Fun with Yahoo Pipes

pipesI know that Yahoo Pipes has been around for quite some time, but I have never had a use case where I thought I needed it. Frankly, I only had a vague idea about what it was.

That is… until today. I’m still not totally clear about all the things the pipes can do for me, but there’s one thing that I now know they can do: help me build an automatic retweet bot.

Admittedly, this was a fun project whose other purpose was to keep me sane after more than two straight days of configuring security for nearly two hundred objects (don’t ask, you just don’t want to know), but it was quick and successful and now that I’ve tried it I wonder what other cool things I could pipe together.

I started with this video, which is a step by step guide as to how to build an automatic retweeter. (Actually, once you’ve watched this you can pretty much stop reading here. On the other hand, it would be nice if you’d read on.) Fortunately what I wanted to do was even simpler. I just wanted to retweet everything from another tweet account.


Setting up Yahoo Pipes

1. Create a Fetch Feed module and add the feed you want to retweet.

2. Create a Filter module and block everything that has RT or *.RT in the item.title. This prevents you retweeting retweets and risk running into an endless retweet. Also block everything where the item.title starts with @ to prevent retweeting direct mentions. Link this module with the first one.

3. Create a Loop containing String Builder to manipulate the item.title. In my case I added some text and an @ to the start of the string to simulate a retweet with comment. Then assign this to item.title. Link this module to the Filter module.

(Note that I’m pretty sure that using item.description would have worked just as well, since it looks like Twitter doesn’t really care to differ between the two.)

4. Connect that last module to the Pipe Output and check it out.


Feeding your Twitter account

Now, there’s a handy tool called twitterfeed which will take any feed and route the output through to a selection of services, including Twitter. You just define the feed you want to use as your input, link to it your Twitter account (Facebook and a couple of other services work, too) and you’re ready to go.

You can define multiple inputs and multiple outputs, define which part of the feed’s items you would like to pass on (title, description or both) and define the update schedule (30 minutes are the shortest refresh cycle). There are also a couple of other settings like setting prefixes or postfixes or filtering the input feed, but I didn’t have to use them.

With that all setup I had to be very patient to wait until twitterfeed finally sprang into action, but it worked perfectly.

Now, this was a pretty useless project in terms of actual results. I’m retweeting someone else’s tweets. As far as making the world a better place goes, this doesn’t help a lot. Still, for a quick introduction to Yahoo Pipes this was a great way to start. Now I keep wondering what else I could pipe together with a more useful output. Any suggestions? Experiences? Ideas?

Meeting Flavors

meeting_joke_comicMeetings are probably a very controversial topic in the everyday company world, and it’s just as controversial when it comes to software development. Meetings can suck the time out of your week and the life out of you if done wrong.

However, if done right, meetings can be one of your best tools for communication and knowledge transfer. In my opinion you just have to remember a few simple rules and think about meetings coming in a very limited variation of flavors.

The purpose: Result or information driven

When I say that meetings can be either result or information driven, I mean that the goal of the meeting can either be to reach a specific result or to pass on information (or both). Working in an agile information, I am in both kind of meetings all the time.

A typical planning meeting is result driven. At the end of the meeting we are supposed to have decided on the user stories the team will we working on for the next couple of weeks. We usually have small design sessions during a sprint, whose intended result is a working and agreed design.

On the other hand, we regularly have meetings where the main point is to get information across. Usually these are cross-team meetings, but daily scrums could also be seen as mostly information driven.

In most every case the purpose of a meeting is a bit of both, but it should at least be one or the other. In other words: Be clear what the goal or purpose of your meeting is and make sure that others understand it. It’s only fair to the people who attend your meeting to know in advance what they’re in for and what they can expect.

The style: Discussion or presentation

The style of a meeting can also vary. It can either be a discussion where everyone is invited to throw in their opinion and discuss a certain topic. Or it can be held in a more presentation-like style, with one or more people presenting while other attendants may discuss key points or ask questions.

Again, there’s not one or the other, but rather a mixture of both styles. A presentation without a bit of discussion will easily bore other people, while a discussion without a bit of a presentation of the issues to discuss will likely get out of hand when nobody knows for sure what the meeting is about.

Just like with a meeting’s purpose, the style of a meeting should be clear, make sense and be properly communicate to the participants.

That’s it.

For me, that sums it up. Sure, you could argue that there’s a lot more to it, and there probably is, but going with these four characteristics – or basic meeting flavors – I find that I can easily describe the kind of meeting that is most helpful for any given situation.

And to leave you with a few more meeting wisdoms from my work experience, how about these two:

  • Always, and I mean always, end a meeting with a result. Never wrap up a meeting without a follow-up e-mail, a list of action items, a working design or at the very least a set of notes. A result can also be to meet again (that would fall into the action item category) or to ensure that everyone is on the same page (get a short feedback from all participants and send out an email with the main points summarized). Never, ever leave a meeting empty-handed. For me, this is the best indicator that something went wrong with the purpose of the meeting.
    Besides, meetings will be regarded less like a waste of time of it’s obvious to everyone that something came out of it. Getting a e-mail with a summary of all the discussed points will remind people that they didn’t waste their time being stuck in a room with too little air.
  • Make sure someone is the designated moderator for a meeting. Even for a meeting that is mostly a discussion or one which consists of several presentation by several people, there should be someone who acts as the owner of the meeting. That someone should start the meeting, wrap it up and make sure that there are no loose ends. You might be able to bend on this rule for more informal meetings, but be careful if you do.

If you do meetings right, they can be a helpful tool without getting on everybody’s nerves. Following a few simple rules should make that a bit easier.


A Year in Books – 2009 Edition, The Rest of It

You got my favorite books this morning. And now, let’s move on to the other categories (in no particular order):

Book That Seemed the Longest (and Probably Was)

That has to be Cryptonomicon. And I won’t even discuss why that is.

Best Children’s Book

I didn’t read a lot of children’s books this year, for no particular reason. Obviously the winner here is Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Most Disappointing Books (of Sorts)

 I really can’t decide here. Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand made the mistake of promising too much. I wouldn’t say that it was a bad book, but it just didn’t live up to its praise. (The lesson here is: Don’t buy a book that won’t provide any information on its back and just saying that you should just read it.) Donald Norman’s The Design of Future Things wasn’t anywhere near as good as The Design of Everyday Things. Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo was great in the first half of the book, but it all went downhill in the second half. 

In the end, I think PopCo is the „winner“ here. Sorry.

Best Non-Fiction

This goes to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book that left me initially underwhelmed, but which I found myself quoting again and again, so it really did have an influence on me. (It would be very easy to name Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or What is the What here, but they both didn’t really feel like non-fiction.)

Most Charming Book

In the end The Little Book by Selden Edwards can proudly claim to be the winner of this category. I’d like to mention The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and – of course – A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius since they were in the run as well.

Book With the Most Anticlimactic Ending

Again, Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo wins. Anticlimactic endings and disappointment just fits together really well.

Saddest Book

Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel. For some reason, I read this for the second time and again it was really, really sad. 

Best Kind-of-Victorian Ghost Story

Easy: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. (What did you expect?)

Strangest Book

Ultimately, it has to be David Mitchell’s number9dream. David Mitchell is such an obvious choice that I’d like to add that Jonathan Barnes’s The Somnambulist came in a close second.

Clunkiest Use of a Deus Ex

Jonathan Barnes’s The Somnambulist is a clear winner. I still recommend the book, but you’ll know what I mean when I read it.

Best Comic

This has to be Jeff Smith’s Bone – Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border (Vol. 5). The only comic books I read were volume five and six of the Bone series, and volume five had all the cute animal orphans.


So that was it for the last year. I’ve already read my first two books for 2010 to make sure that I have plenty of choices for next January.

A Year in Books – 2009 Edition

As every year, here is the best I could do to sum up the highlights and specials of last year’s reading achievement. And as always, let’s start with the best ten books:

10. Madeleine l’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time: I finally, finally got around to reading these. They were never really popular in Germany it seems, so the l’Engle books weren’t part of my childhood reading memories. I finished this in no time, because it’s so awesome. (And I’m guessing I’m preaching to the choir here, so this is mostly for those readers who haven’t read them. Do. Like, now.)

9. Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon: Has a Stephenson book ever made it to my top ten list? Not sure and too lazy to look it up. One reason why it hasn’t happened probably is that these books exhaust the hell out of me. However, when I read Cryptonomicon I finally realized how very unique Stephenson’s style is and how much I enjoy it, despite all the exhaustion and the relieved sigh you could hear me make when I’m done with one of his books. (This is another classic, so I won’t bother with any plot details here. Even if I tried, this is a Stephenson book, so come on… Lots of charaters, lots of places, lots of words. And a treasure.)

8. Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who…: I couldn’t decide which book of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy I liked most, so I’ll just treat them as one book. It kind of is, anyway. Those of you who know me a bit better know that I’m not a big crime or thriller reader, but man, do these books rock. The first one is your basic family mystery crime story complete with your mystery genius girl. Starting with the second book, Larsson starts a saga that dives way deep into the realms of political intrigues and journalistic thriller. All books were great and I still am a bit sad because the saga had to stop long before it was planned to.

7. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: There’s a praise by Stephen King on the cover of this book and after I read it I think I know why. The story of a boy who doesn’t talk raised on a farm with his parents who raise and train a special breed of dogs. After his father mysteriously dies and Edgar’s world falls apart, he runs away accompanied by some of his dogs. It’s a perfect and unique setting and highly recommended.

6. Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen: Similar as The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, this one tells the story of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet who lives in the smallest town in Wyoming and is a genius at documenting everything in his notebooks. When he gets an invitation to receive a price from the Smithsonian he sets out on a journey east. One of the best parts of the books is all the illustrations and annotations from T.S.’s notebooks. But the story is equally great.

5. Audrey Niffenegger: Her Fearful Symmetry: I knew nothing could top The Time Traveler’s Wife, so I didn’t even bother to expect anything that reality couldn’t live up to. And it’s not as great as TTTW. But how could it? Besides, this is a victorian-style ghost story about two twins living in their aunt’s flat in London with their slightly eccentric neighbors below and above and their aunt herself living in their flat as a lingering ghost.

4. China Miéville: The City and the City: I had a hard time getting into this book, but then it was absolutely worth it. Leaving London and its variations behind, Miéville invents the strangest place, two cities occupying the same geographical space, but politically separated. And then a crime happens and a detective stumbles into the world of his city and the other one and then one in-between. Part fantasy, part detective story, part film noir, this was everything I love about Miéville’s weird imagination.

3. Dave Eggers: A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius: I wondered whether I should put two Eggers books on my top ten list, but then I figured, what the hell. The introduction alone makes this worth a spot in the top ten and the rest of this kind-of-autobiography easily makes it a top three. If you want to read a staggering work of heartbreaking genius from my favorite author of the year, this is it.

2. David Mitchell: Ghostwritten: Don’t make me try explaining a David Mitchell book to you. This doesn’t work. I’m still not sure if I understood everything, but I also don’t think that’s the point of any Mitchell book.

1. Dave Eggers: The Wild Things: Oh oh oh oh, my god! How terribly great is this book! After You Shall Know Our Velocity this book convinced me that Dave Eggers is just one amazing writer. I couldn’t stop reading and that had nothing to do with the fact that I was stuck on airplanes and in airports. It had everything to do with the book. It was also kind of helpful, because after reading this, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about deciding on my favorite book of the year.

That’s it for my personal top ten books of the last year. As for the other categories, they will be discussed in detail in the next post. And while we’re at it, what were your reading highlights of 2009?