This weekend we celebrate as Jessica joins me amongst the ranks of quadragenarians. She’s not going quietly, either.
Charitocracy is lucky to have someone of her
age maturity seniority experience at the helm! Let’s wish her a year, nay a decade, full of meaning and purpose and 80s references… while she can still remember them.
What has become known as The Year of Benj is now half over. Let me rephrase: I’m now beginning the best half of TYOB!
I’m in a serious groove right now. It doesn’t matter if I’ve already worked all day or if I’ve been out partying and get home after midnight: prime me with a couple squares of dark chocolate, tune the Apple TV on my desk to John Oliver, and next stop will be 8:30am and a half dozen items off my to-do list. Repeat about 4 times per week, and things truly start happening!
Yesterday I worked from the beach just to prove that I could. TYOB, YOLO! It was in the mid-70s (degrees, not decade, sadly) but the wind was obnoxious. I had goose bumps the whole time. However, the equipment test mission was a success! My new beach umbrella and sand anchor didn’t budge in the wind. I could see my Mac’s screen just fine thanks to the dorky but effective Pixel Sunscreen. And I scoped out the beach access closest to a cell tower, which afforded me 3 bars of AT&T signal. (I’ll try for 4 next time, but 3 gave me a steady 1Mbps up and down, fine for my typical needs.)
Now I just need to work out a system for accepting dark chocolate donations…
🎶 Once upon a time I was calling printf, my debugging skills were falling apart… Nothing I could do but then I found Eclipse, now I ❤️. 🎶
I have plenty of experience with debuggers: db, ladebug, gdb, jdb, NetBeans, WinDbg (affectionately known as WindBag), Xcode, and perhaps my all-time favorite, SoftICE. I’ve used them almost exclusively to debug low-level device driver code. This is my first time since last working on cutting-edge web code circa 1999-2001 that I’ve had the need to debug server back-end scripts.
PhpStorm seems to be the most highly praised option out there, but they don’t offer discounts to non-profits, and it’s pricey at $199 for the first year! The next most popular is Eclipse for PHP Developers, and the price is right: free. It uses PHP’s Xdebug extension, and worked like a champ. I was setting breakpoints in my PHP functions, actually hitting them, inspecting variables, stepping through code, and fixing bugs (in 3rd-party code of course, not mine) with hasty abandon!
After three all-nighters in the past week, I’m really starting to get the hang of web development again. Don’t get me wrong, I miss needing a debugger that lives below the operating system, and sifting through PCI buffer traces for broken command packets caused by multithreaded race conditions. Really, I do
n’t. But someone has to make sure deadbeat donors with expired credit cards receive an encouraging email with a link to remedy the situation, right? That someone is me.
The sun has set on my unbridled “cowboy coding” for the last time. (Geek alert. You’ve been forewarned.)
Traveling 5+ weeks and not touching Charitocracy the entire time was never my plan. I thought I would have remote access to my home server, but something went wrong. (I still don’t know what, but I have some suspicions.) I set up a more reliable VNC connection as an immediate countermeasure when I returned home so this particular obstacle wouldn’t repeat itself.
Really, though, I needed to rethink my overdependence on an old Mac Mini (MM). I chose it as my main staging server by virtue of it being the only unutilized Mac in my house, purchased as a home theatre PC before Apple TV made it obsolete. I used dynamic DNS to direct charitocracy.org traffic to my home network, then my router port-forwarded to the MM. It just worked… except when it didn’t. Namely while on my trip, and about half the times I tried logging into it from neighborhood coffee shops.
Meanwhile, I have a powerful mid-2015 MacBook Pro (MBP) at my fingertips any time I’m working. It runs circles around my circa 2009 MM. I never need to access it remotely over a questionable net connection. So why am I trying to use it as a dumb terminal into an ancient machine across the house, across town, or across the world as the case may be, with mixed success at the best of times?
Last week I declared an end to amateur hour by doing the following:
- I installed MAMP on my MBP.
- I set up a git source control repository (with origin backed by my iCloud drive) to host Charitocracy web code and database.
- I rebuilt the Charitocracy beta site from scratch on my MBP, submitting to git at intervals along the way, using my MM’s site as a reference.
- I created a pre-commit hook that automatically adds a SQL database snapshot whenever I commit code changes.
- I installed and configured PageKite, a pay-what-you-want tunneling service which allows me to receive Charitocracy network traffic (including TLS/SSL) wherever I like, including on my MBP, even if I’m in a random waiting room or coffee shop (as I am right now).
- After proving the new beta site worked as well as the MM’s, I pulled all the code and data back from git and proved I could easily clone the site on my MM, redirect PageKite to serve it up externally, make changes to the site on MM, and pull the changes (code and DB) back onto my MBP.
So I’m finally baking some real engineering discipline into my coding process. Nothing falls through the cracks. I can go back to previous snapshots of code and data. I can easily view and search through changes, even if they were in the DB or in code I didn’t write myself, like plugins. I can travel. And all of this is quick and robust, because 99% of it is happening right on my laptop (credit card processing is one exception, but that traffic works seamlessly through PageKite, too). And if I get hit by a
bus stagecoach tomorrow, you’ll all be able to pick up where I left off, right?!
I still have plenty of engineering discipline yet to adopt, the sorts of things truly necessary when working in teams with fluid requirements and actual deadlines. So I reckon I’ll just ⌘H the cowboy coder until the coast is clear. Yeehaw!
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob.” I packed 6 months of travel into 6 weeks, but got it out of my system. Let’s hope.
You’ll recall before I left, the IRS totally punk’d us with a letter saying “We got your application, now sit tight for 6 months while we think about it.” Then after I left town, they followed maybe two weeks later with a letter saying, “Just kidding, we love you guys, don’t change a thing, you’re totally in.” I’m paraphrasing, the actual letter of determination is here.
If you want to know what goes into a full-fledged Form 1023 these days (not the shortened -EZ version) you can take a look at that here.
I thought I’d be taking my time getting the web site up, and that the IRS making donations to Charitocracy tax-deductible would be the long pole in the schedule. Suddenly I’m the weakest link! Charitocracy’s only obstacle to going live is me. The pressure is back on, friends. Jessica be all like:
I’ll be on the road for the next five weeks. First a couple of weeks in Seattle and London visiting dear friends and family, then three weeks in Massachusetts prepping our old house for sale. My Boston to Portland flight on Tuesday was the first since… August?! I used to fly at least monthly. It was good to be back up in the friendly skies after six months on the ground!
On my way up the east coast, before dropping off my car with Dad & Maryann near Logan Airport, I spent a day in New York City snowed in with my cousin-in-law, Hillary. We had an insightful and timely conversation about the next phase of Charitocracy development: cause nomination, discussion, and voting. It’s just what I needed to psych myself up for tackling this next and most critical aspect of Charitocracy functionality.
Hillary also suggested including a portal for non-profit nominees to join the discussion without being donors themselves. Brilliant. This way they can correct any well-intentioned but inaccurate information in the nomination pitch, provide more details about their mission and current activities, and respond to any criticism. Hopefully it keeps a grass roots feel without too much of a polished marketing department aftertaste. But it will certainly add an important voice to the discourse.
I’ll be constantly on the move until March 1st without much opportunity to code, but I am looking forward to killing off the last few known bugs in the signup/donation process so I can start in earnest on nominations. I’m as excited as ever, but will use this self-imposed downtime to reflect on what’s coming next. For now, it’s Adventure Time with my buddy Kerry and his fam!
This week I’m hoping to complete a critical component of the Charitocracy web site: donor signup & billing. The goal is to make it super quick and convenient for a new donor visiting the site to sign up and commence annual credit card donations of $13/year (or more if desired). Super quick, convenient, and secure!
Toward that goal, the main accomplishment I want to highlight has been adoption of secure communications (HTTPS protocol) for charitocracy.org at no cost to us. I’m running this blog on a hosted server without any extra security, but the main charitocracy domain, aka my 2009 Mac Mini sitting here on my desk, is now running HTTP over TLS with a certificate signed by Let’s Encrypt.
Usually this is roughly a $100/year expenditure. You pay a 3rd-party company to check that you control the domain of interest, and they generate you a TLS (successor to SSL if you’ve heard of that) security certificate which you install on your server. If configured correctly, all data transmitted between your web site and your visitors will be encrypted so bad guys snooping the network traffic only see gibberish, whether it be credit card details or other private information. You’ll know it’s working because there will be a little padlock symbol next to the domain name at the top of your browser.
The beauty of Let’s Encrypt, a relatively new non-profit organization themselves, is that they’re helping make the web more secure by encouraging and empowering everyone with a website to self-prove their domain ownership and generate their own certificates all for free using a tool they’ve created and maintain. I secured charitocracy.org and saved Charitocracy a hundred bucks a year all while binge-watching Making a Murderer from the comfort of my living room couch. Feel free to hop over to charitocracy.org to admire our padlock. Thanks, Let’s Encrypt!
I’ve officially pulled my first Charitocracy all-nighter! It’s now 6:30am, so I’ll keep this brief. But here are a few of the (debatably) exciting things I’ve done since last week:
• Applied for and was granted business checking and savings accounts at DCU, the credit union I’ve used since my first job at DEC in the mid-90s.
• Set up accounts at PayPal and Braintree (credit cards), the combination of which I intend to use for donation processing. Maybe I’ll integrate Amazon, too, but I haven’t decided yet. Braintree credit card entry will let us take credit card info without donors leaving our site, except that the text fields into which you type your numbers are actually little frames hosted at Braintree, covering most of the PCI security concerns: we won’t see or store any sensitive data ourselves. I’m hoping that once Braintree is fully integrated into new parent company PayPal, they’ll also offer PayPal’s 0.7% nonprofit discount on transaction fees.
• Brought my 2009 Mac Mini back to life after blunt force trauma sidelined it during our most recent New England to North Carolina migration in August. I managed to get its original hard disk back up and running, and it survived zeroing the whole disk, upgrading from Snow Leopard to El Capitan, and even full disk encryption. But if it fails, I have a new 9.5mm 1TB fusion drive ready to install.
• Installed MAMP and other goodies on Mac Mini to serve as a staging… server. Interestingly, I lost a couple hours getting outgoing email (postfix) working. Well, it works now. And I concede “interestingly” is a bit of a stretch.
I didn’t read Jessica’s meeting minutes, so I don’t know what level of detail they contain. But in case it isn’t otherwise documented for posterity, I’d like to record the fact that the first board of directors meeting of Charitocracy Corporation on January 13, 2016 was held in bed.
I’ve worked in my home office since we moved to North Carolina in 2010. There’s a bed in there because it serves as an overflow guest room several times a year. I’ll also use it myself from time to time when working past 4am, not as much to avoid disturbing Jessica so late as to avoid being disturbed myself when the house starts waking up at 6am!
But that’s not where we held our meeting.
Jessica recently set up her own home office in our bedroom. Our good friend Scott built her a custom desk to fit into a strangely shaped nook by the windows. In addition to her Staples “executive” office chair, there’s also a massively oversized couch-like chair facing her desk. The kids sometimes do their homework there so Jessica can help as needed while doing other work.
But we did not hold our first board of directors meeting at that stately, crimson red desk, either.
It has been cold here in the Outer Banks of North Carolina this week. Sometimes you’re just more productive with laptops in bed. Jessica was very professional, setting up a Charitocracy Meeting Minutes template for future reuse before calling the meeting to order. (Wait, has she done this before?!) We appointed ourselves to various officer positions each: Jessica as President, CEO, and Secretary, and me as Vice President, CTO, and Treasurer. We adopted the bylaws on which Jessica had been iterating daily. We resolved to open bank accounts, seek liability insurance, and hand off our Form 1023 to our CPA for inspection before mailing it off to the IRS. We set a date for our next meeting. All from the comfort of our bed.
I do hope to attract additional board members as we pick up steam this year. We’ll benefit greatly from broader perspectives and deeper experience, and maybe fend off some raised eyebrows as we start up a nonprofit as a wife and husband team. But in the meantime, I will enjoy meetings of the executive committee, wherever they may be.
We managed to get one concrete thing done in 2015 before the holidays: incorporating in the state of North Carolina. We’ve started 2016 by tackling Form 1023, which is the IRS paperwork necessary to request tax-exempt status and classification as a 501(c)(3) public charity. It takes an average of 110 days for the form to be processed, so there’s no point doing any software engineering until our Form 1023 is shipped off. I promise I’m not procrastinating!
There’s an “EZ” impossibly short version of the 1023, which we were very tempted to use, but it’s only good if you don’t expect to exceed $50,000 per year in donations for 3 years. Assuming every Charitocracy participant gave the minimum $1 per month, that would mean a maximum of just over 4000 users, even at the end of 3 years. No way, right?! Sadly, if the 1023-EZ is a 1st grade book report, the non-EZ version is a PhD dissertation.
As part of it I need to project financials for 3 years. It’s a total stab in the dark, and I don’t know whether to be conservative or optimistic in my estimates. This document will become public if/when the IRS grants our tax-exempt determination. Whether I’m way over or way under, you’ll all be able to laugh when looking back 3 years from now! But I intend to aim for the sky and try to get us there, unless our accountant talks me back down to Earth.
Now, assuming we get this tome off to the IRS next week, we’ll commence two parallel missions for the next 4+ months: (1) build Charitocracy from the ground up, and (2) line up as many prospective participants as possible so we hit the ground running during the first month we’re operational. To that end, please like us on Facebook and share with friends and family. There’s a Facebook widget on this blog page for your convenience. Facebook likes will make as good a proxy as anything until we’re ready to take initial signups! You Facebook holdouts can keep following along on Twitter, RSS, or email (look for “subscribe to blog via email” on this page).
Jessica expects 100 participants for the first month. I want 500, please. Let’s make it a happy new year!