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April 02 2013

If you’ve ever wondered where those O’Reilly animal covers come from …

Exploring ExpectExploring ExpectThe exchange often goes like this:

Stranger: “Where do you work?”

Me: “O’Reilly Media.”

Stranger: “O’Reilly …”

[Long pause while he or she works through the various "O'Reilly" outlets — the TV guy, the auto parts company.]

Me: “You know the books with the animals on the covers?”

Stranger: “Oh yeah!”

And off we go. Those covers are tremendous ice breakers.

The story behind those covers is also notable. Our colleague Edie Freedman, O’Reilly’s creative director and the person who first made the connection between animal engravings and programming languages, has written a short piece about the genesis of the O’Reilly animals. If you’ve ever wondered where those animals came from, her post is worth a read.

(Something I learned from Edie’s post: the covers that get the best response feature 1. animals with recognizable faces and 2. animals that are looking directly at the reader.)

Edie’s “Short history of the O’Reilly Animals” is part of a larger effort to raise awareness for the plight of the O’Reilly animals, many of which are critically endangered. You can learn more about the O’Reilly Animals project here.

August 23 2012

Welcome Jon Bruner to Radar

Jon BrunerWhere are my manners? Jon Bruner posted his first piece to Radar two weeks ago and I’m just now getting around to welcoming him.

Jon joins our Radar team this month from Forbes where he covered the technology of data. I liked that he called himself a datanaut but I liked even more that he illustrated his pieces with great interactive visualizations and applications. I mean how cool is this?

Jon will continue to cover data, but he’ll also be digging into the Internet of Things, the dynamics of technology and cities, and whatever interesting things catch his attention. I expect you’ll be seeing a lot of him here.

He’s @JonBruner and +Jon Bruner on the Interwebs and in his spare time he plays the pipe organ like a boss. Ok, that’s not really him.

Sponsored post

July 18 2012

Help the O’Reilly animals

No one needs to be told that the tarsier and the camel are O’Reilly Media icons. So are the llama, the elephant, and the flying fox. And hundreds of other animals. Authors speculate on the significance of the animals chosen to grace their books. Customers take pictures of their collections and send them to us. Everyone has a favorite — and spoofs have abounded.

In other words, it’s an understatement to say that the use of classic animal engravings on O’Reilly books has been a success. Unfortunately, what it hasn’t done is help the animals themselves.

The truth is that a large number of the animals featured on O’Reilly books are threatened or critically endangered. We’ve always used colophons in the books as a way to tell readers about the animals. Now we want to use social media and the web to tell those same readers how they can contribute to helping the animals in real life.

At OSCON this week, we’re launching the O’Reilly Animals campaign to raise awareness of the animals’ plight, with a special emphasis on the ways in which people and organizations are using technology to help save and restore endangered animal populations around the globe. With an eye-catching display and the “Animal Ladies” on site (Edie and Karen Montgomery, the Animal book cover designers), we’ll be encouraging members of the O’Reilly community to get involved in whatever ways they can.

O'Reilly Animals display at OSCON 2012
The O’Reilly Animals display at OSCON 2012 in Portland, Ore.

Here’s what we’re planning in the coming months:

  • Each week, we’ll highlight a different animal from our catalog. Through Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest postings, we’ll pose a question about an animal, with a link to a longer, detailed article all about that animal on the O’Reilly Animals website.
  • On the O’Reilly Animals site we’ll present short overviews of projects we think are interesting, with links to project websites as well as relevant articles, interviews, and other resources. We’ll also list volunteer opportunities for developers to use their expertise to help some of those projects move forward, such as developing mobile apps and remote wireless sensor networks.
  • We’ll be adding a blog to the site, with guest contributions from organizations like the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Great Primate Handshake project, among others.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, questions, or comments about the campaign, the website, or ongoing projects, we’d love to hear from you at And if you’d like to help in any way, including researching and writing about interesting projects, we could certainly use your assistance!

Here’s what we know for sure: one person with a bright idea and a little technology can make a big difference. A community of people with bright ideas and expert technical skills — the O’Reilly community — can make a huge difference.

You can learn more about the O’Reilly Animals campaign in the following video:


April 06 2012

Cross-platform mobile development is a breeze with C#

Greg Shackles (@gshackles) is the author of "Mobile Development with C#," which is available for pre-order now and scheduled for release this spring.

During a recent interview, Shackles and I talked about C#'s role in the mobile space and coding best practices. Highlights from the discussion included:

  • Cross-platform mobile development is tough. The mature C# language is the only language that can be used across all of these platforms to produce a native experience. [Discussed at 00:03]

  • Reusing code is a must. Shackles thinks developers should try to separate business logic from user interface logic. [Discussed at 00:39]

  • Be on the watch for big enhancements when Windows Phone 8 is released, like near-field and app-to-app communications. [Discussed at 01:27]

  • Make an app that stands out by creating a really solid user experience. [Discussed at 02:45]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

February 17 2012

The stories behind a few O'Reilly "classics"

This post originally appeared in Tim O'Reilly's Google+ feed.

It's amazing to me how books I first published more than 20 years ago are still creating value for readers. O'Reilly Media is running an ebook sale for some of our "classics."

vi and Vim"Vi and Vim" is an updated edition of a book we first published in 1986! Linda Lamb was the original author; I was the editor, and added quite a bit of material of my own. (In those days, being the "editor" for us really meant being ghostwriter and closet co-author.) I still use and love vi/vim.

"DNS and Bind" has an interesting back story too. In the late '80s or early '90s, I was looking for an author for a book on smail, a new competitor to sendmail that seemed to me to have some promise. I found Cricket Liu, and he said, "what I really want to write a book about is Bind and the Domain Name System. Trust me, it's more important than smail." The Internet was just exploding beyond its academic roots (we were still using UUCP!), but I did trust him. We published the first edition in 1992, and it's been a bestseller ever since.

"Unix in a Nutshell" was arguably our very first book. I created the first edition in 1984 for a long-defunct workstation company called Masscomp; we then licensed it to other companies, adapting it for their variants of Unix. In 1986, we published a public edition in two versions: System V and BSD. The original editions were inspired by the huge man page documentation sets that vendors were shipping at the time: I wanted to have something handy to look up command-line options, shell syntax, regular expression syntax, sed and awk command syntax, and even things like the ascii character set.

The books were moderately successful until I tried a price drop from the original $19.50 to $9.95 as an experiment, with the marketing headline "Man bites dog." I told people we'd try the new price for six months, and if it doubled sales, we'd keep it. Instead, the enormous value proposition increased sales literally by an order of magnitude. At the book's peak, we were selling tens of thousands of copies a month.

Every other "in a nutshell" book we published derived from this one, a product line that collectively sold millions of copies, and helped put O'Reilly on the map.

"Essential System Administration" is another book that dates back to our early days as a documentation consulting company. I wrote the first edition of this book for Masscomp in 1984; it might well be the first Unix system administration book ever written. I had just written a graphics programming manual for Masscomp, and was looking for another project. I said, "When any of us have any problems with our machines, we go to Tom Texeira. Where are our customers going to go?" So I interviewed Tom, and wrote down what he knew. (That was the origin of so many of our early books — and the origin of the notion of "capturing the knowledge of innovators.")

I acquired the rights back from Masscomp, and licensed the book to a company called Multiflow, where Mike Loukides ran the documentation department. Mike updated the book. Æleen Frisch, who was working for Mike, did yet another edition for Multiflow, and when the company went belly up, I acquired back the improved version (and hired Mike as our first editor besides me and Dale). He signed Æleen to develop it as a much more comprehensive book, which has been in print ever since.

"Sed and Awk" has a funny backstory too. It was one of the titles that inspired the original animal designs. Edie Freedman thought Unix program names sounded like weird animals, and this was one of the titles she chose to make a cover for, even though the book didn't exist yet. We'd hear for years that people knew it existed — they'd seen it. Dale Dougherty eventually sat down and wrote it, mostly because he loved awk but also just to satisfy those customers who just knew it existed.

(Here's a brief history of how Edie came up with the idea for the animal book covers.)

Unix Power ToolsAnd then there's "Unix Power Tools." In the late '80s, Dale had discovered hypertext via Hypercard, and when he discovered Viola and the World Wide Web, that became his focus. We had written a book called "Unix Text Processing" together, and I was hoping to lure him back to writing another book that exercised the hypertext style of the web, but in print. Dale was working on GNN by that time and couldn't be lured onto the project, but I was having so much fun that I kept going.

I recruited Jerry Peek and Mike Loukides to the project. It was a remarkable book both in being crowdsourced — we collected material from existing O'Reilly books, from saved Usenet posts, and from tips submitted by customers — and in being cross-linked like the web. Jerry built some great tools that allowed us to assign each article a unique ID, which we could cross-reference by ID in the text. As I rearranged the outline, the cross-references would automatically be updated. (It was all done with shell scripts, sed, and awk.)

Lots more in this trip down memory lane. But the fact is we've kept the books alive, kept updating them, and they are still selling, and still helping people do their jobs, decades later. It's something that makes me proud.

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.

March 21 2011

A writable API for O'Reilly

Today we're announcing that Fluidinfo has created a writable API for O'Reilly books and authors. We're also launching a related API contest.

[Disclosure: Tim O'Reilly is an investor in Fluidinfo.]

We've added information to Fluidinfo for about 2,300 O'Reilly books (or books they have rights to), and about 2,000 authors. The objects in Fluidinfo are tagged with O'Reilly information, using the domain in their tag names.

For any O'Reilly book you can use the Fluidinfo API (description, details) to obtain any of 30 tags containing information you'd expect from a regular book API: author name(s), title, price, page count, homepage, cover image, etc. For each author there are tags with details of name, works, author page on the O'Reilly site, photo, areas of expertise, etc.

The Fluidinfo query language lets developers obtain book and author information using different combinations of these tags.

Beyond read-only APIs

O'Reilly already has an API (based on RDF), so why would we bother making another one?

One answer is that with Fluidinfo it's simple to make APIs, so we did it because it's a nice example and it was easy. Another is that accessing a book via the RDF API pulls back all its metadata, so that API is not fine grained. By splitting the metadata into tags on Fluidinfo objects, it becomes easier for programs to do queries based on individual tags or to obtain particular pieces of information about books or authors.

But there's a much more important reason. Because Fluidinfo objects don't have owners (the tags on them do, however), anyone can add information to the book and author objects that hold the O'Reilly information.

To illustrate, we added information from Amazon, Google Books, LibraryThing, and Goodreads onto the exact same objects that hold the O'Reilly information. That means you can trivially query across data from different sources. Plus, when you look at a Fluidinfo object, such as the one for "Programming Python", you'll see information from all these places, with tags that contain corresponding domain names.

Fluidinfo tags
This screenshot shows some of the tags associated with the O'Reilly book "Programming Python." Click here for the full view.

Having tags from these well-known book sites is not the end of the story. Regular people get to have a voice, too. For example, the Fluidinfo object shown above includes tags for several people who have marked "Programming Python" as a book they own.

In Fluidinfo, objects can always be added to by anyone or any application. If you're a developer you can sign up for a Fluidinfo account and easily write applications that not only fetch information but also augment the tags on the book and author objects. You don't have to stop to ask permission to do something creative, and you don't have to put your data elsewhere as you'd need to do if the O'Reilly information was only available via a read-only API. There are plenty of open source client-side libraries to help you.

Because the O'Reilly API provides access to openly writable data, we describe it as a writable API. It's an example of how we're trying to make the world more writable.

To explain the details of the API, we've written two companion posts. The first explains the structure of the O'Reilly data in Fluidinfo, i.e., the book and author tags you'll find on objects in Fluidinfo. The second shows example O'Reilly API queries to give you a flavor for the ways you can access the data.

We hope you'll find this as exciting and full of potential as we do, and that you'll join us in collectively marking up the world.


  • 3 ways APIs can benefit publishers
  • The future of publishing is writable

  • February 23 2011

    Interim report card on O'Reilly's IT transformation

    report cardLast year O'Reilly Media committed to a new journey: An IT strategy was adopted with the intent to transform the way technology was delivered to support the goals of the business. It was equal parts ambitious and essential.

    We're more than six months into the execution of that strategy and it's clear there is still significant work to do be done to realize the benefits. Some things have gone really well and some areas continue to challenge us. In this blog I'll share and grade our progress to date.

    While continuing to have success in the marketplace, O'Reilly Media recognized that supporting the future needs of the organization would require a rethinking of how IT was delivered. Motivated by the same growth factors as many businesses, O'Reilly Media required more innovative solutions, delivered with greater speed, and at the right cost.

    Working closely with leaders and other key stakeholders across the O'Reilly Media businesses resulted in an IT strategy that was agreed upon in the fall of 2010. The strategy was based on four major pillars:

    1. Governance
    2. Architecture
    3. Strategic sourcing
    4. Hybrid cloud

    I discussed the four pillars in a previous post.

    Here's how we've done in each of these four areas:

    1. Governance

    There's one indubitable truth to all IT organizations: demand for services always exceeds supply. Try as you might, it's an appetite that can't be met. One of the core goals of IT governance is to ensure — with so many competing demands — that the right things are being prioritized and addressed. Responding to the person who screams loudest is not an IT governance strategy.

    In reality, governing priorities require a process that is well understood and supported across all teams. It's also considered a burden, albeit an essential burden I would argue, and can meet with considerable resistance. I wrote about the difficulty in implementing IT governance here.

    At O'Reilly Media I am really proud of our progress with IT governance. I do recognize that some of the progress is back-office and not immediately apparent to our end-users. I'm confident that will come in time. All the essential components of IT governance are in place and it is fully operational. The process begins at ideation and runs across decision-making right through to implementation. Today we have a fully agreed upon IT roadmap of projects that stretches to 12 months and soon we will have a view of the next 18 months. It's a process that has enabled us to move forward with essential projects such as business intelligence and author tools. Bravo!

    The grade for this area reflects the fact that the full process is only recently functional and it is still not in a state where most people who interact with IT can see the full value. What we have to do is refine the process, make it much more agile and lightweight where it makes sense, and demonstrate results that clearly show it is the right way to align technology with business goals.

    Grade: B-

    2. Architecture

    O'Reilly Media, like most businesses, runs a collection of complex systems that support its operations. And like most businesses those systems have evolved over time as needs dictated. Unfortunately, unless there had been a grand master plan back at the beginning, things work because of brute-force efforts at integration; not because of a well thought-out multi-year architectural plan. That's no criticism of our business. It's just the way things have happened for most organizations.

    An enterprise architecture approach aims to reverse this trend and take the long view. It means ensuring that IT is designed and aligned to support the goals and strategies of the business. To do this, the structure and processes of the business must be well understood and documented.

    In O'Reilly IT, our first step was to create a new position to lead our architecture strategy. The solutions architect role was filled and that person is now beginning to describe the next steps and create milestones in the difficult but highly rewarding journey ahead of us.

    There is much to be done, such as creating an architectural review board to govern standards and make critical design decisions; to fully enumerate an IT service catalog; and to integrate an architectural mindset into solutions development.

    I'm going to assign this a lower grade. It's not a reflection of the challenge and our success to date. It's merely an appreciation of the level of effort ahead of us.

    Grade: C

    3. Strategic Sourcing

    While acknowledging the concerns people have over strategic sourcing, it's an area of our strategy that everyone easily understands. Strategic sourcing is about identifying and applying talent from wherever there is a viable source, at the right cost and at the right time. Done correctly, it should also result in internal staff working on higher value work.

    Strategic sourcing is also a way to convert IT from an organization that when capacity gets tight, must resort to saying "no." If you want IT to be an enabler, it can't also be a roadblock. Strategic sourcing turns the situation from a "no capacity" problem into a discussion about investment. If it's really important, capacity can be purchased. (I'll discuss this specific subject in more detail in a future post.)

    I've said it many times; strategic sourcing is not an equivalency of outsourcing. Strategic sourcing might mean using existing staff, and even skills that are available in other parts of the business.

    In this area we've made good progress. We've completed a full project using a combination of existing internal employees and a newly identified off-shore company. We've also hired several US-based contractors using new talent placement vendors. Our existing team has found our strategic sourcing efforts to be complementary to our efforts and indeed our internal work is being elevated to higher-level value.

    Strategic sourcing is now part of our project on-boarding process. Some process remains to be completed. But we're aggressively moving forward as the business gets more confident in our ability to supply capacity, and as we see an improving economy that is showing signs of a tightening supply of full-time talent.

    Grade: B

    4. Hybrid Cloud

    O'Reilly owns several data centers in addition to utilizing a colocation facility. It's an organization that has historically allocated a physical server for each application. Maintaining and supporting this infrastructure is costly, high effort, and a distraction from the higher value work that we could be doing.

    That said, a private cloud strategy that predates the existing strategy had been in place for some time, and some applications had moved into an internal virtualized infrastructure.

    Our hybrid cloud strategy proposes to quickly identify application candidates to move into the public cloud or replace with software-as-a-service equivalents, and as appropriate, move the remaining applications to our private cloud.

    On paper, hybrid cloud for us seems obvious and straightforward. O'Reilly Media has the risk posture and ambition for such a strategic move. However, it's clear now that we've faced unanticipated obstacles.

    The key issue is that the resources you need to do the heavy lifting are often the same resources that need to maintain and support the existing infrastructure. It's a classic chicken and egg paradox. You can't make progress on reducing the overhead of the legacy infrastructure when you're consumed with maintaining that infrastructure. In addition, we wanted to hire a person to lead our cloud strategy and soon learned that such talent is scarce at best.

    So what have we done? We identified a person on the existing team to lead our cloud efforts (although we have to wait until he finishes a high-priority infrastructure project) and we've had to queue up some critical maintenance projects in advance of our cloud migration work. We are also in the process of identifying external partners to help us implement our cloud solutions.

    On balance this means we haven't made the progress we've wanted. We're deeply committed to this strategy and are now optimistic we'll make significant progress soon. You can read more of my views on cloud computing here.

    Grade: C-

    Overall, I've been generally pleased with our progress. A lot of work remains and it will be some time before staff across our businesses experience the benefits of this strategy.

    We're still in the deep fog of change. We're experiencing a combination of talent changes (new people joining us and some legacy staff exiting), expected process growing pains, and some strategy implementation bumps.

    Change is tough and can be frustrating for both end-users and IT staff.

    In my view, implementing our IT strategy is like changing the wings of an aircraft in-flight. We're making considerable change but at the same time we can't disrupt the services and projects that are already underway. To this end, I am deeply grateful to the O'Reilly IT team as we haven't skipped a beat. We continue to deliver a considerable volume of value to the business while fundamentally changing the very nature of how we deliver that work.

    In addition, it's also important that we've continued to get support for the changes across the business. Those that see the changes are very pleased and others remain patient.

    If you're going to succeed with your IT transformation, you've got to keep the business on your side.

    Being CIO can be a tough gig. But seeing positive change and how, when done right, technology can empower people and teams to do amazing things, is exhilarating and reminds us of why we do this work.

    Photo: Report Card by Mark Gstohl, on Flickr


    February 09 2011

    Developer Week in Review

    I am led to understand that there was some kind of sporting event on Sunday. As our brave New England lads were not involved, I foreswore it (except for watching the commercials on Hulu, of course ...) But now that the nacho-and-beer-induced stupor that many of you seem to have been suffering from has worn off, let's see what happened around the industry last week.

    The 49th caller wins tickets to Google I/O

    If you had your heart set on a trip to the beautiful George Moscone center for Google's annual developer love-fest, you needed to have fast fingers this year. The general registration signup opened and closed again in under an hour, after the website took a beating usually reserved for iPhone reservations.

    Your weekly Oracle news

    Proving once again that Oracle totally fails to understand the open source community, there's now a major todo brewing around the continuous integration project formerly known as Hudson. The basic timeline appears to be as follows:

    • Oracle takes down the source repositories for more than a week to do infrastructure changes, without warning the developer community.
    • The founder and chief committer created a GitHub project so that work could be done while Oracle got their act together.
    • Oracle got snotty and said that the GitHub project couldn't be called Hudson because Oracle owned the trademark.
    • The developer community said "Fine, we'll change the name to Jenkins."
    • Oracle said "You can call it whatever you want, but it'll be a fork."
    • Hilarious hijinks ensue!

    Keyboards for real programmers

    LISP MachineAfter last week's (DMCA'd) peek at the Internet, circa 1994, here's another blast from the past: a collection of keyboard photos from the early LISP machines! These keyboards had a set of modifier keys yet to be surpassed in the world of programming, sporting not only a control and alt (meta) key, but also a hyper and super key. All of them could be chorded, leading to such memorable key presses as "control-meta-hyper-yu shiang whole fish."

    Regrettably, the page fails to display any keyboards from LISP Machine, Inc, which was my first corporate employer (after a six-month-stint working at the MIT AI Lab.) However, if you look at the photo, you can see what was the bane of my existence when I did field service calls for LMI, the notorious A=M ECO (Engineering Change Order). There's a series of white wires running down the center of the front wire-wrap panel. They are twisted-pair with one wire grounded on either side, and were put in because the original single-wire runs were sensitive to induced current from wires they crossed. There were 32 of them, they needed to be unwrapped on both ends from the pins, teased out with dental tools, and then the twisted pair wires added in place of them. It took hours, and woe to you if you broke another wire while removing the target ones. But tell that to the kids today ...

    You young whippersnappers come back next week, and Uncle James will tell you more tales of computers new and old. Until then, get off my lawn! Suggestions are always welcome, so please send tips or news here.

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