Solutions and Street Lights

One common mistake I’ve seen several examples of recently (both in and out of the software world) is when we look for solutions to our problems not where we’re most likely to find them but instead where ever we’re most comfortable looking. A few examples:

Several years ago I was at a friend’s house trying to scan a few documents on his computer. I tried several times, but the system always told me that the scanner wasn’t connected. Well, I checked the scanner, and it was definately connected, so I started looking for some explanation of the problem, and since I’m a programmer not an EE I was doing all software stuff. I reinstalled the scanner driver, downloaded a driver update from the scanner mfgr and installed that, even reinstalled all the software that I was using to attempt to scan the images. Nothing worked. Finally, after probably an hour or more of doing this, my friend comes over and I tell him that his scanner is broken. Surprised, he reaches down and plugs the scanner power cord into the power strip, and immediately the little "new hardware" notification comes up to say that the scanner had been recognized by the operating system. The problem here wasn’t that I didn’t know enough about computers, that problem was that I knew too much, that I was so comfortable debugging software and driver problems that it never occured to me that the problem could be so simple a thing as the scanner not being plugged in.

You’d think I would have learned from the above experience, but an almost identical thing happened to me just last week at work. I was attempting to install linux on an older (previously Windows 98) computer that we found unused in the server room. I stupidly picked Debian as the distro, only half realizing that although Debian is one of the coolest linux flavors, it is also one of the most difficult to install. They do have some sort of a GUI installer, but it stops at random intervals with requests like "Enter Kernel boot parameters:" (everyone has the linux kernel boot params memorized, right?). So this installation took longer than I had thought and I wasn’t very surprised when I finally booted it up and found out that (1) there were major display problems and (2) the network wasn’t working. After a few minutes I had a least got the display problems down to a workable level, but the network problems just wouldn’t go away. I must’ve ran the network setup wizard a dozen times, but I still couldn’t get it to detect or connect to anything. Then my bos walks in and asks how it’s going, and that’s about the time that I realized that I had never plugged in the network cable. What threw my off was that I was using a KVM switch to connect a windows system and the linux system to the same input and output devices, so at the same time as I was debugging the network on the linux system I was writing emails and reading web pages on the windows system. I had therefore forgotten that while I had only one moniter, keyboard, and mouse between the two of them, I needed a different network cable for each.

Well, this sort of reminds me of the old cub scout skit where someone’s on his knees below a street light looking for a contact lens (or quarter or whatever) and people start showing up and offering to help, until someone finally asks if he can point out exactly where he was when he lost it and he says, "Well I lost it over there (at least six feet away) but I thought it would be better to look over here by the light because it’s so dark over there that I can’t see a thing."

Now, I’ve been using examples from my own life here so that no one complains that I’m insulting someone else or being negative, but it’s examples from the real world that have lately reminded me of this problem. We all have areas of interest: things, methods, or software that we’re either good at or big fans of. This is usually a good thing, but when we’re seeking solutions to our and our employer’s problems, we need to make sure we’re not, like the boy in the skit, looking for the quarter where the light is and not where it was lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t the one that’s the most fun or even the one we’re most familiar with. We need the intelligence to recognize these situations and the courage to admit it when one comes along.

Any thoughts? Use the comment form. 

XulPlanet Happenings

I realize that most of the people who read this blog probably found it through XulPlanet, which might make some of them a little disappointed at the total lack of anything XulPlanet related to be found here. Well, I hope to change all that soon. We have several news projects going up, old things being redone, constant updates to the existing content, and many exciting plans for the future. I hope to get a list of some of those plans up here in the next week or so. Stay tooned.

Tomatoes, the High Court, and Internet Information Finding

Although the news has been (and still is) pretty much dominated with Katrina coverage this past week, another interesting story is the death of William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States. This post isn’t about Rehnquist, but an interesting (to me at least) story about the Supreme Court and the Internet as a source of information.

Many of you may know that the tomato, while normally considered to a vegetable, is technically a fruit. But did you know that the United States Supreme Court once ruled that they are indeed vegetables? I first came across this little bit of trivia around four years ago, on some website I used to follow at the time. The problem was that, like many websites, they provided the useless fact, but not any proof or documentation that it was actually true. Knowing how fast and easy urban legends spread online, I decided to check this one out for myself, and see if it really happened or not.

I did a quick google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” which resulted in hundreds if not thousands of pages, all of which provided the exact same story, but not one of which backed it up with anything. Obviously, most of this sites had copied the information from other sites, who read it on other sites, and so on and so on. After reading through dozens of these pages (which were everything from garden sites to recipe books to your classic useless fact pages) I finally found that a few of them provided one piece of documentary evidence: a date, 1893, the year in which this case supposedly was heard. Still, it wasn’t enough to prove if it actually happened or not.

So I went looking on findlaw.com, where I knew that all the Supreme Court cases since the beginning of the union would be listed. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I eventually found the correct case (Nix v. Hedden, from May 10, 1893) where an importer of tomatoes had sued saying he shouldn’t be required to pay the vegetable tariff because he was actually importing fruits, not vegetables. The court ruled that although tomatoes might officially be fruits to a botanist, they are most certainly considered vegetables to most Americans, and it was this common definition of vegetable, not the official botanical one, that had to be used when interpreting the tariff laws. So it really did happen; the Supreme Court of the United States really did rule tomatoes to be vegetables.

Now, fast forward four years or so to last week, when I was unpacking an old box of random stuff and come across the little slip of paper on which I had written the case details from the tomato case when I had first found it online. Just out of curiosity, I did another google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” and found—to my great surprise—that four of the top five results all included at least the case name, Nix v. Hedden, from which this information could be verified. There was even a three-page wikipedia article devoted to the Nix v. Hedden case.

So why am I bringing this up here? Well, something happened in the last four years so that while it originally took me several hours to find the details of this case (and only managed then because I knew to look on findlaw) it can now be brought up in half a second with a simple google search. Now, this might be an isolated incident, but I’m thinking that it represents a more global trend, that finding real documented information on the Internet is a lot easier to do now than it was a few years ago.

What might be the cause of such a change? Google’s ranking algorithm might have improved, so that it is somehow better able to put the more professional pages (more likely to include details and not just stories copied from other pages) up front. Also, there are more web pages now than there was then, so the documented pages might not have existed four years ago. (The Wikipedia article, for example, was only written last November).

If anyone knows of a serious scientific study or research project done on this subject (that of the availability and accessibility of reverent accurate information on the Internet, and specifically tracking the same over time) let me know. I don’t have time to do any more detailed work on this myself right now, but I’d love to know if anyone else already has.

Back to School

Well, I’m back at Utah State, fully immersed in all the fun and excitement of college life.

You can tell a lot about a Computer Science professor when he introduces himself by telling you what open source projects he has founded or been on the leadership boards of. 

In another class, the professor was talking about distributed system programming, and made reference to internet web servers as an example of such. Then there was an exchange that went something like this:

Professor: You want one piece of your distributed system to run independently of the other, so if you have a webserver and it’s talking to-what’s the latest browser they’ve got out there?

One student: Deer Park! (?)

Professor: Well, I’m not really familiar with that one…

I guess I really shouldn’t have been surprised. We’re all nerds here after all.

Google Talk Out

Well, I was half right. Mostly right actually. Google really did release an instand messenger client today. It’s called Google Talk, and it is (as I said it would be) clean, uncluttered, and very nicely done. (It’s actually a little too clean at the present time, but I’m assuming that lots of nice new features are on their way). It is based on open standards (did I say that yesterday? I meant to). It does not, however, use Google Adwords as an advertising mediam. In fact, it doesn’t use anything as an advertising medium. The darn thing doesn’t contain any ads at all! That I didn’t see coming.

The interesting thing about Google Talk is that, as it is based on the open Jabber protocol, any Jabber IM client can connect to the network and messenge with Google Talk users. They actually encourage you to try the other clients and only use Google’s if you think it’s the best one. That’s the philosophy that has driven Google from the beginning, the reason why a search for an address in google’s seach engine returns not only a link to google’s map service, but all a link to yahoo maps and mapquest, the two competing web map servers. Google knows most people won’t use the others anyway, because google maps is by far the better service, but they have to keep it that way or they will lose the market real fast.

 Another intersting story I read this morning talked about how google is hiring up so many people these days that other silicon valley companies are having trouble finding talent. Google also managed to create a 25% - 50% salary hike in the process, which also doesn’t make other companies happy. It makes me happy though, as someone who is going to graduate with a CS degree and be out looking for a job in the next little while. Be scared Microsoft, be very scared.

GoogleMessenger?

These people have plans for world domination.

CNN and the LA Times both have reports this morning that Google is about to launch in instant messaging client, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Google, who runs the top search engine, and whose web based email service may well be the world’s most used (there are no public figures) even before its official launch, may have a difficult time entering the instant messaging market, people are saying, because an IM client is only good if all your friends have it too, and Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL already have millions of subscribers each to their respective IM clients. Still, if the past is any example, a Google based IM program would probably be years ahead of the competition in features and usability, clean and uncluttered, and most likely supplied with text based Google Adwords in place of the advertising banners and varied money making tactics employed by other IM clients.

Personally, I can’t wait. If this really does launch tomorrow morning, I expect to have it up and running by tomorrow afternoon. Or it could just be one big rumor. But my bet is that it is’t, and that Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL are all just a little bit nervous right now.

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