Celebrating the first American in orbit 45 years ago

Last week, NASA and the United States celebrated 45 years of Americans in orbit. On Feb. 20, 1962, an Atlas missile launched astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. into a cloudless sky on a trajectory that allowed his tiny Friendship 7 spacecraft to orbit the earth three times. The successful mission let the U.S. hold its head a little higher after the Soviets beat the United States into space yet again (i.e. Sputnik) when it launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit aboard Vostok 1 on April 12 the previous year. The flight also helped the world believe the United States might actually achieve what President Kennedy had proposed less than a year earlier: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.

NASA photo of John Glenn leaving crew quarters prior to launch
John Glenn, in his pressure suit,
leaving crew quarters.
Prior to the Friendship 7 mission, the U.S. had launched two men only into short sub-orbital flights. The U.S.'s space program seemed years behind the Soviet's. During the weeks leading up to Glenn's space flight, the world witnessed the U.S. delaying the launch 10 times because of equipment problems and uncooperative weather.

NASA's web pages celebrating the 45th anniversary includes an interview with the astronaut-turned-senator, John Glenn, interviews with fellow Mercury astronauts Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra, and a 360-degree tour of the Friendship 7 capsule, allowing you to zoom in on panel switches and indicators to know just what they say. The presentation allows you to see more capsule details than you would straining to peer inside the capsule in person at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (But by no means do you want to miss seeing the capsule in the museum's lobby when you visit D.C. You also can see Glenn's Mercury space suit, although make sure you read the label next to the suit to avoid leaving with the impression that John Glenn stood about 4-foot-10.)

Friendship 7 leaves the launch pad atop an Atlas-D rocket
Friendship 7 leaves the
launch pad atop an
Atlas rocket
NASA's Johnson Space Center also archives many press photos of the Friendship 7 mission. Well worth viewing if you're a space buff. A complete recording of the flight also is available from the Kennedy Space Center as a series of Real Audio files.

Listening to the audio of the entire flight is a good way to live through the event, rather than listening to edited versions of the flight. As an example, for a project I worked on 12 years ago commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I listened to some of the unedited NASA recordings. I remember thinking how slow everything occurred, from the descent of the lunar module to the hours that passed between touchdown ("Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed") and Neil Armstrong actually stepping out onto the surface ("That's one small step...") Whenever the moon landing is shown on television today, you'd think the landing took a couple of minutes and that the astronauts popped the hatch shortly after landing. Listening to the full recording of the 4 hour, 55 minute Friendship 7 flight gives a reminder to the many details that actually occur during a space flight.

If you'd like to hear highlights of the Friendship 7 flight, here are some edited audio files from my collection.
Launch (56 seconds)
Hitting zero G: "Zero-G and I feel fine" (55 secs.)
Firing retro rockets (21 secs.)
Main parachute deploy (40 secs.)

These recorded highlights are fun because you can hear Glenn describing the power of the retro rockets being fired while he was passing over California on his way toward his splashdown target in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn radios, "Retros are firing. Are they ever. It feels like I'm going back toward Hawaii." You also can hear the excitement in Glenn's voice when he sees his main parachute deploy, which was probably the last major thing that could have gone wrong before splashdown. You hear Glenn's relief when he says "beautiful chute."

Photo of earth taken by astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his spaceflight
Photo of earth Glenn took during his space flight
Glenn had reason to be nervous during re-entry. Ground controllers had received telemetry indicating that the heat shield and landing airbag assembly (in case he needed to make a hard landing on the ground) might have prematurely detached from the capsule. If true, the only thing keeping the heat shield in place were straps attaching the retro-rocket assembly to the space craft. As a safety measure, flight controllers asked Glenn to keep the retro-rockets attached to the space capsule during re-entry. Normally, the rockets are jettisoned after firing. During re-entry, Glenn heard thumps and saw pieces of the retro rockets burning away from his craft.

You also hear in the recordings why NASA later suggested sending a poet into space in order to describe the experience (and thus gain more public support, and funding). It seems Glenn has one word for all the wonders he sees. Sunrises and sunsets? Beautiful. The site of the secondary engine falling away from his craft? Beautiful. Parachute? Beautiful. NASA was hoping the astronauts could provide more vivid descriptions to bring the experience to life.

If you start reading through some of the NASA links and want to learn more about Mercury, I recommend We Seven, a book from 1962 by the Mercury astronauts themselves, describing the program. I remember reading that book when I was about 11, getting me hooked on the excitement of science and exploration. The Wikipedia entry also is good.

Legitimate businesses selling out to spammers

Like most tech geeks, I own multiple domain names and dozens of email addresses. I have configured many of my email servers with "catch-all" or wild-card forwards that allow mail sent to any address at a particular domain to be delivered to a particular inbox. One of my uses for this setup is to allow me to use unique email addresses when I give out my email address to online businesses. Doing so allows me to filter incoming email, immediately gauge the priority of email, and track if my email addresses leak beyond the online company with which I originally shared it.

With two notable exceptions, email addresses I have given out to companies end up being used by them only for legitimate business communications. The two recent exceptions: Addison-Wesley and Lands' End. Spam is making email less and less useful each passing month as hundreds or even thousands of spam messages flood my inboxes daily. I always thought of the people who sell or trade email addresses for spam use were faceless individuals operating from their living rooms, not major companies like Addison-Wesley and Lands' End or their affiliates.

With Addison-Wesley, I signed up for an email list several years ago for announcements of new technology titles. For a while, I received emails from Addison-Wesley every month or so announcing its latest technology books. The mailing list was low-volume and useful.

I no longer receive announcements of new books from Addison-Wesley. But the email address I gave them is now used by spammers several times a day to send me unsolicited commercial email messages. Here are some headers to a spam email I received tonight advertising "Cheap Vl x AG x RA"
Return-Path: <olmedaa@iskiv.net>
Received: from iskiv.net (lns-bzn-22-82-249-89-146.adsl.proxad.net [])
by [my email server] with SMTP id k9T7mmeJ029902
for <awbookalert@[my domain]>; Sun, 29 Oct 2006 07:48:54 GMT
Reply-To: "Romano Wischmeier" 
From: "Romano Wischmeier" 
To: awbookalert@[my domain]
Subject: Re: 693
Now, with an email address like "awbookalert," you figure no spammer stumbled onto this address by guessing. More likely, the spammer purchased the address from someone who stole it from Addison-Wesley's computers, or Addison-Wesley gave it away or sold my email address for use by spammers. I consider it unlikely this email address was stolen from my computers because I use several "alias" email addresses and have had a problem only with this one I gave to Addison-Wesley.

I checked Addison-Wesley's privacy policy to see if they protect email addresses as private information. You know what? They don't. Addison-Wesley treats as private "your name, address, phone number, date of birth, job, personal interests, and credit card information," but your email address is not covered by Addison-Wesley's privacy policy. Addison-Wesley, and parent company Pearson Education, should be ashamed to have a privacy policy like this where email addresses are not held in confidence.

Another company contributing to spam is Lands' End. My wife ordered clothing a few weeks ago online from Lands' End, again using an email address unique to this one transaction. Lands' End sent two emails to this address: an order confirmation and a shipping notice.

Last week, though, she received an email sent to this unique address from a company advertising self-confidence books. Her thought was Lands' End either suffered a computer security breach, and the thieves sold her email address to spammers, or this publishing company is affiliated with Lands' End. Lands' End's privacy policy acknowledges the company shares private information with business partners. My wife called Lands' End to find out how this publishing company obtained her email address.

The Lands' End customer-service representative my wife spoke with assured her the publishing company is not affiliated with Lands' End, and that Lands' End experienced no data security breach. The spam must have originated, she said, by someone breaking into her ISP's email server and stealing that address.

Yeah. Uh huh. Someone broke into an email server and stole a solitary email address. These thieves overlooked the dozens of other email aliases on her server and focused solely on this one email address she shared with Lands' End. (Her email server is different from mine, by the way, eliminating the possibility that a single server was the source for both these email addresses picked up by the spammers.)

If Lands' End's computers were not broken into, it seems likely one of its business partners is using email addresses in ways not sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by Lands' End. A possible partner could be Coremetrics, a company that provides website analytics for Lands' End. Lands' End says they share website information with Coremetrics, but the "data that they collect for us [cannot be used] for any other purpose." Interestingly, the self-help publisher who sent my wife the spam also is a Coremetrics customer.

I don't want to cast aspersions on Coremetrics. They have many online retail customers. What I want to ask Lands' End is which is more likely:
  • Hackers broke into two of our ISP's email servers and stole one email address from each?
  • One of your business partners is violating the confidentiality of your customer information?
  • A hacker broke into your computer system and stole information?
I would think the likelihood of the latter two scenarios to be much higher, and a much higher concern to Lands' End.

If companies don't want to suffer black eyes when the public discovers how casually or carelessly they treat their customers' information, they need to start treating data privacy more seriously. The alternative, they will find, is that Congress will receive enough pressure from Americans so fed up with spam and identify theft that they will tighten data-privacy laws to make it a criminal offense when what should be private data leaks from their computer systems. When the first CEO goes to jail for contributing to spam or identity theft because the company treated customer data carelessly, perhaps that's when we'll see companies treat customer data with more seriousness and care.

U.S. Air Force Memorial Weekend

Air Force Memorial photo/Washington Post
photo by Michel Du Cille/The Washington Post
U.S. Air Force Memorial
The United States Air Force finally has a memorial in the nation's capital. The memorial was dedicated Saturday in a ceremony attended by President Bush and other dignitaries. The memorial honors those who have served and those serving in the Air Force. Its triple stainless steel spires soar to varying heights up to 270 feet in a "bomb burst" flaring-out pattern, "truly representative of flight and the flying spirit of the Air Force."

The memorial sits on a small hill between Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon, and is visible from I-395 on the left as you approach Washington from Virginia. An approximate location is marked by this Google map. (If you view the map, the memorial is actually where Columbia Pike bends north toward Southgate Road.)

The weekend ceremonies were by invitation only, although the public was invited to view Saturday's ceremony remotely from big-screen TVs set up in the Pentagon South parking lot. The Washington Post has a video of the event.

Rather than watch from the parking lot, my wife and I viewed the airplane flyovers accompanying the event from the Mount Vernon Trail next to National Airport. Yes, they had to temporarily shutdown commercial air traffic for the event, as vintage and modern war planes flew overhead, capped off by a flyby from the Air Force's Thunderbirds. (Photos below.)
F16 missing man format photo
F-16s in 'missing man' formation

Ceremonies continued this morning with a memorial service. The service included a wreath-laying ceremony and a flyover (right) from four Air Force F-16s in a missing-man formation.

The memorial opens to the public on either Monday or Tuesday. (The Washington Post says Tuesday. The A.F. Memorial Foundation says Monday.)

Here are some of the other photos we took of the events.

Bicyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail look toward the memorial in the distance.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator makes a flyby. Apparently, this is the only restored Liberator still flying.

A B-2 Spirit bomber made an approach from the east. My wife caught this picture just as it flew into the sun.

The B-2 banked right as it flew over the memorial. This is the first time I've seen a stealth bomber in flight. You can really see how the plane's thin profile helps foil radar echoes.

This photo from this morning shows the F-16 'missing man' formation as it flew over our apartment.

Updated at 10:50 p.m.: I earlier labeled the B-2 bomber as an F-117A. I'm pretty sure it's a B-2, thanks to Chris Nokleberg's comment.

Grady Booch: SOA sold as snake oil

If you have sat through the many sales pitches from companies selling SOA products, which you learn is defined as whatever their products used to be but now with a new, improved web services interface and UDDI registry, you'll probably enjoy reading Grady Booch's blog entry on Thursday.
Groody Booch mugshot
Grady Booch
In it, Grady laments how service-oriented architecture is being sold like snake-oil: the miracle elixir to cure all your enterprise ills. That part isn't breaking news. But it is nice to hear this message repeated from such an architectural luminary, and whose employer is big on SOA.

The best part of his snake-oil blog is a list of questions those who hype SOA fail to explore. These are the questions to put in front of your CTO when he or she is being wooed, wined and taken out to golf by the SOA salespeople. Here's a selection:
  • What distinguishes a good service from a bad one?
  • What should the granularity of a service be?
  • When should I offer up a stateless service versus a stateful one?
  • How do I express stateful service semantics, and how do I ensure their misuse doesn't corrupt my system?
  • How do I express the semantics of a society of services when only the most trivial services work in isolation?
  • How do I expose some services to some clients and hide them from others?
Grady points out he's a strong supporter of SOA. "However," he writes, "I tremble at the realization that the fundamental technical benefits as well as the costs and trade-offs of SOA are sometimes lost in the guise of Snake Oil-oriented Architecture."

What Google Did Right: Browser Sync

On Wednesday, I ragged on Google for four of its good-to-terrible services that all could be better. Today I want to play fair and congratulate Google on one service that is so handy and useful, it has saved me time nearly every day: Google Browser Sync.

Google Browser Sync Firefox toolbar button
Browser Sync's Firefox toolbar button
This handy Firefox plugin stores my browser bookmarks on a Google server, and then synchronizes the bookmarks to all of the four-to-six computers I use each week. If I save a bookmark while surfing at home, it's there on my work computer the next morning. I don't have to visit any special website or store my bookmarks on a "social networking" site like with the del.icio.us Firefox extension. I let Firefox manage my bookmarks, and let Google Browser Sync synchronize them between all my computers.

I have to say, I really like this service from Google. I don't have to do anything but occasionally re-confirm my Google password when Firefox launches. It just works.

Browser Sync also can synchronize Firefox's browser history, persistent cookies, and saved passwords. I don't use these services out of my general caution for leaking passwords and other sensitive information if Google's servers are ever hacked, but I can see perhaps one day using the cookie sync out of convenience.

Thank you, Google. With Browser Sync, you did good.

Why isn’t Google better?

After using Google search for many years and being impressed with its lightening speed, using Google Maps and being impressed with its spiffy Ajax features, and using Google Earth and being amazed at how easy it was to zoom around neighborhoods and find features like subway stations, I find myself more and more disappointed by Google's more recent services. Is googleplacency setting in at the Googleplex?

Here is why Google is more and more failing to impress me. First, as a shopping search engine, Froogle is next to useless. Second, as a calendar service, Google Calendar lacks a critical and obvious feature. Third, as an email reader, Gmail is no longer impressive (and it's still in beta after how many years?). Fourth, as a news/blog reader, Google Reader is pretty ho-hum compared with at least one competitor. With these service shortcomings I have to ask, why isn't Google -- with its billions of dollars of cash, its 8,000 top-notch employees cherry-picked from competitors, and with its cachet as one of the coolest places on the planet to work -- why isn't Google better at what it does?

My first, albeit minor disappointment with Google came years ago with the launch of Froogle. When I first saw Froogle, I thought, "Cool, with Google's search technology and the way they vacuum up and index most of the web, this will surely outperform all other shopping sites." I was wrong then, and every time I've used Froogle since, I continue to be wrong. And disappointed.

Why? Froogle, by default, sorts search returns by relevance. The result is the product I'm looking for tends to be at the top of the list. That's good. The problem is the cheapest relevant product isn't at the top of the list. That's what I'm using Froogle for in the first place. Here's part of a screen shot showing a search for M.S. OneNote 2003, with prices in an apparent random order.

Froogle sort by relevance screen shot
Froogle search for Microsoft OneNote 2003 sorted by relevance

With Froogle, I have to manually find the lowest price among pages of "relevant" results. Why can't Froogle automatically sort the "relevant" product results by price? If I want to sort by price, Froogle offers that as an option: select "Sort by price: low to high" from the drop-down box.

Froogle sort by price screen shot
Froogle search sorted by price low-to-high

Ah, and as you can see in the above screen shot, that's when all the irrelevant items show up at the top of the list, usually pages and pages and pages of related products, such as books and accessories. The problem frequently arises with software. The sort-by-relevance search won't easily find me the lowest price, and the sort-by-price search finds me the books written about the software, the various "OEM disk-only" solutions that seem a bit dodgy, and various other product near-misses. I was amazed when Search Engine Watch awarded Froogle Best US Shopping Search Engine in 2005.

Disappointed by Froogle, I've turned to BizRate, NexTag, and PriceGrabber as providing more useful price comparisons. I don't tend to like Yahoo! Shopping or msn Shopping because of their limited number of online stores they apparently track. DealTime and Shopping.com seem more hit-and-miss when searching for products. For instance, when searching for the best price for an Olympus voice recorder, model VN-2100PC, DealTime and Shopping.com were convinced I was shopping for RAM for my computer, or plumbing supplies. The other sites (including Froogle, to its credit) had no problem homing right in on the Olympus product.

But one disappointment wouldn't take the shiny gleam off of Google. No. They've done so many things right with other cool applications. But just in the past few months, I've found Froogle isn't the only place Google falls down. Google Calendar, which I began using a few months ago, Gmail, which I've been using off and on for more than a year, and Google Reader, which I started using this month, all lack in usability or expected features, especially when compared to competing web services.

Google Calendar probably is the biggest letdown of these three productivity applications. Google developers seem to have spent enormous effort building Calendar and the way-cool Calendar Data API to allow developers to access Google calendars remotely from other applications. But sorely missing is the simple, expected feature of being able to set how you are reminded of each approaching calendar event. Google Calendar does provide three notification options: a pop-up dialog box, an email message, or a pager/SMS message. However, the notification method you choose for your event reminder type is global for all events.

For instance, say I want to be notified of important events (flight departs in 2 hrs) by receiving a text message on my phone. Google can do. But once I configure Google Calendar to send one reminder to my phone, all reminders now go to the phone (dry cleaning ready for pick up). By allowing only one notification type for all events, I'm either frequently interrupted by my phone with low-priority reminders, or I have to accept high-priority reminders getting emailed or appearing only when I'm online.

How could the developers at Google leave out this ability to change notification type based on the event's importance? Come on, Google! Yahoo Calendar has this ability! You thought creating a Data API was more important than creating a usable calendar service in the first place? You're not going to win me over to your calendar as a developer unless you win me over to your calendar as a user! Or at least a calendar service I can recommend.

After being pushed into the arms of Yahoo for its online calendar, that's when I discovered Yahoo's updated Mail service. I remember trying Yahoo mail many years ago and abandoning it as the usual clunky web mail. But the Ajax-enabled beta email service is nice. It uses separate tabs to open messages. You can have several messages open at once in different tabs, rather than opening each message into the current window, as Google does. From the Yahoo Inbox, you can hit Enter to open the current email in a new tab, read the email, hit Esc to close the tab and return to the Inbox, then hit Del to delete it. Or, if you want to save the message, you can actually move it to a folder and drag messages into the folder for organization. Gmail instead insists on enforcing the Web 2.0 world view of tagging to organize email. I actually like being able to tag emails with several labels, but tagging is different than all other email programs I've used. For me, 99% of my mail only needs one tag, so Yahoo's more-familiar folder system works fine, and its user interface is superior. Just like Gmail, Yahoo mail supports other keyboard shortcuts, like hitting r to reply to the selected message. (However, Yahoo went with keyboard shortcuts Ctrl-. and Ctrl-, for up-down navigation rather than the more usual k and j that have been used in the Unix world for decades and that Google adopted.)

Yahoo Mail also integrates with Yahoo Calendar. When viewing email, the bottom of the window displays upcoming events from your Yahoo Calendar along a horizontal scroll pane. That's a nice feature I don't see in Gmail.

With Yahoo Mail besting Google's Gmail in functionality and usability, I'll turn my attention to one of Google's newer web services, its recently updated news reader, Google Reader. Google Reader was the first web-based news reader I tried. Previously, I had used Thunderbird's built-in news reader, but I wanted a web-based reader so I could read the same blogs and news sites from any of the half-dozen computers I use during a given week.

I have no real complaints about Google Reader's functionality. The problem is, it's just not impressive.

Google Reader screen shot
Google Reader screen shot after selecting Cedric Beust's feed

Google Reader does a good job of letting you see what's new in your subscribed feeds, and lets you click feeds in order to scroll through its entries to read. I like the fact that it has a full ("Expanded") view and a "List" view to read just the titles of the entries. My chief dissatisfaction with Google Reader is it just isn't cool and full of extra features that make using it a nice experience. As compared to? Well, after I started using Reader, I noticed almost as many visitors to my blog were coming from Netvibes as were coming from Google Reader. So I checked it out and started playing with it. What I discovered was a news reader with cool, even fun, features that make reading news and blogs faster and more efficient for me.

Netvibes organizes feeds/blogs into portlets, which can be re-arranged on screen, resized and minimized. (See the screen shots, below.) Here are some of the cool things Netvibes can do:
  • Organize your feeds into tabs. (Google Reader has folders you can open/close. Very similar)

  • Mouse over a feed's entry to read the beginning. (Google can't do this.)

    Netvibes showing popup quick-read of an entry
    Netvibes mouse-over behavior showing popup quick-read of an entry

  • Drag and drop feeds to rearrange them in the window (Google doesn't let you change order)

    Netvibes showing drag-and-drop
    Netvibes lets you drag a feed's box to re-order them

  • Read a feed's full entry, with an index of all entries in a left-hand column.

    Netvibes showing reading one entry
    Clicking on an entry opens the item for reading

    The above-pictured reader window acts like an Ajaxian widget. You can see an X in the upper right corner to close the window and return to the main feed window.

  • Open/close the items list for each feed.
    You can select how many item headlines for each feed you want to see in its portlet window when the feed's portlet folder is opened. (You see the title for all entries when you open a single entry, as mentioned and pictured above.)

  • Refresh an individual feed to see if it has been updated (Google doesn't allow this).

  • Drag and drop feeds onto different tabs as well as to re-order them on the page. (Google has no drag-drop of feeds.)

  • Quickly mark all items in a feed as already read by clicking on the item count. (Google Reader provides a "Mark all as read" link that operates slowly because it seems to reload the page.)
Until I saw the Netvibes referrers in my logs, I had never heard of it. Then, two days after first starting to use it, I picked up September's Business 2.0 magazine and saw Netvibes being mentioned as a "disrupter" of leading portal websites like Yahoo.

So, these are four Google's web applications that leave me wanting, and leave competitor services more impressive. My initial wow-I-didn't-know-you-could-do-that-in-a-web-page feeling I got years ago with Google Maps has been replaced by me wondering what's Google up to that it would allow its applications to become second-rate. I have two theories.

My first theory is the Google's complacency is a symptom of corporate maturity. Google doesn't have to be cool any more. It needs to answer to shareholders. Perhaps Google is directing its focus and energy to today's moneymakers: AdWords and AdSense.

My second theory is that Google is leaving services like Froogle, Calendar, Gmail and Reader to languish for now because it has bigger fish to fry, new services that Google will roll-out that will allow it to suck even more of the profit from its chief competitors -- Yahoo and Microsoft -- and place it into the hands of Google and its shareholders.

I don't follow the business intricacies at Google to pretend to know the details. But Google's recent You Tube purchase makes it clear Google wants to be a we-have-it-all portal service to make Yahoo less relevant, with Google reigning supreme in the search and web advertising business. And we all know Google has been working on its web-based version of office productivity applications to replace (or at least augment) Microsoft's Word and Excel (with Docs & Spreadsheets), Outlook (Gmail, Calendar), and the remaining Microsoft Office applications. Google's Apps for Your Domain is the first step in that direction until it adds the remaining Office applications to that suite.

So, instead of focusing on gee-whiz applications, I'm guessing most of Google's development and marketing resources are working on the web versions of Word, Excel, and probably an improved version of Gmail to replace Outlook for some users.

In the meantime, Google has failed at one of its 10 corporate philosophies: "Always deliver more than expected." Google, I expect more from you with Calendar, Gmail and Reader. Your competitors are doing more. But perhaps Google, when its web-based Office-killer applications take hold among businesses in the next year or two, will reprise a line from Pirates of Silicon Valley. I can see the day when Bill Gates or Yahoo's Jerry Yang confront Google CEO Eric Schmidt and tell him, "We're better than you are! We have better stuff." Schmidt will turn away and say over his shoulder, "You don't get it. That doesn't matter."

Anonymous fire in D.C. wafts smoke over Capitol

Here's something you don't see everyday: A black cloud of smoke wafting toward the U.S. Capitol.

Fire Over DC 2
Fire in Washington, D.C. Sunday about 1:50 p.m.

It was unusual enough for my wife to snap a couple of pictures of the fire from our apartment across the Potomac River in Arlington. We checked the Washington Post, Washington Times, and the websites for the local TV stations later Sunday and today. Not a peep.

Fire Over DC 1
Granted, the fire was a couple of miles north of the Capitol building, and no one apparently was hurt from the fire (because that would have made the news, right?) but the fire must have affected some residents of northwest D.C., even for the annoyance of the smoke. That's why we were a little surprised not to read anything about it in the news today. Hmmm. And to think, Sunday began this year's National Fire Prevention Week.

Deleting old Confluence backup files

After I installed the Confluence wiki, I discovered I need to do at least one thing to maintain it. By default, Confluence makes a backup of the site every morning at 2 a.m. The files will keep building up unless you do something about it. On a small Confluence site like mine, it would take a couple of years to fill the disk. But in case your site is large and you haven't already put something in place to prune the older backup files, here's a simple Unix shell script you can add to your Cron configuration.
# Script to remove the older Confluence backup files.
# Currently we retain at least the last two weeks worth
# of backup files in order to restore if needed.
find $BACKUP_DIR -maxdepth 1 -type f -ctime +$DAYS_TO_RETAIN -delete
Confluence backs up the site to a backups subdirectory. You can tell where that is (and change it if you want) under your Administration -> Daily Backup Admin page.

I put this script on my Linux box in the /etc/cron.weekly directory. Since I run the script only weekly, more files will build up than defined by the DAYS_TO_RETAIN variable, but my Confluence site is small and this doesn't matter to me. If your site is larger, you might want to put the script under /etc/cron.daily.

Confluence uses Quartz to schedule backups, so if you want to change the time from 2 a.m. (or make backups less or more frequent), see the Confluence Changing time of Daily Backup page for instructions.

Stopping Firefox from auto-searching from the address bar

Of the many wonderful features I enjoy in the Mozilla Firefox browser, the feature to automatically perform a Google "I'm feeling lucky" search whenever I accidentally type a bad URL or keyword into the address bar isn't one of them.

The feature in question is Firefox's default behavior to replace the word or words it finds in the address bar with the URL
http://www.google.com/search?btnI=I%27m+Feeling+Lucky&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=[address bar text]
when what you type in the address bar doesn't look like a valid URL or one of the "Quick Search" bookmark keywords. I really like the keyword search feature. I'm constantly typing goo <search terms> into the Firefox address bar to perform a fast Google search. Firefox comes predefined with a Google search keyword as one of the "Quick Search" bookmarks. (I shortened the default "google" keyword for simplicity.) Firefox also comes with predefined keywords to search Wikipedia (wp), an online dictionary (dict), a stock-price lookup (quote), etc.

The problem with Firefox's automatic "I'm feeling lucky" search arises when I mistype one of my keyword searches. For instance, if my Yahoo keyword search is "yah" but I accidentally type
ya spring mvc
instead of performing a Yahoo search for sites talking about Spring's MVC web framework, I end up, for instance, at one of the Spring forum pages that happens to have the word "ya'll" in it. Google's "I'm feeling lucky" search thinks that's the page I want because it has the words ya, spring, and mvc. (We can leave aside for now whether ya'll is a word.)

Since I don't usually want Google to select a search-result page for me, I don't often use its "I'm feeling lucky" search. Except, that is, when I have a typo in my Firefox URL or keyword search on new installations of Firefox before I disable the automatic search feature.

Here's how to tell Firefox not to perform an "I'm feeling lucky" search whenever it doesn't understand the address you type in:
  1. Put your cursor into the Firefox address bar (Ctrl-L is a fast way)
  2. Type about:config
  3. In the Filter text box, type "keyword" and hit Enter or wait a second. You'll see a line that says:
    keyword.enabled                default  boolean  true
  4. Double click on this line. The line will become bold and the value will change from true to false to indicate the feature is now turned off.
  5. You're done
Now, whenever you type the wrong keyword or a bad URL into Firefox, you'll see an Alert box that says the URL is not valid and cannot be loaded. To me, that's what I'd expect Firefox to do rather than take me to some semi-random, unexpected page.

After you type the "about:config" and filter the results to the "keyword" configuration settings, you'll also see the "keyword.URL" preference setting. That's the URL Firefox uses to take you to the "I'm feeling lucky" Google search. If you like the Firefox auto-search feature but want to change the search URL, you can change the value by right-clicking on the line and selecting "Modify."

This level of configurability in Firefox is one of those features I really like. Instead of the typical software attitude of, "You don't like our default behavior? Tough!" Firefox lets you change many preferences to suit your own likes and dislikes.

Atlassian Branches Into CI and SSO

Last night, I attended what was billed as the first-ever Atlassian user-group meeting. Scott Farquhar, one of the founders of Atlassian Software Systems in Australia, was here in northern Virginia for the event.

One of the more interesting segments of the evening was Farquhar's roadmap of future Atlassian products and what's coming in new versions of JIRA and Confluence. In addition to those issue-tracking and wiki products, Atlassian will be releasing a continuous integration product called Bamboo (available for download in early beta form), and a single sign-on and identity management product called Crowd. Both products will be priced in the $1,000 to $5,000 range.

One of the key motivators for Bamboo was that existing CI products, like CruiseControl, are complex to install and configure, Farquhar said. A goal of Bamboo is to be up and running in five minutes.

Crowd will be Atlassian's release of Authentisoft's IDX single sign-on product, developed in J2EE. Atlassian acquired Authentisoft earlier this month. More about the IDX acquisition is available on this TSS discussion thread.

For existing products, Farquhar said coming in JIRA 3.7 will be project roles and Issue Navigator views. Version 3.8 will support hierarchical project categories. Internally, he said, JIRA 4.0 will be built using Maven 2, and more of the base functionality will be pushed into plugins for easier customization. Coming in Confluence 2.3 will be a clustered version to scale to several thousand users (with the help of Tangosol's Coherence clustered caching product), and a people directory to view and find other wiki users.

It was interesting to hear that Confluence has a bigger need to scale than does the more popular JIRA issue tracker. Most JIRA installations manage projects for a division, he said, but companies are installing Confluence to be their corporate-wide collaboration tool, so it needs to be clustered. Because more large companies are using Confluence, Farquhar said, version 3.0 will add improved WYSIWYG page editing, as well as LDAP support, better backup and restore, and a simple installer.

Also as part of the evening, Jonathan Nolen from Atlassian talked about the latest JIRA and Confluence plugins. Some of the plugins, like embedding an Excel document in a wiki page and displaying a calendar from an iCal file, look downright useful.