Tuesday, March 14, 2006

How to finish writing a book | by Adrian Cockcroft | 15th March 2006

I've written four books, and several years ago I developed "Cockcroft's law of book writing". This states that a book will grow in size as you write it, and that the number of pages left to write will increase as you write. This seems counter-intuitive, but it has been confirmed many times in practice. I hope this posting provides some useful advice for writers, and helps people finish what they have started.

To make a concrete example, let's say you decide to write a book and you come up with an outline that adds up to 200 pages. You start work and write 50 pages, then, when you revisit your outline to update the page count estimates, you find that they now add up to 300 pages. You wrote more than you expected to cover each subject, and discovered more subjects that needed to be discussed. The essential problem here is that there are now 300-50 = 250 pages left to go. Before you started you only had 200 pages left to go.

This problem is recursive, if you write another 50 pages you will find that you have now written the first 100 pages of a 400 page book, and you now have 300 pages left to write. This explains why there are so many people who have written part of a book, but never finished it.

The aproach I took in writing my later books was to maintain a spreadsheet that tracks the pages left to write or edit, update it very regularly, and generate a plot with a trend line from the data. You can then see when (or if) you will finish the book. In order to get the trend line to target a specific delivery date, you have to force the number of pages left to go down. You do this by writing pages that you promise never to edit again, and by deleting whole sections and chapters. I deleted three entire chapters from one of my books to get it finished.

Another problem you can run into is that the content you wrote at the start of the process is less well written than later content, so you think you have finished, re-read parts of the book that were finished ages ago, and discover that it needs a complete rewrite.

I often get asked if I will update my Sun Performance and Tuning book, and I don't intend to do a third edition. This is mainly because I'm interested in other things, and I'm no longer up to date with the subjects I would need to cover. I have sketched out a possible book on capacity planning with free tools, and the trend line on that book is nice and flat. I haven't really started writing it, and so it hasn't started getting bigger yet....

My good friends Jim Mauro and Richard McDougall are closing in on the end point for Solaris Internals 2nd Edition. I've been looking forward to it for a while, and its going to be a monster book, covering how Solaris 10 really works, lots of DTrace based examples, and is going to be the essential companion for anyone looking at Open Solaris.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Strange Contextual Ads | by Adrian Cockcroft | 11th March 2006

The eBay contextual ads seems to be fixated on the word "margin" which is not present in the content of my blog. However the CSS template that is used to host this blog contains the word margin over and over again. I think Alex needs to do a better job of filtering out formatting words before he does his context analysis....

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Contextual eBay adverts with ctxbay | by Adrian Cockcroft | 9th March 2006

The winners in the eBay developer contest were announced at ETech, one was Alex Stankovic, who has developed a contextual advertising system for eBay that works just like Google Adsense. I just changed my advert bar for this blog to use his system at ctxbay.

At the ctxbay site you find a link to sign up with eBay for the affiliate program (via Commission Junction) this was an easy fast signup, and gets you an affiliate id number. You then create an account at ctxbay, and enter your affiliate number, which they will then use to call back to Comission Junction and make sure you get paid.

The rest of the setup is similar to adsense, however you do need to login to ctxbay with your new account, and it didn't do this automatically for me. ctxbay generates a selection of common ad frame formats using javascript that can be slotted into your site template. I found one identical to my adsense format, and swapped out the code. My first attempt didn't work because I was not logged in, and the id field in the javascript was empty. After I logged in I got a fairly long string that keys my ad to ctxbay.

I setup adsense in order to understand it better, and going forward I'll see if ctxbay can generate any sensible eBay items out of the keywords in my blog.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Etech Tuesday On Rails | by Adrian Cockcroft | 8th March 2006

A long day with lots of interesting talks, and I got to chat with several new people and also to try out my FLORWAX pitch. "Its the equivalent of AJAX but for Wireless" is my instant summary. To get this out of the way, the general reaction is that the name gets a chuckle (not too many groans yet), that there really is a big problem in wireless platform fragmentation, and that no-one seems to know of any other initiatives that have picked on this as a problem to solve. I think most people look at wireless, see this problem, and give up, as its too hard to make something work. Since I'm interested in a longer term perspective than most people, its seems fair game to try and provoke a discussion on what a sensible core set of wireless platform technologies would look like.

As Jesse James Garrett said in the tutorial yesterday, the key elements of AJAX are that it uses a common standard bundle of browser based technologies and that it is asynchronous, so you don't have to click-and-wait......click-and-wait......
If we apply these principles to Wireless, we need to define a bundle of standard technologies (I suggest Flash Lite 2.0, Ruby on Rails, XML web services - FLORWAX = FlashLiteOnRailsWirelessAsynchronousXml, but the actual bundle doesn't matter as long as a common set emerges). However the asyncronous problem is far worse in wireless than in desktop applications, we really need to have wireless apps that talk to the backend and update the screen without the click-and-wait-for-ages mode that is the norm.

At the end of the day I attended the Ruby on Rails BoF. I have heard good things about RoR but haven't used it. I think they converted me, and I took the opportunity to mention FLORWAX to the group. It does seem like the right technology fit.

The conference itself started with Ray Ozzie showing how to do cut and paste on the web. It seems so trivial, why hadn't been done before? A very useful way to make web apps behave more like regular apps. We then had a very cool hardware demo by Jeff Han, he has a touch screen that can see all his fingers separately and has created a very nice new set of user interaction paradigms.

Amazon has created a way to harness real people to do the stuff that AI can't do. Its called the Mechanical Turk, and its another simple idea with quite profound and wide reaching uses. Dick Hardt from Sxip gave an interesting talk on indentity, but the way he presented it with one word per slide and rapid fire transitions reminded me of Steve Colbert presenting his "The Word" section on The Colbert Report. I enjoyed it but I don't remember much of the content.

Next we has a talk from Felix Miller of last.fm on how they collect the metadata on what you are listening to and use it to help you find new music, I've been playing around with Pandora and training it to play the music I like, and I think I'll have to have a go at last.fm as well. I have eclectic tastes, and its hard to keep the recommendations from veering back to the mainstream in Pandora.

After the break, there were several presentations that didn't grab my attention or told me things that seemed obvious to me. The highlight was a presentation on Second Life that was presented using a billboard in the virtual world and lots of interactive explanations of how it all works. Fascinating, but I don't have enough time to play as much as I'd like in the real world....

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Tagging Blogger and Technorati | Adrian Cockcroft | 8th March 2006

Blogger doesn't provide an integrated way to tag my postings (as far as I can tell) but at ETech we were advised to tag our blog entries with Etech and Etech06 so I tried to figure this out during one of the less interesting talks (yes I know I should have figured this out ages ago). Despite a slow and intermittent wireless internet connection I found that I could use Technorati to do this by embedding some html in my blog. The frustrating problem I ran into was that Technorati seemed to be completely overloaded and was largely unresponsive. When I did finally get my blog entry tagged I went to Technorati and searched for Etech, and after a long wait it came up with no results at all... I figured I had done something wrong, but late at night the load dropped off and the site now does actually find Etech tags, including my own one. I celebrated by adding "florwax" as a tag, so we will see how that goes...

Another site that seems a victim of its success is Myspace, their music delivery service has become overloaded, so its hit and miss whether you can get any songs to play at the moment.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Thoughts from ETech - Tutorial Day - FLORWAX? | by Adrian Cockcroft | 7th March 2006

I'm at the O'ReillyEmerging Technology conference in San Diego, today was "Tutorial Day" and I decided to attend "Designing the next generation of Web Applications" in the morning and "Next Generation Flash Development with Flex" in the afternoon.

The morning talk was very nicely presented, Jesse James Garrett coined the term AJAX amongst other things, and Jeff Veen worked on Hotwire, Blogger and Measuremap, they provided a structured set of best practices for designing web applications with lots of great examples and anecdotes.

AJAX acts as a convergence point for browser based applications because almost all current browsers support the same set of technologies and there is a highly functional lowest common denominator. There is now also a large body of applications that provide the intertia or value that constrains the browser writers from diverging with incompatible functionality. This is the same effect that occurred in the PC marketplace, when MSDOS and Windows developed enough application value that neither Intel nor Microsoft could diverge in an incompatible manner. The collective self interest of the end user reaches a tipping point that blocks radical innovation, and slow incremental evolution takes over.

The interesting area for me is how this maps to the mobile/wireless space. There is no AJAX for wireless applications, the market is huge, but the platform diversity is also huge and is growing. One estimate I heard was that there are 1000 separate platforms to target and that this number is growing, not shrinking.

So what we need, is the equivalent of AJAX for Wireless, something like Flash Lite On Rails Wireless Asynchronous XML - FLORWAX - which also has a household cleaning connotation :-)
If enough people standardize on a common set of technologies, then the handset vendors will start to build to a common profile as well, and we could end up with a decently functional lowest common denominator.
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