4 September, 2010
Gave it a fair try
I've tried the 'new' Google Images interface since it was released several weeks ago, largely because I thought it was compulsory.
I still don't like it.
I prefer the details of all the image search results to appear on the page from the outset – having to hover over each thumbnail to ascertain its full dimensions or original location slows me down unnecessarily. I also don't see merit in having marginally larger thumbnails, nor in having 30+ pages of results appear at once in one huge dynamic page.
I don't have an inherent objection to change, so long as it adds value, but this seemed like refreshing the UI merely for the sake of having a refreshed UI. Sometimes 'old-fashioned' static pages Just Work.
Those who feel the same way, and who were similarly, er, slow to read the footer menu of that massive results page, might like to know that it's entirely possible to revert to the foregoing display style, aka 'basic view'.
8 July, 2010
Could catch anyone
Ooh. Nearly been phished. That's a first.
Well, not really: I clicked a link expecting Facebook (I have an account for work, not private use!), but the unexpected destination offered me free SMS text messages. Sp*m, but not an overt attempt at identity theft.
It does reinforce how easy it is to be fooled: a half-credible message (that someone had commented on 'my' profile picture) induced me to click through without adequately checking – the sender's reply address wasn't even properly masked as Facebook. And, without boasting, I'm fairly experienced, having used email since 1993 and the web since Mosaic later that decade, professionally since 2000.
Be careful out there.
14 February, 2010
Look and think
Operating a site called 'Ministry of Information', I'm accustomed to people mistaking it for a an official government publication, despite all the evidence in the visual design and content; I even received an enquiry from a professional BBC researcher recently. People just don't look, nor question their presumptions.
Neven Mrgan reports a few other instances, whereby people plainly do a Google search for 'facebook login' (not merely 'facebook', which would work) and follow whatever appears in the top results, even when that's a third-party news blog article about Facebook's login system. The landing page looks nothing whatsoever like Facebook, yet there's a thread of ~80 angry comments from people complaining that they can't use it to login (then ~1,300 more comments mocking them). It even reached the point that the site owner considered it necessary to insert an extra paragraph into the article, explicitly stating that 'This site is not Facebook'.
That instance has become fairly famous over the past couple of days, but some of Mrgan's other examples are even worse: Flickr comment threads which reveal that people have been confused enough to try to log into thumbnails of Facebook screenshots.
8 October, 2009
I said: no adverts. None. Ever.
I rarely visit those affected (and none of the filesharing sites specifically named), but certain websites attempt to force visitors to view adverts (even those of us using adblockers) by inserting intermediary pages: to reach the intended page, one has to click through an unexpected and definitely unwanted full-page ad. Often, one has to wait for a minute or more before the onward link or download becomes active.
Via BoingBoing I've discovered a Firefox add-on which automates that superfluous click and eliminates the delay: SkipScreen.
Grab it while you can, as ad-displaying sites are trying to have it banned, citing spurious excuses.
6 October, 2009
Where have you been?
According to a trawl through my office PC's browser history by 'WhatTheInternetKnowsAboutYou', I've visited 19 of the 5,000 most popular websites and 50 of the top 20,000.
Those are surprisingly large numbers – I hadn't realised that some of my favourite webcomics are so popular, nor that I'd ever visited such sites as Xinhuanet.com.
It also reminds me which popular Twitter profiles I've visited and which specific news articles I've accessed at the Guardian, The Register and BoingBoing.
I haven't visited any p*rn, banking or dating sites, apparently, but I knew that already, not least because this is my employer's PC and network connection.
Wait; how could a remote website even access my browser history?
It's elegantly simple: the testing pages include non-visible links to the websites of interest, then log whether my browser responds by 'rendering' them as visited links.
And any website could do the same. This demonstration investigates usage of general-interest sites, simply to illustrate the technique, but others could target specific, more personally-sensitive sites.
Those which do work are:
- Disabling one's browser history.
- Disabling CSS styling of visited links. This is only straightforward in Firefox.
- Installing a browser extension. HistoryBlock looks suitable.
With the exception of HistoryBlock, which I've just installed, all three options could diminish one's normal online experience, so I've tended to favour a variant of the first: my browser history is enabled, but regularly cleared.
And another thing: never perform a Google search for your own name....
2 October, 2009
Why is it that pretty much the only website I can't access via Firefox, but which works fine in IE, is my administrator login page for iTunes U, at Apple.com?
16 August, 2009
Anyone else notice that in the BBC's iPlayer applet, the volume goes to '11'?
It's still not enough for last night's Proms performance of Beethoven's Ninth, though.
11 June, 2009
It's all in the results
In an attempt to separate the effectiveness of three search engines from testers' brand loyalty/hostility, Michael Kordahi has set up a 'blind search' interface. Given keywords, this performs the same search on Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft's Bing, and asks visitors to select the column of results which best matches their requirements. One isn't told which column is which until after voting.
My own results overwhelmingly confirm Google's supremacy, though Yahoo! performed well. Bing, however, didn't win even once in ~20 tests. Admittedly, blind testing omits thumbnails, usability tweaks and ancillary elements of each original interface, but this doesn't look good for Microsoft. Even 33% success wouldn't be enough to break into the market, and 50% wouldn't be enough to dislodge Google: a new search engine would need to be distinctly better than the market-leader, not merely 'as good', which is the very best review I've seen for Bing.
As Microsoft already knows: for years they've relied on user inertia to prop up Internet Explorer. It took a markedly superior product, such as Firefox, to tempt people into switching from the browser pre-installed with Windows. Similarly, people are unlikely to abandon the familiar Google interface other than for a marketedly better alternative.
For example, Bing has this overall site as the no.1 result for its name, and this blog as no.6. Flattering as that may be, I'd be the first to say it's more appropriate to rank genuine government ministries, and generic pages about them, higher.
[Kordahi openly states that he's a Microsoft employee, but claims to be acting as a private individual in this context.]
5 June, 2009
Microsoft calls Bing a decision engine. Why? "That's our goal of not just providing links but helping you solve the key task that you're trying to do," says Program Manager Nathan Buggia.
mean the return of the ****ing Microsoft paperclip?
This attitude is why I disliked MS products for so many years. Just provide what I request, and nothing more, please: I'll deal with the 'key task' myself, thanks.
Not that I'd consider using a search engine which republishes entire Wikipedia entries as 'reference' material, anyway.
Incidentally, is Mr. Buggia an example of nominative determinism?
2 June, 2009
Assisting .NET Framework's departure
A while ago, a standard monthly Windows Update installed a Firefox add-on, without (informed) consent and without the option to remove it. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed: neither by Microsoft's action nor Mozilla's failure to prevent what has to be a significant vulnerability.
Specifically, MS installed a '.NET Framework Assistant' add-on; I'm not entirely sure what it does and, frankly, don't remotely care. It's uninvited, so it's not staying, on principle. The problem was that it was installed on an 'all users' basis whereas Firefox's Add-ons manager operates on a 'per user' basis, which means the 'Uninstall' button was greyed-out.
The Register reports that the offending MS utility has been updated, and can be uninstalled, though for some reason the newer version isn't being pushed out via Windows Update so those wanting to remove the unwanted software will need to visit an obscure page on MS's website.
Once per computer:
- Follow the instructions there, checking your copy of Windows has the prerequisite other updates, then downloading and installing the update.
Once per user:
- Open Firefox. '.NET Framework Assistant v.1.1' will be installed, but you'll need to restart Firefox for it to take effect.
- Open 'Add-ons', find '.NET Framework Assistant', and hit 'Uninstall'.
- Never use Windows Update again.
I'm joking about the last stage – that'd be dangerous – but it is a temptation. As with Apple's abuse
of its Software Update utility, if users can't trust an official facility to provide only essential updates – not additional software the company would like
users to install, only software the user needs
– and to not modify other organisations' software there's a risk people will skip the genuinely important updates too.
18 May, 2009
As part of a Graphic Design Diploma, Melih Bilgil produced an animated 'History Of The Internet'. It's excellent, not only for the documentary content – not too techie, but neatly explaining & contextualising half-familiar acronyms – but particularly for the minimalist, icon-based graphics. Very inspiring.
13 May, 2009
No adverts. None. Ever.
For a horrible moment I thought I might have to look for a new adblocker for Firefox, as the developer of Adblock Plus is talking about revising that extension.
The Register reports that content providers will be able to post metadata claiming that their ad-supported sites don't feature 'invasive' ads, prompting Adblock to pass on a request for repeat visitors to whitelist ads from those sites.
As a matter of principle, my response would, without exception or hesitation, be negative, so pop-up whitelist requests would merely be annoyances.
Thankfully, as El Reg fails to mention, it'll be possible for users to permanently disable that functionality and continue to ban any and every advert.
12 February, 2009
According to Slashdot, a Wikipedia 'prankster' added an additional middle name to the genuine eight of a German politician, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The inaccuracy was widely quoted by such mainstream newspapers as Der Spiegel before anyone noticed and the Wikipedia entry was amended.
Then the amendment was reverted, restoring the false name and citing documentary evidence that it's true: Der Spiegel.
My immediate response was to wish the glorified discussion board would just acknowledge that it's totally unreliable and close outright, but that's a little – but only a little – extreme. Wikipedia is a fair starting point for research, but no more than that: a guide to search terms one could use when searching for more reliable information elsewhere (anywhere). It's certainly not a quotable information source itself.
I discovered this as an aside in a report of a similar issue. Yesterday in Parliament, the Conservative Party leader 'corrected' the Prime Minister's claim that Titian died at the age of 90 by saying he actually reached 86. Shortly afterwards, a user located in Conservative Central Office, seemingly mistaking Wikipedia as a meaningful publication, amended Titian's death date to support his/her leader's unfounded claim (Titian's true lifespan isn't known, but 90 is considered* more likely). So that's tweaking a web page in order to 'confirm' a preferred opinion, in order to use that web page as supporting evidence of the original claim. I despair.
*: By 'considered' I mean by qualified experts, not the meaningless consensus of amateurs, whose opinions don't remotely matter.
11 February, 2009
Following a link at User Friendly, I discovered a Flash-based online game. I knew no more about it than that: a popular website had instilled a vague curiosity and directed me to a lesser-known site which could then grab and develop my mild interest. A powerful opportunity.
Instead, I discovered that many of the game's menu items were disabled:
If you block the ads, the game will run in crippled mode. Please support us developers!
Absolutely not. I regard these things as a loss-leader: an opportunity for developers to gain exposure which might lead to commercial work, or to draw people into a commercial game via a free sample. If a developer tries to set preconditions for even a casual glance at his/her work, I'll simply leave: his/her loss.
I'm the potential customer: I get to set the preconditions, not the person seeking income from me/my actions. I will not pay for online content, and I will not view adverts on the web. If a developer can't find a monetisation model that accommodates those non-negotiable limitations, that's not my problem.
25 November, 2008
Free CSS book
If you're interested in a totally free copy of Snook et al.'s 'The Art & Science of CSS' (£26.59 at Amazon), you have until 23:59 next Tuesday, 2 December, to download it.
Simply provide an e-mail address here in return for a download link. Needless to say, I used a temporary GuerrillaMail address, which expires within an hour, nullifying the spam risk.
17 October, 2008
Hello (new) world!
Normally I take the internet for granted, but I'm occasionally struck by the enormous impact it's had on everyday life for millions. So is Randall Munroe.
I don't have a laptop, nor a wireless connection, and I'm pretty good at separating online time from 'real life', but the cartoon is certainly thought-provoking.
13 October, 2008
If you use webmail, there's always a risk of its security being compromised and, worse, of someone changing the login details to prevent the legitimate owner gaining access. Hence, it's important to verify that one's account is correctly configured NOW for security and restoration of access after an attack; as Lifehacker says, "test your webmail's password recovery (before someone else does)".
There is a logical flaw in adopting these recovery measures afterwards, which I won't highlight publicly. However, don't misunderstand (as I nearly did, initially): in this context, configuring the recovery process is about preventing its use as an attack vector.
So what happens if your webmail is compromised and the standard recovery procedure fails? I can't speak for Yahoo! or Hotmail, but GMail has a secondary system which identifies a genuine user by long-term account usage rather than questions an attacker could influence.
Again, it requires a little preparation. The form asks about other Google products associated with the webmail account, including their first usage dates. Collecting such specific information would be more challenging if one loses access (it's not easy with access!), so do it now.
Even more importantly, perhaps, one might wish to seriously consider the consequences before using webmail for anything really important or confidential.
27 September, 2008
I'm not overly concerned about Google receiving my browsing history, nor particularly interested in trying Chrome, but for those who are, a remix of the Google browser is now available.
Iron has been thoroughly de-Googled: no unique user-ID is set, no user-specific information is returned to Google (including crash reports) and the updater is disabled to prevent subsequent official downloads reinserting trackers.
The download page is in German, but I'm assured the browser itself operates in English if one's PC is set up in that language.
12 September, 2008
Download finished. Forever.
One of the few trivial annoyances of the Firefox interface is a flag which pops up from the staus bar when a download has completed. Thanks to Mozilla Links, I've finally disabled it.
In 'about:config', find the line 'browser.download.manager.showAlertOnComplete' and set it to 'false'. Simple as that.
When I get a moment, I'll try to do the same with Thunderbird: for some reason I find the similar 'mail arrived' flag disproportionately irritating. I'll discover whether I have new mail when I specifically choose to look for it, thanks; I don't want any immediate notification whatsoever.
9 September, 2008
The penny drops
The blog's activity log has been recording something slightly odd for a few days: since 07:23 on Saturday, Movable Type's internal search has been receiving a large number of enquiries for individual search terms, all from exactly the same IP address, which I've identified as the Googlebot.
I was a little concerned at first: was this a new spidering technique to reach deeper into my archives (a good thing) or an investigation of a (spurious!) complaint, preparatory to a blacklisting (a bad thing)? However, I've realised what it is: Chrome. A feature of Google's new browser is an ability to capture individual sites' search boxes, so a user can now directly search the Ministry from his/her browser's address bar.
I have no particular opinion on that, but I'm glad to have worked out what may be happening.
3 September, 2008
Ah. Just thought of a very good reason to avoid Google's 'Chrome' browser.
Maybe developers will create/port plugins replicating the functionality of Firefox extensions for Chrome, but what about ad blocking?
One of the key reasons I use Firefox is to view the web without any adverts – any adverts at all, and that very much includes Google AdWords/AdSense. What are the chances of that being possible in Google's own browser?
2 September, 2008
Chrome: first thoughts
'Chrome', the forthcoming web browser from Google, technical details of which were 'accidentally' leaked as a comic strip, looks very impressive, but I don't see myself becoming an early-adopter.
I'm less neutral about the GUI: my initial impression is negative.
The argument is made that since the tab is the primary operating unit in the way people use a browser, the array of tabs should go across the very top of the window, above the menu and address bar, in effect giving each tab its own menu/address bar. My view is that the standard layout is more usable, for precisely the same reason: the tab bar is the next-most-important element after the body a web page, so I want a tab bar directly adjacent to the browser pane, without a menu/address bar interposed. We'll have to see, but I think a change would be a design error, which only makes theoretical sense when over-intellectualised or when seeking change for change's sake.
It seems it'll be possible to omit the menu/address bar altogether in some cases (such as when accessing Gmail), but that's not really what I want either.
As I've mentioned, I don't like autocomplete functionality, particularly on shared computers, so the new GUI's focus on integrating past web activities into the address bar and a dynamically-generated default/home page would be something I'd want to disable completely, immediately. I think that'd be possible via a 'privacy mode', in which browsing activity isn't saved for future customisation or display. That might address my concern, if it can be set as the default rather than a 'per-tab, per-instance' setting.
The 'sandbox' model of security, whereby any malware process would be confined to a single infected tab (apart from those using third-party plugins), looks promising, but I don't know anything like enough about the topic to really comment.
A theme running through the comic strip is that most features and the overall architecture are open source and/or available as web apps to other developers, including developers of other web browsers. The implication is that Google want to redesign the web itself, and web browsers as a class of software, rather than merely produce another browser: to define a new baseline rather than just add their own product to the existing market. A baseline and developers' mindset which favours Google, of course, but that's only to be expected; they're not a charity.
So. I'm interested, but my main hope is that Mozilla are more interested, and this kick-starts a partial revision of Firefox – I'm no Firefox fanboy, but I'm still more likely to follow that route than switch to Chrome.
*: I know; threads aren't processes, so 'threaded' is technically the wrong term, but it's more readable in this context, okay?
30 August, 2008
Not so smart
Some people like the auto-complete feature of Firefox 3's Smart Location Bar (aka 'Awesome Bar', unfortunately), whereby the software suggests potential destinations whenever one begins to type in a URL, based on previous activity. Yet it also acts as a visible record of one's browsing history, which is less than ideal on shared computers.
It is possible to completely disable auto-complete via the 'about:config' interface* but identification of the relevant parameters isn't immediately obvious. There are two, browser.urlbar.matchBehavior and browser.urlbar.maxRichResults, both of which need to be set to '-1'.
Incidentally, if you want to keep auto-complete but dislike the number of suggestions offered (12 by default), browser.urlbar.maxRichResults is also the parameter which defines that feature.
*: Type 'about config' into the address bar (aka Smart Location Bar, aka Awes... oh, you get the idea) and accept the warning, then find the correct settings. Double click on each name to open the preference-editing box.
15 July, 2008
Still no hitching
After the well-publicised criticism of Apple in March, when their 'Software Updater' tried to trick people (who didn't already have it) into installing the Safari browser as an essential update, I'd thought the company had learned its lesson. Seems not.
The response to that episode was that a revised Apple Software Updater moved Safari into a distinct text box, cursorily clarifying that it was new software rather than an update, but it still shouldn't have been pushed via the Software Updater at all and preselecting it for download was unacceptable. At least there was an option to deselect it and instruct the Updater to never display it again.
Yet that was too narrow a definition. True, the Updater remembered my wish to never again be informed about Safari 3.1.1, but it popped up again today to tell me about Safari 3.1.2, with the download 'helpfully' preselected.
I don't want to download Safari. I don't want to download any version of Safari. I will not want to download any future version of Safari. Clear?
Given a company ethos purporting to focus on a "it just works" user interface design, the opt-out should behave as a user might reasonably expect i.e. a permanent, unequivocal opt-out rather than merely declining one specific sub-version of the package.
These cheap tricks will not wear me down and tempt me to 'give it a try' – they're merely going to harden my distaste for anything from Apple, and decrease the likelihood of my sticking with iTunes and Quicktime. I happen to think those packages are adequate, and would be happy to keep using them – so long as Apple shuts up and leaves me alone.
26 June, 2008
How to update Firefox (again)
Rather sooner than I'd intended, I've had to 'upgrade' Firefox on my work PC to v.3 – a rendering issue I encountered in Safari 2 was reported as having reappeared in Fx3, so I needed to see and hence resolve it.
I'm not complaining about having to install Fx3, just not yet. Four key extensions are still incompatible, as is my favoured theme, so I've lost functionality in a GUI I don't particularly like – hardly an 'upgrade', and I won't be inflicting it on my home machine for now.
There was also the issue of finding time for customisation, so I'll make a quick note of what I did, for my own future reference as much as for others' possible interest.
Initially, I repeated the same tasks as when I upgraded from Fx1.5:
- Checked the 'Options' submenu. My selections had been carried over from Fx2.
- Checked 'about:config' to verify the customisation I'd applied according to Lifehacker's instructions had been carried across:
- Decrease the minimum tab width, to minimise scrolling. Fifty pixels (half the default) is enough for me.
- Restore the Fx1.5 style of tab closing: one 'close' button at the right of the entire tab bar rather than one button per tab.
- Prevent prefetching of unselected pages.
- Remove the 'Go' button from the address bar.
- Similarly checked the built-in search facility:
These amendments hadn't been carried across, so I had to reset them.
- Removed engines I don't use, via the dropdown menu.
- Reconfigured the ones I kept, by manually editing the .xml files in /Program Files/Mozilla Firefox/searchplugins/.
Specifically, I renamed 'Amazon.co.uk' and 'eBay.co.uk' to 'Amazon' & 'eBay' (I'm in the UK, so I know they're .co.uk sites)
Repolishing the user interface ('chrome') was slightly different this time: instead of directly editing 'userChrome.css'
, I installed the 'Stylish'
plugin and a few scripts recommended
by Lifehacker, to:
- Hide the search box magnifying glass and location bar 'Go' button.
- Hide the 'Edit' (but not 'Help') menu, as I already know the standard Windows keyboard shortcuts.
- Hide the 'Open all in tabs' item in bookmark folders.
- Remove the 'throbber' (the 'page loading' indicator - there's one in each tab, so the one at the top right is irrelevant).
Many, many more scripts are available, and to be examined when I have more time.
Next, I double-checked my extensions.
- I removed two I don't really need – including two of the incompatible ones.
- I checked the remaining two via their developers' websites.
- As last time, a compatible update of one (the indispensible 'Clone Window') was available, just not via the official Mozilla interface.
- The other wasn't, but I found an alternative offering much the same functionality.
It may be worth mentioning a few extensions I use which have further effects on the user interface:
- Adblock. Not 'Adblock Plus', the less compromising 'Adblock'.
- Clone Window.
- Menu Editor – refines context menus, so, for example, I can't accidentally 'Send Image...' when trying to 'Save Image As...'.
- Undo Closed Tabs.
14 May, 2008
According to Lifehacker:
In the age of social bookmarking and blogs, old fashioned browser bookmarks are teetering on the edge of obsolete. When you can save a bookmark at, say, del.icio.us, tag it, and have it accessible from any computer, storing a link in your browser seems almost archaic.
Maybe for specialists and the self-proclaimed 'blogerati', but back in the real world: rubbish. Even in Lifehacker's own poll, the current results show that 74% of respondents still make extensive use of browser bookmarks.
I have a pool of less than ten links I visit frequently so have bookmarked both at work and at home. Beyond those, I wouldn't want one unified set of bookmarks. I may need to visit other universities' websites for work, but I have no interest in doing so in my own time. Conversely, I wouldn't want my private browsing activities to appear on my work PC, not because they're illicit (though I wouldn't like to argue the 'NSFW' status of one or two) but simply because they're private.
13 May, 2008
Play nicely: IE & SP3 precedence
Just in case anyone still hasn't 'upgraded' to Internet Explorer 7, or, more importantly, those who have but are considering reverting to IE6, be aware that installing WinXP Service Pack 3 with IE7 already installed prevents subsequent removal of IE7. If SP3 is installed before IE7, the latter remains removable.
- If you don't already have IE7, install SP3 first.
- If you have IE7 and doubts about whether to keep it, uninstall it (with the obvious consequences for customised features), install SP3 then reinstall IE7.
- If you've already installed SP3 after IE7, it is possible to uninstall both then reinstall SP3, but that could be onerous.
Needless to say, the same applies to those experimenting with IE8 Beta 1 (Why?
Don't answer that.): you won't be able to remove it (readily) if it goes on before SP3. Since you might need to uninstall the IE8 beta to install the final IE8 (I don't know whther that's the case), it might be worth temporarily uninstalling the beta now.
28 March, 2008
John Lilly has pointed out that Apple is pushing the Safari browser at all users of iTunes, semi-covertly as an 'update' rather than openly as newly-installed software.
Whenever anyone uses the Apple Software Update utility, or whenever iTunes does it automatically, Safari will appear on the list of available updates. The 'Install' box is ticked by default. How helpful.
If I want a new browser, I'll deliberately seek out and download a new browser.
If I want to update existing software, I expect the company's 'update' facility to check for available updates to software I already have installed. And nothing else. At all.
This isn't merely a 'Firefox vs. Safari' issue, and it's perhaps unfortunate that Lilly happens to be the chief executive of Mozilla. The core issue is security: users need to be able to trust software manufacturers to provide essential patches against vulnerabilities and perhaps improve functionality of existing software. This trust should never be abused as a marketing tool – at best it'll annoy users, but at worst it could cause them to regard Apple Software Update as malware and disable updates altogether.
In this instance, the better alternative is to select the 'Ignore Selected Updates' from the Update utility's 'Tools' menu.
[Update 18/04/08: Apple has belatedly reworded the Updater's interface, clarifying that it's offering Safari as new software rather than as an update. Some have suggested that Apple deserve credit for responding to massive criticism, but I disagree: I'm offering no praise for their correcting an error that shouldn't have happened in the first place. This amendment is only partial, anyway: the 'Install' checkbox is still pre-selected by default. Unacceptable.]
[Update 05/05/08: El Reg reports that Apple's trick worked (under a very loose definition of 'worked'), tripling Safari 3.1's 'market share' (I think that's installations, not necessarily usage), relative to that of Safari 3.0, to a 'massive' 0.21% (Firefox: 18%).]
[Update 15/07/08: Be aware that the 'Ignore Selected Updates' option is pedantically limited: one can ignore, say, Safari 3.1.1, but Safari 3.1.2, etc. won't be blocked; indeed, they'll be preselected for the unwary to accidentally install.]
26 March, 2008
Third-party cookie blocking in Firefox 2
In Firefox 1.5, I was accustomed to accepting cookies from most sites I chose to visit, but automatically blocking 'third-party' cookies set by advertisers, traffic counters, etc.
It couldn't have been easier: a setting under Tools -> Options -> Privacy -> Cookies allowed one to 'Allow sites to accept cookies' and 'for the originating site only'. However, it seems a number of cookie providers were exploiting a workaround to bypass the block, ignoring the user's wishes. Rather than encourage user complacency about a functionality which couldn't be relied upon, Mozilla removed third-party cookie blocking from the Firefox 2.0 user interface.
However, the functionality remains, for those fulfilling two conditions:
- A willingness to edit settings via about:config, a powerful interface presumably designed to deter those who don't know what they're doing!
- An understanding that it'll still allow some third-party cookies through.
Implementation is straightforward:
- In about:config * , search for the network.cookie.cookieBehavior line. Right-click on this option and select 'Modify' from the pop-up menu.
- The setting accepts three values:
- 0: accept all cookies
- 1: only accept cookies from the same server
- 2: disable all cookies.
- Choose '1'
- Click 'OK'.
Subsequently, if you visit the 'Show Cookies'
list, you'll see cookies from addresses you haven't visited. These are the ones which have used iFrames or similar to spoof the block. In a sense, they've done you a favour, as you'll know which addresses to manually add to the 'Blocked'
Despite it's unreliable performance, the third-party cookie block is popular with users, so the Mozilla development community have been re-examining it recently, and it seems a tightened block will be available in Firefox 3.
Thanks to T'other Neil for bringing this to my attention.
*: I'm deliberately not saying how to open 'about:config' – if you don't know that, you probably shouldn't be playing with the settings anyway....
25 March, 2008
How to disable Phorm
It goes without saying that online traffic analysis imposed by certain ISPs should be opt-in, never opt-out, but given that Phorm is being propagated by the wrong means, it's worth mentioning the easiest way to partially disable it.
Quite simply, add 'www.webwise.net' to your browser's Blocked Cookies list. If I discover any aliases, I'll let you know; I'd appreciate it if others could reciprocate.
That's naïve rubbish, of course: it does nothing to prevent the more insidious data collection at the ISP's end of one's net connection, but again it eliminates any ambiguity about alleged tacit approval.
[Update 06/04/08: Re-reading that, I suspect it's a bit misleading.
Blocking the tracking cookie prevents a unique identifier being passed back to Phorm, so prevents targetted adverts being served, but it is not an opt-out, and is considered a tacit opt-in to other forms of tracking. As mentioned, Phorm still has access to data collected from ISPs' servers, and user agents (that use port 80, anyway) other than one's browser are still tracked. For example, if one uses the Apple Software Update utility (which connects to the internet independently of a browser), that's theoretically still trackable. That's even more of a risk with MS Office, as it uses the IE user agent.
To properly opt-out, one needs a specific 'opt-out' cookie from Phorm; obtaining that may also count as an opt-out from the server-side tracking, but I wouldn't rely on that.
An alternative for Firefox users would be to install the 'Dephormation' plugin, which generates a Phorm opt-out cookie with every page load and randomises the unique identifier, so even if Phorm ignore the opt-out, they get nonsense data.
Again, truly opting out by these means relies on the instruction being honoured by a company with a history in the spyware industry. You may wish to take the more reliable step of changing your ISP, from one working with Phorm to one which doesn't. If a sufficient number of people make this decision, perhaps the ISPs will get the message too.]
18 January, 2008
Fragment of overheard conversation:
... I'll Facebook you about the...
(... and then I was out of earshot; I walk quickly).
Since when has Facebook been a verb?
More to the point of professional interest, how long has it been a preferred means of internal communication?
9 January, 2008
In the primeval times before the first browser war, Netscape was the browser, having a 90% market share, but its popularity has declined dramatically, to a point where a 0.6% market share is no longer viable. AOL (which is arguably to blame for a lack of innovation since 2003) has closed the project, and will cease active product support on 1 February.
The browser will still be available for download on an unsupported basis, and I doubt user-run support forums are about to close, but the official advice is for netizens (ahem) to migrate to Firefox.
It's a little sad for historical reasons, and I hadn't realised the decline in user base had been so drastic, but the reason I hadn't realised may be that I haven't actually used the browser since, ooh, 1998-ish.
[Belatedly via BoingBoing.]
18 December, 2007
How many HTML 4 elements can you name within five minutes?
I managed 70 of the 91 defined by the W3C, probably because I tend to hand-code rather than use intermediary editing software.
I was doing pretty poorly (around 50) until I ran through the depricated stuff – B, FONT, U, S, etc., so if you try it yourself, don't forget them!
Of those I didn't get, I was pleased to see I didn't recognise them anyway (though I'll research them now) apart from two foolish omissions: ADDRESS and, as the title says, BUTTON. Damn.
13 December, 2007
Talk techy, big boy
Yes, he's an acknowledged polymath, but it still feels odd that Stephen Fry is writing a column for Guardian Technology.
This week he offers a gentle introduction to Firefox for those still using their OSes' default browsers.
14 November, 2007
Searching for something else, I've discovered a web-based interface for configuring security/privacy settings in Flash Player.
It also allows one to delete persistent data (analogous to cookies, but not cookies) set by Flash embedded in certain sites, if one wishes. Let's not get excited: I'm not suggesting this data is set maliciously, and Macromedia claim they don't have access to it, but it is a record of sites one has visited, which mightn't be desirable in certain circumstances.
I'm sure Neil will correct me if I'm mistaken, but I'm not aware of this facility being available within browsers' native settings – I haven't tested it, but I don't think Firefox's 'Remove All Cookies' touches Flash's proprietory 'cookies'-equivalent. Counter-intuitively, it seems that one needs to visit the Macromedia website to configure a local installation of the Flash Player plugin.
1 November, 2007
Lifehacker slightly mistakenly reports that:
Firefox 3 will see an interface refresh complete with tighter integration with the operating system that's running it, meaning it'll look more like IE7 on Windows and Safari on the Mac.
That sentence was doing so well until the final clause: Mozilla's intention is to integrate the look & feel with the OS 'house styles', not to replicate specific browsers.
Still, why would I wish Fx to look like a native WinXP application? I hope the announcement merely refers to the default theme (which probably would be useful for easing the transition for new Fx adopters), and that custom themes can still completely overwrite the default interface.
Incidentally, I use and recommend Orbit Grey Custom. Which, also incidentally, I was startled to subsequently discover is remarkably similar to the iPod Classic's on-screen iconography.
21 September, 2007
If one searches Google for 'google', how many servers will implode?
31 July, 2007
Here's a useful Firefox extension, discovered via Lifehacker.
Page Saver is a streamlined way of taking screenshots, saving either an entire web page or just the visible portion directly to .jpg or .png, bypassing the laborious process of 'Print Screen', pasting into a graphics package and manually saving.
I don't particularly like the default settings (saves to .png by default, saves .jpg at 50% compression, and makes a cheesy 'camera shutter' sound at the moment of capture), but the configuration interface is straightforward.
It also adds a toolbar icon, but I removed that, preferring to access it only via the right-click context menu. Considering the likelihood that I'd want to use it on sites which have disabled the right-click, I might regret that....
The one disadvantage is that it doesn't capture the output of plugins, such as Flash, but I understand that's integral to Firefox rather than being a deficiency of the extension itself.
15 June, 2007
Safari saordinari, except for...
I hadn't considered adopting the new Windows-compatible version of Safari *. It seems the Lifehacker editors see few rational reasons to switch either, though they suggest there are certain worthwhile features – to replicate in Firefox.
13 June, 2007
In October 2006, I itemised the amendments I made when installing Firefox 2, some of which were performed via the somewhat impenetrable 'about:config' interface and some by directly editing files.
If anyone found that a little daunting, you might be interested to know that most, if not all of the customisation can now be completed via the more user-friendly interface of a Firefox plugin, 'Configuration Mania'.
30 May, 2007
Welcome step back
It's a little disturbing that no-one has noticed this until now (presumably we're too conditioned), but it is entirely possible to remove IE7 from Windows XP, automatically restoring IE6.
Unless there's a problem, it's as simple as using Windows' integral 'Add or Remove Programs' function, but the linked page (from Microsoft itself – this isn't a third-party hack) offers an alternative technique (IE7's own hidden uninstaller) as backup.
Why do it, especially as I only use IE for 'Windows Update'? Quite simply, I intensely dislike the user interface (the 'Refresh' button is in the wrong place) and it seems to mess around with my Windows Explorer and general internet settings. Nothing major; I just don't like it.
23 May, 2007
Ads do matter
Research appears to show that banner ads on web pages have a subliminal effect; even if a visitor ostensibly ignores an advert and certainly doesn't click through, its mere presence alongside content which is of interest causes a measurable favourable impression about the advertised product.
Which strengthens my resolve to use Firefox and AdBlock, removing all adverts from my browsing experience.
Perhaps more importantly, this entry could help to counteract the subliminal effect, simply by disseminating the knowledge that it exists. One of the researchers' conclusions was just that: if a viewer becomes aware that he/she might be being influenced, the measurable effect vanishes.
27 April, 2007
Posting and YOU
As a public service to anyone who is a member of, or especially an administrator of, a threaded discussion forum, here's a useful link to bookmark (warning: it's a Flash movie with sound, if that's a problem).
4 April, 2007
We know where you've been
I won't give details, as it's in closed beta, but a new type of web stats tracker is being promoted to the webmasters of UK universities.
It collects the usual user stats, but goes a step further. Randomly-selected sessions are recorded in full, even to the extent of logging the movement of a visitor's cursor over the page, which is subsequently presented to the site owner as a Flash movie. It's advertised as the 'next best thing to organised user testing', though since the user won't know he/she is being 'watched', it could be a truer record of actual usage.
Some of my peers (particularly in Scotland, for some reason) have reacted unfavourably, considering it an excessive invasion of privacy. As you may have noticed, I'm certainly a privacy advocate, but I don't think I have a problem with this. Considering we already monitor platform, browser, screen resolution, entry/exit pages, residence time, even geographic location, amongst several other data, the movement of a visitor's mouse pointer is one of the least personally-identifiable parameters collected. Ultimately, whilst there may be an argument against collecting data at all, I doubt whether these additional data are a different, greater problem. They just feel more invasive, somehow.
Actually, now I think about it, this technology may offer an extra level of detail. We already know a visitor's entry page and the page from which he/she arrived, and the same combination when a visitor leaves, but I suppose if we were to track cursor movement and clicks, we'd have a record of movement within the site too.
As I've been writing, I've been discussing the issue with J, the (print) Publications Assistant in my office, who was initially startled to discover what we're already logging. She identified two potential conflicts: would a staff member want it to be known he/she had visited specific pages within the Counselling Service's section of the site, or had been searching the Employment Vacancies listings?
9 February, 2007
Shove your toolbar where you want
I'm disinclined to promote any usage of Inert Exploder at all, but if you're one of those unfortunates who is obliged to do so by employers, you might be interested to know that it's possible to repair the menu bar arrangement in IE7.
By default, IE7 hides the standard toolbar ('File', 'Edit', 'View', etc.), and when one restores it (View->Toolbars->Menu Bar), it's displayed below the navigation bar. As Lifehacker says, that's just wrong.
Chris Hanscom has written a simple registry hack to change that. Note, however, that this is a Registry hack....
29 January, 2007
In case some people hadn't noticed, Google Image Search implemented a new interface last week. It's supposed to be 'cleaner', hiding file information until mouseover, but that's precisely the problem – many people particularly want to see the file information for all images on the page 'at a glance'.
Further instructions, including for other browsers, are available at Google Operating System
5 December, 2006
Informit offers tips to improve one's usage of the Google suite of search resources – read, inwardly digest and reduce the number of merely inefficient random queries reaching the Ministry.
I thought I knew it all ;) , but one tip was new to me.
Use the '~' operator to search for synonyms; the example given is to use '~elderly' to search for 'elderly', 'senior', 'older', 'aged', etc. This can be combined with the better-known '-' operator: '~term -term' will find synonyms of the term whilst excluding the specific search term itself.
2 November, 2006
Back off, M$
Microsoft has a new product they wish to promote via another of their products, so it's not surprising that they're pushing IE7 via Windows Update, especially considering the degree of integration between the browser and OS.
However, pushing it as a 'your-computer-is-at-risk' Critical Update, with red flashing text when one declines the download, seems less reasonable.
If one has no intention of using IE whatsoever, sticking with the preinstalled IE6 (and not using it) seems perfectly adequate. I use Firefox (other non-IE browsers exist), and have no interest in switching, so I'm not going to be sucked into Microsoft's bogus panic and accept a 15 Mb download (via dialup, at home) of a package I DON'T WANT.
I may need to install IE7 on my work PC eventually, solely for testing purposes, but there's no way it's invading my home machine.
30 October, 2006
Repolishing the Firefox chrome
Lifehacker offers further tips on customising the default Firefox user interface ("chrome") using the browser's in-built settings rather than extensions.
Last time it was items configured through 'about:config'; this time it's items configured through 'userChrome.css'. The focus of the article is to streamline and remove extraneous items from the header bars for maximum viewing area. That's of limited importance to me at present, but I did remove one annoyance: the 'magnifying glass' button beside the search box.
Firefox 2 also displays the name of the chosen search engine in the box unless one enters a specific search term. Does anyone know how to remove it? I'd prefer it to remain blank until used.
Speaking of the search box: in the earlier entry about how I upgraded Firefox 1.5 to Fx2 and refined the result, I mentioned changing the default Google search box URL, 'www.google.com/firefox' to 'www.google.com/'. This is probably a bad idea. I thought I was removing unnecessary branding, but that doesn't seem to be the case, and it's been suggested Mozilla receives financial support if people use the dedicated '/firefox' URL.
[Update 13/06/07: If directly editing files is a little daunting, try the more user-friendly interface of a Firefox plugin, 'Configuration Mania'.]
26 October, 2006
How to update Firefox
I've just updated Firefox 184.108.40.206 to Firefox 2 on my office PC. On reflection, I think I acted too soon, as a number of core extensions (er...) and themes aren't compatible yet. I won't be updating on my home PC, at least until the automatic 'check for updates' pushes it at me. For my own future reference and perhaps the interest of others, this is what I've done:
I suppose I should have timed it, but installation and configuration were really straightforward; ten minutes at most, and that counts time spent reading menus in case anything had changed.
- Installed the basic package over Fx1.5, using the 'Custom' option to decline the DOM Inspector & Feedback Agent. Incidentally, ensure Fx is fully closed (check Task Manager to verify 'firefox.exe' really isn't running), as there's a risk of losing Bookmarks in the 'handover'.
- It automatically verified compatibility with extensions & themes and checked for updates but, as usual, an additional 'forced' check for updates found more. Unfortunately, some important ones were missing.
- Checked the 'Options' submenu. My selections had been carried-over from Fx1.5, so I only made one additional amendment: turned off automatic spellchecking.
- Following Lifehacker's instructions, I used 'about:config' to:
- Decrease the minimum tab width, to minimise scrolling. Fifty pixels (half the default) is enough for me.
- Restore the Fx1.5 style of tab closing: one 'close' button at the right of the entire tab bar rather than one button per tab.
- Prevent prefetching of unselected pages.
- Remove the 'Go' button from the address bar.
- Configured the built-in search facility:
- Removed engines I don't use, via the dropdown menu.
- Reconfigured the ones I kept, by manually editing the .xml files in /Program Files/Mozilla Firefox/searchplugins/.
Specifically, I renamed 'Amazon.co.uk' and 'eBay.co.uk' to 'Amazon' & 'eBay' (I'm in the UK, so I know they're .co.uk sites) and changed the Google URL from 'www.google.com/firefox' to 'www.google.com/'. [No. Don't.]
I'm missing 'Clone Window'
(for tab cloning), the 'Undo Close Tab'
extension was more convenient (on the right-click context menu) than the new inbuilt utility (on the drop-down 'History'
menu), and I'd like the comfort of my preferred theme ('Someorbityellow'
), but otherwise the new version seems okay up to now.
[Update 16:36: The 'Undo Closed Tabs Button' extension satisfactorily replaces 'Undo Close Tab' – the option is added to the context menu when in the tabs bar. 'Clone Window' is almost replicated by 'NewTabURL', though with significant problems, so I'm only using it as a stopgap.]
[Update 16:51: Yay! 'Orbit Yellow 2006' replaces 'Someorbityellow_nb'.
That was a little more fiddly than I initially thought, but I think I've almost replicated all the functionality of Fx1.5, with the bonuses of FX2's security updates and additional features. I'd still recommend waiting a while, though, as the stand-in extensions I found aren't quite as good as the ones I had originally, which hopefully will be updated to Fx2 compatibility soon.]
[Update 17:16: Nope, 'NewTabURL' is more trouble than it's worth. Avoid.]
[Update 27/10/06: My mistake: I'd been using 'Clone Window 0.2.5' which was incompatible with FX2's 'Find Updates' utility. By downloading a fresh copy of version 0.2.8, it's updated perfectly.
That may be worth trying for any other apparently incompatible extensions/themes: check the numbers of the most recent versions available from Mozilla or the plugin authors' websites. If they're newer than you have, download them afresh.]
[One more update 13/06/07: If 'about: config' is a little daunting, try the more user-friendly interface of a Firefox plugin, 'Configuration Mania'.]
25 October, 2006
Firefox 2 is out
In case anyone didn't know, Firefox 2 is out. If you aren't already using Firefox 1.5, why not give it a try?
The link above is to the British English (i.e. English) version, but be aware that due to licencing issues (says Neil) the British English dictionary for the new spellchecker has to be downloaded separately.
Or perhaps not. One of the things I like least about Microsoft Office software is spellchecking as one types. Though I haven't tried the Firefox version yet, I anticipate disabling it. Not something I would have chosen as a core, 'out-of-the-box' feature of the updated browser; an optional third-party extension would have been more than enough.
20 October, 2006
Not on safari
Bugger. The css error I've been picking-at for two days is a browser bug.
It seems Safari 2 doesn't like nested "absolute" and "relative" -positioned <div>s, in a way Firefox and even IE handle okay.
It kind of goes against my principles to knowingly exclude minority browsers, but I'm afraid I can't rewrite entire pages for less than 1% of a site's visitors, especially considering it's temporary: the bug is fixed in Safari 3, allegedly. Upgrade whenever you get an opportunity!
To a PC....
20 October, 2006
Nostalgia vs. Progression
In a post primarily about the decline of e-mail based discussion groups, Hippydave discusses the alternative career routes of long-established bands: nostalia or progression. Or a combination of the two, though polarity is undeniably more common.
Worth reading, it broadly restates (or at least overlaps) the endless 'prog'-or-progressive debate, mainly in the context of Marillion.
On the initial topic (e-mail groups vs. online fora), I definitely favour the latter, for one main reason: threads. For me, that's the 'killer app' of fora, with which e-mail lists can't compete. I drastically prefer to read the topics I choose, rather than an undifferentiated stream of all traffic.
I liked the pt-darkmatter Porcupine Tree Group at Yahoo!, but found that I gravitated to the PT Forum instead when that became available. The 'signal-to-noise' ratio is probably no different, and I suspect pt-darkmatter has slightly better-informed participants, but at the PT Forum I don't need to read anything off-topic (e.g. last night's US TV programmes), nor on-topic subjects that don't interest me (e.g. musicians' technical discussions).
11 October, 2006
Was Imogen Heap on TV in N.America on Monday night? *
This site experienced an odd traffic spike on Tuesday morning (in the UK; 22:00 Mon – 01:00 Tues in N.America), with ~17% of all visitors – that's a few hundred people – arriving via searches for the phrase 'crop circles in the carpet', an elegant lyric from 'Hide And Seek'. I thought it was just eastern Canada initially (most hits were via Google.ca, where I seem to have the no.1 spot for the search term), but it's just that the western US visitors (e.g. from Salt Lake City or Houston) had gone to bed by the time I glanced at the log.
Curious. It's a lot like the time hundreds of visitors were asking about the Trough of Bowland, presumably for a quiz, but this time the spike has had a persistent tail – the contribution to total traffic hasn't dropped below 2% for ~36 hours.
To give a little perspective, that's about the same traffic volume as a page specifically about the late-2006 Jethro Tull tour, on an ostensibly specialist Tull website (well, part-website) during the late-2006 Jethro Tull tour.
*: Just checked: no, she's on tour in the UK. Maybe 'Hide And Seek' was used in a N.American TV soundtrack again.
4 October, 2006
I know, you know
I hope people realise that access logs are perfectly capable of tracking content saved to other computers, not only those served directly from the website itself.
For example, if I see the following as an entry page:
file:///S:/Projects/Town Centre M60 Gateway/Projects/George Perrin/Talks/Matt/Gas holder, St George's Quay, Lancaster, UK, 2 June, 2004.htm
it rather suggests someone at 193.112.136.# (i.e. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council) may be 'borrowing' my copyrighted content without asking.
I hope that's not a public talk being prepared, as that'd be unauthorised republishing....
Remember, web-published content has the same protection as printed matter – it's not automatically in the public-domain, and it's not okay to just take it.
29 September, 2006
Note to web store managers
I prefer the option to make one-off purchases. I don't want to have to register with a site, obtaining a username and password, merely to buy one item from a web store I might never visit again. If, for example, I buy a scarf as a gift, that doesn't make me a regular customer of a certain clothes retailer, and I'd rather not have to provide personal details (beyond those essential for payment & delivery) which might be used against me for marketing purposes.
If you do insist on registration, and I do happen to return months or years later, I'm likely to need to use your password retrieval facility – I'm not going to make the vaguest effort to remember login details I didn't want in the first place.
This facility must respond immediately. It is simply unacceptable to say you'll send me an e-mail within one working day. Database technology eliminated that delay a long time ago – if the password is not in my mailbox within 5 minutes, you have lost my custom. Period.
28 September, 2006
Anyone can play GUI
"A website's navigation interface is no more than a filing system, right? Anyone can design that; it's easy."
Clients. What can I say?
Well, without illustrating the usability and aesthetics of a large, blunt instrument, anyway....
14 September, 2006
If I set up a .htaccess file to serve a custom 'Error 404' (page not found) page, but mistype the name of that 404 page (so the server can't find it), will the server explode?
7 August, 2006
Anyone who's ever bought goods/services via a credit card and web browser might be interested to know that I've been able to recover my main card number and the security number from the back of the card by reading the 'autocomplete' log of text/numbers I've previously typed into dialog boxes. As the same log contains my name, e-mail & postal addresses and other personal parameters, that's quite a security risk, especially on a shared computer.
I use Firefox, but strongly doubt this is a flaw in Fx – I have no reason to think that any other browser behaves differently. If anything, Fx-users are at an advantage, as the Form History Manager plugin allows one to check the log and delete sensitive entries.
If individual entries are annoying (e.g. mistype a username once and autocomplete will suggest the misspelling every time one uses a 'username' dialog box), it's possible to deal with them individually, without plugins. Simply type enough for the autocomplete suggestion to appear, then select the offending option using the cursor keys and press 'Shift'+'Delete'. In IE, don't press 'Shift'.
It's a useful feature, but I still recommend installing Form History Manager, as it allows one to see what else was logged, perhaps inadvertently.
20 July, 2006
Creativity for all
The '1% rule', as the Guardian explains, is the emerging pattern that
if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will 'interact' with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.
I wouldn't have ascribed numbers, but now it's been mentioned, I suppose I have been aware of the trend, which inspires a thought: what does this mean for Web 2.0?
Beyond the hype, is it likely to remain the preserve of the 'engaged elite'? The media breathlessly report that n million people have signed-up to Flickr, etc., but if 89% are only there to passively view the output of the 1%, raw membership statistics clearly don't equate to interaction and content generation.
I'm not an especial fan of user-led, interactive web development anyway, and prefer the prior model of provider-led publication by individuals to readers. However, this entry isn't meant to subtextually gloat that Web 2.0 is 'doomed to fail' – I'm genuinely curious how the aspirations of an active minority will extend to a passive majority.
I wouldn't be surprised if, ultimately, very little changes and few people experience more than 'Web 1.5': standard Web 1.0 publishing with a degree of feedback, rather than routine interactivity.
Any thoughts? Can you be bothered to express them?
18 July, 2006
Friends don't send friends virus warnings
Never, ever, under any circumstances, circulate a virus warning message. Ever. Almost invariably – no, there's no 'almost' about it; invariably it's a hoax and the warning itself is the virus, inflating e-mail traffic and spamming discussion groups.
I've been active on the web for over a decade, and have seen a huge number of such virus warning e-mails and forum postings. None – not even one – have been genuine. If you receive a warning, whether forwarded by a stranger or your closest friend, visit the website of a well-known manufacturer of anti-virus software and check the details of the alleged threat.
Think about it: how likely is it that your anonymous friend-of-a-friend has discovered something that's totally eluded every anti-virus professional on the planet? Really?
If (when) you discover it's a hoax, delete the e-mail: take it out of circulation. Never circulate another e-mail telling people it's a hoax – that's just as bad! Simply let it die.
If, by some miracle, you find the warning is about a genuine threat, delete the e-mail. Do not pass on the warning. Yes, really. If the anti-virus companies know about it, their updated software will handle it, so there's absolutely no point in telling people.
If people have outdated or missing anti-virus protection, well, they're on their own. If they can't handle the routine basics, they're unlikely to respond to the exceptional.
Bottom line: if you receive an anti-virus warning, even from someone you trust absolutely, delete it.
4 June, 2006
No AdBlock? No chance!
I don't like adverts. No, really, I don't like adverts.
I'm registered with the Mailing Preference Service and the phone equivalent, I don't read leaflets pushed though my door, I favour a cinema that doesn't show adverts, I tend to video TV programmes then fast-forward through ad breaks, and I refuse to do business with companies which contact me uninvited.
And when browsing the web, I use Adblock.
It's wonderful. It blocks all advertising content, whether banners, pop-ups or text, and if a new ad evades the barrier, it can simply be added to the blacklist.
Slightly confusingly, AdBlock.org¹ is a site campaigning against blanket blocking of all adverts.
As a webmaster and website owner, I rely on advertising to pay for the time and effort it takes to develop and maintain my website. For some, itís a living. Adblocking software that prevents my ads from being viewed eliminates my opportunity to be compensated for my work.
I understand the argument, but here's the essential point: I don't care.
If site creation and hosting have cost implications for the site owner, they are the owner's alone. As a site visitor, I accept no moral responsibility to load or view marketing material – a site owner's costs are simply not my problem. I always decline to pay for web content, and that includes in the form of screen space within my browser.
Obviously, a site owner has the right to place adverts and hope
someone responds on them, but he/she can't demand
a visitor's participation. On this one issue (I still oppose other user modification of a site owner's content by Greasemonkey et al.
), I feel the visitor's rights take absolute precedence over the content provider's.
While I understand that you may have installed adblocking software as relief from those horrible advertising methods, I ask that you choose to not block ads on my website. In return, I promise to not display distracting and annoying advertisements on my website.
Who defines 'distracting and annoying'
? The viewer? The advertiser? So far as I'm concerned, there are
no non-annoying adverts; my policy is zero-tolerence. I don't object to 'distracting' adverts, I object to adverts. Place an ad, any
ad, on your site, and I'll block it. Period.
Besides, users of adblocking software like me are extremely unlikely to click on an an advert even if we see it, so a site owner relying² on 'per click' income is going to get nothing from such visitors anyway. Hence, the visitors might as well block the ads from loading at all – it'll make no difference to the site owner, and vastly improves the browsing experience.
To be fair, on deeper investigation it seems that Adblock.org mainly opposes utilities which indiscriminately block all adverts without the knowledge or express intent of users with limited tech-literacy. It does acknowledge the right of more rabid users like me to knowingly block all adverts. It's the 'knowingly' part which is worthy of investigation.
¹: Note that the link to Adblock.org is a fair citation for the quoted content, not an endorsement or advert.
²: Not that I believe site owners justifiably 'rely' on ad-revenue. If it's a commercial site, hosting is paid for by company income. If it's a private site, it's a matter of personal choice to expend money on a hobby. If one was a recreational skier, would one expect other people on the slopes to pay for one's skis and lift pass?
11 May, 2006
Quick e-mail tips
I've been doing these for a while; they're fairly obvious, but are still worth passing on.
When drafting an e-mail which simply can't leave your computer until it's finished, don't complete the 'To:' field until last. Any earlier, and it's too easy to accidentally send it.
I tend to put the address at the start of the message itself, then cut-and-paste it to the right box when proofreading. I do the same thing when composing replies; my e-mail package autocompletes the 'To:' field, but I delete it until I'm ready.
Conversely, when including an attachment, attach it first, before writing the covering note. Otherwise, it's too easy to send only the covering note.
3 May, 2006
Too many vests
Having run the update installation* of Firefox 220.127.116.11, I've seen the 'update successful' page, which reminds users that we can add extra search engines to the Search Bar. One recommended by Mozilla is "Wikipedia - An incredible, free, online encyclopedia".
Aye, 'incredible' in the sense of 'not credible'....
Wikipedia: wonderful idea, appalling execution. And before anyone says "if you don't like it, change it yourself", I did try, but my amendments, supported by verifiable citations, were immediately edited out by those with personal, or in at least one case, commercial, interests. Kind of discouraging. If certain people choose to appoint themselves 'lead editors' on specific topics, and delete anything challenging their personal perceptions of those topics (however well-intentioned), I really can't be bothered to challenge them; I offered my assistance once, and was rejected. Their loss. If that experience is repeated across the entire site, I have limited confidence in the information published.
*: Go on; update too. If you're on Fx 1.5, subsequent updates are of only the files to be amended, rather than a fresh download of the entire package. It only takes a moment.
[Update 11/5/06: Coincidentally, here's Neil Gaiman's view of Wikipedia.]
26 April, 2006
Uh oh... USA Today, one of the few national US newspapers, has linked to the Ministry....
It's currently accounting for 30% of traffic, but has only been up for an hour or so, and it's still morning across the USA – there could be a bit of a spike later in the (US) day.
Now I know what to look for, there's certainly been an anomalous increase in visits from IP addresses based in Alexandra, Va., attributable to the US Dept. of State....
24 April, 2006
Leave No Trace
One thing that won't exactly assist Anathema's attempts at promotion is the fact that when one searches for 'anathema' or 'anathema band' at Google.com, the band's own site doesn't appear*. Searching for the specific term 'anathema official website' finds it as the no.3 result, but it should really have a high ranking for more generic terms, and for a range of terms.
For a moment I thought something drastic had happened – that the site had been removed from the index, perhaps for illegitimate SEO tactics, but it's simpler than that. Apart from the three words 'AnathemA Official Website' in the <title> tag, the home page contains no text or html links. At all. It's a frameset containing Flash files; the navigation menu is in Flash, as is the introductory text. There's absolutely nothing for a search engine spider to index or follow.
'Make It Right (FFS)'. Is a song on the 'Judgement' album.
*: It's probably there somewhere, but I gave up after the 150th result....
12 April, 2006
Nice idea: copy-and-paste between computers. I routinely e-mail blocks of text to myself, which is adequate, but if one wishes to save even the small amount of time taken to log into an e-mail account, try cl1p.net, 'the internet clipboard'.
It's literally that: go to any URL beginning "http://cl1p.net/" (invent your own), paste in the content* to be transferred, and upload it. Then visit the same URL from anywhere else in the world and copy the content.
To clarify a point which eluded me for a moment, one doesn't need to go to the c1ip.net home page, log-in and use a specific user interface: go straight to the URL you invent and the interface is already there. There's no account sign-up, and no hoops to jump through. Use a different URL each time, if you want. Subdirectories are possible e.g. 'http://cl1p.net/test/test', so one could be systematic.
This has possibilities for collaborative working (it that's your thing), but if you don't want the risk of people accidentally wandering into a publicly-accessible page (and theoretically modifying the content), the chosen URL can be password-protected.
*: Attachments of up to 2Mb are fine too, but are automatically deleted after one download.
6 April, 2006
Block ads with Adblock
According to the BBC, major UK media companies are moving away from charging for web content, instead deriving income from display advertising.
This would probably be an appropriate opportunity for me to mention one of my favourite Firefox extensions, Adblock. This filters web pages as they load, removing all adverts. Yes, all of them. Imagine browsing without banner ads, AdSense text blocks, etc. That's how I see the web all the time. The advertising content is simply ignored, so 99% of pages look as if they were never meant to include ads – there are no ugly and equally distracting gaps or broken images. Firefox itself eliminates pop-up ads, of course.
Adblock works by matching content to a blacklist. To save the effort of training your own, download the latest Filterset.G, a collectively-derived pre-populated blacklist.
I presume the advertisers and host site owners still benefit from serving the ads, which is fine with me, so long as I don't have to see the ads! The providers won't get any clickthrough revenue, though. Tough.
Since I last looked, Adblock seems to have been adopted by Mozilla (as opposed to being developed by an independent individual), which might be considered an indication that it could become incorporated into the core product eventually.
27 March, 2006
No longer missing something
At long last, the 'Delete' button reached the UK version of Gmail (aka Google Mail) this morning, some months after it became available to US users and UK users willing to use the US English interface (which I wasn't).
22 March, 2006
If one wishes to trace an IP address , there are a number of 'whois' search utilities on the web. However, it's not always obvious that the best results tend to be obtained by searching the correct regional database.
For example, if I search for '160.9.41.#'
at ARIN, it just tells me that's an address assigned to users in the RIPE NCC region i.e. the target computer is somewhere in Europe. Checking RIPE directly, I get Leeds Met. University – I wonder who that could be...?
23 February, 2006
Disable error reporting
Whenever a program crashes, Windows attempts to send an error report to Microsoft. This is particularly annoying if it's Firefox that's crashed! I always hit 'Don't Send', but thanks to a quick tip at Lifehacker, I've permanently turned off error reporting in my copy of WinXP Pro.
In Control Panel, select 'System', the 'Advanced' tab and the 'Error Reporting' button. This route might be slightly different in XP Home, but only slightly. Select the 'Disable Error Reporting' radio button.
Simple as that.
21 February, 2006
Aha! There you are!
This is almost – but not quite – amusing.
Specifically to avoid future junk mail, a BoingBoing reader used a throwaway e-mail address to enter a competition, then discarded the account. A few months later, the company started sending junk mail to her main e-mail account, having researched her real address.
As one of our VIP consumers, you have likely received email communications from us in the past. Recently, however, we have not been able to deliver email messages to the address you originally supplied. We have performed an electronic change of address to update our records so that we can continue to send you special offers, promotions, and announcements via email.
7 February, 2006
The end of cyberspace?
An article in Wired acknowledges that the concept of the internet as 'cyberspace', a virtual destination where people go in order to interact with one another and computers, has become obsolete. Development of Virtual Reality (headsets & gloves) foundered years ago, and immersive alternate realities remained in sci-fi (I don't count the recreational examples of World of Warcraft or Second Life). The distinction between on- and offline activities is fading, and nowadays the internet is simply a facet of everyday, 'real world' life.
The article invites suggestions for a term to replace 'cyberspace', but I'd argue that the very nature of the conceptual change means there's no longer a need for any specific name for 'virtual space'. I agree with Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (now that's a bad name!), who proposes calling the computer-orientated environment simply 'the world'.
At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow describes cyberspace as the "place of the mind", a concept with which I can identify.
If I'm participating in an online discussion, or reading a blog entry written, published and hosted on the other side of the world, or indeed whilst writing this, my consciousness doesn't really have a meaningful geographical location. Maybe the concept of 'out there' does still apply.
If so, it predates the internet – If I speak to my father in Norway, via a standard 'land line' phone, just as I have done since the 1970s, where is my mind? My full concentration is on the conversation, so it doesn't matter that my head is in the UK.
Hmm. I suspect one could think too hard about such metaphysics – and then where would one be?
3 February, 2006
IE7's out - and?
A certain Mac fangirl makes the (absolutely correct) observation that the IE7 interface looks awful, the probable consequence of having been prepared by a coder rather than a graphic designer.
However, Siobhan's missing the point: it's Inert Exploder, FFS. Of course it totally ignores accepted UI (GUI and otherwise) design standards
I haven't downloaded IE7 myself (and won't whilst it's in beta), but I don't see a single thing advertised in the demo that isn't already covered by Firefox and the main extensions. It mystifies me why Microsoft's attempts to catch up with the functionality of real browsers would be sufficient motivation for people to consider switching. Being 'as good as' real browsers simply isn't good enough; it'd have to be better.
I suppose I'll need to install it eventually, for testing purposes, but I doubt I'll use it any more than IE6 i.e. less than monthly.
Not that I think a Mac designer would have done a better job of the IE7 GUI.
27 January, 2006
Am I missing something?
It's been announced and well-discussed that Gmail now has a 'Delete' button, as Google has acknowledged that not everyone wishes to archive absolutely every e-mail received. However, the button hasn't appeared in my UK-based interface yet. Has anyone heard anything about when non-US accounts can expect this very welcome feature?
Actually, I've become used to the slightly unwieldy 'Move To Deleted Items' option on the drop-down menu, so it's not that important to me, but still, it'd be good to streamline usage.
[Update 27/03/06: It became available to UK users this morning.]
9 January, 2006
Bugmenot will return shortly
If anyone's concerned about the fact that Bugmenot is currently unavailable and the domain is parked, don't worry – it's only a temporary problem. Eric promises to work on it this week.
If anyone's unaware of Bugmenot, it's a means of evading 'compulsory' web registration. Want to read an article in, say, the New York Times, but without providing your contact details for marketing purposes? With Bugmenot installed, simply right-click on the login/password field and a fake ID will be drawn from a global database.
Remember, the domain's inactive at the time of writing, so the link in the foregoing paragraph will be dead (well, sleeping heavily). Give it a few days and try again.
7 January, 2006
Through the keyhole
Sometimes eBay amuses me, both for the sheer variety of items available and the insights into sellers' lives. I love to click on the 'View seller's other items' link, to see that someone is offering a Jethro Tull LP alongside a latex dress and a car's offside wing miror – only the offside mirror. There has to be story there.
4 January, 2006
A nice round number, though 'unlucky for some'. It's also the number of sp*m e-mails received by my work account overnight. Not over the week I was away, but overnight.
Admittedly, there were three sp*m flood attacks, but I still think ISS (Uni. 'tech support') need to improve their spam filters.
Another annoying thing is that the filters merely identify suspected sp*m, but still deliver it to mailboxes. That's of limited value....
31 December, 2005
Unleashing the demon
I've just taught my mother how to compose an eBay auction, and she's had a splendid idea:
"Hey! I could copy all my CDs and sell the originals on eBay!"
20 December, 2005
El Reg reports that Microsoft is to 'formally kill' the Mac version of IE at the end of January – no more downloads, nor support.
I'm hardly going to complain about the availability of IE declining, nor about software distribution ignoring Macs, but it's undeniable that some web designers unaccountably still use Macs, and it'd be rather useful for them to have access to IE for testing purposes.
27 November, 2005
This is going to be irrelevant to 97% of typical visitors and boring to the rest, but anyway:
The incompatibility between ZoneAlarm 6.1.667 and Windows Me, which caused the latter to hang rather than shut down, seems to have been resolved in ZA 6.1.737. It's safe to update.
23 November, 2005
Setting my boundaries
It's taken me a while to find this article (via an El Reg response I didn't quite understand), but it expresses my opinion: that Creative Commons licences are pointless other than a naïve political statement, and existing copyright laws are more than adequate.
The most favourable interpretation I can find concludes that CC overlies, but certainly doesn't supercede, copyright, defining the additional rights (beyond standard fair use) the content producer permits the content recipient.
I can see how CC might be seductive to some: "Freedom! Community! Sharing! Love!". However, on a legal level, it means very, very little, and anyway, I don't remotely share those ideals.
Long-term readers of this blog will be aware that my priorities are the rights of the provider, not of the recipient. For example, I object to Google AutoLink and greasemonkey scripts which attempt to modify my content. If I'd intended additional links, I'd have put them in myself: my rights as author extend to what I choose not to say.
In as much as I'm aware of an audience at all, I publish text and graphics/photos for readers and viewers i.e. their (your) role, so far as I'm concerned, is mostly passive, and the relationship is primarily one-way.
Nothing personal, folks, and in my wish to be unambiguous, I suspect the previous sentence might come across as aggressive and overstating my true views. I hope visits to the Ministry are enjoyable, and welcome comments; I merely withhold permission for visitors to redecorate or wander off with the teaspoons!
So; to be absolutely clear:
all material, textual and graphical, published at the Ministry is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Nothing is placed in the public domain, and I do not offer Creative Commons rights.
As anyone who can see beyond CC-evangelist propaganda will understand, that's far from a blanket ban on usage (fair use, remember?), merely being a clarification that this is my property, and remains such unless I specifically say otherwise, on a case-by-case basis (and I'm actually quite approachable).
22 November, 2005
It's really trivial, but why does a Google search for 'burrow beck hala' (results: 388) suggest "Did you mean: burrowbeck hala" (results: 6)?
Could it be that the former, correct spelling takes one to non-commercial entries merely mentioning the stream, whereas the latter provides links to estate agents i.e. a variety of advertising takes priority?
17 November, 2005
Greystone Inn's gone evil
In case occasional readers like me weren't aware, Brad Guigar's web-published strip cartoon, 'Greystone Inn' is in the process of changing address. The story has moved on and the setting has changed (I'll miss the disembodied Narrator), so a rebranding as 'Evil Inc.' makes sense.
There'll be an overlap, with both sites being updated in parallel for the rest of the month, but from December, the original address will only be an archive.
I only visit occasionally, and catch up about a month at a time, but the web comic is well worth reading; a bit 'American' in places (not a criticism, more an acknowledgement that some references mean little to a UK reader).
3 November, 2005
Wasting everyone's time
For the past week or so, I've been receiving what looks a lot like comments sp*m – via the Ministry's 'Contact' form. It's mildly irritating, not least because it's utterly pointless, both for me and for the sender.
That page isn't part of the blog, and I don't have a guestbook; the messages (2-3 per day at present, but these things tend to multiply) aren't published anywhere, they merely go to an e-mail account, and there's no way I'm going to follow dubious links from strangers.
Either some troll is ****ing around just to annoy me, which won't work – I never feed trolls, irrespective of provocation – or some sp*mbot is getting confused.
I suspect it's the latter, as the 'subject' header of each e-mail is identically malformed, as if an automated script is garbling the output in a way a manual submission wouldn't. At least it enables me to set a filter in Thunderbird, and all mail with that header is directed straight to Trash.
I'm pretty sure it is a robot mistakenly 'thinking' it's found a blog comments form, as each hit is preceded by an internal search of the blog for the URL of October's archive – no human would be doing that 2-3 times per day. That clue is drastically easier to trace. Now I have a phone number for the spammer's ISP in Kiev, Ukraine. Pity I don't speak the language....
2 November, 2005
Emergency internet access
This isn't an advert, honest!
I've just discovered that my normal ISP also offers an 'emergency' service whereby anyone in the UK can access the internet for 'free' (no fee for the service, just a standard local-rate phone call). One doesn't have to register for an account, and there's no login or password - just dial the phone number via a modem.
It looks useful for accessing the web when away from home (that includes foreign visitors to the UK) or if one's usual provider experiences an outage, but they also promote it as 'anonymous' web access.
Bookmark it now, though not somewhere like del.icio.us, as you'd need to be online already to get to the bookmark....
31 October, 2005
Last Wednesday, for a reason I've yet to have explained, I was kicked out of Yahoo! Groups. I received an automated e-mail saying that usage of my account had been "identified to be in violation of the terms of service", and shut down. I could no longer log in. I contacted Yahoo! immediately, demanding reinstatement or at least some explanation, but I've received no reply.
Accountability isn't on offer, apparently.
I've still been receiving notification e-mails from the Groups I moderate, requiring me to authorise member activities; I just haven't been able to act on them. This evening, I lost patience, and signed up to Yahoo! afresh, using the same contact details as before, just with a new username and password. I thought I'd have to join my own Groups as a new member, and ask my fellow Moderators to upgrade me back to admin positions with the new ID.
However, that wasn't necessary. As soon as I'd registered and validated my e-mail addresses, Yahoo! informed me that there were existing memberships associated with those addresses, and let me readopt them as if nothing had happened, without my even having to inform the other Moderators that I was back. Great!
I'm no trouble-maker or sp*mmer, but I could have been. What if my Yahoo! membership had been cancelled for a genuine reason? Is it a good thing that I'd be able to adopt a different screen name and log right back in, totally unrecognisable to the other members and Moderators until the next time I struck?
[Update 3/11/05: A full week after my summary expulsion, I've received some explanation.
Several years ago, I had a 'holding' site at Geocities for a month or so, just to make some files available temporarily. When I abandoned it (on 15 May, 2001 – that's the date of last editing access), I cut it down to one page, merely a redirect to the Ministry itself. I didn't realise, and maybe it wasn't at the time, but that's against Geocities (i.e. Yahoo!) rules.
This morning Yahoo! told me that, and reinstated my account, giving me until Monday to make the site compliant. I deleted it outright: sorted.
Why couldn't that have been done a week ago? A warning and ultimatum would make drastically more sense than 'shoot first, accuse later'.]
19 October, 2005
Google Mail in the UK
It seems another company has claimed prior rights to the Gmail name in the UK, and Google are either concerned that the claim might have legal merit, or legal action to keep the name might become too expensive (in terms of financial cost, time and bad publicity) to pursue. It's been announced that from today, new Gmail accounts issued in the UK will be '[whatever]@googlemail.com'.
Fair enough, but the first point that concerns me is that if this other company pushes the issue, existing '@gmail.com' addresses might have to be withdrawn; Google hope that won't happen but can't guarantee it. They recommend everyone re-register the '@googlemail.com' varients of their existing account names, just in case.
The second point which concerns me is that the varient of my existing account name, and the four most obvious permutations of it, have already been registered by other people....
Should I expect a cybersquatting problem?
[Update 18:00: I may have misunderstood; see comments. If correct, it means those with existing UK-based '@gmail.com' accounts won't need to re-register, and the reason I can't register the '@googlemail.com' varient of my current address is that it's already reserved for me!]
13 October, 2005
Ranting from the backwoods
In a bizarrely arrogant letter to the Guardian, someone in Oregon says:
America generates the internet and some international group wants to steal it
No, ignore that utter rubbish; this is the part I want to comment upon:
I can tell you what US users and the US government are going to say about an international group controlling internet standards within US borders: forget it.
It's unacceptable for a non-US group to operate within the USA, yet absolutely fine for the USA to govern activities within other countries? No. I don't think so.
Personally, I have no problem with a private-sector US company holding the contract to provide admin facilities to the internet, so long as the US Government has no regulatory role – none whatsoever. It's utterly fundamental that no one nation 'owns' the internet, and particularly not the Bush government. That's not a party-political thing, and certainly not an anti-American thing; I'd feel the same way if, say, New Zealand was attempting to annex the internet, but the idea that this specific presidential administration might attempt to regulate the world's internet according to its own perverted morality is simply repugnant.
11 October, 2005
At the time of writing, Google is considered to have the largest search engine database, indexing about eight billion web pages. However, it's estimated that the public web contains about 250 billion pages overall, and that's only the public web. Something far more glamourous-sounding is the 'deep web', or 'invisible web', thought to be 500 times bigger than the directly searchable web.
The 'deep web' refers to:
the vast repository of information that search engines and directories donít have direct access to, like databases at university libraries, sites that require passwords to view, or sites that for some reason donít want search engines to crawl them.
That's a quote from Lifehacker's review
of the subject, which goes on to explain how to gain access. The deep web doesn't necessarily exclude public visitors, itís just "a bit trickier to tap into"
Very William Gibson....
21 September, 2005
Why'd it take so long?
I've always said that I'd never use Opera, for one simple reason. I believe that one should never, ever have to pay for a web browser, however good it might be (see my earlier thoughts), so Opera's pricing model (a free version containing adverts or ad-free for a fee) was unacceptable, totally disqualifying it from consideration.
Well, Opera is now available for free.
'Fraid it's a bit late for me, as I'm happy with Firefox, and not looking to switch, but I'm happy to remove the company from my personal blacklist, and I might look at their browser one day.
19 September, 2005
Just for reference: a summary of the 252 core character entities in HTML 4 and XHTML 1.0; not only the everyday '&' (&) but more obscure (yet occasionally useful) ones like 'µ' (µ).
If one requires further, nation-specific characters like the Polish 'ł' (ł), they're summarised here. However, remember that they require the page to be using UTF-8 encoding, which isn't supported by all browsers.
Incidentally, that means the title of this entry will break in some browsers. That's a deliberate joke, okay?
15 August, 2005
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about companies using contrived 'information' entries to promote themselves via Wikipedia - blatent spam, really.
As Boing Boing reports, the BBC has been accused of doing much the same thing, in a viral marketing campaign for an online game. The BBC denies involvement (I'm not saying "they would, wouldn't they?" – I believe them), but one side effect is that a pro marketer has admitted abusing Wikipedia for viral marketing.
I can't say who I am, but I do work at a company that uses Wikipedia as a key part of online marketing strategies. That includes planting of viral information in entries, modification of entries to point to new promotional sites or 'leaks' embedded in entries to test diffusion of information. Wikipedia is just a more transparent version of Myspace as far as some companies are concerned. We love it (evil laugh).
On the other side, I love it from an academia/sociological standpoint, and I don't necessarily have a problem with it used as a viral marketing tool. After all, marketing is a form of information, with just a different end point in mind (consuming rather than learning).
5 August, 2005
Flash pop-ups downed
This has been known for several months, but only seems to have received wider circulation in recent days; I might as well join in.
Web spammers have been evading pop-up blockers by launching them from Flash. Pete Bevin reports (has devised?) a simple technique whereby Firefox renders the spam technique obsolete. Well done!
- Type about:config into the Firefox location bar.
- Right-click on the page and select New and then Integer.
- Name it privacy.popups.disable_from_plugins
- Set the value to 2.
I'd like to think this'll be the default setting in future versions of Fx, but in the mean time, these instructions can be completed in seconds.
21 July, 2005
What do you want?
Can I make a suggestion?
It may seem obvious, but when composing a search engine query, it's best to include search terms likely to appear in the target page, rather than a description of the subject, phrased in words not actually on the page itself.
The example that triggered this thought was that someone visited the Ministry earlier today via a Google search for "discussion of Marillion's Angelina".
Fine, but one has to remember that the search engine doesn't read the meaning of the enquiry, nor that of the target page; it'll search for the word 'discussion', rather than text discussing the song.
Consequently, the search found the 'Memes' archive page, which includes the word 'discussion' in one entry, and no more than the song's title in another, but missed an entry entirely about the 'Angelina' single, which doesn't happen to feature the word 'discussion'.
14 July, 2005
Just attempting another experiment with Google.
A friend and colleague designs handcrafted silver jewellery, sold in such prestigious locations as Manchester City Art Gallery and Urbis (the Museum of Urban Life), also in Manchester. She has a website, but it is considerably outranked on Google by the portfolio page of the site's designer.
I'm going to try a little search engine optimisation/promotion, but before doing that, I'm curious whether my merely mentioning it here will have any effect whatsoever.
11 July, 2005
Now we are 1M
That took me by surprise: I've just glanced at my web tracker, and seen that the millionth page since 28/11/01 was served this morning, to something like the 328,400th visitor.
9 July, 2005
Just in case there's anyone left who hasn't already tried it, the Gmaps Pedometer is pretty good. I've just traced the route of my daily commute, and it's calculated it to within 0.25 miles of the actual distance measured by my bike computer, a discrepancy easily explained by road details below the scale of the map.
One tiny criticism, which I don't think is avoidable, is that one does have to trace the route, selecting points connected by straight lines – one can't just select the start and end points, and expect it to follow the roads. Hence, it is a pedometer, suitable for short, detailed trips rather than for plotting intercity journeys (though that's possible, if very time-consuming). It's also far more suitable for the purpose than Multimap or Google Maps itself, which calculate distances along automatically-selected routes optimised for cars.
29 June, 2005
That has to hurt
Very odd, and rather disturbing, this Flash... thing has to be one of the most compelling... things I've seen for a while.
8 June, 2005
I'd be surprised if it was legal in the UK (though I was also surprised to hear it's legal in the USA) but here's an example where lack of online anonymity isn't only an issue of privacy but also of financial rights.
A number of online retailers in the USA are able to identify visitors, if not by name but more importantly by purchasing history and usage pattern, and price their goods accordingly.
Read the article for details (there's little point in my just paraphrasing it), and the EFF's comments about it, and take care!
6 June, 2005
Put the boot in while they're down
I'm happy with Firefox, so hadn't paid much attention to the release of Netscape 8, but there is one amusing detail to note.
It seems that installing the updated browser accidentally (of course!) disables functionality in Internet Explorer. What a shame. Microsoft recommend removing Netscape until a fix has been discovered. Yeah; right. How about taking the opportunity to just dump Inert Exploder?
I discovered this issue via The Register, at which a correspondent makes the point that:
Netscape 8 disables an application installed on your machine without your express permission, which may collect your personal data (without your permission) and redirect your browser on certain occasions (without your permission).
So Netscape have entered the anti-spyware market?
26 May, 2005
Home from home
Quick tip via Lifehacker: It's possible for Firefox to automatically open multiple homepages at once, in tabs.
From the 'Tools' menu, Select 'Options->General', and enter the required URLs, separated by the '|' character. Alternatively, if you already have the required pages open in tabs, just use the 'Use Current Pages' button in that dialogue box.
22 May, 2005
To quote MozDev:
Greasemonkey is a Firefox extension which lets you to add bits of DHTML
("user scripts") to any web page to... easily control any aspect of [it's] design or interaction.
If, like me, you object to visitors modifying one's published content, Greasemonkey can be blocked
I haven't implemented it yet, as it's an unexpectedly sunny afternoon and I fancy a bike ride, but I might add it later, and in the mean time, want to spread the word.
It isn't an absolute block, of course, as there are always workarounds, but at least one can stop the less tech-literate using Greasemonkey and make it annoyingly inconvenient for those who can work around it.
21 May, 2005
Interesting idea. If criminals can infiltrate unsecured servers and set up phishing websites (i.e. clones of bank websites , eBay, etc., which merely capture peoples' account details for fraud), then it's at least as easy for vigilantes to infiltrate the same servers and deface the phishing sites, alerting visitors to their true nature.
I'm undecided whether criminal action against criminals is really to be condoned, but all credit to them for lateral thinking.
29 April, 2005
Yet another nail
Heh. I'm no Mac fan, but even I have to applaud Apple for the fact that they haven't bothered to include Inert Exploder with the new edition of their OS.
20 April, 2005
I'm back to using IE, at least at work, seemingly indefinitely. Firefox is dead.
Yesterday afternoon, an 'updates available' alert popped up in Firefox, and I updated two extensions. Very annoyingly, I'm not certain which. From the next restart, there were problems. Fx would crash, then if I closed it using Task Manager, it'd restart basically okay apart from an inability to open new windows or necessary popups.
This morning, nothing. The browser would open, but no page would be displayed and the menus were inaccessible.
I've uninstalled Firefox and deleted the entire /Program Files/Mozilla Firefox/ directory, and taken the opportunity to reinstall using Fx 1.0.3 (I was on 1.0.2), but still nothing.
The big problem is that this is at work - I don't know WinXP Pro nearly well enough to know what else to try, tech support don't support Firefox, and I have work to do, so can't spend time experimenting. I've had to just break out the emergency copy of IE. Ugh.
Please note the warning: I don't recommend updating third-party Fx extensions just for the sake of updating. I'm fairly sure that's what killed my installation, as I'd changed nothing else.
Update 11:13: False alarm! Stop panicking, everyone! I may have revived it!
In case anyone else experiences a similar problem, try launching Firefox in Safe Mode (without themes or extensions). At the Windows Start Menu, 'Run':
"C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\firefox.exe" -safe-mode
If that works, it rather indicates an extension/theme is the problem. Disable any suspects then close and restart Fx normally. Rather rashly, I've deleted all eight of my extensions (not counting Mycroft, though that seems to have gone anyway – as Neil commented, Mycroft is stored in the program folder, not with extensions, so went when I deleted that directory), and Firefox seems to be back – I'm using it to write and send this update, anyway.
[Update 11/6/05: I finally relented, and updated several extensions to my home installation of Fx 1.0.4 last night, and experienced the same problem. Uninstalling extensions one by one, I identified User Agent Switcher as the apparent culprit. Without it, everything works as normal.]
19 April, 2005
Google Maps has reached the UK.
I'll say it again: Wow.
16 April, 2005
A couple of weeks ago, a man in China was killed, for stealing an item from his murderer in a computer game. That's a real stabbing for a virtual theft, of a 'fictional' in-game item.
That's odd enough in itself, but an even more surprising part of the BBC report is an incidental comment that unlike China (and the rest of the world), South Korea has a (real world) police division specially dedicated to in-game activities. I wonder if they ever struggle to claim jurisdiction in Raccoon City, San Andreas, or wherever.
Okay; that's facetious. The real point, which I do find genuinely interesting, is that entirely 'non-existent' property is beginning to acquire real-world value, and real-world society is having to adapt to the virtual. I'm not simply referring to intangible property – text, images, music and data stored in purely digital formats have been with us for a while, but interaction with them is in the real world. Material only relevant to the online world, with which one can only interact in-game... that's the sci-fi part.
I put 'fictional' and 'non-existent' in quotes in foregoing paragraphs because in some ill-defined sense such items aren't quite fictional any more and, in certain practical terms, exist.
15 April, 2005
Here's an excellent keyboard shortcut for Firefox, just in case you weren't aware of it:
Control+Enter adds the 'http://www.' prefix and '.com' suffix to words in the address bar.
Incidentally, Alt+D moves the cursor to the address bar, selecting all content for immediate overtyping.
1 April, 2005
Ooh! So close!
If there had been 32 days in March, the Ministry would have broken the 40,000 hits/month (from 15,000 visitors) barrier.
Maybe next time ;)
17 March, 2005
P2P's bad, 'kay?
One of the more common types of search term bringing visitors from Google to the Ministry is for music downloads, so I'd better address the subject directly.
I've mentioned that Porcupine Tree released a download-only single of 'Shallow', but a statement that such a thing exists is as much as you're going to get. Personally, I have absolutely no interest in downloading music, especially that which will be available soon on CD and DVD-A.
No music is offered for download from this site.
I used to trade unofficial concerts recordings on CD-R, but I never participated in bit torrent or other p2p communities, and I couldn't direct people on to more appropriate sites even if I wished to.
That covers legal, paid-for downloads and the sharing of unofficial recordings, but recent searches seem to have been for downloads of tracks from, and indeed the whole of, that imminent album, 'Deadwing', so I'd better clarify my view of illegal downloading of commercial recordings, paraphrasing my side of a recent discussion at the PT Forum.
It's theft, and I don't condone it whatsoever.
It's been a while since I was last willing to buy an album 'blind', without hearing online samples as a guide to whether I'd like it, but I don't regard that as sufficient justification to illegally download a leaked/ripped copy of the entire album.
I restrict myself to the samples (extracts from songs, at low-res, not retail-quality full tracks) the artists choose to provide online. Beyond that, I feel one should take the risk by buying an album, then decide whether to keep it. Sometimes one mightn't like it after all. Tough. Return it to the shop, sell it on eBay (without keeping a copy!) or give it to a friend.
Having said that, I'd be naïve to deny that people are going to download, leading to five possibilities:
- Someone illegally downloads and likes the album a lot, and buys a legitimate copy.
- Someone illegally downloads and likes the album a lot, and just keeps the download.
- Someone illegally downloads and rather likes the album, enough to keep the download but not to pay for it.
- Someone illegally downloads and doesn't particularly like the album, but keeps the download anyway.
- Someone illegally downloads and dislikes the album, and deletes the download.
I'd tentatively support the first and last, but I take a pessimistic view of human nature, and suspect that the parasites are the majority. I'd find it difficult to believe that someone claiming to do 1) isn't really doing 2), and that someone claiming to do 5) isn't really doing 4). Needless to say, I don't remotely support 2-4.
It's been argued that:
"What's bad is downloading albums and not buying any. I see absolutely no reason not to download full albums, listen to them, and purchase them if they're worth it."
Idealism aside, I'd agree, but what if they're not worth purchasing? If you decide not to buy one, do you delete it? Every single time?
I can dismiss two other arguments outright:
I can't afford to buy all the music I listen to.
Lack of money is no excuse. Can't afford it? Can't have it. Simple as that. Pop music is a commodity, not a right.
Record companies are greedy. I won't pay the cover price no matter how much I like the album.
The price is the price. Either pay it, and receive the music, or decline to pay and don't receive the music. You can't have it both ways. I agree that CD prices are exorbitant. That's a reason to complain, campaign or boycott, but not to steal. Rolls-Royce cars are ludicrously expensive. Try stealing one of them then explaining to a judge that the manufacturer/retailer obliged you to do it.
7 March, 2005
Better desktop searching
Back in October, I commented unfavourably about the beta of Google's Desktop Search, as it was almost exclusively tied to Microsoft products I just don't use. In the interests of balance ;) I ought to mention that the finished version, just released, supports Firefox as standard, and plugins extend coverage to other non-MS packages, such as Open Office.
That said, I still don't plan to use it myself, but now because it's just not a facility for which I perceive a need, not because of any apparent inadequacy in the utility itself.
7 March, 2005
What's your high score?
So long as it doesn't take over, a little time spent on a mildly-stimulating computer game can improve productivity.
If you're having a tough day, reinvigorate yourself by spending a few minutes with the new Tetris variant publicised as User Friendly's Link Of The Day: Tetris 1D.
23 February, 2005
AutoLink 'blocked' (twice)
As Neil notes, it isn't a perfect solution. Jeffrey mentions the superior alternative would be:
... if Google would do what Microsoft did with Smart Tags: namely, provide a meta tag that disables them.
Hence those site owners who don't mind or even welcome the functionality could permit it, whereas those like Jeffrey and I could cleanly opt out, retaining control over our own sites.
On to Plan 'B'. There's an even simpler way to prevent AutoLinking: don't provide linkable content in the first place. Google links from ISBNs? Fine; don't expect to see any ISBNs at this site.
It's kind of retrograde to have to withhold information to prevent tampering, but if that's what it takes....
Threadwatch now has an array of AutoLink blockers.
23 February, 2005
The latest version of the Google toolbar is out in beta (i.e. finished but subject to revision). It's only available for Internet Explorer, and I certainly wouldn't recommend that, so I won't bother to offer a link.
One new feature of the toolbar is attracting a lot of attention: the AutoLink button. If a block of text mentions a street address, the toolbar will render it clickable as a link to an online map (by default, Google's own). Other information is treated in the same way. For example, an ISBN will become a link to that book at Amazon.
This replicates the Smart Tags functionality tested by Microsoft and rejected due to user criticism. Other sites have discussed the issue at length, so I won't, but I do have a concern I haven't seen expressed elsewhere.
'Apologists' (heh – just teasing) point out that the functionality isn't imposed. It's not turned on by default, the user needs to press the AutoLink button before anything happens. Don't want extra links? Don't use the button. Simple.
However, I seem to be unique in approaching this from an entirely different viewpoint: my concern isn't the ability of users to avoid unwanted links but the right of content-providers to opt-out or block links.
As a designer and site owner, I provide some links from my pages, and withhold others. It's my decision, not that of a visitor, and certainly not that of a third-party. If I want to link to Amazon, I'll do so myself; the absence of a link means I don't want there to be one.
You might now realise that my omission of a link in the first sentence of this entry was an illustration of this point. Hypothetically, the technology could (it doesn't now, but it could) be used to convert a mention of the Google toolbar into a link to its download site. A visitor might find that convenient, but as I mentioned in the second sentence, I have a reason not to provide it. The visitor mightn't agree with that reason, but here's the point: I'm not asking the visitor's opinion. This is my website, and I demand the right to offer and withhold links as I choose.
Another hypothetical situation would arise if the ISBN-to-bookshop linking was extended to give the user a choice of retailers, and Waterstones was one of them. Since the hypocritical sacking of Joe Gordon, I'm unwilling to have anything to do with that company. I wouldn't be preventing the visitor from going to the Waterstones website via a different route, but I'd certainly object to my web content – my intellectual property, to get a little precious about it – being used to assist the process. If AutoLinks then linked to the retailer anyway, my site would be generating traffic and revenue for Waterstones, directly against my will. Personally, I don't regard that as acceptable, and don't believe that a visitor's convenience should override my wishes.
This is another example of the (in my opinion) flawed ideology practiced by too many web designers, that the user always has to have control. I disagree, particularly in the case of private, personal sites.
Follow-up: Two anti-AutoLink measures, and one anti-anti-anti-AutoLink measure which blocks AutoLinks even if the user is trying to circumvent the block.
13 February, 2005
Not that I want to say "I told you so", but it's reported that internet privacy certifier TRUSTe has taken the virtually unprecedented step of instructing the main 'free iPods' company (and its subsidiaries), to remove TRUSTeís privacy seal of approval from all of its sites*, for alleged misuse of private information, including the contact details of minors.
No-one's saying the pyramid schemes are total scams; people have received their free items. However, someone (sorry, I've lost the link) has calculated that even under ideal conditions, 85% of participants will be unable to complete their sign-ups, so the company will only have to send out a relatively tiny number of, let's face it, inexpensive items, in return for many thousands of e-mail and postal addresses, even financial details in some cases. Marketers would pay much more for those details than the cost of a few audio players.
"But I can unsubscribe from the offers as soon as I've received my iPod."
Well, yes, you can try. But be honest (with yourself): do you truly believe the companies will just discard your contact details when asked, and more importantly, do you really think the companies you signed up with are the only ones who received your contact details?
No, by signing up you're only assisting the marketing industry and actively inviting spam.
*: Having investigated further, I've found an assertion from the 'free iPods' parent company that TRUSTe is planning to recertify them after a training programme. If this is true (and it might be), it suggests that future participants may face fewer obvious problems, but that's a bit late for the existing participants.
[Via Neil's World]
7 February, 2005
Ads in RSS
A large number of people (including me) read the Boing Boing RSS feed, in my case via Bloglines, rather than visiting the website itself. One result is that we're not exposed to the adverts on the site, and Boing Boing are suffering a loss of revenue. Their response is to insert ads into the RSS feed.
Damn. I didn't realise that was technically possible. I can understand the reasoning behind the new policy, but that doesn't mean I'm pleased. This minor annoyance isn't so bad as as to dissuade me from reading Boing Boing, but I really hope the idea doesn't catch on elsewhere.
5 February, 2005
Don't all rush at once, but I have fifty (50!) invites to distribute.
I presume this means Google are about ready to launch Gmail as 'finished' (they've been calling it 'beta' up to now).
If you're interested, let me know, stating your first and last names and an existing e-mail address to which I can send an invitation. Use the 'Contact' form if you'd rather not include them in a Comment.
1 February, 2005
Link spamming from the other side
The Register features an interview with a comments spammer (aka ****ing parasite), anonymous but unashamed. It's the expected mix of self-justification (apparently it's all the search engines' fault) and 'nothing personal, mate' insincerity, but there are a couple of interesting points.
It's no surprise that comments spammers exploit unsecured proxies i.e. redirect attacks via underprotected servers, so their true IP addresses are masked. No surprise, but hopefully a reminder that online security is important beyond just protecting against viruses. As I've said earlier, I'd support the idea of network administrators banning unsecured computers from all internet connectivity. Cars without adequate brakes or exhaust systems (see the pollution analogy?) wouldn't be allowed on the public highway, so why allow computers to jeopardise others?
One of the spammers' tricks is to identify the folder and script names associated with blogging packages, which firstly assists in identifying targets and secondly provides routes to comment 'by the back door' i.e. avoiding the usual user interface to post comments straight to the database. This can be avoided by renaming key files/folders (I've done that to some extent, but I should have done it at installation - some can't change now), which set me thinking.
Would it be technically possible for publishing packages to generate unique names for each installation, at first installation? For example, rather than every single installation of Movable Type calling its comments script 'aardvark.pl', a given installation might call it '5j3e5p.pl'.
Incidentally, MT-Blacklist has stopped 147 spam attempts within the last 75 minutes.
27 January, 2005
Just received an irate e-mail from someone who received a virus-infected e-mail from 'me'. No, it was clearly from an infected copy of Outlook which happened to include me in its address book, thereby borrowing my address as an alias.
Common enough, but the reason for that <sigh> was that the recipient, thinking the attachment was a virus, opened it (on a computer without up-to-date AV protection), to confirm it was a virus.
Congratulations! You were right!
26 January, 2005
Yeah, but where from?
A mundane aspect of my job is to repair broken links across the University website; as individual departments maintain their own subsidiary websites, and don't always notify each other, or me, of changed addresses, links from the main site are sometimes broken without my knowledge. I always appreciate fault notifications, but those reporting always seem to make the same mistake.
If you ever find a broken link on a website, and are kind enough to let the maintainer know, please be aware that the important part is to identify the page containing the fault, not necessarily the non-existent destination. That is, it's less useful to know that "the link to Page X, '../dept/oldlink.htm' is dead" than to know that "the link from Page Y '../core/directory.htm' to Page X is broken". The latter more accurately describes the fault to be repaired; the former requires a lot of investigative work if 'Page Y' could be any of several hundred!
However, as I said, responsible web maintainers welcome fault notifications - even if you don't have the full information, that's better than nothing ;)
25 January, 2005
Twenty million copies of Firefox 1.0 have been downloaded in the 76 days since its launch. After the initial surge of five million downloads in twelve days, that's a more-or-less linear growth, which has yet to even slow down.
Rather impressive, eh?
20 January, 2005
"Schools jump to take up free Opera licence offer".
Okay, any shift away from IE is to be applauded, but Firefox is free anyway, to everyone. The ad-free version of Opera may be offered to education establishments for free, but anyone wanting to use it at home is still going to have to pay (or accept adverts).
I suppose my real question is: why does a paid-for browser have any market share, when perfectly adequate, comparible if not superior, alternatives are available for free? I've never understood that.
8 January, 2005
A fairly frequent route into the Ministry is via a Google search for 'Firefox auto-disconnect', so I thought I might as well mention the main options.
In the case of Internet Explorer, when the last window is closed, Windows will automatically disconnect a dialup connection to the internet (it may even ask first). The short answer is that Firefox can't do this, but it's not really a flaw on the part of Mozilla. IE is an integral part of Windows, so has something of a 'head start', unavailable to non-Microsoft packages.
Essentially, the alternatives are:
Get used to it. I have. To disconnect manually, right-click on the 'Internet Connection' icon in the System Tray (bottom right, next to the clock) and select 'disconnect' from the context menu, or double-click (left mouse button) on the icon and select the 'disconnect' button in the resulting popup window.
Use a third-party utility. There's a good summary of the main ones at MozillaZine, with step-by-step configuration instructions for one, 'HangUp.exe'.
Hmm. I don't seem to be able to access the download site for HangUp; I hope it's a temporary fault. Also note that 'hangup.exe' is a known alias of the 'Win32.Nocan.B@mm' worm - that's a different 'hangup.exe'!
7 January, 2005
Not exactly extortion
I was briefly amused to read that Microsoft have released a beta version of an anti-spyware utility, since that company's packages, Outlook and Internet Explorer, are the world's leading vectors of malware. I suppose it's only right that they attempt to make amends, but I still recommend Ad-Aware and/or Spybot S&D instead (plus Thunderbird & Firefox, of course).
However, El Reg has a more serious interpretation of the announcement. Basic economic sense suggests that following the beta period, Microsoft will wish to charge a subscription fee for the service (anti-spyware packages are of limited value without regular library updates). If that supposition is correct, not only will Microsoft continue to make everyone's PC vulnerable, it will probably attempt to profit from its own failings.
3 January, 2005
Think of the mice
Here's a quick web design tip, demonstrated (as a negative example) by TheTrainLine.com.
If using a mouseover effect, whereby text changes colour when the mouse cursor passes over it, denoting a link, don't apply it indiscriminately to the whole document.
In the stated case, the text changes from black on white to lime green on white, which is illegible. That's barely acceptable for inline text, where one probably reads each word before passing the mouse pointer over it, but it's awkward to select items from a dropdown menu in which all options are suddenly lime on white, and when one can't read what one has just typed into a form's text entry area, it's more of a hinderance than a mere annoyance.
22 December, 2004
That one? Maybe that one?
Having spent all morning wrestling a departmental website into a form which might scrape through accessibility legislation, though certainly not an aesthetic awards ceremony, I'd like to make an appeal to all web authors.
When preparing a navigation structure, please use intuitive, unambiguous titles.
A visitor can normally scan down a menu bar quickly, identify likely routes to the required information, and judge which of two similar-sounding options is the more appropriate. However, anyone using a screen reader (blind/partially-sighted) or tabbing through a drop down menu (typically because of an inability to use a mouse or other pointing device) will only 'see' menu items one at a time. As soon as a credible option is reached, that link is followed, whereas an item further down the list might have been better.
It might be argued that the visitor should check all possible choices before selecting one, but:
a) the responsibility for sensible links should really lie with the designer, not the visitor, and:
b) there might be 30-40 links on a page - it can be needlessly onerous to tab through them all twice.
It should be obvious (but plainly isn't) that links should be intuitive to the visitor, not only the site owner.
A basic example is the phrase 'current year'. To anyone already in the UK higher education sector, the year runs from October to September, not January to December. It's fairly common for someone speaking in, say, September 2004, to refer to October 2004 as 'next year', probably confusing anyone operating outside the university system.
Worse, anyone working in undergraduate admissions, again speaking in September 2004, might refer to October 2005 as 'this year', since the admissions cycle works at least 13 months ahead, maybe even 21 months if one counts the pre-application stages.
At the time of writing, December 2004, my boss' current project is the undergraduate prospectus for Entry 2006; her 'current year' is 2006. That's October 2006, not January. Obviously.
Still clear on the definition of 'current year'? Imagine when this sort of ambiguity accidentally reaches a web page for external publication....
"Apply now for funding opportunities for the coming year!"
When is 'now'
- the reader doesn't know the date of publication. The page could be weeks or months old.
If 'current year'
is problematic, what the **** does 'coming year'
mean? The one already started? The next one? The next recruitment cycle?
15 December, 2004
Accurate or intuitive?
I seem to have posted about Firefox quite frequently recently. That's not deliberate - I'm no evangelist. This entry isn't really about specific software, except as examples of more general concepts.
This afternoon I helped a colleague install Firefox. There was a problem importing items from the Internet Explorer 'Links' toolbar' to the Firefox equivalent, the 'Bookmarks' toolbar. Once resolved, an interesting difference became obvious.
The user had numbered a few key items, from 1 to 12, so they'd appear in a specific order in the header toolbar rather than be lost in the overspill sidebar. In IE, the order was as required: 1,2,3,4,... whereas in Firefox the order was 1,10,11,12,2,3,4,....
Strictly speaking, Firefox was more correct, but IE was more intuitive and met the user's requirements.
So, which is better: pedantically correct, or intuitive? I mean in general; I'm no longer talking about the numbers example. This is a fundamental design issue, which applies to everything from web pages to road signs.
Another example would be the issue of web standards compliance. IE is less compliant, but if it serves the needs of users better, does that matter? Should one adhere to strict standards simply for the sake of complying, or provide what people really want?
These are partly devil's advocate questions, of course. Personally I have no problem with the more accurate 1,10,11,... numbering (I'd have used 01,02,03..., which eliminates confusion), and loathe the 'helpful' attitude built into Microsoft products. For me, more accurate generally is more intuitive.
But (and this is an important point) that's just me. People differ, which makes design such an... interesting activity. Which should take priority - meeting current expectations, or educating towards imposed conditions? To rephrase: if standards are a valid concept at all, should they be set at the existing level of the majority, or at a 'best practice' level to which the majority can aspire?
13 December, 2004
Firefox hits 10M
Wow! Ten million downloads in a little over a month! Was yours one of them?
13 December, 2004
There's a new service (in beta) at Google.
As you type into the search box, Google Suggest
guesses what you're typing and offers suggestions in real time.
Apart from the straightforward use, this will be helpful in search engine optimisation, as suggestions are provided in order of popularity, with the number of results displayed for each term. This is as good as a recommendation of which keywords to target for one's own site.
12 December, 2004
If anyone's vaguely interested, I use Firefox 1.0 with the following extensions, all available from Texturizer.net:
User Agent Switcher
Sometimes a website objects to Firefox, and claims to be IE-only. However, the objection is usually just an over-zealous browser detection script, and the website itself is entirely usable by Firefox users. This extension simply fools browser detection scripts.
Ideally, the previous extension would be unnecessary. Less ideally, that extension would allow Firefox into all sites. However, some sites really are IE-only, apparently (I've yet to find one), so IE View, which resides in the right-click context menu, could be useful.
Regretably, my web host's ftp server is temperamental and crashes pretty much every client I've tried, except IE, so I do have to use it once or twice each week. At least this way I don't have to have IE on my 'Start' menu or desktop....
When I open a new tab, I like the content to be a clone of the parent tab, rather than a blank, fresh tab. This extension provides exactly that. As the name suggests, it does the same for new windows, but I don't remember the last time I wanted a new browser window!
I'm not prepared to provide personal details in order to access web content; I won't contribute to customer profiling or market research. Hence, I use this extension, which accesses the bugmenot.com database of user-submitted fake usernames and passwords to bypass login pages.
The user interface has improved from the version I was using with Firefox 0.8, now integrating with autocomplete rather than requiring usernames/passwords to be retyped or cut-and-pasted. However, it's initially confusing. Previously, 'Bugmenot' appeared in the right-click context menu anywhere on any page (or was it just login pages? I forget). Now it only appears in the context menu when the mouse pointer is already in the username/password box.
Focus Last Selected Tab
As the name says, when the active tab is closed, focus automatically returns to the last selected tab .
This simply adds 'Close Tab' to the context menu.
I installed this for Firefox 0.8, and unquestioningly installed it again when upgrading to Firefox 1.0, yet I don't think I've ever used it.
Never mind; it's only a 2 kb download, so it might as well stay.
The built-in Firefox search bar accesses Google, but this extension, er, extends it to others. Thirty are installed by default, but I've trimmed that back to six: Google, Amazon UK, eBay UK, the Cambridge dictionary, IMDb and Wikipedia.
This is a comprehensive package of customisable mouse gestures, rocker navigation, tab and history scrolling, and autoscrolling, but I only use one tiny aspect: when I have multiple tabs open, I like to switch from one to the next (or previous) using the mouse scroll wheel.
Macromedia Flash Player
Not exactly an extension, but worth remembering to install; it's not part of the default Firefox package.
And that's it. Have I missed any good ones? Could I achieve the same results from a different combination of extensions? Let me know!
9 December, 2004
Below the fold
This isn't specifically a Blog Explosion issue, but since BE exposes one to a large number of page designs* and restricts the visible height of each window by imposing its own header, the effect is particularly apparent when browsing at BE.
As Betsy notes, far too many blogs feature huge, graphic-intensive page headers, the modern equivalent of splash pages.
The best metaphor for this approach might be the cover of a mass-market paperback book, which seeks to capture a potential buyer's attention with a compelling image. Unfortunately, there's a better metaphor for blogs: daily newspapers. In this model, the aim is to attract the potential readers' attention by presenting content - current text and perhaps associated images. However pretty the masthead, graphics merely diminish the space available for fresh material.
This is an old concept, and a daily consideration for newspaper designers/editors (especially for large-format broadsheets). A key objective is to get as much important information above the fold i.e. in the top half of the page, where it'll be seen immediately by those walking past the news stand. Anything below the fold won't be seen until the reader has already committed to the purchase.
Exactly the same principle applies to blogs, especially in the crowded 'news stand' of Blog Explosion. People are fundamentally lazy. If there's something good 'above the scroll', they might investigate further, but in the absence of that 'hook', one can't rely on a willingness to scroll for content.
Blog owners also only have thirty seconds to grab a BE visitor before they click on to the next site - don't waste that on loading images. There have been some occasions, particularly when browsing via narrowband at home, when a page's graphics haven't even loaded within thirty seconds.
An attractive layout and masthead obviously matter, but try to retain some balance. 'Content-led' consistently outperforms '(graphic) design-led' and, after all, top-heavy things do tend to fall over.
*: Or rather, a large number of sites, the designs of which are drawn from a depressingly small pool, once one gets past the most superficial aspects.
8 December, 2004
Gmail invites: don't call me
If you'd like an invitation to open a Gmail account, simply find someone who has Gmail invites available to be shared, and wait for that person to offer them. Do not find someone who has previously offered invites, and drop him/her an e-mail 'just on the off chance'.
If someone has Gmail invites, he/she will either offer them publicly or will be saving them, for distribution amongst friends or for reasons of his/her own (which you don't get to question). Either way, speculative requests will never have a positive effect.
Can it hurt to ask? Definitely. If unsolicited requests annoy someone, you're likely to be added to a spam blacklist. If and when invites are offered subsequently, your e-mails will be filtered out - you lose.
I realise few of those reading this will be accustomed to the practices of trading unofficial concert recordings by 'weeds' or 'vines', so this won't be as second-nature to you as to me, but here's the rule:
Wait until the resource is offered, and respond to the offer. The person making the offer always starts the process; the person wanting the resource never instigates contact. If the resource hasn't been offered, consider it unavailable - never ask unless offered.
[Update 20/02/05: All Gmail members now have a permanent supply of numerous invites to give away, so this entry has been superceded. Feel free to contact me!
The general point stands, though: speculative enquiries about scarce resources are unwelcome.]
1 December, 2004
It seems AOL's new version of the Netscape browser is out as a prototype. It's a hybrid, based primarily on the Gecko browser engine from Mozilla Firefox 0.9.3 (not the securest version, but never mind...), yet also integrating Internet Explorer's Trident engine, for a reason I don't quite grasp. I think the latter is a commercial/legal obligation on AOL, rather than a sound technical or user-led purpose.
Initial reports have been unfailingly negative, or at best, unimpressed. See Neil's World for a roundup of significant criticisms; also see Mozilla's own review.
So far as I can see, this is one to avoid.
My main concern is the potential effect on real browsers such as Firefox (that's the Firefox 1.0 completed release, not the 0.9.3 beta used by the new Netscape). If people can be persuaded to dump IE, great. If they switch to a brand they already recognise, Netscape, it seems they mightn't be getting as much of an improvement as they might elsewhere. If they then notice that it's based on (an earlier version of) Firefox, a negative browsing experience might damage the reputation of 'real' Firefox, or indeed other non-IE browsers.
29 November, 2004
Cory at BoingBoing reports that Canada Heritage (a government agency?) wants to impose a blanket fee on internet usage, on the basis that everything is copyrighted by someone, and copyright holders should be paid for their material. As Cory says, this might make some sense if it gave fee payers licence to substantially use copyrighted material in some way, but it doesn't.
For more on the subject, see Cory's summary and discussion - he's far more knowledgable about such matters.
There was one point which occurred to me, and which Cory didn't address. If Canada Heritage plans to levy a usage tax on behalf of copyright holders, what mechanism will exist to distribute the money to authors?
If I was Canadian, an owner of copyrighted material and a web user, would I receive royalty cheques, or would royalties be ofset against the tax payable?
I'm British, writing this in the UK, but I'm sure Canadians will see it in Canada, and may even quote it elsewhere. How will I be paid?
Or will Canada Heritage just collect and keep the money?
25 November, 2004
Just thought some might be interested to know that of those visitors arriving from BlogExplosion, 51.61% use IE, 46.08% use Mozilla, 1.38% use Netscape and 0.92% use AOL (I'm surprised any use AOL, but that's a different matter).
Go Firefox ;)
24 November, 2004
Just spreading the word about something Neil has already commented on.
A News.com article about Firefox driving Internet Explorer's market share below 90% (in the overall market - in tech sectors Firefox is doing even better) quotes Gary Schare, Microsoftís director of product management for Windows:
"I still believe in the end that most users will decide that IE
is the best choice when they take into account all the factors that led them to choose IE
in the first place."
But they didn't
- it came pre-installed with the operating system. Many people don't even realise an alternative exists, and believe 'IE' is a synonym for 'the internet'. In what sense can that be described as informed choice or preference?
22 November, 2004
Are YOU safe?
There was a minor crisis at tech-news website The Register at the weekend, as visitors were exposed to the Bofra worm. This exploits the well-known 'malformed IFRAME remote buffer overflow vulnerability' (no, I don't really know what that means, either), which affects Internet Explorer running on any version of Windows other than XP SP2 (and remember, due to conflicts with other software, a large number of institutions, including my own employer, have banned staff from installing SP2).
Put simply, if you use IE at all and don't have SP2, you are at constant risk.
A particularly scary aspect of this incident is that The Register itself, a site by and for the technically literate, might be expected to be safer than most, yet the infection vector wasn't El Reg itself, it was a banner ad provided by an entirely different company, whose server equipment had been hacked. The infection was triggered by loading the banner (which happens automatically, of course), not by clicking on the link.
Bottom line: do not use IE. It. Is. Unsafe.
22 November, 2004
Mozilla have released a Brit English edition of Firefox 1.0.
That link was to the Windows version, but there's one for Linux here. They offer a Mac version too.
NP: OSI 'Office of Strategic Influence' - one of my favourite albums.
20 November, 2004
Don't blame me
I'm working today, though not from my own office, so I'm online from a computer I've never used before. It has none of my bookmarks, so I loaded the Ministry for the links page, using IE. Okay, not great, but it did highlight that something on the website was attempting to set a cookie - I certainly didn't configure the site to do that!
It seems that the Google logo on my site search attempts to collect user data as it loads. I don't recall giving permission for Google to use my website that way, so will have to investigate further.
15 November, 2004
Knowing no better
Sorry if this sounds like Firefox evangelising; that's an activity I generally find counter-productive. In the following, I don't mean to emphasise the fact that I like Firefox (though I do), my intention is to (re)state my belief that Internet Explorer is awful.
A posting at Neil's World brought a good anti-IE article to my attention.
A key paragraph:
Because IE comes bundled with Windows, and most PCs run Windows, most of IE's unfortunate users do not realise how bad it is, because they have never seen any of the alternatives. They assume, therefore, that security flaws, exposure to pop-up windows and lack of even elementary facilities such as tabbed browsing correspond to the natural state of things. The moment they see an alternative browser - Mozilla, Firefox, Opera or Safari, for example - is the point at which they understand my point.
Think about that for a moment, IE users: pop-up ads are not
an integral, unavoidable aspect of browsing, as you may be taking for granted. I know I did when I was still using IE.
Anyone concerned about making the switch might like to glance through an earlier posting (about Firefox 0.8; few of my criticisms in that posting apply to the 'finished' version 1.0): for IE users, transition to Firefox can be seamless. I don't even know if Firefox is the best proper browser, but the aspect which convinced me initially was that, 'out of the box', the user interface feels like IE, only with the confidence of a proper back end.
I can't think of any reason not to switch.
14 November, 2004
I needed an animated gif editor in a hurry yesterday. The quickest and cheapest route seemed to be to pick up a copy of .net magazine, featuring Gif Movie Gear 2.52 on the cover disc.
A little further investigation unearthed a disclaimer that the .net cover disc deliberately doesn't support Netscape (I use Firefox, not Netscape, but never mind) because it isn't possible to run executable files direct from the html pages. I'd say that's an advantage, and the fact that IE does allow executables to run is a potential vulnerability. However, I can see that such a security measure would be a disadvantage for the cover disc.
This would be a good reason for .net to use a proper CD-ROM GUI, rather than lazily opting for IE-only html. I happen to have IE on my PC for error checking when writing web pages, but what about those who have dumped IE altogether, especially Mac or Linux users? Does that mean the coverdisc is unusable by anyone with a secure, standards-compliant browser?
Secondly, why are the html pages coded so badly? Okay, they're intended for display in IE, but they could still be written in valid html/xhtml and css. Even if the links to executable files were to be disabled in all but IE, the navigation and pages themselves should function and display properly in any modern browser.
This is the coverdisc of a magazine devoted to web authoring - shouldn't its own material be an example of high-quality coding? A quick glance at the source code of a random page reveals basic errors (mainly in nesting, which IE can forgive but which break the page in Firefox et al.), but also heavy use of deprecated/obsolete tags and tag attributes, strongly suggesting that the author learned html before 1999 and hasn't developed his/her skills since then. It's conceivable that those new to the subject might study this source code for learning purposes, yet it'll lock them into bad habits, if it doesn't actively mislead.
Very disappointing, and a poor reflection on a useful magazine.
10 November, 2004
End of the line?
Reporting today's announcement that AOL are to split into four autonomous divisions, the BBC mentions that:
has seen its number of subscribers shrink in recent years amid fierce competition in a crowded sector.
In 2003 the firm lost 2.2 million internet members, though Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons said earlier this year that AOL
had been 'stabilised'.
I wonder whether this reflects a maturing in general web-literacy.
When people first approach the internet, they may wish the assistance of a hand-holding, all-in service such as AOL, yet as they become more experienced and realise they can use market-leading firewalls, antivirus software and superior browsers for free, and can obtain all the information they might want from the 'wild' web rather than spoonfed by AOL's own network, without having to pay subscription charges (and can dump the '@aol.com' e-mail addresses which are the mark of dangerously incompetent newbies), they might abandon AOL in favour of 'real' ISPs.
It's a learning process, and despite that tongue-in-cheek dig at users of AOL e-mail, I don't have a problem with people undergoing it. As the previous posting mentions, I started with free hosting from Lycos Tripod, and Hotmail's webmail. The point is that I moved on as soon as I discovered superior options. Hence, I'm speculating that a large proportion of AOL's customer base might be transitory - as people 'graduate', fresh newbies join, learn, then in turn leave.
In short, maybe general web literacy is approaching a point where even entry-level users have sufficient background knowledge to simply skip the early learning stages, typified by AOL, and go straight to more advanced usage which itself has become more user-friendly than it once was.
10 November, 2004
It looks like Lycos Tripod web hosting is in decline, at least in the UK. I've just received an e-mail from them, congratulating me on the fact that my long-abandoned first ever website (no link - it's a little embarrassing!) received 97 page impressions within the last 30 days, making it one of the most popular of the Tripod community in the UK.
Ah. 97 page impressions per month. Isn't that sweet? At the time of writing, the current incarnation of the Ministry receives more than that every two hours, on average.
Maybe Lycos is targeting the Tripod service at entry-level web authors who don't expect many visitors, but if 97 hits is considered noteworthy, it rather suggests Tripod is not the place for anyone wanting to be seen!
9 November, 2004
Firefox 1.0 is out. Though millions of us have been using the 'beta' or 'pre-release' versions quite happily for many months, some have been waiting for a 'proper' release. Well, stop waiting - download it today.
The owners/maintainers of certain non-standards-compliant websites have also used Firefox's pre-release status as a feeble excuse to avoid making their sites usable: "we don't support beta software". No more.
6 November, 2004
While I was away last weekend, the blog was quite badly spammed. Only one domain name evaded MT-Blacklist, but there were 500+ instances. A nuisance, but at least it gave a little insight into Google response times.
- The flood attack occurred some time on 30 Oct; I didn't note the time.
- My visitor logs show an atypical increase in traffic on 2 Nov., so it seems obvious Google had indexed the site and large numbers of people were er, 'researching' a wide variety of sexual fetishes.
- I returned on 3 Nov. and removed all the spam comments by about 14:00.
- From periodic checks of my referrer logs, I'm fairly sure the last erroneous visitor left disappointed by about midday on 5 Nov.
So that's 24-48 hours for new search terms to appear on Google, and about the same again for absent references to vanish from the search database.
Incidentally, after the clean-up, I received two aggrieved e-mails from people complaining that there were too few (i.e. none) stories about, well, practices distinctly illegal in the UK. It ought to be instantly obvious that the blog does not - and will not - provide such material, so accusations of false advertising (as if I'd posted the comment spam myself!) are treated with the contempt they deserve.
Actually, I have the e-mail and IP addresses of potentially dodgy people now. I wonder what I can do with them....
No, I don't have a problem with sexual fantasies (so long as the extreme ones are never acted upon) or fetishes; everyone has them to some extent, and careful readers might even catch a few vague allusions in this blog, but that's all you're getting. Anyone looking for 'exotic' material (and some search terms were truly bizarre) needn't bother.
15 October, 2004
Searching some desktops
The BBC reports the beta release of Google's new Desktop Search utility which, once it has indexed one's hard disk:
... lets people search e-mails in Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, as well as files in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and in plain text. It also searches web pages viewed in Internet Explorer and instant messages in AOL
Nothing for me, then. I don't use any of those packages. I wonder if Google have heard of Thunderbird
, Open Office
and er, people with no interest in instant messaging.
Okay, it searches plaintext too. That's something, but hardly an incentive to download a new application.
[07/03/05: See update]
5 October, 2004
Beating up the victim
Worldpay, the e-commerce clearing house for 30,000 web stores, suffered a denial of service attack at the weekend, its second in a year. As with most DDOSs, virus/trojan authors were able to infect and take control of a huge number of 'zombie' computers, which in turn sent a mass of junk data to the Worldpay servers, overloading them. The vulnerability is in the 'zombies', not Worldpay, which could do nothing against the volume of traffic.
Yet, astonishingly, it is plain from the readers' comments posted at the end of the BBC report on the attack that Worldpay customers (i.e. small online retailers) do blame Worldpay for its "inability to stave off attacks." Two examples:
I am in the process of moving my company to a better merchant account - so I'm glad they are getting hit.
I really had hoped that WorldPay had learnt its lessons last year, this reflects badly on both of us.
This must be so frustrating to Worldpay, not to mention financially crippling. Yes, retailers are annoyed by lost orders, but to lash out at the victim of the DDOS is utterly unfair. There are no lessons to be learned by Worldpay. To anyone with the vaguest hint of technical comprehension, is is obvious that the ultimate blame lies with the perpetrators of the attack, though if it wasn't for the incompetent/negligent owners of the 'zombie' machines, there could be no attack, so I'd certainly ascribe the majority of the blame to people like my mother.
As Bill Thompson at the BBC, amongst others, have frequently argued (he mentioned it again yesterday), it is socially irresponsible to leave your computer open to attack.
Virus writers are relying solely on the fact that there are a lot of people online who simply don't know or care about security, who will not have bothered to patch their Windows PC, and who are perfectly happy to click on links, open e-mail attachments or have online conversations with strangers. It is hard not to conclude that exposed users get what they deserve.
However, connecting to the internet is a social act, one that carries with it obligations, including an obligation to run a secure system. There are serious consequences if millions of computers get infected. The network slows down, vital data may be damaged, and many of the infected computers will be turned into zombies, used to send spam.
This piece refers to another Thompson article from about a fortnight ago. I recommend reading that too, particularly the latter third, which makes a very valuable suggestion:
When a computer tries to connect to a protected network, it first has to verify that it complies with that network's security standards. It's a bit like having a swipe card to get into a protected area of a building.
If the computer doesn't conform then it is only able to connect to a single server, one which provides the patches and security software it needs.
If internet service providers set up a similar system for their customers then anyone who has a virus or other malware would find themselves unable to connect to the wider internet until they had sorted it out.
The security check could even look to see if anti-virus software or a firewall were in use, and refuse to connect any unprotected machines.
Many would complain at first, but the benefits to the net community as a whole would be so great that it would be worth it. We would have less spam, fewer viruses and a safer online world.
3 October, 2004
Just a quick summary of something trivial I'd never been quite sure about, finally answered at Guardian Online: are e-mail addresses case-sensitive?
Each email address has two parts: the 'local' name and the domain name, separated by '@'.
The domain name is never case-sensitive, by definition.
The local name is rarely case-sensitive, though it may be.
However, if one uses an e-mail address as a login name, that may well be case-sensitive.
25 September, 2004
I've always resisted the introduction of commercial advertising into the Ministry, so with the announcement that the site search feature remotely hosted (for free) by Atomz is soon to become ad-supported, I've re-examined it.
I'm glad I did, as even though I tweaked the coverage in June, I think there'd been an unannounced 'upgrade', and the script was crawling an area I'd thought excluded from the search. This put the page count over the 494-page cap, so a proportion of the Tull Tour History had been omitted from the database. Reconfigured, the script went too far the other way, failing to crawl any of the photo pages. This isn't adequate, and would require a high-maintenance workaround, so a little reluctantly I've switched provider. Atomz has been pretty good, but I seem to have outgrown the free version of their site search.
As is fairly obvious from the home page, the Ministry now uses Google's Free Site Search. Yes, it's supported by context-sensitive adverts alongside the search results, but Atomz was about to introduce that anyway, and the fact that Google has the whole site indexed removes the need to use MT's built-in Search for the blog and a separate Search for the other departments.
After a considerable struggle I've managed to customise the appearence of the Google results page to approximately resemble the rest of the site. If you're tempted to try it at your own site, be aware that customisation is neither as straightforward nor as successful as one might expect.
23 September, 2004
A conference in Manchester has heard the suggestion that illicit file sharing of music should be legalised but taxed, a surcharge on internet subscription fees being shared among artists whose music is being downloaded. For a moment, I thought that membership of file sharing networks, and hence specifically those people downloading albums would be taxed, but it seems the proposal is to tax all internet users through their subscriptions to ISPs, irrespective of whether they personally are downloaders (aka freeloaders...).
As technology journalist and author Andrew Orlowski is quoted in a BBC report:
"I do not have kids and I do not have a car but I do not have any objection to paying for roads and schools because it is better that they are there rather than not."
That's an entirely fatuous argument. Roads and schools are essential aspects of society, and do need to be funded by all rather than by the most direct beneficiaries, but file sharing is a luxury, a privilege for which the individual should pay, not a right, funded by the whole of society.
I like lobster. Others may loathe the very idea of eating 'giant lice'. Should there be a surcharge on everyone's water bills, so I can eat lobster for free?
NP: Amplifier (Amplifier, 2003) - on a legitimate CD.
22 September, 2004
Still opening windows
One item in my html repertoire is the target="_blank" attribute of the <a href> tag. In short, it opens a clicked link in a new window (though in Firefox, the 'Single Window' extension opens it in a new tab - much better!), leaving the original website in the first window/tab.
This promotes access to content outside a website without encouraging visitors to totally leave the primary site.
I like it, as do my employers ;) and I use it a lot. Quite a while ago, I republished instructions on how to make this the default link behaviour in Movable Type blog postings.
Some people get a little... excited about this.
You have no right to control a userís user agent in any way. This includes opening windows. If a user wants a new window/tab, then they will decide to open it, not you ó it MUST be their decision.
YOU DO NOT make any decision on behalf of the USER regarding the User Agentís interface or behaviour!
I do feel there are too many ideological issues tacked onto web design. As with any ideologies, I question them, and don't always agree. Personally, I don't regard web standards as morally 'good' and don't regard 'purity' as virtuous (as if I cared about virtue anyway).
To return to the point: I have major problems with the 'rule' that the user always has to have control. In some 'genres' of website, particularly in the commercial or public sectors, that's very true, but not all.
If I, an information provider, am offering material to a passive audience, without any interaction or 'audience participation' (heh), I get to decide how it's presented. There are entirely valid, practical reasons to permit a visitor to change the text size and colour, but beyond the requirements of accessibility legislation (which I meet, and on the whole exceed) I feel no moral obligation to surrender control of my website to the whims of visitors.
Jakob Nielsen called the technique 'hostile' (though he was writing before the widespread introduction of tabbed browsing, which almost eliminates the alleged disadvantage of the technique, so might offer a different comment on the user experience in newer technology). He's perfectly entitled to hold whatever view he chooses, but Nielsen isn't a web deity, and his pronouncements aren't to be slavishly adopted. On this point, I don't think his criticisms are even accurate. By all means read his advice, but question it. If you agree, great, but think for yourself, eh?
20 September, 2004
'Igniting the web'
On 12 September, Mozilla launched a campaign to encourage a million people to download the Preview Release of the Firefox browser (i.e. virtually Firefox 1.0) within ten days.
It took 100 hours - the millionth download was logged with six days to spare.
16 September, 2004
Another nail into Internet Explorer?
The BBC reports the emergence of a new virus vector: the way Windows and related programs display .jpg images. A number of common packages are vulnerable, including MS Outlook, but Internet Explorer is an especial risk, since it's theoretically possible for someone to be infected merely by visiting a web page containing the specially-prepared images.
Those who have already installed Win XP SP2 should be protected, but that's SP2: the one which many organisations (including here at the University) have firmly instructed users not to install, due to compatibility problems.
The standard advice is that there's a patch available from Microsoft without having to install the full SP2, but I'd recommend also following the non-standard advice of dumping Internet Explorer outright and using a real browser such as Firefox.
I would still recommend installing the patch anyway. I would, but I can't. I just tried installing it myself and was able to download something which scans my PC and tells me if it's vulnerable. It is, so I was referred back to Windows Update... and SP2, which I'm not permitted to install. So much for a standalone patch.
8 September, 2004
I do recommend Firefox
Respected developer Adam Kalsey set a cat amongst the pigeons (well, maybe just a kitten) on Monday, with a blog post entitled 'Why I don't recommend Firefox':
I think the browser has some way to go before Iíd recommend it to the general population... itís still not okay to the average user.
Wildly summarising (please read the full posting!), his central point seems to be that Firefox
is still only suitable for the fully web-literate, and it's too soon to market Firefox to entry-level users who don't even understand the term 'browser' or who only know the internet as 'My Yahoo!'.
That's undeniable, but I'd have to question whether it's relevant. That class of user isn't going to be interested in changing browser anyway, irrespective of whether Firefox is ready to offer the amount of hand-holding they'd need, yet that's no reason to avoid promoting Firefox at all
, particularly to those with a little more technical knowledge.
And I do mean a little - there's a wide spectrum between entry-level and 'web guru', and I'd say browser migration is well within the capacity of the lower end of the range.
On a scale of 1=my mother to 10=well, Adam Kalsey, where I'd rank myself, a non-techie web designer, at 5 or 6, I think the current state of Firefox is fine for everyone above, say, 3. For this 'low-intermediate' level of user on upwards, this is a prime time to push Firefox, to establish, or rather, increase a sizeable user base before the next incarnation of IE. There's also nothing to stop a 'level 5' person installing Firefox for a 'level 1' person, as I plan to do for my mother next time I'm in Wales.
One of the aspects which sold Firefox to me was its apparent similarity to IE, and near-seamless transition for the user. Entry-level users mightn't appreciate the advantages of tabbed browsing (at least not immediately) and probably wouldn't want to play about with adding plug-ins, but they can still gain the benefits of a superior back-end via an 'IE clone' GUI.
Adam argues against aiming a browser switch campaign at entry-level users. As I've said, I don't think any such campaign is directed at them, and Firefox's proponents (not evangelists - their attitude is unhelpful) shouldn't hold back from persuading 'low-intermediate' users to give it a try. However, to go off at a tangent - and I do acknowledge this is a separate issue - the main reason for IE's level of market penetration is simply that it automatically ships with Windows PCs, and a relative minority bother to change. Entry-level users become familiar with IE because that's all they experience.
If manufacturers started including Firefox in factory installations (okay, I agree with Adam in that context; Firefox isn't quite ready for that yet. But nearly.), there's no reason why Firefox couldn't benefit from the same user apathy, and the effort entry-level users put into learning IE could be invested in Firefox instead.
5 September, 2004
Gmail open to all
Ten days ago, I posted that I had six Gmail invites to give away, and offered them to active bloggers, preferably those willing to link to the Ministry. It seems that Gmail is indeed embarking on the 'big push' to market saturation: as I've given each invite away, it has been replaced immediately, so I still have six available!
I'll open the offer to everyone reading this, whether active bloggers or just readers: if you'd like a Gmail account, just drop me an email.
Of course, if you do have a blog, a link would still be a pleasant 'thank you' ;)
[Update 07/10/04: For a month, Google replaced each invite as I gave it away, so I had an ongoing pool of six to offer. However, this replacement process stopped at the weekend, and all remaining invites have been allocated. I'm sure there'll be more at some point, unless Google start taking direct applications rather than invitation-only sign-ups.]
27 August, 2004
It looks as if Google are ready to roll out Gmail a little further, as I suddenly have six invites to give away. Who wants 'em?
To reduce the flood of replies from total strangers, I'll set a couple of conditions:
You need to have a blog of your own (a link to the Ministry would be nice, but not required!)
You need to have previously posted a comment at the Ministry blog.
So non-bloggers who are just drifting through can forget about it ;)
29 July, 2004
Doug Bowman at Stopdesign offers a useful article about CSS-based web design. I won't go into detail about his central point, that tables-based design is obsolete and to be avoided; the part I want to highlight regards a suggested approach to web design for all browsers. It begins in the second paragraph after Doug's screenshots of the Microsoft home page, if you'd like to read his full text (as I'd recommend).
To paraphrase: several websites solely function in the Windows version of IE because designers claim that's the browser, used by a majority of people, and that it takes too long to develop sites which render and function in alternative browsers. There's an overlapping claim that development for non-IE/Windows is too expensive.
These erroneous impressions often arise when initial development and verification work is done in IE, then only checked in other browsers as a final stage. This leads to the perception that any 'bugs' are in the other browsers, when it's IE that's idiosyncratic, and the developer has built in the flaws to accommodate its foibles.
IE's interpretation of css is less strict than its competitors, so is more forgiving of bad coding. Consequently, designing in IE means problems with development work will be missed as they arise. Starting with IE then retrofitting for other browsers will indeed increase overall time and cost. So:
Start with the stricter, more compliant browsers that (usually) render things how theyíre supposed to render. Get everything working there. Then, double back and create a few 'patches' for IE. Development is much faster this way. It may be counter-intuitive to initially avoid the browser that represents the majority of your traffic. But the process is much more fluid and efficient if you donít become accustomed to - or depend on - IEís relaxed rendering behavior. Start with IE, and you may start with bad code that takes much longer to fix for other stricter browsers.
Code generated for Firefox
will almost certainly render perfectly in IE, but the reverse is drastically less certain.
7 July, 2004
Insert shoe size to continue
I might as well mention this in case people had missed it:
Bugmenot.com offers "a mechanism to quickly bypass the login of web sites that require compulsory registration and/or the collection of personal/demographic information". Whenever you encounter a website requiring registration, don't provide your own details, log in with a fake id from Bugmenot. At the time of writing, they claim to have 'liberated' 10904 sites, and whenever a new one is encountered, the discoverer is encouraged to register with false details and submit the login and password to bugmenot, for the use of future visitors.
I've been using it occasionally for a few months, but have just discovered that an extension has been written for Firefox, incorporating the Bugmenot functionality into the browser's context menu (i.e. right-click and select it, to get a login and password for the site currently being visited).
This extension has been adopted as an official part of the Mozilla development project, which is an indication of the community's distaste for such demographic/marketing tactics as compulsory registration.
Oh, there's a version for IE too, if you must use an inferior browser.....
As the byline on the Bugmenot home page says: "tell everyone you know".
4 July, 2004
Wired gives more information about the security improvements inherent in switching from IE to Firefox.
However, I agree with Neil's slight criticism of the Wired article: 'security through obscurity' is unlikely to be a dominant factor, and slightly detracts from the other, more compelling arguments.
It's good to hear that takeup of Firefox is currently running at about 100,000 downloads per day (which doubled on the day after the US government's CERT issued its advice to totally avoid IE until further notice), and the user base apparently doubles every few months.
1 July, 2004
MSN recommends Firefox
When Microsoft itself advises users to switch away from Internet Explorer in favour of Mozilla Firefox, it's to be hoped people will take the hint.
On the whole, the article is a good review of Firefox's key features, including its similarity to IE's look-and-feel, but there's one annoying statement to be rebutted: Microsoft didn't 'win the browser war' by providing a better product, it achieved a high market share by shipping IE with every copy of Windows, and relying on consumers finding it insufficiently offensive to bother loading something else. That's success through customer apathy, not superior engineering.
30 June, 2004
Apologies to those using the 'Search' function at the main MoI site, as the last few updates have been failing to index some pages, as it seems the script has been attempting to index blog posts too. This is the 379th, there are 194 indexable pages at the main site, and the search database is capped at 492, so 81 pages have been skipped.
That 'Search' facility is now restricted to the Tull Tour History, annotated 'Passion Play', and the blog's image galleries. Blog entries themselves have their own 'Search' facility anyway, built into MT, so everything is searchable.
It's unfortunate that one no longer covers both, but I don't get the impression that there's significant crossover between users of the two wings of the Ministry.
19 June, 2004
I've got Gmail
Many thanks, Anders!
3 June, 2004
Never do too good a job
A couple of weeks ago, I threw together a mini-site promoting one of the University's courses, and was gratified to be praised for it.
Today the parent department tried to book my services to redesign their entire site, of 150+ static html pages. It'd take ages.... And no, a database-driven site isn't an option at present; I'd have to hand-code each static page one-by-one.
I hope they'll accept revision of the existing site, perhaps with a fresh page header tacked onto an updated stylesheet, plus extra images scattered amongst the existing pages, rather than a total overhaul and recoding.
2 June, 2004
Web gallery design tip
If your website has a gallery of photographs, some landscape-orientated, some portrait, the positioning of the 'next'/'previous'/'back to index' links matters.
If above the images, the links will tend to appear in exactly the same place on each page. This means a visitor could hold the mouse cursor over the consistently-located 'next' link and easily browse through the whole gallery.
If below the images, a visitor may need to scroll to find the links, and varying image orientation means they won't automatically line up, so the mouse will need to be repositioned on each page - a tiny inconvenience, but the sort of thing that makes a difference to the browsing experience.
17 May, 2004
It might seem I've been ranting about IE recently, but I've just found that it inadequately supports an important HTML tag I've used here rather frequently; some of my postings presumably seem even more confusing than the way they left my head.
The <acronym> tag provides definitions of quoted terms (not only acronyms and abbreviations). For example, if you hold the mouse cursor over the letters 'IE' in the preceding paragraph, after a moment you should see the words 'Internet Explorer' pop up as a tooltip next to the cursor. I also use it to provide translations of non-English terms. Great, eh? Really useful, except for one thing: how would one know to hover over the acronym for it to be spelled out in full? In Firefox, items in an <acronym> tag are indicated clearly with a dotted underline, so they stand out from both plain text (non-underlined) and hyperlinks (solid underlined). In IE, nothing; the visitor is offered no indication.
I've inserted an ugly CSS quick-fix: all <acronym>s, like 'CSS' in this sentence, now appear with a dark green background (except for the example above; I rigged that specially). It's not ideal, as visitors still mightn't realise why the text has a background, but it might be enough to tempt people to try hovering over text and give them a helpful surprise.
This applies retrospectively, of course, so you might like to re-read anything you didn't understand earlier. If the confusing terms don't have a green background and tooltip on hover, my writing is at fault rather than the coding or browser. Sorry.
14 May, 2004
A web page properly written to meet web standards should be rendered flawlessly and near-identically in any modern browser. Conversely, a poorly-coded page might be displayed oddly in some browsers, if at all. However, Internet Explorer is a very forgiving browser, able to compensate for sloppy coding which technically shouldn't work, so may display some page elements or even whole pages which other browsers can't. That's a fault of the page author, not the browser, but having acknowledged that, ascribing blame doesn't solve the problem.
IE itself doesn't comply with web standards, so in order for pages to render as intended, it may seem an author has to deliberately deviate from the standards, optimising exclusively for IE. That's somewhat short-sighted, and not recommended. There is a view that since IE is the market leader, an author's efforts should focus on it, but as I said in the first line of this posting, valid code should work in all browsers anyway.
A trivial example: today I found that IE placed a <h3> page title flush with a header graphic, where as Firefox left a decent gap. I could have inserted a <br /> line break so that the page looked okay in IE, but that would have added excessive padding in all other browsers. The alternative was to use CSS to specify spacing around <h3> elements, which is effective in all browsers.
In order to identify such issues, it's necessary for an author to view new pages/modifications in IE, even if he/she ordinarily uses a real browser.
A third issue is that IE supports its own proprietory coding and integration with 'back-end' software, so a small number of websites really are IE-only, particularly those involved in e-commerce (e.g. some web stores, banks and utilities companies). Hopefully software evolution and customer pressure will remove this incompatibility eventually.
Although I'd always advocate that people switch from IE to a modern browser, clearly there are cases when one really does have to use IE. Hence the ieview plugin for Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox: a simple extension which opens IE and loads the current page or a selected link. Very handy, but I hope it won't get much use!
10 May, 2004
Browser switch campaign
There's some new content on the blog's main index page, exclusively for those viewing it in Internet Explorer. Lucky you.
Not for everyone else, as that'd be preaching to the converted, but I'll explain anyway.
Following the lead of Neil Turner, I'm suggesting that people make the switch away from IE. I'm not inclined to criticise Micro$oft (ahem, Microsoft) merely because it's fashionable to do so; I genuinely believe IE is an inferior product, in several respects.
I was initially sceptical (who, me?) about the near-evangelism of Mozilla supporters, but having tried Firefox for myself, that's the browser I recommend. The selling point, for me, was that the transition was seamless: the user interface and initial browsing experience were near-identical to that in IE, so there was no learning curve. The immediate benefits are unseen, in protection against popups, ad- and spyware, plus reliable, standards-compliant processing of web pages. In that respect, Firefox is IE's better-performing twin. If you're happy with IE, there's no reason not to try Firefox.
I didn't 'get' tabbed browsing for a while, and it's entirely possible to continue opening pages in new windows, as in IE, if one prefers, yet I've certainly taken to the new technique, and when I have to use IE occasionally, I find the experience clumsy.
It's worth mentioning that though I personally consider IE obsolete, I'm certainly not going to exclude visitors because of their choice of browser. IE users should not receive a lesser browsing experience at the Ministry than those using real browsers. My criticism of Ben Goodger (one of the lead developers of Firefox) for deliberately blocking IE access to his personal site stands: that is not a reasonable way to proceed. See this earlier post, and the associated comments, which also provide further arguments for making the switch to Firefox.
10 May, 2004
I see the BBC website has dropped the 'i' from its brand name: 'BBCi' has reverted to the rather more meaningful 'bbc.co.uk', which is not only more intuitive but avoids the problem of people trying 'www.bbci.co.uk/', a minor but avoidable source of confusion. The elimination of a superfluous brand name will presumably streamline links mentioned in broadcasts, too, as presenters will no longer have to refer the audiences to "BBCi at 'bbc.co.uk'" for supplementary information.
A good move, and I'm not about to criticise the BBC for pragmatism. I can't help wondering about the cost of debranding, though - all those letterheads and print publications that mentioned BBCi. The change to the website itself should be straightforward, merely modifying the header graphic, master stylesheet and CMS/publishing package. I remember the public criticism when the BBC changed its logo from three tilted rhombi containing the italicised letters to three squares containing the upright letters, at massive expense: tens of thousands of pounds to remove a tilt.
29 April, 2004
The HMV website has a marvellous feature on its ordering pages: provide a postcode and house number, and it'll fill in the rest of the address.
It's great to be told that I live at 70 Teston Rd, Wateringbury, Maidstone, Kent, ME18 5BG. I don't, of course; that's 289 miles (465.1 km) from here, according to Multimap. The puzzling part is how it derived the house number and postcode wrongly when I'd already provided the correct ones.
Worse than useless. I wonder how many packages have been lost.
22 April, 2004
A real barrier to spam?
There's an interesting idea in the Guardian, suggesting a way to combat spammers: introduce a charge for sending e-mail.
My immediate reaction was very negative - I'm not prepared to pay an arbitrary financial charge to a government agency or commercial company, and there are both administrative/technical issues and moral ones of social exclusion.
Yet I read on, and found that an elegantly simple solution was proposed: rather than invoke a financial charge, slow down the process of sending an e-mail by forcing the computer to perform an additional calculation, such as generate a digital signature before sending each message. For individual e-mails, this might manifest as a pause lasting under a second, but when multiplied to the volume of a spammer's mail shot, a million individual pauses would make the exercise far more difficult.
30 March, 2004
In case it's ever needed, there's a mirror of the Google site here.
And I do mean a mirror.
24 March, 2004
Medium or message?
CSS Zen Garden is a project showing the capacity of CSS to radically modify the appearance of a web page without touching the underlying html itself: a standard page is presented, to which a range of css stylesheets (contributed by different designers) can be applied, changing the page layout, colour scheme, behaviour of page elements and embedding graphics files. As well as a showcase of designers' talents, it's a valuable educational resource; study of the stylesheets imparts a lot about design, coding and best practices.
One of the highest-rated examples has recently been withdrawn from the site, after the stylesheet was copied by a commercial web design agency and used in a client's site, passed off as the agency's own work. This is obviously despicable, but careful examination of the original designer's Creative Commons licence suggests that the agency wasn't entirely in the wrong.
The licence states that though the design is not a template, and may not be reproduced without written permission, the CSS itself may be used freely for anything one wishes. Anyone may use the .css files, but not the specific graphics: the .jpg, .gif, and .png files. Yes, the precise wording really is "The CSS itself may freely be used for anything you wish".
The problem is that as the CSS Zen Garden project demonstrates, the CSS is the design, defining far more than the positioning of graphics files.
It seems that the designer's intention was to allow personal use of this CSS code for private learning purposes, and permit reuse only if substantially changed (define 'substantially'...), but that's not what his CC licence specifies. His argument is that the design and the technical means of its expression are independent intellectual properties, yet unfortunately that makes little practical sense - it's impossible to use the CSS without generating that design. By expressly permitting use of the code, he put the design (colour scheme, layout, detailing) into the public domain too, apart from the specific graphics. It's certainly unethical to use it commercially, but legal. Claiming it as one's own work is less acceptable, of course.
A parallel would be a car (automobile) manufacturer making the full technical plans and specifications of its latest model - every single detail a rival company would need to perfectly reproduce the car - publicly available and totally free for anyone to use in any way so long as the company logo isn't used, then complaining when copies go on sale.
Morally, I'm with the original designer, but this is a valuable reminder that one should consider very carefully the implications and alternative interpretations of licensing one's work. In order to separate design from means of expression, much tighter licensing is required, if that's even possible.
3 March, 2004
The mind recoils
It seems the value of Google's search results have been somewhat compromised by keywords spamming. For quite a while, I've been mildly annoyed by the irrelevance of highly-ranked search results, dominated by commercial companies and celebrity directories, but this one sets a new standard of irrelevance.
Brian Blessed is probably little-known outside the UK, at least by name, but readers might recognise him as the king of the Hawkmen (or whatever) in the 1980s film 'Flash Gordon' and his was the voice of Boss Nass in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'. A smaller number might recognise him as the actor who made three attempts to climb Mt. Everest, the first retracing the steps of Edward Mallory, using the authentic Victorian mountaineering gear and reaching 28,000ft, the highest a man of his age (at the time, 56) has achieved without (bottled) oxygen. In 2004, he's 67 years old.
As an interview in an in-flight magazine says, he's a large man, with a large beard, large voice and oversized presence. In short, not the sort of actor to have done nude scenes, or inspire searches for such images, yet in a straightforward search for 'Brian Blessed', note the item ranked seventh.
I'll hastily mention that this observation was the result of a posting at Neil's World; I'm not in the habit of deliberately searching for photos of underdressed Yorkshiremen!
This isn't the sort of thing that brought Google to its present dominance of the search engine industry, but it is the sort of thing that might cause its long-term failure.
29 February, 2004
Firefox settling in
Well, I did it. I'm now using Firefox 0.8 as my primary browser, at least for a trial period. I have to agree that doubts about the lead developer's personal attitude are a poor reason to avoid trying the browser at all, though I'm still concerned that similarly draconian measures might be built into the browser itself at a later date, which I definitely wouldn't support: technology needs to be inclusive, and that means including IE users, too.
The most immediate impression I received was that the default look & feel is near-identical to that of IE6 - and that's a good thing. Two approaches might tempt me to adopt new browser:
- A browser that, within the first couple of minutes of investigation seems so wonderful that time invested in learning to use it is obviously worthwhile.
- A browser that, from the default installation, operates in precisely the same way as my previous browser, everything in the expected places and (properly coded) pages displayed as in the previous browser; no initial learning curve at all.
I'm happy to say Firefox fulfills the latter criterion, and I see no reason not
to use it instead of IE, immediately. My original intention had been to continue using IE, merely accessing Firefox for occasional cross-browser compatibility checks of new pages (exactly as I use Netscape 7, in fact), so an unexpected provisional decision to fully adopt Firefox is considerable praise ;)
Three significant criticisms:
- At least under this week's connectivity conditions (I've been using Firefox for four days), pages load much slower in Firefox than in IE. Maybe this isn't noticable on a broadband connection, but I use dialup at home.
- Firefox doesn't integrate with the auto-disconnect feature of WinMe. I'm used to closing IE and being asked if I want to disconnect, but Firefox leaves me online indefinitely. It's only a matter of time before I forget and run up my phone bill unnecessarily.
- This site, and others I've designed, use custom-coloured scrollbars. Disappointingly, they don't appear in Firefox. That's quite a major design feature to lose.
Two very minor negative cosmetic points:
- The Firefox tab in WinMe's Start bar doesn't have its own icon, instead using the 'flying Window' from the default 'Start' button. Maybe this will be fixed before the v.1 release.
- The 16x16px Firefox icon, as rendered in WinMe's Quick Launch toolbar and Windows Explorer, is unattractive: an orange circle overlaid by a grasping blue claw (I know it's supposed to be the orange firefox curled round a blue globe, but that's not what I see!)
I was really glad to find that this site (the whole Ministry, not just the blog!) looks okay in Firefox, near-identical to in IE, in fact. I'd been apprehensive about looking, in case differently rendered text sizes threw out page layouts, or similar, as I've experience in earlier versions of IE & Netscape. Thankfully I only had to change one line of my page templates, and that was to correct sloppy coding on my part.
I'll have to stick with IE at work for another week, as I'm being upgraded from Win2000 to XP on Thursday (so there's no point installing anything new beforehand), but I will be switching to Firefox afterwards, which proves I'm pleased with the experiment.
To summarise, the initial impression is that the GUI is a virtual clone of IE's, which is what I wanted, but with the reassurance that 'behind the scenes' it's standards compliant.
18 February, 2004
You WILL use Firefox, or else...
I'm considering installing Firefox 0.8 as a second browser on my home PC (I use IE6 ordinarily). Or I was, anyway.
Doing a little casual research, I found that Ben Goodger (one of the lead developers of Firefox) has reconfigured his blog to block access to anyone using IE; such users are redirected to a page encouraging them to upgrade.
Whilst acknowledging that this is his personal site and he is perfectly entitled to restrict access as he wishes, and that IE isn't as standards-compliant as it ought to be, I certainly can't applaud the decision to ban users. As Chris B. says in a comment at Neil's World:
"It just seems rather silly to me. Wouldn't it be better to display a little box of text to IE users which says something like 'This website, and many others, would look better if you were using a browser such as Firefox'? Not just silly, but against the spirit of an accessible Web. An ugly site is better than no site for an IE user.
Isn't the whole idea of Web standards so people can choose which browser to use?"
It's far better to present an argument for switching browsers than to deliberately exclude people: persuasion, not obligation.
After all, whilst Firefox is still only at the pre-release preview stage, a massive 97% of visitors to the Ministry do so using IE v.4 and above; it's hardly reasonable to demand people abandon the market-leader, irrespective of the quality of the alternatives.
Don't get me wrong: Firefox was sounding pretty good until I read of this 'my way or the highway' attitude from a lead developer. I know this is his personal choice, not 'the company line', but it doesn't exactly endear his product to me.
3 February, 2004
Web address bigifier
It's not a new concept to convert large, typically automatically-generated, URLs into shorter versions readily cut-and-pasted into e-mails; indeed, there's TinyURL.
Now there's HugeURL, too, for those occasions when one just has to have a 1,700-character, fully functional URL.
1 February, 2004
Who feeds who?
This is a useful resource for planning search engine submissions, highlighting the incestuous heirarchy of search engines: which are top-priority for optimisation and direct submission, and which will receive results from others, making direct submission unnecessary.
It's probably worth mentioning that the chart reflects the US situation; a UK or European diagram would be a little different.
8 January, 2004
Google Search tips
As The Guardian notes, few people exploit the full power of Google searching, so a few tips are worth repeating. See the original article for elaboration.
- Imagine what you want - "it may sound obvious, but you have to search Google for the words that will be on the page you want, not for a description of the page or website."
- Use quotation marks.
- Use the + sign.
- Use the - sign. A particularly valuable usage is '-merchant' to eliminate vendors from a search for information alone.
- Try a wild card.
- Use the 'site:' command.
- Use the operators - 'filetype:', 'author:' 'location:', etc. These were new to me!
- The 'Advanced Search' page offers much of the functionality noted above, saving the need to memorise syntax or shortcuts.
- Other enhanced searches are being developed.
- Try a different search engine, too.
[Update 03/01/06: You might also like to glance through the 'Random Queries
' section of this site, as it includes suggestions for optimising searches.]
6 January, 2004
Here comes the flood...
The blog received its first comments spam this morning. Three comments on the same entry, pleasant but generic ("Hi.", "Nice site", etc.), all from the same IP address, but from three different anonymous e-mail addresses (yahoo!, msn, etc.) and citing three different commercial URLs.
Presumably I was expected to leave the URLs on the page, for search engines to register on their next trawl, thereby logging and boosting the link popularity of those sites. That's not going to happen; the comments are gone.
I'll have to monitor things for now; at present I can catch everything within a few hours of it being posted, but if I become a permanent target for comments spam or the volume increases, I'll need to install a filter.