Archive for October, 2006

On September 26th, President Bush signed into law the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The represents the first piece of legislation sponsored by upstart Illinois senator Barack Obama to make it into law. Being touted as the “Google for Government”, the law directs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to oversee the creation of a single comprehensive searchable Web site that would include information on all federal grants, contracts, and other funding awarded to public and private organizations. As the President mentioned at the signing, the federal government issues more than $400 billion in grants, and more than $300 billion in contracts to corporations, associations, and state and local governments. These range from reputable grants to operate state Medicaid systems to questionable allocation of funds such as the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to build a bridge to a virtually uninhabited island in Alaska, the so called “bridge to nowhere”. Although at way to high a level to be a true comparison, the Death and Taxes graph provides a good representation of what we might end up seeing.

Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006

With an estimated start-up cost of about $5 million per year for the first two years and ongoing costs of $2 million per year, the Web site to support the law will be relatively inexpensive (in the grand scheme of things) for the Federal government. What is the impact going to be on local and state governments? From the bill’s text (more information), it would appear that the costs of reporting direct and sub-award data are to be factored into existing grants as indirect costs, since these costs would result from complying with conditions for federal assistance. Whether or not the states choose to follow suit and drive out more accountability from their grantees and contractors remains to be seen. This type of “trickle down transparency” would certainly be good for the taxpayer though and would demand a level of accountability previously unheard of at the state and local levels.

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I’m often asked about tools and technologies that I use on a daily basis. Like everyone else out there, I lead a pretty busy life and I’m always trying to find ways to be more efficient or to use tools that better support the way I work and live. Below you can find a list of the tools and technologies that make my life easier in some way or the other. I’ve cataloged these tools using some general categories to help delineate functionality. As much as possible, I tried to avoid the mundane things and concentrate on smaller niche tools or new technologies that you might not have heard of or actively use and which might enable you to tweak a bit more efficiency or productivity out of your day. Enjoy and please feel free to add comments citing tools that you believe might be of interest to others.

This Digital Life

Digital Media

  • Wall Street Journal on Audible.com – The Journal is the way that I get my news every day. No commercial interruptions, no funding drives, no annoyances. The MP3 version shows up at around 6:00 am every morning and is ready for download to my iPod. The daily read is about an hour long and includes selected articles unabridged and read in their entirety.
  • IT Conversations – Some really great Podcasts by leading edge thinkers in the IT industry. The material is first rate strategic thinking and helps keep me centered on larger issues even when my day-to-day concerns are often much more pragmatic.
  • TiVo, TiVo Central, and TiVoToGo – Yeah, almost everyone offers DVRs these days but TiVo was not only the original, it has remained the most fully featured. With TiVo Central, you can schedule your recordings from a Web browser so that you can make sure to record that show you forgot to schedule last night. With TiVoToGo, you can transfer TiVo recordings to your PC, laptop, or most recently to a number of mobile video devices, such as the video iPod. There’s nothing like watching Lost or 24 on the walk into work in the morning.
  • Video iPod and the Transpod – The video iPod is truly an amazing thing. All that storage, all those songs, and a phenomenal little viewing screen. The Transpod lets me take my music on the road with me and will continue to get good use until I get my next car, which will definitely have some type of interface for the iPod.
  • Handy Backup – I’ve never had a hard drive with critical personal files crash on me. Statistically speaking, though, it’s only a matter of time before this happens. I therefore use the Handy Backup tool to do incremental and occasional full backups to an offsite FTP server. The disk space, you ask – MediaMax Streamload – $4.99/month for 100GB storage.
  • Turbine Video Encoder – Used for taking my AVI videos and converting them to the industry standard Flash format for video distribution. This is the same process that YouTube does except that it’s not them doing it, it’s me.
  • Audacity – An open source sound recorder and editor that’s great for recording, editing, and publishing audio in MP3 format. I’ve use this for all of my GeoGlue recordings.
  • Afterdark CD Series – With different techno flavors representing a variety of US and international cities, the Afterdark collection contains enough funky grooves to get you through days of work without ever hearing the same song twice.

Web-Based

  • Firefox – Once you go to Firefox, you won’t go back to Internet Explorer. Firefox is benefiting from fresh ideas in a market where others had long since capitulated to Microsoft’s dominance and meaningless updates. Microsoft’s newest version of Internet Explorer, with tabbed browsing, integrated search, and customization is a blatant rip off of Firefox. Thanks but no thanks.
  • Netvibes, RSS, and Delicious – Earlier this year, I switched from my home page of over 3 years – Google and moved to Netvibes, a Web 2.0 home page. While Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft struggled to catch up with their home grown portal offerings. Netvibes and its brethren (such as Pageflakes) have created vibrant ecosystems with all of the portal services that you might need and open APIs to create your own services should you see fit. Two of the most useful services are the RSS and del.icio.us modules. Having access to all of your blogs and favorite links from one well organized home page will contribute a lot to your efficiency.
  • Safari and Books 24×7 – As an addict to technical books, these two sites were godsends in so many ways. With enterprise subscriptions, the entire array of Apress, O’Reilly, Addison Wesley Professional, and Wrox technical books amongst others are at your fingertips. If you buy and read a lot of technical books and can handle the digital media, this is definitely something for you. If the subscriptions seem a bit too pricey, a Professional membership to the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) will get you entry grade access to both of these collections.

Software Engineering

  • Visual Studio Professional and NetBeans – On a day-to-day basis there’s really no other way to do professional .NET and Java development than with a professional IDE. For .NET Visual Studio professional has all of the tools that you need and avoids the overbearing Team System overhead that you might not. With Java, I’m doing my work right now in NetBeans although I’m working with a bunch of different IDEs to determine which I like best. Oracle JDeveloper and MyEclipse are a close second and third, respectively.
  • Enterprise Architect – UML modeling, team-based modeling, round trip code-model synchronization and design tool extraordinaire. Enterprise Architect does it all and does it all well. All of this for $200 per license. EA is arguably one of the best buys in the industry and one tool that you’ll never catch me without.
  • TestDriven.NET – A must have for any .NET developer, in my mind. TestDriven allows you to run a variety of unit test suites (NUnit, MbUnit, and Team System) directly from the Visual Studio IDE. One of the killer features is the ability to run the tests with the debugger. Recent features include the addition of menu items leveraging NCover for code coverage and Lutz Roeder’s Reflector for disassembly and dependency analysis amongst libraries.
  • WebHost4Life and eApps – I host a variety of content online and have found these two hosts to be the best over time. WebHost4Life provides reliable .NET hosting using .NET 1.1/2.0, full SQL Server 2000/2005 functionality (with full Enterprise Manager access), registering of COM/COM+ components, and set up of SharePoint sites. eApps provides Java and Ruby on Rails hosting. Java hosting includes JBoss/Hibernate, OpenLDAP, and Subversion repository creation.

Knowledge and Document Management

  • OpenOffice – Although I’m still locked into Office at work, OpenOffice provides a free alternative from my home computers. With support of the new Oasis standard OpenDoc format, reading from and saving to Microsoft compatible (e.g. Word, Excel, Powerpoint) files, built in PDF creation, and conversion of Powerpoints to Flash, OpenOffice meets all of my home document management needs.
  • Subversion and TortoiseSVN – A great example of truly open source software beating out best of breed commercial competitors. Subversion is an open source revision control system that is replacing CVS as the repository of choice for managing open source and commercial code alike. Running on top of Apache, Subversion communicates very efficiently via http and is thus a great choice for distributed development. With widespread plugin support, including the Windows Explorer-based Tortoise SVN, Subversion is a great choice not only for managing source code but for managing changes to any documents that might be accessed by a variety of users.
  • The Brain – Although there is a lot of mind mapping software out there, the Brain is by far my favorite. It’s a great way to organize disparate thoughts; allowing me to capture hundreds of thoughts, focus on the ones at hand and drill down through the whirling nodes of radial visualization with a few clicks to get to any of those hundreds of thoughts or ideas. Check this one out online.
  • Win2PDF Pro – I distribute almost all my Web-based documents as PDF. Win2PDF Pro is much cheaper than a full version of Acrobat and it let’s me create PDF from most common programs. The pro package includes password protection, encryption, PDF hyperlinks and other niceties.
  • Camtasia – Useful for illustrating the use of particular software or techniques. On-screen activities are captured and may then be edited down and described with the addition of narrative audio tracks.
  • Whiteboard Photo Image – I am a big advocate of using whiteboards as a documentation and facilitation tool. To avoid recreating the informal images on these whiteboards, I suggest the use of digital cameras to capture what’s on the whiteboards and the use of software like whiteboard photo image to make these images a bit more true-to-life of the sketches that were originally created. The tool also does a great job with sketches, CRC cards, user stories, or anything else which starts out as paper but which you might wish to give a bit more permanence.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted my last entry. To get myself back in the groove of things, I thought that it might be nice to post something lighthearted and entertaining that your average tech weenie would enjoy. Now I don’t know if you follow the gurus of the technology world but my research has turned up a set of long lost brothers amongst the talking (or blogging) heads. Check out the two pictures below. The one on the left is Bruce Schneier, cryptography and computer security wunderkind and designer of several cryptographic algorithms, including Blowfish and Twofish. The one on the right is Martin Fowler, refactoring, pattern, and agile god.

Bruce SchneierMartin Fowler

I couldn’t believe it myself when I first saw this but a side-by-side of these two gentlemen makes things perfectly clear. There’s got to be some common lineage here. It’s crazy to think about what our world might have been blessed with were these two great minds not separated at birth. Agile cryptography? Algorithmic refactoring?

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