Monthly Archives: August 2007

Real Estate Websites Suck: Part 2

Everytime, every single time I’ve tried to use Real Estate Websites for real-world stuff they come up short.

Searching, the basic function of the Real Estate Website, just doesn’t work.

I want to buy a house in a suburb. Not a unit, not a duplex, not an apartment.

So I search for houses, and blocks of land. And included in the result set is a semi-detached home. How the hell am I meant to bulldoze one of those? Is this ability to call a semi-detached house a free-standing house unique to only one website?

One site, Domain, doesn’t let you specify that you don’t want semis, so, of a fashion they can be excused. Except they’re missing a feature the other sites give you. So, Domain sucks.

The other two sites, RealEstateView and RealEstate.com.au both suck because they include properties I specifically told them to exclude. “Oh,” I hear you say, “it’s not their fault. The agent put in dud data.” This would be an excuse if the listing fees were a few bucks. But for hundreds of dollars, they can afford to have someone on minimum wage spend a few minutes sanity checking each listing, or they can have text matching algorithms running over the listing looking for words like “detached” and flagging that entry for review because “house” listings ought not include the word “detached”. For example. Or, heaven forbid, allow the users of the site to report misleading listings for subsequent correction. That would be nice. No more million dollar homes turning up in my sub-$600K search.

Part 1 of this (rather long) series of rants was sent to all three websites. None responded, other than with auto-responders. They all suck so much!

Twitter to WordPress to Facebook

(Skip the lecture, go straight to the instructions — but note the update.)

I’m yet to be convinced that microblogging (eg Twitter, or those status updates in Facebook) is genuinely useful. Maybe, maybe not. But I’m willing to try it out.

Problem is of course that if you use multiple services, you don’t want to be having to update them all individually. If such a concept is going to work, you’ve got to be able to update once and have it cascade to everywhere.

Facebook has an app to push updates out to Twitter. Which would be fine, but for those outside North America, you can’t update your Facebook status from anywhere except within Facebook. (North Americans can use SMS from a mobile, but others can’t.) Okay, so maybe you’d want to do it mostly when in front of a computer anyway, but I do like about Twitter than you can update from anywhere… anybody can SMS a number (it’s based in the UK, so for me it’s costing 50 cents… so I’d better not go mad using it) so no fiddling with mobile web access just to post an update. Twitter also takes updates via IM (such as GTalk and Jabber). I also like that it’s open; people can see what’s going on without registering.

I normally hate words like synergy and leverage and convergence, but that’s what’s gone on here. Alex King has written code that updates WordPress from Twitter every 15 minutes. Christian Flickinger has written code that updates Facebook using PHP, with a hack using the Curl library (since Facebook doesn’t actually accept inputs like this) that logs into Facebook’s mobile web page and does the business.

And Blake Brannon has put the two together, so a Tweet (that’s Web 2.0 talk for a Twitter post) will cascade to your WordPress blog, and then on to your Facebook status.

Neato, huh? Now that really is leverage. If it works. Which it does for many people, but it didn’t for me. I was having problems with Blake’s code; probably an issue with my Web ISP’s configuration. I ended up splitting it off to a separate WP plugin, which was messy, but allowed me to use the code in isolation, and figure out the problem.

It may be an issue that only affects particular versions of PHP or Apache or something — I’m no expert — but the problem was the Curl call couldn’t write to the cookies file. Creating the my_cookies.txt file and making it writable (777) and modifying the code slightly to specify where the file lived solved it. Another issue involved Curl being unable to use the FollowLocation flag, but it turned out this wasn’t needed.

I also ended up with Blake’s (modified) code in a separate file to Alex’s, rather than inserted into it as Blake intended.


So in summary

Update 2007-08-31: Blake’s been told that automated access into Facebook is against the Terms of Service. It’s unclear if Facebook will actively go chasing those who use or distribute code like this, but it would seem to pay to be cautious. Sorry.

  1. Download Alex King’s Twitter Tools and put in your wp-content/plugins directory
  2. Download twitter-wp-fb.txt. Put your Facebook details in where shown, then put it into your wp-content/plugins directory
  3. Create an empty wp-content/plugins/my_cookies.txt file and make it writable (777)
  4. Go into your WP Plugins page and activate both Twitter Tools and WP/Twitter to Facebook
  5. Go into the Twitter Tools config page and enter your Twitter credentials
  6. Cross your fingers and post something in Twitter

I think that’s all the steps. Good luck.

Thanks to Blake for his assistance on this. And to Alex and Christian, whose code this is all built on.

NAS on an old PC

So having now got my new PC set up, the old one is to be converted into a NAS server to hold all the kids’ home videos, photos and all our other files that need sharing. (No, I’m not in the fiscal mood to go and buy a Microsoft Home Server.)

There seem to be a few different free or cheap options.

Requirements? Well the machine I’m looking at is an old P3-500 with 192Mb RAM (though I may be able to scrounge some more for it). RAID 1 would be nice (though I’m going to have to check my drive sizes), for some redundancy. Web interface definitely good. User-level permissions so the kids can’t accidentally delete my files.

FreeNAS appears to be very lightweight, and run well on old hardware. This review gives it a good rap, though the people who have commented on it give it mixed reviews. It’s still a beta product (quite possibly a perpetual beta), which makes me somewhat wary to entrusting my files to it. I tried it out. Despite its beta status and small volunteer dev team, it seems quite polished. Boots up fast, and bleeps when it’s ready, which is handy if sitting out of the way, not plugged into a monitor. Haven’t actually created any shares etc yet, but will keep playing.

OpenFiler seems to need more resources (256Mb, they say) and seems to boot a bit slower — about 90 seconds in my test on the old box — but appears to be more mature and fully-featured, with commercial support options behind it.

There are other cheap (but not free) options such as NASlite, though it’s a little hard to judge if it would work on my old hardware, and there doesn’t seem to be an evaluation copy available.

ClarkConnect comes in a freebie (community) version, and also has a whole bunch of other groupware features, as well as things like firewall and print services. Probably a bit over-the-top for my needs, though you can choose just to install the stuff you need. Print services might actually be quite handy.

And of course I could chuck on any Linux distro I chose and configure it with Samba (as per the APC Mag article last month that got me thinking about this). Which would mean I had a full Linux installation to muck about with when I wanted, and/or host dev tools like Apache and MySql on. Though it sounds too much like hard work to me, and it might be a strain on the old box.

What other options should I look at? Or should I just stick with FreeNAS, which appears to be the most promising so far?

One interesting comment I read: that for home use, old PCs (that may not have been designed with modern power conservation in mind) may suck down a lot more power than the average dedicated NAS device. Good point, hence I want a quick boot time so the box doesn’t need to be left running permanently.

Handy link: How to: Install FreeNAS

Office 2007 first impressions

Admittedly I’ve only been using it for a short time, but here are my initial thoughts about Office 2007.

What I like about Office 2007

What I don’t like about Office 2007

  • the new navigation means there’s a learning curve… and half the time old-style dialogue boxes and such popup, showing that really the redesign is only half complete
  • severely limited colour schemes that break the Windows preferences
  • Outlook seems slower – clunky, in fact, sometimes. And keeps complaining it was closed unexpectedly, even sometimes when it wasn’t.
  • Outlook does strange things while writing emails, for instance removing a signature from the text when changing the account you’ll send it from.
  • have to save in the old format when sending files around, as I can’t assume others have the compatibility pack

Real Estate Websites Suck: Part 1

Oh God, Real Estate Websites Suck harder than an Electrolux. One little thing after another, they just suck. Today’s example: Search. Senario: I’ve decided to move closer to Daniel, so I want to live in a particular street in a particular suburb.

RealEstateView
I went to www.RealEstateView.com.au, and that worked, of a fashion. I searched for a keyword (the street name) for my desired suburb. No results. Which is fine, it’s a big place and a small street. But how to stay on top of the market – I know, get emailed when a new property turns up. Unfortunately, if there are no results you can’t get emailed in the future. If you get no hits, rather than being offered the chance to be told about this stuff when it comes up, you get told to search again. EBay deals with this problem just fine; you get to save the search and get emails if anything shows up. RealEstateView doesn’t.

I thought I’d outsmarted the website. I signed up for a search that did succeed, with an intention of editing it. I got the email, it said

If you did not request, or do not want, a membership in the
ViewALERT email system, please accept our apologies and
ignore this message. You will be able to de-activate your
membership by clicking the de-activation link on your first
ViewALERT email.

Great, so I can’t edit the search until the search finds something new. Garh!

Defeated, I moved on to:

RealEstate.com.au
Which failed horribly. I couldn’t even do a keyword search. Can’t limit my searches to a single street.

I could get it to email me alerts, with the same crude search terms as on their website (price, bedrooms, suburb). The confirmation email included my username and password. Great. Ten years we’ve been doing this shit, we’ve managed to figure out that’s not how confirmation emails ought to be done, you’re meant to email a link – click on it and it’s clear you’re a human. But no, here’s your details in cleartext. What dickheads.

Next:

Domain
Same problem.

Brief stuff

Nokia is recalling 46 million batteries, type BL-5C made in Japan by Matsushita. It affects a wide range of products (my 6230i uses that type of battery, but not the exact one being recalled) and apparently there have been around 100 cases of the batteries catching fire.

Microsoft’s cutting of XBox360 pricing around the world continues in Australia, with the XBox360 Pro now retailing for A$579.95, and the XBox360 Core at A$399.95 — the same price as the Nintendo Wii. Nintendo said they won’t drop their price; they’re selling plenty as-is. But it makes you wonder if Sony will drop the PS3 from its dizzying A$999 price.

Ars Technica notes that their beautiful iPhones are billed by AT+T with dizzying amounts of detail: even when covered by an unlimited data plan, every single connection gets its own detail line in the bill, resulting in one bill with 104 pages of usage listings.

Microsoft must be getting a little concerned: Google have added Sun StarOffice to the Google Pack.

Just for a laugh… The future is digital…

(via Dan Warne)

Satellite pictures: shop around

Even before the controversy over them blurring their Sydney images, it was noted that local map/sat pic providers are doing a better job than Google Maps: Ivan Pope says for the UK, try 192.com, and I’ve found Whereis.com.au has some better pics than Google for some Australian cities outside Sydney (to the point where you can see individually parked cars… hey where’s my car, it’s not at home? Ah there it is…)

Mind you, it looks like for rural and regional areas, Google’s still better, and they’re probably pouring more money than most into updating their pictures (they recently updated Melbourne, and a number of other cities). The bottom line seems to be: shop around.

Internal conflict

Things aren’t good when Windows gets so mixed up that different components start fighting with each other, and accusing each other of being security threats. Here we’ve got DEP shutting down Explorer:

DEP shuts down Windows Explorer

Fortunately, while just about everything else had crashed, Task Manager still worked, so I was able to run Paint.net and save this screendump.

For what it’s worth, I think an unstable non-MS EXE was what did the damage, so Windows isn’t entirely to blame. Still, I can’t help wondering if Linux has these kinds of issues.

All was well again after a reboot, natch.

This Is Broken is broken

This Is Broken used to be a terrific blog — simultaneously entertaining and educational (at least for those of us who have anything to do with building or implementing interfaces of any kind).

But now it’s broken. It’s all migrated into the Good Experience Blog, which might be okay in principle, but it dilutes all the Broken stuff that was the most fun. I don’t want to read job offers for North America. Nor am I particularly interested in many of the articles. And while you can view just the Broken articles on the web, there’s no RSS feed for just those posts.

(I’d leave a comment to this effect on the This Is Broken post that announced the change, but comments are closed. Which is also broken. Someone else left the same comment, anyway.)

So I’ve unsubscribed to the Good Experience RSS feed. There is a Flickr group that is still dedicated to broken stuff, though its attached RSS feed appears to link to an inactive discussion forum.

Why Facebook sucks

Now, I know there’s a lot to like about Facebook.

And I know the way it’s open to developers to fiddle about with it is part of its success.

But this in turn gives it a usability problems. For example, I noted a video on my home page, shared by someone I know. It looked interesting.

Video on Facebook

So I click it.

It doesn’t play the video. Nuh uh. Because I’m new to Facebook, instead it shows me a scary security dialogue offering to add the Facebook Video application to my account. And because we all know these days to be very wary of security dialogues (they mean something bad might happen if I choose the wrong option, right?) I have to very carefully read all of it.

Facebook Video installation

WTF?! Five security options, an application description and a disclaimer and a link to the Platform Application Terms of Use, plus a link in case I’m Afraid of abuse by this application? I JUST WANT TO WATCH THE FREAKING VIDEO!

You don’t get this problem with YouTube. Well, not if you’re one of the 99%* of people who already have Flash installed. (Hey, Facebook Video uses Flash as well, as it happens.)

*This is a guess, though from memory it’s something like that.

Seriously, all this is too much information. (And it turns out the first option is compulsory for this application — if you decide to be ultra-careful and don’t say Yes, you can’t have Facebook Video.) For something which is not actually an infrastructure security issue (unless I’ve seriously misread how Facebook works, all this lives inside your browser; nothing’s coming down to be installed on your computer), but is more of a privacy issue, I’d argue that sensible hidden defaults, only shown if the user is interested, would be more suitable for this kind of thing.

Now, as to why you’d post video hidden away in the Facebook walled garden, rather than on Youtube where anybody can find it… I can only assume that you don’t want too many people to see it, that you’re being fussy — you only want your “friends” or a particular demographic watching. It’s a little counter-intuitive when for most, it’s hits/views that are what we’re looking for — the more the merrier.

I guess that’s why I’m a Facebook cynic in general.