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Month: March 2007

Itchy Squirrel: Wine bottle trick

With thanks to Jayne for this tip – a really fun site.

It’s a three-trick website and really not as unpleasant as the URL might indicate – certainly work-safe (until you start snorting at the hate mail section though: awesome).

I like this guy’s writing. Pity he’s too lazy/selfish/restrained to write more 😉

Enjoy! I don’t want to spoil the surprise by telling you more, but it’s good to see that primary research is not dead 🙂

Basecamp, activeCollab and GoPlan kindly compared

Basecamp, activeCollab, and Goplan compared

I seem to spend my life working in, trying to adapt, evaluating or generally ranting at collaboration and project management services. Derek Punsalan has kindly done a nice comparison of the three web-based leaders – Basecamp, activeCollab and GoPlan.

While you’re looking at his site and admiring the clean lines and lovely design, I must tip a nod to Khoi Vinh’s site,, which I thoroughly covet and will – when I have a mythical moment – copy to the best of my meagre abilities 🙂

Anyhoo, back to the problem: why do I care…

Personal productivity management is all well and good – provided you have no clients to manage and inform, multiple clients or projects and/or work in an heterogeneous environment (eg Macs, PCs, Unix etc).

If your whole company’s on a WAN with Exchange, an enforcement of Outlook as PIM and groupware and you’re happy to send innumerable binary documents around the network then you’ll not be interested in my problems.

At my last company I had a merger and restructure situation of two very large retailers with different legacy systems, different locations and different working conventions. There were also specialists – ranging from procurement professionals through merchandisers to technologist who all had competing, dense documentation standards and formats. My challenge was to increase visibility of activity, open out milestones to team scrutiny and understanding and to track activity on a deliverables or milestones basis. I also wanted a central repository for documentation, with an emphasis not upon “dumping it in a shared drive” but upon “publishing it for the information of others” – a critical distinction. Finally, I needed a space for collaboration and co-creation – eg a wiki or Writeboard that had in-document version/edit control.

Imagine having 6 people work separately on a Word document using ‘track changes’? The resulting mess would make a hardened commercial executive weep!

[UPDATE] I forgot to mention earlier one of the key benefits of Wikis and Writeboards when collaborating and that’s very granular in-document version control, roll-back and diff-ing. Basecamp’s colour-coded diff displays are neat, and I particularly like the fact that comments made on a document are tagged with the “… while looking at version x of the document”. Nice touch.

A recent item of extreme pain was in using an Excel sheet to hold a 50 page requirements capture. After reviewing one version, I then get another that’s 54 pages long – but I have no easy way of seeing what’s changed… The sickening feeling of deja vu is one thing, but the decrease in the level of thought and attention to an important document simply increases project risk. Highly annoying.

I was fortunate at the time that the wonderful folk at Isotoma created a lovely project- and meeting-based collaboration tool based on Plone. This was ideal in the specific context of a single (if ornery) company. Now, however, I need to manage a number of companies and clients – all of whom have different requirements. Pulling all of these together into a single environment (that makes MY life easier!) has proven to be quite a challenge!

I currently use activeCollab and find that it’s OK. It has its quirks with inconsistent navigation, sometimes being out of step with Basecamp releases and new functionality and will soon of course no longer be free.

However, free is over-rated when it comes to essential tools, so that alone isn’t the issue.

Overall I like it because I can offer it to clients free of charge and I like the way it ‘wraps’ all activity around the milestones. Furthermore, the fact that it’s all on my server means that the documents uploaded are safe, I don’t suffer from the ‘afternoon lag’ that besets Basecamp when the West Coast wakes up and I can add innumerable clients without a penalty.

Quick nod to Media72 by the way who provide ridiculously good hosting for under £100 a year and remarkably good support too. They got me up and running with relative ease. I needed a separate host because everything else on would break if we moved to Php5…

Basecamp has taken a major step forward with the recent addition of Highrise CRM but the downside is that to have both I’d be looking at a commitment of $300 per month for the volumes I need. It’s not of itself the end of the world, but that’d make it the most expensive software I own. While I like the availability of Writeboards their integration with the rest of the application sucks – if you want to do more than scroll through a list of them you need to paste a link into the text – more than most of my clients are willing to do!

Basecamp also annoys me (through no fault of its own) because I’m now “on” 7 different Basecamp installs for different projects and the different working processes and collaboration standards are driving me mad!!

Flexibility is a wonderful thing, but there must also be a place for best practice in terms of labelling, nomenclature, documentation standards and status monitoring… I suggested this to some friends over beers last week and got that silent stare of sympathy and fear that’s reserved for when you’ve a rabid nutter standing a little too close to you…

My own search for the “Perfect System for Me” continues, but – unless and until one’s in a position to set the standard for all of the people in one’s project universe – it’s likely to be a frustrating time of vying, pretty applications, each with strengths but no single solution.

Roll on the invention of free, dedicated troupes of coding pixies to have at one’s beck and call…

UPDATE2: some kind people have asked why I don’t use Project or other more formal tools. The main reason for this is that the programmes I run span so many disciplines and domains that the management method is by deliverable and milestone. Individual contributors can use whatever tools are appropriate to them, but it’s a certainty that the same tool is not appropriate to all. When managing knowledge-workers (what a term!) then you need to allow personal flexibility without increasing the project communication overhead.


pogonotrophy (po-guh-NAW-truh-fee) noun

The growing of a beard.

[From Greek pogon (beard) + -trophy (nourishment, growth).]

Pogonology is the study of beards and pogonotomy is a fancy word for shaving.

I just love 🙂

MPK20: Sun’s Virtual Workplace – 2nd Life for Work

Thanks to a post on the O’Reilly GMT blog I came across Sun’s MPK20 “virtual world/workspace”. Apparently some 50% of Sun staff work remotely at any given time and they’ve therefore taking the notion of ‘video-conferencing’ and collaboration a step further than conference calls, web-ex and emailing the latest version of a Powerpoint presentation to your colleagues.

Combining a ‘Second Life’/gaming world view, but sensibly concentrating on good quality audio and ‘conferencing in’ people from the ‘real world’ I can see that this could be a fun way to interact with colleagues from work while you’re remote.

However, I’m not sure that it offers that much more than a multi-person IM session – especially now that Skype offers great file sharing, video exchange (even when you’re not chatting) and a classy IM interface (so good that I now use it exclusively).

There’s a surreal joy in having an extended IM exchange (nearly synchronous) while watching the other person – seeing them laugh, gesticulate and point at things is really fun.

Using IM to interact with a group of people over a day also avoids the curse of “presentism” – ie physically “being there” in a meeting even if your brain’s mostly on idle or mulling the greater to-do list…

Having a meeting by sound/vision allows you to do other things while keeping an ‘ear’ on proceedings. Equally, collaborating via group IM allows people to chip in while also allowing the participants to //do// things as they ‘talk’ – this is particularly useful for small edits, bits of code, options etc. Rather than talk in a vacuum, add to a to-do list and then have to iterate madly later anyway, “doing things there and then” is a powerful way to make meetings into more of a ‘meeting of minds’ than a ‘gathering of people’.

In the past I’d have suggested collaboration tools like a wiki or Basecamp. but having spent a couple of hours last week working on a shared spreadsheet on Google Spreadsheets I was just blown away: the speed of updates, the rapid refreshing, the version control and rollback – just wonderful. Provided that you’re not all editing the same cell (that’s allowed – last edit ‘wins’) then it’s simply as if there are several minds and cursors all working at once on a document. Chatting all the while on Skype meant that we went from having an interesting chat with a ‘hangover’ of a major to-do item (“go and knock up the spreadsheet”) to having had a good chat, seen some hands-on issues that were not immediately apparent and actually getting a large chunk of the work completed.

My sort of meeting.

Whether using an avatar, virtual world, or telephone call and a shared document, the tools for remote working are increasingly sophisticated and capable. As a ‘free agent’ (aka officeless consultant) I appreciate these developments, but my remoteness from clients is often less than the distance between colleagues in the same building or across different offices. It’s only a matter of time until corporations outside the tech sector will need to engage with new working practices – and will of course benefit from so doing.

Paying to download free software…Fan Control (Mac) – Download

Well, who’d have thought it? Mr Mean (me) pays to be able to download free software. What’s more, I didn’t mind.

Today, I’m mostly to be found using my hotter-than-hell MacBookPro on my lap. I don’t want any more children so am not fussed about a little heat in the lap area, but 3rd degree burns are never a good idea. I turn therefore to the highly-recommended Fan Control to crank up the fans and allow me to type without asbestos gloves.

Problem is that their website sucks (b0rken images everywhere) and – when I finally locate the download link from their HTML source – it’s also fubar’d. While it’s sometimes a joy to see 2.5Mb of hex rendered in a browser, I was burning up and needed a fan blast!

A bit of googling gets me to Softonic and they offer three types of download:
– free (linked to the shonky developer’s site)
– £0.59 for a one-off download from their high-availability, virus-scanned mirror
– More money more more premium goodies (which I didn’t look at).

So – for the reasonable micropayment (via paypal) of under a quid I’ve saved masses of time, my laptop’s processor is now down to a frigid 56.2 Centigrade and I have an appreciation of how high-availability download sites can make money other than from advertising.

I’m converted. Oh, and I’m running cooler 🙂

“Just the One” – March 2007

Venue details.

Birds are singing, spring is sprung and the nights are getting longer… Yes – it’s time for some more drinks!

Our last gathering was at the end of November and, since then, a general level of mania has prevailed: the digital world has gone wild!

Before I start reminiscing about 1999, let’s move onto the details:

Venue: St Chads
Date: 22 March (Thursday)
Time: 1830hours onwards.

If you’d like to come and aren’t already on the list, please check out the website – and the link to the mailman list management interface. Any queries to the ListOwner. 🙂


Pipes: Rewire the web

I’ve always loved both the notion of “piping” and the word itself. Many years ago, when first I met tech wizard Mr Winter at BBC Online, he would amaze me with his ability to just, er, ‘transform’ things with a clickety-click in a terminal: manipulating data, transforming, rearranging and then piping the results into a different application to ‘do more stuff’. While it looked like magic to an early Mac user (and like magic to the even-earlier O-Level Computing spod used to DOS and BASIC…) it’s of course totally fundamental and obvious to UNIX people who grew up on pipelines and scripting.

Scroll on a number of years and we Mac users are now unix people, I’m happy playing in the terminal and can do simple pipes and scripts (with help, I know!). However, I’m miles off that confident fluidity exhibited by keyboard whizzes with goatees… My knowledge about what’s possible is far in excess of my ability to “do” what I need.

Enter, huzzah, Yahoo Pipes – doing for piping and munging feeds what Filemaker Pro did for databases. No more grappling with grep, awkwardly awking and pathetically piping – I can munge together friends’ RSS feeds into a lovely single feed.

My usage at present is mainly “ooh – I can add things up and filter”, but a broader interest is that this is the first mashupping tool that’s accessible to a ‘normal’ user. It’s been a dual gripe of mine that most mashups at present seem to be map-based and that the API and tools to do that mapping is far from trivial.

In my ideal world (where people toil free of charge with devotion to satisfy my whims and interests) we’d have a similarly useful interface for Google Maps: maybe even linking a primary data store to google’s spreadsheets…

It is, of course, possible to cobble together a map mashup of holiday photos (in Flickr), locations (held in Sheet) and Google Maps, but “possible” and “knock-uppable in a whizz” are two different things…

Whether the application to drive/create/manage mashups is provided by the API owner, a third party (before they’re acquired by Google-hoo!) or – gasp – a desktop application (built into iPhoto? GPS data in Exif linking to Google Maps on .Mac…?) – the time feels ripe and commercially attractive.

Thanks to Mark Hopwood for reminding me to play with Pipes!

St David’s day


So, spring is in the air, the mornings are lighter and – just before the promised arctic cold lands on us – the sky’s blue and the daffodils are perky.

March 1 is of course St David’s day and I’m feeling a bit remiss for not sending the girls to nursery sporting daffodil buttonholes and Welsh hats… At school (in Wales, of course) St david’s day was a riotous affair of Welsh costumes (of wildly-varying degrees of quality and commitment) and leeks. The boys ‘wore’ leeks to school and the girls wore daffodils. Over the years the leeks got bigger and more extreme until they reached Max Boycian dimensions…


The festival mood was supplemented with a pervasive smell of onion-breath as the leeks were slowly nibbled and then used as bludgeoning instruments in the playground… Ah – happy days!

Rhys, at the Swansea University Computer Society has put together a nice page on St David’s day at secondary school and has linked, kindly, to the vitally important page on how to make “Cawl” (Welsh soup). The recipe’s nearly right (!) – I’d ease off on carrots (yuk) and salt but use both turnips and parsnips. There’s lovely for you!