Evil Petting Zoo on Top, Again!

Well, the trivia team I play on for the Tuesday Night Trivia at the P&H Cafe in midtown Memphis came in first place last night, winning the team $101. I think our comeback and final score surprised everyone on the team, but we’ll definitely take it. Goodness knows we worked hard enough to come up with some of the answers. Special kudos to Matt and Chris for some of the critical sports questions.

Tuesday Night at the P and H Cafe

Here are my top three trivia questions from that night (and it was really hard to narrow it down to three):

1) Which two US Presidents have both first and last names that contain two identical letters in succession?

Millard Fillmore and William Harrison.

Now as for who probably can’t spell or pronounce either of these US Presidents, my bet is the current President, George W. Bush.

Ferris Buellers Day Off2) What is the name of the holiday being celebrated during the parade scene near the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

Von Stuben Day, which kinda makes no sense, since Ferris talks about graduating in a few months and Von Stuben Day is held on September 17th. But, oh well.

3) The original Magic 8 Ball had how many different sides that could come up to answer a question posed to it?

The answer is 20, and the internal polygon is a icosahedron.

OK, and here is a bonus question: How many squiggles (loops) are there on the top of a Hostess Cupcake?

The answer is 7.

Google Free Base

I’ve been playing with yet another Google invention, unveiled only last week, called Google Base. Still in beta and under pretty heavy development, Google Base has the opportunity to become a bigger deal than Google Maps, Google Mail, Google News, Froogle, or any of the other Google tools that I continously (and largely unconsciously) use.

Google Base Logo

What is Google Base? Well, at its essence, it is only a list of things, each with their own sets of attributes, that I control. For the geeks in the house, it is a simple web-based database, configurable and managed via your Google account, using only a web browser. That, in and of itself, is not very exciting; lots of products allow individuals to keep collections of data objects in a manner that is useful to them. What Google Base does beyond this is what makes it so special and gives it the potential to have a huge impact on the way we find information on the Internet.

For one, it is incredibly easy to use. Historically, databases have required some technical skills to design and implement, not to mention resources to put into place so that they are useful to the people that need to store data in them and then use that data in a number of different ways. Google Base allows anyone, anywhere, to create relatively-complex and useful data structures, all without even knowing what they are doing. Are you looking to store recipes? Any grandmother than can get her own email can create a recipe list on Google Base with about as much effort to replying to an email. She gets the benefit of having her recipe anywhere, accessable with a web browser, and the world gets the benefit of knowing her recipe and having it come up as relevant search results in Google.

Recipe example

Most databases are comprised of tables, each comprised of columns and rows, and the tables are linked together in relational schemas that provide for complex queries to retrieve exact sub-sets of the data, useful in a variety of different ways. Amazingly, Google Base offers much the same thing. However, you won’t find instructions in Google Base for setting up tables or providing column datatype or how to create your SQL statements to get the data out of the database. Rather, while you are entering information about the thing, you also enter the attributes about the thing, all done on-the-fly, while you are creating the record. On its face, this violates some of the core concepts of traditional databasing, which requires that you plan ahead of time for how you will store everything, so that you don’t add attributes that are not relevant to the majority of the objects you wish to describe. Google Base turns this idea on its head, pushing you to just get the data in there, under the idea that we can make sense of it later, but it has to be in there to be useful to anyone. I expect Google to release an API (application program interface) soon to help application makers make it even easier to help people store their data in Google Base.

In a way, they already have. Google Base accepts flat-file, RSS (1 and 2), and Atom data feeds. This allows anyone that already has a database, as well as some basic skills about how to get data in and out of it, the ability to easily send their data for inclusion to Google Base, complete with links to the content where it actually lives on the web. This is a big deal, because it underscores exactly while Google has been so successful: they are interested in building value for everyone in what they do, and they understand that money is not the only currency.

For example, I run a little website called Terrascend, where anyone can list farms, land, hunting property, or just about any rural property for sale, anywhere in the world. I allows people to easily submit basic facts about their property, as well as photos and maps, in the hope that they will be able to reach a potential buyer. I sell some basic services to folks that want to allow their Terrascend listings to appear together on their own website, but Terrascend is basically a good free service, something I enjoy doing and can learn from. Since I started Terrascend in late-2001, I haven’t had any trouble getting people that know about the site to use it. The problem has been in letting people know what it is and that it is available for free, no strings attached. For a while, I played around with Google Ad Words and got Terrascend to show up in search results for keywords like “hunting land” and “farm for sale.” However, this quickly became too expensive to do, particularly for a site that isn’t designed to generate a lot of revenue. I’ve been wishing for years that there was a way to let people know about Terrascend and what it can do without paying for placement with search engines. And, now, thanks to Google Base, it is now becoming possible.

From Google’s perspective, they just want to get something out of the arrangement. That something might be money, as they get if you use Ad Words or their other sponsored link programs. But there is something else that is almost as valuable to them (and will help them make even more money): relevancy. Google realizes that people use its various services because the information provided is truly relevant to them and what they want. Next to having someone pay actual money to put a link to their site via keywords, Google wants actual useful data (not just links to useful data) to be returned to people using their search and other services. The more relevant the data returned, the more these people will be inclined to use Google again the next time they need to find something.

In other words, Google has allowed me the option of giving it not just money but relevant data in order to get the word out about the service I offer. As long as I offer more relevant data about what people want to find, Google will show my data in its search results and people can click through to the actual information that I want them to see. If I don’t offer relevant data, then I don’t get any benefit out of it because people don’t find it (and it doesn’t cost Google anything, since they don’t generate the data – I do).

There has been a lot of talk about alternate value systems on the Internet over the past decade. I think that we are on the cusp of a real one, and the conduit through which it flows is Google Base. I would be surprised if Yahoo and Microsoft aren’t hard at work copying this right now.

Rhodes-Sewanee Game Cajun Feast

I took part in what I hope turns into an annual event for my employer/alma mater, Rhodes College: the campus community cook-out before the big game. At Rhodes, there is rarely a bigger football game of the year than the Rhodes vs. Sewanee match up, and this year, some staff members worked to expand the gumbo cooking operation of Joby Dion, a fellow co-worker/alumus that, with several friends, made a habit over the past couple of years of cooking a big pot of gumbo before the home games.

Joby the Chef Cajun Cooks

Joby Dion handled the gumbo, using his own special south Louisiana recipe, while Bud Richey (with the help of sons Allen and JP), whipped up a yummy red beans and rice concoction. Mac McWhirter and Dean Allen Boone showed me the ropes on how to cook jumbo shrimp the authentic cajun way, specially marinated overnight and cooked in a giant pan and eaten immediately.

Everyone involved had a blast, and even though Rhodes ended up losing the football game in sudden-death overtime, the cook-out allowed everyone to get together on a day with fantastic weather. It seems possible that everyone left full and smiling, despite the loss. Thanks to everyone who made the day possible.

Click here for more photos of the Rhodes vs. Sewanee Cajun Feast

Kath’s Birthday a “Smashing” Success

Katherine’s 33rd birthday party was held, strangely enough, on her birthday, Saturday, November 5th. Through a strange confluence of the stars, and the kindness of John’s sister Keri Stephany, Katherine actually got two parties. Both of them turned out to pretty pretty different affairs.

Kath’s first birthday party was held at Billy Hardwick’s All Star Lanes, where some of her most fun friends gathered to knock a few pins around.

Kath and Cake Bowling

Kath actually smashed through the 100-point barrier that haunts her in the bowling alley, and every guest walked away with one of the finest gag/silly gifts that the dollar store down the street could provide. (See-through plastic human body with removable, multi-color organs, anyone?) Anyone feeling a mite bit peckish helped themselves to a cake made of 98 “Fun Size” Milky Way candy bars, covered in “white” icing, and topped with an army of gummy bears. It was a little bit on the sweet side, but at least everyone tried a piece.

After bowling and a little rest, we picked up a pinata at La Espiga, one of the best Mexican joints in Memphis. We took it over to Keri’s party, filled it with candy, and everyone starting taking swings at it.

Dave and Pinata Kath and Pinata

Needless to say, the pinata lost, but we had a blast bashing it open. (Sorry about your broom handle, Keri! I’ll try to remember to get you a new one…)

All in all, everyone had a good time at both events, taking advantage of some outstanding weather for a November in Memphis.

Want to see more? Click here for more photos of the event.

Floating Down the Ghost River the Day Before Halloween

Last Sunday, October 30th, Frank and I took a very enjoyable trip down the Wolf River. Frank owns a kayak. Well, it is more like a canoe, but Frank uses kayak paddles and prefers to call it a kayak, so I’ll call it a kayak, too. Regardless, the boat handled very well.

(In trying to figure out what is the difference between a canoe and a kayak, wonderful Wikipedia reminded me that I had an interest in finding out more about foldable kayaks, such as the one used the Paul Theroux’s excellent book The Happy Isles of Oceania, where he paddles one all over the South Pacific. Finally, I was lead to a great website on folding kayaks, where I finally found a group of suitable candidates. Imagine being able to buy your own water transportation that you can bring with you anywhere in the world. Now imagine being able to fit it on the back of a bicycle. With a collapsible bike, you could just keep traveling on water and land with nothing to stop you… OK, more on that in a later post…)

Frank invited me to take part in the Wolf River Conservancy Fall Color Wolf River Trip, which leaves from the landing south of La Grange, TN, and floats you to the take-out point at Bateman’s Bridge, south of Moscow, TN. While I expected a leasurely trip down river, much like trips I took on the Buffalo and Spring rivers in Arkansas, nothing prepared for the technical skill required to help navigate a kayak through the narrow openings of trees and other obstacles. This was truly the most challenging canoe trip I’ve ever taken, and the sights along the river were definitely worth the effort.

Anyone living in Memphis is familiar with the Wolf River; it flows into the Mississippi River north of Mud Island, bisecting the city on the route to its mouth. However, few Memphians know much about the origin of the Wolf River, or where it flows before it enters Shelby County. Heck, I still don’t know all that much about it. If you are interested, read on here.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Wolf River is called the Ghost River section, the section covered during the Fall Color trip. What makes this section of river so compelling is that, during a 5-6 hour ride, you travel through four distinct ecosystems, each quite different from the one before it.

Hardwood SectionThe first 1/3rd of the trip takes place in a hardwood forest, with a somewhat narrow river channel and a clearly defined river bank. There are plenty of obstacles, above and below the water, and you have to stay sharp in the rather shallow water so as to not take a wrong turn and have to back-track. This is a very smooth part of the river, quiet and majestic, with towering, moss-ringed trees on both sides as you glide by.

Ghost River TreesEventually you reach the beginning of the section that gives the Ghost River its name, a shallow, broad section that flows through a hardwood forest, filled with giant trees and knobs, sometimes with only a few feet between them. Even for a narrow kayak on the approved canoe trail, squeezing through some of the trees proved to be a real problem, especially given the fact that current often runs against the direction of the trail. The canopy above masks the light, and even in the middle of the day, everything gets just a little more spooky. The edges of the bank are usually still in sight but much further away, not that you have time to contemplate how you would get to the bank in your constant struggle to stay on the water path. Think swamp with moving water.

Spirit LakeEventually, the Ghost River Canoe Trail opens up to what is referred to as Spirit Lake, a broad section of the river with fewer trees, a slightly calmer current, lily pads everywhere on the edges of the channel, and more light. The river meanders through the more open forest, allowing a break from the constant struggle to steer experienced in the Ghost River section. In the Fall, this is the section with the most leaf color and other beautiful scenes. You can see beaver dams off in the backwater areas, large birdhouses built for birds of prey, and stands of thicker forest in the distance. The trees all around you remind you of how high the water can rise, with dark moss rings circling all of the trunks at same height.

Takeout PointThe final section before taking out at Bateman’s Bridge resembles an alpine mountain stream. The banks draw in closer together, the river grows deeper, and the current increases quite a bit. Grassy banks leap from the edges of the river, and meadows appear on either side. If you didn’t know that you were on the Wolf River, you might think you were in Colorado in the middle of summer.

All in all, it is wonderful trip, and we are already scheming about how to pull it off with more canoes, um, I mean, kayaks, next Spring. Many thanks to Frank for the invite.

For more images of the Ghost River trip, click here to view the photos I snapped along the way.

Proprietary Software Strikes Back?

Something very interesting has been happening just below the surface in the commercial software world over the past few weeks, something very quiet and timid but something that also has the potential to be as important as Microsoft’s decision to include a web browser with its operating system or the decision of MySQL AB to go open-source or the migration from NCSA to Apache. OK, well, the last two really require a geek’s outlook, but I think they will all stand out as time passes.

I am referring to the fact that several of the biggest names in commercial, proprietary software have recently announced “free” editions of the most popular, and profitable, products:

    Oracle announced the 10g Database XE Edition, a free (but crippled – only uses 1 GB of RAM and 1 processor, 4 GB max DB file size) version of their powerful and widely used core database product;

    Microsoft has started pushing its “free” SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, more commonly called its previous name of MSDE.

In the background, you can see the consolidation in the enterprise application space has left few big prized left to claim by large companies looking to expand their revenue streams. Also, MySQL 5 has been called “Production Ready,” bringing stored procedures, views, and triggers to the popular open-source database. And, acting as a dull roar beneath it all, AJAX-based productivity apps are all the buzz, even though one has yet to break out to compete with expensive desktop software, like MS Office.

What is going on here? Well, I think that the big proprietary software companies are actually starting to realize that they actually are starting to compete with tested and proven open source software in a way that really will, eventually affect the bottom line. That’s nothing new, though. Look at Apache and IIS. It is also not necessarily new that the open source product actually out-performs the proprietary offering, making it more desirable, even if price wasn’t an issue. What is new is that customers are running out of features that exist in proprietary software that do not exist in best-of-breed open source offerings. And if customers don’t need it, the developers won’t be willing to split their fees with the big software publishing houses as part of software tax on their development.

Oracle is probably the one that has the most to lose in the short run. More than 90% of its core features now exist in MySQL, and if you were a large software developer looking to choose a database, why would you want make your customer cut a check to Oracle that they could be cutting to you?

It isn’t like this is anything new. Oracle’s strategy of buying firms like PeopleSoft, its development of more tiers of software layers above the database designed to lock you in, and its marketing of “grid” databases (i.e. something that most of its customers couldn’t care less about) rather than focusing on making its security and bug patches easier to apply as been designed for some time to head off and envitable decision: open source your own technology, going into business as a service, or continue to squeeze your customers for every last dime while your stock and company slowly sinks and becomes less relevant. (Novell, anyone?)

And, while Microsoft may be smiling now, the future doesn’t look too good for it, either. Regardless of what the brains in Redmond think, the operating system you run, and even the computing device you use, is becoming less relevant. Subscription software, at least how they would like to sell it, is not the answer to what is probably coming in 8-10 years: a bleed of capital under the weight of a top-heavy organization that was never able to really innovate but poorly copy.

We are witnessing some of the first ripples of what could turn out to be a larger tsunami.

Trivia Tuesday – Nov. 1st, 2005

On most Tuesday nights, I can be found at the P&H Cafe, in midtown Memphis, taking part in what is commonly called Trivia Tuesday. I play on a team called Evil Petting Zoo, and we usually do pretty well (though that is hardly due to my trivia knowledge). On November 1st, we came in 2nd behind Michelobotomy, losing out on the top spot by half a point.

For the uninitiated, Trivia Tuesday consists of teams of 2 to 6 players competing to win a share of the pot, generated by the $3 entry fee per person required to play. Its a lot of fun, and if you think you know a lot of trivia and live in Memphis, you haven’t been tested until you’ve played at the P&H.

Top three trivia questions from November 1st, 2005:

1) What was the first #1 hit for the Rolling Stones in the UK?

2) What Middle East capital translates to “God’s Will”?

3) Whose face is one the mask turned inside out and painted white and used by the killer in the movie Halloween?

Answers will be posted later in the week…