Main

Tech-geekery Archives

March 23, 2004

Software on vinyl, for that extra warmth

I've been wondering lately if this had ever been done: putting computer data on vinyl. It has, and it was used for the same sort of things that DVD extras are used for now.

(Via Pete Ashton's Organic Link Farm)

April 18, 2004

Back to the ftp client chase

The chase is on again for a graphical ftp client for linux that satisfies the fairly basic (to me) criterion of not actually being harder to use than the command line. gftp just failed it (again!) in a big way. I already started having doubts a few weeks ago when I tried to set a bookmark on it. It turned out that gftp uses the evil style of configuration found in quite a few gtk-based programs, where after you click OK on a change you have to go back to a menu and actually "save changes" for real. That sort of thing always makes me wonder if linux programmers actually use graphical software. Do they just write them because someone told them that is what they have to do to get linux accepted by the masses? Still, that's a minor issue because you don't set bookmarks every time you use a program.

What is a big deal is if, when you try to use the program to upload something, it will not let you drag and drop multiple files, and indeed will treat the files on your drive, which are clearly visible in the left pane, as if they don't exist. I suppose I could have spent some time figuring out what the error was. But what I did instead was reach for the command line ftp app, upload the files in all of one minute using that, and add gftp to the list of useless apps that don't save me time in the way that a 4 years out of date version of WS ftp does.

April 28, 2004

I thought my computer security awareness was good enough... evidently not

The other day I had an online conversation with a friend, and something she said reminded me of the words to a song I like. I wanted to share these words with her so I googled for the song and found it on several sites. I went over them to see if they matched my memory of it, then sent her the link to one of those pages. She quickly reported that it contained a trojan. That night, she ended up turning her drives inside out to catch it and ensure beyond any reasonable doubt that she was clean. An awful lot of work and hassle on my account.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, I am safe from the vast and overwhelming majority of the crap that people pull on websites by the simple expedient of not using Internet Explorer, Outlook Express or, on computers that I fully own and control, Windows. I also don't open strange attachments or allow myself to be taken in by emails purporting to be from Paypal or eBay. Indeed I've been feeling so safe lately that I haven't really kept up to date with the sort of methods malware writers use to spread their crap. So I had no idea that lyric sites were a vector for these things.
Clearly this will not do. As long as I'm ignorant about these things, I will cause people like my friend to be infected by sending her links that carry malware, and I may turn out to be less safe from other kinds of attack that using Opera for web browsing and linux as my OS of choice doesn't protect me from. I may not have time to get informed, but I have less time to get infected.
What else should I watch out for?

May 19, 2004

Studio-mate Jeroen is in for a shock

I have upgraded Opera on the studio computer from version 7.23 to 7.50. As usual with Opera, upgrading wasn't nearly as straightforward as it should be, because existing mail, bookmarks etc. have to be manually imported (as did the registration). Also, the interface has had quite an overhaul and it took me some time to make it look the way I was used to on my own account.

Having done those things (and they're not really difficult, just a lot of busy-work), It's nice and quick. I like the addition of an RSS reader in the mail panel, and the chat client, while feeble compared to standalone chat applications, will do in a pinch.

So Jeroen: Don't panic!

June 2, 2004

Oh, no, not again!

From the "interface customisation has gone too far" department:

This happens to me every few months or so:

What makes this annoying is that
a) It doesn't seem to serve any purpose for me to be able to drag Paint Shop Pro's main menu to the left and show it at a 90 degree angle
b) I never have any idea what exactly I did to cause it. Presumably I dragged my Wacom pen over the menu in a way that PSP interpreted as a command.
c) I never remember how I fixed it last time, and it always takes me half an hour of tearing my hair out to find a solution in the Help files. Then I spend some more time re-customising the interface the way it was before the incident took place. At the time I post this, it's nearly 2 AM and I can't be bothered to spend half an hour. Besides, my hair is getting too thin for this nonsense.
d) there doesn't seem to be any way to disable it. Or is there?

Argh, argh argh. What were the people at JASC thinking?

June 20, 2004

They're gonna have to make it easier than this

I thought it was time to take the advice printed on recent EMI CDs, to go to musicfromemi.com and see where I could get me some legal MP3 (or other - I'm not picky) downloads in exchange for modest payment to compensate the artists. Because compensating the artists is a good thing.

If you go to MusicfromEMI, you get to pick a country from a map from which to download stuff. When you pick the Netherlands, you get a luxurious 4 options, all of which (eventually) take you to the same actual download site, which then tells you to stuff your shiny, new and secure edition of Opera and use something up-to-date like 3-years-old, leaky Internet Explorer 6 (actually, 5 or higher) instead. Because I like having control over the studio computer and don't even have IE on the home machine, that Won't Do.

I was, however, prepared to look further and download iTunes and use its music store. While installing, that, I was disappointed to see that it blocked other software from access to a user's iPod, but since nobody in the studio has an iPod, that was trivial. However, trying to acess the store and begin buying some titles (I had some specific ones in mind that I was looking for that are extortionately priced if you try to buy them on CD), I was confronted with this message:

Itunes screenshot (partial)

Because, you know, this is the Netherlands. We all live in mudbrick huts here. We only co-patented the CD format and were only like the second fastest nation to adopt it in the 1980s, and more willing than any to pay through the nose for music. It's good policy to ignore a backward country like this one.

The only reason I had for installing iTunes in the first place was to be able to shop, so off the machine it goes.

Seriously, I want to be able to get with the times, do the buy-and-download thing and fill my computer with new music in an ethical and responsible manner. But somebody is going to have to provide me with the means to do so. And said means had better not suck.

June 22, 2004

PNG compression comparison chart

Handy reference comparing the PNG compression capabilities of three graphics apps (bottom of page). Also an overview of commonly used tools for PNG compression.

There's still an amazing amount of FUD doing the rounds about PNG, which is unfortunate. I think the main issue now is that many artists get burned by PNG because they don't get the filesize savings they've been promised compared to GIF. The savings are there, it's just that there are so many "correct" ways to write a PNG that you can get a range of file sizes from far too large to ultra-lean. I once again recommend PNGout as a simple tool to reduce PNG file-sizes at the very last stage of image creation.

See also this short article comparing various tools.

June 24, 2004

Color-blindness filter!

Via Comixpedia:

The Wickline Color Blindness Filter allows you to test how your web page or image looks to a color blind person. Useful, but also entertaining, as these sample ROCR pages will show:
(large images below the fold)

Continue reading "Color-blindness filter!" »

July 12, 2004

Rejoice!

GIMP 2 for Windows actually talks to the Wacom tablet like a good little application should!
This new version also has the rewritten interface that will make it easier to learn for new users. But all the cool features in the old interface are still present.
Also, it can import SVG files, but then maybe the old version could do that as well - I never needed to try.

I don't use GIMP as much as I used to, but that may change, depending on how good this new version actually turns out to be.

July 20, 2004

Bug me do

I am somewhat concerned about the popularity of Bugmenot. I use it myself more and more often, and I know that my Modern Tales earnings are reasonably safe against the use of this service, but it still bothers me.

The difference between the login arrangement for Modern Tales and the registration/login for sites like The New York Times, from the user's point of view, is (or should be) that logging in to Modern Tales serves a beneficial purpose - verifying that you are a paying customer - and the nytimes login does not. We don't know why the nytimes wants your identity, but we think it has something to do with profiling your behaviour and leveraging that information with the advertisers. We don't like that or benefit from it.

However, there will be people who see the two situations as essentially the same. Hey, it's easier than remembering a password, right? And that information wants to be free, right?

People, quite rightly, are fed up with having to register for everything, remember passwords and sign in. A backlash against registrations could end up hurting fee-based sites. Or am I too pessimistic? I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Update: Adam refers me to Bugmenot's FAQ which advises pay site owners to submit their URL for automatic blocking from their database. That's good. Still, I think there's something to worry about when it comes to the hearts and minds issue.

August 11, 2004

Domain switcheroo

If all goes well, the ROCR.net domain will soon be registered with Go-Daddy. It should work seemlessly, but well, you never know. Some disruption may occur, especially if GANDI choose to be uncooperative.

I got a decent deal out of it. $23 for two years plus one year free. The process so far has been painless although it was annoying to click "proceed to checkout" and be faced with a page full of sales pitches and another "proceed to checkout" button three times! Can you say "bait and switch"? But then, if they're better than GANDI it will be worth it.

I should be getting back to some people on website development and web design issues. Right now, though, the thought of beginning to speculate about the possibility of thinking seriously about maybe possibly doing design-related stuff is having a hard time gaining access to my mind. I'm still refueling...

September 13, 2004

I was going to like Typekey, but Typekey didn't like me back

I wanted to leave a comment on Websnark but it only takes comments from Typekey account holders. Well I was going to have to get an account some time anyway, and it's easy to get one, so I went and signed up. When I did so, I noticed with bemusement and absolutely no surprise whatsoever that what I expected would be the spammers' response when I first heard of Typekey had already come to pass: Typekey had taken measures to prevent robots from automatically signing themselves up for a million Typekey accounts. The only part of my forecast that was wrong was that I didn't expect this to happen until Typekey had become ubiquitous.

Continue reading "I was going to like Typekey, but Typekey didn't like me back" »

October 6, 2004

I was going to like Orkut, but Orkut didn't like me back

CAPTCHAs, crappy servers and a terrible memory for passwords don't go together well.
KUT!

Previous "I was going to like..." entries

October 13, 2004

ROFL3000 keyboard

Especially for Adam's mom and all those others who speak in chatspeak: the ROFL3000 keyboard. It comes without an @ key to keep people like that away from email. (via Pete, again)

October 20, 2004

Come on, validator, help me out here

After a comment-to-comment talk with Branco Collin, I realised that the reason why the stripped-down front page that is fed to my various websites shows up with such a large font (the default) in Firefox is that the page is broken somehow. A few passes through the W3C CSS and HTML validators helped me find the error that caused CSS to be ignored. However, both validators would be a lot more useful if one or more if the following things were true:

1. if it was possible to validate CSS if the HTML page it is on contains errors; or
2. if it was possible to set the validator to ignore ampersands, which cause the bulk of the error messages in the validator and which in a blog with multiple entries take a non-trivial amount of time to fix (meaning they're still not fixed - I checked in Firefox if what I thought was the cause of the problem had gone away, and it had, so I stopped).

I understand the need for strictness in XHTML. But the point of the validator is to help weed out errors, not to distract a developer with technically correct but ultimately useless information.

November 13, 2004

I wanted to like Delicious Library but their website didn't like me

A writeup at Crooked Timber got me mildly interested in the book cataloguing program Delicious Library. Kieran wrote:

As Siracusa points out, an application designed to keep a catalog of your books and whatnot is fundamentally a boring idea. Yet Delicious Monster has managed to make it cool.

Unfortunately all that coolness is kept hidden away from the evidently incurably uncool eyes of viewers who use Opera for Linux. I saw this: [screenshot].
They can't be that cool if they can't even come up with a reasonably standards-compliant website to present their products in. And the Opera exclusion rankles even more now that Firefox is making it big.
Of course the program in question is for the Mac, but I wouldn't have minded a look at it. You know, in case they ever make a port for linux. D'ya reckon they will?

November 28, 2004

I wanted to like CSS positioning, but CSS Positioning IE didn't like me

Many years ago, I developed websites for a living. I wasn't, truth be told, very good at it, but it was the tech boom and a chimpanzee could get a web design/development job if it managed to hit the < sign half the time.
One thing I found out back in 1998/1999 was that while CSS was great for avoiding "tag soup" HTML code in which your code was cluttered with <font> tags, it was unusable for positioning.
Since then, a lot has changed, right? After all, Moveable Type uses default CSS templates which also position the blocks of text, and there are many nifty websites that demonstrate perfect, swappable CSS positioning. Surely it's come of age?
Well, yes, if you ignore crappy old not-updated-substantially-since-2000-but-still-used-by-80%-of-all-web-users IE. Creating CSS positioning that works in Opera, Konqueror, Firefox, what have you has become really easy. All you need to do is swipe some code from a tutorial page like this one and modify it. If you want it to work in IE, though, you'd better not change a jot nor a tittle, or you'll find yourself banging your head against a wall trying to figure out what broke. I used the code from that tutorial site (because the CSS code in Moveable Type's templates is complicated), modified to fit my needs, in a new About Page for ROCR. I don't have IE at home but it looked fine in Opera, Firefox and Konqueror. So I thought, "let's ask my friend Mithandir if it looks good in IE", and sent him the URL, thinking that there might be a few trivial little problems. Several hours later, we still hadn't found a way to fix the broken left margin and sidebar position — at least not one that didn't break it for Mozilla/KHTML-based browsers. And Mithandir's web design skills considerately exceed those of a chimpansee so it's not just me.
Because we both have lives, I eventually gave up and made a version using tables. I also had quite a bit of content for the page to finish, so I had no more time to spend on the CSS implementation.
But I hate giving up. Does anyone reading this know how to make this CSS setup behave?

December 7, 2004

Internet connectivity problems

I am getting more than a bit fed up with the crapitude of @home.nl, my home ISP' over the past couple of weeks. It's easily the worst since, well, since my previous ISP, bart.nl, except that this time it's exacerbated by the fact that I am feeling a lot more helpless than I used to with bArt. Back then, I had a dialup, and if I couldn't connect or the connection dropped out, I could just dial into a different number. That would work often enough, and be easy enough for me to feel like I had some control over it.
At my workplace, if there's something wrong with the connection, I can start up a wizard provided by the Internet service reseller and perform a brief ritual that will usually reconnect me. If that doesn't work, I can walk to a room two doors away from the studio and ask the reseller what's going on. That also makes me feel in control.
With @home, under my home machine setup, all I know how to do is reboot and pray, in the hope that the problem will have gone away on its own since the last time I rebooted. Well, I could start YaST and reconfigure my internet settings, but that doesn't seem to do much. DHCP is great and hassle-free when it works, but in combination with Linux, it's a black box that a non-techie user can't penetrate in case of trouble.
I'd call the helpdesk, if it wasn't for two factors: one is that the helpdesk has one of those 0900 numbers that come with the expectation of being put on hold for 10 minutes at € 0.10 a minute. The other is that I'm the disgruntled customer from hell, only slightly better from the point of view of the person at the other end than the guy who actually comes to the office with a machine gun and shoots up the place (I only fantasize about that). I will have loudly and confidently questioned the helpdesk person's knowledgeability, work ethic, respect for the customer, problem-solving skills, general level of education and intelligence, parentage and species before they get a single word in edgeways. In my defense, I wasn't born that way; I was trained to act like that by the helpdesk staff at bArt, who at one point could only be made to acknowledge your existence if you loudly and confidently questioned their knowledgeability, work ethic, respect for the customer, problem-solving skills, general level of education and intelligence, parentage and species. They got better later on, but I never lost the habit of expecting the worst from a helpdesk and tailoring my approach to that.
I expect the outages to go on for a little while until the good, kind, eminently skilled and perfectly human people at @home find their bearings. That will mean that if there's another screw-up with my web activities as there was today, I may not be able to read any email or forum messages people send me about it. Those readers who know my phone number are advised to call me if there are any problem. I may respond a little crankily but structurally, I'll be grateful.
Now let's see if I can post this.
(posted belatedly from the studio)

December 12, 2004

Numeric Test-code stupidity

I was trying to register over with Websnark, but was faced with this.
99dd52f00072d58428d133167131b8e4980e4fa5.1102853632.png

What the bugger was it? 35631w? 3563iw? 3563lw?

Finally, in despair I showed to to Timmerryn, who spotted that funny blob was the top of an f in the odd font they use.

It rather goes against the point of these passkeys if humans can't read 'em.

December 19, 2004

If you have a hotmail address

... I can't send email to you for some reason. Mail sent to Hotmail addresses just bounces, either immediately or after a few days. If you must contact me, provide a real, ISP-based address, or one at despammed.com or gmail.

January 3, 2005

FireFtp, Firefox, Opera, PNGout

I've been tinkering with the home computer setup a bit:
I have installed FireFTP, a Firefox extention providing an FTP client. As you may remember, I've been on a quest for a decent linux ftp client. My criteria for "decent" are modest: it should deliver the same productivity benefit compared to the linux command line ftp client as WSFTP LE does compared to the Windows command line ftp client. That shouldn't be too hard, one would think. On the one hand, the linux CLFTP is very good indeed, but on the other hand, WSFTP LE is 6 years old and was deliberately crippled compared to for-pay versions of WSFTP. But the clients that people have recommended so far all fell way, way short of that. GFTP has so far come closest, but it doesn't do batch renames or batch deletions from the server, and doesn't understand the meaning of "one directory up". I hear that FireFTP isn't very good, but it doesn't have to be to be better than what I have. I'll just use it a few times in real sessions and see what comes up.
I have also installed a whole lot of other Firefox extentions that seemed neat. We'll see how useful they are.
A few days ago, I installed the linux port of PNGout at home. What I want to do with it is re-compress all old Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan comics that primarily reside on my home machine's disks. A quick test showed that I could reduce the file size by 8 percent, from a size that was itself reduced by 8-10 percent back when I converted the earliest files from gif to PNG. However, PNGout lacks a batch mode, and I'm buggered if I'm going to convert them one at a time. So I will have to beg, borrow or steal a shell script for converting them in a single batch. It's not unthinkable that this is something I could do myself, with a guide to the shell's syntax by my side, but I'd really rather not, because I'm unfamiliar with the syntax, abilities and limitations of Unix shells. It would take me a lot of time and have me pull out hair that I really can't afford to miss these days. (Update: this should do the trick although altering it to do exactly what I want could turn out to be tricky.)

(What follows is probably of less interest to ROCR readers or even regular Waffle-ites, but I'm including it as a memo to self, so that I won't forget what I've done in a few months' time)

Continue reading "FireFtp, Firefox, Opera, PNGout" »

January 7, 2005

Opera 8 beta

I'm really liking the new beta versions of Opera, even though installing them meant hammering my interface into a familiar shape for me yet again. But it's worth it because Gmail now works, those appalling error dialogs are gone and there are some other changes that made me go "ooh" even though I can't remember them right now. Opera 7 registrations also still work, so I won't even have to look at their advertisements. Not that those are a huge problem. Try it out if the web is your bread and butter, or read a review at Webgraphics.
I'm also liking Opera Watch which has Opera-related news and general stuff about web browsers. It's been added to the blogroll.

January 10, 2005

Opera vs. Firefox as brands

Via Opera Watch: Lawrence Eng compares the marketing and branding of Opera and Firefox and is unimpressed with Opera's image-building and the reasons Opera Software offers for users to pay for the software.


Surf ad-free': Essentially, this is like saying, "you are a hostage to our ads unless you pay up".
'Free support': Just call it premium support. By paying, it's obviously not free.
'USD 15 upgrade': Essentially, "Pay now so you can pay less later"

I do not find these reasons convincing, and they did not really play a big factor in my decision to buy Opera....

Opera fans typically explain that they paid because Opera is simply a better product. I happen to agree with them, but it's a highly debatable point, and one that is not compelling to internet users not used to paying for a web browser, and who have a free alternative (Firefox) that is possibly as good or better than Opera, and seems to be getting better all the time. Instead of selling Opera as a "better product", I think it needs to be sold as a "different kind of product", designed by a "different kind of company".

Even die-hard Firefox supporters tend to agree that many of Firefox's most popular features were invented or popularized by Opera (i.e. tabbed browsing and mouse gestures). Although Firefox advocates tend to underplay the importance of it, Opera can make a strong claim that it's the most innovative force in web browser development today.

I agree, and that's a large part of the reason why I pay for the browser (as well as installing beta versions: I see it as a downpayment on the cool features they'll come up with in the next version.

Technology enthusiasts and browser geeks: read the whole thing. Mr. Eng is not a marketing professional, and it shows: he has written a readable, common-sense piece that doesn't insult the reader's intelligence.

January 13, 2005

Passwords

Sigh... it's happened again. I want to log in to a site I haven't been to in a while, and out of a very small pool of low-security login/password combinations, none of them work. I can find the password in an old, disused Eudora box, but I don't know the login name anymore. If I hadn't found the password in the Eudora box, I would not have been certain that the email address I'm going to ask them to send the login name to was still valid, or indeed what it might have been.
This is now the norm for most sites. Even the limited number of logins, passwords, and email addresses that I use for sites that don't affect my financial affairs or the running of my own web presences gives a number of combinations beyond my ability to remember, and the addition of random passwords like this site turned out to have given me makes it even more of a nightmare. My first thought on signing up for any new site these days is "oh, great, a new password to forget", and it usually takes me less than a week before I need the site to email the password to me. Passwords are, of course, emailed in the clear, so each email sent makes me vulnerable to identity theft.
People like Jakob Nielsen have been writing about password usability for a decade but I don't see any real progress being made in this area. (Replies mentioning Microsoft's Password initiative will be ignored. You don't think I'm going to entrust my private information to Microsoft, do you?)

January 19, 2005

Hi-tech, low-tech

I've bought two sound-related items today: a V-string for my turntable (a Phillips whose origin is lost in the mists of time) and a SB Audigy LS soundcard for my computer, because the onboard sound card is a piece of crap.
Contrary to assurances from the shop, I'm now finding that the Audigy isn't easily supported under linux, although it can be supported with a little work.
In my experiences, a little work tends to balloon into a lot of work, so before I even start, I'm opening a comments thread for tips for installing newer versions of alsa sound and resolving the recursive dependency problems that I will undoubtedly encounter. I'll update this post with my experiences and problems as they happen, below the fold.

January 22, 2005

Xtended Problems

I'm not much of a techy. The only time I will try to change settings on my computer is when things go horribly wrong. And recently it did: I don't have a separate dvd-player, so I watch them on my laptop. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, some dvd's were giving Powerdvd trouble: error code f4d41436: this copy protected disk can not be played when the tv out function is enabled. *wtf* I thought, I just rented this goddamn dvd from the video store to watch it on my laptop. There's nothing fucking illegal about that, is there? Well someone seems to think so. I googled the error and got the solution on this very helpful forum. Seems XP Service Pack 2 added some unasked for copy protection. Thanks Bill. Fuck you very much.

February 10, 2005

New and improved GIMP

Branko mentions that the latest release of The GIMP has some improved usability features, so I've downloaded it for the studio computer. We'll see. I need more GIMP practice, if only because I found switching last week such a daunting project. I worked with The GIMP for years, but that was ages ago. Since then I got used to working with Paint Shop Pro, while the GIMP changed and changed. Paint Shop Pro, however, has some horrible bugs and stability issues.

Continue reading "New and improved GIMP" »

February 14, 2005

"Waffle" now a center-right blog

... at least, if you look at it in Internet Explorer 5 — not that there's any reason why you should. I'd been tweaking the site layout from home, where I don't have Internet Explorer available, and none of the web browsers that I did have available rendered it anywhere near this way.
As I write this, it's past my bedtime, and if the error shows up in Internet Explorer 6+ (not that there's any reason why you should use that either), I'll spend some of my copious spare time trying to fix it. I see no reason why the CSS should be interpreted the way IE 5 does, but if someone else does, please let me know.

Continue reading ""Waffle" now a center-right blog" »

Xtra-Xtra-Far-too-small

I can no longer find the place where Branko asked about this, but here's a partial answer to his question why so many blogs have small fonts specified, against general best practices in web design/usability. Short version: Microsoft is to blame. (Via Opera Watch, via The Register.)

Continue reading "Xtra-Xtra-Far-too-small" »

March 9, 2005

Could be useful: Firefoxopera

Via Operawatch, here's a site devoted to making Firefox look, function and behave like Opera. So if I ever encounter some infuriating behaviour in Firefox, I'll go here and see if I can make it act more rationally. First thing I'm going to look for is a way to move those damned tabs to the bottom where they belong.
(Update: found!)

April 10, 2005

Snarking software

I've been wanting a Mac for some time. I almost got one when it was time to replace my last PC last year, but I didn't have the money for a G5 burning a hole in my pocket then, or now. Indeed, I don't have the money for a Mac Mini burning a hole in my pocket, and if I did, I would spend it on things that need replacing more urgently around the house.
But I find something about them intensely desirable, whether it's a professional, high-end G5 or a lowly Mac Mini. In fact, I find the Mini more desirable, because it's almost affordable and can double as a table prop. The two things about them that I like most when I look at them in the shops are the sleek interface of OS X and the fact that those things are silent. PCs with their fans always make a noise, and Apple has come up with a desktop computer the size of a waffle iron that you don't hear in an environment where there's any other ambient sound. That impresses me.
As a result, I've been keeping up with what people are saying about Macs, ranging from "I don't see the point, and don't think they're worth the premium" to "It's one of three things that have improved my productivity by an order of magnitude" both from computer savvy webcomics folks. I've been very interested in Branko Collin's two posts about his Mac experience.
But what's really given me pause for thought is this: Eric Burns Snarks Pages, Apple's new word processing software.

Continue reading "Snarking software" »

April 18, 2005

Adobe buys itself a new license to price-gouge

This is not good. Macromedia had been up and coming as a competitor to Adobe in the fields of vector art and movie-making software, and now Adobe has flat-out bought this competition, once again bringing them closer to a monopoly position in those fields. Not good. Of course, they're not quite up there with Microsoft yet as Adobe actually comes out with decent products, but they'll be in a position to charge whatever they want, which for those of us who use graphics software is not good at all.
(Via Webgraphics)

April 26, 2005

I need these

These will come in handy during my presentation at Clickburg: a browser emulator to recreate the Web's Trilobite days, and the browser archive preserving the real things for posterity.
Ah, Netscape 0.9! Those were the days.

April 29, 2005

And the Worse than Microsoft award for this week goes to

... OpenOffice.org's presentation software, for turning an unfinished but functional presentation into a mess of broken images. And this two days before I'm due to talk at Clickburg. Because making the presentation was torture in the first place, I am disinclined to do the work again. After all, the software might destroy my work again once I close it.
I don't like working with Microsoft products, and Powerpoint gets quite a bit of flak, but I do remember from my days working a Respectable Day Job (*crosses self in the hope of never going back to those days*) that it was easy to learn and use and actually saved what you made. This open-source knockoff doesn't even get those basic requirements right. Oh well, at least the word processor is good enough. I use the word processor a lot and the presentation software basically never.

Continue reading "And the Worse than Microsoft award for this week goes to" »

May 6, 2005

What I learned today (3)

The GIMP is really appallingly stupid.
Imagine you have an SVG file that you want to import. Its original size is something like 580 pixels wide, but that doesn't matter: the good thing about vector graphics is that you can scale them losslessly. So in the Import dialogue, you enter the new resolution (600 DPI) and the new dimensions (280 mm wide - this is for print), and you click OK. So, do you get a file that's 280 mm wide at 600 DPI? Nooooo, what you actually get is a file that is about 990 pixels wide. At 600 DPI, that's about 1 1/2 inch, which is considerably closer to 40 mm than to 280.
Mystified, you close the file, and try again. This time, the outrageously, appallingly stupid file importer has caught on to the fact that you want to import at 600 DPI, but has merely guessed that you want the canvas dimensions to stay the same and has calculated that that means you want the file to be about 3800 pixels wide. You set "280 mm" again, check the dimensions in pixels, and this time they look all right, so you import.
With the next few files you import, things go exactly as in your second attempt, but the system you're working on being Windows, you are forced to reboot before completing all your file imports.
After rebooting and opening GIMP again, the scenario of your first attempt happens again, but this time, before hitting "OK" you enter "280 mm" and then check the pixel size a few more times. Each time, the unbelievable, amazingly stupid GIMP returns the wrong dimensions, until you decide to hit "OK" and close the resulting window in a cargo cult attempt to trigger the scenario of your second attempt. That works, as cargo cult magic often does in the world of computing.

Of course, I could tell you stories about Photoshop 6.0, which while being considerably less stupid than GIMP, has the even greater drawback of hating my guts. One day, I'll build a Photoshop 6.0 out of twigs and leaves to appease it. Or I'll wipe it with a magnet. Whichever is more satisfying.

Continue reading "What I learned today (3)" »

May 17, 2005

Progressive Layout

Memo to self: read this tomorrow, when I'm awake. It may just help me fix a time bomb under my websites: the fact that the width of my comics varies between 400 and 650 pixels, and will become much wider than that when the Stone of Contention reruns start.

May 18, 2005

Question for usability buffs

How much common sense can a designer expect from the user?

Just a minute ago, studio-mate [censored] asked me if I had a calculator around. I said "yes, on the computer". My studio-mate said, "So do I, but it doesn't have a divider". I pointed out the "divide by" button, the one with the slash on it, and asked "what kind of a calculator would it be if it couldn't divide?"

Now it's likely that my studiomate had overlooked the button. That happens, and it doesn't mean that my studio-mate is stupid. But that question "What kind of [app] would it be if it didn't do [y]?" is one that my studio-mate might have asked [my studio-mate's gender in the possessive pronoun]self.

This situation used to happen a lot with The Gimp. Newcomers would come rushing to support forums, torn-out clumps of hair still in their clenched fists, asking "Why doesn't it do straight lines?" and GIMP gurus would patronisingly tell them of the magic key to the left of the Z (on a QWERTY keyboard). There is of course no reason to assume it's obvious that holding down the shift key while using one of the paint tools will result in a straight line. But what should be obvious to users that no one, not even in the world of Open Source software, will be daft enough to release an image creation tool that can't do straight lines.

Or shouldn't it?

June 23, 2005

This takes the entire roll of biscuits!

Professor DeLong is very unhappy with how software suppliers for Windows do business:

I then thought that I should perhaps upgrade the McAfee virus-protection program on the machine. That turned out to be a nasty and nearly impossible process: McAfee kept throwing pop-up windows up on the screen trying to "improve" my order from $35 to $95 or $125, warning me of all the horrible things that would happen to me if I did not "upgrade" my order. Only by clever parsing of sentences and clicking the correct buttons was I able to repulse this social engineering attack. Then I noticed that the black-inkjet cartridge in the Epson printer attached to the machine was low. I replaced it--and my printer driver promptly threw a warning box up on the screen: I had installed a non-Epson print cartridge, Epson "could not guarantee print quality," and would I like to order genuine Epson print cartridges off of the Epson website? No.

I don't like it when strange movies take over my computer and use it to display adware. I don't like it when Epson lies to me about the quality of Epson-compatible inkjet cartridges. I don't like it when McAfee makes it hard to avoid spending more on virus protection than I need to.

It's a jungle out there in the Windows world. Have Microsoft and Epson and McAfee considered the long-run consequences of the reputations that they are so eagerly creating?

Ghastly stuff, but one of his commenters can top this ghastliness:

On my Windows XP computer, every use of the letters "bed" - as in the word "succumbed" in the first paragraph of Brad DeLong's posting above - is underlined as a link, to find a bed seller, I guess. Maybe the next time the word "succumbed" appears in text, I'll finally decide to buy a bed online. Likewise, the letters "mba," as in "embarass," are always an underlined link. Maybe someday soon that helpful link will lead me to enroll online for a graduate degreee in business. Oh yes, every use of the word, "business" is an underlined link too. I tried anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-adware programs, but this still lingers.

Then there's the ad that intrudes on the left margin of my screen most of the time when I open a new web page. In a year, I have never used the links featured in that margin, presumably directed to a few sites. But it just keeps happening. Recently, instead of a list of sites it has started showing flickering and moving graphics. What a waste.

At least, through much effort, I recovered my desktop image. For months, it was a gruesome black screen with a blood-red eyeball on it, and an ad for software to delete it.

I've had to learn to live with some pop-ups, because when I had the pop-up protection fully engaged, I could not send work messages from my home computer in my office Outlook system - the window in which I would write a new Outlook message was blocked as a pop-up.

Using the internet in Windows is wading through all that junk.


Emphasis mine. The eyeball thing goes beyond the ghastly and into the realm of eldritch and unspeakable.

Did I mention that I want a Mac? I'm likely to do more coloring for money this year, and I would like to do that on a new studio machine with a decent monitor, and I might as well go for graphical-industry standard stuff, especially if it also means I'm going to avoid crap like this.

Only problem is I'm not exactly made of money. Maybe this would be a good time to point people to the Paypal button on my homepage, and I guarantee you that clicking that link won't spawn a popup or do anything ghastly...

July 27, 2005

Don't make me regret paying you!

First rule of ecommerce interfaces: After the customer has paid you, don't make him regret it, or he won't pay you again. I had a trial subscription to DeviantArt this week, and rather liked it. It runs out tomorrow.
Below is the page DeviantArt showed me today when I tried to log in:
Screenshot, click for enlargement

View image

Continue reading "Don't make me regret paying you!" »

August 1, 2005

Photoshop

I've spent quite a lot of time in the past few months ragging on The GIMP and its usability problems. I've also had some not very nice words to say about Paint Shop Pro, which has great usability but is marred by some of the nastiest bugs I've ever seen in commercially published software. I've gone as far as to pit the two programs against one another in a steel cage death match. I'm colouring The Gang of Four in Photoshop 6, and it's only fair that I share some of my experiences with that program as well. Let me just report some of the things I've been saying to myself while working in Photoshop:

Huh? I'd already coloured that! Huh. No! Oh God, no! Not again! NOOOO! WAAAAA! What? What the fuck? How can this be? NO! Don't be so fucking stupid! Oh, God, no! Huh? Undo, dammit! Oh, wait, it works differently. Aliased zoom hurts my eyes! C'mon, respond to my key-presses! NO!

Trust me, the swearing is mild compared to what actually came out of my mouth these past ten minutes. I'll admit that most of the "huh"s are the result of hitting a shortcut I know from using Paint Shop Pro and then having something happen that's completely unrelated to what I want. But still. It's becoming very hard to see why Photoshop has become the standard app for image processing in the print world: it may do CMYK output and colour proofing well, but actually using it makes my blood boil. Easily the least comfortable application I've worked with in a long time.

Continue reading "Photoshop" »

September 6, 2005

New Opera portal

On the new Opera community portal, there's a post entitled Online party: You crashed the house!
Just like Opera itself does at my house, a dozen times a day.

Snark about the outrageously poor stability of the latest incarnation of the Opera browser aside (the instability on two out of the three platforms I use is bad enough to jeopardize my ability to get work done on the web, and is making my morning forum/blog trawl a big hassle as well. So I've switched to Safari on OSX and considering moving to Firefox on Windows and Linux. Only inertia is stopping me, really), the new community site is rather nice. The blogging tools are really nice with the post entry interface and the feature for adding RSS feeds to a blog's front page being especially nifty. My Opera Page is already a one-stop shop for all my blogging and webcomic stuff. And I haven't even tried the Photo album and Friends features...

September 8, 2005

Ingrained habit and hanging on to software

On my Opera Community blog, I posted some words on what my problems with the latest Opera release are. Most of that is only interesting if you're an Opera user yourself, but the final paragraphs indicate a wider problem with software usability:

Still, I am very used to doing things the Opera way. On my other platforms (the Windows machine in my studio and the Linux machine at home), the idea of switching, moving over my bookmarks and my passwords, and getting used to doing things differently than I have been doing since 1998, makes me slightly queasy in the stomach.

Which is why I wrote this post in Opera. Uhm, better back it up in an editor window before hitting "Post"...


The same thing applies with Paint Shop Pro. I've been using it since version 4, when I found its very existence liberating. A full-featured image editing program that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and is easy to use? Fantastic! Now, with version 8, Paint Shop Pro has functionality that is even better than it was then, and the interface has continued to improve. But it also has the worst bug I've ever seen in commercially-released, non-beta software: the Intractable Undo Bug that can destroy hours of your work irretrievably. It even makes the sensible practice of saving regularly actively dangerous, because the only way to know if the Undo Bug has kicked in is to look at the whole image before you save, then to look at individual areas of the image in detail. The Undo Bug affect areas of the image other than the one you were working on.

This bug alone makes Paint Shop Pro a very dangerous program to work with, and I can tell you that not being able to trust software puts a crimp in my creativity. But it's still slightly less nerve-wracking than doing the same work in another program. At least the Undo system in PSP is functionally well-designed and works like it does in all other Windows programs. CTRL-Z causes an undo, pressing CTRL-Z again causes another undo. In Photoshop, CTRL-Z toggles between Undo and Redo, which is annoying and forces people to use its non-standard Undo History widget (other image editing apps now have that, but it's still non-standard within the larger body of GUI apps). Things like that interrupt my creative flow even more than the once-an-hour Undo Bug in PSP.

Basically, the software I am used to has me by the balls. I think that goes for a lot of people.

October 4, 2005

iTunes NL still rubbish, Film at 11

I mentioned before that I was unimpressed with the Dutch iTunes store. However, they had the new Kate Bush single available, so this was clearly the time to give them another chance.
They're still rubbish! They've got people coming in to download a long-anticipated Kate Bush album, but they couldn't be bothered to make some other rarities available for those same people to download. No "Experiment IV", no 1986 version of "Wuthering Heights", two tracks that are only available on the compilation The Whole Story. No "December Will Be Magic Again". I was ripe to buy all three tracks.
There are a couple of artists and bands that I bang on about endlessly on this blog. Richard Thompson, Deep Purple, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull. They have a handful of albums by the former three, and nothing at all by the latter. These aren't obscure acts! And yes, there is material out there by all three that I don't have and would like to buy on an individual track basis. Makes you wonder if they want my money at all. Mind you, they do have Thompson's Grizzly Man soundtrack. Tempting...
But compared to the American store? Not good enough. Not nearly.

October 31, 2005

Some tech notes on the server move

Some notes on my new hosting situation, so I have somewhere to point to in case one of these issues causes a problem in the near future. Probably only of interest to the technical-minded among the readership:

Continue reading "Some tech notes on the server move" »

November 2, 2005

From Reinder's House of Unrealistic Wishes

Just once, I'd like Paint Shop Pro to shut down the normal way, as a result of me hitting Alt-F4, instead of either crashing in the course of normal operations or crashing on exit. At least in the crashes-on-exit, my work is saved even if my MRU listings and most recent tool options are not.

Might as well wish for a pony though. Paint Shop Pro versions 7 and 8 had showstopper bugs that were almost terrible enough to turn me off the software, and Paint Shop Pro has now become a Corel product so it's unlikely that versions 9 and 10 will give me any joy.

If I could afford Photoshop CS 2, I'd batch-convert my thousands of *.pspimage files to Photoshop documents and rid myself of this poorly-coded, mis-designed excuse for a graphics program once and for all. I'd spend several months grumbling about how PS CS 2 handles vector shapes, but I'd get used to it eventually, and it would work.

November 29, 2005

Passwords, again

Passwords are still the bane of my life *).
The last time I wrote about this, people recommended I used password management software. I downloaded one of the recommended apps, entered those passwords I could still remember, set a master password and promptly forgot it. Usually, I could remember the master password on the third or fourth try, so I got some use out of it, but nevertheless I can write off the "keep them in a local app" strategy as a failure. The password manager wasn't much use when I needed to type a password on one of my other machines, and because of my problem remembering the master password, it was as much of a hassle as guessing my passwords in the first place. Also, a few weeks ago when we reinstalled the studio PC I forgot to back up the program's files and lost all the passwords anyway. I don't even remember what the app is called.
The only thing that helps is good password retrieval functionality in online apps. I'd like to take this opportunity to boo and hiss at Skype which will not do anything for me other than send me a new, random, password. This stone-age solution would be usable if the software itself actually did what it promised and remembered its own passwords. In my bitter and recent experience since last weekend's internet outage at the studio, it does not, so in the past two days I've requested two new random passwords. The second time I remembered to forward the password to my gmail address so it won't vanish into thin air again.
iTunes, which I need to login to on two different machines to authorise the second machine to play the DRM'ed music I bought from them (I find the DRM just about acceptible at the prices they charge but may change my mind if it turns out that I can't easily un-authorise the old, erased Windows installation) does better; unfortunately their system is still defeated by users whose stupidity is as resourceful as mine, and when it is, it fights back using some stupidity of its own. To retrieve my password I have to enter my email address, my date of birth and the answer to a secret question I fed it when I signed up. Can you guess what happened when I did that? I got two out of three right.
Secret questions work when they're something dumb like your mother's maiden name or other things that you can easily remember and third parties can easily find out. Mine was too inventive (but secure). All right, that's my own fault. The correct answer is some variant of a word with one syllable missing or maybe some numbers tacked on, or some odd use of capitals. I don't know. What does irritate me is that having guessed wrong twice, I have to go back and enter my email address, and date of birth again! What's the point of that? Assuming that I'm not me, I have clearly got my hands on a correct combination of email address and DOB. iTunes confirmed to me that those data were correct by letting me go on to the secret question. So if I'm a fraud, I'm not going to enter a different combination. If I'm me, on the other hand, I'm going to get angry about having to jump through that hoop again. So "Yay!" to iTunes for getting the basics right, but "Boo!" to them for not thinking through all contingencies.
Addendum: There is an alternative. You can have them send an email with instructions to reset your password. Do I need to explain why I don't want this? I guess I'll just write it down and stick it to my monitor like everyone else, this time.

Anyway. Wanna be richer than Bill Gates and maybe snap up a Nobel Prize or two? Invent something better than passwords and you'll deserve that and more.
*) Except of course for several hundred other things that are the bane of my life. My life has many a bane. Woe is me.

December 27, 2005

Not in the Gallery: Pin Drop ad

I was going to ad an image to the Gallery, to wit, an ad for thePin Drop book that I drew in 1998-ish, but Gallery has decided it doesn't like me anymore, and refuses to resize the image for preview purposes. Having refused to do that, it won't complete the upload process or display the image. The error message refers to a document called the Gallery FAQ which redirects to a Wiki for Gallery 2. The answers given may apply to Gallery 1.x but I won't bet the farm on it. I find the thought of upgrading to version 2 one that my delicate constitution cannot handle. Even minor upgrades to Gallery have, in the past, led to it being inaccessible for months, or to all the templates being wiped. And when I think of the surprises that have been sprung on me when I needed to upgrade Movable Type, I'd just as soon not bother.

So... either someone points me to a real FAQ to Gallery with real answers that consist of more than just diagnostics - which are useful unless they come with instructions as to how to fix things - or I forget about the whole deal. WillowCMS is quite capable of acting as a gallery application and is one of two systems I've used that haven't crapped out on me yet (the other is Webcomicsnation which, while it may have its faults, is certainly robust). It lacks so far the ability to rip images from a webpage but I'm sure if I ask Mithandir nicely he'll come up with it. Ditto with database import from Gallery so I won't have to bother re-submitting everything.

The art I meant to show, meanwhile, is up at my DeviantArt hub. I like it. No thumbnail, alas, because I always used to rely on Gallery to produce those.

January 9, 2006

Photoshop linkblog

Pete Ashton has put up a tutorial describing the tricks he uses to enhance photos.
Meanwhile, DeviantARt user augustc4 has put up a tutorial describing how to use channels to control line art fully.

Neither of these will be news to seasoned Photoshoppers, but the rest of us, including myself, may want to look at them again in the near or not so near future.

January 31, 2006

Holy grail of web design found, or so they tell me

Reader Danny (AKA Awake98 on the forums) points me to an A List Apart article on the holy grail of web design

Three columns. One fixed-width sidebar for your navigation, another for, say, your Google Ads or your Flickr photos—and, as in a fancy truffle, a liquid center for the real substance. Its wide applicability in this golden age of blogging, along with its considerable difficulty, is what has earned the layout the title of Holy Grail.
with, as the writer doesn't even feel the need to spell out, lean, standards-compliant layout.
I have too much on my plate right now to fiddle with my website design, but when I do have time to fiddle, I'll want to experiment with this.

February 11, 2006

Hack attempt on server last night - tread carefully

Last night, there was a hacking attempt on Xepher.net, the server that hosts this blog and rocr.net. From the Xepher.net homepage:

Server was down for about 3 hours today, as an attack secretly added a small bit of javascript to most webpages here. The script would open a small/unseen iframe that loaded another site with many, many viruses and other malware. At most, this code was in place for 4 hours, and it only affects internet explorer on windows. I've since patched the software that had the hole in it, as well as run a script to remove the exploit code from all the infected pages. There should be no remaining damage. Still, as always, let me know if something's broken or funky.

The hole allowing hackers to put malicious scripts on index pages was in OpenSSL, which ironically is server-side security software, Xepher explains in his forums. People running Opera or Firefox were safe from the malicious scripts, hint hint.

April 25, 2006

CaRP

The Department of Putting Things Into Other Things has been very busy last evening: I added an RSS reader to the website backend. It picks up the link to the comic for which a transcription was last entered into Oh No Robot and puts it on the ROCR.net front page, and it also parses the RSS feed from Waffle to put on the ROCR.net front page. That's one iframe gone from there. I don't like iframes, they're unsightly. But a lot of the time they're the only way for me to pull content from elsewhere into the site.
The main reason I wanted an RSS parser was to display the last transcription though. I've been trying to give the transcription effort more visibility, so I wouldn't have to do so much of the work myself and get more benefit from it. I hope this extra link gives recently transcribed comics, most of which are from the sparsely-visited zone in the middle of the archives, some more exposure.
Getting this add-on has made me realise that I understand web development better than I give myself credit for. While I was doing the washing-up yesterday, I found myself thinking "But wait a minute! A PHP-based RSS reader would poke any feed it pointed to 500 times a day! That would be rude. It's the thing that owners of feeds complain about. So... look for one that can cache the feeds." And so on. I was speccing out the program I needed in some detail, while scrubbing out pans. Time well-spent, I should say. Of course, I couldn't write the software myself, and while I could in theory drop the project in Mithandir's lap, there are some limits to what I'd ask of him.
For the time being, I settled with CaRP which was easy to configure, let itself be embedded into WillowCMS's PHP wrapper without any problem, and allows both for caching feeds and for wittling down the output to a single link. It's not exactly what I wanted - I'd have liked a little more flexibility wrapping my own HTML code around the output, but it's 95% there.
One thing that's missing in the free version is the ability to pull out the author name from a feed item, so rocr.net-embedded-Waffle now lacks author links. Since the others don't write all that much, I don't see this as a big problem.
I can imagine many uses for this program, some of them a bit evil. We'll see in the next few weeks.

May 26, 2006

Damn! Pre-empted by Apple

I'd been thinking about something along these lines, although I'd come to it from the opposite direction: rather than adapting music selection to your workout, I was considering adapting my workouts to my music selection. After all, the default running order on an album is often very formulaic: heavy metal, for example, albums typically start with a fast track (though long, slow keyboard intros are also common, but these are often developed into up-tempo tracks anyway) followed by fairly predictable tempo changes, with longer, slower pieces at the two-thirds point before picking up the pace again. A lot of my favorite metal LPs from the 1970s and 1980s are just under 40 minutes wrong, which is a good length for running if you play something else during your warming-up. It should be possible to design a "Running With Metal" type workout that allows you to exercise various aspects of running while also letting you listen to the record in the order the artists intended. Other genres would also work, though not necessarily for running.

But I like the way Apple wants to do this too. Let the iPod push me to my limits.

June 21, 2006

"Cyberspace for Girls"

I read about this in the Dagblad van het Noorden: A pilot project at six primary schools in Drenthe showed that girls develop better computing skills if they're taught those skills separate from boys. Without boys present, the article claims, girls develop more interest in computing and find out that they can work with computers as well as boys can.

Personally, I find the idea of separating students by gender repulsive. But if that's what it takes to free girls from their own prejudices, and makes them work better in that one area. But what if it applies to all areas of academic achievement? Girls in the 10-12 age range are ahead of boys the same age, physically and mentally, and maybe boys are holding them back in other fields as well. But segregated classes don't seem to me to be a good way to prepare boys or girls for adult life, so... in two minds about this one, definitely.

Re: the title: "Cyberspace for Girls" is what the project is called, which puts me in mind of books like "Gravity Explained for Ladies" that were published in the 19th Century, and also of <blink> tags and the phrase "Information Superhighway".
(untranslated article below the cut, because I'll want to remember this one in case it ends up in a Gang of Four plot)

Continue reading ""Cyberspace for Girls"" »

August 24, 2006

I tried to like YouTube but YouTube didn't like me back

Five attempts.

Is what it took me to get past the Verification Code script while trying to sign up as a member. Four times, it returned a "invalid response to verification code" error, even though I'm pretty sure I typed the code in correctly at least some of these times.

And each time, it made me re-type my (weak) password twice, and reset the "put me on the mailing list" to checked.

And there was no way out. Apparently they think no visually handicapped or dyslexic people will want to sign up on a site offering video clips. How silly of me, to think that there might be a middle ground between being perfectly sighted and being blind as a bat. Or to claim that YouTube eliminated the need for literacy. Not if you want to get past the sign-up form, bub.

Visual Confirmations, aka Verification Codes or CAPTCHAs, work against spam and against fake signups by spambots. But I really wish they didn't.

Because they are really, really awful.

September 15, 2006

Selling to SEOs

An interesting way of doing business: Cartoonist Ampersand has sold his domain to a Search Engine Optimiser who lets him continue to run his (excellent) blog and cartoonist pages in exchange for a link on the blog's front page and the ability to put whatever he wants (presumably link farms, but I haven't been able to find out yet) on new pages on the website.

I suppose it's as legit as any other form of sponsorship, and it sure beats having SEOs spamming their links on other people's blogs against their will. But one wonders if it wouldn't have been more effective for the SEO to buy a traditional sponsorship. What's one link to a blog about, in this case, handbags, on Amptoon's blog page worth in comparison to a well-placed ad, possibly drawn by Ampersand himself and integrated into the website, pointing directly to the product? Presumably the other stuff the SEO adds is worth more.

There is a risk involved that could cause Amp trouble for a long time to come. The reason I'm interested in this story at all is that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Search Engine Optimization is spam. Comment spam and forum spams, the two blights on the Web that have caused me to spend many unpaid hours to clean up Waffle, Talk About Comics and, before Mithandir installed his latest honeypot-based comment spam blocker, the comments to Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan. I know that's not entirely fair; there are forms of Search Engine Optimization that don't involve spam, and what Amp's buyer is doing could be one of them. But if the buyer is putting link farms on new pages within the amptoons.com domain, then these will themselves only become valuable if they're widely linked to, and that means there's a strong incentive for the new domain owner to spam. Actually, that applies to anything else he might put there - it can only be valuable for SEO purposes if it's widely linked to.
You don't want to be associated with a domain that's spammed in blog comments or forums. Or associated with spam in any form at all. It got the makers of the blogging software Wordpress in quite a bit of trouble and could end up doing the same to Ampersand.

November 25, 2006

Do you ever get the feeling you're being held to ransom?

Because I do.

I called my computer supplier again, and they had run into another problem. The new, non-warranty-replacement motherboards, which I asked them to put in after all in the hope of ending the wait for my machine, can't hold the 4 512 MB memory sticks and need 2 1024 MB sticks to keep the same amount of memory. And they need to take a closer look at the machine just to figure out which sticks will fit and what they might be able to do with the older sticks, which may be resellable but probably won't be. Nearly three weeks in, I'm facing more expense and another weekend without access to data I need. And it would have been such a relief to be able to send bills.

I can't miss my stuff much longer; If I don't get my machine back today I'll try and reconstruct my "invoices sent" data from my gmail account and my bank statements so I at least know how to number the next few, as well as which internal invoices for the studio's internet connection I've already sent this year.

What also miffs me is that they mentioned a second problem, which is that they can't boot up with the new hard drive I ordered, because it doesn't have any OS on it. Seems like they're worse than my workshop students at remembering info I've already told them. I take care of putting an OS on the disk, because I don't want Windows on that machine.

(Actually, I'm wavering on that a little bit. It might be worthwhile to multiboot again, just so I can use Photoshop in an emergency. If I can get a cheap license, and I can get it before I get the PC back, whenever that is, I might give it a try.)

I blame myself for the first week of waiting and its consequences, but the second and third week earn this particular supplier an "I don't think I'll be buying from you again" card. One of the problems is that they have been too busy to fix my machine quickly; that's one problem I'll be glad to help them get rid of.

November 29, 2006

Project Wonderful's messaging system.

I've been using Project Wonderful for a few weeks now, both as an advertiser and a website publisher hosting the ads. My own advertising sales aren't too great, so far; all my slots have some spaces left that are going for $0, and my total earnings are less than a dollar a day. But I've seen a few places where bids have been going way up so it's quite possible to get some money out of this ad system. While I'm waiting for that to happen to me, I'm putting up many little ads in the $0 to $0.10 range myself.
I do this largely because I can. The interface is very straight-forward and invites advertisers go gamble away small amounts of money. But there is one thing wrong with it that breaks Project Wonderful for me, which is that the server sends far too many messages. Dozens a day, telling me in cheery tones that my $0 bid on some tiny little site has been approved, is the high bidder, has been outbid or has been canceled with no reason given*). If, like me, you take the bottom feeder strategy of taking out many low bids on many different sites, you'll be flooded past the spam threshold, train yourself to delete automated messages unread, and then miss the personal message that another user has also sent through the system. This just happened to me and is the reason why I'm posting this now instead of incorporating this complaint in a longer review that I had been planning to post on one of the other comics blogs. But even before that, the flood was a nuisance: the many low bids that I make simply aren't worth the time spent reading those messages about them. Project Wonderful needs a digest option.
[Update]: Hidden in the profile configuration page for PW is a link to a page where you can change your contact preferences. That should take care of the worst of the flood.


*) This is the result of another flaw in the PW design, which is that ad blocks can't be shrunk or expanded while there are still active bids on a block. I guess it would be rude to kick off one advertiser to shrink the ad block by one button space. But publishers will want to tinker with the size anyway, so now if they want to do that, they have no option but to kick every bidder off and start anew.

January 4, 2007

Knoppix to the rescue

(Summary: If your Reiser file system is corrupt, a Knoppix CD is more useful for rescuing it than a (K)Ubuntu CD. If you're not either me six months from now or someone with a badly messed up hard drive with a Reiser file system, you probably won't find the rest of the post at all interesting.)

Continue reading "Knoppix to the rescue" »

January 26, 2007

Today, I failed the Turing test 12 times in a row

The CAPTCHA system at Project Wonderful Talk is so good it blocked me from signing up twelve times in a row. I don't know why this is. The blurb next to the CAPTCHA claims that it is case-sensitive, but I've only seen capital letters in there. Also, it instructs people to enter only bold text, but in some cases it's hard to tell the difference. Whatever the cause is, I'm sure I'm not the only person who's been blocked from taking part in this forum. Not that the people at Projectwonderfultalk.com will be able to tell, because if there is a contact email address anywhere on the site, it's been hidden with great efficiency. Avoid this website if you value your time.
Update: Contact information was hidden at the bottom of one of its blog posts. I would like to point out that humans look for email addresses in the same way that bots do, by scanning for strings that look like Address@host.tld. Or a "Contact" button above the fold, if you find that having to filter out spam is too high a price to pay for being reachable.

Even the most basic alternative to CAPTCHAs, a link for the visually handicapped to follow, is missing. You want to sign up or post on Projectwonderfultalk? Prayer is your only option.

CAPTCHAs are effective at blocking spam bots, but at a great cost to legitimate users. I really should point out that on the Talk About Comics forums, spam bots stopped being a problem as soon as Joey installed the PHPBB plugin for Bad Behavior on the forums. This has also blocked a number of legitimate users, but that number has been very small, and it's been more effective than the CAPTCHA system that was already in place. The CAPTCHA there is still in place for new signups, as far as I know, but for all I know, it's become unnecessary.

February 15, 2007

Webcartoonist punks Wikipedia

Kristofer Straub reports on the deletion of his webcomic Starslip Crisis:

Delete Wikipedia: A Webcomics Case Study:

The Webcomics Purge of ‘07 continues with the deletion of Starslip Crisis‘ article. An article for deletion was submitted to Wikipedia, to delete Starslip Crisis, and the measure carried.

The result was delete and redirect to Blank Label Comics. — Nearly Headless Nick {C} 10:42, 15 February 2007 (UTC)

I started the vote to delete Starslip Crisis.

I started the vote to delete Starslip Crisis using a freshly-registered user with no other edits under his belt.

I also used faulty logic to initiate the discussion: I said www.starslip.com has no Alexa data, and isn’t notable as a result. (www.starslip.com is just a redirect: the comic’s URL is www.starslipcrisis.com and has an Alexa rank.)

Then I registered ten more fake users to stuff the original delete vote. This is called “sock puppetry” in Wikipedia terminology, and is frowned upon. The names of the fake users I used in the AfD are: Salby, Incredulous, Banalzebub, Hammerabbi, LKeith30, Repromancer, Expiwikist, Floxman, YothSog, and 66.27.212.63.

It’s so frowned upon that when someone else — a person I don’t know calling himself WizardBrad — tried to use a sock puppet to get his Keep vote to count twice, he was found to be cheating and his vote was struck from the record! Bless your heart, WizardBrad.

Here I was terrified that the Wikipedia editors-that-be would uncover my ruse to falsely delete a webcomic from their pages, and not only did they not find me out, they discounted someone cheating in Starslip’s favor!! How did they catch him and not me? Why did they bother to check up on his IP and not the IP address I used for the ten fake voters?

Oh, I will admit, I was sly. My fake voters engaged in conversation with one another, even one convincing another that the article should be deleted, not just merged under something else. Wikipedia cautions its editors that sock puppets can appear, and that the “straw man sock puppets

are created by users with one point of view, but act as though they have an opposing point of view, in order to make that point of view look bad, or to act as an online agent provocateur.

What I tried to do was take the popular point of view among Wikipedia’s editors — “delete webcomics” — and then prove that it would be accepted even under fallacious/suspicious circumstances. And it looks like I was successful.

Starslip Crisis is gone from Wikipedia for made-up reasons championed by my team of ten grudge-carrying fakes.

As it turns out, it’s not hard to get something deleted from Wikipedia, especially if it’s on some ice-blasted, barren frontier land on the internet like webcomics, where no one really knows what’s important and what isn’t, and no one really cares to make sure.

Yes, it does look to me like the process is broken, why do you ask?

March 9, 2007

Why Web BBSes suck

First, a question I've been meaning to ask: does anyone reading this know of a web bbs that
1) runs on PHPBB; and
2) has some version of Bad Behavior, such as this mod as its only defense against spam? In other words, no CAPCHAs, no other mods or plugins aimed at preventing the board from being overrun with spam?

If so, I very much want to hear from it. Bad Behaviour has done really well at stopping the endless flood of spam on Talk About Comics that I've been wondering if the time has come to stop making new members jump through hoops to get activated, or even open the forum to guest posters again. You know, make it a more inviting place. I'm not the guy who gets to decide this, by the way, but if there's evidence that Bad Behavior can do the job on its own, I can put in a word. Let me know in email or comments under this post.

I was prompted to bring this up by reading Matt Skala's recent post Why Web BBSes Suck. It's a great post that really opened my eyes to the extent to which I was taking bad functionality for granted for no other reason than that they've always been designed that way. I could quibble about some things, but I think the general thrust of his argument, that Web BBSes have terrible usability and don't serve the needs of their users well, is correct.

There is good news on some issues. Project Wonderful Talk, whose CAPTCHA I've finally been able to defeat, allows the use of Livejournal accounts for identification, which I hope many more boards will adopt (as well as other, similar, multi-site identification methods); PHPBB isn't as ubiquitous as it was a year ago even if it's still very dominant, and BBcode is more standardised than Matt claims it is. I also think the dominance of PHPBB could end very quickly if something truly better came along. Five years ago, when Ultimate Bulletin Board was as ubiquitous as PHPBB is now, it was quickly superceded by PHPBB because PHPBB was less crash-prone and easier to set up. The spambots have since made PHPBB at least as big a nightmare to work with as UBB was then.

So what I'd like to see is a project in which skilled designers and coders who have read Matt's rant build a new Web BBS from the ground up so it has the features the users actually need instead of the ones that Ultimate Bulletin Board happened to have in 1998 and which all other Web BBS systems have copied. And integrated spambot protection that actually works. Those two ingredients together would, I think, make most forum owners drop PHPBB like a hot potato.

May 15, 2007

Six Apart picked apart.

While doing some background research on my Eurosong Drunk-But-Not-Quite-LiveBlogging report, I found a Corante post entitled Six Apart Spins Like a Whirling Dervish in which tech blogger Strange Attractor picks apart a Six Apart press release:

Most commercial installations don't have big server farms, nor do they have lots of technical staff. Yet even if you do chuck a few extra blades and a couple of developers at the problem, it's still difficult to make MT work in either mode, static or dynamic, if you're being hammered by spammers. Again, writing popular posts isn't the problem. Serving pages isn't the problem. Comments are the problem. Now, it's very easy to blame the spammers, but the sad fact is that spammers aren't going to go away, and tools have to be built to withstand their onslaughts. MT isn't. It didn't matter how many servers you threw at MT 3.2x, comment spam could still kill them.

Oh, and just to nitpick... all that lovely open source stuff from LiveJournal? Well, let's remember that minor point of fact that 6A bought LJ for its open source goodies. No sneakily trying to claim credit for LJ, please.


You might've seen this effect already — ever check out a link that's been promoted on a big site like Digg or Slashdot and been faced with a "database connection error" when you visit the blog that got Dugg? Well, Movable Type is designed to prevent you from ever having to face that problem.

I feel like a broken record. Spam, guys, spam. Not the Slashdot Effect. (For the record, I've noticed that the Slashdot Effect is nowhere near as strong as it used to be anyway.)

Word. Rebuilds of comment spams that pass the filters take forever and sometimes fail, leaving the spam in the published posts. Regular expression filters don't work. Spam has hosed a previous installation of this blog so severely that it took down all of Xepher.net with it, causing Xepher to add resource limits to all processes. When I upgraded, every single rebuild hit those limits, until we switched the blog over to another database (to be fair, that move from ancient BerkeleyDB to SQLite was long overdue anyway). Since then, Movable Type has caused ROCR.net to go down at least once as a result of hitting the resource limits under an avalanche of trackback spam (this time, thanks to said limits, the rest of the server was spared). Since I had already stopped allowing trackbacks on the blog, I have been able to prevent a reoccurrence by chmodding mt-tb.cgi to 000 - I recommend that MT users do that to every script they don't use, so if you get your comments from Haloscan, nix your mt-comments.cgi.

Movable Type offers lots of neat functionality, particularly including easy multi-blogging, but the product's appeal has definitely faded for me. Moving to another system would require importing blog entries so that their URLs don't change, setting up multi-blogging and introducing five other people to a new blogging interface, none of which sound like fun ways to spend my time. But the next time I feel the urge to upgrade, I will probably suck it up and move to Wordpress.

July 27, 2007

Silverstripe

I'd never heard of Silverstripe before, but it's probably worth a spin in case I ever need to get a (non-blog) website off the ground quickly.

Thanks to studio-mate Jeroen, I'm back in the market for web development work. It's been a long time since I've done web development for anything other than my own sites, though, so I'm reading up and looking for some experience-builders. Simple things to do so I can say I've done them and know how to do it, and get a feel for the snags. So if anyone reading this needs, say, Wordpress installed on a clean system, or some Wordpress templates made, you just might be able to talk me into doing it for free if it's not a big job. I do hope to get past that stage soon, though.

August 9, 2007

Joomla sucks donkey cock, says Pete

Jeroen asked about Joomla the other day while working on a project. So when I found this old article on Pete Ashton's blog while looking for something else, I thought of him. Take it from a guy I trust to know his stuff: Joomla sucks donkey cock.

Now, having had to use it on a daily-ish basis for a while I can honestly say, hand on heart, that it's a piece of shit and a hinderance to my work. At least the interface is. It's the most unintuitive, frustrating thing I've had to click my mouse on since I can't remember when. This is not helped by the project I'm using Joomla for not needing a fraction of its power.

So, my advice if you're setting up a site and want a content management system? Think very hard about what you need, strip away what you don't need and use either Wordpress or Movable Type. They might be sold as blogging CMSs but they can do much more and they won't make you want to eat your fist.

I haven't used Joomla myself, but I'm happy to take Pete's word for it. I complain about Movable Type a lot, but it does what I want it to... eventually.

November 21, 2007

Use your host file to protect yourself against malware ads

AdBlock Plus had been spectacularly ineffective at blocking a browser-hijacking ad that showed up each time I browsed the Webcomic List forums, but someone responding to the thread I used to complain about it provided me with some heavier artillery: a gigantic list of malicious sites to add to your host file and a page containing an explanation of why it works and instructions for adding the list. I'd been vaguely aware of this possibility, but hadn't been motivated to give it a try. The instructions on the site are very much geared towards Windows user, but Mac OS X and Linux users can just edit their hosts file in a text editor. The linux hosts file is usually in /etc - you need the one that simply says 'hosts', not 'hosts.deny' or 'hosts.allow'. The poster said OS X users can find it in /private/etc — I haven't checked.

Two comments:
One, normally when I edit config files I use 'sudo pico [file]' and enter my password. That doesn't quite work because pico, a lightweight command-line editor, doesn't like it when you try to paste in long bits of text. So I used 'sudo kate /etc/hosts' instead.
Two, the list, while awe-inspiring in its comprehensiveness, is perhaps a bit too thorough. I actually rather like advertising as a source of income for sites that provide content or services, so I want to allow ad servers that I think are well-behaved. I have that problem with the preset blacklists in AdBlock Plus as well. I want to allow, at a minimum, Google adsense and Project Wonderful, because I use them on my own sites. The malicious hosts list provided by msvp.com blocks several Google ad servers; one AdBlock subscription list blocks both, which is why at home I use AdBlock without any pre-configured list. I'm in no position to tell you to allow these sites as I have a vested interest in people allowing them, but I would encourage you not to use block lists indiscriminately as your own criteria may be different from those of the people making the lists, or the information may be out of date.

About Tech-geekery

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Waffle in the Tech-geekery category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Sports is the previous category.

Theatre is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.34