I Am Here to Steal Your Education . . .

Posted on June 28 2012 09:39 PM by John Atten in Education, Reviews   ||   Comments (0)

. . . Or, why the STL ALT.NET User Group kicks so much ass.

One of the best moves I ever made was getting involved with a developer user group, or “meet up” as they are sometimes known. Here’s why.

I am a self-taught developer, having been touched by the progressive disease of code addiction a few years back, in conjunction with a project at work. I have had to learn most of this addictive trade the hard way, e.g. long bouts of going down the wrong road to a solution, and hours spent surfing the web, seeking solutions to problems which, for an experienced dev, would be rudimentary.

In all this, I have learned much.

One of the biggest lessons I learned is, hijack the education and experience of others, by whatever means necessary. The other thing I learned is the old saw “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’ll come back to this in a minute.

I had lived in Portland, Oregon for most of the past nine years. As my coding addiction grew worse and worse, I found myself joining some local user groups, and regularly attended the PADNUG (Portland Area Dot Net Users Group, of course). I found here a group of like-minded individuals, who all spoke the same language (that would be C#, for the most part, but I will generalize and use “.NET” to represent all the .NET languages – yes, I KNOW .NET is a framework, not a language, but this is MY blog, and I can call things what I want!).

I moved, rather suddenly, from Portland to St. Louis, Missouri in October of 2011. Before I was on the ground more than 24 hours in my new neighborhood of Clayton, I was scouring the inter-webs for the St. Louis version of the PADNUG. I found the Saint Louis ALT.NET group. Upon following the Google link to the group’s home page, the very first thing I saw was THIS:

The ALT.NET community is a loosely coupled, highly cohesive group of like-minded individuals who believe that the best developers do not align themselves with platforms and languages, but with principles and ideas. “

See my previous note about hammers and nails.

I loved this. As I continued my scan of the page, I found the following list, describing the “Alt.Net philosophy” espoused by David Laribee:

The alt.net Philosophy

1. You're the type of developer who uses what works while keeping an eye out for a better way.
2. You reach outside the mainstream to adopt the best of any community: Open Source, Agile, Java, Ruby, etc.
3. You're not content with the status quo. Things can always be better expressed, more elegant and simple, more mutable, higher quality, etc.
4. You know tools are great, but they only take you so far. It's the principles and knowledge that really matter. The best tools are those that embed the knowledge and encourage the principles (e.g. Resharper.)

The STL ALT.NET Meetup

The St. Louis ALT.NET meetup group is a place where .NET developers can learn, share, and critique approaches to software development on the .NET stack. We cater to the highest common denominator, not the lowest, and want to help all St. Louis .NET developers achieve a superior level of software craftsmanship.”

THIS was the group I had been looking for. While I had enjoyed the single-minded focus at the PADNUG group, I found the above ideas refreshing. As soon as I was settled (and learned my way around St. Louis!) I attended my first meet up, How Ruby is Making Me a Stronger C# Developer and a Better Man, presented by Darren Cauthon. The group itself was welcoming, and relaxed. Pizza and refreshments were on hand, and the monthly meet up is a Bring-Your-Own-Beer type of after-work affair.

LOVED IT.

The next month was a presentation by Jessica Kerr on Powerful Pattern Matching in F# / UX Techniques. Loved this too.

Since joining the STL ALT.NET group, I  have been consistently impressed with the organization of the meet ups, and the energy with which Nicholas Cloud, the group’s principal and most visible organizer keeps the group moving. In keeping with my personal quest to expand my know-how, steal the hard-won education of others, and broaden my technological horizons, this was exactly the group I needed.

New Challenges to Face

It has been difficult for me to attend the group in the past few months, as a result of a heavy work travel schedule. I am hoping to get back in the swing of things in July now though, because I believe that participation in user groups (especially good ones) is of prime benefit to both the individual and the developer community. Even more, I believe that maximum benefit is obtained through consistent participation, and making a contribution. Even now, I am trying to find a topic on which I might present to the group. For me, the challenge in this is there is very little I might share with the experienced pros that they don’t already know. But I am going to try, BECAUSE of the challenge this represents.

Why YOU should Join a User Group

If you are a new and inexperienced programmer just starting to figure things out, or if you are an experienced pro who has never attended a user group or meetup, I strongly recommend you GET OFF YOUR ASS AND JOIN ONE. Yes, the initial social interaction thing is uncomfortable for most of us (we are, after all, geeks, right?), but there are few things which can bring a new vigor to your work more effectively than “getting involved” and “Giving back.”

And if you are in the Saint Louis area, I strongly recommend dropping into the STLALT.NET group. There will be pizza. You can bring beer. You WILL learn something. Plus, you probably have an education and professional experience I can steal while you are there.

If you are not in the St. Louis Area, or this specific group is not what you  are looking for, you can most likely find one that IS what you seek HERE: Meetups in your area

If you are intrigued by the STLALT.NET group, you can find more info HERE: STL ALT.NET

You can follow the group on Twitter at : @stlaltdotnet

 

Posted on June 28 2012 09:39 PM by John Atten     

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Amazon Kindle Touch - Initial Impressions

Posted on May 29 2012 08:48 PM by John Atten in Reviews   ||   Comments (0)

I love my iPad. Truly, it covers nearly all the bases very, very well. Email-on-the-go. Surfing the web. Streaming Netflix and other video content that is not Flash-dependent. I thought the iPad would be awesome for reading as well. I mean, swiping page-to-page on a beautiful hi-res screen (in color), and most importantly, having instant access to an enormous library right from a single tablet device.

I was wrong. I do NOT enjoy reading on the iPad. Under ideal conditions it's ok, but:

  1. It becomes hard on the eyes after just a short while. The backlit display makes extended reading difficult.
  2. Reading on iPad is out of the question in the great outdoors. The high-gloss touch display surface is simply too reflective, and is like looking into a mirror on anything but the darkest of cloudy days.

More to the point, I have long been one of those crusty hold-outs for whom a printed book, made of paper (an "analog" reading experience, if you will) was the only way to go. The iPad, for all its wonder in other areas, only seemed to confirm this.

Two things encouraged me to check out the Kindle. First, the idea of having my book collection in my pocket, much like my music collection on my iPod, held a lot of appeal. I am an inveterate reader, and it is rare you might find me out and about without my latest book somewhere on my person. In the same vein, since I do most of my shopping online anymore, the idea of instant gratification in the form of immediate digital delivery from Amazon to my device was also appealing.

The other thing was some reading I did online about people who reluctantly gave the humble-looking Kindle a try, and had nothing but good things to say by the time they had finished their first book.

Alright dude, so tell us about it then

Ok. So having decided to purchase a Kindle, I decided on the Kindle Touch Wi-Fi version. While the 3G edition comes with free 3G connectivity, it costs $50.00 more, and I am rarely so far from decent Wi-Fi that I would use this feature anyway.

The Kindle Touch is roughly 5in x 7in, with a single textured button on the front face just under the screen. In the center of the bottom edge of the device are a mini USB connector port, a 1/8' stereo mini port for headphones, and the power button. Headphones, you say? Yes. Headphones. More on that in a bit.

The Kindle weighs just 7.5  ounces, or 1/2 pound, and is .40in (between 1/4 and 1/2 inch) thick. It is a very compact, lightweight device, and feels quite sturdy, although in contrast to a new phone or tablet, the look and feel

are somehow disappointing. I write this up to context. We’re not buying a tablet or a phone. Amazon claims the Kindle touch will hold roughly 3000 books, or 3GB of user content. However, this is supplemented by the fact that any content purchased from Amazon will also be stored in the Amazon cloud, available as-needed.

I mentioned earlier that the Kindle does not look or feel like your typical high-tech, “touch-enabled” device. When I thought about it for a minute, I can see why this is a positive, not a negative. Kindle is supposed to replace your books. We want to be comfortable using Kindle in the same context as we might a paperback novel. In other words, I am glad the thing doesn’t feel or look like something I would be afraid to take camping.

Display

The biggest difference you will notice when you power on a Kindle is that the screen looks, well, rather dull, and there is no backlighting. In fact, at first it looks a little like an Etch-a-Sketch on steroids (if you are too young to know what an Etch-a-Sketch is, ask your mom or dad). Believe it or not, this is by design, and once you use Kindle for a few, you will begin to get it. Remember me mentioning the strain on the eyes form the backlit display on my iPad? Right. The Kindle display is optimized for reading print. In black and white and gray. In fact, the Kindle is designed to mimic, to the degree possible, the experience of reading from a page. This works well, but is contrary to what I intuitively expect from a high-tech touch-enabled device. I have to continually remind myself that the Kindle is not trying to be a tablet computer or smart phone.

Kindle utilizes a technology called "e-ink" to achieve this. Remember this, because it affects much of the Kindle experience. The display on the Kindle touch boasts a pixel resolution of 600 x 800 at 176 ppi, so text renders very crisply and clean, with no "pixelization", against a roughly off-white background. In natural lighting, this turns out to be very easy on the eyes. However, the e-ink technology appears to use a different screen refresh mechanism, and this makes interacting with the screen seem sluggish when compared to my other touch devices. Kindle can also render 16 levels of gray scale. This affords the Kindle some limited graphic display capability. For most illustrations this is sufficient. However, don't plan on gasping with delight over a coffee table book of fine art.

Battery Life

Because Kindle does not employ backlighting for its display, and requires minimal processing power, battery life on a Kindle is a world apart from more familiar portable devices. A single charge on a Kindle will last anywhere from 30 to 60 days, depending upon your reading habits, and your use of wireless. The Kindle will charge fully in approximately 4 hours, using the included USB 2.0 cable. An AC charger is sold separately, but for most, simply connecting the Kindle to a USB port on your computer will do just fine.

Content Formats

Kindle supports content in the following formats natively: Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, Audible (Audible Enhanced(AA,AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC.

Kindle also supports the following through a conversion process: HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion. This is one of the cool things I did not know about the Kindle until after I bought one. More on this in a bit.

Wait. Did I say "MP3 in that list above? Why, yes I did. As it turns out, the Kindle support audio playback (they call it an "experimental" feature). Yes, you can plug in headphones, and play your favorite background music while reading, if you are so inclined.

Kindle will Read to Me

Another feature is Text-to-Speech, by which Kindle can read aloud to you. While not for everyone, this may come in handy for those who enjoy audio books. Also note that not all content allows this feature. Having played with it briefly, I can say that beyond a certain "wow" factor, I would not be likely to use it. There is too much in reading that is dependent upon what I will call "situational implied vocal inflection" that is not present when the machine reads back in a monotone. Might be good for educational or technical content, however.

Content Management

Here is where the Kindle really begins to sell itself. First off, you can fit a LOT of books on a Kindle. Like, 3,000 or so. Essentially, anything you know you’ll want to read, plus a bunch of stuff you think you MIGHT want to read, as well as anything else you might keep on hand for reference only. You can keep your entire library on here.

Then there is the dubious blessing of shopping for reading materials. Amazon has made it so damn easy to browse, find, and buy new reading material that, without some discipline, one could quickly go bankrupt. The best way to go about it is to shop on your Home PC (or laptop), select the titles you want, and click the “One-Click” purchase button. Voila – Instantly delivered  via wireless (or 3G) to your Kindle. Done. I should also mention that for the moment, anyway, books on Kindle tend to cost significantly less than their analog (paper) counterparts. Partly this is due to the reduced production costs (no paper. No binding. No shipping, etc.). Also, Amazon has been pushing titles at low cost in an effort to increase adoption of the eReader in general, and Kindle specifically. If you can cut the cord with your paper fetish, you can get a lot more book-bang for your buck with Kindle.

New release novels and such (likely available only in hardback at the bookstore)  tend to run between $5.00 and $15.00. Titles available in stores as paperback run the gamut from $2.99 up to $8.00. In any case, Kindle prices tend to undercut paper by a significant margin.

On top of all this, your Kindle purchases are always available in the cloud from your Amazon account. Once you have downloaded them to your kindle (and/or PC/MAC/iPAD etc.) they also remain on Amazon’s servers, just in case. Further, when you feel the need, there are Kindle apps for just about every device out there, including (as mentioned) PC, MAC, iOS devices, Android, etc. Your content is available for all of them.

Convert PDF Files to Kindle Format

Amazon has created a conversion feature, by which you can send a .pdf to your Kindle as an email attachment, adding “CONVERT” to the subject line. In this case, your .pdf file will be converted to a Kindle-format document. Amazon considers this to be an experimental feature. Some .pdf’s render to Kindle format better than others, and the process is not always 100% successful. It is handy though, and I suspect, if Amazon can work out the kinks, this will be a winner.

Using the Kindle Touch

I mentioned earlier that the e-ink display utilized by kindle does not perform in the manner we associate with “touch-enabled” devices (think iPad here). This is  important to keep in mind when reading on Kindle. The upside of e-ink is that it renders beautifully for reading print, under almost any lighting condition. The downside is that the display mechanism is completely different from back-lit displays used by iPads and smart phones. There is no cutesy “swiping” to turn pages, and no accompanying visual page-turn effect. With Kindle Touch, you touch the screen, and the next page renders. To go back, you touch the screen close to the left-hand edge of the screen.

There is also a very, very noticeable latency to the touch response, particularly when typing on the pop-out QWERTY keyboard. While the keyboard contextually as needed (much like other mobile devices) there is a noticeable (and frustrating) lag between touching a key, and the on-screen response. This is probably the most disorienting thing about the Kindle in general, in that we have come to think of “touch” devices from the tablet and phone perspective. If you keep in mind that Kindle is not trying to be either of those, it will help. At least until Amazon catches the e-ink technology up.

Beyond the kludgy touch I/O, I have found that Kindle has completely taken over as my reading tool of choice. Most of my friends and family know that I am a consummate nerd. For most of my life, it has been a rare day that I have not had a book tucked into a satchel or pocket nearby, just in case I have to kill a minute or two waiting in line, or for a table. I am now sold on the eReader format. When I come across a tome that I simply MUST own, I will follow up an buy the analog version (usually in hardback). But for most things, having my digital library available, anywhere, on a whim, is more than good enough.

 

Posted on May 29 2012 08:48 PM by John Atten     

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About the author

My name is John Atten, and my username on many of my online accounts is xivSolutions. I am Fascinated by all things technology and software development. I work mostly with C#, Java, SQL Server 2012, learning ASP.NET MVC, html 5/CSS/Javascript. I am always looking for new information, and value your feedback (especially where I got something wrong!). You can email me at:

jatten@typecastexception.com

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