Ok, who didn't get an Acer laptop?

I was just looking at the list of some of the people who got these things.

In no particular order: Robert Scoble, Craig Pringle, Mitch Denny, Brandon LeBlanc, Scott Beale, Joey deVillaMauricio Freitas, plus a heap of others I'm sure.

Naturally I went to Wally McClure's blog, expecting to see that he got one too, but no!

Jay Furr, a friend of mine who was very much an A-list tech-community person way back also missed out. Jay is famous for being the person who first called unsolicited email 'spam'.

Presumably anyone who's employed by Microsoft is ineligible, so maybe His First Scoble only got his because he has left?

I think people should obviously write to Aaron Coldiron to let him know that these guys missed out!

Ok, I don't think anyone should actually write to Aaron about it. But I do wonder what makes some people qualify and others miss out. Wally is certainly well known around the tech community, and many who were around in the early usenet days know Jay. I suppose a lot of it comes down to reputation too.

Reputation is an interesting thing. The MVPs are largely considered to have good reputations, and I'm sure that most of the people who got these laptops are MVPs. You can't build credibility overnight, but many of these people will soon enter their fifth calendar year of blogging (2003-2007) and have probably found their way into many people's reading lists. I only started blogging during 2005, and fully appreciate that I don't have the same kind of sway as many of the bloggers out there. And I'm still more accessible via Msgr than newsgroups.

In conversations about the Acer laptops thing, I've started to wonder about magazines compared to blogs (because I think no-one would've complained if Microsoft asked someone to review Vista on a particular piece of hardware for a magazine article). If someone in my generation wants an answer to something, they will search the web for it, rather than look through magazines. On the other hand, a magazine is more likely to be read in an evening or on a bus. I read a lot on my PDA / phone, and happily convert PDFs into Reflow mode for that. I think online magazines are good, and increasingly, magazine subscribers are being given logins to read the information online. But if only subscribers can read them, then search engines don't tend to find the data too well.

Blogs really are the new magazines, just like podcasting is the new radio, but it can be hard to find the good ones. I could add a new blog to my reader most days, but what I have trouble with is culling them. And even finding time to go through them! It's like I need to set aside time each day just to go through them, and more to work out what is worth spending more time on. Ah – the joys of balancing professional development and the rest of life.

Acer Ferrari laptop giveaway

Seems Microsoft stuffed up somehow, and I'm wondering how AMD and Acer are reacting to it all.

In the last few days, various bloggers around the world have received Acer Ferrari 64-bit laptops (preloaded with Vista of course) to review (not me mind you – I'm not in that class of blogger). They were told they could do what they liked with them afterwards – keep them, return them, or give them away. But of course, many people who didn't receive them complained (presumably because they didn't get them) and Microsoft promptly wrote back to say that they shouldn't keep them.

I think it's best described by someone who wrote a comment on a blog about this (I'd link to it, but I can't find it right now). They were from a magazine who often receives hardware, software, miscellaneous stuff to review (and keep). The difference seems to be that they were given to bloggers (who potentially have a wider reach than magazines these days), and bloggers are a different kind of person to a magazine journalist.

A magazine journalist writes "The Acer Ferrari 1000 is an excellent machine…." without saying where they get it from. Everyone would assume that they got the machine to review from the Acer marketing department, and accept that it's just part of the job.

A blogger writes the same, but precedes it with "A package arrived for me today…", and therein lies the problem. They're not a paid journalist, and no-one can really differentiate between themselves and the next blogger. But of course there is. Celebrities get asked to endorse stuff all the time and no-one questions it. I guess bloggers are the new celebrities, at least in the tech-world.

Cricket gadget

Being English, I'm finding this Ashes series quite depressing. I updated the Wikipedia site to say that Australia had won the series 3-0, but took no joy in doing so. It's not often you get to update Wikipedia with information about a live event – but this time I did.

I've been following the cricket by either listening to the radio, watching a TV-stream, or keeping half an eye on the cricinfo site which updates the score in the title of a browser window. Doesn't work so well now that tabbed browsing is all the rage, but it's still useful. Not as useful as having a Vista sidebar gadget do it for me though. So one day when I was at home during a test (must've been Perth), I played around at making a gadget that would display the cricket score. I could get the score easily enough by just putting a http-request in to the cricinfo site and pulling out the title. I had it displaying happily for a few minutes, and set about making it look nicer and making some sort of a settings bar to be able to follow whichever match was of the most interest, when it just stopped working. I guess cricinfo have something to detect screen-scraping which then stops the page being served. When you look at the page in a browser, it redirects to a framed version, and I guess there is something to make sure that the framed version is requested (along with all the right adverts) with an appropriate frequency compared to the page which contains the score.

At this point I stopped trying… I had other things to do like gardening.

Today I see that Darren is asking the ABC for a cricket gadget. I think cricinfo could provide one too, and provide some competition here. It would be so simple for them to put together… alternatively, they could provide a web service that presented the information and let the rest of the world put it together (along with live.com gadgets, RSS feeds of game milestones, etc), but I imagine that like most sports scores, there are licensing issues involved.

Darren & James' podcast

Adelaide's stock is increasing again. 🙂 Darren Neimke and James Chapman-Smith have started a podcast about user-experience. The pilot can be downloaded from Darren's blog. It's really quite good too!

It goes for just 15 minutes, and I'm trying to encourage them to leave it that short. Shorter podcasts can be listened to when you don't have time for an hour-long one. They can be archived more easily. You can fit them on a device with less free space (I'm soon upgrading my 1GB SD Card to a 2GB largely because of podcasts). And you can find stuff in them more easily. Suppose I hear a 5-minute discussion about something in an hour-long podcast that I like and want to re-listen to later. I have to keep the whole thing! As well as that, I need to remember whereabouts in the podcast it was, or else listen to the whole thing again. A 15-minute one still has the same problem, but those issues become less with a smaller file.

Those people who have known me for a while might know that for over a year I had a podcast about the Arsenal football club. I just recorded it on my PDA, typically in the car on my short commute. Occasionally I would abuse the traffic, but I don't think people cared. But because my commute is quite short, it kept the podcasts short too. I never had trouble with finding content, because there were always more games to discuss, or injuries, transfer rumours, etc. Tech-podcasts can be harder that way, but I think there is always enough content out there to have a 15 minute discussion with a friend which you record and push out there.

Podcasting: It's the blog you can read while driving.

Insecure websites

It really worries me when I stumble across an insecurity in a website. I don't go looking for them, but when I find one, I feel like I have a responsibility to do something about it. I don't mean tell the world about it – that would be bad for the company and more importantly for their unsuspecting customers, I mean to let them know.

In the case that I found today, I have used the "Contact Us" part of the site, and will call their head office myself tomorrow if I haven't heard a response. I really hope they take me seriously. I will offer to help them out to resolve their problems of course, I have no desire at all for them to be hacked.

PowerGadgets maps

I've been told that it's quite easy to create your own maps for PowerGadgets, and I plan to give it a try some time soon.

If you're in the US, it's already very easy to throw together a map of the US which charts the states that have had sales. And in the Advanced Properties window you can add conditional formatting very easily to change the colour according to the range. Easy to script for PowerShell commands too. Of course, if you're not in the US, then you may want to make your own custom map to show where things are.

It would be nice to have a gadget that showed where your company was making sales were made by Australian postcode. Or make a map which shows the office plan of a call-centre with the number of calls made that day.

The only way to do a handover

Over the years I've seen a few people quit their job, and typically as soon as they hand in their notice, panic sets in as the person's replacement is identified and a handover is done.

And how is a handover done? Essentially by pair programming. It doesn't matter whether it's a role that involves writing code or whether it's a role that involves handling clients, or even making coffee. The handover is done by having two people sit at one desk for a period of time.

I say typically, because of course there are times when it's handled differently.

I'm sure that when I leave my current role (or any role for that matter), there will be an element of handover that needs to be done – me explaining to people as many of those unwritten things that I can think of, in the fear (their fear, not mine) that after I've gone, things will fall apart because they can't get at the information that I store in my head.

Luckily, I often can't get at the information in my head either.

Don't chuckle, I'm serious. And if you're serious about your work, you'll know that you can't get at all the information in your head when you need it either. Otherwise you wouldn't make project plans, or to-do lists, or write anything down. It would all just be there, able to be accessed whenever you needed it.

But the answer isn't just to write everything down. Nor is it to store it in a database. 🙂 I think the answer is to write handover documents for everything you do as you do it. I don't mean documenting every line of code, or every decision you make. That can be useful, but it doesn't actually help when someone tries to do your job for a while. What you need is something which describes all those things that you do. Like an expert system. The "I've found a problem with this… where do I start looking?" kind of documentation. All that information you have (yes, in your head) that makes you the best person to do your job.

I know that skills can't be written into a document. I'm not talking about skills. And in fact, you should be able to assume that the person who's reading your documentation is skilled at what they do. So you probably wouldn't need to explain why a particular control was used somewhere, but you do need to make notes of any quirks that you have come across with that control before. Not something that might get put into official project documentation (although it should), but definitely something that your successor would need to know.

So in my opinion (and of course your mileage may vary), the ONLY way to do a handover is to just give your successor a pile of handover documents and then wait for the questions. Every time there's a question, your handover documents aren't complete. You amend the document so that the answer to that question is in there, and the handover continues. As soon as you need to sit at the same desk, you have a problem. You're passing on information that is in your head – using a medium (speech) which does not record easily.

Obviously this documentation needs to be kept up-to-date. Yes, I know this is a nightmare for all kinds of reasons, but if your documentation is suitable for a handover, then you need to be able to find it easily and make sure that anything that anyone may need to know to do your job is written in there. If you tweak something, write down why you tweaked it, so that someone else doesn't untweak it. Or so that they can tweak it in a similar way another time. 

When I left my previous job, my successor didn't remain at the company long after I left. So anything that I had told him didn't remain either. The only thing that was left was stuff that had been written down. The company survived, and continues still today, but clearly the handover could've been done differently.

So why not practise your handover? If nothing else, you'll be able to go on holiday without getting a phone-call. But hopefully when your boss realises that you are replaceable, they'll sack you. I mean, promote you. Give you new responsibility without worrying that you'll keep getting called back to do your old job. If you're not replaceable, you're not promotable. Of course, you might not get it right first time. You may find that you do a handover and that your documentation isn't up to scratch, to the point that you get questions and need to amend those documents. Once those documents are done though, and you find that the people under you can cope just fine without you, then you can afford to get hit by that bus, or go on a holiday, without feeling like anyone needs to call you. And perhaps when you come back, areas of higher responsibility may have fallen your way.

Configurable sidebar (News section) in Community Server

Customising your blog when you don't host it yourself can be pain. 

Heaps of blogs out there are on Community Server. blogs.msdn.com is one of the more prominent ones. msmvps.com is too. Having previously been on blogspot.com, where you can control almost every aspect of your template, I've found the transition to Community Server a little painful at times.

There are a bunch of skins I can choose from, and that's great, but if I want to change the information that appears down the side, I need to put it into the News section. But then it looks like it's News, when really it's not.

So I've made a few workarounds.

For starters, I've added some custom CSS to the spot where I choose a skin. In particular, I've told the newsTitle style to be hidden. "display:none;" is the code you want, like this:


Now because I still want my stuff to display in sections, I've done some more tweaking. Within the News section, I've defined my own. So I have things like this in there:

<div class="sideNavItems"><h3>Can't find something?</h3>Try checking my old blog…<br /><a href='http://robfarley.blogspot.com'>http://robfarley.blogspot.com</a></div>

The 'sideNavItems' bit puts the box around it (or whatever your skin wants it to do), and the 'h3' makes the header the same style as the other sections. This makes it look like it's a proper Community Server section, but it's not. It's just my own content. So now I can have my own lists, and exercise as much control over them as I like.