The Legacy of a Suicide

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently you might have heard of the death of Internet programmer and activist Aaron Swartz. This may be small solace to his family and friends, but his suicide  and the examination of his life and the issues he focused on could finally become the impetus for much needed changes to the way the Internet is governed and distributed.

Aaron Swartz from ragesoss on Flickr.

Aaron Swartz from ragesoss on Flickr

I can’t begin to understand the causes that led to his suicide. I’m sure the reasons are complex and deeply rooted in Aaron’s personality as well as whatever outside pressures he was under. But as some of the emotional wave in reaction to his death subsides, I am seeing and hearing some really good discussion about the issues he was concerned with: Free flow of information, copyright law, open source, improved and economical bandwidth access for all. If you do much of anything on the Internet, these should be your concerns as well. A great discussion of Aaron’s life and legacy that reaches far beyond the events and causes of his death can be heard on this podcast from KCRW’s To the Point. Check it out.

Some additional links to good coverage:


Drupal Convention Keynote

I love working with Drupal. But it has lots of drawbacks. Mainly, that it’s not easy. Even for developers. We often run up against things that just don’t work as expected. So, time is spent figuring out why and how to make it work. We can usually find a way. But it sometimes costs more to find the solution than is reasonable for a specific project. I have found the same thing with WordPress which, of course, runs this blog. They both have limitations. They both have good core platforms and active communities striving to develop, improve, and extend their platforms. To me, there is no going back.I hope I never have to build a site without either one of them supporting me and giving clients extra value in engaging with the world via the Internet.

I wish I were at Drupalcon this week. I’ve attended a couple and they are full of energy, excitement, friendship and learning is fabulous. But I can enjoy some of the event from afar. Here, if you’re interested is the keynote delivered by Drupal’s founder Dries Buytaert. It’s a little a bit about where the project has been. And a lot of about where it is going.

Amazon Affiliates and Taxes

Last week I had my 15 seconds of almost fame. I’ve been an Amazon Affiliate for years. When I got mTweet!y email from Amazon that they were closing my account because of the sales tax law passed by California. For some reason my name got passed to a couple journalists as a spokesperson for the 10,000 or so affiliates who had their business shut down without recourse.

So while I was up on a ridge above Loleta watching my daughter rider her mustang I did a phone interview with a writer from SF Weekly. I tried to steer him to someone who had actually made some good money and so had more at stake, but I guess they couldn’t connect.

A couple days later I was interviewed by a reporter from the Eureka Times-Standard. Again, I tried to slough her off to someone else. But she was persistent so there I am again. I guess it shows how easy it is to get noticed using the right keywords in social media posts, especially if the topic is newsy.

Although I hadn’t made much money from my affiliate program, I know others who have made thousands and will now be forced to find alternatives. These folks generate income by adding value floating on top of the Amazon retail river. Since Amazon cut them off, the State of California will not gain any income from their sales tax. In fact, big players in this realm will simply move or move their “official” address to another state, thus reducing the revenue in income tax for the State as well. This is a fine example of unintended consequences of what seems like a sensible action. I understand the State needs revenue, and don’t mind paying sales tax. But this was clearly not the way to go about it.

This actually does hurt me more than I let on as I have been working on a number of personal web projects where the Amazon Affiliate program would have played a part in building sustainable revenue. I guess I will have to rethink that part of  my plan. I’ve also been looking longingly at property in the state of Washington.

If you have a story to share about your Amazon Affiliate program, I’d love to read it. Put it in the comments!

Building a Toys for Tots Application with Drupal

Toys for Tots is a national program of the Marine Corps Reserve that distributes toys to needy children each Christmas. The local chapter works through every school (public and private) throughout Humboldt and Trinity Counties. It’s quite a logistical feat to identify and contact each family, provide a count of the number of eligible children in each community and note their gender, age and location where their toys will be distributed.

Previously,  this was all done on paper and the numbers had to be gathered from each school and entered on to spreadsheets by Toys for Tots volunteers.  But this October Gregg Gardiner, owner and publisher of 101 Things to Do and the local coordinator of Toys for Tots asked me if there was any way to create an application that would help them manage this tracking and logistical nightmare. Oh, and it had to be ready by November 1.

i thought for a minute after getting some more details about their process and figured this was a job that Drupal could easily handle. In a few days, using just Content Construction Kit and Views modules we created a basic system that would allow Toys for Tots Marine Reserve Programrepresentatives from each school, social services and Toys for Tots volunteers to enter data quickly.  And we created reports for the Toys for Tots administrators that tabulated the number of children by age and gender that someone would be picking up toys for at one of the several distribution centers.

Of course, it wasn’t all that simple. Once we had something up to look at and test, we went through many tweaks and additional views to help Gregg track what was going on. Then we installed a third module, Mass Contact to allow Gregg to send out an email to all the participants.

As a first iteration of a web app it seems to be working well and Drupal is able to handle changes and new features very quickly. This is necessary since we’re in to Christmas season and there is a narrow window of activity to get things done.

And when this comes around next year we’ll have time to refine this even further. I’d like to put some design time in to the site and flesh it out for a more public face (that’s why there’s no link to the web app for now). It was fun to lend our skills in support of a great program. I hope the kids have a happy Christmas and the volunteers have an easier time making that happen.

Hosting vs Development Services

One of the struggles we have within our company is drawing the line between our hosting services and our web site development services. This most often comes up when we come across sites we built 5-6 years ago and suddenly the technology behind them no longer works. For example, we built sites using our own custom systems. Granted they were based in open source technology like PHP and MySQL and they worked back then. But both PHP and MySQL have advanced. And server systems have advanced. But the original scripts have not kept up with those advances.

So, when a customer calls and says “My site is broken”, we have to make a decision. Do we fix the current site to comply with server systems, or do we draw the line and say we can no longer support those scripts (that we built) and the client will have to upgrade? It’s not a clear cut decision, but it’s one that eventually has to lean toward the latter. Most often, though, we band aid sites to keep them lumbering along until the organization can find the resources to bring their enterprise into the 21st century. Given that we started our hosting service because of all the bad practices we ran in to with large commercial hosts, I tend to bend over backwards to accommodate our clients.

I like to keep our hosting services available because we do a good job customizing our servers to make things run fast and smooth for the majority of our clients. And many of our development clients appreciate dealing with a single vendor for both hosting and site development. But sometimes I wonder if the hosting side is more of a drain on our small company and we should take advantage of all the great cloud services out there and let them deal with the hardware and underlying hosting software while we focus on delivering great web sites.

Back from Drupalcon!

I returned from Drupalcon in San Francisco on Thursday and have spent the last few days catching up with work and life. I’m just starting to sort through all my thoughts on this great conference. First, I wish I could have attended even more sessions. But fortunately, they were all recorded and are already available on

Additionally all three keynotes were excellent and inspiring both in terms of Drupal and for the open source and open government movements: Dries Buytaert Keynote | Tom O’ Reilly Keynote | Open Government Keynote.

This was the largest Drupalcon yet, and much was made of Drupal’s growth and its growing influence on the web. Dries’ keynote has some interesting statistics on that. Overall, there was a sense that Drupal was quickly transforming from one of several content management systems to a major player in enterprise, government and non-profit sectors. It felt good to be a small part of this community.

I came away with plenty of ideas on business processes, module concepts, the transition to the next version of Drupal due out later this year. I plan to write more about these areas in the coming days and weeks.