Monthly Archives: October 2004

The Horror

I was adding The Tragically Hip‘s ‘Trouble At The Hen House’ to Itunes when a dialogue box popped up. Damn, I’d forgotten it was a Hyper CD but the true horror came when I read what was on the box.

‘Do you want to install Netscape 4.08?’

Almost as scary as ‘Do you want to play a game of thermo nuclear war?’.

Sales People

I don’t think I’ll be returning to Computers Now any time soon. It’s where I purchased my Ipod, the now wonderful machine I never want to live without (and please don’t tell me about ‘the battery problem’ – do the research first).

I wanted a couple of accessories – a skin and an Italk. I asked about the Italk when we first purchased the Ipod. “Oh no, you need this one.” said the sales guy, pointing to the Belkin version. Hmm, $10 more expensive. Yesterday I went to purchase a skin. “Oh no, you need this one.” said the sales guy pointing me to the $20 (or maybe it was $30) more expensive one.

Okay, I know they are sales people. They are there to get as much money from me as possible. I understand this. What they obviously don’t understand is that a knowledgeable consumer will not return if they know they are being taken for a ride. I had done my research. I knew the Belkin mic was omni-directional and totally unsuitable for what I wanted – but they didn’t even ask what I intended to use it for. The skin, too, was more suitable for me. I wanted to put it on and leave it on. I don’t care it’s a snug fit and the other is in a different colour – this was perfect for me.

Don’t assume you can sucker your customers. Give them service, give them what they want and need and they will come back. Look at them, and treat them, as a walking wallet and they will not return.

(And as for the sales guy at MegaMart who told me that the Ipod mini was the same as a 4G Ipod….the less said the better)

Becoming a Shareware King

I’ll start by thanking Daniel for inviting me to document my ongoing shame and humiliation as I have a go at the world of shareware authoring. Daniel and I have been, until now, good friends and my abject failures may stir some sympathy in his black, corporate suit-wearing heart, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Just kidding, but actually I’ve realized that’s it very difficult to be a successful shareware author. I last looked at the market as a whole about 7 years ago when I worked for Sausage Software on the HotDog web editor and our whole business was basically one big shareware operation. You used to send your program off to CNET and Tucows and a couple of others, and hey-presto you’d done your marketing. At least that’s the way I remember seeing it – developers are notoriously blinkered to the point of borderline autism and I may be inventing some of these memories subconciously. But still, I remember it being a fairly small field.

While at Sausage Software I was asked to write a program for our tech-support staff to use; something to help them answer email more quickly. They wanted a human being composing the reply, or at least selecting the “right” answer to a customer’s query, but mousing around to .txt files on a network folder was too slow. “Put the answers in a searchable database.” was the spec. I went a little further and made the program become activated by a single keystroke, and paste the content into your email window with just one more keystroke.

They loved it ! As our virtual dotcom funds evaporated our tech support crew fell to just three or four people, but thanks to this program they were able to handle the same amount of email as they always had. After I left Sausage I forgot about it and went on with life, moving to America and generally losing one short-lived job after another….don’t worry, there’s a happy ending.

Shannon Scarborough, one of the last few tech support Sausages, contacted me and asked if I still had that program because she really needed it again in her new job. I told her I didn’t, but I’d be happy to write it again and see if I could sell it to other companies too. I was looking for an excuse to learn how to properly use data-aware components in Delphi anyway, and I’d always wanted to write a program that might provide me with an income stream without having to work too hard at it.

A few months later I gave her a prototype, hooked with a nice gentleman to help me with the marketing and ideas on design and what features to include and set off down the Happy Shareware Highway. I’ll continue writing here about what kind of decisions went into those steps, but I’ll give you a snapshot of the state of play today: downloads: 110. sales: 0 (zero..well, one guy in South Africa said he wanted to buy 30 licenses, but hasn’t replied to my last two emails). Website: up and running, new set of plans for world domination…..ready.

URL design

It pays to keep your URLs clean. Preferably just directories, no trailing filenames, and certainly no default.aspx type stuff on the end. Why? Because you’re aiming at humans, most of whom can’t remember that kind of stuff, and don’t want to be bothered typing it.

Everything that Jakob Nielsen wrote five years ago still applies. You want URLs that are memorable, easily typable, short enough to send in emails without getting chopped-up, that don’t automatically add weird parameters screwing up bookmarks and browser autocomplete, and can be passed by word of mouth.

Hey Joe, look at this site. www dot geekrant dot org

wins over

Hey Joe, look at this site. h t t p colon slash slash w w w dot geekrant dot org slash index dot php

every time.

This stuff is not hard. For Apache people, .htaccess works wonders. For the IIS crowd, fiddle with the default page settings. There is no excuse for www.microsoft.com/windows forwarding to www.microsoft.com/windows/default.mspx. Anybody who bookmarks that will be in for a shock the next time they move to a new scripting technology and change their file types.

Hide the default/index.html/asp/aspx/cgi/php/whatever from your users by linking back to your index pages without using the filename… eg root of this directory “./”, parent directory “../” and so on. Also aids in what Nielsen calls “hackable URLs”.

Redesign them by all means, give your 404s options to go to the home page, or search, or a site map. But don’t make your 404s jump to special page, changing the URL. Do you know how irritating it is to get a 404 that’s hidden what you typed, so you don’t know what you got wrong?

Though it’s become kinda fashionable to chop it, I still lean towards including www on the front in URLs, because it means you can put it in written form without the http:// and there’s no doubt what you’re talking about.

PS. Which browser vendor will be the first to hide http:// in the address bar when it’s not needed? Newbies really don’t need to be trying to type that every time, especially as no browser requires it to be entered.

PPS. Yeah I still call them URLs, not URIs. As the W3C says, an http URI is a URL. So there.

Blog spamming

At the time of writing, my main blog is under a sustained comment spamming attack. Over 50 spam comments today, all targeting the one old post, promoting a poker web site. At least one other WordPress-based blogger is getting them, so it’s not just me. And what’s interesting is they’re from a variety of different IP addresses, so assuming that’s not spoofed, it looks like the attack is coming from multiple zombies.

(Links in text deleted)

Author : poker (IP: 195.172.182.228 , 195.172.182.228)
E-mail : byob@y7263o.com
URL : http://www.poker-w.com
Whois : http://ws.arin.net/cgi-bin/whois.pl?queryinput=195.172.182.228
Comment:
7263 JUST A FEW LINKSFOR YOU TO CHECK OU WHEN YOU GET A CHANCE
Online poker
texas holdem poker
texas hold em

When I first saw this type of comment spam, I thought huh? What’s the point? Who is going to see such comments and click on them? Particularly in this case, with dozens of the same spams hitting one particular post. But the point is getting links to your sites into the search engines, and up the rankings. Whether it works or not I don’t know.

WordPress has a fair bit of flexibility when it comes to catching comment spam. The most useful generic setting is number of links in a comment. A surprising number of comment spams have heaps of links. You can also nominate keywords (though in 1.2 there was a bug in that if the final keyword on the list had a CR after it, every comment got caught). Caught comments go to moderation, so the never see the light of day. Handy for comment spam and for moderating particular users/IP addresses too.

Comment spammers, like other spammers, are getting cleverer. Hopefully the blogging community (and in particular those who write and update blogging software) will stay one step ahead of them.

Update Friday 07:30: The attack appears to be widening to more blog posts, and branching out to Viagra and weight-loss, but is still showing signs of being from the same source. To counter it, I have shutdown comment posting on entries more than 60 days old using Scott Hanson’s Auto Shutoff Comments plugin.

Defined: Wikipedia on blog comment spam.

Possible solution for WP?: Modification to comments code that ensures it can only be called from the form, not remotely. I’ll try this when I get the chance.

Update Friday 13:00: The patch above doesn’t work for this particular attack. Looks like this one spoofs the referrer… which makes sense, any decent spammer would think of that.

Any GeoCities users

For anybody who dabbles in GeoCities, they’re doing a little cleanup which means rarely accessed or updated sites may get the flick:

“We noticed that you haven’t updated your web site in a while. If you wish to keep your web site, we encourage you to update it within the next 30 days so that it will not be deleted due to inactivity. If your web site is deleted, visitors will no longer be able to access your web site and all files will be permanently deleted.”

I took a look at my site (which has bugger all on it) and got this warning:

Geocities Inactive warning

If you’ve got a site you occasionally glance at, now would be a good time to tinker a bit. And grab a copy of whatever’s on it, if you don’t already have it.

Quickies

Nostalgia time: Timex/Sinclair computer simulator in a web browser. (via Rick)

Just ‘cos you can: Dismantle your mobile phone.

A documentary series about the video game industry? Hope they show it here. Maybe I’ll order it on DVD. Take the Name That Sound quiz (I was crap at it).

GoDaddy.com has .info domains for US$1.95 (Via Lex). Doesn’t stop them being the poor cousin of .com .net and .org though.

Do you really really want to open the file?

I know the spread of macro viruses via consumer products is a dangerous thing, and obviously Microsoft in particular have had to take action to help slow them down. But I’m not convinced the plethora of dialog boxes that now adorns every application is really the way to go.

For instance, if you open an MDB in Access 2003 that was created in Access 2000, you are likely to get no less than three separate security dialogs asking if you’re sure, if you’re really sure you want to open the file.

I’ve been using Access for some years, but I don’t know what an “unsafe expression” is. I created the MDB I’m opening, and it’s just got tables in it. No macros, no VBA modules, not even a report or query. There’s nothing unsafe in it. So I said No, don’t block the unsafe stuff you imagine is in this file. Give it all to me.

Having said no, I don’t want them blocked, it then complains that it can’t block them. Obviously it doesn’t trust me to answer sensibly, it really wants to block those imaginery unsafe items. But it can’t without sending me off to Windows Update to install Jet 4 SP 8 or later.

I had to really concentrate to work out what the Yes/No options at the bottom of the dialog are for. They’re nothing to do with blocking the alleged unsafe expressions, or installing the service pack. Nope. What it’s asking is if I still want to open the file.

Having ascertained that I don’t care about the unsafe expressions that don’t exist, and I still want to open the file… it asks me just one more time, by suggesting the bleeding obvious: “This file may not be safe if it contains code that was intended to harm your computer.” Well duh, no kidding.

The cunningly placed Cancel button on the left could easily lead one to click that by default. But finding and clicking the Open button finally really opens the file.

Now, why did I want to look at this file again?

Speed up Acrobat

Method 1: Install Acrobat Reader 6, then Trim out all the extraneous plugins. The same method apparently works with Acrobat 5, if you still have that.

Method 2: Downgrade to Acrobat 4 5.05, which does all the essential PDF-reading stuff, but is smaller and quicker.

OldVersion.com is a boon for finding old versions of freeware. For years I used ICQ98, since it was tiny and advert-free. I’m such an early adopter I have a 7 digit ICQ number :-) Now I generally use Trillian, since it’s multi-IM-standard, so I can talk to people on MSN and ICQ and Yahoo with only one multi-megabyte IM program sitting in memory.

Harrumph

I got my Ipod today.

It doesn’t work – refuses to talk to my PC or my PC refuses to talk to it. All I get is the error message ‘Can’t mount Ipod’. I’ve followed every suggestion I could find on the net and still nothing.

Apple only have paid customer support on Saturdays, I have to wait until Monday if I don’t want to get slugged to get my new machine working.

Looks like my first purchase from Apple may also end up being my last.

This Apple Ain’t Shiny

I’m converting my music collection to play on Itunes (go on, guess why). Currently they are in WMA and Itunes wants to convert them.

Fair enough. There’s 1570 odd files to convert so I set it running. It gags on one file about 100 in and rather than continue with the next file it stops stone cold. And there’s no resume option. And it doesn’t delete the WMA file once it’s converted so you double the size of your music library. 1570 files will take about 12 hours to convert but how confident can I be to let it run overnight? Knowing my luck it will choke again once song after I head off to bed and I’ll have to nurse it through tomorrow.

Not impressed with this supposed Apple brilliance.

Excel to HTML

I can’t believe how stupid Excel (2002/XP) was with the table of browsers the other day.

The plan was to get the numbers into Excel, copy/paste into a Frontpage table to strip back the formatting, then paste into WordPress.

Nup, bloody monstrous Excel tags right the way through it, which Frontpage couldn’t override, and evidently no easy way to strip. No combination of Paste Special would work. So for example, instead of <td></td> we got:

<td align="right" x:num="1.15E-2" style="color: windowtext; font-size: 10.0pt; font-weight: 400; font-style: normal; text-decoration: none; font-family: Arial; text-align: general; vertical-align: bottom; white-space: nowrap; border: medium none; padding-left: 1px; padding-right: 1px; padding-top: 1px"></td>

I kid you not. Now, I know about round-trip HTML, though I have my doubts that anybody uses it — firstly because it looks like crap in a web browser, and secondly because if you’ll want to edit it later, you’ll just keep an XLS copy. Besides, it’s badly implemented. The cell above was using the “Normal” style. It shouldn’t have had all the formatting crap embedded in it.

Word XP actually has a Save As Filtered HTML option to strip out all this crap. Excel XP doesn’t. (I haven’t checked Excel 2003 yet).

Plan 2 was to save it as HTML, load it into FrontPage and crop the HTML to paste into WordPress. Nup, trying to re-open it in FrontPage just threw it back to Excel. WTF?! Opening in UltraEdit (my preferred text editor) just revealed the same tags as above.

How can two Microsoft products that are part of the same suite, same version, operate so disastrously badly with one another, for something as simple as copying a table?

Plan 3? Oh bugger it, it’s only a few lines, just write it by hand.

If it were more I’d go install and run that clear The Useless Crap Out Of The HTML filter thing (oh look, they could do with clearing the crap out of their URLs too), but it refuses to install unless you have Office 2000. Wonderful.

Next time (after swearing a bit) I’ll probably save to CSV and then do a global replace from commas to table tags.

Surely there must be an easier way?