Friday, December 7, 2007

Becoming Windows-free: first impressions of Ubuntu.

I posted on here a bit ago about the future of the OS & the web. Time to take my own medicine...

When my old PC met it's maker last week in a grinding hard-drive failure, I figured it was an opportunity to free myself from the $100 Microsoft surcharge I pay every time I get a new computer. Time to see what all the Ubuntu buzz is about...

I looked at building my own PC - never done that, but heard it's pretty easy. Then I realized Dell was selling Ubuntu, which I could order without a monitor for $350. I wanted to hook this up to my HDTV... so took a risk that it would work. I have to say, getting the nvidia drivers to play nice with the DVI out was a hassle (besides the fact that the drivers weren't properly installed when the PC arrived). I've basically resolved it by stretching some toolbars(panels) on the sides of my screen to offset the overscan. Seems to do the trick well enough.

So what are my impressions from this experience? I've been a Windows user all my life (except for a few comp. sci. classes in college). I am tickled by the fact that I'm using free, open-source everything. That makes me part of a community which supports the philosophy that computing should be accessible to everyone.

As for the Ubuntu operating system. There's some pros & cons:

Pros
  • It's super fast! I can't emphasize this enough... Windows is a resource hog, especially Vista from what I've heard. I can run more applications at once now without feeling the drag.
  • Available software o' plenty. I was immediately impressed with the amount of quality software available for Ubuntu (for free!). I researched it a bit before taking the dive... but I think the only software I'll have to do without is TurboTax.
Cons
  • More command lines than many would like. I'd say Windows is pretty good at letting a user avoid this completely. A user could use Ubuntu out of the box & never need a command line... but in all likelihood, they'll need to go there once they start customizing or installing new software.
  • Using the forums. This could be a pro AND a con... but the point is that you're going to have to rely on google to find solutions to your questions (this is also true with Windows, just not to the same degree). It's not entirely bad - in fact, I haven't had a single issue yet I couldn't resolve this way.
Would I recommend Ubuntu? Yes & no. I wouldn't recommend it to a non-technical person who's comfort-zone is already Windows. I would recommend it to anyone who's got a little extra time & curiousity to learn something new. I'd also say it's great for anyone learning a computer for the first time... (from square 1, the learning curve is not much steeper).

Later versions of Ubuntu will only get better as more people try it out & it gets more attention. Like I've said before - I think that will happen as the web becomes a central computing platform & people will realize the $100 Microsoft tax isn't necessary.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

I am engaged.

Yep, that's right.

We aren't going to even talk about wedding-anything until after the holidays, but Brandie & I have made it official.

We were driving home from shopping yesterday and I stopped us by the riverwalk where one of those horse carriages was waiting. We got on board and I pulled a blanket off the box of a dozen roses with the ring inside and some chilled champagne...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Confessions of MisterX: From Suckramento to Rowdytown, a 5-year journey ends.

Back in September 2002, I decided to start a hobby project. I'd been into web development since the early days and I felt there was a scarcity of good 'community owned' local content out there for Sacramento. Sure, there were sites like the SacBee, CitySearch, and AOL - but nothing that had a really honest local flavor. I decided I would take a stab at getting a local community site built. I wanted it to be non-commercial and honest, as a place for locals to say what they think without having it filtered by advertiser or conservative interests. After a bit of searching for available domain names, I registered 'suckramento.com' on Sept 1, 2002. Sure, it was an edgy and somewhat distasteful name... but that was okay since I wanted the site to be different.

The name 'Suckramento' fit for a few reasons. I wanted the site to encourage honest and critical discussion of local issues. I wanted the name to stand out and be memorable. Since this was to be my first site without any plans layed out... I wanted it to be experimental and offbeat. The other reason the name fit is... well, a lot of people like to poke fun at Sacramento. Don't get me wrong - I'm a Sac native & love this town. However, we've got some problems. In 2002, I had an hour long commute to my corporate job from my suburban house in north sac. There wasn't much social activity for late 20's single guy in that neighborhood... so outside of studying for my MBA, working on this website gave me something to work on.

Building and running a website was an invaluable learning experience for me. Outside of learning some tricks like developing a user-registration system and other technical magic, dealing with marketing, administering, and policy were great challenges to face. It is a bittersweet experience. With every person who's grateful or eager to help you, there's someone complaining or hassling you.

The website was developed organically, piece by piece. First there was a 'suck list', where people just listed things that sucked about Sacramento and voted on them. That got the site some free publicity when Armstrong & Getty aired the site on their show (because their nemesis Mayor Heather Fargo was listed there). Eventually, the other features of the site came to make it more than a place for discussions - hangouts, events, and later bands & photos.

Back then when I was involved with the site... a few friends from work & people I met on the site thought it could work if there was collaboration on 'features'. Features were the headline stories on the front page of the site. While 'MisterX' (my alias running the site) was having fun writing them... I knew that wouldn't last forever & I wanted the site to run on user-generated content. I experimented with this by creating a Yahoo Group for people who wanted to collaborate on features and other parts of the site. One person in particular who joined (user cartmansays) proved to be a violent and disruptive individual. The telltale incident was the first (and last) party of his we dropped by... which ended in a drunken outburst of violence and property damage. I guess that's the drawback of a site called 'suckramento'... it attracts some extreme types of personalities. That dude didn't mesh with the 'webteam' vibe & after some disagreements about his submitted feature (which was his personal profanity-filled narrative about lightrail) he quit the group via email CC'ing 20 people I don't know (but they were probably users he'd met on the site). I ended up having to develop a pretty effective IP+cookie 'banning' technique as a result of all that... when that guy and his friends started harrassing me personally (posting my name, workplace, etc) on the site. I simply tell this story because it demonstrates an important lesson when running a site: keep your personal info private, and use a serious screening process before letting anonymous users into the inner circle.

The best part of running the site is having a platform for freedom and creativity. That's the beauty of being an alias like 'MisterX'. You can have fun with it. This meant features on local topics... for things that the Sac Bee was unlikely to cover like (Sac's famous serial killers).

Then there was "Suck-Squad", where we arranged harmless pranks in a flash mob style. Well, we only did it once but it got a blurb in the Bee (putting silly notes in clothes in the Downtown Plaza clothing stores).


Then there was She-Bay, another experiment done once (once was enough). It was humorous though. We found a local girl who we auctioned off for a date. Really, we just thought it'd be funny to do something called 'sheBay'. The girl wasn't that pleasant or easy to work with (understandable), so we didn't repeat that experiment.

Ah, then the Sac-Girls... this was one of the highlights of the site. The users seemed to like it, and it was fun to practice photography on aspiring models wearing a Suckramento.com spaghetthi strap top.

Like I mentioned... the drawback of running a 'irreverent' site like Suckramento.com is that you want to keep your name distanced from it. After all, it's for the community - you are just providing it so you don't need your name plastered on it right? When the site won a 2004 Dottie Award for best humorous local website, they called the name "Mister X" to come accept & present a speech. Part of me wonders if they granted the award to see who MisterX was, hehe. Being nominated got you free tickets, so my friend and I went for curiousity & the free food but left the award ceremony early when we realized our category was last. I was able to pick up the trophy later.

Unfortunately in the early days I hadn't learned the privacy lesson yet. Early on, R.E. Graswich posted my name in the Bee when he blurbed about the site. People at work ended up emailing around about it... and I partially suspect that it put me in a negative light to some of the more conservative old fogies managing there at Intel. Before that, Pera Davalos interviewed me for her Consumnes College newpaper to do a story on the site... which was a safer medium. Still, personal privacy was always my burden with Suckramento. Eventually, that is what caused me to change the name to Rowdytown (partially).

After I had changed jobs, moved downtown, and started spending less time on the site... someone at work went to training and met someone from my old job who knew me. He found out about the Suckramento, and after I asked him to please keep it on the down-low, I realized he was telling people. I said to myself 'That's it... time to change the name'. For a while, I'd been wondering what would happen if I made the site generic & let it be copied for other cities. Would it grow easily? I decided to change the name to Rowdytown.com so the less palatable 'suckramento' wouldn't keep haunting me at my new job (where I basically work FOR Sacramento) and also so I could test the waters on expansion. Well, I learned pretty quickly that sites don't get a kickstart without a lot of money or effort or both. I eventually shut-down the multi-town rowdytown experiment so in the end it was just Sacramento. I still think there is opportunity for sites like that... but it takes a devoted effort, which I was past by that point in my life. When you get into that franchise territory, you're just another joe schmoe so you lose the advantage of your local support. The big fish eat the little fish in that market.

So here we are. I look back fondly at the good times running Suckramento.com. I've sold the site to an interested party (although I look forward to helping & staying involved how I can). They are some bright guys creating a site of their own, and they remind me of myself a few years ago. Maybe suckramento will see some exciting new changes... but regardless, I'm letting my baby go to proud new parents. Since I didn't have time to devote it was only right to pass on the reigns. Will there be new projects for 'MisterX'? Possibly. In fact I have one in mind (should I find the time) but this one will be totally different: a technical service for developers (that's all I'll say for now). Sorry, no sac-girls.