Monday, 30 May 2005

Another great name






The name of the chief executive of Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust?

Martin Spray...!

(See e.g. this page.)


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Technorati: membership; claiming blogs






This post is an intro or tutorial on:
  • Technorati membership and what you get for it;
  • claiming your blog at Technorati - what it means, how to do it (even if you don't get the emailed code from Technorati), and why you'd want to; plus
  • a possible security issue with who can claim which blogs.
All this seems to be a bit of a mystery, in some respects, because the Technorati help pages aren't as clear as they could be and I have a feeling some of it is out of date as well (you'll see why, below) plus the procedure for claiming a blog can be confusing and doesn't seem to have been fully documented.

Why become a Technorati member?

To me, the best reasons are because you can then:
  • "claim" your blogs (great for bloggers), and
  • set up "watchlists" (whether you're a blogger or just want to keep an eye on blogs).
As the Technorati help says:
"What does it mean to "claim" a Weblog?
By claiming the weblogs that you (co-)author, your profile information will appear (if you wish) with your photo or image next to all searches that involve your weblog. When people click on your image, they can learn more about you — they see the information you want to provide to them about yourself — current contact information and other blogs you author. Naturally your profile information is completely within your control and all provided information is governed by the Technorati privacy policy."

[Added November 2005:] Technorati have now clarified that "Claiming your blog on Technorati allows you to customize your blog's display in our search results. You can add your photo, add a blog description, and place your blog in up to 20 categories in Blog Finder. Plus, if you claim your blog with the Technorati Embed, you can enable cool Technorati features on your site, like a search box, "blogs that link here" link, and more!"

Expanding on what Technorati say, as a member (it's free to join) you can:

Profile pic

"Add a photograph to your profile and it will appear next to every search referencing your site" - the best reason. A good pic is great for drawing attention to your blog entries in the results list. (Strangely, this doesn't work on Technorati's tag pages - no profile pics appear there.)

You can upload a photo or image to Technorati in the Member Tools area (after you login), under the Profile tab (500k max size, in JPEG, non-animated GIF, BMP or PNG format). If you've claimed a blog but haven't uploaded any pic, people will see a generic icon instead which they can still click to view your Technorati profile - it looks like this:

Profile info?

"Help other people find your site's posts and learn more about you and your writing" - I'm not sure what they mean by this point unless they're talking about your Technorati profile (with info about you) being displayed against your blog entries too (see the Technorati profile help). In terms of people finding your posts, well I believe Technorati's spider will crawl the blogs even of non-members. It would be interesting to know though if it prioritises members' blogs.

However the Profile tab in the Member Tools area doesn't let you say much about yourself. Just your first name, last name, email, company name if any, zipcode and country (and whether you have a blog). It's also odd that although Technorati say clicking on your image will provide people with "current contact information", it doesn't actually do that. It just shows the member's name and links to their claimed blogs, that's all.

If I were Technorati I'd either enable that feature (see the Wishlist below) or change the help to remove the inconsistency - pedant that I am!

Watchlists

"Create free watchlists utilizing RSS to stay informed and track conversations as they happen" - yes this is also a very good reason to sign up at Technorati, as only members can create Technorati watchlists to keep an eye on certain topics e.g. mentions of their name. I've explained watchlists previously and I think they're pretty useful, as a ego search tool for bloggers if nothing else! Tracking topics of interest to you is of course helpful, but if it's a popular topic you can get somewhat snowed under.

Technorati searchlet

"Enable your readers to search your blog on your own web pages with the Technorati Searchlet" - that would probably be the main advantage of being a member (aside from the profile pic and watchlists points). The searchlet is just a form which can be included in your blog template and will enable your readers to search, from your blog page, Technorati's index of your blog or, if they choose, all blogs indexed by Technorati.

I don't use a searchlet myself. I use Freefind instead. I won't go into detail as to why, in this post. Suffice it to say that I've found the searchlet (which to be fair is still in beta) to be buggy in the past, searching all blogs not just mine even when "this blog" is selected; and furthermore it's beset by the same limitations as a search on Technorati itself: it won't search old blog posts (including new changes to old posts), because Technorati's spider won't crawl and index old posts that are no longer on your main blog page, and sometimes it doesn't index even new posts for yonks (which I mean to discuss separately in a future post).

Summary

The profile pic and watchlists are definitely good enough reasons in themselves for every blogger to become a Technorati member, in my view, given that Technorati seems to be the most used blog search engine, because I think your blog entries stand out more in the search results list if there's a profile pic next to them, and watchlists are pretty useful.

"Claiming a blog"

But how does Technorati know which blogs in the search results to display your pic against? That's where claiming a blog comes into it - if you successfully claim a blog, your profile pic (or a generic icon if you haven't uploaded a pic) will show up by that blog's entries in the Technorati search results list. That's why it's worth claiming your blogs. (And yes you can claim more than one blog, and blogs with multiple authors can be claimed by each one of them too).

So if you don't know what's "claiming a blog", that's all it is - it just means laying claim to a blog as yours so that Technorati will show your profile pic and profile info against posts from that blog in Technorati search results; e.g. I've claimed http://consumingexperience.blogspot.com.

How do you claim a blog?

According to the Technorati help:
"Enter the main URL for each weblog that you wish to claim in the members area. You will receive an email from Technorati with a snippet of HTML code to add into your weblog configuration. Simply cut-and-paste the HTML into your weblog template (usually it is best to put it into your sidebar in a blogroll or external links section), and save your changes! For most blogging packages, that is all you have to do. The next time Technorati indexes your weblog, it will see the special HTML code, and Technorati will update your account to show that your weblog claim is now complete."

Or as Technorati put it a different way (on a members' only page):
"You can "claim" your weblogs in the member's area by submitting the weblog URL and then adding a small HTML snippet to the front page of your weblog. Technorati verifies that you are indeed an author of the weblog by spidering your weblog and looking for the special code you placed on your weblog.

Once you've done this, your picture and profile will be associated with all links to your weblog in any Technorati search."

So, to claim a blog, first you have to sign up for Technorati membership, then fill in the names of your blogs on the Claimed Weblogs" page" (accessible only to members who are logged in). But the second step is more confusing.

Why didn't I get the email with the code?

OK, so Technorati do say (e.g. on this page) that on claiming a blog you'll be sent an email with code to include in your blog template. They say you should insert the code usually where you put your blog links and other related items.

But that email isn't automatically sent when you claim a blog - someone at Technorati support has to manually send it to you (or they did when I claimed my Consuming Experience blog a few months ago). So if you don't get your email after a couple of days, you could try emailing Technorati support to chase it.

However, you may not need that email to claim your blog, as it doesn't seem to work like that anymore (and I think Technorati need to clear up what the procedure really is these days, and update their help pages). These days, if you fill in the "Claim a weblog" form with your blog URL, you get taken to a page which gives you two choices:
  • Quick claim your blog - by filling in the username and password you use to login to your blog management/compose pages (e.g. Blogger login details), or
  • Editing your blog template or blog/blogroll list - by adding certain code (the same code which Technorati would have emailed you, before) to your blog - if you'd rather not let Technorati have your blog's user/password details.
I think that if you claim your blog in the second way, Technorati call it "claimed by embedding" (i.e. including that code in your blog).

The blogroll option seems pretty straightforward, and from some testing I've found that what it contains in essence is a link to the Technorati profile of the member who's filled in the claim form. Obviously it's the main option for those who can't edit their blog templates but have a blogroll, and don't want to give their blog login info/password to Technorati.

What does the Technorati code do?

The code has two main purposes.

First, it's supposed to serve a security function. When Technorati next crawls your blog and sees the code they've given you, that should confirm to them that the blog you've claimed really is yours (as you have enough control over that particular blog's contents to be able to insert that specific code into the blog, which you shouldn't be able to do of course unless you really were the owner or co-author of that blog). But there's a possible problem here, which I'll discuss below.

Second, the code will display (on your blog page), at the location where you've pasted the code:
  • a link to your Technorati profile
  • a Technorati bubble icon which when clicked does a search on Technorati for the name of your claimed blog (also known as the Technorati "cosmos" for your blog - explained in more detail in this previous post), and
  • your Technorati profile photo (if you choose to show it).
If you don't want to display the cosmos link or your Technorati profile pic for a particular blog, you can just untick those options in the "Show on blog" line under that blog name in your Claimed Weblogs member page, and I think the Javascript file (see below) on Technorati's servers is then adjusted accordingly. A clever way of doing it. As it's possible to leave out your profile pic and Cosmos link, I suspect that the only bit that you need to include in your blog, the bit that properly confirms your claim to that blog to Technorati, is the link to your Technorati profile.

Deconstructing the Technorati blog claiming code

That code simply comprises a link to a Javascript file (ending .js) on Technorati's servers, which looks like this (where "SOMETHING" will be a unique reference that relates only to you and the claimed blog):
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://technorati.com/embed/SOMETHING.js"></script>
What that file does is to use Javascript to write certain HTML to your blog page. Once I figured that out, I got rid of the .js link and instead customised my template to insert manually just the bits which I wanted (this was in the days before Technorati offered the ability to tick just the bits I wanted, or perhaps I just didn't notice that option when I first claimed my blog!). For instance, I didn't want or need the Technorati profile pic to display again in my sidebar, because I already had my pic at the top of my blog.

So here's the contents of the Technorati .js file:
<!--
document.write('<div class=\'technorati\'><p><a href=\'http://www.technorati.com/profile/YourTechnoratiUsername'>Technorati Profile</a>');
document.write('<a href=\'http://www.technorati.com/cosmos/search.html?url=http&#37;3A%2F%2FYourBlogURL.com\'><img src=\'http://static.technorati.com/images/bubble_icon.gif\' align=\'absmiddle\' hspacing=\'5\' height=\'20\' width=\'24\' alt=\'Get Conversations about YourBlogName\' /></a>');
document.write('</p><img src=\'http://www.technorati.com/progimages/photo.jpg?uid=YourTechnoratiProfilePicID\' height=\'60\' width=\'40\'>');
document.write('</div>');
// -->
As Javascript people will know, that script has just the same effect as if you inserted the following HTML into your template:
<div class='technorati'>
<p><a href='http://www.technorati.com/profile/YourTechnoratiUsername'>Technorati Profile</a>
<a href='http://www.technorati.com/cosmos/search.html?url=http://YourBlogURL'>
<img src='http://static.technorati.com/images/bubble_icon.gif' align='absmiddle' hspacing='5' height='20' width='24' alt='Get Conversations about YourBlogName' /></a></p>
<img src='http://www.technorati.com/progimages/photo.jpg?uid=YourTechnoratiProfilePicID' height='60' width='40'>
</div>
So if you want to customise the code by hand (instead of using the tick options), it's easiest to forget the Javascript version (whether the .js file or a version of the "document.write" stuff above) and just stick to HTML. As can see the first "a href" inserts a link to your Technorati profile; the second a link to your blog's cosmos; and the img bit displays your Technorati profile pic. The advantage of using HTML is that you could insert the profile link in one place and the pic and cosmos links in other places in your sidebar, etc, as you wish - whereas using the Technorati code, those links will all be kept together. As mentioned earlier, I suspect the only bit you need to claim your blog (if that, see below!) is the first bit.

Of course you'll need to change the code where indicated (YourTechnoratiUsername, YourBlogURL, YourBlogName and 'http://www.technorati.com/progimages/photo.jpg?uid=YourTechnoratiProfilePicID') to refer instead to your Technorati member username, your own blog URL, your blog's name and the URL of your Technorati profile pic (if you've uploaded a pic, that is - you can get the URL by just rightclicking on your profile pic in the search results or on your member's Profile page and choosing "Properties").

Can you claim your blog by code alone? Or just filling in the form?

I wonder if, as long as you include that link to your Technorati profile in your template, you could claim a blog even if you don't officially fill in the form on the Claimed Weblogs page. So I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's a member but hasn't filled in the form tries this and gets it to work. I tried it with a new blog (which I'll be transferring to eventually), by embedding the Technorati code in it, but it didn't show up in my claimed blog list.

However, it may work the other way round (which is more worrying). When just embedding the code didn't work, I experimented by taking the Technorati code OUT of my new blog's template, and then just entering the blog's URL into the Claimed Weblogs form for claiming a blog. Guess what? My Claimed Weblogs page said my claim was successfully embedded and all I had to do to confirm the claim was to ping Technorati with the URL of the claimed blog. That's worrying (unless it worked because Technorati's spider was looking at a cached version of the blog page, where the profile link was still present).

Security and authentication?

The thing I'm most concerned about is that Technorati seem to have recognised my claim to my blog just upon my filling its name on the form, even before I inserted their code into my template. I don't know about anyone else, but even before I'd got that email from Technorati I'd found, on just logging in to Technorati, that it said my blog had been successfully claimed by me.

I hope they're not doing that anymore, but I've heard about the same thing happening with other bloggers too. And my recent experience with my new blog, where just filling in the form worked to claim the blog although I'd removed the embedded code, suggests it's still happening. I'd much rather it was the other way round - that you can claim a blog by including the link to your Technorati profile in your template or blogroll, but you shouldn't be able to claim a blog just by filling its URL in on the claim form.

Now I know it's hardly likely that anyone will want to hijack a blog on Technorati, because it doesn't give the hijacker much (except to have their pic and Technorati profile show against someone else's blog entries in Technorati search results!). It should be obvious who a blog belongs to, from the blog content itself. Still, there are people who don't know better, and will think a blog is owned by the person whose profile appears against its entry in Technorati's search results. And I wouldn't want it thought that my blog was written by another person!

Plus given the possibility of practical jokers and the like, and the fact that maybe someday Technorati will give more privileges in relation to claimed blogs, it would be helpful to know whether Technorati will be making sure that unclaimed blogs can't be claimed by a Technorati member just submitting the blog URL in the blog claiming form, without the right code being included in the blog itself and checked by Technorati's spider. And I hope that Technorati's terms will enable them to terminate the membership of anyone they find trying to hijack someone else's blog like that.

I haven't experimented by trying to fill in the name of someone else's (unclaimed) blog in the form but I do wonder if it would let me…Is anyone willing to volunteer to let me try it with theirs? I promise to un-claim it afterwards (or, officially, "Cancel the claim"), if it works!!

Even if the authentication is sorted out, I can foresee people trying to claim a blog by putting that code (but using their OWN Technorati member/username) into a comment or trackback excerpt on the to-be-hijacked blog, if HTML is allowed in that blog's comments etc. and the blog is set up to display comments on the main blog page (which some are). But maybe it's just me being nasty and suspicious. Other systems authenticate claims to blogs in exactly the same way too so if that's a real security flaw, it's common to them all, not just Technorati.

Wishlist

I know Technorati's team is small and they're working flat out on areas where they can make the most improvements to their service, but here is my own wishlist in relation to Technorati membership and claiming blogs (and I'd be interested to see if anyone else agrees):

Authentication/security - make sure that embedding or quickclaim are the only ways to claim a blog, not just filling in the blog URL on the claim form.

Help pages - explain more clearly how blogs can be claimed; if the email route is no longer used, fix the Help to explain exactly what the methods now are and how they work.

Tag pages - Technorati members' profile pics don't appear against entries on Technorati's tag pages, oddly enough. I hope they'll introduce that, for consistency and a seamless service.

Profile page - have more fields to allow people to fill in more info about themselves if they want to; have checkboxes so people can choose which bits they want displayed publicly (e.g. contact info) or to keep private so only Technorati can see them (with all except links to the member's blogs being set to be private by default).


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Sunday, 29 May 2005

Brain food






I'm always interested (see "Of apples and oysters") to hear scientific confirmation of some of the things your grandma was always nagging you about.

The 28 May 2005 issue of New Scientist has a cover story on "11 steps to a better brain" (this "11" thing is spreading: first Spinal Tap, then (according to Niall Kennedy) Technorati - what's next...?).

From their summary of the research a steady supply of glucose throughout the day is the key (food with slow release sugars), and generally fish is the best brain food, while there's evidence that highly processed food is bad not only for the weight but also mental health. The right stuff seems to not only help brain development in kids, but also counteract the negative effects of aging in the elderly.

It all seems common sense really, but here's the official lowdown from New Scientist on the best diet for your brain, to boost memory, attention, concentration, alertness and co-ordination, mop up nasty free radicals and keep the brain well lubricated:

  • Breakfast - beans on toast or wholemeal toast with Marmite

  • Lunch - omelette/eggs and salad; yogurt dessert

  • Mid-afternoon - a snack (but not junk food like cakes, pastries or biscuits)

  • Dinner - fish (seems the best food at any time); strawberries and blueberries for dessert.

Plus, physical exercise can help adults grow new brain cells (and vice versa - regularly thinking about exercising their biceps increased arm strength in a test group by 13% in 12 weeks!).

The right amount of vitamin folate plus activities (yes even knitting and crosswords, not just physical exercise) will help keep brains healthy, as will a positive attitude.

And getting enough sleep is vital for the brain, with performance (including general skills and problem-solving, not just concentration) improving even in someone who isn't sleep-deprived if they just take an extra hour or two of sleep. I've always been a big believer in afternoon naps at the weekend, so I feel completely justified now!

So it all seems to boil down to a decent diet, positive thinking, lots of exercise (both physical and mental), and lots of sleep. Just like grandma said, then.

Now - go and eat your greens, run a few laps, and off to bed with you!!


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ID cards: a child's view






I'm pretty vociferously anti-ID cards and I've previously explained in more detail why: I think they won't do what they're supposed to and instead will waste billions of taxpayers' money which could and should be spent much more effectively, like getting us more, better-trained and better-equipped police and security services personnel, healthcare professionals and teachers (plus of course improving the public transport system).

But even a bright 10 year old can spot the flaws in the proposed anti-terrorism UK ID card scheme.

A friend's kid heard it discussed on the radio and asked about it. My friend attempted to explain the supposed merits of ID cards as per the party Labour (and indeed Conservative) line.

The child's reaction was to say:
"But they can fake passports, so why can't terrorists copy ID cards too?"

And:
"Who has to have ID cards? Only British people? Why can't a terrorist come here from outside the UK, plant a bomb, then leave again?"

Quite.


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Friday, 27 May 2005

Light relief






A would-be robber burst into a bank in Florida waving a gun and screamed:
"Freeze mother-stickers, this is a fuck-up!"

It sure was.

The staff dissolved into hysterics and the humiliated robber fled, empty-handed.

(From Fortean Times issue 198 July 2005)


Plus, today I was in a cafe in Kensington.

There was a sign above the toilet (this is true, I saw it myself!):
"Please do not flush the toilet paper. Use the bin provided. Thank you."

Eeeeew. I wouldn't like to be the person who has to empty that bin.

Toilet humour, indeed.


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Sunday, 22 May 2005

Copyfighters London, 15 May 2005






Last Sunday I went to the Copyfighters Drunken Brunch and Talking Shop, hosted in London by Cory Doctorow of the EFF. I was late arriving plus I couldn't stay after the Speakers' Corner speeches, so I didn't get to chat much to many people (hi to Cory, Freeculture Pedro from Florida, Jim Clements and Neil of Fading Ways Music, future legal eagle of Fading Ways (can't spell your name correctly, sorry so rather than get it wrong I won't try!), Leo, Gavin of FFII and Sarah!).

It was fun, and very interesting. I overheard someone mention that most people there seemed to be lawyers (don't you all run away now!), which is not surprising given the Creative Commons and copyright focus.

Speakers' Corner

The speeches were excellent, kicked off and wrapped up by Cory. I see that some folks have posted pics up on Flickr. There seemed to me to be three broad themes:
  • promoting the use and support of Creative Commons
  • a more radical suggestion that civil disobedience was the best way to engender change, and
  • a warning about the threat to software development and innovation posed by the upcoming EU law on software patents and exhortations to lobby MEPs about it.
Speaker's Corner would not be the same without its hecklers and sure enough one man (I hesitate to say "gentleman") from the crowd duly obliged, although he didn't engage with what was said so much as seize the opportunity to sound off about his own pet peeves ("Everything that's wrong with [insert speaker's theme here] is the fault of them bloody furriners!!". To paraphrase...)

I'm not the public speechifying type so I didn't leap onto the soapbox (or, strictly, if rather less romantically, the folding chair manfully lugged by Cory all the way there and back). But I thought some good points were made.

Creative Commons

Many people will have heard of the Creative Commons. For those who haven't, my take on it (and remember I'm no copyright expert!) is that it's a very good approach to copyright. It's a way (several ways actually) to license out your work, whether it's writing like blogs, or music, or art, which is much more in keeping with the spirit and the realities of the digital age, and more than worthy of support.

You retain your copyright, you dictate how others may use your work, but you can allow them more freedom than is normally the case with traditional "old" media - like free copying/downloading provided e.g. they credit you and it's only for non-commercial use (so that no one can sell it or make money out of it without getting your permission and, if that's a condition of your permission, giving you a cut). You can even let others remix and build on your work (if they credit you etc). It's easy to attach the appropriate CC licence to your work by choosing the type of work (audio etc) and answering a few easy questions. (A comparative overview of the differences between the licences isn't easy to find, for me anyway - it's here.)

For many, this is a great way to go, and I agree. In a way I'm a creative too: I have my blog and (in another incarnation) music and lyrics. I don't want my work to be ripped off or commercially exploited without my benefiting. But I believe the Creative Commons way strikes an excellent, fairer balance, offering creatives a way to grow a fan base through allowing some free private copying/use and sharing, while putting them in a position to have a say in any possible future commercialisation of their work. That's the philosophy of labels like Fading Wave and musicians like Jim, who hope people who download free tracks will want to buy the CD and pay to go to the gigs.

The hope is that more and more people will licence their work using Creative Commons (who provide a set of simple questions you answer to choose the licence that suits you), and more and more people will want to popularise the and support those who make their work freely available in this way. Recently the English version of the CC licence was produced (in April 2005).

I've certainly attached a Creative Commons licence to my own blog and my feed from the start (so people can copy my writing or code or even build on it, but must credit me and mustn't sell it or make money out of it without my permission). And I may well release music under CC too.

Creative Archive

As an aside, also of interest in this vein is that coincidentally - or not - in the same week as the English CC licence was officially released, the "Creative Archive Group" led by the BBC and including Channel 4, also released their own version of a copyright licence, the Creative Archive licence, which some have criticised as being more restrictive than the CC one and may risk confusing the issue, with people not knowing whether to go for a CC licence or Creative Archive one.

The main point of that licence is that the Group intends to release audio and video under it (Ashley Highfield of the BBC has said "The creative archive is an initiative to dig into the archive at the BBC, starting with our factual stuff, natural history etc. We'll see if we can't get some of that locked-up content archived, and provide it on the internet to download. It is predominantly intended as an educational tool, but we'll see how it goes. That's the idea. It's the beginning of a long journey to release the potential of all these locked-up tapes in the archive."). It's great that people will be allowed to download and remix clips from the BBC and Channel 4 etc for free, as well as watch them (all for non-commercial purposes only) - and in popular formats too like Quicktime, Windows Media and MPEG1.

And it looks like the Beeb are going to talk to programme makers about this licence for their future work too: "The BBC and PACT will hold further good faith discussions about the Creative Archive - with a view to agreeing how the Creative Archive could be covered under these Terms of Trade and the standard programme production agreement." (Pact is the UK trade association that represents and promotes the commercial interests of independent feature film, television, animation and interactive media companies.)

But it's disappointing that so far, despite the initial fanfare, very little has in fact been released under this licence - only a handful of old clips by the British Film Institute, which was claimed to be a success with over 3000 downloads. Nothing yet from the BBC itself - not even a promised radio program on losing the past and archiving, ironically! - despite their statement back in March 2004 that "The Creative Archive will give everyone in the UK the freedom to search for and access clips from the BBC's television and radio archives via bbc.co.uk." The way to try and get more stuff (and more interesting stuff) on there is for as many of us as possible to tell the BBC what we want! Sadly for non-Britons the downloads are only available within the UK, although as Kevin Marks points out, the World Service remit might well be used to extend to a worldwide service.

Civil disobedience?

As for the "civil disobedience" point, where one person effectively advocated (it seemed) illegal file sharing/downloading by all, because it will force the pace of change, they can't sue everyone and people have made more money selling their stories than they've had to pay the record companies in court - well that's a tougher one.

In a way I think it's all already been done and the mass movement, the impetus for a sea change, has already been created. It's precisely because of the huge volumes of illegal downloading in the past that the big record companies are now having to adapt and update their own distribution channels, albeit at their own monolithic pace. Witness the now legal *Napster, and of course the rise and rise of the iPod and iTunes.

Maybe continued illegal file sharing would help increase the pressure, I don't know - but given that there are now legal ways, and options like Creative Commons for forward-thinking writers and artists and consumers of art (in its broadest sense), personally I'd rather go down that route.

It will be very interesting to see what the US Supreme Court say in the MGM v Napster case, which is currently before them: they are to decide whether peer to peer file sharing software is illegal even though it has legal uses - in fact that decision will be vital to people's attitudes and actions in times to come.

Software patents in Europe

Finally, it's worth highlighting the software patents law which is going to be considered shortly in Europe (I've tracked down its long name: Directive on the patentability of computer-related inventions). It will extend the reach of EU patent law and allow pure computer software to be patented in Europe (the official EU page on it is here). This was the focus of a couple of the speeches, and to me it's very scary.

The US patents system has become unreal. C'mon, how can they let one company patent (and have a monopoly on, and charge everyone else for the privilege of using) the idea of doubleclicking to do stuff on a mobile device? Using the tab key on your keyboard to move from element to element on a Web form? (Or the idea of allowing people to order things easily online with one click?). Not as bad perhaps as in Australia where a patent lawyer, John Keogh, was able to show how ridiculous the system was by managing to get a patent on the wheel - but it's not far off, and now it seems Europe's going the same way too. Wrong way, chaps and chapesses.

Big rich companies are the ones who will have the resources to go off and patent every idea in sight (especially when patent fees aren't cheap), and then sue everyone who's within even a sniff of using a similar idea. A much better and easier money spinner than actually doing something useful with the idea, perhaps!

But rarely is anything created in isolation. Standing on the shoulders of giants, remember that quote? Most code is built on bits of other code. If in future we can't even stand on the shoulders of ordinary joes, if we're not even allowed to stand on our own legs because someone else has patented legs as theirs first, how are we going to get anywhere? Gavin pointed out something Bill Gates himself said in 1991 (which I've tracked down on the FFII site):
If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. ...

The rest of the quote then encourages small companies to go out and patent their work, at the start. But they can't if even very basic ideas on which most code is built have already been patented by someone else.

It's important for the functioning and progress of society that laws strike the right balance, even seemingly technical laws that the vast majority of people don't know or care much about. But this one isn't innocuous, it could seriously damage software development and creativity (and badly undermine the open source movement), which in turn won't be good for the future of the digital economy and therefore society. Europe will lose out, even more than it already has, to nations which don't have stupid laws.The software patents law doesn't sound like it will be the smartest thing to come out of the EU, even if you count the question on the regulation of garden gnome trade (and yes, that was a real one!).

Gavin suggested lobbying your MEP. Some may say that's ineffectual, but as I said I think legal ways should be the first option, and I am normally pretty cynical but I do believe that lobbying can help, if the right people lobby the right people in the right way. The problem is that the (elected) European Parliament, who seem more in touch with reality than some, are in fact against the proposed law too and want it redone - it's other parts of the EU which inexplicably seem determined to push it through (see e.g. this speech by Commissioner Charlie McCreevy. And Parliament are still trying to change it, see for instance these news items earlier this week from The Register and Monsters and Critics on the Legal Affairs Committee report). So we can only hope lots of people make the point loudly and clearly enough, and that the powers that be listen, take note, and act sensibly.

On the other hand, maybe I've got this all wrong. In fact, why don't they extend the laws to allow patenting of other things too? I have a plan to make the Beatles and everyone else pay me shedloads of money. I'll just patent me the musical scale - major and minor both, naturally. Hands off the pentatonic, it's MINE all mine. And if it's Aeolian or Dorian or any other mode you might want to try instead, don't even think about it. (You can have Tuvan throat singing and circular breathing though. I'm feeling generous).


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Haloscan: how to find the post for a comment or trackback






One difficulty with Haloscan commenting/trackback is that it's hard to figure out which blog post a comment or trackback is for. (In previous posts I've covered pros/cons of Haloscan vs Blogger commenting, how to just use Haloscan trackback or commenting, and how to use another free trackback system). The answer is often covered in the forums for Haloscan but it's a common question so there's no harm in repeating the how to (for Blogger blogs), plus I include a form and a bookmarklet you can add to your browser toolbar to speed the process up in future.

[Edited 5 Feb 06:] You can find out which post a comment or trackback relates to from its Post ID number (from your Haloscan Manage Comments or Manage Trackback page, under the first column headed "Post"). I find it can be a bit of a pain accurately highlighting the number for copying and pasting; if you do too, and you have Firefox, get the free CoLT extension and then you can just rightclick the number and choose a menu item to copy the link text (i.e. the Post ID number) to clipboard easily, for pasting into the form or bookmarklet box below.

Use this form or bookmarklet

If you're on Blogger you can use this form to find out which post a comment or trackback relates to - just fill in your blog ID and the Post ID for the comment/trackback entry you want to find out about and hit "Find Post" - you'll have to scroll down to see the body of the post:





Alternatively, I've produced a favelet or bookmarklet you can use (but NB you MUST edit it first or it won't work, see below as to how). Then you can use it whenever you want to find a post from its post ID, right from your browser toolbar. Here's the link (see below on how to use it):


[Edited 24 March 2006:] NB Blogger sometimes messes up the code for the bookmarklet when I republish. If that link doesn't work, try my bookmarklets web page, item 2.
What's a favelet or bookmarklet? If you're unfamiliar with bookmarklets or favelets, well here's my own definition: bookmarklets are things you can add to your browser's Favorites/Bookmarks, or Links bar or Bookmarks toolbar folder, where they appear just like another item in the toolbar or Favorites or Bookmarks list. When you click a bookmarklet in your Favorites/Bookmarks or toolbar it does something (hopefully useful!) - like help you create code for Technorati tags, bookmark a Webpage, produce a shortened URL for the webpage you're visiting (e.g. on TinyURL), etc.

Bookmarklets are usually presented as links on Webpages. Just drag the link to your Links or Bookmarks toolbar and drop it there or, if that doesn't work (some versions of Internet Explorer), rightclick the link, choose Add to Favorites and navigate to your Links folder, add it there and voila. You could also just leave the bookmark/favorite in your Favorites or Bookmarks list, if you prefer, and access it from there. Or you can click the link direct from the original webpage to access the same functions, if it doesn't work from your toolbar/Favorites (IE6 doesn't like long code in bookmarklets for some reason - Firefox works fine).

IMPORTANT:
this favelet won't work unless you edit it. After you add that link above to your browser toolbar as described above, you need to change "1234567" to your blog ID (to find out your blog ID see Blogger Help).

How to edit a favelet

To edit a favelet, rightclick it in your toolbar; choose Properties. To edit its name, change the Name line, and to edit what the script does, edit the URL or Location line - but obviously the latter only if you know what you're doing, or you may stop it from working!

In the case of this particular bookmarklet, you should click in the URL line (or Location line, for Firefox), unhighlight the whole line, change just the 1234567 to your blog ID (but don't change anything else), and hit OK.

What the form or favelet do

They're just a shortcut for this:
  1. First, find out your blog ID if you don't know it already. (Blogger Help page on how.)
  2. Login to Haloscan and copy the long number from the Haloscan Post ID column as mentioned above.
  3. In your browser type http://www.blogger.com/email-post.g?blogID=YourBlogID&postID=Longnumber, changing YourBlogID to your blog's ID number and Longnumber to the long number you copied from Haloscan.

Longer step by step

I find this is also a quick way, especially if you're already logged in to your Blogger dashboard:
  1. Log in to Haloscan, and in the Manage Comments or Manage Trackback view there's a column called Post ID.
  2. Under the Post ID column note down the long number against the blog entry you're interested in - best to highlight the number and rightclick or Ctrl-c to copy it to clipboard for speed and accuracy.
  3. Log in to your Blogger Dashboard and click your blog name. You should come to the Posting page.
  4. If you're not on the Edit posts page, click Edit posts.
  5. Against any of the posts in the list (a short one is quicker), click the Edit button.
  6. Click in the window address bar showing the URL, unhighlight the whole line and delete JUST the last number after "postID=" (but leave the first bit of the URL in place exactly as is).
  7. Paste in the number from Haloscan that you copied earlier (rightclick or Ctrl-v) and hit Go or Enter.
That'll take you to the post that's been commented on or tracked back to, and once you know which one it is you can just go to your blog in the usual way and take a look at the relevant post page or item page.

Multiple blogs

What if you have several blogs? I'm afraid that as far as I know you have to try all the different blog IDs for each one, and see which one works. If anyone else knows a quick way to figure it out, let me know!


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Saturday, 21 May 2005

Posting code: useful HTML converter






I finally found a handy automatic converter to help you post code on Webpages, especially blog posts, and still have it display as raw code rather than being interpreted as HTML, at Centricle.

You just copy/paste your code into the first box and hit "Encode" and it does a search and replace for you automatically of the tricky characters you have to encode in order for code to show up properly. Just copy the code from the box for pasting into your post or webpage. It also converts the other way round - i.e. it decodes as well as encodes.

I've edited my previous post, where I'd noted what I'd realised needs to be done to get stuff to display as pure HTML code in a post or Webpage (rather than being treated as tags), to include the link to that conversion tool. I prefer to keep everything together in the same place for ease of reference.

(It took me ages to track down a good working automatic converter. Probably because I was searching using insufficiently hardcore techie terms. So, as a public service, here are some softcore techie terms people like me might use to try to find a tool like this, in the hope that they'll get picked up by Google and make it easier for others to locate the converter in future... HTML converter, HTML encoder, HTML encoding, encode HTML, convert HTML, display code, post code, display HTML, post HTML...).


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Monday, 16 May 2005

HTML forms: getting "get"






I finally get "method=" and "action=" on Webforms. I've seen loads of stuff explaining how to create HTML forms, how to include various form elements like radio buttons etc, but until recently I'd not found anything I could understand which explained what actually happens when you click the Submit button or hit Enter after you fill in a Webform.

Now I get it, at least for forms where method="get". And this means I also get how to construct working Webforms to search many sites too.

What happens with forms using method=get

Take a Web form like the following (where "formelement1" etc is just a standard form element for a textbox, checkbox, radio button, dropdown list menu etc e.g. input type="textbox", or select, or radio):

<form action="http://someurl" method="get">
<formelement1 name="name1" value="valueA">
<formelement2 name="name2" value="valueX">
<formelement3 name="name3" value="valueZ">
<input type="submit" value="Submit">
</form>

When someone fills in the form and hits Submit or the Enter key, what happens is exactly the same as if they went to the following URL (e.g. by manually typing it into their browser address bar):
http://someurl?name1=valueA&name2=valueX&name3=valueZ

In other words, their browser takes the URL in the "action=" bit of the form, adds a questionmark after it, then inserts the names and associated values of each form element, in the order in whixh they appear in the form, with "&" separating each "name=value" pair. It's just a way to take user input entered into a form and put it into a standardised format which can be used to do something like query a database on a search engine's servers (living at the URL in the "action="), and get back the results.

At least that's my interpretation of these official W3 explanations ("user agent" just means "browser"), which may be shorter than mine but perhaps are a little less comprehensible to the average softcore techie (if I may coin a phrase - I regard myself as a softcore techie too!):

(On the form submission method) "get: With the HTTP "get" method, the form data set is appended to the URI specified by the action attribute (with a question-mark ("?") as separator) and this new URI is sent to the processing agent."
or
(On the form data set) "If the method is "get" and the action is an HTTP URI, the user agent takes the value of action, appends a `?' to it, then appends the form data set, encoded using the "application/x-www-form-urlencoded" content type. The user agent then traverses the link to this URI."

Example form

I'll illustrate with a form to search Blogger.com profiles. I first thought of producing a form for this kind of search when I noticed the pattern in the structure of the URL in the address bar after you click on a keyword in a Blogger profile in order to find other profiles with the same keyword (e.g. interests=leather; or "pot noodles", if you must) - but the best I could manage, in the state of greater ignorance I was in at the time, was to find a Javascript script which I then somehow managed to adapt to do that search (and posted about previously.)

Now I've realised that you don't even need Javascript, a simple HTML form will do (and I've replaced the Javascript version in my Blogger.com template with this now and also edited my previous post to include the HTML version). Here's the code:

<!-- Please do not delete this note
Form to search Blogger.com profiles - results open in new window, to change this delete target="_self"
Copyright Improbulus 2005 http://consumingexperience.blogspot.com/ licensed under Creative Commons License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
-->
<form action="http://www.blogger.com/profile-find.g" method="get" target="_blank">
<label for="q">Find this word or phrase:</label><br />
<input type="text" size="25" name="q" id="q" /><br />
<label for="t">within this profile section:</label><br />
<select name="t" id="t">
<option value="i">Interests</option>
<option value="m">Movies</option>
<option value="s">Music</option>
<option value="b">Books</option>
</select>
<input type="submit" value="Search" /> <input type="reset" value="Clear" />
</form>


Ignore the "id=" (which is included to go with the "label=for") and the odd "/>"if you like, I'm just trying to acquire good habits and start learning to be XHTML-compliant like my pal Tab...

Now if someone fills in "leather" in the textbox (so that the value of the textbox named "q" becomes "leather"), chooses "Interests" from the dropdown (so that the value of the dropdown menu named "t" is set to "i") and clicks Submit, what happens is the same as if they'd entered, into their browser address bar, the URL after "action=" (here "http://www.blogger.com/profile-find.g") followed by a "?" followed by q (the name of the textbox) = leather & t (the name of the dropdown list) = i (the value selected for Interests), i.e. http://www.blogger.com/profile-find.g?q=leather&t=i (click that link and you'll see the results are the same as if you'd filled in "leather" in the textbox and selected "Interests" using the profile search form in my sidebar - though on reflection, don't click that link unless you're over 18!). Here's the form whose code is given above, which you can test out:










(I used a dropdown list to save screen real estate but, if you prefer them, radio buttons would do as well - e.g. <input type="radio" name="t" value="i">Interests<br /> <input type="radio" name="t" value="m"> Movies<br />, and so on for music and books - remember it's the name and value that are important, not the description e.g."Interests" or "Movies", though obviously the descriptions are needed for human comprehension.)
Note that I deliberately didn't include "name=" for either the submit or reset input button - you don't want to have name/value pairs sent out for those, for obvious reasons they're meaningless and useless if not downright confusing to the poor lil server that's just obediently processing the name/value pairs which do contain info of substance.

Building your own search forms

So if you use a search engine where the results page has a URL in the same format as above, with a URL then a questionmark and then x=y&a=b etc pairs, or indeed if you come across any Webpage whose URL is in that format, you can devise a form to produce the same kind of result or perform the same kind of search.

You can figure out what the URL for "action=" should be set to in your form from the first part of the URL in the address bar, and you know because of the URL format that the method used is "get" (though you could view source on the original search form to check). You will also know what names to give the form elements from what's visible in the URL before the = signs, as well as the associated values (if-pre-set) from what's shown after the = signs, at least with a bit of experimenting and trying different searches and search options (or viewing source!) to figure out all the preset options needed to produce particular results, e.g. that name must be "m" to search movies, or "i" to search interests.

From that analysis you can build your own search form (replicating their name/value pair order just to be cautious), even for a site which doesn't provide a search form themselves (like I did with Blogger.com profile searches), and even include the form in your own blog or webpage - assuming that the search engine site concerned doesn't mind you putting a form onto your own page (I hope most won't mind, especially if they put their ads etc on the results rather than search page).

And vice versa - if you see the URL in a search result, you can sometimes, in simple cases, work out what the name/value pairs are from that and so create a search form even if you don't view source for the form. Which is exactly how I figured out the search form I included in my post on Who's linking to your blog.

A couple of twists. As well as automatically producing the questionmark and the "name=value" pairs in the resulting URL, if method="get" the browser will automatically do clever things like change spaces in the form values to "+" symbols (e.g. if you entered "pot noodles" in the textbox, that would be turned into "pot+noodles"), and "escape" or encode the name/value pairs into characters that are required for use in URLs (the funny % etc codes that you often see in URLs). That's called encoding using the "application/x-www-form-urlencoded" content type, that is.

Also, if a particular site always seems to require a particular name/value pair "this=that" for every search, you can include them on your form using <input name="this" value="that" type="hidden">and then the user won't see them but they'll be transmitted as part of the final URL.

Using a link to replicate a Webform

Finally, as I'd previously learned and exploited (e.g. my posts Technorati: cosmos, and watchlists, Auto-translating Webpages/blogs: code, and Help others bookmark your posts on Del.icio.us or Furl), you can include a link on any Webpage (e.g. blog post or template) that when clicked produces exactly the same result as if you'd filled in a search form with particular terms.

However you need to use a "+" symbol instead of a space in the link URL, and also should encode certain non-alphanumeric characters with "%something" (see the W3 note on form content types.)

The twist here is that I've just discovered that, strictly, the "&" symbols in the link (between the name=value pairs) has to be encoded as "&amp;" in order for the link to work properly (in fact with most browsers and servers you can get away with just using "&" in the link, but strictly you shouldn't be, in order to avoid validation and other problems - see this W3 note).

I have to admit I haven't got round to doing those substitutions in my template yet, but it does explain finally why I kept getting errors in the validation of my template… must get to it soon...


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Wednesday, 11 May 2005

Who's linking to your blog?






To see how many blogs or sites have linked to your blog over the last 30 days, with graphs of links per day both inbound and outbound, try searching for your blog URL on Pubsub's SiteStats page. [Updated 19 Jan 2006 as they've changed their site round since the original post.]

try the search box at the top of the Linkrank page at Pubsub. That link leads to a page listing the top 100 linked-to sites, which takes a while to load, so if you're impatient just enter your blog or site URL in the box below and hit the button (you can leave out the initial "http://" from your URL but - this is important! - do NOT include any final "/" in the URL you enter, or it won't work - at least, it didn't for me):




(This Pubsub linkcount search page I sussed out isn't listed on their site, but loads much more quickly as it doesn't include the top 100. My form above does exactly the same thing, though.)

Should anyone be remotely interested in my recent inlinks (if only to see an example!), here's my own 30-day linkcount history.

Code for your blog template

If you want to put a link in your blog template which people - like you! - can click to check that history for your own blog, just insert the code

<a href="http://www.pubsub.com/site_stats.php?site=<$BlogURL$>">Your link text here</a>

into your template, for Blogger (changing "Your link text here" to whatever text you like, of course). Or if you're not on Blogger change <$BlogURL$> to whatever code is shorthand on your platforom to represent your blog's URL - or you could just hardcode in the exact link (it's quicker if you leave out the "http://") e.g. in the example above I just used <a href="http://www.pubsub.com/site_stats.php?site=consumingexperience.blogspot.com">

Points to note

Note that the linkcount tool counts links to your blog only if the blog or site linking to you has a site feed which contains those links (instead of e.g. just headlines or summaries of the post or Webpage). In other words, they only count links appearing in newsfeeds.

Also the info about inbound links isn't as good as say Technorati's:
  • you can check out exactly who linked to you (as opposed to how many sites or links have linked to you) only for the last 10 days not the full 30 days, and
    [updated as they've now enabled 30-day look back]
  • they only provide a link back to the main page of the blog or site which linked to you, rather than the URL of the exact post or page containing that link.
Maybe as Pubsub develop their service, they'll improve on that.

I'm planning to write a full general intro to Pubsub, which calls itself a "matching service" rather than a search engine, along the lines of my guide to Technorati tags - if I can get some answers out of them, that is. If not, I'll just be posting loads of issues and queries I've had about their service instead!

Meanwhile, to coin a phrase, enjoy egolinkcounting...


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Sunday, 8 May 2005

Google Web Accelerator (GWA): panacea, or peril?






The best thing since sliced bread, or the worst threat to personal privacy? It's a moving target, but I've attempted to summarise thoughts, tips and links about the Google Web Accelerator, which was released in beta on Wednesday 4 May 2005, and which I've been trying on both Internet Explorer and Firefox. This post is based on my own experiences as well as the experiences of others, mostly gleaned from the GWA Google Group.

Key points about GWA

In a nutshell, these in my view are the main points about GWA:
  1. Broadband - you install it on your PC and it's supposed to speed up Web surfing (but not other downloads) for broadband users - but it won't help much with dialup. So not much point bothering with it (probably) if you're on dialup, then. (Oddly, in the preferences page there is an option to set for dialup, which somewhat contradicts their "this is not for dialup" position...).
  2. Windows XP or 2000 only so far - not Mac or Linux.
  3. Privacy and security - big concerns for users:
    • Google will (like your ISP) be able to track where you've been and the exact content of what you've looked at - they will get a record of all Webpages you visit, and even a copy of those pages, including email and private messages. Yes, and including password-protected pages.
    • Worse still, GWA has reportedly been showing users other people's pages (such as private messages on messageboards!) Even pages that only an authorised user who enters the right password should be able to get into (if that user had previously visited the page with GWA enabled). And it seems that people suddenly be bestowed with other users' rights, like delete rights, too.
    • You see Google's version of the Webpage your browser has requested, not the original. They shouldn't tamper with it before passing it on to you, but they could.
    • Google also "temporarily" keeps copies of your cookies from sites you visit, so they'll know the contents of all your cookies too
    • They do say they won't accelerate (and therefore cache,("i.e. store a copy of) info about secure site you visit (which begin "https://"), such as some email sites, but they could if they wanted to, and they still know which secure sites you've visited
    • Their privacy policy for GWA is, frankly, minimal, and the links to the privacy policy page don't work (for me they mostly went to their Toolbar privacy page). UPDATE: their new privacy policy page. Direct links: GWA privacy policy (though some may have trouble getting to this page - I can only get to it if GWA is on, else I get a page not found, or the Toolbar privacy policy page instead!) and privacy FAQ
    • (Some good summaries/discussions of these concerns: Blog News Channel; Fantomaster; this thread, and another thread)
  4. Webmasters' bane? Many webmasters don't seem happy either, and have even blocked people using GWA from visiting their site (a good summary is on the Fantomaster "Forbidden" page you get when you try to access the site using GWA):
  5. Not quite there yet - it should have had a lot more work done to it before releasing it even as a beta:
    • for some people it breaks or crashes IE or Firefox (or in some cases Firefox extensions); or it breaks other Net-related apps (generally it worked fine for me though with both Firefox 1.0 and 1.0.3 - I updated Firefox after I installed GWA - but links which I visited can suddenly appear unvisited, and the highlighting for prefetched links sometimes disappears...)
    • for others it actually slows things down...
    • there have been difficulties with some firewalls (especially Zone Alarm) or similar e.g. Norton Internet Security, though I was OK with Sygate Personal Firewall after saying OK to letting it through
    • it'll scupper your getting into many sites where you have to login, while even for non-login sites some people get taken to a weird URL http://webaccelerator.google.com/full with a "page not found" message, or found Webpages won't load; for many it doesn't do anything at all, constantly showing that it's disconnected (I've only had that once - stopping it, closing browser and restarting both seemed to fix it, for me)
    • on your work PC it may not work at all or may need tweaking, particularly with firewalls needing authentication
    • conversely some people, e.g. behind corporate firewalls, have been able to get into sites they couldn't before! (companies etc who have blocked certain sites from their users may not be too happy about that...)
    • wrong things may be prefetched or cached, delivered to the wrong user (or both?) - with disturbing news as mentioned above about forum users, on refreshing, being served other users' pages including their private messages, passworded pages etc; while links being prefetched which shouldn't be (e.g. it effectively "clicks" on "Delete" or similar links in some webpages, ignoring "Are you sure?"!). Interestingly, I can't get to their correct privacy policy page unless I enable GWA though with GWA disabled I can get into the Toolbar privacy policy page it seems to redirect me to... so there are odd cacheing or other issues even with Google's own pages.
    • there are other niggles like links in the Preferences or GWA help pages going to the Toolbar help or privacy policy pages instead of the GWA ones (for me, anyway - maybe because of a GWA problem with the cache/prefetch, rather than the wrong link being written in?), the "Learn more" link in the performance data page not going anywhere, contents links in the Webmaster help page not working - so it's not as professional an offering as one would expect from Google, even for a beta release.

Tips and Suggestions

If you decide to use it or just test it, I'd suggest that:
  • after installing it, don't visit any Webpages until you've set your GWA preferences (accessible through clicking the icon in the system tray or browser toolbar) to exclude:
    • any sites you don't want Google to know you visit or whose contents you don't want it to store or know about
    • any sites requiring login - or the login may not work and you'll spend ages as I did wondering why you can't get in
  • before visiting any sites of that kind in future remember to disable GWA or in your preferences exclude the specific site (or when you are at the site you want to exclude, selecting Don't accelerate this website after clicking the icon in the browser toolbar) e.g. before logging in
  • better still, use the free and fast Opera browser to visit any Websites you don't want to risk Google knowing about or recording! And to visit any sites which block GWA users
  • also stop GWA before you submit a Webform containing any personal details like your email
  • in Firefox look for the GWA icon in the top right hand corner, same level as the menubar (took me ages to find!)
  • for Webmasters who want to block GWA, Fantamaster explains how to block GWA.

How does it work?

It seems to combine: using a gigantic proxy server, cacheing Webpages (and tomorrow: cache the world??) on Google's own huge servers to send you pages supposedly more quickly than the original site you want to visit could; and downloading invisibly in the background in advance (prefetching), and storing in a GWA cache on your own PC, Webpages it guesses you may want to visit e.g. because you've hovered your mouse over a link (plus pages you may not want!). It's not made clear enough what's stored in whose cache: Google's or yours, and it's not explained how it decides which links to prefetch.
Prefetched links are indicated by a double-underline, looking like this
A good concise summary is at SearchEngineWatch.

How do you know it works?

Because Google tells you so! They tell you how much time they think it's saved you via the performance data page (click the GWA icon to find it) and next to the GWA icon in your browser toolbar.

But seriously, subjectively a lot of people have noticed a change (though personally I haven't seen much difference in IE). However, for some people GWA has slowed down rather than increased their browsing speeds.

Odds and sods

  • Where's the cache? - on my PC, the GoogleWebAcceleratorCache is stored in C:Documents and SettingsmynameLocal SettingsTemp - not perhaps the cleverest place for it, as many people regularly housekeep and clear out their Temp files. To find out how much space it's taking up on your hard disk, go to the preferences page, it's in the "Clear your history" section.
  • What are the exes and where do they want to go? - the operative files seem to be GoogleWebAccClient.exe and GoogleWebAccWarden.exe (which launches the former) - my firewall, Sygate Personal Firewall, says GoogleWebAccClient.exe tries to connect to webaccelerator.google.com while GoogleWebAccWarden.exe wants to go to cdp.google.com and I have to let them through before I can access any Websites at all. Oddly, sometimes I get the former exe trying to connect even to sites I've told it not to accelerate…

Settings

Accessed via the GWA preferences page:
  • Type of connection (DSL, dialup, cable modem) - even though they say it won't help much for dialup!
  • Prefetching of pages - enable/disable; highlight prefetched links or not
  • Cached pages - set how frequently GWA checks for newer versions of cached pages
  • Clear history - with a click (that's the GWA cache on your PC)
  • Don't accelerate these sites - list sites which GWA should not accelerate (i.e. presumably not vist and cache, and perhaps not prefetch either). Domains or subdomains only, not specific pages.
In the Google Group a bookmarklet has been posted by the author dbloom to finetune a couple of these settings. As far as I can see, you can set in finer gradations the amount of acceleration for the internet connection from dialup, DSL and cable modem to 1, 3 and 6 respectively with the ability to set values in
between those numbers, and change how frequently GWA checks for newer versions of cached pages, with 0 for always check, -1 for check if content is likely to change, and -99 for never check. I've not tried changing those settings yet myself as I'm not sure how they work and in what way they'd help, so I disclaim all responsibility, I just mention this in case anyone is interested!

Links

In Google we trust?

GWA doesn't seem to be helping Google's credibility in the eyes of many ( e.g. Something Awful: "...Google is Microsoft without the bad reputation"; and this thread). Is Google taxing users' loyalty and trust in its brand too far by releasing GWA without addressing the problems some of which I've summarised above? Lots of people seem to have a kneejerk "hate Microsoft, love Google" reaction, but as some have pointed out, Google is in the business of making money. It may have been a small cosy "do no evil" startup, but it's mutated into a huge corporation which effectively dominates the Net search world as much as Microsoft has dominated the world of desktop operating systems, with shareholders it has to keep happy first and foremost. Google has, with good reason, been much loved and trusted by many, techie and non-techie alike: that has given it a lot of power. But I firmly believe that power corrupts, and power without responsibility is sadly too common even amongst democratically elected politicians who are supposed to be responsible; never mind corporations whose power, equally real and probably greater, derives from popular usage and the vote of the almighty dollar.

Google has built up and been trading on its superb brand, cannily and, mostly, successfully, but if it's not careful, if (to put it colloquially) people start thinking that it's trying to take the mick, its users may yet hold to account in ways it may not expect or want. Innovation is a good thing, yes, and in many respects I am a huge Google fan myself. But I am not sure what Google's motivation is in risking its reputation by rushing out something which seems to have so many problems and may provoke a bigger privacy/security backlash than even Gmail and Google Desktop Search.

Of course, GWA is free and you don't have to use it if you don't want to. So far, in 3 days, it says the total time I've saved is 9.1 minutes counting both IE and Firefox - small beer compared with the time I spent headscratching about being unable to get into login sites, excluding any sites I can't get into etc - yet it's using up 17MB of my diskspace! But I'm going to keep trying it for now, practising what I preach about excluding certain sites or disabling it from time to time and using Opera often too. And maybe Google will provide the further info users are crying out for about how GWA works, and expand on their privacy policy. We'll see. I suspect I'm probably going to end up uninstalling it soon… UPDATE: yes, I've uninstalled it. Much easier that way.



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Wednesday, 4 May 2005

Comments, Trackback: Blogger vs Haloscan






[Added 15 May 2005:] I've now added a tutorial post that explains which bits of the Haloscan code are for trackback and commenting, so you can just include the service you want (install Haloscan trackback without comments, or install Haloscan comments without their trackback, which can be combined with Blogger comments too) - plus how to use another free trackback tool.

I recently started combining Blogger commenting and Haloscan commenting with Haloscan trackback. This post wasn't intended to be a comparative review of the two as such, but effectively it is because it sets out what to me are the pros and cons of each system.
What's trackback?: for those unfamiliar with it, my own definition of "trackback" is that it's a system which effectively lets you create a link from another blog post that you've written about, back to your own post on your own blog - so that people viewing that other blog post will see an extract from your post (or whatever else you want to say about your own post) on the other blog, plus a link from there to your post.

This is a form of "remote commenting" - you're commenting on another person's blog, but instead of doing that on their blog, you do it by making a post on your own blog, and using trackback to let them (and anyone else reading their blog) know that you've commented on it, so that they can check out what you said if they want to. Trackback seems especially useful if the other blog is more popular than yours!

(For more on trackback see e.g.Movable Type's explanation or Wikipedia's - this is digressing but it's a pity the "content aggregation" use for trackback never seems to have taken off, though it seems things like Technorati tag pages are starting to serve the same function. Whether trackback as it's commonly used now works generally, and who it benefits, is a whole different debate...).

Why Haloscan?

Originally I used only Haloscan's commenting system, because at the time:
  • Blogger's system only allowed other Blogger members to comment - I felt that was way too restrictive, I'd like anyone to be able to comment even if they're not on Blogger
  • Blogger didn't provide a popup window for comments (I prefer popups for comments - you can more easily refer to the original post while viewing other comments or writing your own comments)
  • I wanted trackback, and Haloscan's was the service suggested by Blogger, so their commenting system was a bonus - plus it was free (ad-supported), and I hadn't a clue back then how to install only trackback from Haloscan without installing their comments system too (their clever auto-install service had automatically set up both).

Why Blogger? Haloscan cons, Blogger pros

I decided to change back to Blogger for commenting because:
  • Haloscan comments vanish after 4 months unless you upgrade to their premium (paid for) service; Blogger's remains free and permanent
  • with Haloscan it's hard to identify which post a comment relates to, as all comments are displayed for all posts on the same page, with newest comments on top and cryptic post IDs rather than post titles [Edit: I've since figured out an easy way to identify the blog post from the ID, at least on Blogger, using just a form or a favelet/bookmarklet - see this post]
  • Blogger have since improved their commenting system to allow anyone to comment, even anonymously, and introduced a popup option (yet on your item pages/post pages all comments are automatically displayed at the bottom of the page without the reader having to click anything, which is to me the best combination)
  • Blogger can notify you by email when a new comment has been added and which post it relates to, as long as you switch on that option via dashboard settings, comments, comment notification address (with Haloscan you must keep logging in to check your Manage Comments page)
  • lately Haloscan servers have been erratic and their comments (and trackback links) sometimes haven't appeared on my pages at all, or have considerably slowed down the loading of my blog, which may put visitors off (yes, I know Blogger has been problematic too, but if their servers are slow or up the spout my blog is stuffed anyway, regardless of what commenting system I use - I just didn't want Haloscan to cause difficulties at times when Blogger happens to be working fine)
  • the Haloscan problems have extended to my accessing my comments page, trackback page, settings etc too.

Haloscan pros, Blogger cons

But there are things you can do on Haloscan which you can't on Blogger:
  • you can edit all comments (text and date), not just delete your own, and ban comments from particular IP addresses [Edited 9 July 2005:] You can in fact edit all comments on Blogger, thanks to a hidden feature discovered by Truckspy - see this post
  • you can get comments via an RSS feed (not obvious, but the feed info is in the RSS icon at the bottom of your "Manage Comments" page)
  • it's easier to control some aspects e.g. "1 comment" (singular), "3 comments" etc and there are free templates for your comment popup window to choose from
  • backing up comments is easy - just "Save as" each comment page regularly (I've no clue how you backup Blogger comments, though the emails you can get, see below, are obviously a form of backup)
  • you can view recent comments quickly, even if they're on old posts - with Blogger you'd have to check out each post (the email notifications you can get of new comments (to the address set via Blogger dashboard settings, Comments, comment notification address) doesn't always work, from what I've heard, though they've worked for me so far)
  • they're introducing beta features like moderation of comments, and "gravatars" (profile pics basically).
But in the end the combination of factors I mentioned above, particularly the imminent loss of old comments, made me decide to switch back to Blogger. It's a shame that Haloscan don't feel the ad funding is enough to support the free service beyond 4 months, but hey they have to make a living.

Trackback

I'll keep Haloscan trackback because it's free indefinitely (at least for now), according to Jeevan of Haloscan, and Blogger don't offer a trackback service. There are free services out there (e.g. Forret) which let you send a trackback ping to someone else's blog (i.e. comment on their blog and get a link from their post back to your blog). But they won't allow the converse, i.e. someone else sending a trackback ping to your blog, and I think it's only fair that it should work both ways and that I should allow others to do that if they wish by trackback-enabling my blog, using Haloscan. (I'm also going to enable trackback auto-detection, which is now included with Haloscan's auto-install feature - too late for me! - though I haven't got to that yet.)

Transitional phase

I'm also still keeping Haloscan comments for a while, as you can see at the bottom of my posts, in order to display old comments (at least until I have a chance to copy/paste the old comments into Blogger's commenting system - I get few comments on my blog unlike many other blogs, so it shouldn't take too long, but the earliest comments date from Jan so I haven't much time left to transfer those!).

You can view source to see what I did, but if anyone would like a narrative explanation of how I changed my template and which bits of Blogger/Haloscan commenting or trackback code do what, just post a comment to that effect (using the Blogger system of course) and I'll see if I can get to it.

[Added 15 May 2005:] I've now added a tutorial post that explains which bits of the Haloscan code are for trackback and commenting, so you can just include the service you want - plus how to use another free trackback tool.


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