Learn Ruby with the help of an utter head case

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I never thought I'd find something like this, a (online) book that is both informative and utterly, utterly insane at the same time. Instead of the usual dry language that tecnical books tend to be written in, this book just oozes with oddness, from cartoon strips of foxes to discussions of dogs, there's something here to utterly confuse everyone as to the point of the anecdotes. That's not to say that it doesn't explain the technology at hand, it does and does so quite well, it's just strange. Go give it a shot, if you can look past the oddness it might be worth spending a little time on.

Read & learn one tech book every six months

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I was recently reading a technical blog from some knowledgeable geek or other and he mentioned that it recommended learning one new language every year. The benefits are two fold - you both learn a new tool, but more importantly, every new language you learn furthers your understanding of the ones you already know. Its the same with spoken languages, if you learn three or four of them you become more fluent in them all as you can see how they all fit together, how nuances are shared between them, etc.

So I've given myself a mini quest - to read and understand one technical book every six months. I'm planning that one will be a programming language (Python, Java, etc) while the second would be a general theory book (OOP, design patterns, etc). My first goal is the Ruby on Rails book I just mentioned, and after that I intend delving into some more application development theory, probably with either Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, which is supposed to be pretty darn awesome, or maybe I'll see if I have any already on hand.

My reasons for doing this are fairly straight forward - I need to both keep up with current changes in the industry, and it's good to know how to use more than one tool (you can't build a house with just a hammer). The primary reason, though, is that I have very little understanding and usable knowledge of advanced programming theory - object oriented development, design patterns, etc, and short of going back to college the only way I have of learning these things is to take the time to do so.

Web development made fun again? Ruby on Rails

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Today I ordered the book Agile Web Development with Rails, a book that explains how to use the Ruby on Rails (aka RoR) web development system based around the Ruby programming language. I've been keeping an eye on it for the past few months as its been getting more and more media coverage (ok, geek media coverage) and this past week I finally started looking at it. What I saw struck me as pretty awesome. The whole premise of Ruby on Rails (RoR) is to make web application development easy especially the initial stages of creating a basic set of pages to insert & update your database, and from there it expands quite gracefully.

One of the really neat things about RoR is that it forces you to adhere to good programming standards, to do everything in a clean MVC structure, which will ultimately make it easier to manage long term. One of the reasons I'm getting into it is the simple fact that learning it will help me learn object oriented programming, something I've had a hard time grasping so far - RoR builds the framework using OOP methodologies so I can see where verything goes as I'm building something, thus start to see how things should be done.

RoR is a very new technology that was launched only about a year ago and in fact has not fully reached the wonderful "version 1.0" point (should be any day now), so this book which was published in July will only take me so far, once I learn the knowledge it has I'll be able to branch out to the latest updates and continue from there. If you're interested in taking a look yourself there's lots of good stuff on the main RoR site including a 15 minute introductory video that shows in the 15 minutes how to build a basic database driven website, itself an awesome feat!

Norway gives 100% control of public video to Microsoft, MS gets angry

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Norway has announced that they will be making 20,000 video clips and twelve radio stations available online. The only problem is that it is tied to Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition software which must be installed on your PC before you can view any of it. This rules out anyone who either doesn't have the money to buy this special edition of Windows, who doesn't have the expertise to install it, or who doesn't use or want to use Windows in the first place e.g. Mac or Linux users. Note that all of this content is paid for by taxpayers, just like the media in many other countries including Ireland.

A British author and rights activist, Cory Doctorow, wrote a nice article explaining why this was a bad decision for Norway to make, with many excellent points brought up for discussion. Not to let someone else have the last word, a Microsoft employee wrote a defensive article calling Doctorow a communist and a liar, completely avoided answering the key points raised and instead lies himself. In defense to the accusations Doctorow has written a rebuttal to Microsoft's tirade.

Gotta love what happens when you call shenanegans on a large company.

Incestuous lives of software programs

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Lately I've been looking for a program to backup our computer's data with using the lovely DLT7000 drive we got recently. Along the way I've tried a whole bunch of different programs of varying abilities, some better than others, some that at first glance that have everything under the sun only to discover major problems later on (Genie Backup Manager), and some that seem very simple but work well.

My requirements were simple: it had to work with DLT drives (most of them do not), had to be able to make stand-alone file backups, some sort of system restore ability was needed, and it had to be easy to restore files from a backup. Having tried probably ten different programs and skipped easly another fifteen because they didn't support DLT drives, my current favorite, and probably the one we'll get, is Stompsoft PC Backup. A relatively new program that hasn't garnered much media attention, PC Backup is relatively simple straight forward to use, and one of the cheapest on the market that can use readily available DLT drives (like the $20 drives off ebay).

Before we spent our hard earned money, though, I had a few questions for the company and garnered further insights. As it turned out PC Backup is actually a sibling of a more expensive product called NovaStor's NovaBackup Professional with a simpler interface, some less options and a lower price tag ($70 vs $40). NovaStor used to have a "home" edition of NovaBackup but its disappeared off their website lately, my guess is that this is where PC Backup comes into play, marketed by a company who focuses on more home users rather than corporate/professional types. I actually prefer PC Backup to NovaBackup for these reasons - I don't really need most of the advanced things from NovaBackup like plugins, the scheduler etc, I just need to select my files and hit backup, and the $30 difference would pay for an extra tape.

It is common for a company to write a program only to resell it later on, and then it be sold again until eventually its gone through three or four companies.

As mentioned, PC Backup is actually a slightly trimmed down and easier to use version of a more expensive program called NovaBackup. The same company also has another program called Backup MyPC that I remember seeing at least two other companies owning over the past few years, and it is also resold as part of Roxio’s Easy Media Creator 7.5 suite.

Other companies have been doing similar things over the years, especially that software dinosaur, Microsoft. Microsoft has actually written very little new software in-house, they almost always either buy out a small company or a specific product then mould it to their desires rather than starting from scratch. A perfect example of this is their dot-Net platform which started life as Java. You see Microsoft licensed Java several years to ship with Windows. As part of their usual embrace-and-extend business practice (where they take something and turn it into something else that’s usually incompatible with the original) they turned it into their slightly incompatible Java engine, called Visual J in Visual Studio 6, and were eventually sued by Sun for doing so; as part of a collection of lawsuits Microsoft were forced to stop saying their Java-derived software was derived from Java (?). So, never being ones to let a good thing go, Microsoft continued developing their own Java platform and turned it into dot-Net.

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