Chris Hardie

Blog, Tech, Business and Community Building

software

February 26, 2014

Y Combinator wisdom on helping startups succeed

LaunchPad_300I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers."  This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.

I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better.  I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.

If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time.  The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step.  As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.

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June 21, 2013

Use the cloud, keep control of your data

Balloons in the Rose GardenAfter ranting recently about the choices we make to give "big data" companies access to our private information in ways that might be abused or exploited by government eavesdroppers, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the options I've found for using "the cloud" while also retaining a reasonable level of control over access to the data stored there.

This post has information about tools and software you can deploy yourself to approximate some of the functionality that third party services might provide, but that might also make you vulnerable to privacy and security vulnerabilities.  It's based on my experiences designing and implementing solutions for my own company, so it's mostly applicable to the interests of businesses and organizations, but may also be useful for personal projects.

A few important disclaimers: any time you make your personal or corporate data available on Internet-connected devices, you're creating a potential privacy and security vulnerability; if you need to keep something truly protected from unauthorized access, think hard first about whether it belongs online at all.  Also, the tools and services I'm listing here are harder to setup and configure than just signing up for one of the more well-known third party services, and may require ongoing maintenance and updates that take time and specialized knowledge.  In some cases, it requires advanced technical skills to deploy these tools at all, which is the reason most people don't or can't go this route.  Hosting and maintaining your own tools can often have a higher initial and/or ongoing cost, depending on what financial value you assign to data privacy.  Sometimes the privacy and security tradeoffs that come with using a third-party service are well worth it.

Still interested in options for using the cloud without giving up control over your data?  Read on.

Email and Calendar Sharing

Need a powerful, free email account?  Need robust calendar management and sharing capabilities? Everybody uses Gmail and Google Calendar, so just sign up for an account there, right?  Unless you don't want Google having access to all of your email communications and usage patterns, and potentially sharing that information with advertisers, government agencies or other entities.

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February 23, 2013

Recovering ASUS router firmware without Windows

Shark at the National AquariumIf you own an ASUS router and you brick it while trying to upgrade the firmware or some other action, you'll probably find documentation saying you need to run a Windows-only firmware restoration program to undo this damage.

While this is apparently the only officially supported method for restoring firmware (the alternative being to ship the router to ASUS for repair, a 10+ day process), I found with some exploring that the Windows program is likely just a glorified tftp client, and that you can restore firmware using some more standard, non-Windows tools.

I'm listing below the steps I had to use today after trying to upgrade my RT-AC66U device from firmware version 3.0.0.4.266 to 3.0.0.4.270.  (The release notes for the latter indicate a fix for a "live update related bug" which is what I suspect I encountered when I first tried to do the upgrade via the web GUI.)

I'm a Mac user, but these steps should work for other non-Windows operating systems such as Linux. It hopefully goes without saying that you should follow these steps at your own risk, and I make no claims or warranty about the outcome; you could end up worse off than you are now.  You could set your router on fire. You could end up killing another version of yourself living in an alternate universe.  Be careful.

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February 5, 2013

State and local government websites as wikis?

MontreatI'm intrigued by websites powered by wikis, where the content can be added, modified and deleted by the users of the site.  When the people who are affected by the quality and structure of the content presented have some control over that content, you sometimes have an opportunity to get more useful, relevant, current material than if the site is maintained by a small number of content administrators.

At Summersault, our entire company intranet is a wiki.  Anyone who works with us can edit the content on it, add new pages, delete stuff that they think is out of date or unhelpful, and so on - from small typo fixes to multi-page documents and images.  If someone makes a change that needs to be un-done, the wiki software lets us "roll it back" or otherwise incorporate only partial changes.  All of this gives us the opportunity to have an intranet "by and for" its users and our staff, instead of something built and maintained solely from a management point of view.

Wikis aren't appropriate for every kind of website, or even most kinds, but I've been thinking lately about what it would mean to have wikis power city, county and state government websites.

If these sites are primarily meant to be informational tools for use by the people who live in a given geographical region (and who are theoretically paying for the site's creation and maintenance), could governments give those people some control over the content on those resources?

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January 31, 2013

1Password alleviates the horrors of password management

1PMainWindowI come to you today a recovering password management hypocrite.

I have over 190 accounts and logins for which a password or PIN is a part of my access: website tools, online banking, social media, email, internal company tools at Summersault, and so on.  I used to pretend that I was maintaining the security of these accounts by having a reasonably strong set of passwords that I re-used across multiple sites, sometimes with variations that I thought made them less likely to be broken into if someone did happen to compromise one of my accounts.

But as I prepared to give a talk in December about email privacy and security issues, and really stepped back to look at my own password management scheme, I realized just how much pretending I'd been doing, and just how vulnerable I was making myself to the increasingly well-equipped and highly-automated attempts at compromising accounts, stealing identities and stealing funds that are being launched every day.  I went and tested some of my passwords at the Password Strength Checker, and I was ashamed.   The potential impact of this really hit home as I read Mat Honan's personal tale of woe and his follow-up piece Kill the Password in Wired magazine.  Add in Passwords Under Assault from ArsTechnica and you'll be shaking in your boots.

So I decided that I was not going to be that guy who goes around telling people about how vulnerable they are with their simplistic password schemes while quietly living a lie in my own password management scheme.  I might still be hacked some day, but I would not be found giving some teary-eyed interview to Oprah where I whined about how the pressure of the 190 accounts to manage just got to be too much and how I knew using a simple dictionary word plus a series of sequential numbers was wrong but I still didn't do the right thing.

That's when I found 1Password from AgileBits, a password management tool that alleviates the horrors of password management.

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pushover
December 28, 2012

Replacing Notifo with Pushover

Two years ago I compared Notifo and Prowl as tools for sending custom push notifications to your mobile devices.  I ended up relying on Notifo quite a bit to send me mobile alerts about certain kinds of events that I might not otherwise notice right away - email messages from certain people, some kinds of calls or voicemails at my office, certain messages meant for me in the office chat room, etc.

(You might think all that alerting would get obnoxious, but having these notifications sent to me according to my preferences has meant I'm less likely to obsessively check email or other digital inboxes for something important I might be missing.  The good/important stuff gets to me fast, the rest waits for me to view it at my convenience.)

In September 2011, the creator of Notifo announced that he would be shutting down the service.  It's continued to mostly work since then without his intervention (a testament to the self-sufficient nature of what he created), but in the last few weeks I've seen increasing errors or delays in getting messages through, so I went in search of alternatives to Notifo.

Today I found Pushover, a really simple but elegantly done service that offers all the features I want.

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October 31, 2012

Are Wayne County's voting machines trustworthy?

Early voting is underway in Wayne County, Indiana.  Voters showing up at the polling stations will find themselves directed to the Hart InterCivic voting machines. A 2007 study of these machines, initiated by the Ohio Secretary of State and conducted by Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and WebWise Security, Inc. found that: the […]

November 23, 2011

Review of CrashPlan for computer backups

I've been using the CrashPlan automatic backup system for my home computing devices for almost a year now, and I offer up this review.

Prior to using CrashPlan, I have to admit that my backup strategy for home computers left much to be desired.  Over the years I had tried various combinations of home-grown scripts and syncing tools that broke too easily or didn't offer enough flexibility in recovery, crusty third-party software that seemed to take hours to configure and then never quite did what I expected or didn't work with all the different devices I used, and even elegant tools like Apple's Time Machine backup system that still didn't offer me the off-site redundancy I wanted in case of physical catastrophe.

The end result was that my backups were happening infrequently, and in ways that did not necessarily guarantee the ability to restore what I would need in the event of a system failure or worse.  For someone who preaches the importance of backups to my friends, family and clients all day long, this was an embarrassing state of affairs. Then, one day a friend's laptop was stolen from his house, and as I listened to the stories of what was lost because of an incomplete backup and imagined what I would possibly lose if the same happened to me, I knew I needed to look for a better system.

That's when I found CrashPlan.

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July 12, 2011

Initial thoughts on Google+

Google PlusI've had a few days to play around with Google's new social network offering, Google+, and I thought I'd share some initial thoughts.

First of all, kudos to Google for "going for it" in the Facebook era.  They're one of few players who actually has the resources and skill to make a serious go at a viable alternative to Facebook, and you've got to admire the effort.  If the success of the movie The Social Network tells us anything, it's that Facebook has become mainstream and popular, and as generations of younger people look for ways to establish their identity in the digital age, they'll be looking for alternatives to the place where their parents and now grandparents also hang out online.  By the same token, people of all ages and professions are trying to figure out just how to effectively and safely use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media tools in a world where we're being encouraged to blend our personal and professional lives together more publicly.

Is Google+ just the right thing at just the right time?

People are already writing about the high bar that Google+ will have to jump in order to see any significant migration of Facebook users, not the least of which is all the time people have invested in curating their lists of "friends" there.  Facebook is going to make it as difficult as possible for its users to do any kind of exporting of account information from their system, and I don't think Google is devious enough to launch an unauthorized workaround.  So people will be left to recreate their online identity on Google+, where the number of people you are connected to still largely drives your user experience.

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December 1, 2010

Notifo vs. Prowl for iPhone push notifications

Notifo : application de notification pour iPhone / iPad gratuite pour le push Twitter et d'autres servicesI asked on Twitter yesterday if anyone would like to compare the "Notifo" service to the "Prowl" application for handling push notifications to iPhone and other mobile devices.  No one answered, and so here's my brief rundown comparing the two.

If you don't already know about push notifications, a brief primer: they're basically just like text messages, except they can be routed/categorized in ways that make them useful to individual applications on your phone.  Instead of getting a generic SMS text message when someone DMs you on Twitter, you can instead use push notifications to have the Twitter app on your phone realize a new DM has come in and alert you according to your personal settings.   When you "view" a push notification, you can be taken to a web page or app that's relevant to its content.  Best part: the messages don't count against any text messaging limit (for now).

I started using Prowl about 9 months ago.  My three main uses were:

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