The quick return of the sun

It may not feel like it, but spring is officially here, and with that, the days continue to get longer. I’d always assumed that we either gain or lose a couple minutes of daylight each day in a more or less constant rate throughout the year. But, it seems that particularly during March, the amount of daylight hours increases at a much faster rate than, say, January. It turns out it’s not just wishful thinking.

Let’s look at the extremes…

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Planets, planets, everywhere!

It wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t even know what the back side of our own moon looked like. My friend, Dave, used to have a globe of the lunar surface, and half of it was blacked out because we had no idea what was on the dark side of the moon.

And when I was a kid, there wasn’t any evidence that other planets existed beyond Pluto. We could speculate, of course, but there was no definitive proof that our solar system wasn’t unique.

This week comes word from the Kepler mission of the discovery of over 700 new planets! That nearly doubles the number found to date, a dramatic uptick of the count that stood at nine only a couple decades ago. And a number of them are supposedly “Earth-like” in terms of possible habitability.

So, we’ve lost Pluto as a planet (it was nice knowing ya’, kid), but gained 715 more in its place. How long will it be before we’re waxing nostalgic about that quaint time when we thought we were the only planet that supported life?

Driving and software… idiots and maniacs

We’ve been getting our fair share of snow this winter in upstate New York, and on those particularly bad morning commutes, the dreaded “idiots and maniacs” pattern is on display in all its glory.

There are the overly cautious drivers creeping in front of you (idiots), and the NASCAR wannabes lapping you in the passing lane or riding your tail (maniacs). And we, with all our prudence and common sense plod along smugly with our morning coffee rolling our eyes at the outliers.

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Get things done in 2014

It’s the end of the year, time to start thinking about buying a treadmill, learning Spanish, and watching less garbage television. Oh, and being more “present” and “in the moment” (I hear that’s all the rage these days).

If one of your resolutions for the new year is to finally get more organized, what’s really worked for me is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Like many of these types of systems, his full-blown plan for getting your life on track can be a bit overwhelming, but there are four takeaways for me that, without much effort, have provided a nice payoff.

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1 Reason is so cool

Even though I’m only offering up one cool thing about Time Magazine’s web site (I’m sure I could find more if I really tried), it seems the best way to get anybody to read anything these days is to make a list out of it.

So here’s my list:

1. Copy and paste a snippet from one of their articles into an email or document!

How many times have you been reading something awesome on the web and you’d like to send it to a friend? You could find the appropriate “share” button on the page, but you’re not sure exactly what will get sent in the email message, or what the site will do with the email address you provide. Too many unknowns.

And what if you want to include a specific snippet from the article in the message, to entice your busy friend to actually click the link and read the article? To accomplish that you have to copy and paste the snippet, and then copy and paste the article’s URL, and then if you want, add in some friendly link in your email instead of just the raw URL. It takes effort. Effort you can’t afford because there are 22 Cats Who Are Too Proud To Admit They Hate Snow on BuzzFeed that you need to get to. has *solved your pesky inconvenience!

Just copy a sentence or two from any article on their site and paste it into your favorite email or word processing app. Not only is the text copied, but also a line stating “Read more:” with a subject link and URL to the article. When I first saw that bit of magic, it made my day.

Sometimes it’s the small things. And, it’s not so much that Time is saving us a ton of time by adding this feature. But when a web site or app, a store or restaurant can make the mundane processes of life just a little easier, we smile… and we remember.

* Some other sites are doing this as well

Got some free time in November? Write a novel!

I’m not a marathon runner, but it sure feels like I’ve signed up for one.

November is National Novel Writing month, which is less a 30-day celebration of the written word and more a torturous slog through the process of drafting a complete first version of a new novel.

The annual “event” dates back to 1999 when San Francisco freelancer Chris Baty and 21 other Bay-area writers challenged themselves to each complete a 50,000-word novel. The project, known as NaNoWriMo, and its associated web site and community has grown steadily in popularity with 341,375 writers participating in 2012. Roughly 10% of those who tried last year ended up reaching their goal.

The purpose of the event is to help motivate those of us who have “always wanted to write a novel” to at least get a rough first draft done. To that end, writers are encouraged to think “quantity over quality” as they make their way through the month-long challenge.

Mostly it’s solitary work, pounding away at the keyboard, but there are local groups in different cities that host kickoff parties and “write ins” at cafes and libraries to give fellow writers encouragement, advice, and most importantly, to actually write!

Some start totally cold with just a germ of an idea (that would make you a “pantser” for writing by the seat of your pants with little prep). Others outline their plots, research, and do character studies before actually starting to write.

The process is pretty simple:

  • Sign up for free on the web site
  • Write an average of 1,667 words a day
  • Check in daily to log your word count
  • By the end of the month, you’ll have a novel

Dang, if only it was that easy!

I’ll be one of the pantsers. All I’ve got in my head at this point is a family coming together to spend a week walking the shores of the Isle of Wight off the coast of England. Family drama type stuff in the style of Jonathon Tropper, conflict between parents and adult children, broken dreams, hope, and an as of yet undetermined crop of local characters they meet along the way.

I seriously don’t know what I’m getting into, but that’s half the fun! We’ll see what happens…

The nation’s first bookless public library

It’s been an exciting week at the office…

It’s hard to think of a library and not picture stacks of dusty books. That’s what libraries do, and do quite well. But that image has been slowly changing and took a major leap forward in San Antonio, Texas this week.

Our newest customer at Polaris Library Systems made national headlines as the first all-digital public library in the country! That’s right, no physical books, no newspapers, no piles of old TV Guides, just computers and over 10,000 e-book titles that can be downloaded or checked out on over 600 loanable e-readers. The new $2.9 million Bexar County Digital Library opened its doors to the public for the first time on Friday.

As part of their vision for the library of the future, staff chose software from Polaris that allows patrons to search for electronic materials and manage their accounts. Our online catalog software also integrates with 3M’s e-book service in a way that helps make the process of searching for and checking out electronic books a truly seamless experience.

So, we’re psyched to be part of history and congratulate Bexar County for its bold move!

Find out more about this unique library from NBC Nightly News, and Time magazine.

Spot the Space Station

One of my fondest memories of grade school was our annual trek to the Southern Cayuga Planetarium in New York’s Finger Lakes region. First we’d meet in a classroom to learn some stuff while we anxiously waited to be led into the planetarium. Walking into that round room with its subdued lighting, settling into those comfortable high-backed chairs, and looking up at the dome of stars was magical.

You can have just as much fun in your own backyard with the real night sky, and one of the more exciting things these days are the flyovers by the International Space Station (ISS) that happen fairly regularly. The ISS orbits the earth once every 90 minutes or so up above the Earth’s atmosphere. In the hours just before sunrise and after sunset, while it may be dark in your backyard, at 260 miles up in the sky the space station is high enough to still reflect the sun. Except for the moon, the ISS is the brightest object in the night sky.

Sometimes weeks go by when it’s not visible in your specific area. Other times it may fly by twice during the evening or morning. Some days it’s low on the horizon and only visible for a minute, other times it may fly directly overhead and be visible for up to six minutes. Finding out when you can view the ISS in your town is as easy as checking the web site

Now I just need one of those comfy planetarium chairs for my deck and I’ll be all set.

Are all the niche social networks taken?

My friend Vinnie has two different size feet. The other day he was telling us stories about how, as a kid, when shopping for shoes his mother would take one shoe from each of two pairs and buy them as a single pair. Once we got through the ensuing discussion of the moral issues involved and whether or not his mother would ‘fess up to it today, it got us thinking… and like most modern day conundrums, the only solution is that “we should build a website!”

A shoe swapping site for people with mismatched feet!

We’ll call it something like ShooSwap or Shuzmazu (there must be some goofy shoe domains still available). The podiatric imbalanced can sign up, list their shoe sizes, and add pictures of the extra shoes they have laying around because they’re the wrong size.

The niche-iest of niche social networks!

Subgroups will organically crop up. All of the L-8/R-9 runners will connect with the L-9/R-8 runners, and the L-9/R-10 skiers will swap boots with L-10/R-9 skiers. We can cut deals with online shoe retailers. The possibilities are endless!

Well… guess what? Of course, somebody is already doing this! Seriously?

The National Odd Shoe Exchange has been around for 70 years, and the looks like the Facebook for unneeded soles.

So, I guess the bad news is that the web has become so pervasive that truly novel ideas are getting harder to come by, and there’s hardly a dusty corner anywhere left on the net. But, the good news is, Vinnie may finally be able to unload some of his unused Keds.

What’s up with that room?

There’s a point in every software project where you take that first step into the “Oh crap!” zone. As a coder, you’ve worked out how you’re going to layer and abstract your modules, the naming conventions and project folder layouts are perfect, and you’re coding away in earnest with a big ‘ole smile on your face. You think, finally, a project that will be easy to maintain and extend!

Aren’t you cute.

Then that big gotcha comes along that you need to shoehorn in to your masterpiece. Some customer-driven “why the heck would they want to do that!?” enhancement, some third party software package you need to interface with, a new last minute “gotta have” from your marketing department.

When I was looking out from my hotel room in New Orleans recently, all I could think of was the architect who designed the Sheraton and how that bank of windows in the upper floors came to be. Was this part of the original design or some last minute executive request… “We need a big conference room on the 30th floor!”?

I guess we software developers aren’t unique in having to “make do” sometimes, and need to be flexible enough to accommodate change and unknowns that suddenly become known. And we can hope that our original “perfect” design, while dinged up a bit here and there, will help make those changes possible.

This came across by Facebook feed a few days ago…

“Much of the pain in life comes from having a life plan that you’ve fallen in love with, and when it doesn’t work out, you become angry that you now have to pursue a new life plan. If you want to tame your inner demons, you must not become too attached to any particular life plan, and remain open to there being an even better happier life plan.”

I’d still love to know what that room is high up in the New Orleans Sheraton… and whose idea it was.

Rethinking software… and dishwashers

We’ve been spending a fair amount of time at the office shifting parts of our legacy Windows-based software to a web-based, cloud solution. Part of that process involves working with some UX designers from outside of the company to help us rethink some of the workflow decisions we made more than a decade ago. It’s interesting what a fresh set of eyes can do when it comes to crafting “better ways” to perform certain tasks.

It’s sort of like an issue I’ve had with our dishwasher. We’ve all dealt with it: the water that accumulates in the wells of the bottom of the glasses. Ugh! And when you pull out the top rack, you’ve got to take great pains to not jiggle anything because water may fall on the already dry dishes below. And forget about actually removing the glasses, particularly if they’re near the back of the rack.

There are a few things you can do to help mitigate this vexing nuisance, like leaning the glasses when you load them in such a way that a minimum amount of water accumulates. Or, I suppose, you could put anything with that type of well in the lower rack, but Mother always said glasses went in the top (I was never quite sure why).

But, like some new, elegant software workflow design feature, there is a simple “why didn’t I think of that?” solution… Unload the bottom rack first!

Another major first world problem solved!

Or, I could have just followed the lead of my nephew, Richie, who as a puzzled nine-year-old once asked me, “How come you’re unloading the dishwasher? Isn’t that Aunt Chick’s job?”

Build 666?

I was doing a bit of HTML trouble-shooting on a customer’s Wyse thin client this week, running IE 6.0 of all things. Argh!!

Anyway, as I was trying to figure out how to get the thing out of kiosk mode, I noticed the build number on the OS release was 666. Now, there’s a software shop with some guts! I can just see the company email coming out of their QA department… “Build 666 looks good, let’s ship it!”

Like the fear of the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia), it turns out there’s also a term for those suffering from the fear of the numerical equivilent of the antichrist: hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.

I guess I’ve got a bit of hex-hex-hex-itis myself… during our last house move, my wife, Chick, and I were scheduled to move into the new place on 6/6/06. Holy schnikies! Who cares, right? But, why tempt fate. We ended up spending the 6th in our old house and moved on the 7th.

So my hats off to the Wyse folks for a daring build 666 release to distribution. Now can we just move beyond IE 6? Please?