why wiki, continued

Posted by anton
on Sunday, December 17, 2006

our team has been running on trac for past four months, and the results so far were very encouraging. we organize things under coarse-grained categories, and then use tags to organize content further. tags really help out a lot, i got so used to CLI-like searching (/trac/tags/tag1+tag2), and their indexing capability (ListTagged() macro).

a few things learned:

  • wikis work best for small homogeneous groups, and even then only a few "expert" people contribute; sadly it is not the whole group that enthusiastically uses the wiki as a group's collective knowledge base, as well as communication device (perhaps it is a nature of our environment though)
  • it works really well as a metadata "glue", when it pulls together different sources in one context (a few links to documents in sharepoint, a few links to some internal systems, and some text to describe it all). i would really like to extend this further and start consuming stuff from other apps (syndicate feeds, pull in reports, etc. for instance - every morning create an entry for past night's batch run issues from the report we currently have, so that person on call can start annotating it as issues are worked on)
  • i really need an auto-save feature (gmail and the like). since i am trigger-happy on the keyboard, i've lost posts a number of times. it should be trivial to implement. on a side note, i thought i would hate the new spelling support in firefox, but i find it incredibly beneficial
  • tags are great, but the consistency of tag corpus is an issue; self-imposed rules help a bit (nouns, no plurals, lowercase, etc), but a del.icio.us-like drop-down of suggestions as you type would be very helpful
  • i haven't really needed to search through attachments yet using trac, but then we still store most of our binary docs in sharepoint. the funny thing is that people save bigass ms office documents in sharepoint with revision tracking turned on (40M documents are not uncommon), which forced sharepoint admins to turn off versioning across the board, defeating one of the main benefits of sharepoint (apparently our version did not use binary diffs, saving full content every time). on top of that search within documents in our version of sharepoint is pretty much useless anyway. so considering all this i am thinking of just asking people to map a branch of our svn repo as a drive and save documents there; although it might result in a lot of commits, it would be versioned and in addition mapped into our website's namespace
  • need for templates - as we start to store more structured content like technical specifications or high-level interface descriptions that have certain required fields
  • and the final wish, or more of a pipedream - smarter markup that has semantic value that could be harvested/searched/aggregated (something along the lines of a yet-to-be-realized promise of xml-based backend of ms office) with support for intellisense-like autocompletion. as mentioned above, as we start storing interface descriptions that have certain common fields (source system, target system, integration technology, group that owns it, canonical data format used, etc), i want to be able to run queries like "show me all interfaces owned by this group", or "show me all interfaces that use this integration technology", or "show me all interfaces that feed this system". then i want to save these queries and make them dynamic, so essentially they become different views into the data. sharepoint currently supports it with excel-like functionality and views, but the content is strictly tabular. what i want is the ability to use one of these domain-specific markup microformats as i am writing my wiki entry. i can hackily mimic this to an extent with "typed" tags (i.e. interface/source/systema, interface/technology/toolb), but it just feels way too flimsy. jon udell's continuous laments on this subject were very inspiring.

when do you think?

Posted by anton
on Sunday, December 10, 2006

i think it was rutherford that upon noticing that one of his students spent all his time at the laboratory experimenting, exclaimed, "but when do you think?"

work feels like a rat race these days, and i almost have no time to catch up with blogosphere, let alone spend some time playing with things that are interesting and somewhat unrelated (interestingly most of the stuff that i am proud of at work, the stuff that is actually cool, i did as a skunkwork project in my spare time).

i am glad to report though, that i finally found a way to listen to podcasts. ideally it would be during commute or walks at lunch time, but since the city is small and walking around suburban expanse of parking lot is anything but inspiring, i had to come up with something else. it turns out that podcasts work wonders at the gym.

my problem is that these days i get too easily distracted, so confining myself to the tedium of a workout is the best way to focus. it used to be like that before, where i could think through designs or really listen to music, but i never made the leap to podcasts (or audiobooks) until past few months.

i need this time alone, this almost meditation-like state where it is just me and one subject/object that i am dealing with. this is the time when i get ideas, when i am creative. as long as i complement this with regular feedback from others, this is a perfect combination. speaking of feedback from others - it is best to get the team to eat together; it is amazing how well it works not just for bouncing ideas off each other, but for the overall health of the group.

at home achieving this state of concentration is often difficult, since at the same time there are too many distractions, and not enough difference to be inspiring. it turns out that these moment of solitude are most productive when offset by the din of the coffee shop, or even a bar - this way any distraction is short-lived.

at work not having an office, or even a cubicle until recently results in constant context-switching (or even thrashing, when operation duties of looking after others' code clash with any design/building). so i am trying to minimize distractions as much as i can, maximizing the time "in the flow"; it starts with simple things - on my machine all the interfaces are as ambient as possible - no popus, no sounds; but most often i work from home if i want to get anything done.

but back to podcasts - so far i have been catching up with jon udell and itconversations. jon's stuff is always a pleasure - sometimes i rewind and replay just to get everything, sometimes i pause and think - even if the topic itself is not that interesting, or the interviewee is not particularly impressive, jon always finds a way to trigger a thought, providing this inspiring jolt of ideas and connections.

i tried a few channel9 podcasts, but they were sickeningly patronizing and so bland and boring that i switch off in just a few minutes (i cringe easily so any kind of off-color jovial behavior rubs me the wrong way; i can barely take the elevator music and soothing radio-voice introductions of itconversations as it is). now that jon is joining channel9 at microsoft, i am looking forward to their improvement.

now i just need to broaden my search and see if there are any other podcasts worthy of interest (and i guess they do not have to be it-specific, as long as they are spoken word).