Need a Last Minute Stocking Stuffer? Try the Gift of Giving...

If you are searching for that last minute stocking stuffer, perhaps suffering from a touch of yuletide materialism fatigue, and seeking to involve your youngsters in charitable giving - here's a quick and easy idea: consider a charitable gift certificate that allows the young recipient to choose where the funds go.

In my case, I purchased gift certificates from DonorsChoose for each of my kids (click here). I suspect there are other similar sites, but this is the one I am most familiar with, and I really like it. Selecting the email delivery option, I was able to print out the certificates, place them in envelopes, and add them to my stocking stuffer stash - all in a matter of a few minutes. Here's what one looks like:

I'll be challenging each of the kids to make their charitable selections by January 1st. Seems like a nice way to close out the year and kick off 2007.

Happy holidays to all!




I have to say that my fundamental belief in the old adage "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" (TANSTAAFL) gets thrashed on a regular basis when it comes to software and the Internet. Yeah, sure, I know that, technically speaking, there is a cost in time, materials, etc. for somebody when it comes to providing all that amazing freeware out there. Practically speaking though, when it comes to software, I'm dining for free on a regular basis and loving every bite of it. In fact, sometimes the free meals are vastly more tasty than the ones that cost money.

Latest case in point: I bought a Seagate 300 GB External Hard Drive to perform regular backups of the files on my laptop. The package includes a program called BounceBack Express that allows you to define, schedule, and manage the backups. Here's a screenshot of the program "running" on my laptop:

Yikes!! Dig that user interface - a self-reflective mess! Doesn't exactly instill confidence does it? Can you find the prompt "Would you like to create a backup set?" Ummm, "No thank you..." And, by the way, I'm not running some bizarre or exotic operating environment - just a very vanilla Dell laptop running Windows XP. Believe it or not, being a persistent and forgiving type, I actually navigated a few of these bizarre broken screens (all laden with obscured prompts and buttons) to define a backup set and ultimately initiate a backup. The end result: the program crashed a few seconds later with an unhandled exception. Pathetic.

So it's midnight last night, and I'm really ticked because I wanted to get this item off my ToDo list. (It's not too smart to go for very long without adopting a responsible backup regimen, and my procrastination was getting somewhat ironic/hypocritical given that I am building a service that purports to encourage responsible behavior... ;-) Not to worry - free midnight snack to the rescue. A quick browse through the Backup section (under Utilities & Drivers) on c|net's download.com turned up a nifty little program called SyncBack provided by a small software company in Singapore named 2BrightSparks. It had solid user reviews (I liked how the first one was titled Please, marry me! ;-) - obviously a satisfied user), over 56,000 downloads since its release in June of 2006 and no reports of embedded spyware. What the heck? Certainly couldn't be worse than the BounceBack experience. Indeed! A quick download, a lightweight install, and a few clicks later, I had defined a simple custom backup profile and was happily backing up my files on a nightly schedule. Task accomplished, guilt assuaged. Simple, fast, effective. And, oh yeah, completely free. Gotta love it.

Another free tasty software morsel that I have been ingesting as of late last week: Google Analytics. One little cut and paste of a few lines of javascript into the page template for my Blog (which is also hosted for free on Google's Blogger I might add) and viola: all kinds of neat reports on the traffic over time. Check out the cool dashboard which shows traffic trends, geographic origin of the traffic (note the inlaws in Texas ;-), new vs. repeat traffic, and the web source of the traffic (for example, I can see that some traffic is coming from click throughs on startupnation.com where I maintain a profile and have posted in the forums - good to know):

Um, OK, no snickering at the tiny traffic numbers - remember, I'm in "stealth mode" (that cute startup euphism for having no traction yet ;-). Besides, as Guy says, better to take the "red pill" everyday and know the whole truth (see entry #11 here).

The above are just a few small examples of how the cost structure of starting and running a responsible business has changed drammatically over the past several years. Funny, I used to scoff when Oracle temporarily adopted the tag line "The Internet Changes Everything" back in the mid 1990's. It never ceases to amaze me how true that line is on a number of (but not all mind you) fronts.

By the way, the screenshots above are courtesy of a free screen capture program that I really like called ScreenHunter from Wisdom-Soft. Also, I have been developing the FamZoo application using a free hosted development environment from Oracle called Application Express. The list goes on...

TANSTAAFL.....I don't think so!


(Very) Private Preview Goes "Live"

In my post back on November 9th, I indicated that I have been busily coding away on an "Alpha" release. The Alpha1 went live this morning and is an early preview release suitable for consumption by very forgiving audiences (i.e., my own family). The release contains first phase core functionality and a very bare bones user interface. In the earlier post, I confidently declared that the release would be available "before Thanksgiving at the latest". Doh! Did I really say Thanksgiving? I meant Christmas! Okay, I have to confess that I missed the deadline by 11 days. You can rest assurred that my tardy delivery is not going unpunished: the CEO has cut my salary in half and my business partner has given me several severe reprimands. Nonetheless, my spirits remain high, and I look forward to a plethora of suggestions and bug reports from my family. I've already compiled a lengthy list on my own.

In honor of the Alpha release milestone, I have updated the FamZoo Web site from being a straight redirect to my blog to being a very simple splash page:

You'll notice that I incorporated some feedback on the logo from Mark, Ben, Shawn, and several others (many thanks!). I ditched the striped tail idea - keeping it clean and simple and removing any possibility of competition for attention between the lettering and the icon. I widened the chimney a bit. And I aligned the bottom of the paw-in-house icon with the baseline of the FamZoo lettering while adding some spacing between the two. Despite all my prior rationalizations for insetting the "F" beneath the eaves of the house, aligning the bottom edges just feels more balanced visually. I also want to thank Morgan at Designs That Work for the vectorized version of the paw-in-house icon which he kindly supplied free of charge. As a vector graphic, it can be scaled smoothly in PaintShop Pro and still look crisp at any size. (Morgan says it only took him a few minutes, so he did not feel good about charging me despite my offer to do so. Of course, it would have taken me a long time to figure out how to do it properly, and I think this qualifies as a perfect example of "mensch behavior" as described in entry #2 here. Thanks Morgan.)

I am also considering going with a more rounded font and perhaps using VAG Rundschrift Light: Despite its trendy Web 2.0 status, I still think this is a clean and appropriate font and I plan to try it out with the logo this week.

So, what's next on the release front? Having been a huge fan and practitioner of iterative development for many years, I plan on doing a succession of preview releases while gradually widening the audience of handpicked participants over the next few months. (Note: If you are interested in participating in one of the FamZoo preview releases, please send me an email at "info at famzoo dot com".) Provided that the exposure and expectations are properly contained, I think getting something crude but usable in the hands of protypical users as early on as possible and then incrementally refining it based on feedback is a superior model for building great products. This is consistent with the spirit of entry #3 in Guy Kawasaki's "Art of Bootstrapping" list: a maxim he calls "Ship Then Test". Of course, as an engineer who believes fervently in the importance and responsibility of rigorous testing, I would never call it that. (I'm sure Guy was just trying to be provocative, being a marketing/evangelist type person and all.) No, I would not wish untested sofware on anybody - not even my own family!