Simpler and better text formatting than markdown

I was reading What’s Wrong with Markdown by Adam Hyde this morning.  Coincidentally, I’ve been researching and weighing my options for a simplified markup syntax for a Test Case Management system I’m working on.

While I agree with most of what he said, the thing that really struck home (and rang false) is that Markdown is meant as a way to visually markup text — not a shorthand syntax to translate into HTML.

When editing test cases (or comments, or really any simple form of documentation, you don’t want to get too fancy.  You don’t want to hide complexity, you want to eliminate it.  So, here is my proposal for a complete structured text format designed to be read as is … or translated into HTML or other inputs.

Text styles:

Forget about all those weenies who think they’re hip talking about semantic markup (which is really just semantics) nobody ever said, I wish I could tell people my text has emphasis or “strong”.  People want text that is bold, italic, and underlined.

*bold*

/italic/

_underline_

~strikethrough~

No further explanation needed.

Headings:

The same goes for headings. Who cares what an H6 is?  What you really care about is font size.  But, here, a little bit of semantics is useful for creating an outline or table of contents — or just a tiny bit for SEO.

= Heading 3 =

== Heading 2 ==

=== Heading 1 ===

Which heading is bigger? I bet you can tell.  A document really only has one main heading, and several nested under that.  So you should spend less time typing the headings you use more often.  Let the parser figure out which heading level is biggest and adjust accordingly.  HTML got the way headings are numbered wrong, but that’s not my problem.

And I don’t think you need more than 3 levels.  But you can make it bigger for more emphasis if you want:

================= You’ll really notice this heading (but you shouldn’t have to count dashes =================

Lists

This one isn’t hard.  But so many parsers screw it up — so does MS Word, but what’s your excuse?

Bulleted lists

* item a

* item b

* item c

Numbered lists

1. item 1

2. item 2

3. item 3

Indentation creates nesting.  That is all.

Indentation

Four spaces or a tab.  I’d restrict it to only tabs, but textareas can’t handle tabs (unless you paste them.)

indented

Links

If it looks like a url, it’s a link.  Too bad if the parser makes a mistake.  But you can create links with labels, and use anchors

[link:label]

[#anchor]

A footnote would look (surprisingly) like a footnote

see footnote [1]

[#1] This is my footnote

Images

Images (and why not, even flash or an HTML canvas if you really want) can be embedded with curly braces.  If a link looks like an image, you could embed it by default.

{embeded url}

Preformatted text and code

This is important, and github’s triple tilde is a good solution, but how about just a triple dash?

—single-line preformatted—


multi-line
prefomatted
text

You could also just use a HTML-like tag

<code>

This is a code block.

</code>

Tables

Why not?  If you’re willing to draw it, render it.  Along with alignment like github markdown uses

+------------+-----------+--------+
| :left      | :center:  | right: |
+============+===========+========+
| the above rows are headers      |
+---------------------------------+
| don't | worry | about | cells   |
+-------+-------+-------+---------+

Number of dashes determines width in ems — or just default to 100% — or something like that.

Do you really need anything else?  Especially because this should be a simple text block.  I’m not sure that embedding images or rendering tables is even called for.

Let me know what you think.

Setting up OpenDNS Family Shield on your router

You can protect your local network from unwanted adult content by changing the DNS nameserver settings on your router to use the OpenDNS FamilyShield DNS servers.  It’s a free service that blocks most adult content at the networking layer.

I have a Linksys WRT-54GL with DD-WRT installed.  Here’s a good video that explains how to set up DNS servers on your DD-WRT.  Add the Family Shield DNS servers under Settings->Basic Settings -> Network Address Server Settings (DHCP) Just make sure the first nameserver in your DD-WRT settings is your router’s IP address (e.g 192.168.0.1)

DD-WRT Family Shield DNS setup

You can also add these DNS settings to your local /etc/resolv.conf on Linux or TCP-IP Settings on Windows.

The IP Addresses of the OpenDNS FamilyShiled nameservers is (in resolv.conf format):

nameserver 208.67.222.123

nameserver 208.67.220.123

Trying to use a Mac for a month

About a year ago, I bought a MacBook Pro. I bought it for an intern who worked for me at One Shore. But after the internship was over it sat on the shelf.

Until today.

I’ve used a Mac before. I bought a Mac Mini several years ago as a test system — so I could cover all major operating system. And I wanted to learn iOS development.

I never got around to building that killer iPhone app so I still do test consulting and use my Mini from time to time for cross platform testing or when my other computer is busy (installing updates, etc.)

I’ve always struggled working with (or against) the operating system. I’m comfortable on Windows and Linux, so I did my best to make my Macintosh as familiar as possible, which meant changing keyboard shortcuts, installing familiar apps, and working from the command line as much as possible. OS X is Unix underneath, but it felt a bit like using Cygwin.

But now I’m going to make a concerted effort to learn to do things the Mac way. I’m sure I’ll have to cheat along the way — I intended to use Pages as a word processor, but to get started, I installed Sublime Text and started typing.

(Note: I just found that vim comes installed — once I found the terminal — so I could have used that. Or TextEdit, which is Apple’s version of Notepad, which I found under Applications after installing Sublime.)

I decided to create a blog and document my process learning to use a Mac as a software developer.

I hope it will also help me get motivated to write and learn a bit about engaging a community I’m not familiar with.

This is the start of it.  I’ll continue posting on monthofmac.com once I have the domain set up with DNS and WordPress.

Healthcare startup in Bangladesh

I’ve just started working as an advisor to a healthcare startup in Bangladesh called EMFIXR.

Emfixr has the goal of connecting doctors and patients in rural & under-serviced areas in developing countries.  They’re starting in Bangladesh where some of the founders are from.

Dan Mustafa, a founder of Emfixr reached out to me through Angel List originally looking for a developer.  I don’t have the time, but I agreed to do what I can to help.  I also plan on coming on as an investor once they’re ready.

Besides technical advisory work, I’m helping Emfixr build publicity and marketing by creating a Kickstarter campaign.

I connected Dan with MovingWorlds to find someone to help creating a documentary about their project connecting doctors with patients in Bangladesh.

Here is a video by Roger Huang describing Emfixr.

And here is the Emfixr promotion video presentation.

If you’re interested in working with Emfixr in any way (development, social media marketing, investment, etc) please contact me.

What do you need to start a product business

I was reading @patio11’s description of how he started a “microISV” (remember that term from a few years back) from a simple Bingo Card Creator in 8 days.  It got me thinking about what you really need to start a product business online these days.  Besides the flippant answer “not much”, here’s the list I came up with:

What do you need to start a product business?

  • a product
  • a place to advertise that product
  • a description of the product and reasons to buy it
  • a way to market that product
  • a way to take money
  • a way to deliver the product to customers
  • a way to handle customer support

Technically, you don’t need to be able to handle customer support until you have customers.  But once you do, you’d better be ready.  Don’t get too worried about it at first.  Email is probably good enough until you have more emails than you can respond to.

You have to have a product, but you don’t necessarily have to have built the product yet.  But you do need to be able to fulfill orders once you have customers  If you don’t that’s called fraud.

A web site fits the need of advertising the product.  You have to tell people what your product is and why they should buy it. Coming up with decent marketing copy is actually one of the most difficult and dreaded aspects of self-promotion.  At least for me.  This can be as simple as a blog or hosted shopping cart.

But no one is going to read that if they never see it, so you have to have a way to drive traffic.  This can run the spectrum from AdWords to outbound sales calls.  It also includes SEO and networking.  You won’t know what works for you without some experimenting and market research.

So you have a product, a way for people to learn about it, and a way to get them to find out about it, and now they want to buy it.  You need a way for them to pay you (this is the core of the business.)  But once you have a website with a landing page that tells people about your product, and people who are in the market for your product are actually seeing that it exists, and are convinced it will solve their problem, you need to be able to close the deal, take their money, and deliver the product to them — you have the core of a business that can scale from a single downloadable e-Book to Amazon.com.

Ok, you may have some scalability issues, but nothing you can’t overcome, right?

As long as you’re making enough profit to make it worth your while.  Don’t forget to balance the books — or get someone else to fund you.

Some other things it might be nice to think about, but not technically necessary up front:

  • a way to communicate with prospects & customers – an online newletter?
  • a cool product name and fancy logo
  • SEO and organic marketing
  • analytics to tell you what works and what doesn’t work
  • recurring billing
  • business organization (LLC, Corp, etc)

You first need to:

1. Find something people want and build it

2. Inform people that you have a product that fulfills their desire

3. Convince them to buy your product

4. Be able to take their money & deliver the product

5. Handle customer issues

 

 

Testing is a cost center

A cost center is a part of the organization that doesn’t produce profits.  In other words, a necessary evil.

For a long time, all of IT was considered a cost center.  You paid for IT infrastructure and staff, but didn’t consider it an investment in your business.  But businesses in the late 1980s and 1990s started realizing that investments in IT equaled improvements in productivity.  IT investments really started paying off.  And then, with the growth of the internet in the 2000s IT because essential to business.  A professional web site became a marketing necessity. E-commerce became a critical sales channel.  And support & customer relations became valuable IT investments.

But testing is still considered a cost center, even within IT. It’s just something you have to do to release products. Some businesses would skip it if they could, but they feel a need to do due diligence to avoid embarrassing bugs, costly outages, and dangerous security breaches. Some developers have embraced testing, but many more still grumble about *having to* write tests for their code or wait for QA to finish testing before they can release.  Even Agile shops.

People quote the Agile Manifesto about people over processes or working code over documentation to justify the belief that testing is not merely a cost center, but an unnecessary evil.

Testers have always known that when it comes down to crunch time, testing is the area that gets cut first.  Some justify that it is because testing is the last step, and the last gets cut first.  But it’s not the last step.  Deployment is.  And nobody wants to cut deployment out of the process.

How can we help organizations realize that testing is not a cost center?  That it makes development faster.  That quality has value, even if it isn’t qualifiable.  That solid testing processes are beneficial, and that good testers are worth a premium.  That testing needs to be planned for up front just like design, development, operations, and support.  That testing isn’t a cost center within IT, that it actually adds value.  Or does it?

My son’s first programming lesson

This morning I was working from home at the dining room table while my 5 year old son ate his breakfast of Frosted Mini Wheats beside me. Baby was running around destroying things and sister was still asleep.

At one point, I got a pen and paper and started diagramming inputs and control flow (for a deployment script triggered by Jenkins). My son asked what I was drawing, so I explained variables, as best I could, with names like TARGET_APP_SERVERS, BUILD_NUMBER_PRODUCING_ARTIFACT, and JOB_GOAL.

I figured it would go over his head and I could get back to work. But he asked a follow up question. “What is your GOAL”?

“To upgrade the program on the servers or to just restart the server,” I explained.

But he wasn’t satisfied. “What do you want to do — upgrade or restart?”

“Upgrade”, I said.

I started to get back to work, but he wanted to sit on my lap. I decided it was time.

I opened a text editor and wrote out a little program.

name = input("What is your name? ")
print("Hello " + name)

It was very similar to my first program, at age 7, though mine was in BASIC on a TRS-80.

I read the code to him and explained that NAME would be replaced with what he input (or typed).

That says “Hello” he said, pointing to the screen before I got to the second line. His mom is a good teacher.

We fired up the program in the console and I watched him hunt and peck to spell out his name on the keyboard with all the mixed up letters. Then I showed him how to press enter.

“Hello harmon” the computer wrote back.

I ran the program again, this time he requested I enter my name.

“Hello Aaron” it printed.

He was delighted. I added some other lines and watched him practice spelling and reading the output to him

What is your name? harmon
Hello harmon
What is your favorite color? red
I like red too
What is your favorite toy? lego
lego is fun to play with!
What is your favorite show? jang bricks
I don't like watching jang bricks, I prefer My little pony

The last answer was not satisfactory to him, but I’m sure his sister (still sleeping) would appreciate it.

“How is it so smart?” he asked, adding “Computers are like people!”