I’ve been reading documents here and there recently and have run up against something that seems to be confusing to some authors: when and how to use bullet point lists.

For those who are unaware, here’s the shocking rule of thumb for using bullet point lists: If you have a list of things, you can use bullet points (or numbers, as appropriate). If it’s just a paragraph of prose describing something, it’s not a bullet point list.

For example, say you’re describing the process by which you take out the trash. This is not a good bullet point list:

  • I go in the kitchen and pull out the garbage can.
  • Sometimes the garbage stinks a little because of the food in there.
  • Other times it doesn’t stink, but it’s OK because there’s air freshener in the room next door.
  • I might go get the air freshener, but not yet.
  • I pull the garbage bag out of the trash can and walk it outside. Then I stick it in the large trash can outside.
  • Now I might get the air freshener.

Again, that’s not a good bullet point list. It’s a series of sentences that, with some help, would make a prose paragraph describing the trash removal process. Bullet point items should be self-contained. They should generally be short and to the point - again, it’s a list, not a story in bullet form. That crap about the garbage stinking in the above list - what’s that doing there? Why is the thing written like a story? No, no, no. That’s just… painful.

A decent bullet list is more like this:

  • Go in kitchen.
  • Pull out garbage can.
  • Get bag out of garbage can.
  • Take bag outside and place in large can.
  • If necessary, spray air freshener in the kitchen.

Short, to the point. A list of self-contained thoughts.

Another use of bullets might be in denoting section breaks in short, self-contained text blocks. Like a question/answer thing:

  • Question: Where is the garbage can? Answer: In the kitchen.
  • Question: Where do I take the garbage bag? Answer: To the large can outside.

Here you see the individual thoughts outlined by the bullets, while slightly longer, are still fairly self-contained. I also added a little white space between each item to help that visual delineation of thoughts. I didn’t write an essay and throw a bullet in front of it. I didn’t take a story and make each sentence in the story into a bullet item.

It’s okay if you’d rather describe things in a prose paragraph or three. Bullets have their uses and maybe the thought isn’t conducive to the bullet treatment. That said, bullets don’t necessarily make your thoughts more intelligible. Use them where appropriate. When in doubt, maybe err on the side of not using bullets. I mean, if you don’t know if it’s a bullet list or not… it’s probably not.

Note: This is particularly applicable to the folks who think Excel is a word processor. It’s not. Just stop. Now. Seriously.

Lots of random thoughts that came up between Saturday and now, figured I’d get them down. None probably of interest to anyone but me, but we’ll get ‘em down anyway.

Saw State of Play this weekend for my dad’s birthday. It was decent and had some good plot twists, but I think there were parts that could have moved a little faster. Jenn got bored and there were definitely a few spots where I was like, “come ONNNNNN.” I won’t be buying the DVD, but it was worth seeing. Maybe wait for the rental.

I cleaned our Sunsetter retractable awning this weekend to prepare it for the season. I find that I have to do this every year because the moisture from the winter gets inside the rolled up awning and it gets a little moldy. Covering the awning doesn’t help. It’s not a bad build-up, just a little dirty looking. Sprayed it down with some “30 Seconds” and it came out looking very nice, but I didn’t realize the cleaner has bleach in it… so my jacket came out looking like it had rained white on me. Not a big deal since it was my outdoor work jacket, but sort of weird, especially since it says “safe to use around plants and animals” on it.

We got some La-Z-Boy recliners delivered, completing our game room, but I always seem to have problems with things that other people don’t. The leather looks great, I sat in one before the delivery guy left and it felt good, then later that night Jenn and I were sitting there (Jenn in the one I didn’t sit in) and it turns out the seat on that one is tilted to the right so it feels like you’re sliding sideways. The repair guy will be here on Wednesday for that. (There’s a repair guy coming today for another piece of furniture we had delivered a couple of weeks ago where the leather was scratched.)

Oh, and my Ion Drum Rocker is on the fritz. I was playing the “Drum Trainer” mode in Rock Band 2, doing reasonably well, but at random intervals the “up” directional arrow thought it was getting pushed so the tempo would speed up on me without warning. A few times of that and I called their support. The control box for that is getting repaired now but it could be seven to eight weeks before I’m back up and running. I’ve got a call in to see if I can get that sped up. We really wanted to have a Rock Band party but you kinda can’t without drums.

Jenn and I got tickets to see the B-52’s and Tears for Fears (two different concerts, not one concert with two acts) this summer at the Oregon Zoo. Looking forward to that.

While I was zoning out getting my teeth cleaned this morning, I was thinking that eventually there’s got to be a system of record for human intelligence. It doesn’t necessarily have to contain all of human intelligence, but it needs to at least index it. Then we’ll end up with little implants that have wireless network access in them and can call into that system. I don’t know if it’d be Google or Wikipedia. I guess it depends on whether the system actually needs to contain the information or just index it. Hmmm. Anyway, thinking about how that would work kept me busy while I was getting my teeth cleaned.

I downloaded the BlackBerry app from Amazon and I must say so far I’m impressed. It’s much better than the mobile web experience and it has that thing built in where you can take a picture of something and it’ll find similar items that they sell on Amazon. I haven’t tried that yet. Might have to later. I wonder what happens if I send a picture of myself in - what items do they sell that are similar to me?

media, movies, tv comments edit

Warner Brothers has created a service called Red2Blu that lets you convert your HD DVD collection into Blu-Ray by sending them $5 per HD DVD title along with the paper insert from the case. You keep the disc, just send the cover art.

Combine that with iNetVideo.com, a clearing house for old HD DVDs. You can get some as low as $1.99.

Let’s say you want 300 on Blu-Ray. At Amazon, it’s $22.49. On the other hand, you can get the HD DVD for $1.99 at iNetVideo.com and upgrade at Red2Blu for $4.99. That’s a total of $6.98 for the movie, saving you $15.51.

Now, you’ve got to consider shipping costs - it’s $6.95 shipping for the Red2Blu conversion on an order up to 25 discs and the shipping from iNetVideo varies - so you wouldn’t want to do just one movie… but if you have several, like if you want all of the Harry Potter movies or something, you can save a bundle.

personal comments edit

I noticed this morning that my BlackBerry Curve, using the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, was not synchronizing my calendar. It’d sync everything else, just not calendar. It worked before… what changed?

Well, I had installed a new theme, so I uninstalled that. No luck. I had installed the new Facebook app to see if it would get me more into Facebook, so I uninstalled that. Still no luck. I upgraded the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software (which took like an hour to download/install/reboot/re-setup). No luck. I ransacked my Outlook calendar and archived all of the appointments up to about two months ago that weren’t relevant anymore (kept the recurrences, etc.). Still no luck. Ran SCANOST and SCANPST on my Outlook profile. Nothing.

I was about to recreate my freaking Outlook profile (I’ve had sync problems before due to corrupt profile) when I started searching through the BlackBerry help site. As I was typing in my search for sync problems, I noticed this item in the “What’s New” section:

Default Calendar service is changed after installing Facebook for BlackBerry 1.5

What, now? I had installed that… but I uninstalled it. Uninstalling it doesn’t fix it. You have to go into your “Options” on the BlackBerry and, under “Advanced Options,” look at “Default Services.” That sonofabitch is set to Facebook. Even if you told the Facebook app not to integrate with your calendar. Even if you uninstalled the app.

Switch the default calendar service back to what it was. For me it’s my Verizon BlackBerry email address. Re-sync and everything works peachy keen.

On a side note, fuck you, Facebook. I didn’t like you before, and now I really, truly can’t stand you. The only reason I use Facebook is because I have family and friends on there and I want to keep up with what they’re doing. I don’t post, I don’t add content there, I don’t participate in apps, I have Twitter update my status, and that’s that.

aspnet, net comments edit

I’ve been doing ASP.NET for a while, mostly at my current employer where we make large-scale online banking web sites. During that, what I’ve noticed more and more as new features come out for ASP.NET is that there’s a heavy focus on rapid application development - drag, drop, and ship - and less around the idea of creating a commercial application using ASP.NET. There are a few products like Community Server and DotNetNuke out there, but not many (or not as many as there could be) and I’d wager a lot of it has to do with lack of framework support for that sort of app.

To put what I’m talking about in context, let me first describe at a high level the kind of application I’m working on. Customers might want to have us host the application for them or they might want to host it themselves, so it needs to be something fairly easy to deploy. In a hosted environment, the customers want to be able to change their settings easily, so there’s a sort of “configuration user interface” that has to be put in place. Changes might include not only application settings, but text that appears on the various pages, so localization comes into play. It needs to be easily upgraded, deployed, and managed, so you don’t want a full copy of the application out there for every customer; you want a single copy with different IIS apps pointing at it… but that means the application has to support multi-tenancy (you can’t just stick all your config in web.config because there’s only one, right?). In a custom deployment, the application will be taken by a team, put into the customer’s environment, and programmatically customized, which means it needs to have a lot of extensibility points.

So, with that context, here are the big challenges.

Multi-Tenancy

Everything in the .NET framework assumes there’s only one tenant running on the application. When you ask for a configuration value, the value comes from The One Configuration Source and that’s that. There’s no qualifier in there anywhere to say “I want this configuration value for this specific tenant.” You have to write that. If you want a default value for all tenants on the app and the ability for individual tenants to override the value, you have to write that. Same thing with localization - you can’t say “I want this string for this tenant.” There’s one big bucket of resources and that’s it.

The lack of multi-tenancy support is pervasive and means a lot of work for the development group that wants to have a multi-tenant app. That’s unfortunate, particularly in light of the “Software as a Service” push that was going on just a couple of years back. What ever came of that?

Localization

Where do resources get stored? In compiled assemblies, right? What if I need some text on a page changed at runtime but for security reasons I don’t want to be recompiling assemblies and deploying them on the fly? (Multi-tenancy really hurts here since you can’t have a different set of resource assemblies per tenant.) There’s no out-of-the-box alternative to storing localized resources. You want to store things in SQL Server? You get to write that. Want the out-of-the-box stuff (like the ASP.NET localization expressions) to work with it? You get to write the factories and providers for that, too.

Theming

The whole ASP.NET theming thing is broken. Not “broken” in that it doesn’t work, but “broken” in that there are actually two different ways to theme things - skins and master pages. And they sort of work together, but when you define a single “style” for your pages, you have to manually track that “Style X means Skin Y and Master Page Z.” That’s crap.

Don’t forget each tenant wants their own theme, too.

Configuration

There are a lot of things that you might want to configure in an app. Unfortunately, the place that stuff gets stored by default is in an application configuration file. In the filesystem. You want to give someone an interface to configure things, you either have to create a configuration service that stores things in a database and make your interface (and your app) talk to that proprietary service OR you have to allow your interface to somehow update web.config on the fly. In some cases, you can’t escape web.config - for example, if someone enables/disables a feature that means you need to register/unregister an HttpModule, you can’t do that because you can only register modules through web.config.

Oh, and throw in that multi-tenancy thing, too.

Extensibility

ASP.NET apps basically aren’t extendable at the page level. You can’t “derive and override” markup. If you want to interject your own logic, you have roughly three choices:

  1. Put code blocks inside the markup.
  2. Override the page class and change the markup to inherit from your custom page.
  3. Try to anticipate what people might want to extend and allow plugins through inversion of control, Microsoft Extensibility Framework, or some similar approach.

None of those are terribly great. Options one and two have you changing the ASPX markup, which makes it impossible to track what has been customized on that application instance (and is difficult to manage on a per-tenant basis) and option three quickly leads to YAGNI as you try to make everything infinitely extensible.

This actually has a direct impact on…

Deployment and Upgradeability

So, you put together your web app installer, run the MSI, and it puts a bunch of markup and config in the filesystem and some assemblies in the “bin” folder. Six months later, an implementation team has customized this thing using the “extensibility points” you’ve provided above, and they need to upgrade the base application.

Which markup files did they change? What config settings did they change in web.config? It becomes a tedious task of manually merging markup and config. (This is something that users of Subtext and other blogging engines are familiar with, too.)

Could you track checksums on the markup files and compare whether they’ve changed or not? You could… but you’d have to track every checksum for every file for every version ever released because someone might skip upgrading from 1.1 to 1.2 and go directly from 1.1 to 1.3.

Could you compile the pages? Sure, but that not only affects your extensibility (see above) but still requires those markup placeholder pages.

Pages aren’t the only things out there in the filesystem, though. Don’t forget your skins, master pages, and other markup files. In some cases, you can’t even move the locations.

Things in the filesystem that aren’t binary end up being problematic from a deployment and upgrade standpoint. You can address some of this with a custom VirtualPathProvider that serves things from embedded resources, but there are still some things you can’t hide behind a VPP - web.config, for example, and skins.

Why Isn’t This Stuff Addressed?

There are a lot of challenges with making large scale, multi-tenant applications. The above items aren’t an exhaustive list, but they’re some of the more obvious issues. Why hasn’t this been addressed in the framework? Is the majority case really the IT guy dragging a couple of grids and a DataSource onto a page and publishing the app right from Visual Studio? Or is it a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, where the features aren’t there so people don’t make these apps… and because people aren’t making these apps, the features aren’t considered important so they aren’t there?