July 28, 2005

July 27, 2005

A message from the real world

Filed under: — 11:33 am

For those of us who spend most of our time online, it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking everybody is like us. That’s why I like the dose of perspective I get from This Pew Internet Survey (PDF). Among the findings in this survey of internet users:

  • 10% are not really sure what “spam” means, and 3% have never heard the term. No wonder spam still works!
  • 9% have never heard the term “adware”, and 15% have never heard the term “phishing”.
  • Only 13% have a good idea what “podcasting” is.
  • Only 9% have a good idea what RSS feeds are. (Even less than podcasting!?)

Considering those statistics, this Weblog usability study comes as no surprise. Most participants (typical internet users) had no idea how to distinguish between a weblog and a “normal” site, and none of them had any idea how to subscribe to a weblog or feed.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with typical internet users—on the contrary, I think they’re right. Why is there a distinction between a weblog and a normal site, and why do just about all weblogs copy the design and navigation scheme Slashdot was using in 1999? Why do we spend time trading jargon like “trackback” and “podcast” instead of educating people? Something to think about.

Update 7/27/05: Keith Robinson writes about some of the same issues and the RSS issues in particular.

[via SEW and Digital Web]

July 26, 2005

July 25, 2005

July 21, 2005

New site: The Quotations Weblog

Filed under: — 8:43 pm

We’ve finally added a weblog to our massively popular quotations site. At The Quotations Weblog my wife Laura and I are writing about quotations and related matters.

The site (The Quotations Page) has actually had a couple of semi-weblogs on it since 1997: A once-regular “quotes of the week” feature and the site updates on the home page. I’ve imported all of those into the new site, and now it will be much easier to post regularly.

This weblog runs the latest WordPress, with a couple of quirks:

  • I’ve crammed WordPress into the site’s existing (table-based HTML 4.0 transitional) layout. The whole site including the weblog will be moving to a CSS-only layout soon.
  • Since this will be an ideal spam target (page rank 7) we’ve required people to sign in to leave comments. Since we have an existing phpBB forum, it detects whether you’ve signed on to the forum and allows you to post without a separate WordPress sign-in.

Here’s something interesting: I launched the weblog yesterday with little fanfare, simply adding “Weblog” to the site’s navigation bar. Yesterday there were approximately 66,000 visitors to the site, and the number of visitors to the weblog was 394. So apparently merely having a weblog isn’t getting this mainstream audience excited, and we’ll actually have to promote the thing…

July 20, 2005

WordPress plugin: Enhanced post management

Filed under: — 10:00 am

I’ve written another quick WordPress plugin. The Enhanced Post Management plugin adds three optional features to the Manage Posts page in the WordPress Administration interface:

  • Adds the day of the week to the post times (The seconds are removed to make room. Do you really need to know whether you posted at 2:20:17 or 2:20:41?)
  • Turns the post titles into links to view the posts, like WordPress 1.2 used to have
  • Colors the titles of future posts red (or the style of your choice)

Like my future posts plugin, this was inspired by managing weblogs that use future posting. The days of the week help me make sure regular weekly features are posted and the red titles make it very clear which ones are future posts. These two plugins work fine together, and the links on future post titles won’t work unless you have both.

To use this plugin, rename it to enhanced_pm.php and save it in your wp-content/plugins directory, then activate it on the Plugins page. There are three values you can customize at the beginning of this file:

  • $mm_add_day: Specify true to add the day of week, or false to keep the default date format.
  • $mm_link_title: Specify true to make post titles into links, or false to leave them alone.
  • $mm_future_title_style: If you are using link titles, you can modify the CSS style applied to future posts here. The default is red text.

I’ve tried this plugin on five different sites and it works fine, but there may be bugs. Post a comment here if you have trouble with it, or if there’s anything you’d like to see added.

  • Note: While searching for similar plugins I found the enhanced view plugin, which doesn’t do what I wanted, but does add some useful features to the post management page. My plugin is not compatible with that one, since it rewrites the entire page.

July 19, 2005

Attack of the Amazon spiders

Filed under: — 10:30 am

While investigating a traffic surge at The Quotations Page, I found something interesting: between 4:00 AM and 10:00 AM I received almost 10,000 hits from two particular IP addresses. Things like this happen every day, and it’s usually just a referral spammer or email address harvester. Today’s attack had two interesting qualities, though:

The user agent on the requests is libwww-perl/5.35, so apparently somebody at Amazon is having lots of fun with Perl at my expense.

This leads me to wonder if Amazon is experimenting with a new search spider for A9.com. But if they are, it’s gone horribly wrong…

July 18, 2005

Pocket Tunes plays subscription music

Filed under: — 12:12 pm

Pocket Tunes A while back I wrote about Yahoo Music and their subscription program. I was very happy with the subscription service, but unable to use it with a portable device since it only supports certain non-iPod devices.

Today there is good news—thanks to a $30 software download, my Treo 650 can play subscription music from Yahoo, Napster, and the rest. Version 3.1 of Pocket Tunes Deluxe, released today, supports Microsoft’s Janus/PlaysForSure DRM and I’m pleased to report that it plays Yahoo subscription music just fine.

I’ve been using Pocket Tunes for a couple of weeks already, since it beats Realplayer for playing MP3s on the Palm. It supports multiple folders on the SD card and can play an album in order, so I can use the same card with the Treo and with my car stereo.

The transfer process is a bit of a pain. Normally I would just pop the SD card into my computer’s card reader and copy the music files to it, but to support subscription music I have to put the card in the Palm, hook up its USB cable, and use the Yahoo Music application to transfer the music. The transfer takes a bit longer than copying using the card reader.

Once the files are there, though, it works well and sounds amazing. Now I can play music at home or wherever I go for $5 a month—I’m not sure if there’s any reason to buy an album again. Well, unless I want to play it on the iPod, the car stereo, or a CD player. You can’t have everything…

Two minor issues: there’s a delay (presumably DRM-related) of a second or two before playing each song, and a minor glitch skipping between tracks. Nevertheless, this is groundbreaking for a $30 shareware program.

July 17, 2005

July 15, 2005

Django – Python web framework

Filed under: — 11:56 am

Django is a new web framework for the Python language created by Adrian Holovaty, Simon Willison, and Jacob Kaplan-Moss. I suspect this is going to become as popular as Ruby on Rails in no time at all. Judging from the overview, this looks pretty easy to learn. I actually understand most of the code, despite knowing almost nothing about Python.

It just launched today, so the documentation is a bit sketchy, but it looks very interesting so far. The data modeling and the automatic administration interface look especially nice. Considering that most of my web sites are basically homemade content-management systems, it would be great to use a framework meant for the purpose.

I guess I should start learning Python…

[via lesscode.org]

July 13, 2005

July 10, 2005

July 8, 2005

Alertra.com site monitoring

Filed under: — 8:00 am

When you make an income from web sites, keeping the servers running is very important. I used to pay for a service that regularly checked my servers and alerted me with a text message to my phone when one of them went down. I abandoned that service for two reasons: first, I didn’t always get the alerts, and second, often the problem was connectivity at their network and nothing to do with me.

This week I found Alertra.com and I’m pleased to report that it solves these problems. They avoid false alerts by rotating checks from eight different locations and not alerting you until three of the stations agree that the site is down.

The fees are reasonable, although they can add up if you’re monitoring lots of servers or sites. I’m using their HOST service, which monitors pretty much everything you need on a Web server: Ping, up to three HTTP ports, HTTPS, DNS, SMTP, POP3, IMAP4, FTP, SSH, TELNET, NNTP and up to three other TCP ports. Pricing varies depending on the monitoring frequency—I’m having my main server checked every 5 minutes and the secondary server every 30 minutes, and the total monthly fee for both is just over $30. A basic service to simply check your URL every 5 minutes is only $8.75 a month.

Alerts can be sent by email for free, or by SMS, pager, or voice phone for a small per-notification fee. I’m using the email notification to reach my cell phone, which avoids paying the SMS fee. You can set up a complex notification schedule if you want (for example, notify Bob at the first sign of downtime, and then notify Alice if the downtime lasts 60 minutes.)

I ran some tests by taking various services down in the middle of the night, and so far the alerts have been very prompt. My hosting provider has their own monitoring system, but this works much better, and an external monitor can spot problems in their network as well.

July 7, 2005

WordPress 1.5 notes

Filed under: — 9:33 am

Last week I upgraded this site to WordPress 1.5, upgraded some other sites to the latest security update, and worked on a new weblog. Here are a few random notes about things I ran into in this process:

  • Upgrading templates: The WordPress Wiki has a pretty good guide to upgrading a template from WP 1.2 to 1.5. This process has gone smoothly on all of my sites.
  • Spam Filtering: I use WP Hashcash by Elliot Back on all of my weblogs, and it effectively eliminates comment spam. Occasionally someone will manually enter a spam message, but the automated ones are stopped 100%. It uses JavaScript to verify that a real browser is involved. This shuts out a few potential commenters, but at least the new version displays a friendly message when JavaScript is disabled instead of responding to comments with a blank page.
  • Trackback Spam: Unfortunately, since trackbacks are supposed to be automated, there’s no easy way to stop them, and I’ve had hundreds of trackback spam comments this week. I’ll probably end up disabling trackbacks altogether. Let’s face it, Trackback is dead, and any system that lets anyone add a link to someone else’s site is inevitably going to be abused.

Here’s an interesting statistic: according to my WP Hashcash reports, there were 2472 spam comments blocked from July 3rd to today for this site alone. Now you know why I install spam filtering plugins on new weblogs before I even launch them…

(c) 2001-2007 Michael Moncur. All rights reserved, but feel free to quote me.
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