Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fun with AJAX

I recently added some AJAX bits to the PocoPay website. It was surprisingly easy, especially with the help of a great article on IBM’s developerWorks site. Of course AJAX is either the trendy technology of 2005 or a technological breakthrough that will allow for web apps to really start replacing desktop apps, depending on who you ask. Certainly sites like Google Maps and Flickr have a lot of wow-factor. I used AJAX on our PocoPay to allow for users to request their security code be re-sent to their email address or cell phone. It was well suited to this task since the place where they request this information is the same place where they need to use it, so not having to go to another page or do a refresh of the same page is very nice.

There are a lot of much more interesting web apps out there using AJAX besides just the big names noted above. There are several out there trying to replicate basic office applications (word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, PIM) using AJAX. I’ve also seen some very cool apps in the pipeline from some large business software vendors. One of these combined AJAX with SVG to create amazingly interactive graphical tools. I had used an earlier version of this product that was a Swing application. This new version was not only orders of magnitude faster but also was much easier to use and interact with. Part of that was lessons learned about usability for the product, but certainly AJAX+SVG had really empowered the developers of the product.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The A-Train Rolls On

     I love tennis. I started playing when I was very young because my two sisters played. I started getting up early to watch Wimbledon when I was maybe seven years old. I had my first Wilson Jr. racket about that age as well. I played through high school and college. In 1992 I clocked a 107 MPH serve. In 1994 I hurt my back playing on the 4th of July. In 1996 I went to Vegas to see a Davis Cup match between the US and Sweden.
     So of course growing up when I did, I was a big fan of the great American players of that time: Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, and of course Andre Agassi. Agassi has always been my favorite player. I had some of his Nikes when I was in high school (the black ones with the hot-pink soles.) I’ll never forget when he won Wimbledon in 1992.
     I don’t watch a lot of sports on TV these days. That’s part of being married and having kids. Usually I watch ESPN News (muted) each night when I put my son to sleep. That’s what I was doing Wednesday night, when I saw on the ticker that Andre Agassi and James Blake were in a fifth set at the US Open. I immediately got my wife to change the channel (my hands were full with my son.) Luckily I was just in time for the fifth set tiebreaker.
     All I could say was wow. Tennis does not get any better than that. For that matter, sports don’t get any better than that. It was all I could do not to start yelling and jumping up and down watching that – I was putting my toddler to bed, so that would not have been productive!
That’s what is so great about sports. It made me want to jump up and down and yell triumphantly as Agassi crushed a forehand winner on match point. It’s the ultimate diversion from reality. Just moments before when Blake saved a match point, it reminded me of Agassi losing to Pete Sampras in the semifinals of the 2001 US Open – a match that was probably the best tennis either could play. Then just a minute or so later, Agassi’s victory brought back the joy of seeing him win Wimbledon in 1992. It’s like the old ABC Wide World of Sports theme: “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” It’s those two sides of competition that make sports so memorable and enjoyable.

Monday, September 05, 2005

More Hurricane Frustrations

     I shouldn’t complain about being frustrated with the hurricane relief efforts on Louisiana and Mississippi. After all, I didn’t lose my home. I haven’t been stranded in hellish conditions. I haven’t been short on clean water and food. For what it’s worth, I haven’t even had to pay over $3 per gallon for gas (yet.)  So I really shouldn’t complain. But this is a blog, so of course I will.
     If there’s one thing I have really come to hate over the past few days it’s all the speeches and news conferences by the politicians involved in this fiasco. These speeches are worse than their typical platitudes. These speeches are filled with politicians congratulating and thanking each other on all the “hard work” they’ve been doing. It’s so patronizing and condescending. They’ve all been guilty of this, Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s so sickening to hear them congratulate each other one minute, then promise things will get better the next. If they’ve done such a great job already, then shouldn’t things already have improved dramatically? Of course next is how personally touched they all are by the disaster and then they shed some fake tears.
     Of course the worst of these politicians has been the Unholy Trinity of George W. Bush, Michael Chertoff, and Michael Brown. I don’t know who is the most incompetent between these three. Chertoff’s “City of Louisiana” comment is an Instant Classic. Brown has proved to be no better at managing disaster response than he was at managing Arabian horses. And then of course there’s Bush who seems more schizophrenic each day with all of his we-this, we-that type of comments (“We’re not satisfied with the relief efforts so far.”)
     How refreshing would it be to see some leaders step up and take some personal responsibility for what has gone wrong? Just imagine somebody saying “We weren’t ready for this hurricane even though we should have been.” How nice would it be for one of these guys to finally promise that The Government will help them, instead of directing them to The Red Cross, Salvation Army, or the Bush-Clinton Charity Machine? Wouldn’t that be nice to hear a leader tell a victim “We’re going to help you.”
     At least it seems like it’s finally OK to criticize the incompetence of our government again. Ever since 9/11, criticizing the government meant that you were being political. You couldn’t say that the FBI/CIA/whatever should’ve done more to keep terrorists off those planes on 9/11. You couldn’t say that we should’ve captured Osama bin Laden. You couldn’t point out that the President had said we needed to go to war with Iraq because they had WMDs, but that no WMDs were ever found in Iraq after we conquered it. You couldn’t say any of these things without somebody saying at best that you were being political or at worst saying you were being unpatriotic. So if one good thing comes out of Hurricane Katrina, maybe it will be that people can once again point out facts without fearing censure.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

I grew up in Panama City, Florida. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes. So I had a chill go down my back last Saturday night, when I saw that Hurricane Katrina was a category four hurricane with 145 MPH sustained winds. I could only hope it would miss all of family that still live in Panama City. I got a second chill when I saw that it would probably miss Panama City, but was headed more towards New Orleans.
I have family in New Orleans as well. My uncle has lived there for around twenty years. He and his family used to live in Violet, a suburb of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. They moved to Lacombe about ten years ago. Lacombe is near Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. His oldest daughter, my cousin, lives in Metairie now, right next to New Orleans, with her husband and two children. Seeing a major hurricane headed their way concerned me, but there was something else. I knew about the doomsday scenario of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans. I knew it could overwhelm the levee system and flood the city. So the sight Katrina moving that way frightened me.
You can imagine how I felt the next day when I saw Katrina’s winds reach 175 MPH as it moved ever closer to New Orleans. My wife and I were both incredibly worried. We called our family in Florida to see if they had heard from uncle and cousin. We found out that they had evacuated and were heading to Florida.
We were relieved, but still incredibly worried about New Orleans and its people. Why was not more being done to evacuate the city? We didn’t understand why there weren’t busses to evacuate the people. The doomsday scenario was no secret in New Orleans, and we knew that the people who could get out (like our family), would get out. But New Orleans is a big city and a very poor city. We knew there were tens of thousands that could not get out. We saw people going to the Superdome. That’s a big building, but could not come close to housing all the people that had no way of getting out of New Orleans.
Everyone knows what happened next. Everyone knows about the immense damage done by Katrina. Everyone knows about the levee breaks. Everyone knows about the flooding of the city. Everyone knows about the people stranded in New Orleans and the horrible conditions they had to endure.
Like so many other people, I have been distressed to see the pictures from New Orleans. I’ve tried to do what I can to help the victims, donating money to the Red Cross. My family is still in Florida. My cousin has no idea if her home is still there. Information she’s seen shows that her neighborhood was submerged in three-four feet of water this week. She’s renting a house in Florida, and her husband is trying to find a job. Her oldest son is six and she’s trying to get him in school in Florida. My wife and I are sending her new clothes for her children, since they only have what they could pack in a few suitcases before they left New Orleans last weekend.
And like so many other people, I am outraged by the events this week. I’ve seen both our President and several members of his cabinet claim that nobody could have seen this coming. It’s the biggest lie I’ve heard him tell since he claimed that we needed to invade Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction. I’ve heard about the doomsday scenario in New Orleans my whole life. Just last summer, when Hurricane Ivan hit Florida, the doomsday scenario was all over the news. Certainly just last weekend it was a major topic of discussion. The mayor of New Orleans listed it as the reason why he had ordered the evacuation of the city.
No, people knew this could happen. It wasn’t difficult to imagine it happening last Saturday. So why didn’t people prepare for it? When I say people, I mean the government. There was an imminent threat to millions of Americans last weekend, and the government did not do much to deal with it. It wasn’t until the damage was done and – most importantly – pictures of it were all over the television that the government responded.
Why didn’t the government step in and help evacuate New Orleans? Why weren’t there more busses, or airplanes to get people out of harm’s way? Why wasn’t the National Guard ready to be sent in to the city after the storm? Why weren’t they read to respond to the levee breaks? Why wasn’t there a plan in place to bring food and supplies to the people stranded in the city after the storm?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Some have suggested that it shows the operational incompetence of the President and his administration. It is similar to how unprepared they were to govern Iraq after it was conquered. I think there’s some truth in that. Bush ruined several companies before he went in to government, and that seems consistent with his inability to manage large operations as a President.
The President toured the gulf coast on Friday. A woman there told him she needed help because she had no clothes for her children. I found The President’s response very telling. He told her that The Salvation Army would help her. I hope she wasn’t hoping the federal government would help her, because she would be disappointed.
Indeed, The President’s chief concern seems to be security. This is certainly a valid concern. You can’t help people if you’re being shot at. But when people are in such horrible conditions, then you would like to know that your President wants to do more than send in troops to shoot people stealing TVs.