January 2009 Archives

Dammit. The Sharffen Berger factory in Berkeley is being shut down by new owner Hershey, with all production being moved to another facility. Scharffen Berger, our much-beloved local chocolatier, has been operating in Berkeley since 1996.

B told me about Scharffen Berger's free factory tours the first time we had dinner. Her description of chocolate dust really spoke to my inner 12 year old, and I ended up visiting myself a few weeks later, as part of a company field trip. Boy, was it cool. I'm still far from a chocolate snob, but it makes a big difference, understanding some of the hows and whys. I've taken the tour again with my family, and it was just as fun the second time. I wish I could do it one more time, but it looks like tours have been halted, to prepare for the April 3 shutdown.

Most frustratingly, according to the East Bay Express, the shutdown may not be directly linked to the economy; Hershey's Q4 earnings were 52% year over year, and the company projects 3% growth in 2009.

Scharffen Berger factory closing in the news:

I've been looking into moving a Movable Type instance onto a managed hosted blogging platform. The obvious next step up from Movable Type would be TypePad, the hosted blogging service operated by Six Apart, the makers of Movable Type. I really like MT and Six Apart, and would normally be happy to stick to their platform.

But TypePad's slower rate of development, nonfunctional multi-author import tool, and aging look and feel are worrisome, enough to make me seriously evaluate WordPress.com, the other best-known hosted blogging platform.

I want reasonable modern business-class weblog hosting, with multiple authors, a custom domain, pretty-ish URLs, no ads, developer flexibility, FeedBurner support, and business-style billing. Is that too much to ask for? I did some research, and here's what I found (important distinctions bolded):

Feature TypePad WordPress.com
Cost $150/year (Pro account) $55/year (domain, CSS, no ads)
Platform stability high high
Usability high very high
Rate of active development medium high
Business-friendly invoicing, etc. high medium
Disk space 1 GB 3 GB
Bandwidth 10 GB unmetered
Canned themes "hundreds" 70+
Widgets many, but limited growth many
Category support
1 level
multiple levels
Tag/keyword support
Clean URLs medium very
Spam blocking quality high high
# of blogs unlimited 1
Custom CSS yes yes
Custom HTML yes limited
Custom JavaScript yes no
FeedBurner support yes no (autodiscovery URLs fixed)
# of authors unlimited? unlimited?
# of administrators 1 unlimited?
Import multiple authors no ?
Edit posted author no yes

Some of the two platforms' gaps are puzzling. I can't comprehend why TypePad doesn't support multiple levels of categories, something Movable Type's supported for ages. And it's head-bangingly frustrating that WordPress.com just doesn't work with FeedBurner, because there's no way for administrators or widget authors to edit the feed autodiscovery URL.

In the end, I grudgingly ended up picking TypePad because it gives users full HTML and JavaScript access, allowing first class integration with 3rd party services like FeedBurner. (It's nice knowing you always have an escape hatch if the platform isn't giving you every service you need.)

It's frustrating having to make these choices. Why aren't there better options out there?

Scribd takedown notice excerpt

I'm used to hearing about people receiving DMCA takedown notices, a procedure in which a copyright owner tells a service provider that they're hosting infringing data of some type, and requesting removal or the disabling of access. Being a techie with an interest in fair use, I often side with reform-minded groups that focus on abuses of the system, where DMCA takedown notices are incorrectly targeted, or ignore fair use rights.

Given that stance, I was surprised to find myself sending a DMCA takedown notice earlier this week.

While looking at online document-sharing service Scribd, I found a copy of article that I'd written several years ago. It was intact, and had my original copyright line on it, but the document was marked as being licensed under a Creative Commons license, when I'd never licensed it as such. The user, whose username made him or her difficult to identify and contact directly, had probably taken my article, uploaded it to Scribd, adding a default Creative Commons license on all the content in the account.

As far as I could tell, the use was harmless, but I didn't like the fact that the article's licensing details were incorrect. What to do? I emailed Scribd's copyright contact, describing the situation, and explaining that I didn't have a problem with the document being on Scribd, but that it was being redistributed with incorrect licensing information. I wouldn't have had a problem if it were uploaded for personal use (sort of like saving a photocopy of an original article).

A real live human being from Scribd got back to me, suggesting they could act only if I sent a DMCA notice, and including a sample DMCA takedown notice form letter. I filled it in: name, address, URLs, and replied. Within minutes, the document was taken down. Gone.

And now I have regrets. Should I have demanded more forcefully to speak to the original user, who'd clearly found the article of interest, instead of working only through Scribd's copyright department? Should I have participated in the process at all? How to balance the needs of users and content providers?

I headed down to UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza yesterday to see Obama's inauguration on a massive JumboTron. There was a huge crowd, reportedly totaling nearly 10,000 students, faculty, staff, community members, and local schoolchildren. I started getting involved in electoral politics on Sproul Plaza as a UC Berkeley undergrad, volunteering to work on local and national campaigns. Closing the loop at the same place felt very right.

The crowd was happy, electric, friendly, diverse; I loved seeing such huge numbers out to cheer on our first President of Color, a once (and future?) progressive, and someone who might stand up for some semblance of "San Francisco values."

Obama did well, though as happy as I was to see him namecheck Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers, it was equally irritating to see him gloss over our major environmental crises, suggesting "we will not apologize for our way of life." Damn straight, we'd better apologize, and start working toward more sustainable futures.

A new president's honeymoon period is lovely, before he's gotten a chance to disappoint us all. As I worry about how to hold Obama accountable on the environment, health care, and the war, it's nice to be able to enjoy a day or two of good thoughts.

Apple iMac Flat Panel

At work, I use a five-year-old Apple iMac G4, with 256 MB of RAM and OS X 10.3. It works great. We have a cultural bias against older computers, but there's so much pleasure in working with tools that you know inside and out, and work just like you expect them to.

My work stack's pretty simple. I spend most of my days inside  Terminal and Camino (usually  RPMozley's optimized G4 builds, for maximum speed). I jump into Firefox while in design mode, TextWrangler while working with text files, GraphicConverter for very occasional image editing, and Psi for XMPP IM. In terms of productivity apps, I use Word and Excel 2004 most of the time, and jump into NeoOffice when dealing with the new 2008 XML Office file formats.

I'm still in love with the flat panel iMac hardware, featuring an elegant 180° swiveling screen I use all the time, turning it so that passers-by or folks on the other side of the office can see what I'm pointing at. It's a shame that Apple doesn't offer anything comparable now.

It would be really easy for me to upgrade, but why? It depresses the hell out of me when I see people I know stuck in eternal upgrade loops, throwing money at unused performance. Or even worse, unusable performance, when all the gains from an upgrade disappear under the weight of increasingly bulky and unusable software, leaving no meaningful boost in productivity.

As a computer professional, and a server-side guy, creativity isn't in the expense or bling of your tools, but how you use them. I'm lucky to be able to work in a space where I can choose good tools, and refine my understanding of them over time. (For that matter, it also helps that we use a lot of web-based and command-line tools, which don't require heavy or platform-specific clients.)

Your computer's probably faster than mine, but I probably like mine better.

Groan. As if JotSpot's integration (and death) within Google weren't bad enough, FeedBurner's integration into the Google system has been awkward as well.

They changed the hostname hosting feeds from "feeds.feedburner.com" to the ugly "feeds2.feedburner.com." Inelegant, but workable.

Subscriber tracking support has been off, and it's been suggested that it take a week for all subscribers to be counted again; strangely enough, it's Google Reader stats that are missing. Confusing, but tolerable. (Can't the two parts of the company talk to each other?)

But most annoyingly, FeedBurner's site analytics features have been removed, making it impossible to gauge combined feed and site aggregate traffic. This used to be one of FeedBurner's best features. I understand that there's likely an internal imperative to reduce duplication with Google Analytics, but the obvious solution would have been to offer some kind of linkage between the FeedBurner and Analytics products.

As it stands now, users have to log into one system, then log into another, and manually make a best-guess calculation of reach. This is a major step backwards. I realize both FeedBurner and Google Analytics are free services, but I've grown to expect a much better end-user experience from these teams.

Philips 7240 XL Shaver

I've been using electric shavers for over a decade, going through three separate shavers, and I've had a pretty stable shaving habits in that time. But my new electric shaver has changed everything.

I'd usually shave every other day or so though with major variations -- sometimes maintaining my unshaved Mountain Man look for months, sometimes shaving every day. It just depended, though my default state was a bit stubbly.

I recently bought a new Philips 7240 XL shaver, and everything's changed -- suddenly I'm shaving every day now.

Every electric shaver I owned before was slow, but effective; they would take several minutes to neatly clean off a day's growth, or tens of minutes to work through weeks of growth. It always took a while to shave, but when I did, my shaver performed admirably.

I find it next to impossible to get my new shaver to shave multiple days of growth; it seems anemic and underpowered. But boy, is it fast. I just rub it over my face for less than a minute, and a single day's growth disappears. My new shaver rewards daily shaving because it's so quick, and punishes occasional shaving, because it does such a poor job of taking off many days of growth.

I like to think of capacity to remove large quantities of facial hair as analogous to high bandwidth, and startup speed as latency. My old shavers had high bandwidth (they removed a lot), but took a while to start (low latency). My new shaver removes little hair (low bandwidth), but gets started fast (low latency).

This is a bit like switching from desktop email client software like Eudora or Outlook to an AJAX-based system like Gmail. The desktop client tools work great when you can sync large quantities of data, and are set up to reward latency-insensitive batch operations. Gmail, on the other hand, transfers only small to medium quantities of data at a time, but demands high latency.

When dealing with hardware, designers' choices tend to get deeply embedded into the system. Software tools can be more flexibly adapted (e.g. Gmail's non-AJAX mode, which allows for use on lower-latency connections; or its IMAP interface, allowing for use with desktop clients.) As a software guy, I have a lot of respect for hardware folks, who are boxed into final unalterable decicions, and yet can still go ahead and make bold decisions. If it were me, I wouldn't have had the guts to design a somewhat-ineffective-but-really-fast shaver; I'm glad Philips did.

I used to think that Primal Scream's Swastika Eyes was written about Clinton and Albright, of killing-500,00-children-to-punish-one-man-is-worth-it fame.

Dear God, I hope it won't end up applying to Obama and Clinton.

Let us pray.

I see your autosuggestion psychology
Elimination policy
A military industrial
Illusion of democracy

Swastika eyes
You got Swastika eyes
You got Swastika eyes, swastika eyes, swastika eyes

I'm doing my annual trip to Kolkata, India, to spend time with relatives, and attend a friend's wedding reception. A few days back, B, my aunt, and I hit Oxford Bookstore, a lovely 89-year-old bookstore in the middle of town.

I ended up buying about a dozen books. Some of the books I'll be hauling back home were already on my reading list: Aravind Adiga's White Tiger (the latest Booker winner), Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies (the latest from a fave writer), and Manjula Padmanabhan's Escape (the new novel by a smart feminist Indian SF writer I've been really enjoying). Others were from novelists I've never heard of, including Devdutt Pattnaik's The Pregnant King, Indrajit Hazra's The Bioscope Man, and Nayantara Sahgal's Mistaken Identity.

Our trip to Oxford Bookstore was full of particularly acute synchronicity:

  • Earlier that day, my aunt, an Indian historian, had got the news that her latest book has gone to press, via Oxford University Press India
  • While browsing, B and I ran into acquaintances we'd met at our friend's wedding reception the night before
  • California Bengali scientist Mani Bhaumik (co-inventor of the laser) was sitting at the next table from us at the bookstore cafe, signing a new popular science book
  • We ran into Raka Ray, from UC Berkeley's Center for South Asian Studies, as she dashed into the store looking for a book; she's someone all three of us know as a friend or colleague
  • While in the checkout line, the man in front of me looked weirdly familiar; I struck up a conversation, and he turned out to be UC Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan, in town for a few days

That Californian Bengali bibliophile connection is quite something.


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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