Monthly Archives: June 2008

The view from my office

This was the view from my ‘office’ last week, on holiday in Dorset (that’s Corfe Castle you can see in the background). You never really get a day off when you run a microISV, but spending an hour a day answering emails isn’t too onerous. Certainly it is better than not going on holiday. Mobile Internet access is truly a wonderful thing.

The above photo was taken by Claire. Below is a panorama created using Autostitch from 8 separate photos taken by me (click to enlarge).

Lego

I loved Lego as a child. Now I have a two year old son I have a good excuse to play with it all over again. Below are some of things I have managed to construct out of Lego Duplo with his ‘help’ (building something out of Lego with a two year old reminds me of playing Tetris, only in 3 dimensions rather than 2).

What has this got to do with software? Not a lot. I am not even going to attempt a strained analogy with software design. But I figure nearly everyone interested in software also likes Lego, even if they haven’t played with it for a few decades. Am I wrong? Some of you might have preferred Meccano – but you are probably Perl programmers now. Serves you right.

Anyway, I am looking for some inspiration for future creations. A search on Google only turned stuff a bit out of my league or not very appropriate for a two year old (work safe). Have you (or your children) built anything good out of Lego (Duplo, classic, Technics, Mindstorms etc)? If so, please post a link to a photo in the comments below. Alternatively email them to me and I will add them for you.

I reserve the right to sneer at anything made by following instructions on a packet.

Photos & comments sent in:

Scott: “It may not be as involved as your creations, but my daughter absolutely loved this crane that I made.”

Bob: “I have many happy memories of building LEGO projects with my son who is now studying Computer Aided Product Design in college. He started out with bricks, then Technics, and then MindStorms. I think the LEGO people should be commended for having made some excellent products over the years.”

Stephen: “Like you, I also had Lego when I was a kid. Meccano, I did not have.
I could never afford too much Lego, so had to settle for one railway
engine and a really small amount of track to go with it. The things I
buy my nephews are much more involved. Quite a change.

Anyway, some tidbits of Lego info for you. The moulds for the bricks are
machined from tungsten carbide using diamond cutting bits and machines
the moulds to 1 millionth of an inch accuracy. My uncle’s company wrote
the CAD software that controlled the CAM machinery for this operation.
That info is I guess, now about 20 years old. I’ve no idea if they still
make them the same way, But apparently that is how they did it back then
(assuming my memory hasn’t tweaked any details). I was always told it
was 1 millionth of an inch but that may have been for explanation’s sake
and they may well have measured in microns, fractions of a millimeter. I
guess stepper motors are your friend for this type of job.

The bit I love is that the moulds are made out of something so
tough they have to use diamonds to cut them. And all for some
lightweight plastic bricks!”

The joys and challenges of running a nomadic software company

la digue island,seychellesIn theory an Internet based software business isn’t tied to any particular geographical location and can be run from a laptop anywhere there is an Internet connection. So why not travel the world, financed by your business? Trygve & Karen Inda are doing just that. They kindly agreed to write this guest post discussing the practicalities of running a nomadic software company.

The freedom to wander aimlessly around the planet, visiting whichever countries you want, is something many people dream about. We have actually achieved it through our microISV. For the past six years, we have been living and working in numerous countries, with nothing more than our Mac laptops, backpacks, assorted cables and adaptors and an insatiable thirst for adventure.

We were thirty years old, with no kids and no debt, working steady jobs in Reno, Nevada, and had a small microISV on the side. It was a “nights and weekends” business that earned us dining out money, or even covered the rent in a good month. After September 11th, my husband Trygve’s day-job slowly went away, giving him more time to devote to our microISV. By March 2002, when we first released EarthDesk, the microISV had become his full-time job.

The response to EarthDesk was phenomenal and we soon realized that we could move overseas, bringing our microISV with us. Within several months, we had sold the bulk of our possessions, moved out of our apartment in Reno and purchased one-way tickets to Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

The experiment begins

For six months, we tried to manage our software business while teaching English and doing odd jobs for NGOs, newspapers and radio stations. We had brought with us two Mac laptops (a PowerBook G4 and an iBook G3), which were both maxed out as far as hard drive and memory were concerned, an extra battery for the G4, an external keyboard, a digital camera, and various cables and worldwide plug adaptors. We had also brought a CD case full of original software discs.

Tbilisi home office

In the end, the multiple infrastructure problems that plague the Republic of Georgia (mostly a serious lack of electricity) proved too much for us to bear. We escaped to Germany, carrying 170 pounds of stuff, including our two laptops, a UPS we had purchased in Tbilisi and a Persian carpet we had bargained for while on Christmas holiday in Dubai.

After a few weeks recovering in Germany, we spent a few months in Prague, Czech Republic. When the cold weather arrived, we flew south and spent eight months travelling around the Indian Ocean, South East Asia and Oceania. Shortly thereafter, we landed a software development contract in Dubai and relocated there, but regularly escape to Prague during the blistering summer months. We currently own a flat in central Prague and have considered buying a flat in Dubai.

Kampala, Uganda

By keeping a small base in one or two countries, we can have a “home”, a decent place to work and a life, while still taking long trips with the backpacks. Running the business from an apartment in the developed world is fairly straightforward. What’s challenging is running the business from a backpack while spending several months on the road.

The essentials

Everyone wants to sit on a beach and work only four hours a day, but the reality is a little different. If you are actually running your business, you’ll spend as much time working on the beach as you would in a cubicle. It’s certainly possible to work only an hour a day for a few weeks, but to develop and grow your business, you will need to spend time actually working, rather than sightseeing. It’s not a permanent holiday, but rather an opportunity for frequent changes of scenery.

As a practical matter, you can only travel with what you can carry and a good backpack with detachable day-pack is the only serious option. Since you are carrying a few thousand dollars worth of equipment, security becomes an issue, especially in poorly developed parts of the world. We generally stay in the least expensive hotels we can find that have adequate security and cleanliness, while occasionally splurging on something nicer to maintain our sanity. It is very important to budget properly for long trips. For some people this may be as much as $200/day, and for others it may be only $50/day, but managing expenditures is even more important when on the road. Of course you’ll soon realize that for the same money spent during 4 days in London, you could spend weeks in South East Asia or poorer parts of the Middle East.

On journeys of a month or more, we generally bring two up-to-date Mac laptops (currently 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pros), worldwide plug adaptors, software CDs, two iPods (one for backing up data), a digital camera and two unlocked 4-band GSM mobile phones. For longer-term backup we burn a data DVD about once per month and post it home.

Essential software includes Excel, Entourage, Filemaker Pro, Skype, iChat and, of course, the Apple Xcode Developer Tools. Speed Download saved us in Tbilisi because of its ability to resume downloads after our dial-up internet connection dropped the line, which it did every four minutes!

Surprisingly, the best Internet we have found in the developing world was in Phnom Penh. WiFi can often be found at big hotels, but it is more common to connect via Ethernet in a cafe, where a basic knowledge of Windows networking will allow you to configure your laptop to match the existing settings of the cafe’s PC. In the least developed countries, modems are still the norm.

Kigali, Rwanda

One important consideration, especially in countries where censorship is common, is that many places require you to use their SMTP server for outgoing mail. This may not work with your domain as a return address. To get around this, it’s useful to have a VPN, such as witopia.net, and an SMTP server at your domain.

Visas, taxes and other nasty stuff

If you have a western passport, visas usually only become an issue when you want to stay somewhere more than three months. Often, it is possible to do a “visa run,” in which you briefly leave the country and immediately return for another three months. Many countries make it easy to set up a local company, which can allow you to obtain longer-term residency visas, but there is a lot of paperwork involved with this. Staying more than six months as a “tourist” anywhere can be a problem as you’ll almost certainly have to deal with immigration issues.

Hong Kong

Although Dubai has straightforward immigration procedures and is a fabulous place to spend winters, the UAE Government blocks more websites than just about any other country on Earth. Even Skype is blocked because the local telecommunications company doesn’t want any competition. Unless you are able to find a way around the blocks (wink, wink), running any kind of internet business from Dubai will be fraught with difficulty.

Even if you are living in a tax haven, if you are a US Citizen, you can never fully avoid US taxes, although you can take advantage of the Foreign Exclusion. Local taxes aren’t really an issue if you’re just a “tourist” spending a few weeks in a country, but they can become an issue for long-term stays. If you are planning to stay somewhere for more than a couple months, and “settle”, you’ll need to research tax ramifications.

Sana, Yemen

Since we left the US, our taxes have become much more complicated. Fortunately, we found an American tax attorney to handle our annual filings. He lives abroad and therefore understands the Foreign Exclusion and other tax laws regarding expats. For our microISV, payment is handled online by two providers (always have a backup!), and ends up in a company account in America. We use a payroll service to pay our salaries into personal accounts, which we can access by ATM. We also have established a managed office in Nevada to act as our company headquarters and handle mail, voicemail and legal services.

We have no regrets about having left the US for our big adventure. We have truly lived our dream of being able to travel indefinitely, but sometimes it is wearying not knowing which country we will be living in just a few months into the future. Our ultimate goal is to own two properties on two continents so that we can travel between them with just a laptop.

by Karen Inda

photographs by Trygve and Karen Inda

Trygve & Karen Inda are the owners of Xeric Design. Their products include EarthDesk, a screensaver with a difference for Windows and Mac. They were last spotted in Prague.

How to generate traffic to your website

Fellow software entrepreneur and blogger Stephane Grenier sent me a review copy of his “How to generate traffic for your website” ebook a while back. I have finally had time to read it. It is an introduction to marketing your website, covering a wide range of topics, including: SEO, Google Adwords, social news sites, blogging, directories and PR.

On the whole I think it is a very good introduction to marketing websites. At 136 pages there is plenty of ‘meat’ and a good balance between depth and breadth of coverage. Steph illustrates many of the topics with his own real-world experience with landlordmax.com .

There is less there for experienced marketers, but I still picked up some useful tips and there were links to resources I hadn’t come across before. I found his illustration of optimising a Google ad particularly interesting. But I disagree with his recommendation to allow Google Adwords to optimise which ads are shown most. The problem with this is that Google may choose to show ads which are making lots of money for them, but not much for you (e.g. high clickthrough, low conversion). I prefer to show all ads equally and then kill off the under-performers myself.

I have a couple of quibbles:

  • Some of the writing isn’t as polished as the prose in Steph’s blog and there were a fair number of typos. I have pointed some of them out to the author, so they should hopefully be fixed in the next version. Also some of the screen captures looked a bit mangled. But this may be due to the vagaries of PDF formatting.
  • I am not keen on the use of undisclosed affiliate links in a paid-for ebook. Affiliate links call the impartiality of the author into question. Is he sending me to this site because it is a useful resource, or just for the commission? I feel that any affiliate links should at least be clearly marked as such. But this is a grey area and that is just my opinion.

You can read the first chapter for free here and purchase a copy here.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy.

Ebay bug?

A couple of weeks ago I received a rather expensive looking tie in the post. I hadn’t ordered it and there was no note or letter to say who it had come from. How very odd. As a microISV my work attire doesn’t get any more formal than a t-shirt and I don’t ‘do’ meetings. Perhaps a happy user of PerfectTablePlan had sent it in gratitude for saving them hours with post-it notes?

Then the books started appearing. First “Julius Caesar” by Shakespear. Shortly followed by “The life of charlemagne”, “Travels through France and Italy” and “In the shadows of vesuvius”. Then finally “The complete angler”. Perhaps I had a cyber-stalker? One with rather refined tastes.

I have been buying lego duplo for my son on Ebay. Maybe one of the sellers got confused and sent the wrong items? I did some digging around on EBay and found that one person had purchased all the above items on Ebay. I contacted him and the sellers to find out what was going on. The sellers all said they had sent the goods to my address, as provided by EBay. The buyer said that his EBay delivery address had mysteriously changed to my address. He has since paid me the postage and I have forwarded them on to his real address.

To the best of my knowledge the buyer and I have never had any dealings with each other, through EBay or otherwise. So it is unlikely that he mistakenly supplied my address to EBay. Also there is no incentive for him to have deliberately changed his address to mine. The only rational explanation I can come up with is that this mix-up was caused by an egregious bug in EBay. Perhaps the bugs at PayPal are spreading to it’s parent company? Has anyone else heard of similar EBay address mix-ups?

Sometimes the best way to recover Windows data is Linux

knoppixMy Windows laptop refused to boot into Windows. The ominous error message was:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:

\windows\system32\config\system

A quick Google suggested that the registry had been corrupted. I tried various things to recover the OS, including using the XP recovery console to manually restore a backup of the registry. It didn’t work.

No problem. I have a fairly paranoid back-up regime. All the important information on my laptop is also stored on my subversion server. I could just reformat the laptop, reinstall the applications (including subversion) and check out all the files again. Except that I hadn’t thought to include my wife’s files on the laptop in my back-up plans. Oops. After hours of making no progress recovering the data. I tried Knoppix. I got access to the data in not much longer than it took to download Knoppix.

Knoppix is a Linux distribution that can run from a CD (i.e. it doesn’t require installation on your harddisk). It is also capable of understanding Windows file systems. To use it:

  1. Download the latest Knoppix CD .iso file (approx 700MB). Note – The DVD version is much larger.
  2. Burn the .iso to a CD, for example using the free Active ISO Burner.
  3. Boot the stricken machine from the Knoppix CD. You may need to change your system to BIOS to boot from the CD first. How you access the BIOS varies between machines. On my Toshiba laptop you press F2 as the system boots.
  4. Drag and drop data from the stricken machine to a USB harddisk or memory stick. Or copy to another machine using FTP from Knoppix. The Knoppix user interface is easy enough to use, even if you haven’t used Linux before.

Note that you don’t have to enter your Windows password to recover the files. This brings homw how easy it is to get data off a password protected Windows machine, if you have physical access to the machine. Another good reason to encrypt sensitive data on your laptop, for example using the free Truecrypt.

Thanks Knoppix! I’ve added you to my mental list of worthy software causes to make a small donation to one day. Obviously you need access to a functioning machine to do the above. So why not make a Knoppix CD now, while everything is fine? You never know when you might need it.

Further reading:

Life hacker: Rescue files with a boot CD