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Travel back in time with me, if you will, to the year 1996, and contemplate the state of technology two decades ago.
In 1996, just 20 million American adults had access to the Internet, about as many as subscribe to satellite radio today. The dot-com boom had already begun on Wall Street--Netscape went public in 1995--but what's striking about the old Web is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web...

Via's Jurassic Web (2/24/09); coincidentally, Slate went live in 1996
Less than 10% of the U.S. population had internet access  but some of us were already trying to answer the implied question: how do you use it?

One rather obvious answer was to figure out who the likely audience might be, and then try to identify uses that might appeal to that audience. (Those folks would be known today as early adopters, a term that was actually coined in 1962 but which wasn't in widespread usage in 1996.) And, of course, the predictable answer for who likely fell into that demographic was college students.

And so some of us who were involved in on-campus college recruiting for our employer, ARCO Permian, had the brilliant idea of creating a website that would (1) explain what our company was and what it had to offer, via articulate and persuasive propaganda commentary, while (b) demonstrating our remarkable technical savvy and overall coolness.

The only flaw in the plan was that 10% number mentioned above. Even if college students had more ready access to the internet, a web-based approach would exclude a significant majority of them. The solution was simple: a WOAD, which was our acronym for "Website On A Disk." Impressive, right? OK, I just made that up, but it IS a cool acronym, with a kind of Celtic warrior vibe*.

Sadly, we elected to go with the more pedestrian "Portable Web Site" and it looked like this:

Photo of ARCO Permian Portable Web Site floppy disk
Note the totally pretentious copyright symbol

You remember floppy disks, with their two megabyte capacities (in HD format, that is) and magnephobia (no, it's not on the quasi-official phobia list, but it should be) tendencies. A floppy seemed to be the ideal medium for handing out to students who may or may not have had an internet connection.

Given the capacity limitations, the trick was to design a website that would fit on a disk. No problem, the actual site consisted of only four pages, and it totaled less than 250kb. And for some unknown reason, we had a link to a text-only version that consumed a massive 12kb. 

We also created a unique splash page tailored to each university we were recruiting from. Cutting edge stuff, I tell you. And, finally, we included a read_me.txt file on each disk providing detailed instructions on how, exactly, to open the website via browser (along with assurances that we had scanned the diskette "for viruses using Norton © Anti-Virus For Windows©, V. 3.0; even then I was a Mac user, but I resisted the urge to add that Apple folks needn't worry about such things).

I don't know if we ever actually hired anyone because of this tactic; I don't even recall getting any feedback about it. But it was a fun project to work on, and was one of the first of many, many websites I enjoyed building for years thereafter.

Oh...if you want to see what a 1996-vintage website looked like, well, you're in luck.

Winona Rider in King Arthur*In the 2004 movie King Arthur, the fierce tribe of Picts was referred to as "Woads," presumably because they made themselves look fierce by painting themselves with dye from the woad plant, and also because "Picts" sounds less than fierce. Some people with apparently nothing better to do dispute that as an historical misconception. 

Personally, I prefer to remember the movie for Winona Rider's Kiera Knightley's (oops!) Woad-ish costume, which would have easily won an Oscar for The Most Obviously Uncomfortable Costuming by a Major Actor or Actress in a Leading, Non-Musical Role (and I really do hope the Academy is considering the addition of such an award).

An Internet Pioneer: Me
January 29, 2016 9:39 AM | Posted in: ,

Depending on usage, the Internet has the potential to become a wonderfully effective business tool, or a troublesome diversion of time and resources.
The preceding quote - which today would likely be subject to an editorial "duh" - was lifted from a position paper dated December 14, 1994, authored by yours truly. I ran across this document, which I wrote as part of a recommendation on whether and how to allow employees to access the Internet, while going through some files that had been in storage.

My recommendation was that we should proceed with a limited rollout of 'Net access (the term "World Wide Web" was not yet in widespread usage; the first website was only four years old) to test its viability as a business tool. Our intended focus was to use the Internet as a means of allowing employees to access company policies, organization charts, etc. We also anticipated the potential for using it to communicate with third parties in areas such as surplus material listings, property sales "ads" and so on.

Logo - Mosaic web browserAt that time, our means to access the Internet was Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers that sported a graphical user interface, primitive though it was. It had been released for just a year, and it quickly gave way to Netscape Navigator. Logo - Netscape Navigator web browserOur company provided training classes to a focus group for these browsers, and we were introduced to such exotic terms as search engines (WebCrawler and Lycos were the big dogs), bookmarks (so we could more easily revisit the approximately eight websites that were relevant to our work), and Usenet (for which etiquette rules were already a big deal, and probably as routinely ignored as they are today for Facebook comments).

This, indeed, was a brave new world, especially for nascent geeks. In fact, this probably marked a turning point in my life and career. To be more specific, when I learned that (1) I could view the source code of any website right there in the browser, and (2) I could create a website using any text processor, a whole new avenue of expression opened up for me. The jury is still out whether that was a good thing or not, but it was definitely a big thing.

As an aside, while Netscape Navigator was our primary web browser, it was also part of a suite of applications including Composer. Composer was my first exposure to a WYSIWYG HTML editor, and I used it to build and maintain a handful of websites, including a college recruiting site that we distributed to students via floppy disk to demonstrate how utterly cool we were.

Netscape Composer screen capture
Screen shot showing Composer's awesome GUI

However, it is clear that the Internet is continuing to evolve and grow in ways that we may not fully appreciate today.
Prophetic? I wouldn't deny the term, if you insist on applying it to me. Duh.
A Facebook friend posted a link to this New York Times article. It's a long but entertaining look at a failed* Kickstarter campaign to fund a PID-controlled espresso machine. The article is a cautionary tale about what happens when a good idea is poorly executed, and project backers feel they have been treated unfairly, if not defrauded. 

Kickstarter is the preeminent crowdfunding website, where people with ideas seek people with money, and, in a perfect world, the combination results in a commercially viable (or emotionally fulfilling) result. Some projects are spectacular successes, some are dismal failures, and most fall somewhere in the middle. 

I have backed three Kickstarter projects over the years.
Vinyl stegasaurus
Who wouldn't want a vinyl stegasaurus?
One was a cap for a pen or pencil that turned it into a stylus for use with a touchscreen device, another was a whimsical attempt to laser-cut old vinyl record albums so that they could be assembled into monsters, and the third was a titanium bicycle lock designed to be practically unbreakable as bike thieves rarely carry band saws or water jet cutting machines. All three of these projects brought their products to market; as far as I can tell, the bike lock and stylus cap are both commercial successes (the Monster Records domain name is for sale, so I assume that it, like its models, suffered an extinction-level event).

My investment in each of these campaigns was nominal. I pledged $150 to the bike lock campaign, for which I received a lock now selling for $199; a $25 pledge got me a stylus cap. The laser-cut record pledge was a bit more incautious: $120 got me two dinosaurs. And while I use the bike lock, the stylus resides somewhere in a Drawer of Miscellaneous Miscellany (we all have one, right?) and the vinyl dino puzzles are in a bookshelf, partially (OK, mostly) unassembled. 

As the New York Times article implies, crowdfunding a project carries some inherent risks. You're trusting someone you probably don't know to do what they say they can do, and you have no control over the outcome. You don't have any legal ownership in the process or product, and very little recourse if things go south. 

From my perspective, it's best to think of these projects as charitable endeavors, minus the tax deductibility of the "donation." If you think the product is innovative and useful, or the idea resonates on an emotional level (a vinyl T-rex made from a classical LP? Awesome!), then read through the business plan and let its apparent credibility and achievability determine at what level to back it. But, as with any gamble, don't bet more than you're willing or able to lose. 

As a concept, crowdfunding has much to recommend it. As an investment strategy...well, you might be better off investing in an internet startup with a sock puppet spokesthingy. 

*This project's Kickstarter page has a somewhat recent update from the creators pledging to keep the project alive. The update is a bit poignant considering it was made before the New York Times report.

LogMeIn KicksMeOut
January 21, 2014 7:05 PM | Posted in: ,

A month or so ago, having grown frustrated with lengthy tech support phone conversations with various family members, we installed the free version of the LogMeIn desktop sharing app on all of our various computers. It's cut those "my window has disappeared and I can't find it" calls to a bare minimum, making everyone much happier. And then this, today:
It seems that the outfit has grown tired of offering its services to freeloaders like me, and now my only option is the "Pro" version that starts at $99/year (or $49 for the first year if you already have an account). Even though the application has been helpful when we needed it, our actual usage doesn't justify paying that much for the service. So, adios LogMeIn.

Unsurprisingly, there are several free alternatives for this sort of application, so I don't expect to miss LogMeIn. It's simply annoying to have to make the switch, and to invest the time to find the best of those alternatives.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence of just how spoiled I've become. I quickly take for granted those companies who, for whatever reasons, offer free services or products, and then feel slighted (if not downright abused) when they decide to discontinue those things. Well, not as slighted as some people:
As much as I've tried, I can't quite work up the same sense of entitlement as Mr. Cyberaxe*. Logically, I should just be grateful for the time we had together, and recognize that all free things must come to an end. I assume that LogMeIn was hoping that its free offering would be a gateway drug to entice us to graduate to Even Better Stuff, stuff that we'd pay for, and when that didn't happen, the company decided it wasn't worth whatever trouble it was going to to maintain the service. It's a logical business decision.

I sort of doubt that many people will switch to the paid service; I doubt that I'm alone in deciding to seek out another free product to do the same job. But we all need to recognize that whatever we find, we shouldn't count on it in perpetuity.

*Given the specificity of the hashtag rant, I wonder if Mr. Cyperaxe was using LogMeIn's free service to generate revenue for himself, perhaps via his own desktop support business. It's never a good idea to build your business model on the assumption of freebies from a disinterested third party.
I ran across a link in my Twitter feed to this article, which describes Apple's attempts to modify Siri, its voice-activated iOS "personal assistant" application, to provide more helpful feedback for people searching for suicide-related information. 
With an update to phones running iOS 6 and iOS 7, Siri now reacts with a strong, two-fold approach when mentions of suicide come up. First, the assistant offers the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and will even offer to call directly -- a new feature that makes seeking help as simple as clicking "yes" on the phone. If for whatever reason the user decides to select "no", Siri does a search of all local suicide prevention centers, offering a list and directions powered by Yelp.

According to the article, here's what Siri now returns when suicide is mentioned:

Screenshot of Siri's suicide response

However, either this update hasn't been rolled out to everyone yet, or Siri isn't particularly sympathetic to my inquiries. Whenever I tell her that "I'm thinking of suicide," she says she doesn't know what I mean, and offers to search the web for that phrase. Perhaps this is actually an iOS 7 update that will be released this fall.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that Apple isn't the only tech company sensitive to the increasing problem of suicide. Google has modified its search results so that a search for "suicide" will display a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, along with a prominent display of the toll-free number.

Unfortunately, Google hasn't completely anticipated and accounted for the results that appear immediately after that well-intentioned link. As with many searches on generic words or phrases, a Wikipedia article is at the top of the search results, and at least a portion of those results seems designed to counteract Google's efforts. Here's a screenshot of those results.


Notice the highlighted phrase? What an unfortunate placement of information for someone who might be contemplating suicide.

It's not as though folks can't or won't find such information despite the best well-meaning efforts of the companies and organizations who run the web, but this is an example of just how complex such sensitive issues can get, and even the best plans of the smartest people on the planet don't always work out as they expected.
When's the last time you surfed the web? (OK, when's the last time you even heard that term?) My guess is that it's been a long while, and that you're now fidgeting on Facebook or whatever the operative phrase might be for wasting time online.

I know I've blogged about the effect Facebook has had on blogging - it's generally stifled blogging except for those bloggers who blog about the effect Facebook has had on their blogging - but I've also decided that it's probably responsible for fewer people being more adventurous in their exploration of the web. Whether this is factually supported is not the point, because I'm doing less web surfing, and I'm sure I represent the overall potential web surfing audience.

Seriously, though, do you spend time anymore simply following random links on random sites to see where they lead? It's been a few years since I've done that, and I believe a big reason is that blogs are dying out...and blogs were the best source of links to new and unusual websites.

I'm sure that in terms of absolute numbers there are still a gazillion quirky, intriguing, cutting-edge and/or insightful websites being maintained by people with no other agenda than investing time and effort in something they love. But we've settled into a comfortable routine via Facebook and it's hard to make the time or summon the effort to go looking for those sites. I suspect that the collective "we" spends 90%+ of our online time on an aggregate of about a hundred or so news, sports, or social media websites.

I'm part of the problem (if, indeed, this can be termed a problem), because I rarely post links to other sites anymore. I'm not sure why that is or what I should do about it, but as soon as I check my Wall, I'll give it some more thought and get back to you.
I posted brief rants about the Texas Get Your Business Online (TGYBO) initiative yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, but that wasn't particularly satisfying, so I want to continue the rant here. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Here's a quick refresher. TGYBO provides free websites and hosting (for a year) to small businesses in Texas. It's a joint initiative spearheaded by Google and software company Intuit, and a number of national and state business advocacy groups. The FAQ on the above-linked website includes this blurb about why this is happening:
Small businesses are vital to America's economic future; the nation's 27.5M small businesses comprise half the US GDP and create two-thirds of all new jobs. Although 97% of consumers look online for local products and services, 51% of Texan small businesses do not have a website or online presence. This makes them invisible to many potential customers.
Sounds like a commendable program, doesn't it? And it probably is, unless you're a small business that's trying to generate income by building websites for paying customers, in which case this initiative has the potential to, well, put you out of business.

The reality is that small businesses and nonprofit organizations are the bread-and-butter of most web designers. I've never had a Fortune 500 client and never will. That's not all bad, but it does mean that I generate income via volume: creating a lot of small websites that individually don't amount to much money, but with luck might add up to a living wage (and even that goal remains elusive). So you can see why an initiative like this by a gazillion-dollar company like Google might cause a disturbance in the Web Design Force.

I have a couple of suggestions for Google. If you're so dead set on helping small businesses, why not just give each qualifying business a $300 (or $500 or whatever amount) voucher to be used to hire a local web designer to help get the business online? Not only do you not put a market segment out of business, but you also connect the client with someone local who understands and actually cares about the client's business. What a concept!

Or, Google, how about giving small businesses free advertising via your AdWords program for a year? Yeah, that's what I thought. Doesn't feel so good, does it?

I have no idea whether this program will actually affect my business. It's not as if there aren't a hundred different do-it-yourself website programs out there now; every large hosting company offers them. I still believe that most small businesses want to work with someone local, and also subscribe to the theory that you get what you pay for.

If nothing else, this demonstrates that there are unintended consequences to almost any program that's designed to give something for nothing. This one just hits a little closer to home than most.
Ran across this video (via Neatorama) of a guy getting a tattoo of a QR code that links to a website.

My reaction? *yawn* Been there; done that.

Photo of my Fire Ant Gazette URL QR tattoo

Yeah, that's right; I've got one, too. It's the Fire Ant Gazette URL. There's only one teensy problem.

It doesn't work.

Perhaps it's the artist's failing, or maybe it's just the distortion caused by the underlying rippling muscles* (eat your heart out, Ah-nold), but my phone won't recognize and scan the code. See, that's the danger of getting permanently marked with something like this; you don't know whether it will actually work until it's too late. Good idea...poor execution.

So, what do I do now? Well, there's really only one good option. 

Rubbing alcohol. You didn't think I'd actually do something this dumb, did you? Don't answer that.

*This was actually the only place I could find that was relatively devoid of hair. I'm not about to shave body parts for the sake of a blog post. And I do apologize if this is the visual equivalent of TMI

And if you want to make a temporary statement about something, I highly recommend StrayTats for good quality, fast service and very inexpensive custom temporary tattoos. The tattoo actually did scan properly before it was applied, so the creator wasn't at fault in this case.

A Few Tips for New Google Chrome Users
March 11, 2011 8:10 AM | Posted in:

Mozilla Firefox has been my default web browser for the past four or five years, but during the past year I've also had Google Chrome open on my second monitor and I've switched back and forth depending on which program was handier. I hesitated to jump to Chrome as my default browser even though it was noticeably faster than Firefox, primarily because I wasn't sure that I could replicate all of Firefox's features that I'd come to rely on over the years.

Icon - Google ChromeBut earlier this week I took the plunge and made Chrome my default browser, and I've been quite content with the change...once I learned a few things about how it works. I thought I'd document some of what I've learned in case you're a Firefox user who is new to Chrome, or is considering a change. None of these things are mysterious secrets, but perhaps having them in one place will make someone's life a bit easier.

  • Search engine management - One of the features of Firefox that I really like is the ability to use a dropdown menu built into the search box to select a different search engine. If I want to search Wikipedia or, for example, rather than Google or Yahoo, I can easily select one of them, type my search word or phrase, and that's where the search results will originate.

    Chrome, on the other hand, doesn't even have a search box. Instead, it uses the address bar (which, in Chrome vernacular, is called an "omnibar") for not only entering website URLs, but also for initiating searches. The browser attempts to interpret what you type into the omnibar, and if it looks like an URL, it takes you to the corresponding website. If it doesn't, Chrome assumes you're initiating a search, and sends the request to the Google search engine (big surprise, huh?). Once you get used to this behavior, it's pretty cool, and Chrome does an outstanding job of interpreting your wishes based on what you type. But what appears to be missing is the ability to direct your search to something other than Google.

    All is not lost. Open Chrome's Preferences, and you'll find a Search setting where you can specify the default search engine for the omnibar. However, this still didn't solve the problem, because what I really wanted to do is be able to specify a different search engine temporarily - for a one-time search - and going back and forth to the Preferences panel is not a realistic solution. The solution does exist within the Preferences, though. Click on the "Manage Search Engines" button and you'll see a list of available search engines (if you imported your Firefox settings when you started using Chrome - which I strongly recommend - that list will be the same as what you were using in Firefox), and each website will have a keyword. If you type that keyword followed by a colon (:) in the omnibar, Chrome will assume you want to search that website and will do so, instead of using your default search engine.

    So, say you wanted to search Wikipedia for "chrome." Simply type "wiki chrome" (without the quote marks) into the omnibar. Note that if you don't like the keyword assigned to a search engine, you can change it in the Preferences panel.

  • Browser state retention - Another of Firefox's features that I like is the ability to instruct it to reopen all the tabs and windows that were in use when the application was shut down. When you quit the application, the browser asks you if you want to save those settings (unless you tell it not to bug you about it). But when I started using Chrome, it wasn't obvious that it had that capability, and that was a big deal. I'll often have 20+ tabs open and if the browser crashes or I shut down my computer, I want to get those tabs back.

    The solution, once again, is in Chrome's Preferences panel. In the Basics category, there's an section entitled "On Startup." Simply check the button that says "Reopen the pages that were open last." 

  • Extensions - Finally, one of Firefox's strengths is its active community of plugin developers, who work to extend the browser's capabilities by providing customized add-on functions. There are thousands of Firefox extensions (of varying quality and usefulness), and I came to rely on several of them for day-to-day work and browsing. I didn't want to lose that functionality with a switch to Chrome.

    I was pleased to find that Chrome's extensions have multiplied rapidly with its increasing popularity, and the Chrome Web Store now "stocks" add-ons that are either identical to my favorites for Firefox, or replicate their functionality. Most extensions are free. A few of my favorites:

    • Firebug Lite - a web development extension that allows you to inspect the code of any website. (Note: the full version of Firebug is not yet available for Chrome, but they're working on it.)
    • Web Developer - another geeky tool to inspect under the hood of a website
    • View Image Info - an unimaginatively named add-on that's quite useful: right-click on any image and it will provide dimensions, file type, file size, and URL.
    • Tin Eye Reverse Image Search - Use this extension to search for other occurrences on the web of a specific image, even if it's been cropped or resized. (Note: the verdict is still out on the usefulness of this add-on.)
    • Better Facebook - This add-on extends the capabilities of Facebook and offers a lengthy array of features. Most of them aren't useful to me, but it's worth getting the extension solely for the ability to hover over any image and see a pop-up of the larger version. (Note: the initial version of this extension was fairly buggy but updates seem to have made it quite stable.)
Chrome is not completely free of quirks; it's unrealistic to expect that any software this complex would be. For example, it does not play well with my blogging platform (Movable Type 4), and it exhibits some weird behavior regarding cookies (or sessions...I can't tell which) on some websites. But, overall, I'm quite happy with the change, and I expect the browser to continue to improve. 

I also expect the competition to yield improvements in Firefox, so I'll keep an eye on that browser, too. Who knows? Another switch is always a possibility.

Crippled Netflix App (Why, o why?)
March 10, 2011 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

Netflix is rapidly becoming the Service We Hate But Can't Live Without. I've previously documented my complaint about the woeful lack of streaming movies, compared to the company's DVD offerings, but grudgingly admit that there are some external causal factors at play.

However, the latest incarnation of Netflix's iOS app was apparently built without regard for logic, common sense, or - worst of all - consideration for its users. 

Granted, the application is very easy to use, with a clean interface and logical navigation. Netflix improved the app by including movie titles alongside every movie poster icon; in the previous version, you had to be able to read the title or recognize the poster to figure out the identity without actually clicking on it. 

Here are a couple of screenshot from the new app. The first shows the typical movie listing for a genre; in this case, I chose the Sci-Fi & Fantasy genre.

It's a straightforward listing of the important facts about each movie: title, release year, MPAA rating, running time, and cumulative Netflix viewer rating (a subjective indication of quality or at least popularity). Click on the icon to watch the movie; click on the title to get a little more information about the movie. Here's the information screen for Blade Runner.

On this page you get a very brief plot summary, the primary actors, the director, and options to either play the movie or add it to your queue. Again, very clean and straightforward.

Well, for many of us, it's too clean and straightforward, as the simplicity was achieved in part by eliminating some valuable features from the previous version of the app. Netflix has eliminated eight genres in the app vs. its website, and has dropped the sub-genres in the app, which were useful for narrowing one's choices. For example, in the previous app's Action & Adventure genre, there were 17 sub-genres (the same ones that are still on the website), making it much easier to find something of interest. In the new app, you just have one choice.

The earlier version also had a longer plot summary as well as access to viewer and critic reviews of the movie, and links to similar movies. Or, more accurately, it mirrored the Netflix website's content, shown below:

Quite a difference. Sure, the web page is busy, and not everyone is interested in all the features, but I'm not sure why Netflix decided its app users didn't need any of them.

Reasonable people may differ on these issues, but there's one area where Netflix has crippled the new app that represents an almost inconceivable backwards step: it truncates the list of available movie titles for a given genre at 100. This means that if you're browsing through the list of, say, available Sci-Fi/Fantasy films, you'll not see 75 movies in that list. If you're looking at Independent films, you'll miss 20 titles. And if you're browsing through the Action/Adventure genre, the list will omit almost 500 movies. (All of these numbers are derived by comparing the total number of streaming titles listed on the website in each genre, vs the 100-count lists in the app.)

That's not to say that the movies aren't available for streaming via the app; they're still there, but you have to know about them, and you can only find them by using the Search feature.  That's about as non-user-friendly as you can get.

It's bad enough that Netflix provides only a tiny fraction of its movie inventory for streaming, but it add insult to injury by making it significantly more difficult to find all the streaming titles via the app that's commonly used for the streaming.

I'm not the only person unhappy about the dumbing down of the Netflix app. However, I was apparently the only person who noticed the shortening of the genre listings, going by the comments in the article linked above. I'm either perceptive or obsessive, but if I'm paying for a service, I expect it to get better over time, not worse. Netflix, are you listening?

Dr. Frankenstein Attempts to Kill His Monster
March 7, 2011 7:47 PM | Posted in: ,

The fact that Microsoft has built a website designed to convince people to stop using Internet Explorer 6 is prima facie evidence that the post title is not hyperbole.

IE6 (aka The Browser from Hell, Satan's Browser Spawn, and the Browser That Sucked The Life Out of The Universe) was created in 2001, and brought a world of hurt down on website developers due to its lack of support for commonly accepted design standards, scary lack of security features, and psychotic behavior when confronted with code that other browsers handled with aplomb. Such, um, eccentricities would have been merely amusing had not the browser enjoyed an almost 90% market share thanks to its inextricable bundling with Windows XP and other flavors of that operating system.

An entire cottage industry of coding hacks sprang up in an attempt to make websites look and work the same in IE6 as in more "modern" (read: competent, or unsucky). Making advanced designs work in IE6 could significantly increase the cost of a website, while making it much harder to maintain.

It's hard to understand why people (and even entire companies) still use IE6, other than They Just Don't Know Any Better. You could argue that they're too cheap to switch, except that the last popular browser you had to pay for pre-dates IE. In any event, Microsoft has finally stepped up to the plate - probably in reaction to its own development staff - and is attempting to entice the genie back into the bottle, which we can only hope will remain sealed for times, a time, and half a time, and then some.

Think Microsoft is just giving lip service to IE6's demise? They're going so far as to provide website owners with a widget that displays a "countdown" (it's actually just a plain, static JPG) banner showing the browser's diminishing worldwide usage...and it can only be seen by IE6 users. I was going to show it below, with the coding disabled that hides it from modern browsers, but as with so much that Microsoft produces - bless its heart - it's utt-bugly, so you'll have to go to Microsoft's download page to see it. (Of course, this could be the one time that uglier is better...the better to get the attention of the Unconvinced.)
I no longer pay much attention to this blog's visitor stats. When I first started the Gazette, I had a free Site Meter account and monitored it regularly, but that was back in the salad days when blogs were the only social media outlet (and when I actually worked harder at it). When I redesigned/relaunched the site a couple of years ago, I dropped the account and now I just have the stats program that comes with my hosting account, and it records visits to my entire domain, not just to the blog. So, the stats aren't that meaningful for gauging readership.

That doesn't mean they aren't entertaining and sometimes perplexing, though. The one reporting category that I occasionally enjoy reviewing is the list of search keyphrases - phrases that people enter into search engines and that somehow lead them to the Gazette.

It's sometimes obvious why this blog came up for a particular search phrase. Take this one, for example, from earlier this month: is toby keith giving credit to robert earl keen for bullets in a gun. That's an obvious match to this post (and, as far as I know, the answer to the Unknown Seeker's question is "no, he isn't.").

Others are less obvious, but still logical. For example: american bandstand had regular dancers there was a dancer named debbie but i can't remeber [sic] her last name. While I never posted any single article that provided a good match for this quaint query, the Gazette has a "Ballroom Dance" archive page that combines all the posts in that category, and the fact that I have a wife named Debbie and she's a dancer makes that page come up in the third spot on Google when that term is entered.

This month I've gotten a steady stream of visitors who are searching for articles related to Netflix DVD-only plans, A&M/LSU football history, the Canon S95 camera, QR codes, and fire ants (I always feel bad about those poor souls coming to the Gazette in hopes of solving their fire ant issues). Those topics could lead logically to this blog, as I've recently posted about all of them (well, except for fire ants...wonder why anyone would come here looking for that topic?). But there's a whole slew of phrases for which the link to this blog are rather tenuous:

  • what's my personal year
  • nincompoop generation
  • lyrics button up your overcoat daydream you'll get a pain when you re on a treee [sic]
  • deadhead skulls
  • what scary tv show had tumbleweeds on a porch in the intro?
  • he hails from a country where they speak of spokeless wheels
Finally, there are the searches that cause one to wonder about the emotional state of the seeker, or the circumstances that might lead to the necessity of googling these phrases:

  • tell google maps that we exist
  • how to write a story about a fire after christmas
  • pictures of big rats*
  • discharge of an unloaded gun
  • I hate Midland
  • ever had one of those days
  • it's going to get ugly
  • bad service when to fire employees
  • is there a virus that causes a coomputer [sic] to catch fire
  • why do bicyclists wear those clothes
And my personal favorite:

  • ballroom dances inspired by fish and ants
If nothing else, this illustrates the paradox that accompanies the increased "intelligence" of search technology on the web. Search results are often more rich in content, but not necessarily in usefulness. On the other hand, usefulness is in the eye of the beholder, and I can but hope that people who came to the Fire Ant Gazette based on the previous search phrases were satisfied with what they found.

*Believe it or not, "big rats" was the most frequently used phrase in 2010 to find this blog via a search engine. Maybe I need to consider a name change for the Gazette.
Matt Saxton is the Midland Reporter Telegram's news editor and he regularly authors a column. Today's column documents what he calls a virus that attacked his computer and wreaked havoc with his Facebook account. He makes a specific point that he uses a Mac, and that the virus accessed his Keychain account, which is the Mac operating system's program for protecting and managing sensitive data like passwords.

Color me skeptical.

The hacking of Facebook accounts is a practice that's been around as long as Facebook itself, and the popularity of the service makes it a juicy target for phishers and producers of malware. Often, the hacked account has been broken into using data stolen from another website; here's an example of where a Christian dating service website was compromised and the data obtained thereby led to hacking of multiple Facebook accounts owned by those who had registered on the dating site.

In other cases, the Facebook account itself is the initial target, and the unwary user is tricked into giving up his or her login information via a phishing attack. There was an outbreak of this sort last year; Fast Company provides a FAQ explaining what was involved.

All this is to say that there are multiple ways to compromise a Facebook account that have nothing to do with the user's computer, and that don't involve viruses. Also, while the Mac OS is not immune to viruses, I can find no documentation of a verified successful attack by a virus on Keychain. Even in the example cited above - the phishing attack that affected Macs as well as Windows machines - it was theorized that the offending script was web-based, and not running locally on the computers themselves. If Matt has indeed suffered such an attack, he needs to report it to Apple because it's groundbreaking news.

I'm skeptical about the claim of a successful Keychain attack for at least one additional reason: if you were able to steal someone's list of usernames and passwords for all their personal and financial accounts, would your only exploit be to mess around in Facebook? Of course, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the hacker(s) knew that accessing things like bank accounts could land them serious jail time, whereas the hijacking of a Facebook account probably carries few consequences, so perhaps I shouldn't read too much into that. But it does seem odd that the only manifestation of a Keychain break-in would be related to Facebook (and I certainly don't mean to minimize the importance of Facebook to any given user).

Granted, Matt doesn't write a technology column and he may have left out details or avoided specific terminology that he deemed irrelevant to the overall story, which was how his personal and social life was affected by the loss of an important social media account. I'd be interested in hearing more details about how he came to the conclusion that the attack was virus-based.

The takeaway from this is pretty simple and commonsense. Don't respond to emails or click links from people you don't know, and be skeptical of those you do know. Don't send out your username/password via unknown WiFi networks. Periodically change your passwords.

And, still, be skeptical of claims of viruses that affect Macs. ;-)

The Biggest Time-Suck Ever
August 8, 2010 10:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Only time will tell as to whether my installing the Netflix app on my iPad this afternoon will be the greatest or the worst decision of my life.*

I've already spent two hours watching a documentary on Cream** (the band, not the dairy product, although that would probably be interesting too, as long as I can watch it on an iPad).

Netflix doesn't provide every movie in its catalog for streaming, but there are enough titles of interest to suck up every otherwise-productive moment of the day. Very dangerous.

*I've been prone to hyperbole for, like, a billion years.

**Things I Learned: Ginger Baker was the driving force behind the formation of Cream (the band, not the dairy product, although I suppose it's possible he also spent time churning milk). He's also a very bitter fellow who hated bassist Jack Bruce for most of their time together. Also, Eric Clapton was planning to give Jimi Hendrix a left-handed Stratocaster as a gift on a certain night, but never was able to connect with him. That turned out to be the night Hendrix died of a drug overdose. And, finally, all three of the band members have lost significant hearing as a result of their time in front of high-powered amplifiers, and they blame Jim Marshall.

July 29, 2010 6:10 PM | Posted in: ,

As a freelancer, I'm like a shark. No, not dangerously vicious, nor delicious in soup, but as a shark has to keep moving to stay alive, I have to keep working to stay solvent. I need to have a steady inflow of projects to keep me in business, and that has the potential to generate pressure to accept work that I wouldn't otherwise consider.

Fortunately, circumstances are such that no single project or client is that important to me. But I still have to occasionally wrestle with whether to accept a job, for a variety of reasons.

Most often, the potential client either has unreasonable expectations, or has reasonable expectations that I simply can't fulfill. If somebody wants a site done completely in Flash, or needs a database back-end, I'm not their guy, as I don't have those skills. These are pretty easy decisions.

Occasionally, I'll turn down a project because I don't think I have the design chops to do what the client needs. This is a harder call to make, because (a) it's more subjective, and (b) it's more requires admitting to a more fundamental weakness than simply not having a learned skill. I know I don't have the time or energy to learn all the possible technologies that can be brought to bear on a web development project, and so I make conscious decisions about what to learn and what to leave. But design skills are much more inherent, involving creativity and judgment. You can learn some techniques, and try to keep up with trends, but in the end, it's just you facing a blank screen and hoping you can generate something amazing (or, in my case, adequate) that works for the client. Admitting a weakness in this area is hard for me to do, although it would admittedly be more difficult if I wasn't able to remind myself that I was trained as an accountant and therefore steeped in anti-creativity (insert joke about creative accounting here).

Then there are the projects that don't play well with my values. I have a short list of those on my Services page: no porn or political sites, for example. (Oops! Did I imply a relationship between those two? My bad...) I won't work for clients whose views on certain moral or theological issues conflict with mine and where such issues will be relevant to the design or development of the website (I'd probably build a website for a voodoo priest as long as the site just marketed really good ice cream.).

Why am I writing this? I just encountered one of these situations, one that falls into the last category. The details aren't important, but I've decided to turn down the project even though I think it would actually be a lot of fun and an interesting challenge (and probably lucrative), because the client sells something that's perfectly legal, socially acceptable (in most circles), but still personally objectionable to me.

I'm thankful that my situation is such that I can afford to turn down work, shark metaphor aside. Not all freelancers are that fortunate, and I'm sure many of those that aren't still face such dilemmas and make the hard choices. 

The Steno Concerto
July 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.

Fake BP Ad
June 9, 2010 1:04 PM | Posted in: ,

Have you seen the following graphic that's making the email forwarding rounds?

Fake BP Logo

This is being put forth as a BP ad "from the late 90's." It is, of course, a fake, cooked up by those rascally rapscallions over at (who make some pretty hilarious stuff, generally speaking). I'm pretty sure that didn't try to pass it off as genuine, but whoever decided to try to add some legitimacy to it didn't do their homework.

BP's "helios" logo wasn't adopted until the year 2000, so trying to place the putative ad into the 90s instantly gives it away as a fake. At the same time, the company switched back to its BP name (it was BP Amoco for a couple of years prior to that) and adopted the tagline "Beyond Petroleum."

I'll leave to you to debate whether BP's ad agency would have been so foolish as to suggest the slogan shown above. I'm simply not going there.
Need a new job? Do what this guy did - capitalize on the narcissistic tendencies of bosses by purchasing their names as keywords, and wait for them to Google themselves.

This is a rather striking example of combining tech savvy with insight into human nature and psychology. No wonder he actually landed a job with this approach. [Link via Neatorama]

Unhappy Hipsters
February 9, 2010 6:26 AM | Posted in:

If you ever feel that culture is passing you by, drop in at Unhappy Hipsters and count your manifold and wonderfully uncool blessings.

This is my favorite.

This one's for you, Bud (Pt. 2)
February 1, 2010 6:03 AM | Posted in: ,

Happy February! Here's another psychedelic interactive website primarily for my Uncle Bud, but I'm sure he'll share it with you, too: Into Time by Rafaël Rozendaal (link via Today & Tomorrow)

We spent the last few days in scenic Weatherford, Texas (if that sounds like sarcasm, you need to drive through some of the neighborhoods south of I-20 and you'll see that I'm serious. But be sure to pack a GPS.) and thus haven't been attending to bloggerly duties. Here's some stuff I hope will make up for that.

  • We don't live far from Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, but I've never seen the bats emerge from or return to the caves. I'll bet you haven't either, at least not like this:

The flight of the bats was filmed using an infrared camera which tracked their movements via their body heat. Amazing footage. I've watched it closely, and out of a half million bats (unaudited, I suspect, but still) I saw not a single collision. Drivers in Houston's rush hour traffic should be so skilled. (Via Wired)
  • From the sublime to the, um, not so. Here's how Terminator should have ended. (Via  Geeks are Sexy)

  • Wonder if Bruce Schneier knows about this?

  • Peace Frog is a Japanese motorcycle shop (manufacturer? customizer? hard to tell) which has assembled what appears to be a Royal Enfield with an Indian badge. Gotta love the minimalism; I'd ride one.

  • Speaking of bicycles (well, sort of) here's a lush new (to me) online-only cycling publication called The Ride (big honkin' PDF). It's mostly a series of one page essays written mostly by people unfamiliar to me, although Greg LeMond does recollect The Time Trial (surely you don't have to ask).

  • On a less light-hearted note, I continue to be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, by the names appearing on the petition to have Roman Polanski released. Wonder how many of them would be OK with their 13-year-old daughters being raped? Ah, don't answer that.

  • Last, and probably least, here's a list of 50 large corporations whose PR departments dropped the ball, social-media-wise, and allowed their names to fall victim to cyber-squatters. It's interesting that Chevron's fall-back name, @chevron_justinh, makes it sound like they've assigned their Twitter campaign to an HR intern. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

DJs of the Future
August 26, 2009 9:06 AM | Posted in: ,

Our neighborhood is almost three years old, has at least 60 occupied homes with more under construction, and yet it still does not appear on Google Maps except as a label over a blank area of pasture. This omission is odd considering that the streets and lots have appeared on the City of Midland's interactive map for quite some time.

This situation begs the question, how does Google add new places to its maps and how frequently does it make updates? Google provides an input form for businesses to add their locations and information, but that's a completely different scenario than adding new city streets.

This is not simply an issue of wanting to be noticed. Well, not entirely, anyway. It has practical implications. There have been a couple of times that service providers have been unable to locate our address and have called for directions. One of them stated that while he had never heard of our street, he was confident it would be on Google Maps (wrong), or on his TomTom GPS (also wrong). Our reliance on these online services has grown more than we realize.

I found this page for reporting "bugs and omissions" to Google Maps, and I submitted an entry for each of the streets in our neighborhood. We'll see if that yields any results. Then I found this thread, entitled "How often does Google update its maps?", on Google Maps's forum. One of the commenters pointed out that Google has changed its source of map data from something called NAVTEQ (which apparently provides maps to many navigation system vendors including Garmin) to another service called TeleAtlas*, and that corrections and updates need to be submitted to TeleAtlas rather than Google. He helpfully provided a link to the TeleAtlas feedback page, where I was able to request an update to add our neighborhood's streets to the database. Again, we'll see.

In the meantime, I found that the map feature of Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, does show our neighborhood and streets. I never thought I'd see the day where Microsoft makes Google look lame, but there you go. And, of course, Bing uses NAVTEQ for its mapping data. I guess I'll have to add Bing to my toolbar, and consider dropping Google Maps if it doesn't get its act together.

*TomTom also uses TeleAtlas as the source for its digital maps.

Update (Same day, 9:30 am) - I received a reply from TeleAtlas regarding my request for a map update. Apparently, I have to draw them a map in order for them to update their map. I kinda figured that's why they were in business.

Bruce Schneier's Advice for Managing Passwords
August 10, 2009 8:04 AM | Posted in: ,

Correction: As soon as I posted this, I realized that the list provided by Schneier is not his list; he's just linking to it. Sorry for the confusion.

Security expert Bruce Schneier shares a list of do's and don't's for passwords (and in a show of refreshing honesty, admits that he regularly breaks seven of his own the rules; that's pretty extreme given that the list contains only ten items).

I routinely break four or five of the rules, but I won't tell you which ones. I assume that I get bonus points for that. I thought about password-protecting this post to increase my security score, but, to be honest, I don't know how to do that.

I will tell you that I use a password manager application called Passwords Plus (created by DataViz). It's not perfect - there's no iPhone version, for example, and its password generation feature is limited to a maximum of eight characters - but it's served me well over the years. I have to keep track of around 300 passwords for myself and my clients, and an app like this is absolutely essential for me.

Although, now that I think about it, I really should be able to remember all of them without assistance, since I use nothing other than "mypassword." ;-)

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