Four years ago in bitcoin…

Remember when one bitcoin cost only $450? I do.

Four years ago, video training company Lynda.com published its first cryptocurrency course, my “Up and Running with Bitcoin (later retitled “Learning Bitcoin”). A lot’s changed in that time, so the company (acquired by LinkedIn Learning in 2015) asked me to revise it.

At first it was going to be a simple rework, but it quickly became clear that more was needed. So instead we just released a completely new, updated, and expanded course, “Learning Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies. It’s on LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com; see it with a free month’s membership; here’s the intro video:

 

It’s fun to watch the original course, which is still on LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com (although I doubt it’ll be there for long). Aside from increased market interest — which I’ll write about another time — here are some notable changes in bitcoin over the last four years:

  • Bitcoin’s not the only game in town anymore. Well, in truth it wasn’t alone back in 2014, either: I personally held small amounts of the cryptocurrencies Litecoin and Dogecoin then as well. (I was a “Dogecoin millionaire” for the princely sum of US$200; a million Dogecoin now costs about $3,500.) But today there are over a thousand cryptocurrencies; a half-dozen have a market capitalization higher than bitcoin’s was then. While bitcoin’s market cap is still by far the biggest, it typically comprises only about 35-40% of the total for all cryptocurrencies.
  •  Cryptocurrency technology has expanded and diversified. Back then, the main difference among cryptocurrencies had to do with how it was mined — specifically, the cryptographic algorithm that secured the blockchain. But many coins these days don’t even use the (insanely wasteful) bitcoin-style “proof-of-work” system any more. Proof-of-stake, proof-of-time, sampling systems, hybrid solutions… the list is long. One of the cryptocurrencies I discuss in the course (IOTA) doesn’t use a blockchain at all, while another (Ethereum) has spawned an entirely new kind of cryptocurrency (ICOs) that rides on the back of its blockchain.

 

  • Centralization, centralization, centralization. One of bitcoin’s greatest achievements is the creation of a security system with no single point of failure: No one company, bank, or government could shut it down. But like anarchy, decentralization is inherently unstable, as collectives band together to squeeze out small players. Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of bitcoin mining, where three pools (overwhelmingly Chinese) control enough power to topple the whole system, running hardware made by a small handful of (also Chinese) manufacturers. On one hand, centralization means errors (or greed, or malice) by a few people could cause big problems; on the other, it can give a cryptocurrency better convenience, liquidity, and popular acceptance.
  • Cryptocurrencies have public acceptance — but not public use. The original bitcoin white paper criticized existing payment systems as unsuitable for “small casual transactions” because the transaction cost was too high. The irony is that a bitcoin transaction cost is now over a dollar, while it was about US$0.04 when I recorded the 2014 course. So the promise of being able to use it for ordinary purchases has mostly vanished, taking with it a big motivation for public interest. And yet more and more people have come to understand its foundations from repeated exposure to articles, news stories, and water-cooler conversations.

So what hasn’t changed? 

While the bitcoin (and cryptocurrency) world is quite different from 2014, I would argue that it’s still not mature.

Cryptocurrency generally now share a quality that I saw in the early years of popular computers and the commercial Internet: It’s a solution in search of a problem. There’s still no “killer app” that compels ordinary people to convert their dollars, euros, and yen to them.

Many people claim to have such a solution — a list of initial coin offerings (ICOs) proves that. But nobody knows whether bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency will find its VisiCalc, its Google. (I suspect the popular breakthrough will be something silly, like Cryptokitties… or the traditional vehicles for the technological leading edge, porn and gambling.)

A year before recording the 2014 bitcoin course, I wrote some bitcoin predictions for Slashdot.org. You can judge how well they turned out overall. But one in particular was absolutely right: “Bitcoin is not the end game.” Let’s check back in 2022 to see whether any current cryptocurrencies were.

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Tom Geller (tomgeller.com) is a writer and videojournalist with feet in The Netherlands an the U.S.. 

In praise of business travel

Travel ennobles, emboldens, and improves.

Business travel is expensive, exhausting — and often irreplaceable. Yes, virtual reality is getting better, and I’ve wasted many an evening “touring” distant places on Google Maps Street View, like the cafe that was my “office” for years. So with the cost of meals, travel, business hotels, and lost office time, how do you justify it?

I outline five purposes for business travel in the new LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com course, Traveling for Business. Three of them — Events, Scouting, and Sales trips — produce measurable results, such as resumés collected or leads gathered. Metrics like these are the food of ROI calculations, but it’s short-sighted to look only at the numbers.

(Want to know the other two travel purposes? Watch this free video from the course.)

So here are three other, unmeasurable benefits you miss by staying

  • You discover subtleties of place. I’ve been shopping for a condo in my adopted city in The Netherlands. There’s one development that looks really good on paper, well-located and cheap. But walking up to the unit I felt the loose railing, and saw the chipped stairs and flickering lights. Smells, ambient noise, aggressive neighbors… none of these come through a computer screen. Nor does the mood in the office of a prospective partner, or the way a prospective employee shakes your hand.
  • Serendipity leads you to opportunities. I’ve come to believe that the best parts of conferences happen in the hallways — so much so that I’ll sometimes skip a low-priority session just to hang out and see what happens. Certainly you should do what you came for. But don’t be surprised if your most-profitable meetings happen on the hotel shuttle. (Remember to carry business cards everywhere!)
  • You grow. Travel ennobles, emboldens, and improves. It provides context for the little tasks we do in our offices; it shows how others accomplish in environments different from our own. Its slow times force the individual to look inwards, while surmounting its challenges imparts confidence for the next trip. People who travel learn something about themselves and their place in the world, regardless of the trip’s ostensible purpose. A smarter person makes smarter decisions, and the whole organization benefits.

Besides all of this: Business travel, done with adequate preparation and resources, is just plain fun. The same plane that takes you to a sales meeting is also taking families to their vacation. And while you’ll be obliged to perform for eight (or ten, or even twelve) hours a day, that leaves plenty of time to absorb and enjoy the joy of the new.

So certainly: Have videoconferences. Outsource remote services. And explore the world in Google Maps. But don’t forget to someday walk into that cafe, smell the fresh cookies, and shake the barista’s hand.

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Tom Geller is the author/presenter of several video courses available through Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning, including Freelancing Foundations and Writing Formal Business Letters and Emails. He’s at tomgeller.com and tgprods.com, and on Twitter as tgeller.

 

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/praise-business-travel-tom-geller

Twitter, 140 characters, and effective writing

Twitter’s 140-character limit puts the burden of clarity on the writer, where it belongs.

Why is Twitter so influential among the famous and powerful?

It’s the platform of choice not only for politicians and celebrities, but for us ordinary schmos trying to reach them. And we succeed: Bill Gates and Lady Gaga regularly answer, retweet, and give shouts-out. (Hey, I even got a response from BoJack Horseman!)

Twitter’s popularity certainly plays a part, as the world’s 13th most-visited website. But that can’t be the only reason. Reddit and Facebook rank higher, yet they rarely enjoy the same kind of engagement. Why?

To understand, change your perspective. Pretend you’re the star (or the star’s staff), getting up in the morning and scrolling through your social media. How long does it take to read and understand each message? Now multiply that by thousands (or tens of thousands) and you see the problem. Messages on Facebook et al. can be any length, so writers don’t exercise discipline. More, they wrongly think, is better.

Twitter’s 140-character limit puts the burden of clarity on the writer, where it belongs. It’s a form of what writing students call constrained writing, and it’s an incredibly effective technique for sparking both creativity and precision. So not only are tweets faster to read than Facebook posts — they’re easier to read, too.

Concise messages win on other platforms, too. It’s a point I make in my just-released LinkedIn Learning / Lynda.com course, Writing Formal Business Letters and Emails. Brief messages appeal not only to busy people, but also to those with visual impairments, and those who don’t read your language well. (I know this as an American living in The Netherlands: I can read Dutch, but skip long social-media posts in the language. Who needs the struggle?)

Twitter is now testing double-length tweets, through which it hopes to relieve “a major cause of frustration for people Tweeting in English”. I think this is a mistake: As with highways and prisons, people will find excuses to fill available space. And all those famous and powerful people you want to reach will stop reading.

In its announcement, Twitter nailed it by saying that “Twitter is about brevity. … Tweets get right to the point with the information or thoughts that matter.” But then: “That is something we will never change.” I’m sorry, Twitter, you can’t have it both ways. If you make the change to 280 characters, the point will get delayed and buried.

For proof, here are the latest (as I write this) two tweets from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. First, 105 characters:

https://twitter.com/jack/status/930640144155099136

Now, 273 characters:

https://twitter.com/jack/status/928658511311097856

Which did you actually read? Which did you understand?

As for me, I’ve taken the #140pledge to keep my tweets under the old limit. Follow suit if you want your tweets to get seen, read, and understood. Brevity pays off.

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Bonus for reading this far: Here’s a free, unlocked video from my new course. 🙂

Tom Geller is the author/presenter of several video courses available through Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning, including Writing Articles and Writing Formal Business Letters and Emails. He’s at tomgeller.com and tgprods.com, and on Twitter as tgeller.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/twitter-140-characters-effective-writing-tom-geller

How Hurricane Irma exposed a fundamental Bitcoin weakness

Yesterday I got an email that said all my bitcoin was about to disappear. Hurricane Irma, it claimed, had damaged the servers of a company where my bitcoin was stored. There was a backup, but it would disappear soon, so I needed to move my money to the address provided.

Was it a scam? Yes, but I only knew that by getting geeky with the email headers. (Nerdnote: It originated in the Tor network and routed through a mail server in an offsite country.) But it was perhaps the easiest-to-believe email scam I’ve seen in my thirty years online. Why?

Because bitcoin sometimes just disappears.

This needs some explaining. When someone sends bitcoin, the transaction is recorded on a worldwide ledger. Practically speaking, it’s permanent: Nobody can go back to reverse the charges. That’s different from checks and credit cards, and the key to bitcoin’s excellent technical security.

(I talk about this in “How Bitcoin works”, a video from my Learning Bitcoin course. LinkedIn has allowed me to make that video available for free here.)

(Jonathan Reichental goes deeper in his course Blockchain Basics.)

But “secure” doesn’t always mean “safe”: Bitcoin transactions are also irreversible when you accidentally lose bitcoins. And that happens a lot.

I know this from personal experience, when my phone got wiped and the digital backup of my bitcoin wallet failed. (I fortunately also had a paper backup, an extra step few bother with.) People have lost bitcoin by upgrading a computer, losing control of a phone number, tossing old electronic junk, and dozens of other ways. Digital assets are incredibly fragile.

If you don’t want to access bitcoin through your phone, the other option is an “online wallet”. But such a wallet is only as good as the company protecting it. After the company Mt. Gox made over a half billion dollars of bitcoin disappear, online wallets don’t seem like a good idea, either.

Billions of dollars of bitcoin have simply vanished and will never be recovered.

So when I got that email, it seemed not only plausible that my bitcoin was at risk, but likely. A company having bad backup procedures? That’s the rule, not the exception. A need for action to “save” my bitcoin? Sure — consider this somewhat confusing blog post from Coinbase when a spinoff currency (“fork”) happened this summer. I need to shuffle money into a new wallet? It won’t be the first time.

So what can you do?

  • If you’re holding bitcoin on a computer or device, back up your wallet and test the backup periodically by restoring it in another location. A backup that doesn’t work isn’t a backup.
  • Store a minimal amount in online wallets. I know, companies such as Coinbase claim that your deposits are fully insured — and as I know and respect that company, I believe it. But anyone can say that, including crooks. And Coinbase provided no details when asked. Without those, “trust me” doesn’t fly.
  • Keep a written record of where you’ve stored your bitcoin, and “touch” it once in a while. Does that flash drive still work? Is your online wallet still in business? Has a phone upgrade made your bitcoin inaccessible?
  • Follow all the usual best practices for online security: Use good passwords, confirm questionable activities, and so on.

As for what the industry can do…

Well, not much. At least, there’s no reason to change bitcoin itself, as its irreversibility is as much its strength as its weakness. I predicted a growth of secondary bitcoin services such as fund-clearing and insurance four years ago; some have appeared to ameliorate bitcoin’s fragility, but I think more needs to be done in this area.

Bitcoin’s instability is bad for its users. But it’s also a business opportunity; whoever can solve it will reap great rewards.

Tom Geller is the author/presenter of the video course Learning Bitcoin and several others available through Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning. He’s at tomgeller.com and tgprods.com, and on Twitter as tgeller.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-hurricane-irma-exposed-fundamental-bitcoin-weakness-tom-geller

Is bitcoin the “currency of criminals”? Numbers tell the tale.

Last week you made this article one of the most popular of my career, currently topping 2,600 Likes. It rebuts a video where Greg Leffler makes some questionable statements about bitcoin.

The statement of his that’s garnered the most discussion is that bitcoin is the “currency of criminals”. A lot of the comments basically came down to “yes it is!” “no it isn’t”, with no supporting evidence. My article offered a little, but I admit it was weak. (I dismissed the illicit markets’ volume while pointing to numbers that imply high volume for legal bitcoin use.)

What’s needed, as usual, are numbers.

Specifically:

  1. What percentage of bitcoin is used for illegal activity (vs. legal activity)?
  2. At what percentage threshhold do we say that a currency is a “currency of criminals”?

How criminal is bitcoin?

To compute the first answer you first need to know total bitcoin volume. You’d think that it’s easy to figure this out, as all transactions are recorded on the blockchain, a worldwide ledger that’s essentially unchangeable and universal. But then you run into a problem of definition: Do you count bitcoins that are exchanged for dollars (or vice-versa)? That’s a big part of bitcoin’s transaction volume — bigger, I think, than for any other currency. (This feature lends support to arguments that bitcoin is an asset, not a currency. For this discussion, though, let’s consider it as a currency.)

Then you have to know the volume for illegal activity. That’s hard to do for any currency, as people generally try to hide their lawbreaking. Mr. Leffler lists as hotbeds of bitcoin criminality: malware ransoms; drugs; fake I.D.s; and assassinations. We have some figures for malware ransoms paid in bitcoin (as, again, those payments are visible on the blockchain): About $1 billion in 2016 according to one report.

Besides malware, we have to know the size of the bitcoin “dark market” for drugs, fake I.D.s, and assassinations. As far as I know, nobody’s made reliable, recent calculations for these. So our debates are just us throwing invisible rocks at each other. I believe that these numbers are relatively small, and welcome evidence to the contrary.

How does bitcoin compare to the dollar, euro, bhat?

Finally, it’s time to answer the second question: What is the percentage threshhold to make something a “currency of criminals”? Well, this whole discussion is really comparing bitcoin to dollars (et al.), so let’s start there. One 2012 estimate puts the “underground economy” of the U.S. at around 12.5%. In other countries, the shadow economy comprised over 50% of total economic activity in the early 2000s.

Calculating the answer

Even without complete information, we can now apply these numbers to bitcoin. With malware at $1billion/year, let’s say that the illegal “dark market” measures up at another $1billion/year. (This is admittedly my own guess: You can change the numbers according to your own guess.) $2billion is 12.5% of $16billion. $2billion is also 50% of $4billion.

So by these assumptions: If bitcoin’s legitimate use is over $16billion/year, the U.S. dollar is more of a “currency of criminals”. If bitcoin’s legitimate use is over $4billion, it’s typical of other world currencies.

Only if legitimate bitcoin volume is under $4billion/year can it be considered more “criminal” in use than (for example) the Thai bhat.

What are the real figures? Is bitcoin the “currency of criminals”? Numbers will tell: I welcome your evidence in the comments.

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I’m the author/presenter of the LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com course “Learning Bitcoin“. One video from that course is shown above.

I’ve written a few other things related to bitcoin, and a whole lot about technology and such. I’m currently producing a documentary about efforts to model the human brain in computers, “Almost a Brain“.)

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/bitcoin-currency-criminals-numbers-tell-tale-tom-geller

No, THIS is what bitcoin is, really: Four ways Greg Leffler is wrong, wrong, wrong

With bitcoin topping an unprecedented $2,400, LinkedIn Senior Software Editor Greg Leffler called bitcoin “the currency of criminals” in his video, “Bitcoin: What You Should Know“. This opinion was already outdated when LinkedIn Learning released my video series “Learning Bitcoin” three years ago. My “What is bitcoin” video from that course summarizes its history and then-current uses.

With that out of the way, I’d like to address a few of Mr. Leffler’s statements:

“Bitcoin is the currency of criminals”

He repeats variations of this throughout the two-minute video, along with sarcastic assertions that its legitimate uses pale by comparison. He lists its main uses as: to pay malware ransoms (although the recent worldwide “WannaCry” attack netted under $100,000 in bitcoin); to buy drugs (where? Silk Road and most of its bitcoin-fueled ilk have been closed for years); to buy fake I.D.s (same) and assassinations (same… also, probably only in his mind. If he has some figures showing how murderers are getting paid, I’d like to see them).

How do these “realistic” uses of bitcoin compare with the legitimate ones Mr. Leffler dismisses? It’s hard to find percentage figures for bitcoin sales, but some companies that accept payment in bitcoin include Steam ($3.5 billion gross revenue in 2015); Overstock.com (1.8 billion in 2016); and Newegg ($2.6 billion in 2015). If .000013 of their revenue comes from bitcoin, that beats the $100,000 number.

“Bitcoins don’t have any intrinsic value. It’s not a thing you can hold. It’s not worth anything in and of itself.”

That… actually describes most financial instruments. All “money” (except commodity money) is based on the value that others will trade for it. And just because you can hold something, that doesn’t mean it has value. (I offer a stack of worthless hundred-trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknotes as proof.)

“Everybody promises that the blockchain is going to be the next big thing in technology… it’s not.”

Well, Mr. Leffler is a technologist, and he’s right that the blockchain (on which bitcoin’s security is based) hasn’t changed technology in a grand way. It’s introduced a relatively small idea into security tech… which has had triggered fundamental changes at the highest levels of government and corporate finance. Check out blockchain enthusiasm in the last few days from: the Monetary Authority of Singapore; Walmart; and Fidelity. An apt comparison is public-key cryptography, a small idea from the 1970s that now underlies damn near all online security.

“If you want to move any remotely large amount of bitcoin, it’s going to shift the market.”

Well, let’s look at the numbers. The total market value of bitcoin today is $60 billion. About 200,000 bitcoins (not 2,000, as he claims) went through exchanges yesterday, with a market value over $400 million. Just the top three largest transactions today have a value of $10 million — with no visible impact on the market. (And it’s only noon where I am!) Transactions of this size regularly get market value. How “remotely large” is he talking about?

Takeaway: Don’t take vaccine advice from actresses whose knowledge comes from discredited 20-year old studies. And don’t take bitcoin advice from technologists whose knowledge comes from 2010 news media.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-bitcoin-really-four-ways-greg-leffler-wrong-tom-geller

Untried techniques? Budget extra time.

I’ve been busy working on a 45-second teaser trailer for my documentary-in-development, Almost a Brain. Here’s a 10-second sneak peek of just the tagline.

This trailer is taking a lot longer than expected. Last night I realized why: I want to set the project’s entire tone from the beginning. That’s a tall order! In the process I’ve learned been forced to learn new techniques to make it look, sound, and feel as I want. For example: Some of the lighting effects looked great in After Effects and Premiere, but terrible with my usual export settings. Video is a fickle mistress!

This is actually the second trailer I created. The first was somewhat rushed, as if meeting a short deadline, and done in a style familiar from my ACM videos. But then I threw the whole thing away and started again. My entire process has had to change for this project — I think it’s for the better, and hope the results demonstrate that.

The process has served as a reminder that new projects need extra time. It’s a corrollary to the old saying, “Practice makes perfect”: When you do something for the first time, you’ve never practiced it before. So expect imperfections — and then plan time to sand them away. The payoff is twofold: First, you’ll be proud of your project. Second, you’ll add new skills that make you more dextrous, flexible, and marketable.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/untried-techniques-budget-extra-time-tom-geller

Supercomputing, quantum computing, and the documentary “Almost a Brain”

I got the idea from “Almost a Brain” after learning that the world’s top supercomputers are nearing the level of raw power in our brains — about a billion billion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) operations per second (an “exaflop”). I’ve since come to recognize that there’s a lot more to brain modeling than power, but supercomputing still has a special place in my heart.

It’s a topic I first covered in 2011, when the fastest computer could reach achieve about 1/120th an exaflop. I wrote a few more articles on the subject, then created the following four-minute video. It features Daniel Reed, who’s a pretty interesting guy: He’s both a computer science professor and a college Vice President at the University of Iowa. (And he helped create the first web browser in the early ’90s!)

Exascale Computing and Big Data from CACM on Vimeo.

Somewhat related to supercomputing is quantum computing, which has the potential for much more power (in some respects) than traditional supercomputers can offer. University of Arizona Professor Stuart Hameroff has put forth some intriguing theories about quantum computing in the human brain: I look forward to digging deep for his Almost a Brain interview.

But for a bit of background in the meantime, enjoy this video I did with Professor Benoît Valiron about how to program quantum computers.

Programming the Quantum Future from CACM on Vimeo.

(This post is the first in a series of four. Soon to come: insights from research in artificial intelligence, human behavior modeling, and computational biology.)

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/supercomputing-quantum-computing-documentary-almost-brain-tom-geller

Freelancers: You, too, can work at LinkedIn Top Companies

They’re big and well-established, but they need our nimbleness

On Thursday, LinkedIn released its list of 50 “top” U.S. companies, based on site engagement, job applications, and employee retention. (There are also lists for Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, and the U.K..)

LinkedIn mostly focuses on salaried employees, but there are also freelancing opportunities at these companies — if you know where to look. Here are some tips I’ve collected from freelancing at such companies as Apple, Wells-Fargo, and Qualcomm. (I cover many of these topics in my LinkedIn Learning course, “Freelancing Foundations“.)

  • Target departments, not companies. Only companies with at least 500 employees made the LinkedIn list. That’s way too many people for the H.R. department to know what everybody’s doing, so a pitch sent there is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, target your efforts at departments that are likely to need your skills. That takes research — and possibly sending a few InMails.
  • Get your house in order. Companies often turn to freelancers to complete short-term projects: They want straightforward professionals ready to just walk in and do the job. The more you can show that you’re such a person — for example through a web portfolio, business cards, and client endorsements — the better your chances of attracting their attention.
  • Be prepared to do paperwork… and wait. Big companies have big bureaucracies. They might require freelancers to have business insurance, or be contracted via purchase order, or submit expenses through some arcane system. Then you might have to wait for all that paperwork to be processed before you ever start work (or see a check).
  • Be diligent and patient. Approach large companies as long-term investments of your time. But in turn, they can turn into clients who come back to you for years. (They don’t want to go through all that paperwork again for someone else!)

Are you a freelancer who’s had success with big clients? Share your tips in the comments below.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/freelancers-you-too-can-work-linkedin-top-companies-tom-geller

Documentary “Almost a Brain” to explore how computers are nearing human thought

Artificial intelligence and supercomputers provide the power. What happens next?

ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS, May 12, 2017 — 100 billion neurons. 100,000 billion connections. A billion billion operations per second. The numbers are incomprehensible. This is your brain. And soon, computers will be able to mimic its operations on the most fundamental levels.

What happens then? Will these new brains understand themselves as we do? Will they feel? What aspects of human thought will remain the province of humans alone? How will we revise our ideas of humanity?

These are questions the documentary “Almost a Brain” will explore through archival research and original interviews with neurologists, computer scientists, and leaders in philosophy. The project is led by Tom Geller, a technology journalist who has produced videos and articles on related topics for The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Nature.com, and others.

“Computer models of the human brain are already sophisticated enough to help figure out and treat disorders such as epilepsy,” Geller said. “Now, projects like the Human Brain Project in Europe and the BRAIN Initiative in the United States are filling in the gaps. I believe it’s only a matter of time before something resembling ‘thought’ emerges from such models, whether unexpectedly or through concerted efforts. How it differs from that of biological humans, and how we react to it, will fundamentally change how we see ourselves.”

With bases in The Netherlands (Rotterdam) and the U.S. (Oberlin, Ohio), Tom Geller Productions has secured interview commitments with experts including AI pioneer Eric Horvitz, Microsoft Technical Fellow and Director of Microsoft Research Labs; and Professor Jack Dongarra, who tracks the world’s fastest computers through the semi-annual TOP500 reports.

To participate or learn more, visit almostabrain.com.

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/documentary-almost-brain-explore-how-computers-nearing-tom-geller

Why “killer robots” don’t worry me

And why they won’t be featured in “Almost a Brain”

Last Friday I announced my upcoming documentary about computers that model the human brain, “Almost a Brain“. And I’ve started talking about it to everyone I can. I practice my pitch on them while watching their faces for signs of interest, skepticism, and outrage. This is market research; it’ll affect what the documentary covers, and how.

But there’s one reaction that I’m basically going to ignore: “When computers are smarter than us, won’t they take over?” It’s an old fear that’s gotten a lot of attention in the last few years because of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) — and the concerns of famous “smart people” including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. It’s a tale perfect for the anxiety-addicted U.S. media, featuring celebrities, strong opinions, and imminent danger.

And I don’t care.

Well, that’s not completely true. I care in the sense that I believe that any new, powerful tool demands caution and respect. We can expect a period of unbounded possibility and lawlessness, followed by a settling down as society decides what costs are worth the rewards. This consensus is never pretty: Consider the million-plus deaths per year we accept in exchange for the benefits we get from driving cars, for example. It’s wise to start the discussion now.

For the purposes of my documentary, though, the apocalypse argument isn’t interesting. First, because it’s unlikely, at least in the general sense described in the media. Second, it’s already well-covered: I have nothing new to add. Third, and most importantly, it’s a technological discussion of something that’s ultimately a human matter. The doomsday scenarios require human cooperation to build, spread, and apply the technology, in the face of (human) opposition. That’s a much bigger nut to crack than the technical ones.

These human matters also lead to more interesting questions. Such as: What is human thought? Will we recognize it when we see it? How will we then differentiate ourselves from our creations?

These questions are at least as old as biblical stories of golems. They have new importance now, as supercomputers approach the raw processing power of the human brain; neurologists can map and better understand the relationship between brain and thought; and artificial intelligence opens new windows into how we learn, and ultimately create. So the stimulus to make this documentary now is technological; its motivation, however, is human.

That’s why I’m actively pursuing sources in the areas of philosophy and human neurology for the documentary — areas outside my own field of computer science. As Wavy Gravy often says, “It’s all done with people.” So Almost a Brain is ultimately about people — old and new.

 

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-killer-robots-dont-worry-me-tom-geller

When business travel goes wrong: location, location, location

To get something accomplished, first make sure you’re in the right country. According to an article in the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad yesterday, some protesters missed that point when they accidentally put pressure on the rural government of Rotterdam, New York (population: 30,000) instead of The Netherlands’ second-largest city.

Such errors happen surprisingly often, even among business travel professionals. Years ago, I was planning travel to Santa Ana and asked the company’s travel agent if I could stay at a certain hotel chain. “I’m afraid it’s not available,” she said. “How about the one in Sacramento?” (Note: The two are a seven-hour drive apart.)

O.K., those are both extreme examples. But when you book a room, you’re balancing among a dozen criteria: room quality, parking, food options, exercise amenities, and so forth. For business travel, I believe you should consider location high on priority list. Here’s why:

  • Most business trips involve at least two main locations: Your hotel and the meeting place. The closer the two are, the less unproductive time you’ll spend in transit — and, more importantly, the fewer things likely to go wrong and make you late for appointments.
  • For trips around a group event (such as a convention), a lot of the real action happens “in the hallways” — those serendipitous times you see a high-value colleague in the hotel lobby or on the shuttle bus.
  • In city environments especially, one block’s distance can make a world of difference with regard to noise and safety. Unless you know the city already, you could pay with your sleep or comfort.

So what makes a good location? In short, it’s one that helps you fulfill the purpose of your trip. Although the examples above suggest that closer is better, that’s not always true. For example, you might be on a trip that requires you to travel to several places in a day: You might be best served by a place with good parking (regardless of location), or at the center point of public transit.

Such places might actually be outside of your target city, for example in a nearby suburb on the city’s “right” side. I’m a fan of Google Maps for figuring out travel times and neighborhood conditions. Its Street View is particularly helpful, letting me virtually walk around to suss out nearby eateries, walking conditions, and (perceived) neighborhood safety. You’ll also immediately see if you’ve made a grave mistake — like thinking you can commute from Sacramento to Santa Ana.

Did you stay in a location that helped (or hindered) your trip in unexpected ways? I’d love to read your stories in the comments below!

Tom Geller is the author of the LinkedIn Learning video course “Freelancing Fundamentals“. He serves American and European clients from his home in Rotterdam — the one in The Netherlands.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/right-hotel-oh-so-wrong-place-tom-geller

Leaving the country on 5 December 2016

The Netherlands' position highlighted within Europe

On 5 December I’ll leave the U.S. to spend an undetermined period in what may become my new home in The Netherlands — Rotterdam. I’ll live in temporary housing until their immigration department finalizes my residency permit, which I hope will happen within a couple of months. I’ll rent out my house in Oberlin, Ohio for short stays and will continue to serve my existing American clients. However, I also plan to focus Tom Geller Productions on European opportunities.

I’ve lived mostly in two places since graduating from college, and left both for the same reason: I felt I’d gotten what I wanted from the place and was itching for something different. (I wrote three years ago about my move from San Francisco to Oberlin, Ohio.) This time is no different. I moved to Oberlin almost nine years ago to do some “adulting” and to enjoy a quieter, more-easygoing place. Now it’s time for me to be back in a city, and Rotterdam is a fun place that I know from two previous months-long visits.

I expect people to think I’m moving because of the current political climate in the U.S.. That’s not among my top reasons. Like a thinking citizen of any country, I feel pains and joys about my own. This is a topic for another time.

I’ll be back in the U.S. for a bit in April (and traveling in Europe sometimes before then.) For now, my Twitter account is probably the best way to keep up. More later.

Moving on from Drupal

Kabe, an important figure in Esperanto history

In the Esperanto language there was a great writer and activist known as “Kabe“. After creating magnificent translations and reaching a position of authority, he suddenly left Esperanto life, never to participate again. So notorious was his disappearance, the language gained the verb “Kabei” — to vanish suddenly from a position of great visibility.

I’d be flattering myself to compare my position in the Drupal world to Kabe’s in Esperantio — the Esperanto world. But my lynda.com courses and other writings about Drupal made me fairly well-recognized in Drupal circles.

I’ve been absent from those circles for the last couple of years, and feel the need to give closure to — and recognize — those I got to know there.

I got started in Drupal because I wanted to build a dynamic website to promote a book I’d written. It was a period of great growth for Drupal, and lynda.com accepted my proposal to create a seven-hour “Essentials” video course. (I think they agreed because their first CMS course — on WordPress — was selling pretty well.) That led to seven more, a book, a magazine column, various presentations, and a lot of corporate work.

Was I a “Drupalista”? That’s tough to say. I’ve sincerely enjoyed working with it: Although I’ve come to recommend WordPress for inexperienced site builders with minimal needs, I’m still thrilled with how much I can accomplish with Drupal and a free afternoon. As I (like most people) have come to live more and more online, Drupal has given me more control over my environment. For example, I’m not afraid that I’ll lose a major chunk of my history as LiveJournal slips down the tubes: Through Drupal I made a local copy, privately linking commenters to their real-wold contact information. Those tools, those gifts of the Drupal community, are still with me.

We grew apart. Drupal ceded the mom-and-pop market to other platforms, focusing instead on enterprise needs. That’s a fine match… but it’s not what interests me, personally. Coding — a skill I don’t have — eclipsed site-building, evidenced by the increasing percentage of Planet Drupal posts on the subject. And Drupal 8’s unexpectedly long development time caused a major writing project to stall after I’d put in a month of work.

But oh! What a fine relationship we’ve had. I’m scared to list the people who have made my time in “Drupalio” so much fun — I’m sure I’d miss many. But I want to recognize everybody who helped me on Drupal.org; those involved with Drupal companies I’ve worked with (Commerce Guys, Mediacurrent, Acquia, Phase2 Technology, DrupalEasy, Tag1 Publishing, TopNotchThemes); those who corresponded privately about Drupal matters; and those who continue to make Drupal great. I’d be very happy to hear from you directly, and will continue to check in on drupal.org (where I’m tgeller) from time to time.

I’ve gone back to general technology journalism and communications. Lately I’ve been quite happy working in video, and have started a U.S.-based agency, Tom Geller Productions. Making a monthly video for The Association for Computing Machinery has put me in touch with people doing fundamental research. I intend to do for that community what I’ve tried to do for the Drupal community: to make their work clear and accessible to those without specialist knowledge.

Esperantio and “Drupalio” are quite different. But they’re similar in an important way — one that’s shared by any international community of people gathered for a righteous cause. After a time, the cause changes and falls away, leaving intact relationships that linger. As Wavy Gravy said, “It’s all done with people.” Although I might kabei, look forward to seeing you people, wherever we meet.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/moving-from-drupal-tom-geller

Make “Views in Core” happen!

Screen shot of Views' administrative interface

Summary: Making Views part of Drupal “core” will make its future more secure, but will take substantial resources. Therefore, please donate 1/1,000th of your annual income ($50 if you make $50,000/year, for example) using this widget.

Now, the why.

Few Drupal sites could exist without Views, which lets site builders easily combine and display data. For example, let’s say your site includes employees and store locations: Views lets you produce a list of employees, a map of what stores they work at, and a schedule of when they’re working.

These are typical requirements, but without Views you’d have to know PHP and MySQL to make them happen. With Views, an intermediate-level site builder without programming experience — like me — can make truly professional sites.

Views is one of Drupal’s strongest competitive advantages, and why I created a video training series about it. I’ve never heard of a working site built without Views.

So Views is important. But why should it be in core?

Maintainer Earl Miles’ original post gives the details. In short:

  • It’ll become better integrated with Drupal’s core systems.
  • Site builders won’t have to install (and maintain) extra bits for Views’ functionality.
  • Responsibility for maintaining it can be better spread over a larger developer base.
  • Developers can do more, knowing that all site builders have Views installed.
  • We can simplify Drupal by getting rid of obsolete modules such as Poll and Blog.

There’s a (reasonable) argument that Views would bloat a Drupal core that should remain small. I disagree. For discussion, see this thread on Drupal.org.

O.K., O.K.! But why should I pay?

Simply put, it’s the simplest way to contribute. As Earl wrote, the project will also put other resources to good use, and (as always) your help actually working on the project would be greatly appreciated.

But money is liquid. You can give any amount, at any time, without any other requirements. It’s convertible to plane tickets, catering, hosting, and other things that project maintainers need. (Note that the money generally doesn’t go to pay developers: They’re either volunteering their valuable time, or being sponsored by companies such as Acquia.) I propose that you donate 1/1,000th of your annual income because if you work with Drupal, Views has probably earned you at least ten times that much.

From earlier initiatives, Earl and his team have proven that they use such money well. So do it: You’ll feel better every time you work on your (Views-enabled) site.

New lynda.com video course: Drupal 7 Advanced Training

Screenshot of intro to Drupal 7 Advanced Training

It’s been a busy few months since ending my time at Acquia last October. I’ve returned to freelancing, bettered by having worked with some of the best people in the business: It was a pleasure to see them at DrupalCon Denver, and I’ve been enjoying our continued (albeit changed) good relationship.

One result of leaving is that it gave me time to create a long-overdue course for lynda.com: Drupal 7 Advanced Training. My other courses aim to teach specific skills, such as creating a store with Drupal and using Drupal to display complex data. Drupal 7 Advanced Training is a general tutorial for those who already have basic Drupal skills.

It’s intended as a follow-up to the course that’s proven by far my most popular: Drupal 7 Essential Training. As usual, the new course gives away a few videos, while a free 7-day pass provides full access.

Here’s the intro video:

Enjoy!

Keynote from DrupalCamp WNY: “Hello Universe”

Photo of Tom Geller delivering the DrupalCamp WNY keynote

It was a great pleasure to deliver the keynote talk to the first-ever DrupalCamp Western New York, held in downtown Buffalo on October 14-15. The camp’s theme was “Hello, Universe”, which you probably know as an expansion of the programmer’s meme, “Hello, World“. The idea is that “the web is wider than you think” — and that Drupal is expanding to fill the space.

I agree with the premise that Drupal is growing beyond its past uses, and used my time to examine how its spread will affect the culture of Drupal. This is a very personal matter for me, from having been part of other communities whose increase alienated their founders, eventually to their doom.

But I’m optimistic about the Drupal community; watch to see why, and how we can foster its growth beyond the world it now occupies.

(Many thanks to Stephen Rosenthal of Caramax Studio for the high-quality video!)

New lynda.com video courses about Drupal Commerce and Views 3

Screenshot of intro to Create Your First Online Store with Drupal Commerce

I said that two new lynda.com video courses would be coming out soon, and here they are:

There are a few free videos for each course at the above links, and a free 7-day pass gives you access to both full courses, along with hundreds of other from lynda.com.

Here’s the intro video from the Drupal Commerce course:

…and the one from “Drupal 7: Reporting and Visualizing Data”.

Enjoy!

How to create Drupal exercise files that work every time

Screen shot of some files in a Drupal installation

lynda.com has now released five of my Drupal courses (which you can watch for free, by the way), and there are two more coming soon. Part of the company’s model is to include exercise files for each course, so that students can (a) follow along with the same assets the instructor uses, and (b) jump in at any point.

For Drupal courses, the first criterion is easy to solve: We just include the same graphics and text I use to create the model site, and instruct students to add them as they go. But Drupal doesn’t have a good way to let students jump into the course in the middle. Such a packaging system needs to:

  • Populate a complete site;
  • Be easy for non-technical students to use. It must use a familiar interface, and not require them to touch the command line;
  • Be reliable;
  • Require no monkeying with the settings.php file; and
  • Take as few steps as possible.

Those are the challenges. On the other hand, we can make some assumptions that make the job easier:

  • All students use Acquia Dev Desktop as their AMP stack;
  • The resulting sites won’t be made public: We can freeze the Drupal version without fear of security holes.

I tried several solutions, even attempting to commission an all-in-one solution. Previous courses used varying methods, with varying degrees of success — and they usually required too much explanation. Here’s what I finally settled on:

  1. Provide one copy of the base Drupal distribution, without the /sites folder. Yes, that means that students will be installing an out-of-date copy of Drupal. But again, these sites will be locally hosted, and not exposed to the internet. (We also direct them to instructions on how to update the site to the latest version if they want.)
  2. Give instructions on how to import that base copy of Drupal into Acquia Dev Desktop. This sets up the stack, and puts predictable values into the settings.php file.
  3. For each video, provide two files:
    • a .zip of the /sites folder, which includes all assets and modules installed up to that point in the course; and
    • a .zip or .gz of the database. Compression is important because Acquia Dev Desktop imposes a 2MB upload limit in a crucial place. We’ve manually removed the “CREATE DATABASE” line from the database before compressing it.
    1. To start at any point in the course, instruct students to:
      • Replace the current /sites folder with that video’s /sites folder; and
      • Import the database via phpMyAdmin (which is included with Acquia Dev Desktop).

    How would you solve this problem?

Announcing CertifiedToSUCK.com

Screen shot of the certifiedtosuck.com site

Screen shot of the certifiedtosuck.com siteYou might know of Certified to Rock, which reduces your activity on drupal.org to a single number, much as a long simmer reduces gourmet food to a carbonaceous layer that ruins the frying pan, and I really liked that pan!

Anyway, the problem with CTR is that it only measures how great you are, and some of us don’t take praise well. For we Drupalists of low self-esteem, now there’s Certified to SUCK! Here’s how it works.

  • Go to certifiedtosuck.com
  • enter your drupal.org username
  • click the button
  • wait for the meter to do some corny sprite-based animation
  • see your score
  • check out the scores of Drupalists you know
  • get angry that they have better scores than you
  • check your own score again, as if it’ll be different
  • write a long post about how bogus the whole thing is and about how people can’t be reduced to numbers, man.

Scores on CTS are calculated by… oh, never mind, it’s long and boring. The important thing is that it works and Must Be Obeyed. Void, like many things, in Idaho.

Hug me.

Upgrading and redesigning tomgeller.com on Drupal 7

Seven... seven... seven...

I’ve been watching Drupal 7 for almost two years now and have been champing at the bit to start using it. I launched the promotional site for “Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide” in Drupal 7 — how could I not? — about a month before Drupal 7’s official release. Now I’ve also taken the opportunity to combine tomgeller.com and gellerguides.com (my portfolio site) into one. The new one is at tomgeller.com, of course; for the moment you can still see the old version (with comments closed) at http://temp.tgeller.com.

The upgrade itself wasn’t so bad, although I ran into more error messages than I expected. But merging the two sites was frankly harder than I expected. There are basically three options for transporting nodes:

  • Feeds: This is my favorite tool except for two things: There’s no way to bring over node comments in D7 (yet!), and I was stymied for hours until I realized that it demands Unix-style line endings. (On the Mac you can force those in the Save dialog box of TextWrangler.)
  • Node Export: Again, no way to bring in comments, but otherwise handy. Despite its name, it handles both exporting and importing — which is good, because there’s still no D7 version of Node Import.
  • Migrate: Requires substantial custom programming, and is therefore a non-starter for me. People who can use it say it’s great, though.

I mention these options — and a lot more — in the paper I wrote for Acquia, “Migrating a Web Site to Drupal”. (That link takes you to one of my Panels– and Quick Tabs-based portfolio pages, which I’m very proud of.)

Beyond node migration, there were other surprises. For example, messages that Drupal automatically sends to users — to confirm their membership, for example — use old-style tokens like !username instead of [user:name], and have to be changed manually. I missed a theming change that threw some baffling errors, and had to drop some functionality because the modules weren’t ready. Then the statistics table stubbornly refused to update properly — until I moved the site to its host.

So what’s the prognosis? I agree with TimOnWeb.com that your situation dictates whether to upgrade to (or build anew on) Drupal 7. The “7.0” label is psychologically powerful, and I made the mistake of believing that its “release” meant that major problems had all disappeared. They haven’t; there’s still a lot of work to be done. (Speaking of which, please continue to support developers who are working on 7.x projects!)

Having said all that: The proof is in the pudding. tomgeller.com is up and running on Drupal 7, with a hell of a lot of functionality I’d been withholding while on Drupal 6. Enjoy this forward-looking time for all its worth.

Brass player? Going to DrupalCon?

If you’re a strong brass player and want to take part in a secret project at DrupalCon on Monday and Tuesday, please write to me via my d.o. contact page. Tell me what you play, your ability level, and when you’ll be there. Thanks!

Drupal 7 Essential Training released, with free videos

Image of a retro T.V. setMy Drupal video courses on lynda.com are mostly available on a subscription basis, starting at $25/month. But I realized that few readers of my blog know that several videos in each course are available for free.

Here are the freebies in Drupal 7 Essential Training, which was released this past Friday:

  • Welcome
  • Getting a Drupal site up fast
  • Deciding whether to use Drupal
  • Understanding nodes
  • Adding fields to content types
  • Selecting and installing downloaded themes
  • Enabling styled text with a WYSIWYG editor
  • Launching a Drupal site

Here’s what’s free in my other courses:

Drupal Gardens Essential Training

  • Welcome
  • Previewing the finished project
  • What is Drupal Gardens?
  • Subscribing to RSS feeds
  • Creating image galleries
  • Understanding the Theme Builder
  • Exporting themes
  • Using exported sites outside of Drupal Gardens

Drupal 7 New Features

  • Overview of Drupal 7’s improvements
  • Installing themes and modules
  • Adding fields to content types

Drupal 6: Online Presentation of Data

  • Welcome
  • Reviewing requirements
  • Touring examples of data visualization
  • Planning data structure
  • Importing and manipulating data
  • Looking at Drupal’s database
  • Deciding whether to store personal data as nodes or users

Drupal 6 Essential Training

  • Welcome
  • Drupal is a CMS
  • Choosing Drupal
  • Checking Drupal’s requirements
  • Understanding the inner workings of Drupal
  • Meeting the Drupal community
  • Learning key terms in Drupal
  • Touring Drupal’s interface

… and here are the freebies in Chris Charlton’s Drupal: Creating and Editing Custom Themes:

  • Welcome
  • Learning about Drupal themes
  • Building sites today with Drupal
  • Required knowledge and software
  • Installing Drupal 6 using Acquia
  • Configuring the appropriate modules for a Drupal site
  • Creating pages with standard node content types
  • Creating custom node content types
  • Finalizing site navigation

Click the series titles to watch the videos. Enjoy!

The challenge of opportunity

Picture of a 500,000,000,000 dinar noteAll signs say that Drupal is booming. Job listings on monster.com went from 65 in October 2009 to 120 a year later; DrupalCon has likewise nearly doubled in size every year for the past three; and Drupal consultancies report a perennial shortage of talent.

This all seems familiar to some of us — but not all. You see, many Drupal professionals are around (or below) Dries’ age of 32. That means they were 16 or so when Netscape went public in 1994, signaling the start of the internet boom; they were only 22 when the tech-heavy NASDAQ exchange crashed in 2000, signaling its end. So many of these “average” Drupallers have no personal experience of the boom-and-bust cycle that took down dotcoms, and the CD-ROM industry before that, and arcade games before then, and so on.

These cycles are predictable as cold days in autumn. We don’t know exactly when they’re coming, but they’re coming all right. Neither summer nor winter can last forever. (Ecclesiastes and all that.)

I’ve had the fortune of going through two booms, first as a tech journalist and public-relations executive during the dotcom boom, then as a real-estate broker during that bubble. (I got into both of them as they were starting and got out a little before their crashes. Make of that what you will.) Now, I’m not predicting a specific end to the Drupal boom — winter may yet be far away — but I’d like to give the warnings now that I wish I’d heeded back then.

  1. Don’t be about what Drupal is. Be about what Drupal does. Yes, it’s web development software. But what will that matter if the web as we know it disappears? So think instead of what it accomplishes. Drupal is a distributor of information; sales channel; organizational tool suite; vote-management system; and so on. Ensure that the skills you’re gaining now through Drupal will be valid regardless of Drupal. (Human society has needed sales channels and information distribution for thousands of years!) Broaden your horizons, so when one pillar falls you’ll be able to jump to another.
  2. Listen to buyers. There’s a saying: Nothing is sold, everything is bought. As the industry became heavy with tech-savvy visionaries in the late ’90s, often products were solutions looking for problems. They were at times elegant, clever, and brilliant… but impractical, poorly aimed, or unwanted. Successful leaders are those who see where the mob is going — and run to the front of it.
  3. “Be nice to people on the way up “…because you’ll meet the same people on the way down.” (Wilson Mizner)
  4. Keep the slow times in mind. As money, opportunities, and prestige increase, it’s easy to lose a sense of perspective. That’s what leads the newly successful to buy houses and toys based on $7,000/month salaries, when a year earlier they were making $2,500/month. Then when their power evaporates in a poof of stock options or price plunges or public caprice, they were back to making $2,500/month — or not. Assume that great increases in power are temporary and plan accordingly.

I know this is an awfully macabre post to make at such a moment of joy and celebration in our community, but it needed to be said.

Anything to add to this list?

“Drupal Gardens Essential Training” video series released on the same day as Drupal 7

In the hubbub of Drupal 7’s release, you might have missed this announcement from lynda.com that they released Drupal Gardens Essential Training, a 5-1/2 hour video course, on the same day. Timing!

Acquia‘s Drupal Gardens provides Drupal-based sites on the WordPress.com model: You log onto Drupal Gardens (currently in beta), type in a site name, select features, click “Create site”, and you’re up and running with an example.drupalgardens.com URL. From there, administration is like ordinary Drupal — with some notable differences that make it more user-friendly.

I wrote about the need for a hosted Drupal solution over two years ago. Jeff Whatcott (who at the time was Acquia’s Vice President of Marketing) intimated that “This discussion mirrors very closely a lot of internal discussions I’ve been in around the office at Acquia lately”. Others chimed in with suggestions for what such a service should look like, the top two being: (1) sites shouldn’t look “generic”, and (2) sites for vertical or “niche” markets should be easy to set up. I said that such a service should have features that “make hosted Drupal more user-friendly, such as one-click themes and modules, automated backups, integrated marketing services, etc.”.

Those features are all (arguably) found in Drupal Gardens. The Theme Builder, and a good selection of preconfigured themes, prevents sites from seeming generic; the site-creation procedure provides one-click setup for common use cases; and while backups aren’t automated, they’re incredibly easy. “Integrated marketing” is limited to social networks and Drupal’s built-in SEO features, but that’s something.

Mr. Whatcott also said at the time that “…if we can crack this code and define a concept for something simple but insanely great, we can bring a horde of new people to Drupal”. He may be right, because someone who starts on Drupal Gardens will be well-trained to administer a site built with core Drupal. For that reason alone, Drupal’s supporters should hope for its success (along with that of its competitors, SubHub and Buzzr). In any case, I recommend that everyone take a few minutes to set up a Drupal Gardens site: Acquia has done a really good job at commoditizing Drupal sites. Congratulations all around.

New book! Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide

I’m pleased to announce that “Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide” is available and has a supporting web site at drupalvqs.com. (You’ll be able to buy it for the Kindle, Nook, and via Apple’s iBooks later this month.)

The last four months have been some of the most productive of my life. The first task was a top-to-bottom rewrite of the book — which we delayed as long as we could stand, to match Drupal 7’s release version as closely as possible (My original contract with Peachpit Press is dated October 2008, and specified a book about Drupal 6.4! We renegotiated it for Drupal 7 in early 2009.) I also prepared and recorded three more Drupal video courses for lynda.com. The first one (Drupal 7 New Features) came out a few weeks ago; I’ll announce the second one on Drupal release party day this Thursday, and the third should follow soon after.

But back to the book: Despite some extra work, I feel 100 percent right about our decision to wait. To be able to announce it on the day of 7’s release is especially satisfying.

And I feel good about Drupal 7 itself. I had the pleasure of taking part in a Drupal Marketing Group meeting recently and believe we’ll be reading a lot about Drupal in the mainstream press during the coming weeks. Our banners, parties, graphics and media, public-relations efforts… these all add up to a launch that supports software we can all be proud of. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

Timing! (Also: “Drupal 7 New Features” video series released by lynda.com)

The same day that Angie Byron (webchick) announced the release of Drupal 7 Beta, my Drupal 7 New Features course comes out. Syncronicity! It’s 2-1/2 hours of videos that (I hope) covers the bulk of changes that Drupal administrators will face. (For a larf, enjoy my goofy face in the intro video.)

As always, working with lynda.com was a great experience, and I look forward to going back later this year to record two more courses — details of which I’ll post when they’re released.

Timing means a lot. I wrote about Drupal 7’s release date almost a year ago, when I was deep in the middle of writing Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press. We’d planned for Drupal 7’s release in early-to-mid 2010, but we all now know it was not to be. Peachpit and I put the book on ice for a few months, holding weekly phone meetings to discuss the anticipated release date. We started up again a few weeks ago, and now project a December release. Here’s to hoping.

It’s a tough gamble. On one hand, an early release could be inaccurate; on the other, a late one costs sales. It’s a more complicated matter than most people realize, especially in a traditional-publishing context. That’s true for both Peachpit and lynda.com. Although the latter is a video publisher, its model is a lot like that of print publishing: A lot of production goes into every video, so corrections aren’t as easy as you’d think. On the Peachpit side, I’m told that the book has gotten substantial pre-orders. That’s great news for both me and the Drupal community, but it brings extra pressure: If we were to delay the book’s release, we could lose those sales.

Some publishers went for it. On 21 September John Forsythe generously posted a list of Drupal 7 books, of which two were already shipping. (Drupal.org user juan_g helpfully summarized the books’ release dates in a comment.) One of them unleashed the anger of Earl Miles (merlinofchaos), one of Drupal’s most valuable contributors by including information about his unreleased modules; to their credit, the publisher joined the discussion on drupal.org to discuss their decision. Webchick, who’s a published author in addition to being Drupal 7’s co-maintainer, jumped in to explain the quandary publishers find themselves in when a release date slips.

But these are problems that come with Drupal’s growing popularity, and are therefore happy ones for us as a community to face. (Did any projects depend on when Drupal 4’s release date? Probably not.) This is a challenge I hope we meet better with Drupal 8. My own suggestion: Define regular releases with an absolute schedule, much like Ubuntu does. That will not only help the commercial organizations who depend on a stable release date; it will, I think, remove some pressure of uncertainty from Drupal developers themselves.

What do you think?

Packaging a Drupal site — possible for under $10,000?

I’m currently developing some Drupal 7 instructional videos for lynda.com. The company likes to offer “exercise files” for their courses so folks can jump in in the middle. In other words, someone could start at Chapter 5 by loading the Chapter 5 exercise file, which would make the site appear as though all the exercises from Chapters 1-4 had already been completed. A course would have at least a half-dozen such files (if one per section), and possibly as many as 70 (if one per video, as is preferred).

This has proven very difficult in Drupal. In Drupal Essential Training (2008) we included a .sql file at every step, but that didn’t put assets in their proper directories. We included graphics wherever they first appeared, but that meant a user would have to go through all previous chapters to find the assets and load them up. That also didn’t address the issue of modules and themes. It’s been a support nightmare.

An ideal exercise file would:

  • import content and settings into the database;
  • put assets (such as graphics) in the correct directories;
  • install and enable the latest versions of specific modules (preferably by grabbing them live from drupal.org);
  • configure it all; and
  • be installed through a process that beginners could understand from a well-made three-minute video.

Oh, and the proposed solution must be available soon for Drupal 7 — for instance, modules that carry the D7CX pledge. And because people will be watching these courses until Drupal 8 comes out, it also has to take into account future versions of Drupal 7. That’s why I hope I can find something that grabs “live” modules and themes, rather than packaging them in the exercise files themselves. (That’s not essential, though, as users could just use Drupal 7’s new Update features to bring the software up to date.)

I posted this question to a mailing list for Drupal consultants and got some good advice. But none of the recommendations seems to really solve the problem. The options — and their drawbacks — appear to be:

  • Demo. Only manages the database. Doesn’t do anything with site assets, modules, etc.
  • Drush, perhaps with a custom command. Hard to use, but perhaps promising? I only use it rarely and am unclear on how it would work.
  • Features. Not promised for Drupal 7. I watched this video about Features by Mustardseed Media and think it’s only a partial solution since it doesn’t appear to save content. But maybe we could include a Feature module for each chapter and a database.
  • Patterns. Not promised for Drupal 7; in fact the Drupal 6 version is still only “-dev”.
  • Installation profiles. I like this because it could contain everything: files, assets, and database settings. The user would have to reinstall a complete copy of Drupal each time, but that’s fine.
  • A hosted service such as WebEnabled. (That’s how TopNotchThemes lets users try out their themes before buying.) Presently too complicated for lynda.com’s audience, but that could change. And would the user pay for this external service, or would lynda.com? Currently, people who buy lynda.com’s exercise files download and own them, so a hosted service would be a big business-model change.
  • A version-control system such as GitHub. Same problems as other hosted services, and currently far too complicated for lynda.com’s audience.

I doubt many people will have read this post down to here. If you’re one of them, here’s a secret opportunity… shh…. 😉

Any answer we find will need custom development. I’m not a programmer; I can’t do it. The ideal solution would be a module that takes a snapshot that meets all our criteria and packages it up into a downloadable file. I’m looking into funding such a module, which would then be released back into the community under the GPL.

I talked to one developer I admire a great deal; he believed it would take 9-12 weeks and cost $10,000, which is WAY beyond what I could raise. I suspect he missed some easier options (such as modifying one of the solutions above). If you think you can do it — or can make any suggestions — I’d love to hear them!

Will Drupal 7 fulfill Dries’ wishes?

In preparing a “Drupal 7: New Features” video series for lynda.com, I decided to go waaaay back to when we were just starting to plan Drupal 7. Lo and behold, Dries wrote a blog post in February 2008, a few weeks before Drupal 6 was released, with a list of features he wanted to see in Drupal 7.

Now we’re pretty darn close to Drupal 7’s release. How’re we doing? I think we can break down his 11 points into three categories: Done, Sort Of Done, and Not Done. (Special thanks to chx (Károly Négyesi) for providing some details via IRC.)

Done

  • Usability improvements comprise the most-visible changes. The intense work of many people resulted in great advances, with Acquia‘s funding of Mark Boulton Design providing strong direction.
  • Custom content types in core: Win! Most of Content Construction Kit (CCK) is now part of Drupal 7, although that popular module will continue to be available for some functions that didn’t get into core.
  • Automatic upgrade functionality: This is a HUGE win, making Drupal more accessible to people without the knowledge or access to make direct changes on their web server.
  • Better internal APIs: I’m not a qualified to talk about these from first-hand knowledge, but chx and Heine gave two convincing examples: the new database layer, which allows Drupal to connect to any database, with the appropriate driver; and stream wrappers, which let Drupal treat remote files as though they’re local.

Sort Of Done

  • Better media handling: Media handling in Drupal 6 stank, and there’s no denying that it’s a lot better in Drupal 7. Before, you had to add several contributed modules — CCK, ImageField, ImageAPI, FileField, and ImageCache — to do the most mundane tasks. Those have all been incorporated into Drupal 7 to some extent, with intelligent defaults. Further, the built-in Article content type includes space for a single graphic. However, it’s a far cry from the sort of media handling that would be possible with a true WYSIWYG editor that allows you to place as much media as you want, wherever you want it.
  • Better external APIs (import/export, web services): This is another area that I’m unqualified to talk about directly. chx says this “deserves a tick, too” because of such matters as delivery callback. But I haven’t heard much else about this point, and welcome clarifications.
  • Better tools to structure/organize content show up in the improved user interface. For example, clicking “Content” in the toolbar takes you straight to a list of content on your site, whereas that took at least two clicks in Drupal 6. Other changes, such as fields in core, affect content management. But there’s nothing really groundbreaking here.
  • Better performance: As Dries stated at DrupalCon San Francisco (and was reported elsewhere), Drupal 7 is actually slower than Drupal 6. On the other hand, changes to caching and storage make it far more scalable, so perhaps for large sites performance is “better”.

Not Done

  • WYSIWYG editor: Not there, damn it. A great loss for newbies. Use the WYSIWYG module and a compatible client-side editor instead.
  • ???

    • Improved node access system. I haven’t seen any evidence of this. Could anyone comment?

    Quick and Dirty DrupalCon schedule in iCal format

    “Scratch your own itch,” they say. When I couldn’t find a version of the DrupalCon session schedule in iCal format, I converted the Excel schedule created by Lullabot‘s Kent Bye. How? Using Drupal, of course!

    First, the good stuff: here’s the iCal file; here’s the raw text file.

    As with most migrations, this was an iterative process. I tried it once, failed, tried again, failed. Rinse, lather, repeat. For the curious, here’s how it went down:

    1. Prepare the Excel file for import. Many changes were necessary. For example, the original Excel file gives the date in one row, then lists all the sessions for that day below it. Since each row would become a node, the date information had to be in every row.
    2. Save it as a tab-delimited file. Munge that file further. Excel put a quotation mark around every field that contained certain punctuation. If not removed, those extraneous quotation marks would be visible in the final product.
    3. Create a custom content type and calendar (with iCal feed) to hold the information in Drupal. Karen Stevenson‘s excellent Date and Calendar modules made this easy, particularly by using the “Date Tools” module that comes with the former. (Both are part of Acquia Drupal.)
    4. Import via the Node Import module. This module required a patch to correctly import dates.
    5. Enable and edit the Calendar view as needed.
    6. View the calendar and test exports in iCal. We’re really close now! This is where flaws in the process became obvious: For example, I had exported early morning times as “9:45” instead of “09:45”, causing such events to fail. That meant going back to Step 1 to change how the data was stored in the Excel file.
    7. When ready, edit the iCal export with a text editor. The export “HTMLified” title text, so that “&” came out like “& amp;”.
    8. Publish, accept the adulation of a grateful nation. 😉

    Note that this calendar, like the Excel file it came from, only includes session starting times: It doesn’t say how long sessions last. I take no responsibility for errors or omissions. Caveat lector. And alas, it doesn’t include many of the non-session events, such as exhibit hall hours or (sob!) parties. Just follow the throngs of excited Drupalistas for those. See you there!

    Map of cheap eats near DrupalCon San Francisco


    View Good cheapish eats near DrupalCon SF 2010 in a larger map

    I once heard that San Francisco has so many restaurants that the entire population could eat out and there would still be empty seats. That’s probably apocryphal, but it does have an embarrassment of gastronomic riches. The other truth about San Francisco is that it’s expensive, so eating lunch for under $8 can be a challenge — especially near a touristy area such as Moscone Convention Center.

    But I lived there for 17 years before moving to Ohio last April and, being a cheap-ass, have collected a few favorites. They’re in an annotated short list in this Google Map, “Good cheapish eats near DrupalCon SF 2010”. In brief:

      Jollibee (4th Street at Howard) is the fastest and cheapest.

      Sushi Club is surprisingly fast and cheap, and has take-out.

      Tu Lan is the best for the money, but a bit far.

    To add your own favorites, log into your Google account, click “My Maps”, then click the Edit button. (Thanks to Shawn DeArmond for the tip.) Please (a) give your own marks a distinctive icon, (b) keep it limited to under-$8 lunch places within a 15-minute walk of the convention center, and (c) don’t touch anyone else’s marks.

    Need a suggestion at the con? Text me at 415-317-1805 and I’ll do my best to help.

    This con feels like it’s shaping up to be a real ground-breaker. I can’t wait!

    Online seminar, 29 March: “Setting Up, Customizing Drupal”

    I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching my first live telecourse on Monday, 29 March, “Setting Up, Customizing Drupal“, for Environments for Humans. My three-hour course is in the morning, with Sheena Donnelly teaching “Drupal Theme Building” in the afternoon.


    Most Drupal people know me for my Lynda.com video courses. I’m no stranger to live teaching: One of my first jobs was teaching secretaries how to use Radio Shack TRS-80 (!) computers when I was 16. (Yes, I’m that old. 😉 ) I presented at a lot of tech conferences during the boom, and later taught real estate courses for City College of San Francisco and a private company.

    But I’d put off teaching Drupal courses live. I fell into a trap a lot of folks in the Drupal community are in: Because so many of us are highly technical developers and sysadmins, I figured the market for beginner’s courses wasn’t that big. The success of Drupal Essential Training gave me an inkling that it’s bigger than I thought; the entry of such companies as Lullabot into the field, and live training by such excellent video providers as Sean Effel (DrupalTherapy) convinced me. So when Environments for Humans’ Christopher Schmitt approached me with a specific proposal, it was easy to say “yes”.

    Watch for another blog post before the date — including a way to win two free tickets. And I’ll try to report on how it went afterwards. Spread the word!

    Preparing for the huddled masses from Drupal’s success

    A recent CNet article notes that such shops as AF83 have been turning away business because they can’t keep up with demand. That’s a familiar story to many of us, including me: Drupal is just growing and growing, and we’re reaping the benefits and challenges.

    But consider the other side of that coin, expressed by the article’s title: “Need a job? Learn Drupal.” If the message gets through, the Drupal community will experience a wave of people driven by practical matters of employment. A few minutes in Drupaldom’s current hangouts — IRC, drupal.org, mailing lists — predicts how such an influx will clash with the existing culture.

    Not that the the Drupal world isn’t already commercial and entrepreneurial — it is, in large part thanks to pioneering companies like Chapter Three* and Dries’ own openness to commerce. But the three badges of Drupal honor today are that you (1) you code, (2) you work on GPL projects, and (3) you’re active in “the community”. Few people responding to the call of this article — or of the business community at large — will meet these criteria. Let’s look at each separately.

    • New immigrants will not be coders. Coders were necessary to Drupal as hunter/trappers were to U.S. expansion. And, like trappers, they’re not as important as they used to be. After food sources are secure, people need banking, commerce, clothing, entertainment. These are institutions that pioneers are not equipped to provide.

      Obviously, trapping isn’t as important a skill now as it was in 1800. We still need food and warm clothing, so the functions formerly served by trappers are now served by others. Trappers can be angry at how they — the people who built this country! — have been pushed aside. (Old westerns are full of such grizzled characters.) The smart ones will get off their laurels and adapt to inevitable change.

      New Drupal workers will be in public relations, finance, advertising, distribution, sales, business relations, and content. They’ll think inheritancy and encapsulation are about wills and pills. They’ll fail to recognize coding intelligence, because they’re not optimized for such wisdom. In my experience, coders repay that ignorance with a vengeance, failing to recognize the intelligence of those “soft” skills even more. But they’ll make Drupal’s banks, markets, stores, and bars run — regardless of how you feel about them.

    • New immigrants will not work on — or care about — GPL projects. They’re here for a job, not a philosophy. The first ones will become educated about open source because they’ll have to be in order to get along with the community. But peer pressure will shrink as the pool of Drupal users grows. We’ve already seen this in (for example) the Linux world: How many users understand their operating system’s origin or license? 1%? How many contribute back to the project? 0.001%, maybe.

      Which leads to a hard question: Does Open Source Matter? On some level, yes, and I spent a good part of the late ’90s expounding the position that it does. But for the people building a career based on using Drupal? No, it doesn’t. They hope that Drupal remains strong, and perhaps have a vague idea that volunteers are behind it. Because they’re not coders, they won’t have any connection to those volunteers — unless the Drupal project changes in ways that make it easier for them to get involved.

      That, of course, has been a topic of much discussion. The Drupal.org redesign will help, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. Ultimately no amount effort will entice the majority of new Drupal users to get involved.

    • New immigrants will not be in “the community”. This will be the hardest blow to Drupalistas who have been with the project since Dries was a jongetje. It strikes at the real reason that people contribute their efforts to Drupal, or any cooperative project: Because they like the people as much as the subject.

      When a group is small, members feel they can know everybody, and problems can be solved via IM. Even if they don’t know everybody, they feel they can at least trust others, and that they’ll share common beliefs.

      But growth engenders diversity. I remember being part of a pretty insular bisexual activist community in the early ’90s, all working together for the recognition and dignity of Our Sort. We started interacting with some counterparts from another city and found them… tacky. Suspicious. Poor representatives of what we thought We were. We had gone beyond our tribe, and not liked what we saw.

      So it will be with Drupal. One thing that’s surprised me is how little we hear of Drupal being used for right-wing political sites. Will our community, with such left-wing support businesses as Development Seed and Chapter Three prominent among us, trumpet their success as well?

    So — the contrast between “old guard” and “new school” may sound harsh, but it’s actually cause for celebration. If Drupal does in fact attract such people — who don’t code, who aren’t GPL-savvy, and who aren’t community members — it’ll be a sure sign that it’s escaped its corral into a larger world. And as we can take advantage of their skills, the circle will continue to be ever-widening.

    * Say, who were the first Drupal service companies? I’m assuming Chapter Three was one of them because of its leadership’s involvement in Deanspace.

    Drupal runs three times as many top sites as the next CMS

    Here’s a statistic I haven’t seen bandied about much. Drupal runs three times as many of the Alexa 10,000 top sites as the next CMS, according to backendbattles.com.

    This figure was extracted using Wappalyzer. It’s not perfect: The Onion doesn’t show up as a Drupal site, for example, probably because it runs an old or heavily hacked version.

    It’s nice to have this statistic at hand when Drupal supporters feel disheartened by popularity comparisons to Joomla. There are many ways to be successful; capturing the attention of the world’s biggest sites is a pretty good one.

    Having said that: WordPress is found on nearly three times as many big sites as Drupal. (Backendbattles.com categorizes it as “blog software” rather than a CMS, so it doesn’t show up in the comparison.)

    What the Drupal 7 release date means

    Regular readers know that I’ve been working on a Drupal 7 book for beginners. We — meaning Peachpit Press and myself — are now faced with a decision. We could release it before, after, or at the same time as Drupal 7’s release. Each option has its pitfalls. Release it too early, and it might not match the final Drupal 7 software. Too late, and we could lose the “first mover advantage” to another book.

    Whatever our decision, we have to provide some date for potential distributors, booksellers, and customers. So we boldly decided we’d try to release it at the same time as Drupal 7 itself — and announced the 24 January 2010 date you currently see on Amazon.

    Webchick, when asked when Drupal 7 will be released, always says “When it’s ready”. Neither she nor co-maintainer Dries will set a date at this point, and for good reason: Neither of them are in control of when “ready” will be. Of course they could release it any time they like — in an unready state. That would be bad for everyone who relies on Drupal, wants to switch to Drupal, has built a business around Drupal, who teaches or writes about Drupal… in short, bad for everybody. So their silence is as it should be.

    But we, like IT professionals around the globe, still have to make decisions. In our case, we have to guess at Drupal 7’s release date a few months in advance if we’re going to hit that goal of simultaneous release. (Book publishing takes time!) And the sooner we make the decision, the better.

    I’d personally love to announce the availability of Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide on the same day as Drupal 7’s own release. But I’m nagged by unknowns. What would it mean if it came out early? What if it came out after a similar book? Which situation is worse?

    What do you think?

    My beginner’s Drupal 7 book: What’s missing?

    I’ve been busy writing Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press over the last couple of months. I’m pleased to say that all the main chapters are done, and most of them are already available for preview on Safari Books Online. (I’ve given the table of contents below.)

    Now it’s time to write the appendices, and I’m not sure what would be most useful. We’re thinking:

    • Extending Drupal, including a list of the most popular modules, and whether they’re expected to be available for D7 (thanks to the #D7CX project)
    • Differences between D6 and D7
    • Interacting with the Drupal community
    Other ideas?

    Here’s what the book contains so far:

    Chapter 1. Getting Drupal Up and Running

    • Fulfilling Drupal’s Requirements
    • Downloading and Unpacking Drupal
    • Creating the MySQL Database Using phpMyAdmin
    • Installing Drupal

    Chapter 2. Establishing Your Drupal Site

    • Performing Common Post-Installation Tasks
    • Giving Your Site Its Identity
    • Selecting a Visual Theme
    • Monitoring Your Drupal Site
    • Packaging Your Drupal Site

    Chapter 3. Creating and Managing Content

    • Gaining More Control of Individual Nodes
    • Creating Other Types of Content
    • Finding, Editing, and Deleting Content

    Chapter 4. Customizing Content

    • Defining Custom Types of Content
    • Putting Images and Styled Text in Content

    Chapter 5. Making Content Interactive

    • Enabling Interactive Content Types
    • Categorizing Content with Taxonomies
    • Mastering Text Formats

    Chapter 6. Improving Access to Content

    • Making Content Searchable
    • Directing Traffic with Menus
    • Laying Out Your Site with Blocks

    Chapter 7. Wrangling Users

    • Managing User Accounts
    • Controlling How Users Interact with Their Accounts
    • Defining User Roles and Permissions
    • Building and Protecting User Community

    Chapter 8. Customizing Drupal’s Look and Feel

    • Creating a New Theme
    • Changing Theme Graphics and Typography with CSS

    Drupaceous!

    I’m sure I’m not the first to discover this, but…

    An online dictionary search for “Drupal” says it’s a synonym for “drupaceous”: that is, “resembling, related to… [or] producing drupes“. A drupe is a fruit whose seed is covered by a tough endocarp, like the red peaches you see here.

    Juicy!

    What the hell’s wrong with Drupal on WAMP?

    Look at the top keyword searches that bring people to my site, according to Google Analytics:

    1. tom geller (O.K., that’s a gimme.)
    2. wamp drupal
    3. drupal wamp
    4. (content targeting)
    5. drupal on windows
    6. drupal windows

    Further, about one in five requests for support sent through my site’s contact form is WAMP-related.

    So — what’s the story? Is it that WAMP is hopelessly messed up? Is there a vacuum of relevant information out there? (My Running Drupal on Windows using WAMP article is Hit #4 on Google.) Have you had problems running Drupal on WAMP? Does the Acquia Drupal stack installer for Windows help?

    “Drupal 6: Online Presentation of Data” video series is out!

    At last I can announce the release of my new six-hour video series from Lynda.com, “Drupal 6: Online Presentation of Data“, which you can check out with a free one-day pass. (Of course it’s also available to anyone with a Lynda.com subscription, starting at $25/month for all-you-can-stand training in over 600 topics.)

    I first talked about this course in January and was able to implement at least one suggestion from your comments (about creating calendars). There are also videos about mapping, charting, and preparing data for tabular export, all built on a foundation of CCK and Views.

    Since Lynda.com’s audience is mostly graphic designers, the course starts out with an in-depth description of data structure: As you know, data planning is at least as important as implementation! And it’s an essential subject whose subtleties elude most beginners.

    One wag in IRC questioned the need for such a course. “Presentation of Data?,” he said. “Isn’t that what Drupal does anyway?” He’s right — in the same way that a car is a tool for going shopping. But I believe that many people who would benefit from Drupal’s data-presentation features simply don’t know about them, because their knowledge of it stops at Stories, Pages, users, and blocks. They need a bit more information to make the leap, and could become fierce advocates for Drupal when they see all it can do in this area.

    Extra bonus: For giggles, check out the Introduction video, which includes some live-action video of me looking goofy. 🙂

    Thanks, as always, to the Drupal community for both helping me to understand these topics myself, and for making Drupal the Web development powerhouse it is.

    The problem with Drupal documentation

    First things first: I’ve you’ve ever looked at Acquia’s documentation, read this post and take the survey. You’re welcome, jam. 😉

    Now, a confession: I went to the Drupal.org documentation sprint at DrupalCon. And I tried to be useful, really I did. But I found myself frustrated, unable to really engage in it, and left mid-day feeling horribly guilty. Why? I think there were two causes:

    1. The task is so immense. Drupal.org’s documentation has grown like topsy, and now useful information is dispersed throughout several unconnected areas. The search function is really all that brings them together.
    2. Quality varies wildly. The biggest sin is, as usual, too much writing. As I often say, writing is easy; editing is hard. Brevity is the soul of wit. Your mama wears combat boots. And so forth.

    I wrestled with the task facing doc team lead Addison Berry: What would I do in her place? My answer surprised me: I’d burn it all down and start again.

    I’m reminded of the real-estate markets of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. In those cities there are blocks full of houses that are worth less than nothing: They’re too dilapidated to restore, and the cost to demolish them (about $8,000) is greater than the land’s value. And ashes are cheaper to truck away than lumber, even if the burning dumps toxins in the soil.

    What “city blocks” on Drupal.org are like that?

    Such arson is unlikely to happen on Drupal.org. For one thing, it’s discouraging to sweat out a long document, and then discover that it’s disappeared. How many people would stop contributing documentation as a result? How would the community’s soil be poisoned?

    I’d still recommend cutting mercilessly. I believe at least 75% of the words on Drupal.org could and should be lost. But who would do the cutting? It’s tough work, and without glory. Converting Drupal.org’s documentation into a wiki(-like) format might help “crowdsource” the task. Or maybe not. Nobody likes to cut. Editing is hard.

    Which leads us back to Acquia.

    Acquia is a “third-party documentation provider”, like the Lullabots and GotDrupal and DrupalTherapy and many others… and me. It’s tempting to say that we thrive because of the weaknesses in Drupal.org — that is, that they create a vacuum that we fill — but it’s not really true. After all, Apple’s documentation is pretty good, but that supports outside writers rather than cannabilizing their work. In a healthy project, there’s always a new audience to reach.

    But we outside doc providers have an advantage over Drupal.org: a clear field. Arson is unnecessary, and will put no toxins in the soil. Each building we create on these virgin plots can reflect a different architecture, each fitting a distinct family of users.

    That’s why I think it’s great that the Lullabots’ CCK and Views videos will be available alongside my own: Theirs reach a certain audience, while mine will reach a different audience. And both of us can only do what we do because of the base provided by Drupal.org’s documentation. Together — we outside doc providers and Drupal.org — we all grow the Drupalsphere.

    5 tests to stop your Drupal site’s silent death

    I visited my site a couple of weeks ago and discovered a pile of comment spam. That’s not unusual, of course; what *was* strange was that Drupal’s Comment Notify module hadn’t told me about them. Some poking around revealed that, lo and behold, the site wasn’t sending any email. The problem’s nature meant I had gotten no notification: It was the silent site-killer.

    So first off, I want to apologize to anyone who’s tried to contact me thorugh tomgeller.com or gellerguides.com and not gotten a response. Simply put, I never got your message: If you remember your query, please send it again. The fault was entirely mine, because I hadn’t instituted a simple procedure that would have prevented the problem. To wit: I should have tested the site periodically.

    And so should you.

    In fact, here are five areas every Web admin should test regularly:

    1. Anonymous user experience. Log out, then test your site’s appearance and function. One mis-set permission can stop visitors in their tracks.
    2. Sign-up experience. The sign-up email is your users’ first personalized encounter with your site. Are you sure it represents your current message? And do the sign-up screens lead logically from one to the next?
    3. Links and scripts. File paths sometimes change during system updates, but you’ll never know until you try to access a link or script… and have it fail. Discover the problems before your users do!
    4. Images. Ever had your images disappear after an upgrade? There are two common causes: putting image files in the wrong place (such as /files), and forgetting that you’d modified pieces of a theme when you upgrade it. Which leads us to our last test…
    5. Backup and restore. “You’re only as good as your latest backup”, they say. Further, “Your backup is only as good as your ability to restore from it”. Whether a backup is missing or unusable doesn’t matter: The result is the same.

    I’m sure this isn’t a complete list, and fear the next time my site dies a silent death. So help me out: What other areas do you think site admins should test regularly?

    Brother, can you spare a headshot?

    I’ll soon be recording a video training course at Lynda.com similar to the one I created last year. To demonstrate various technical points, I’d like to show photographs of people’s faces on a fictitious Web site. So I need some headshots, and think it would be especially fun if they were of recognizable Drupal community people. Would you be willing to let me use one of yours?

    If so, here’s what’s needed:

    1. Send the graphic itself by email to tom -at- tomgeller.com. It should be cropped fairly close to your face and no smaller than 400×600 pixels.
    2. Sign and return the two attached forms. You must have rights to the photograph!
    3. Prepare to become “Internet famous”! 😉

    A boon to beginners: the “Acquia Drupal stack installer” (DAMP)

    Only five days after its latest release, Acquia today released another update to its namesake Drupal distribution — and it’s a doozy. The package itself includes modules that give you the first chance to try out the company’s new search product, while a separate release (“DAMP”) will help get Drupal beginners up and running MUCH faster than before. (It also includes another gorgeous new theme from TopNotchThemes, which I might use in one of my own projects.)

    Acquia has talked quite a bit about their hosted search solution, so I won’t talk much about it here. It’s based on Apache Solr, and I believe that the Drupal.org site is already using it. (To see how it works, do a simple search on that site, then notice all the ways you can “filter” the results to drill down to the ones you want. I’ve found that especially helpful when searching for modules.)

    But the only reference I’ve seen to the Drupal-Apache-MySQL-PHP stack before now was in a comment by former Acquia VP of Marketing Jeff Whatcott last November. In my opinion, it should get more press: It has the potential to be a REALLY BIG DEAL for Drupal.

    Why? Simply: Installing Drupal is far beyond the ability of most people. When I was a newbie, I stumbled over installation for weeks before learning to use MAMP instead of Mac OS X’s built-in AMP stack. And installation questions are overrepresented in the support queue for my Drupal video course. As soon as you tell someone they have to change permissions, or type a Unix command, or download two separate packages, you’ve lost them.

    So I eagerly downloaded and tried Acquia’s new Drupal Stack Installer (on the Mac), and found that it successfully avoids all these problems. Most importantly, it installs like a Mac application. Double click it, and it goes! For end users, that’s huge.

    Acquia’s DAMP is not without its faults. While it mostly behaves like a Mac program, it suffers from several “look and feel” holes. For example, the “Control Panel” application (which appears to have been adapted from MAMP) lacks an “About” box and other touches Mac users expect; you can’t tab among fields in the installer; it launches Safari instead of your preferred browser; and the log files have an inconsistent interface. I’m not sure these errors would be as noticeable on the Windows side, which I didn’t try; I’d be interested in hearing someone else’s impressions there.

    But enough about that: I have to go to bed for an early flight tomorrow to DC. See you there!

    Helping Drupal beginners

    TopNotchThemes just released my “How to make an online store look great with your new theme from TopNotchThemes, which I’m happy to say has gotten Übercart founder Ryan Szrama’s endorsement as “helpful and thorough”. If you haven’t grabbed your copy yet, grab PDFs of it and TNT’s basic guide to give out to your Drupal-newbie friends. And please do let me (and TNT) know what you think.

    TNT’s customers span the range from shopkeeps with no Web experience to experienced Drupal developers who appreciate their themes’ special features. These guides aim primarily to help the first group: that is, folks who think of themselves as something other than “Drupal people”. Helping them be successful with Drupal is crucial to whether the platform will cross the chasm to move on to mainstream success. But they’ve not gotten much love from the Drupal community before now. In short, it’s hard to point mainstream people at a single, easy-to-digest document that helps them get up and running quickly.

    Before you suggest Drupal’s official site, try this experiment: Send a couple of (non-techie) friends to the site and ask them what it’s about. It’s notoriously hard to navigate — especially for beginners. The problem isn’t a lack of information: It’s too much information. As the pros know, writing is easy, but editing is hard. And organizing others’ writing is even harder.

    The average Drupal user has an absurdly high technical level, which leads to the second big problem: Nearly all of drupal.org is beyond the neophyte’s abilities. That’s as it must be at this stage of Drupal’s maturity. Drupal is still a developer’s tool; does it have the potential to become usable to the average person who wants a Web presence beyond WordPress and Yahoo! SiteBuilder? Maybe. But it’s not there yet.

    These two factors — Drupal’s promise for ordinary people and the disorganization of its official documentation — add up to a market opportunity for those who are able to capture it. And yet, I would argue that nobody’s really captured this market. Taken medium by medium:

    • Training: Of those people and companies listed in Drupal.org’s training directory, the best known is probably Lullabot, whose past courses have generally focused on advanced topics. (The success of their “Do It With Drupal” course stands out as an exception. I have to wonder, though: How many attendees were “beginners”?)
    • Books: I think O’Reilly’s Using Drupal reaches out to beginner/intermediate Drupal users well, while sales copy for Wrox’s new book “Leveraging Drupal” promises that it’s for “users of all levels of expertise”. And yet… The O’Reilly brand has little currency outside of hard-core tech geeks, and many people (me included) don’t know what “leveraging” is supposed to mean as Wrox uses it. Further, both books are nearly 500 pages! It takes fearlessness to dive into a book of that size, no matter how good. (Full disclosure: I have a contract with Peachpit to produce a shorter, beginner’s-level Drupal book later this year. More on that later.)
    • Videos: Obviously, I’m biased. 🙂 I’ve been impressed with the number of people who have made Drupal video screencasts — although again, most have been for highly technical topics. Frankly, production values have been very mixed: I find some of them unwatchable. One sparkling exception is Matt Petrowsky’s free GotDrupal.com lessons: They’re concise, well-made, and conveniently tagged so that beginners can easily find videos they’re likely to understand.

    So there are gaps in the curriculum. Personally, I’ve bet that filling those gaps is good business — and so far that’s been an extremely winning bet. That first Lynda.com course has led to a second, the TopNotchThemes work has been both enjoyable and fruitful, the Peachpit book will come out with Drupal 7, and several other clients have asked for these sort of explanatory materials for Drupal. Professionally, it’s a good time to reach beyond Drupal’s existing circle of technologists; Drupal’s growth from such actions is a fortunate side effect.

    [Graphic source: Craig Chelius on Wikimedia, based on work by Geoffrey Moore. License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.]