Categories: "The Life"

Charging for Student Shows at Yale

10/22/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: College

A short piece I wrote for the YDN opinion page. Check it out!

Observations (Pt. 3)

10/17/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: The Life, Making Money, Travel

This is a tad belated, but I still wanted to share it with everyone. After working in Germany for 3 months this summer I noticed a lot of differences between my previous positions in America.

Shaking Hands
I was surprised about how often people shook hands. It wasn't so much about the hand-shaking itself, but rather the daily greetings. Everyday when you arrive in the office for the first time, etiquette dictates that you walk around to every co-worker in the department and greet them. Eventually I got more comfortable with the idea. Only a few people actually shook hands with everyone, lots of others did a mix of handshakes and greetings, so I settled into a comfortable mix.

This whole process was often repeated on the way to/from lunch with the Bavarian greeting "Mahlzeit". There's no direct translation, but it's basically a fit-all greeting which is usable around any meal. Awesome. Sidebar, two favorite Bavarian treats: Kaiserschmarrn (Basically mixed pancakes) and Dampfnudel. They eat those as main dishes!!!

Expletives (expect some)
I was a little surprised at the level of profanity in the workplace. There was a lot of shit going down. Sometimes a few other things were slipped in, but seemed like s*** was very commonplace especially in referring to anything that wasn't going terribly well. My feeling from the American workplace was that language like that would generally be restricted to 1-on-1 conversations with very intimate co-workers. Although perhaps I didn't get a good read on the context abroad.

Just to underscore the cultural differences, I felt like I had to spice up my slang with a few choice words there. In contrast, I had a visitor from Germany during high school and was surprised at how much they attempted to swear in English. It got to the point where I couldn't tell if they were actually angry or just trying to accentuate the slang with my friends and I. Swearing, like comedy, just seems to be one of those very nuanced cultural things. I suppose I'm lucky I was on the cautious side!

Work Ethic
Not just ethic, but environment as a whole. I walked in to my office before starting work, and wanted to clarify what the dress code was. They told me there wasn't one. Naturally, I was 90% sure I hadn't understood, but after further questioning, I was sure. OK, so there was no explicit dress code, but I figured I should still wear slacks and a polo. Nope. People were there in shorts, jeans, t-shirts, all kinds of things. Naturally that really sucked, because I had already lugged my entire dress wardrobe across the ocean.

Work hours were also totally lax. I did a pretty standard 8:30 - 5:30. But some people showed up around lunch, and other left around 2pm. There were a couple Fridays where I was literally the only person in the office from 2pm - 6pm. I had a fixed 35 hour work week, but with flex hours. So I often worked late so that I could skip days and go on 5-day trips to other countries.

I never counted anyone else's hours, and of course they get actual vacation days, but I swear only half of the office was there on any given day. This isn't just because of time off though. A large percentage of the people there were either part-time, or work students. I think there were about 6 work-study students, and usually only 2 came in per day (They are restricted to 20 hour weeks during school).

Unfortunately, work-study students made a good deal more cash than I did...which was weird. They also had hourly rates instead of a fixed-hour week, which would have been nice for flexibility. So know that if you go to do an "Internship" in Germany, that means "Praktikum" should check and see if they can hire you as a work student!

Anyways, just some office observation I made. Sorry it's been so long since my last post. School has been incredibly busy, but I'm hoping to at least sneak a few posts in every now and then. Happy Autumn!

The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 4)

08/23/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: Web, Technology

My Involvement

Thus far I’ve only talked about my work with CKEditor, however back in high school I was involved with another project called ALP (Autonomous LAN Party). I found it when I was searching for LAN party software and became interested in it. When I discovered it, a first version had been developed but had since fallen into disrepair. I made a few modifications and found another guy who had made a few modifications and together we took over the project and developed it for awhile. To this day, it still (more or less) works, although the last version was released about 4 years ago.

We got to the point where we had outgrown the original slopped together version and needed to do a total rewrite. Unfortunately, the prospect of so much work and the lack of people to do it caused the project to fall apart in the planning phase. Nevertheless, all our work is publicly available and maybe someday I or someone else will pick it up and keep going.

CKEditor, just finished a rewrite and is much better off for it. Although this means it’s not totally mature yet and has a few bugs still lurking around. I encountered some of these and they were easy enough problems that I could hop right in and fix them. Thus it was quite easy for me to get involved in the project.

The hard part, however, was running the support forums (I just tried to answer a lot of posts). I ended up fielding about 7 posts a day. Some of the problems were legitimate or valid debugging things. I helped people work out their configurations and do things I had been through when I first setup the editor. On the other hand, some were face palmingly stupid questions which could have been solved by 2 minutes of effort or simply using google. I often had very little patience in these topics.

My feeling is that you should at least be able to understand the software you are using and how it works before asking questions. There were people who simply needed to find a configuration option (Which is all given on a single page on the site’s support area). They just hadn’t looked around before asking. While those cases are stressful, it’s also nice to see the people who say “oh thanks!” when they solve their problem. Those are the people who have actually worked through their problem before asking.

In any case, working on this project has given me a better understanding of the software, a better understanding of javascript, and made me feel like I’ve contributed to the project. Sure in a week I probably will never touch the project again, but that’s how it goes. Next month some new developer will have to use the software and will begin stomping bugs right where I left off.

The whole process is really an art though. There’s open-source software to manage open-source software, I.E. Trac. It’s the program almost everyone uses to “trac” bugs and manage source code. Most interestingly though is the fact that everything has to be so well thought out. Since none of the developers ever really see each other, there’s a remote code review process, standards have to be employed, and the whole project has to be well documented so that at a moments notice someone new can step in and start contributing.

It’s a fantastic process and one that I really support. If anything, it’s made me want to assemble a team to redevelop ALP. In summary I guess the open-source ideal, to me, seems to define a certain type of social norm. The tragedy of the commons doesn’t apply because even by being selfish, people will still help the project; It's impossible to use up all the open-source resources. Rather than not supporting the project, people will use the software for free and, when they themselves find bugs or make changes, will send their changes back into the commons helping future users.

Nevertheless, there are things that cost money in these projects. There is also the matter of incentive to develop. So next time you find one of these projects useful, consider sending $10 to help support it's development. After all isn't that better than having to pay hundreds of dollars for some commercial software? Support community development, choose open-source!

The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 3)

08/20/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: Web, Technology


In case you haven’t caught on to how open-source software works, we’re in the middle of a lengthy discussion about how it all works. Next stop, pros and cons. Let’s get the biggest pro out of the way. IT’S FREE. Horray. But there are, of course, some downsides too.

With commercial software, support and follow-through must be exemplary in order to maintain your customer base for future releases. However with open-source, because the software is free, the developers have very little incentive to provide technical support. The support for CKEditor was a little lackluster (non-existent), it’s also quite poorly documented. This made it very hard to figure out what I was doing wrong without digging around and debugging the code. A lot of people will opt for commercial software because it’s already been extensively tested and will (usually) function very well out-of-the-box.

CKEditor might be an exception in this regard however, since normally open source projects will document every single function. Why spend all that time writing wikis and APIs? Because the hope is that if the program is well documented, it will be easier for people to alter the software on their own and thus more contributions will come back to the program. Still, support is often the blind leading the blind.

The upside to glitches in open-source software is that they are usually fixed quickly and the software tends to have more releases than its commercial counterparts. In addition, customers usually have the option of three different types of releases. Stable, Beta, and Nightly. Stable is the equivalent of a commercial release. It's supposed to be extremely stable and polished. If, however, you want to have the newest features and bug-fixes sooner, you can opt for a beta version. These versions tend to have some kinks that still need working out, but generally function quite well. Finally, there's nightly. This is basically a copy of the source code (From the SVN, remember?) which is built automatically every night.

Even though nightly builds are supposed to be quite unstable, CKEditor usually has very good nightly packages. This is because all code changes are reviewed before they are committed, thus changes tend to work with 95% certainty as soon as they are in the code base.

Features can be another huge factor in choosing. Again though, it’s a two part problem. While commercial software might have more features initally, it’s usually easier to request new features in open-source software and to have those changes made. (Try asking Microsoft to add 16-bit support to 64-bit OS’s, I dare you).

Here’s the sticky part though. Remember way back when we talked about licensing? Well that means that any part of an open-source program can be reused (Under certain licenses). Thus Microsoft could, in theory, use some part of CKEditor for it’s own nefarious purposes, however the same is not true in reverse. Commercial companies can use these things called patents to exclude anyone else from using the software. Despite the short 10-year lifespan, this is an eternity in computer terms and effectively means that commercial applications can have features that no one else does.

In fact, this problem is most present in video codecs right now. Remember when I said that linux was 100% open-source? Well that is except for one video codec. The problem is that it’s commercial and thus doesn’t have to include its source code. This is also a problem for HTML5 video tags (New way of playing videos in browsers more or less), people cannot decide on a standard codec to use because one is commercial (and a bit better?) but one is open source. Thus, due to asymmetric information…this round goes to commercial. Nevertheless, more and more companies are starting to give back to the open-source community in various ways. So keep an eye on this tussle in the future.

I think now you can see why not everyone is using open-source software. It sometimes isn’t available, especially in niche areas where there wouldn’t be enough developers and sometimes it just doesn’t get the job done as well as commercial products. I still HIGHLY encourage you to give it a try! Take the OpenOffice challenge and try to use the free program for 6 months instead of Microsoft Office. You'll see that OpenOffice is really really good, but probably be so used to Microsoft that it will be hard to use.

Anyways, next time, we’ll get into my involvement and experiences with open-source projects.

The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 2)

08/17/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: Current Events, Technology

This is part two in our look at open source software, this edition covers how open-source software comes into being and is developed essentially for free!


Normal companies like Microsoft, Google, etc. pay people to develop software, but yet there is often comparable software (Linux, OpenOffice, etc.) which is free, if not better. So how do these free applications stay free? Well in the case of large projects such as Linux and Firefox, they are supported by foundations which collect donations and solicit support to help fund the core developers and to pay for the overhead of running a website.

Most projects, however, begin with a spark from one individual or a group which does the initial development. For small things, maybe it’s just some guy who made a tool for himself and decided to share it. For medium sized projects, the initial release is often sloppy and bug-ridden as it is developed (and thus tested) by a small number of people.

As the project gains popularity (If it ever does), people will start to complain about the bugs and to request features. The developers will usually prioritize those requests and work on them in their free-time (I.E. Slowly). As a project becomes more stable and useful however, individuals and companies (like myself) will start to use the projects. Those people may have different requirements than what the software does out of the box. For instance, my company wanted to be able to use IFrames in CKEditor. Thus it became my job to develop a plugin which could handle this task. When I was done, (and since I’m a very classy open source guy), I sent my work back to the project.

Now it isn't as though anyone can just waltz in and alter the code. Usually the code is stored in what's called an SVN system (Subversion Control System). This system is the perfect solution for managing projects. Here's why. First, everytime a new file is saved, a copy is created. Thus if I were to commit some bad code, it could just be rolled back to an old version, no problem. Second, it can do "branching" of code. This in effect creates a second copy of the code which people can work on for specific reasons. For instance, when a large new feature was introduced to CKEditor, it was first created in a branch so that any problems stemming from this feature could be isolated from the rest of the code changes.

It all sounds complicated, but it's really easy to use. To keep things sane, only the core developers can approve changes to the source code. So once they approve my plugin, it will eventually be integrated in and redistributed as part of the program. Thus even though my company didn’t pay for the program, we paid for the program indirectly. Because my company pays me, and it became my job to work on the project, the project as a whole benefits.

More generally, because each user wants slightly different things out of a program. They will expand the program in the direction of their needs. If we look at the entire user base, this will have the effect of eventually expanding and bolstering the project in all directions.

From a companies/users perspective, they could pay 1000$ for a commercial solution, or could pay their developers 400$ to take open-source software and alter it to fit their needs. For the company/user, this is often more lucrative because they are permitted to directly change the program and will benefit from future development, which is not always the case with commercial software.

So how does the software perform head-to-head? That’s something we’ll look at next time.

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A collection of musings from my time at Yale along with some thoughts about my "Freshman year of life" in San Francisco.


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