.

College Education: Why we Go

Penelope Trunk is the author of “The Brazen Careerist” and in my opinion has one of the most well written blogs out on the Internet.  I also find myself not agreeing with a lot of her posts.  She is what I like to call a great blogger:  One that you can really get into her writing, even disagree with, and yet still go back and read more.  She has an interesting life and perspective.

I caught one of her recent blog posts: How to manage a college education.  It is an interesting read, which discusses how obtaining a traditional liberal arts degree is elitist and overpriced.  She mentions how the Internet already has places for learning and discussion, and all that needs to be supplemented is experience.  She tells us that career centers are generally terrible, and concludes that prospective students should pick a college based on a good track record for getting student jobs.

I didn’t graduate with a Liberal Arts degree, so I cannot speak to this this mentality directly.  My gut tells me it’s missing two important advantages college offer which work experience right out of high school doesn’t: trying new things in a safe environment and it’s difficult to find a first job in a field you desire when the employer generally requires a degree, such as application development.

I graduated with a degree in Information Technology from RIT three years ago.  When I was 18, I was convinced I wanted to build circuits and design computer chips.  I was accepted into the Computer Engineering program.  After 18 months however, I decided engineering was not what I wanted to do.  I then was convinced I wanted to be in network administration where I would help set up routers, learn the OSI model, help decipher IP address and sniff packets.  I joined the IT department at RIT in hopes of doing this.  What do I do now?  I am a lead web developer, developing and maintaining a platform for Brand Integrity — far from networking, and I am STILL searching for my career path!

I’ve changed my career path 3 times in the 5 years I was at RIT.  I could have gotten all the information for my current path online.  There are millions of resources out there that teach and discuss web design and database architecture.  But being part of the student body, seeing my peers go through exactly what I was going through was invaluable.  Making mistakes in class planning would at worst make for an uncomfortable 10 weeks (at least at RIT).  Having access to teachers to reach out to was also a perk, one I don’t think a majority of the student body really appreciates as much as they should.  Guidance from those teachers really helped me figure out where I was going.

So the question to ask is, “Which is more useful– four years of education, or four years of experience?”  In my field, the former is true.  Sure, we can all come up with the raising stars– those who have not gotten formal education.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are always good examples… but how many of us are a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates?  It’s a great goal to strive for, but we ALL cannot be Steve Jobs!

Penelope does bring up a great point in her post however… schools need to learn how to get their students great jobs. The relationship shouldn’t end with education.  Schools need to become more aggressive in alumni affairs, teach how to effectively network, and provide networking events.

So in conclusion, why do we go to college?  Because, at least for us in IT, it’s required by most desirable entry level job postings, and it’s a safe environment to experiment on what you THINK you want to do with your life.

Support: Not just for Fixin’

As the sole IT person for the company I work for, my responsibilities are to make sure the nine employees have working computers, back up solutions, and can come to me for any questions or problems that may arise.

We have a humble back up solution.  It involves a server and an external drive which gets switched out every week.  While it’s not perfect, it has worked great for years… until that faithful afternoon, December 31st 2009.

Because my schooling is not in server administration or networking and quite frankly, I have no time to research the problem, I called Dell.  After two separate calls (the problem was intermittent, so it was hard to nail down and test), Dell decided the motherboard was fried on our server.  Ouch.

Then came one of Dell’s consultants the following day to our humble set up.  He determined that it was my backup drive which was causing all the issues! What was worse was that the drive was not purchased from Dell, so it wasn’t under warranty.  Even bigger ouch!

What happened next was the unbelievable.  He could have left.  He could have reported back the problem and perhaps, made my life a little harder with Dell.  Instead, he took a look at the backup solution and advised me on how to strengthen it.  He told me about how inexpensively I could configure redundancy, and which particular hard drives I should look to purchase.  While this was all stuff I’ve dabbled in on a personal level, it was very educational to learn on a professional one.

If he just replaced the motherboard as Dell sent him out to do and left, without checking how everything was working?  I would be calling Dell back, 3 weeks later, with the same problem.

The Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Comes to mind.  It’s absolutely true in this case.  I am glad to have my server back and set up with redundancy (as it should have been in the first place).  However Dell was the true winner in this case:

  • I personally have further trust in Dell and am more likely to pick them for buying new equipment in the future. (more profit)
  • They’ve avoided another support request from a disgruntled customer (doesn’t matter whose fault it is!) (less cost)
  • I’ve told multiple people of my story, thus giving more positive awareness to Dell. (more positive exposure)

What can be learned from this experience?  Focus on what the client/co-worker/customer is looking for before fixing the problem.  Sometimes, the problem is over the user’s head, and you cannot explain the fix.  That doesn’t mean you cannot help them change their usage and perhaps curb them from getting themselves into the problem again!  This empowers the user to accomplish their goals, while lessening your support requests.

Mini Post – DotNetNuke and web.config problems

I could have Twittered this but I wanted to put it here: Every now and again I find myself refreshing my developer’s copy of my project on my local computer from source control.

The way I have source control is primitive and probably incorrect. I tend to save ALL of my project (DotNetNuke included) into source control, so when I get a clean setup, I can basically run it out of the box.

This particular time, I was working with a different database than I normally do. Because of this, my source control wrote over my web.config and copied the wrong database settings, which resulted in the web.config pointing to a no-longer existing database.

When I loaded up my website, I was greeted with the installation wizard from DotNetNuke. “Okay,” I thought, “Perhaps I forgot to update this particular database with the new DNN version.” I clicked on next a few times and realized it was just the wrong database being referenced. I changed the web.config to be the correct database and credentials and all was well…

Or was it?

I loaded up my project and I was getting rather unhelpful “I need to put a ScriptManager on the page in order to use AJAX.net” error. I just couldn’t figure it out! It worked before! Long story short, the DNN install wizard messed around with the web.config and broke a few things configured specifically to my install. Once I pulled up an older web.config, everything worked perfectly.

This wasted about 2 hours of my time (which I don’t really have) and was easily avoidable if I was paying attention.

Lesson learned: Always be methodical with processes which you perform regularly.  If something strange goes wrong within the process, it probably doesn’t belong and should be approached very, VERY carefully.

Opening to a New Window – Why Isn’t the Target Attribute a Valid Tag?

Ever since I was a young web developer going through college, it has been drilled into me to be standards compliant when developing for the web.  In fact, it went as far as being 20% of your grade just to be XHTML 1.0 Strict standards compliance.

Just to be clear, I am talking about XHTML 1.0 Strict.  Transitional, while it has its uses, doesn’t capture the essence and spirit of why we want to be standards compliant.  Creating your web sites to be standards compliant is something as web developers we should strive for.  It promotes standardization of markup, it helps to separate layout from content, and it creates the ability for all modern browsers to display the site same way… sort of.

One thing that really gripes me is the target attribute for the <a> tag.  This was marked as obsolete, and in the strict specifications, it’s invalid.  Why is this the case?  It’s very helpful,  unobtrusive, and works really well with tabbed browsers.  I can understand every other valid XHTML ‘no-no’ such as not using align attributes or a center tag, just this one just kind of escapes me.

<a href="http://www.google.com" target="_blank">Why is this invalid?</a>

So why is it invalid? As far as I can tell, it’s because we shouldn’t assume it is what the user intended and that it should be left up to the user.  I really hate this explanation.  It makes me think whomever thinks it has never dealt with a real world user.  Most people outside of the technological world are not savvy enough to right-click and open a page in a new window.  For us that do know how to do it, it’s actually quite annoying.  Besides, when I link to a webpage outside of my domain, how often would we want the user to navigate away? It is not very user interface friendly in my opinion.

Another reason is the page loses the effectiveness of the back button.  Okay, I can buy this, but it’s packed neatly on a new tab on all new modern browsers.  It’s easy to navigate back to the original site.

A last reason I can discover is because of screen clutter.  This is becoming a moot point due to the fact that almost every popular browser uses tabs rather than opening a new window.  In fact, the only browser which doesn’t utilize tabs is IE6, and it’s popularity is quickly dying.

The standards compliant solution: Use Javascript. Bah!  That’s just something else I have to test.  target=”_blank” works fine in all cases.  Using Javascript to do something the browser does natively feels silly.  I know the code is pretty compact and with jQuery you could literally do it in one line, it’s not nearly as clean and understandable as target.

My user experience friendly solution: In order to appease the target-hating standards compliant gods, my solution is this:  Provide a setting on the top of the page which asks “Open all links in a new window” and “Open all links in the current window.”  This way, you allow the user to decide how it works, it’s standards compliant, and it’s fairly simple to implement.

Perhaps help is on the way. Doing some research on the topic, I came across the spec document for CSS3 Hyperlink Presentation (yes, this opens in a new window!) which describes using CSS to determine target parameters.  I can easily get on board with that!  Hopefully we can see CSS3 implemented across all major browsers in the not-to-distant future.

In Conclusion: I will still be using target=”_blank” to pop up new tabs on my blog.  The blog is validated in Transitional anyway.  My belief is that any hyperlink in a blog post will be clicked on to allow further reading of the topic.  That is the experience I want to provide for my readers.