Recently in technology Category

are your facebook "private messages" pre-2010 suddenly "public"?

Earlier today on Facebook, I shared a link to a blog post claiming that Facebook had made private messages pre-2010 visible on timelines, and providing detailed instructions on how to check for this.

I was skeptical, since I'd seen denials of this on prominent technology websites (and my go-to source for rumor-checking, Snopes), but out of curiosity I followed the instructions in the post:

On the right-hand column of your profile page, select the year 2010. In the box where it shoes the messages that friends posted on your wall (and now, apparently, to your inbox), select HIDE FROM TIMELINE. You will need to select each year you've been on facebook prior to 2010 and repeat this step.

Much to my surprise, I found a significant number of what I had thought were private messages from friends that were accessible to anyone with access to my timeline. This was particularly disturbing because when I first switched to the timeline view (back when you had to be a Facebook developer to do so), I thought I had gone through all of my content to look for just such a problem.

So, why did I miss these? They were hidden in that box at the top of each time period labeled "### friends posted on Liz's profile". Most of those were innocuous things like birthday greetings. But quite a few used Facebook's "wall-to-wall" posting feature.

If you're relatively new to Facebook, you may not realize that Facebook didn't implement its current email-like messaging system until 2010. Before that, it offered a "wall-to-wall" messaging option that allowed you to post a message for a friend that generally only the two of you would see. Until Timeline came on the scene, that is.

After I posted this, a significant number of very tech-savvy friends--people who, like me, have been using Facebook for more than five years (I joined in early 2005), and who work in the tech industry--weighed in to say that by following these instructions they'd also found messages they'd believed were private. (Including the estimable Robert Scoble.) That's an indication that Facebook failed BADLY here--perhaps not legally or technically, but certainly from a UI and user trust standpoint.

So yes, Facebook's denial of a privacy breach is technically accurate. But if you've been using Facebook since before 2011, I strongly encourage you to follow the directions linked above to check for problematic content. Even if you, like me, don't post private information on Facebook, your friends might not have been that careful.

personal information ecology

I've been getting a lot of questions recently about what technology tools--both software and devices--I use for collecting, storing, and retrieving information. As someone whose academic training was in library science, this is a topic I think (and care) about a lot. And while I'm not very good at organizing my physical environment, I do a pretty good job of organizing my digital life. Here's a rundown of what I'm currently using, and for what...organized by task rather than by platform, because most of what I use is cross-platform anyways.

Much of the way I deal with information is shaped by the fact that I have two computers--a big, heavy MacBook Pro that mostly sits on my family room table, and a small, light MacBook Air that travels with me--as well as an iPhone and an iPad. (Skip the "ur a stoopid Apple fangirl comments, mkay? I use each for different reasons, I find them all useful, nearly everything I'm about to discuss will work perfectly well on PCs and Android devices, and none of that is really the point of this post.)

Note Taking

I have terrible handwriting, and stopped taking notes on paper a long time ago. I do nearly all of my note-taking on my MacBook Air. I used to put all my notes into plain text files, using BBEdit (a Mac-based ASCII text editor). But I had a hard time keeping track of them, and an even harder time accessing them from other devices.

Now I use Evernote for note-taking. I love it, for a number of reasons. First, there are clients for all of my computers and mobile devices. Second, there's a web interface that lets me access my notes from someone else's computer (or in a lab at RIT). Third, I can take photos of whiteboards and/or handwritten notes, and Evernote will do text recognition on the images. Since everything, including the images, is easily searchable, I seldom have trouble finding the notes I took on a given subject or at a specific meeting.

Even better, Evernote now seems to be integrated with my calendar on my iDevices, so when I create a new note during a time that a meeting is scheduled, it automatically names it with that meeting. That just makes me happy!

I know Evernote is useful for other things, but note-taking is pretty much all I use it for, and it's perfect for that task.

The Evernote software is free, but a premium account (which I have) will run you $5/months or $45/year. The big advantage of the premium account for me is offline access to any of your notebooks, which has been really helpful when I travel (especially overseas, where data is harder to come by). It has other perks, as well, like way more storage space, but since I use Evernote mostly for plain text notes and a handful of images, that's not a big issue for me the way the offline access is.

Saving and Sharing Things I Find Online

I was one of the earliest users of the social bookmarking site (a quick search of my archives indicates I started using it in December 2003-- good god, was it really over 8 years ago??), but after its acquisition by Yahoo my usage declined, and when it changed hands again last year I pretty much let it go. Since then, I've tried a couple of tools for online bookmarking, but hadn't really found anything that worked for me. (Including, which I had high hopes for but just didn't feel right to me.)

I loved two things about One was the ease with which I could share a set of bookmarks with others, by using a simple url that combined my username and a given tag. So, for instance, bookmarks related to the Intro to Interactive Media class (course number 295) could be referenced with The other was the fact that I could subscribe to the bookmarks of other users, and by doing that I was able to create a customized news page that showed me the links that people I was interested in were collecting. It was a great way to find new things, and keep up with what friends and colleagues cared about.

Over the past few months, I've found services that appear to address both of those needs, although not in the same system.

Pinterest is what I'm using to bookmark personal stuff--recipes, home decor and craft ideas, clothing, art, etc. It's great for an at-a-glance look at recipes or fashion, where recall is closely tied to how something looks, not what it's called. More importantly, it's what I'm using to see what other people are collecting. It's a highly visual site--everything is arranged by image, and you can't even add something that doesn't have an image or a video on the page (which is why this will never be my only bookmarking tool--there are too many things I want to save that are text only). It also suffers from a lack of tagging capability, so anything you add goes in one collection and one collection only.

Clipboard, a new service created by ex-Microsoft research exec Gary Flake, addresses my need to quickly bookmark and tag resources related to research and teaching. Unlike delicious, it actually allows me to grab a piece of the page (as large or small as I want...but not just as an image. The text and links come with it, as well, which is a really nice touch. As a result, I can find things by look as well as by text. I think this is going to become my new go-to site for organizing my work-related resources.

Finally, InstaPaper is what I use to save lengthy online text (magazine articles, long-form blog posts, etc) for reading later on a mobile device. When I'm in online browsing mode, I usually don't have the time to really immerse myself in a thoughtful text. But there are plenty of times during the day when I suddenly find myself with unexpected reading time--waiting for a doctor's appointment, sitting on an airplane, lying in bed unable to sleep. If I've saved the interesting things to read to Instapaper, I can launch the app on my iPhone or iPad and read them then. Instapaper strips out all the ads and awful formatting, and makes the text readable for even my aging eyes. There's no monthly charge for it, but I did pay for the iOS app.

Citation Management
I was an Endnote user for a very long time--I started using it for my dissertation research back in the '90s, in fact. But last year I finally switched away from Endnote, and started using Zotero for all of my citation management. What made it possible for me to make the jump to Zotero was that it allowed me to import my entire EndNote database--given that I had literally thousands of references, that was a non-trivial process.

Zotero is an open-source tool that runs inside of your browser. Until recently, it only worked with Firefox (cross-platform), but there's now a "standalone" version of Zotero, too. I haven't used the standalone version, so I'm going to talk about how the browser-based version works.

Zotero recognizes a large number of scholarly publication sites (like the ACM Digital Library, or JSTOR, or SSRN, or Google Scholar), and gives you a little icon in your URL bar that allows you to add the item to your library. If it's one of the sites it recognizes (generally one that has embedded appropriate metadata), it automatically adds all the bibliographic data to the citation for you. What's even better, though, is that it also grabs a snapshot of the item (or, in some databases, a downloaded copy of the PDF) and attaches it to the citation--so you've got easy offline access to the item at any point.

There's integration between Zotero and major word processors, just as there is with EndNote, so you can add in-text citations and a bibliography to your paper using whatever your preferred citation style is.

Zotero has some other nice features, as well--there's cloud storage, so you can sync your bookmarks to any computer you're using (and if you've got a giant library like mine, you can pay to upgrade your storage space), and there's the ability to create shared libraries that you can allow read and/or write access to for others. That works really well for collaborative research projects, or for bibliographies built by a class.

Sharing Data Across Computers
All of the tools above have the ability to allow me to access my data from any computer. But there are a lot of other files I work with on a regular basis--word processing files, spreadsheets, images, etc. For those, I use Dropbox. The free version gives you 2GB of space, but I pay for the next level up, which gives me 50GB for $99/year. It integrates into your OS (Mac or Windows), so that your Dropbox folder is simply another folder on your computer--but anything that you put into that folder gets saved to the cloud, and synced to your other devices when/if they're online. There are iOS clients, so I can access any of my files from any of my devices. And there's a web client, so I can grab a file from Dropbox from any internet-connected computer.

Because the files are stored locally as well as online, you have access even if you're not online (and even if the Dropbox server is down)--a big advantage over Google Docs, which always seems to have service outages during critical document editing periods for me!

You can also share a folder with other Dropbox users, so that any time one of you changes a file, the new version will be synced for everyone. This is great if you're working on a project with someone and don't want to be constantly emailing changed files back and forth. The downside is that you can't selectively grant read-only access to folders or files. That means if you share a folder with someone else, they could delete the contents of folder and the files would be removed from your computer, as well.


So, that's the gist of it. I've been using all of these tools (with the exception of Clipboard) for long enough now that they've become integral parts of my ecosystem. Many are "freemium" services (Evernote, Dropbox, Zotero) that I happily paid for once I realized their value to me. And the end result is that I have easy access to the information I need when I need it, despite the fact that I'm constantly moving between computers and mobile devices.

google to mamamusings: you're dead to us!

Well, apparently it's not that I've slowly slipped down in the rankings.

For some entirely unclear reason, has gone from a page rank of 6/10 to 0/10. This happened once before, and it was temporary. But it's terribly frustrating, since there's no indication of what caused this to happen.

Google-savvy friends: any ideas for how to get back in their good graces?


Update: I turns out that my site is returning 500 errors to the google crawler (verified through It works fine for me with a regular browser, so I've put in a ticket to my hosting provider to try to figure out what's going on.

practicing what i teach

This fall I'm going to be teaching two large (120 student) lecture sections of our required freshman survey class "Introduction to Interactive Media." This is new for me--nearly every class I've taught at RIT over the past 13 years has been fewer than 40 students, and usually taught in a studio lab format.

I volunteered to teach the lecture sections this fall because I actually like the challenge of keeping a large group engaged in a topic. I do it all the time at conferences (or at least I try to...), but my conference style didn't translate well to a smaller classroom.

However, keeping 18-year-olds in a required engaged for two hours every week for ten weeks is a very different proposition from keeping a conference audience engaged for 45 minutes. So I've been spending some time thinking about how to best use the various social tools that I spend so much time talking about, and put them to use in the class.

I'm starting with a sanctioned "backchannel chat" for each lecture section, using the chat functionality built into our courseware (Desire2Learn). I'm going to have a TA monitor the backchannel and answer basic questions, and then have him forward to me things that should be answered/addressed in the lecture. The courseware automatically archives all the chat sessions, so I'll be able to review the sessions after class to get a sense of where I might have been unclear.

I've also set up a Facebook group for the class, which I'll encourage them to use to share relevant information, as well as to ask questions (which can be answered by other students and/or studio session instructors, not just by me).

Since I've always been intrigued by the kind of collaborative notetaking in conferences that tools like SubEthaEdit supported, I decided to investigate options that would work in a large lecture setting. Trying to get 120 students to collaboratively edit notes wouldn't be particularly helpful, but I liked the approach described last month in the Inside Higher Ed article "For One, For All." After discussing this with the instructors for the studio sessions, we've decided to break the students up into groups of five, with members of the group rotating weekly responsibilities for Google Docs notes on the lectures and the readings. We'll use those same groups for peer review of research paper drafts and Ignite presentations.

And finally, since we're not requiring them to buy any textbooks for the class (all readings will be online), I've decided instead to require the i>clicker student response system that RIT has standardized on. They can buy the clickers for less than $40 (via Amazon, at least; I doubt the bookstore price is much more), and it will allow me to do some fun in-class surveying (which, sneakily, doubles as attendance-taking).

I'm probably crazy to be trying to implement so many different social technologies in the class at once, but I'm pretty excited to see how it goes!

apple's replacing my time capsule!

This afternoon while browsing tech news, an article title caught my eye: "Apple to repair, replace faulty Time Capsules." About three months ago, our time capsule suddenly stopped working while I was out of town. And since it served as both my home backup and our wireless router, that was a pain in the ass. It was totally dead, so we had to go buy a new wireless router to replace it.

I took the dead Time Capsule to our wonderful tech guy at RIT, Mark, and he shook his head mournfully and said it was the second one he'd seen do the same thing, and that it was due to a ridiculously poor design choice in the internal fuse/capacitor. Since the device was two years old, and well out of warranty, to have Apple fix it would cost several hundred dollars--for that, I could just buy a new one, which I didn't want to do.

So when I saw that news headline today, I immediately clicked through, and then followed the link to the Apple support article--where I found that my Time Capsule was indeed in the range of serial numbers that were eligible for repair or replacement.

Tonight I went to the local Apple store, Time Capsule in hand, to take them up on their offer. They had no idea what I was talking about, so I used my trusty iPad to bring up the knowledgebase article. They were great about it, and immediately arranged for what they call a "quick drop"--I left the device with them, they placed an order for a brand new replacement, and they'll call me to pick it up as soon as it comes in (2-3 days). Quick, painless, and I get a brand new functioning device! w00t!

where are the ipad travel apps??

As a follow up to my last post, extolling the wonders of computer and iPhone travel tools, I have to ask: why aren't any of these tools available on the iPad?? The iPad is so obviously an awesome travel device--the perfect thing for the front-seat passenger to use to explore the local area, that I'm really surprised by the lack of useful apps in this space.

Google Maps for the iPad is beautiful, but it can only do navigation between two points--so my carefully crafted itinerary is useless there. The AAA TripTik website thinks my iPad is an iPhone and renders tiny little maps, plus anything browser-based can't use the GPS.

Even more amazingly, Kayak has only made flight search available on the iPad--not hotels. Priceline has no iPad app at all. Expedia's TripAssist seems to be for flights only, but I haven't downloaded it yet to test that. So there's no location-aware tool for the iPad that can help you find nearby hotels, with the exception of Google Maps, which doesn't include the ability to compare rates and book rooms. Bah.

Perhaps some of the apps I'm hoping for (a Triple A TripTik app that syncs with the website, perhaps? please??) are under development, and will appear before we hit the road on July 20 (I can give exact dates without fearing a home break-in, since Gerald and Lane will still be in the house...).

road trip planning geekery

My family is accustomed to the fact that I am a compulsive trip planner. For me, at least half the fun of taking a vacation is thinking about it beforehand. I'm not obsessive about times and locations, but I really want to know what our options are along the way, what experienced travelers think is interesting and worthwhile, and the best way to cut costs wherever we're going. This typically ends up working out well for all of us...I do all the prep work, which I love, and everybody else gets to reap the benefits of not getting lost, being without a place to stay, or missing gems along the way.

As an example, we were originally planning to go to the Four Corners Monument at the intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico--which took us a bit out of our way. Today I discovered that it's closed for the summer due to construction, and the misleading "open Fri-Sun" actually means that only the vending area is can't stand where the x marks the spot! So I've re-routed us so that we can swing up into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore instead, and not go quite as far west as the original itinerary had required. It would have sucked to have rushed to get to the monument by Sunday, only to find that it was closed.

This year, I'm having particular fun geeking out with road trip planning tools online and on my phone. It's amazing how much there is to work with, and how much it helps. I thought I'd write up some of the things that I'm using both for future trips of ours, and for others to know about.

For mapping our route, I started out with Google Maps. It's a great tool, and it's easy to share a URL for the completed trip when you're done. I've been maintaining our overall itinerary at, so that as I make changes I don't have to keep giving people the new lengthy URL. One downside of those lengthy URLs is that on a long, rambling trip like the one we're taking, the URLs can become too long for some browsers or servers, causing random errors.

However, I've also been maintaining a more detailed itinerary, including hotels and landmarks, using AAA's online TripTik tool. I have great memories of Triple A TripTiks from trips past, so I figured I'd give their tool a try. The interface is a little bit clunky, and you can't share a live URL, but it generates fabulous lengthy instructions and maps, complete with up-to-date information about traffic and construction along your route. One thing I particularly like is the ability to show hotels and points of interest on the live map, so that you can easily roll over one along your route, pull up more info in a pop-up window, and add it to your itinerary.

The third map-related tool I'm using is the one at It allows you to see all the quirky attractions in any state, along with traveler-generated comments about each. I liked it so much that I bought the iPhone version ($2.99 if you just want one of the four regions of the US, another $5.99 to open the rest of the country, for a total of $9.98...cheaper than most guidebooks). It allows you to find all the attractions near you, or to locate them based on proximity to a given city. It also has some nice features like "tourist interruptus" option to have your phone "call" you after a certain amount of a time in an attraction, so you can gracefully exit if a tour guide has you pinned. Another feature allows you to mark which of the attractions you've visited, and to upload your own comments and photos that the site editors can then add to both the website and the app.

Which, of course, brings me to the iPhone apps. In addition to the Roadside America app, I've installed AAA's free Triptik app. It's a remarkably full featured navigation tool, complete with turn-by-turn voice navigation! Unfortunately, it can only route between two locations--I'd gladly pay for an upgraded version that could import my full itinerary from the AAA site! The app lets you put in your AAA member number, and has a one-button "Roadside Assistance" option that calls the closest AAA road service location and transfers your membership info to them. I'm hoping not to have to use that, but it's nice to know it's there.

Two free apps that I expect will come in handy on the road are priceline Hotel Negotiator, and Kayak Fight/Hotel Search. Since we're not 100% sure of how far we'll get each day, we'll use those to find good deals on lodging when we know our intended stopping point.

And, of course, I'll be using many of my tried-and-true apps along the way--from uploading to Flickr using Mobile Fotos and Mobile to checking into FourSquare on a regular basis. :)

new at&t data plans will be great for us

All my social media streams are erupting with anger over AT&T's announcement today that they will no longer offer unlimited data plans on the iPhone--instead, you can get 200MB for $15, 2GB for $25, and pay $10 per GB above that.

I'm baffled by the uproar. Who are these people who are using more than 2GB of data a month on their phones? I suspect they're the reason that people have so much trouble with coverage in cities like New York and San Francisco.

In order to see how this would affect us if we switched to the new plans (keeping in mind that if you already have the $30 unlimited they're not taking it away from you; this is only for new service), I looked at our last few months of bills from AT&T. Gerald, Lane, and I all have iPhones, and we all use them pretty regularly. Most of our use when out and about is web and email; for video and music we typically use wifi. And what I found is that none of us typically go over 150MB of data usage in a single month.

I also looked at the statistics on my iPhone. (Settings-->General-->Usage). They were last reset on July 23, 2009, and since then I have yet to hit 2GB of data transferred. I'm at 1.4GB received, and 201MB sent.

That means we could easily switch to the $15/month plan, add a data plan for Alex and give him my hand-me-down iPhone 3G when I upgrade to the new version, and still save $30/month.

If you're one of the people upset about this change, can you explain to me what exactly you're doing on your phone that makes you likely to exceed 2GB of data transfer a month??

using ldap with mediawiki at rit

This summer I'm not over-committed, which means I'm getting to indulge my inner geek with web implementation challenges.

First up was figuring out how to install a wiki that could be used only by specific RIT faculty and staff members, without requiring them to create (and remember) yet another user ID and login.

RIT has a centralized authentication database (an LDAP server) that can be queried by other on-campus servers, so I wanted to be able to tap into that for authentication on the wiki. Happily, there's a plugin for Mediawiki (the open source wiki software used by Wikipedia) to enable LDAP authentication. Less happily, it took a while to find documentation for it. Even less happily than that, RIT provides no public documentation of their LDAP server, so I had to do a lot of trial-and-error to get things working. Here's what I ended up doing:

1) Downloaded and installed the latest version of Mediawiki in my account on the departmental web server. (Note: don't bother trying this on Gibson; you won't be able to proceed past this step.)

2) Set up a wiki database in mySQL for Mediawiki to use, and ran the Mediawiki installation. Gave the default admin user for the wiki the same username as my RIT login (ellics) -- this is important.

3) Disabled anonymous access to the wiki, by adding these lines to LocalSettings.php:

The last line makes it possible for an unauthenticated user to view the main page and the login page (and the logout page, which is necessary for users who are authenticated but not trusted, as described in later steps).

4) Installed the Mediawiki LDAPAuthentication plugin in the extensions directory of my Mediawiki directory.

5) Configured the plugin using these instructions provided by the developer (which, puzzlingly, aren't linked anywhere from the plugin page). Do not use the "Part 1" instructions, which are for AD (Active Directory) LDAP installations. For RIT's server, you must use the Part 2 instructions for Posix LDAP installations. Here are the lines I added to my LocalSettings.php file to enable authentication:

At this point, anyone with a valid RIT account could log into the wiki using their standard RIT login and password. However, we want to restrict access to only faculty and staff in our department. I evaluated and discarded two approaches to this problem--first, getting a custom group established in LDAP to authenticate against (bad because it requires going through central IT for any changes), and second, using .htaccess to limit access (bad because it requires two logins and https URLs). I finally settled on using a custom group within Mediawiki to distinguish between trusted and untrusted users.

6) First, I disabled access to most functionality for all users:

(This is why I needed to include the logout page in the whitelist--otherwise untrusted users could log in, but not log out.)

7) Then I re-enabled that access for members of a new group called Trusted:

Because Mediawiki uses the most permissive group you belong to when determining access, this (or administrator access) overrides the restrictions from the previous step.

8) Anyone with administrative access has the ability to assign a user to a group, which means that once a faculty or staff member has logged into the wiki for the first time, an administrator has to grant them full access.

And that's it. It seems to be working well on one server right now; I'm going to move it to a different server this week and see if it holds up. If so, I'm hoping these instructions will help others facing the same problem in the future.

could i travel with only an ipad?

The big question I was trying to answer on this past trip was "could I travel with only an iPad?" (and not a bulky, heavy MacBook Pro)

The answer is a qualified "yes."

On this past trip, I used my MBP only twice--once to review and make minor changes to my PowerPoint slides, and once to give my presentation. The iPad has Keynote available, so I could potentially use it for that purpose. However, initial review of Keynote for the iPad indicate that it's lacking in a number of areas. In addition, there doesn't (yet) seem to be any way to control an iPad presentation with a remote control, which is a deal-breaker for me.

So, until the iPad has a fully-functional presentation tool (for both creating and giving presentations), it won't be able to completely replace my laptop for travel. It will, however, allow me to relegate the heavy laptop to the rollaboard bag rather than the shoulder bag.

favorite ipad apps, week one

I've had a few days of travel with the iPad, followed by a few days at home relaxing. Based on that, I've already found some apps that I'm particularly fond of.

I've divided them up into entertainment and productivity, since those are two very different modes of use.


  1. iBooks: Yes, the iPad is an awesome ebook-reading device. I haven't purchased any books from Apple's bookstore, but I have loaded quite a few non-DRM'ed books onto my iPad. I also installed the Kindle reader, since I've purchased books via my iPhone in the past. I much prefer the iBooks interface, though, primarily because in landscape mode it shows two pages at a time; that means that the line width is much more comfortable for reading. On non-DRM'ed books, iBooks also allows you to copy text to the clipboard, so it's possible to extract quotes for use in other apps. Of course, this is less useful without multi-tasking, but once the next version of the OS is available that issue will be addressed.
  2. Videos: This is a built-in app that allows me to watch videos that I've synced to my iPad using iTunes. It would be far less useful without Handbrake on my Mac, which allows me to optimize movie files (.mov, .mp4, .avi, etc) for the iPad screen.
  3. NPR: The NPR app is fabulous for both reading text versions of news and listening to favorite shows. What's particularly nice is the labeled segmenting of shows. Today, for instance, I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" in the car, and found the segment featuring the superintendent of the Air Force Academy particularly entertaining. When I got home, I was able to bring that segment up and play it for Gerald with just a few taps on the screen.
  4. NYTimes Editor's Choice: This is a really nice newspaper implementation--it feels like the perfect blend of the newspaper and the iPad. It takes fully advantage of the interface, while preserving the look and feel of the classic newspaper. Lovely! (Runner-up here is the USA Today app.)
  5. Tap Tap Radiation: I loved the idea of Tap Tap Revolution on the iPhone, but never really used it. On the iPad, however, this game is delightful. It takes full advantage of the larger screen, and engages the user in a delightful blend of rhythm and hand-eye coordination.
  6. 1on1 Hockey: The best free app I've found for showing people how much fun the iPad can be as a social gaming device. It's just a simple air hockey game, but it's fun and engaging and deeply social.


  1. Dropbox: This app works on both the iPad and the Mac (or PC), allowing you to store files "in the cloud" on their website and access them from any device. By placing documents from my Mac in the Dropbox folder, I can easily access and view/edit them on my iPad. You get 2GB for free, and that's plenty for what I need.
  2. LogMeIn Ignite: Remote login from my iPad to my Mac. If I leave a file behind, I can use this to log into my home machine, copy the file to the Dropbox folder, and instantly have access. I can also launch and run programs on the remote machine--it's slow, but there are times when that kind of access is critical if you're traveling with only a mobile device.
  3. Office2 HD: Allows me to create, view and edit Word and Excel documents. Even better, allows me to access and edit Google docs from the iPad, something the iWork suite doesn't provide, and the iPad Safari browser won't support.
  4. Instapaper: I had the free version of this on the iPhone, but seldom used it. On the iPad, it's great. I can add anything I see on the web to my Instapaper account using a bookmarklet, then sync those items to my iPad and read them whether or not I'm online. It's integrated into the Twitter client I'm using (Twitterific) as well, which makes it easy to send an interesting linked article to my "read later" queue.
  5. Evernote: This amazing notetaking app works on every device I own, making it easy to take notes anywhere and access them whenever I need to. But it doesn't just do text notes--it also allows me to take a photo with my phone, create a note with it, and have that photo undergo OCR so that any text in it (say, from a white board, a napkin, or a business card) be searchable anywhere. Hard to believe that this gem is free, but it is!

I've got other apps on the device, of course--games, productivity tools, entertainment. But in the five days I've had the device, those are the ones that are currently proving to be the most useful and/or enjoyable.

first thoughts on the ipad

We acquired a 16GB WiFi iPad for my lab last week, for use in prototyping and sharing in meetings. I took possession of it at 11am on Wednesday, and left on a 48 hour trip to San Francisco that afternoon, so I got a chance to put the device through its paces on a long trip.

The verdict? It is, quite possibly, the best traveling gadget I've ever owned. Perfect for books, videos, catching up on email, posting tweets, checking Facebook, and playing games.

I brought my iPhone and my MacBook Pro on the trip as well. It's the first time that I haven't had my phone run out of battery on the first day of a trip (due to game playing and book reading and music listening on it while traveling). More remarkably, I only used my laptop once on the trip--to prep and then present my Powerpoint slides on Thursday morning. In fact, if there were a good way to present from the iPad version of Keynote (it would need to support a remote control), I could probably skip bringing the laptop entirely on many trips.

On the down side, it's not a great tool for getting real work done--I'm typing this review on my laptop, for instance. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, the onscreen keyboard is completely insufficient for text-heavy work. Yes, I could set up the iPad on a desk and connect my bluetooth keyboard, but that's a lot more awkward than sitting in my recliner with a computer on my lap.

Second, the lack of multiple windows and multitasking is crippling for anything other than the most basic email replies. I need to be able to switch between documents and messages and web pages. If Google Docs worked in a web browser, that would help, but right now the only way to work with my Word and Google based docs is by using a dedicated app (Office2HD) which can't run at the same time as a browser.

A review of the iPad in The Atlantic included the following line, which I think is right on target: "The netbook is a work machine on which you can procrastinate. The iPad is a procrastination machine on which you can work, especially if work mostly involves catching up on email."

I'd have to agree with that assessment. I definitely prefer the iPad to the Asus EEE PC I got last summer, and can absolutely see taking it as my only computing device on trips where I don't have a lot of significant content-creation work to do. But it's not going to replace my laptop anytime in the foreseeable future.

(The next post will be a discussion of the apps that have made the best first impressions on me.)

mobile phone woes

I seem to have angered the patron saint of mobile phones in some way this week, because it's been a very bad 24 hours so far as my phones are concerned.

A week ago I took the case off my iPhone because the plastic had started to peel, and I hadn't yet purchased a replacement. Which meant, of course, that I would have to drop my phone on a hard surface for the first time since I've owned it. When I did that last night, it shattered the glass on my phone. :(

Ironically, I'd just read a story in the NY Times last week about people doing iPhone screen repairs, and had mentioned to Gerald that he and Lane should think about starting a part-time business doing just that. So, we're speeding up the "let's try it" timetable and have ordered the parts and tools for the repair on my phone.

The cost of having the screen repaired at an Apple store is around $200. The cost of the parts, tools, and expedited shipping for a DIY repair was less than $25. Since my phone is already out of warranty, it doesn't really matter that we're voiding the warranty by doing this. And the comments from Amazon customers who've bought the same repair components are consistently positive. Keep your fingers crossed that we'll be able to successfully repair mine, because I wanted to wait to buy a new one until the new models come out this summer...

The phone trauma seemed as though it would be minimal, since I still had the Verizon Motoroal Droid that I got at GDC and hadn't really played with. I charged it back up last night, loaded a few apps and files onto it, set my Google Voice number to ring on it, and was ready to switch to that as my primary phone until the iPhone was repaired. However, the Droid had other ideas, and decided to pick last night as the perfect time to have its screen go completely dead. The phone's not dead; the status light blinks, the buttons and keyboard light up, and it plays cheerful sounds when it restarts. But there's nothing to be seen on the screen.

I took the Droid in to the local Verizon store, where they determined that they couldn't help me at all because the phone had been provided as part of the developer program. So I ended up on the phone with Verizon support for 30 minutes while they figured out what to do. They decided to FedEx me a replacement Droid, but because it's Friday today I won't get the Droid until Monday >.<

The good news is that while my iPhone looks awful, is somewhat hard to read, and feels icky to scroll my finger on, it still works pretty much perfectly. So I'm not completely without a phone for the weekend.

knowledge is power

I'm nearing the end of a week where I've been tracking my caloric intake and expenditure using Lose It!, and RunKeeper. What I'm finding is that the most important thing is being aware of what I'm doing. What I'm eating, how much I'm exercising. It's a powerful thing.

As long as I'm entering everything I eat, and all of my exercise, I become more aware of my daily activities, and that alone is a powerful thing.

I wasn't perfect this week...I snacked more than I should have, and I've indulged in a nightly martini on a regular basis. But overall, my behavior has been a lot healthier this week, and I'm hoping I can keep that up.

If you're an iPhone user, and want to friend me on, or become part of my "street team" on, I'd love to have you join me!

visualizations for motivation

It's January in Rochester, which means that my seasonal affective disorder is in full swing. I go into full hibernation mode at this time of year, wanting to just burrow under the covers and wait for spring. The result is that I eat too many carbs, gain too much weight, and feel awful.

At last week's social computing symposium, I saw a lot of really wonderful projects that used visualization of "hidden" data to shape behavior. Most of it was urban and/or architectural, but it got me thinking about how I could better track and visualize data that's important to me personally.

Today, I started using one of my favorite free iPhone apps again--LoseIt. I liked it before, when it was only on my phone--it's a relatively friction-free way to track daily exercise and caloric intake. But they've improved it now by adding great visualizations on their website. I can see daily and weekly summaries of my activity, progress towards my goals, charts showing my favorite foods (and the ones that I'm getting the most calories from), and more. They've also incorporated a social component, so that I can track my progress against that of one or more friends (Weez, you need to sign up :).

Because I'm going to be getting most of my exercise by trying to take the dog for more walks and runs around the neighborhood, I also wanted to find a way to track that activity. I thought about the Nike+ system, but it won't work with my iPhone 3G, which is annoying. Then I considered a Fitbit, which I'd seen Caterina tweet about, but they're not shipping for another month. Finally, I took a look at Runkeeper, an iPhone app that tracks your location via GPS, and calculates your speed and distance. I'm starting with the free version of the app tomorrow to see how it works for me, but I've seen people in my Facebook feed reporting their runs using it, and the reviews seem good.

Now I find myself coveting the Withings WiFi Body Scale, which does the same thing for weight and BMI--transmitting the data wirelessly from the scale to the server, and from there back to your iPhone/iPod. I think that if I stick with the other tools between now and April, I'll ask for that for my birthday :)

my road warrior arsenal

I don't travel nearly as much as some of my international jet-setting friends, but I do travel enough that I've assembled a nice collection of portable tools to make traveling more productive and less stressful. Since many of them are currently making my five-hour layover in Newark more tolerable, I thought I'd share the list with you, my faithful readers.

Computing Devices

iPhone: 'nuff said, right? phone, iPod, portable computing with always-on networking.

Asus 1005ha netbook: My newest toy. Less than 3 pounds, nice bright screen, reasonably workable processor, wifi/ethernet, video out, 3 USB ports, 170GB drive, 10 hours of battery life. Did I mention it's less than 3 pounds? Fits neatly into the side pocket of my camera bag, which means I can bring my camera (see below) when I travel, and still not have to check a bag. And it cost less than $400!

Canon EOS 30D camera: Gerald bought me this camera two years ago, and because it was so hard to carry it and a big-ass 17" powerbook I didn't take it with me nearly as much as I would have liked when I traveled. I'm so happy to be able to bring it with me on this trip, due to the reduced bulk and weight of the netbook vs the macbook. I have the 18-55mm kit lens, and a 70-300mm IS telephoto lens.


XBrand Laptop Desk: I bought this back when my first-gen MacBook Pro was burning my lap through my clothes, but even with the netbook it's useful--it keeps the computer from sliding off my lap, and, more importantly, gives me a little mouse shelf. I get a lot of wrist pain if I work exclusively with a trackpad, so I always use a mouse when I can. This makes it easy for me to do so even when there's no desk nearby.

Microsoft Wireless Notebook Mouse: I've been using this mouse for years, and it continues to be my absolute favorite--not just for traveling. I have fairly small hands, and many "standard" mice are just too big for me. This fits my hand perfectly, and the ergonomics are just right.

Apple Airport Express: I still have two of the first-gen versions of these, and I always bring one with me when I travel. It's particularly useful if my hotel room only has wired access--I plug in the airport express, and have instant wifi. If I'm traveling alone I can use the computer from bed instead of being tethered to a desk, and if I'm traveling with someone else we can share the wifi while only paying for one computer's connection. (It's wise to bring an Ethernet cable, too, whether or not you have the airport express; you never know when the hotel's "free internet" might require you to buy an $8 ethernet cable from them.

Monster's Outlets-to-Go Portable Power Strip: I love this bit of "social hardware", which allows me to share scarce outlets on the road with others--and also means I spend a lot less time unplugging lamps in hotel rooms so that I can charge my computer and phone simultaneously.

Etymotic ER6i In-Ear Earphones: I bought these several years ago, and I still love them. Perfect for traveling, since they're less bulky and power-hogging than sound-isolating headphones, but still block out a huge amount of background noise in airports and airplanes.


TripIt: This amazing website and iphone app combo is a traveler's dream. You can simply forward your travel confirmation emails to it, and it automatically builds a detailed itinerary for you on the website. The itinerary is then available on the iPhone app (even when you're not online), and can be shared with others. Useful for both me and Gerald when I travel, since he has all my travel details in one place. (Free, with a paid pro version that I don't need or use.)

Evernote: This is a really lovely note-taking application for Macs, Windows, and iPhones. It syncs your notes to the web, allowing all your devices to easily share and coordinate notes. I can take a note on my Mac, access it on my iPhone, and edit it on my NetBook. Once notes are sync'ed they're available offline. I keep all my frequent traveler numbers in this, instead of carting around all the cards. When I get to a hotel or airline desk, I can easily retrieve the relevant number whether or not I'm online. Evernote's coolest feature, however, is its ability to extract and index text not just from your typed notes, but also from images--so I can take a photo of a whiteboard with my phone, add it to Evernote, and then be able to search based on the text written on the board (or the napkin, or the business card, or anything else that I've captured an image of). The basic version that I use is free; a paid version gives you an ad-free interface on your computer (I don't find the ads intrusive), and more storage space.

Boingo Wireless: I signed up for Boingo last year, back when it was $9.95/month for three months and then went to $21.95/month. It was still worth it--on a given trip, I typically save $40-$50 because I almost never have to pay for airport or hotel wifi. The problem is they don't allow you to use it on your iPhone, which is an issue for me only if I'm traveling overseas (because data roaming internationally is ridiculously expensive). When I logged onto Boingo's site last night to sign up for a month of mobile access for my phone I realized they'd lowered their monthly price for the laptop service to 9.95, but I was still being charged $21.95--happily, they changed it as soon as I called them. That means that if I add the mobile, which is $7.95/month, it would still be less than I was paying. However, I really don't need the mobile unless I'm traveling internationally, so I doubt I'll keep it after the 30-day free trial that I'm using for this trip.

Kindle Reader for iPhone: I have no intention of buying a Kindle (even less so after the ironic and enlightening episode last week where they removed purchased copies of two books--Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, believe or not--from customers' devices. And I won't buy DRM versions of books I might ever want to share with someone else. But for trashy airplane reading, this is a great way to avoid the bulk of paper copies. I find it very readable, despite my rapidly aging eyes.

new templates! functional comments! oh my! has been sporting the same template for a very long time now. Longer than I'd really like to admit, in fact. I've upgraded the underlying Movable Type engine multiple times, but haven't tweaked the templates in forever.

However, the old templates were showing their age. Commenting was basically non-functional, and even when it worked, the typepad registration requirement I'd implemented to cut back on spam meant very few people bothered to post comments.

This weekend I finally upgraded my MovableType to 4.x, which (as I suspected) broke some of the custom elements of my templates. Rather than trying to fix them, I ditched them entirely, and started from scratch with one of the default template sets included. I haven't modified the graphic design aspects of the template yet, but I have tweaked the sidebars a bit to provide the drop-down menu functionality, flickr widget, and "about" information that I had before.

Functionally, the most important part is that you can now comment without registering! Yay! I've used MT's built-in captcha technology to help in reducing spam, and if you don't want to deal with the captcha you can also log in using OpenID, Google, or Yahoo! credentials.

If you read this via an aggregator, you shouldn't see any changes whatsoever; it should all be the same as it was.

Let me know if something isn't working for you.

shared calendar solution

I've been struggling for a couple of days now with how to create a shared calendar that family members can use to coordinate care for my grandmother--especially while my mother, her primary caregiver, is out of town.

Google Calendar seemed like the best choice, so I created a new calendar under my primary Google account, which I could then share with others. The problem with that, however, is that I really need this calendar information to be available on my iPhone (which is my primary scheduling tool). GSync will allow you sync multiple Google calendars with your phone, but it can't co-exist with an Exchange account, so that wasn't an option.

Happily, the iPhone 3.0 software also supports the CalDAV protocol, and Google supports that protocol as well. But because Google calendar will only support your primary calendar via CalDAV--and not any additional calendars you create/share--I wasn't able to use CalDAV to access the shared calendar I'd created.

What I ended up doing was creating a new Google account specifically for this calendar sharing project, and then sharing the resulting calendar with my primary Google account so I could add/edit the content without having to log in and out of different accounts. Then I set my iPhone up to access the new account directly, so it could get the data out of the primary calendar.


For the rest of the family, I can simply share the new calendar with their Google accounts--or, if they have devices or software that can subscribe to a CalDAV calendar, I can give them login info directly.

It was a little harder to figure this out than I would have liked, but I have to say calendar sharing is a lot easier now than it was a few years ago. The fact that more and more software is using sharing standards like CalDAV is a huge step forward.

the amazing transformative power of the iphone

This year for Christmas, Gerald and I bought each other iPhones. I've had various smartphones for a long time--first a series of Windows mobile devices, and then a Nokia n95, but Gerald's only had phones with basic telephone and texting capability.

Over the past few months, we've both really enjoyed the new devices, but over the past few weeks his iPhone has transitioned from nifty traveling gaming device to genuinely lifechanging catalyst.

It started last month when I suggested that we really ought to try tracking our daily expenditures better so that we could budget more effectively. At first I was thinking we should carry notebooks for that purpose, but then it occurred to me that there was probably an iPhone app that would make the process easier. I did some poking around online and discovered iExpenseit, a nifty little tool that does indeed make the process of quickly recording expenses as they occur a lot easier. So on April 1, we both started using it to track expenses.

After just a few days, it was obvious how much of a difference in our spending patterns resulted from having to track every penny...and Gerald decided that perhaps the same thing would be true for tracking the food that he ate. I had downloaded a free iPhone app called LoseIt some time ago, and suggested it to him, and last weekend we both started tracking caloric intake as well as financial outlay.

While he was looking for the weight loss application, though, he also stumbled across a hypnosis program called Lose Weight with Andrew Johnson, from a hypnotherapist in the UK. It only cost a few dollars, so he decided to download it and try it...and it has been spectacularly helpful for him thus far. He's sleeping more deeply than I can ever remember (not even my icy cold feet making contact with his nice warm sleeping self have roused him from his sleep), and he's found that his cravings for unhealthy foods have completely disappeared.

All this on top of the many other useful and/or entertaining software that he's downloaded have resulted in the iPhone being the single most transformative gift I think I've ever given him.

I was talking to my cousin at dinner tonight, and I said that while I've had phones with many of the same potential capabilities before, the design aesthetic of the iPhone and its software have resulted in the applications feeling more usable and inviting than anything I've used on a phone before, and when it comes to be willing to use a tool on a daily basis, design really does matter.

At any rate, I wanted to get a blog post up about these tools because they've had such a positive impact on our lives this month. :)

why i won't buy an amazon kindle

Not once since it was first released have I really coveted a Kindle. Part of it is that it was ugly, yes. But more importantly, it destroys the most important part of the book owning experience for me. No, not the smell, or the feel, or the look of the paper and binding.

It's that for me, books have always been, and will always be, social things. I don't just want to read a book. I want to share the book. I want to lend it to a friend...or better yet, give it to a friend and encourage them to pass it on when they're done. I want to see the back cover of the book you're reading on an airplane, and ask you when you put it down whether you're enjoying it (or tell you how much I enjoyed it if I've already read it). I want the books on my shelf to create a visual impression on visitors to my office, one that lets them see at a glance what's important enough to me to keep it near my desk, how I've chosen to organize them, what themes of interest and specialty emerge. I want to take the books I've "outgrown" and leave them outside my office every quarter, so that the students can swarm over the pile enthusiastically and leave the floor empty in their wake.

The Kindle is a supremely selfish machine. It says the book is mine and mine alone. It can't be lent, or given, or shared without giving up my entire library in the process. That so fundamentally breaks the book experience for me that it kills any interest I might have in owning one.

Perhaps in the future I'll change my mind. But unless that future involves the removal of DRM from ebooks, and the ability to easily show the world what I'm reading, I doubt it.

(In the meantime, I'm loving Stanza on my iPhone, which allows me to read a wide variety of public domain and creative commons ebooks, including all of Cory Doctorow's science fiction. Yay!)

my must-have iphone apps

After a month with my new iPhone, I've managed to load it up with a bunch of apps that have become "must haves" for me. (I've also downloaded and then deleted quite a few more that weren't.) At the request of several friends and colleagues, here's my top ten list:

1) TruPhone: Excellent VOIP app that works beautifully on the iPhone. Free calls between TruPhone users, very inexpensive calls from TruPhone to a landline or mobile. I used this a lot while traveling in Australia, and was able to call home inexpensively wherever I had decent wifi. Call quality was generally excellent. Today I got email from them saying they're about to support Gtalk voip, and that Skype is coming soon. If you travel internationally and don't want to pay outrageous roaming costs, I highly recommend this.

2) Things - I've been looking for a productivity app that didn't require a huge rampup, and would work equally well from my phone and my computer. Entourage and Google Tasks both fail in terms of the phone integration, but Things is a wonderfully elegant solution. It's not free--the desktop app is $40, and the iphone app is another $10. But it's beautiful, easy to use, rich in features if you need them, and the sync is flawless (no cables necessary--just have both devices on the same wifi network and it automagically syncs). Highly recommeded.

3) Evernote - I was already using this nice little app before I got my iPhone, because it lets me sync my notes via "the cloud" and access them on nearly any device. I love it for easy access to everything from my frequent flyer numbers to my travel itineraries to photographs of whiteboards.

4) Files/Files Lite - App that lets you easily store and also view a variety of files on your iPhone or iPod Touch. I use it primarily for PDFs--from conference programs to travel guides to crochet patterns. I'm using the free (Lite) version because it's all I need, but it's become indispensable for me.

5) Tweetie - There are lots of free Twitter apps, but I didn't like any of them. I used Twinkle for a while, until I discovered that even though my Twitter feed is protected, anybody near me using Twinkle could see my updates. Erp. So I dropped it in favor of Tweetie ($2.99), which I love. Very clean interface, easy to get to replies/dms, overall a good user experience.

6) Shazam - Who doesn't love this? It's magical. Identifies songs that are playing. Even with my fairly eclectic tastes it's very good.

7) Griffin Clarifi case + Snappr software - Standard (1D) barcode recognition at last! The Clarifi case has a built-in sliding macro lens so you can get good photos of small size text (or barcodes). The improved text capture is great for Evernote (which does OCR), but the barcodes are what I was after. You can download the free Snappr software and use it to decode barcodes and get product info. This means I can finally reboot development on PULP. Stay tuned for more on this!

8) Mobile Fotos - Great little app for sending iPhone photos to Flickr. I tried Shozu and was disappointed (I've had trouble with my Shozu account for ages now, and no amount of new account setup or tinkering seems to make things right again). Even better, it has a feature that lets you see photos taken near where you're current located, which is very fun from a sightseeing perspective.

9) SnapTell - Super cool app that lets you take a photo of the cover of a book, CD, or movie and get product information back on it. Like Shazam for printed stuff :)

10) Assorted Games: I'm grouping these together so that I can fit everything into the list of "ten" :) But all of three of these games are things I've got on my first screen, and play regularly (there are other games I like and keep on my iPhone, but these are currently my faves):

Drop7 - My newest addiction, courtesy of the awesome area/code: what happens when you combine Tetris and Sudoku? No, I'm not kidding. Yes, it's the mobile game equivalent of crack cocaine. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Solebon Solitaire - The best solitaire package I've found, with a wide range of games available.

Satori Sudoku - There are lots of Sudoku apps, but I like the interface on this one the best in terms of things like pencil marks.

is twalala my solution for twitter filtering?

I love Twitter, but because my primary use of it is to keep up on the day-to-day lives of my friends, I don't like reading "live tweets" of events. They tend to create a flood-like effect in my stream of updates that drown out the personal things I care about.

I can always unfollow someone who does that a lot, but often they're people that I really like and care about and want to follow. So I've been looking for something that would allow me to hide only their tweets on specific topics (typically those that contain an event-specific hash tag, like #etech).

It looks as though Twalala may do what I want. Here's what the filter options look like:


The only downside is that I usually check Twitter on my computer, and Twalala is obviously designed for use on an iPhone screen. I'm wondering if there's a way to add a user-defined stylesheet so that I can get the Twalala filtering goodness in a full-size-browser-friendly format...

rediscovering movable type

This blog has been running on Movable Type ever since I started it in back in the fall of 2002. But in recent years I've stopped building new sites with MT because I found it increasingly complex and convoluted--from the install process to the templating tools.

Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck finding a replacement to straddle the line between blogging and CMS. I gave WordPress a try, but it's too limited. Creating non-blog sites on a WP backend requires complex hacks, and not being able to run multiple sites/blogs from a single install is aggravating. My next stop was Drupal, but the learning curve for Drupal is just too freaking hard. I don't want to spend days poring over reference texts just to be able to put up a quick and easily edited site.

Faced with a new web site building project over this holiday break, I reluctantly decided to take another look at Movable Type in its latest incarnation. And I must say, I've been pleasantly surprised. The included templates for a "professional website," along with an easier install process and a clearer template/module implementation, made it fun for me again.

Yes, the documentation is still woefully lacking. And yes, it's still a bit of pain to customize templates. But compared to learning Drupal or creating my own custom CMS, it was a walk in the park. It took me about two days to figure out how to significantly hack the basic professional templates to provide things I needed (like automatically-generated drop-down menu navigation using folder and subfolder names). And in the process, I gained enough comfort with the overall templating language that I feel as though I could easily build something more customized now.

The best part of all this is that I now feel comfortable updating and expanding my original Movable Type courseware system for packaging and distribution using the new version of MT (which is free for personal and educational use, so there are no price obstacles, either). I suspect I won't get a chance to work on that for a few months, most likely over the summer, but you can plan on a new version being available for download and install in plenty of time for the 2009-2010 academic year.

(As an aside, in case you were going to ask, the site I'm building now will be public in about a week. I'll post about it, and the extremely cool company I'm building it for, when it goes live.)

n95 to the rescue!

I'm in Alabama this week for Thanksgiving with the Lawley side of the family. Usually, being on the farm means no internet access (other than occasional dial-up via my mother-in-law's computer), which makes it hard to get work done--or play WoW, which I've returned to with a vengeance now that the expansion is out.

On the way down, however, I remembered JoikuSpot--the software for my Nokia n95 phone that allows me to turn it into a mobile wifi hotspot. The "lite" version I'd been using only supported http protocols, but I downloaded a trial of the premium version and it provides full online access.

The family farm used to be a cellphone dead zone, but in the two years since I was last here, the cell coverage has improved markedly. We can now get Edge data over AT&T; the signal isn't terribly strong, but if you prop your phone in a window it improves markedly. And if you pick the right window, you can then access the JoikuSpot wifi from most places in the house.

Remarkably, even the shaky Edge connection is sufficient to play WoW. It also allows several of us to access the web and/or email at the same time--meaning I don't have to trek the 20 miles into Centreville or Montevallo in order to get online and do some work.

It makes me reluctant to "upgrade" to an iPhone now, because the convenience of wifi anywhere via the n95 is pretty awesome. Anyone know if I can put my iPhone's SIM card into my n95 if/when I need that capability? That would make the iPhone upgrade more attractive. Then again, I may just wait until the next gen iPhone makes an appearance, since I"m happy enough with the n95 for now...

using microsoft office to generate student gradesheets

For years now, I've been using a combination of Microsoft Excel, Office, and Entourage to record student grades and then generate gradesheets for the students. After conversation with a few academic colleagues, I've realized that many people aren't aware of how helpful Office's mail merge functionality is for this process, so I thought I'd document what I've been doing.

At the beginning of the quarter, I grab the students' first and last names and RIT user IDs using our student records system. This is a little clunky, since there's no easy import--I have to copy and paste from the tabular data on the website and then clean it up in BBEdit before importing to Excel. That takes me 15-20 minutes, after which I can easily use Excel's concatenation functions to add columns for their email address ( and required website URL ( I use the classlist spreadsheet to generate a web page with the student names linked to their URLs. I do this by using the mail merge function in "catalog" mode, like this:

image of mail merge document for classlist

I've got a standard Excel spreadsheet for each assignment that my students do. The first few columns are for their first and last names, email address, and URL, which I cut and paste from the classlist. The rest are for the various graded components of the assignment I'm grading--organization, design, content, mechanics, etc.

I grade the projects using the spreadsheet (which I can email to a grader if I'm having them do part of the work). Once all the projects are graded, I open up a Word document I've created that serves as the nicely-formatted gradesheet, with spaces for each of the individual point values, the total grade, and any comments from me or my grader. I used to then print these out and hand them out in class. Last year, however, I realized that I could use the merge function to send attached documents to email addresses, rather than outputting to the printer. Here's what the document looks like, along with the merge tool window. (Click on it to see a larger version.)

Once I've checked it over to make sure it's formatting properly (I can use the icon labeled ABC in the preview portion of the merge window to see what any given gradesheet looks like when output), I use the merge to email option in the last pane of the merge window. It gives me this dialog box:

mail merge options

Selecting "Mail Merge to Outbox" will generate email messages to each person in the classlist with an attached personal gradesheet, and will place these in my Entourage outbox. I can then check them over quickly before telling Entourage to send them.

I seriously considered switching to Google Docs this year for my grading, since it would have been easier to share spreadsheets with my TAs and graders. However, much to my amazement, Google's spreadsheets offer no mail merge functionality, so I had to scrap that plan. I'm excited to hear that the new Office Live may give me the ability to maintain my current workflow while also allowing me to share the spreadsheets with my graders.

don't leave home without them

I've got a couple of tech items that I really like to bring on trips. Some are obvious--my phone and charger, my ipod and headphones (those first two will get compressed by my purchase of an iphone next month), my computer and power cord and video dongle.

But some are less obvious, and I thought I'd share them with my readers, and solicit ideas for other really useful travel items.

1) An airport express. Takes up less space than a power adapter, but gives me in-bed wireless access even when the hotel offers only a wired connection in the hotel room. Plug the airport express into the wall, run the cable into it, and presto...your own wifi network. Better yet, you can share it with family members or friends without having to pay for each computer to connect over the wired access.

2) A NeatReceipts scanner. Fits easily into my computer bag, and makes it so much easier for me to keep track of my expenditures on a trip and submit an expense report in a timely way. Also good for slurping up other pieces of paper that I don't want to have to schlep around with me but don't want to throw away.

3) A small GPS unit. Our car has its own GPS now, so this can become a permanent part of my travel gear. Great for car rentals in unfamiliar cities, without paying a ridiculous premium to the rental agency.

This week, I read about an excellent addition to the list--a lovely compact power strip that my friend Karen Schneider refers to as "social hardware." It's only $17 at Amazon, so I ordered one to be shipped to my hotel here in Redmond, and I should have it before the next leg of my trip. I really could have used it on the first leg, and I know it will be very useful in hotel rooms as well as airports.

So...what's your useful travel gadget, the one that you won't leave home without? I'd love to know about it!

best n95 software EVER

I've had a Nokia n95 phone for nearly a year now, and for the most part I've been indifferent about it. I like that it has a high quality camera, and I've used the GPS functionality for walking directions in unfamiliar cities. The RoadSync software I bought gives me full Exchange sync capability, which is always important. And the voice dialing is really nice (no need to record names for people; say the name and the voice recognition software matches it in your contact list). There were a lot of UI issues for me, though.

I was planning to purchase an iPhone next month to replace it, and wasn't expecting to miss the n95 much. Until today.

I just downloaded some software called Jaikuspot, which turns my n95 into a mobile wifi hotspot, sharing its 3G connection with my computer. As a result, I'm sitting in an office on an Air Force base, where I have no network access, happily posting to my blog. (And checking my email.) Now that's useful. Really, really useful.

Yes, it's a little slow. I don't even have 3G in this location, so I'm sharing a poky Edge data connection to the computer. But I'm online, when I otherwise would not have been online, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Color me impressed!

mobile phone services that make me happy

Over the past few weeks, I've found myself using two services a lot on my mobile phone, and when I talk about them at conferences people tend to "oooh" and "ahhh" I thought I'd post about them here, as well.

The first is one I thought most people knew about, but I'm finding that's not true. It's Google's "411" service for automated directory assistance. You call 800-GOOG-411, and are prompted for city, state, and business name or type. It then gives you a list of matches, and you tell it which item on the list is the one you want. Then they connect you. There's no charge for this at all, which makes it a whole lot better than the phone company's directory assistance. And the voice recognition quality is very good.

The second service I'm enamored with is also based on voice recognition. It's called Jott, and when you call their number it listens to your message and transcribes it for you. You can have it send the resulting text to you or a contact via email or SMS. You can even have it send the text to a web service like Twitter, Remember the Milk, or your blog. It's ideal for times when you say to yourself "I need to remember to..." but you don't have your computer or a notepad handy. The voice recognition is really amazing, and it will let you spell out words that it might not interpret correctly. This evening, for example, I called it and had this exchange:

Me: Dials Jott (voice dial on my phone, so this can all be done via headset)
Jott: Hi! Who would you like to Jott?
Me: Myself (I could say "Twitter" or a contact name here instead)
Jott: Go ahead!
Me: Remember to call Wolk W-O-L-K Manor M-A-N-O-R about dinner plans.
Jott: Got it. Want a reminder?
Me: Yes.
Jott: When?
Me: Tomorrow.
Jott: Thursday, May 29th. Got it. What time?
Me: 9
Jott: am or pm?
Me: am
Jott: Got it.

Then I hung up. A few minutes later, an email appeared in my inbox that had the text of my message, and the scheduled time for the reminder. Tomorrow morning I'll get both a text message and an email at 9am, reminding me that I need to call about dinner plans with my grandmother. Nice, huh?

corporations bicker, and everybody loses

I got an iPod Touch for Christmas, which was really exciting, because I love watching TV shows on my iPod (especially when I travel). But then I went to the iTunes music store to download the TV shows I wanted--specifically Project Runway, Top Chef, and Battlestar Galactica. Much to my surprise, none of them were there. Since I've downloaded those shows in the past, I was confused...until I did a little research, and discovered that the spat between NBC and Apple had resulted not just in NBC network shows being pulled from the store, but also all of the Bravo and SciFi Channel shows being yanked as well.

That sucks.

My iPod Touch is still great for mobile web browsing (when there's a wifi network around), and for music. But the thing I most wanted to use it for, watching TV shows, is no longer easily done.

The irony of all this is that I'll probably start downloading those shows using BitTorrent, and getting them for free--when I was completely willing to pay a reasonable price for them. So everybody loses here. It's ridiculous.

computer update

I've held off for a while on my computer saga update, because I wanted to be sure that I hadn't gone into the fire from the frying pan. So far, however, the news is all good.

After my last post about my frustrations with the MacBook Pro, I got an email from our regional Apple rep, Roger Sampson, who'd been pointed to my blog post by another Apple employee who happens to be one of my students.

Roger offered to escalate my case to a higher level of service, and I gratefully accepted his offer. He also was nice enough to provide me with a loaner MacBook while my MBP went out for repairs once again.

When I got the machine back after its next round of repairs (which included a new antenna), it was still exhibiting problems with both network reception and sleep/wake behavior. At that point, Apple gave me the option of trying to have it repaired again, or of getting a brand-new MacBook Pro to replace it. That was not a difficult choice. So, right before Thanksgiving, I received a new 17" MBP.

So far, I've had zero problems with it, other than a few annoyances related to the Leopard upgrade. The hardware seems stable, I can get wifi reception on the road again, and my frustration levels are greatly reduced.

Many thanks to Roger and the service team at Apple for turning things around before I abandoned Macs for good. :)

commenting still broken...pondering next move

Apparently changes in the way they do rewrite rules on the new server has also broken commenting, and I haven't yet figured out how to fix it. As a result, I need to seriously consider migrating the blog. The two options are to switch to Movable Type 4.0, which requires some reworking of templates but shouldn't require any changes to archive paths (a critical part of this), or to bite the bullet and jump to WordPress. My only concern about the latter, without having done any research at this point, will be preserving the permalink format for my five years' worth of entries. Ugh.

So, commenting is on hiatus until I figure out the next technical step. Sorry. :(

testing, testing, 1-2-3

We've had some technical trouble this past week with our hosting service--they moved our sites to a new data center, and a bunch of permissions and rewrite rules they changed broke the MT installation. I suppose I should just bite the bullet and upgrade to MT4, but I wanted to get this all working and backed up before I did anything drastic.

If this shows up, it means (I hope) that the problems are over, and posting/commenting should be functional again.

things i have time for on vacation


new toys

The Sony Bravia 46" XBR4 tv that we decided on and ordered from Amazon arrived yesterday, and it's gorgeous. The only down side is that our satellite provider, Dish TV, doesn't have local channels in HD, so we actually have to have an old-school antenna hooked up to the TV. We bought a Phillips rabbit-ear style antenna, which didn't work for us at all, so we'll be shopping for something different today so we can get our favorite network shows in HD.

But the XBOX 360 games? Wow. Katamari (my addiction) is glorious in HD, and Lane couldn't believe how good Splinter Cell looked. And the HD channels we do get look spectacular.

As if that wasn't all good enough, my new MacBook Pro 17" replacement computer shipped yesterday, and is due to be delivered today. (That's why I was sitting at home, rather than the office...I was hoping that it would arrive before I thought I had to leave.) I'm picking up a DVI-to-HDMI cable today so that I can use the new computer to play DVDs onto the big screen TV, and so that I can see what WoW looks like in immersive mode. :)

Now if I can just slog through the last 20 projects to be graded (40 done! Yay me!), I'll be free and clear to play with the new toys for two full weeks before classes start back up again...


Update: Argh! According to the FedEx website, the computer was delivered exactly three minutes after I left the house. At least it's there. Squeeee!



need hdtv buying advice

I am a compulsive researcher, so when Gerald and I decided to use our tax refund to buy our first real TV in 15 years, I began burrowing deep into web sites and reviews and comparison shopping. After looking at displays in multiple stores, we've both decided that we like the Sony Bravia series best--the lack of reflection is important in the room we'll be in, and the angle viewing on the LCD is remarkably good.

However, even having narrowed it down to a specific brand and size range (46"-52"), as well as knowing we want full 1080p resolution, we're still puzzling over some key differences.

Right now, we're basically trying to decide between two very similarly priced (after applying various discounts, etc) Bravia models.

One is a 52" W-series Bravia, and the other is a 46" XBR-series Bravia. As far as I can tell the major difference between the two is that the XBR series uses the Bravia Engine Pro rather than the Bravia Engine Ex. Further research revealed that what the Pro can do that the Ex cannot is "upconvert" high definition 1080i and 720p signals to 1080p, while the standard BRAVIA Engine only processes standard definition signals.

Unfortunately, this means not a whole lot to me, since I'm new to the world of HDTV. So, dear readers, if you know more about this than I do could you give me your views? Thanks!

first impressions of nokia n95

I spent a good bit of time in airports yesterday playing with the n95 phone that I won in a drawing at the Nokia event on Thursday. I have to say, I'm impressed.

Things I love:

  • Gorgeous screen - big, bright, clear
  • Better reception and sound than my Blackjack mean that phone calls are much easier to hear
  • Coolest voice dialing ever--I don't have to record anything, it simply does speech recognition on my voice and looks for a matching entry in my address book. And it works!
  • Wifi and 3G, so I get fast data just about everywhere
  • Great camera
  • Lots of games, including Sudoku

Things I don't love:

  • Sliding it into a snug pocket of a bag causes the sliding screen to open, and the keypad to unlock
  • No QWERTY keypad
  • No touchscreen or stylus; moving the cursor around with the d-pad is tedious
  • The web browser. It takes too many clicks to get to pages I want, uses an annoying interface for moving back through viewing history, and doesn't seem to store cookies after the phone is turned off.

The big issue for me with any phone is my ability to get data--especially calendar and contact data--from my Exchange server. Happily, there's a third party tool called RoadSync that does exactly that. I'm using the 30 day trial version right now, but if I decide to stick with the n95 as my primary phone, I'll definitely purchase it.

Also, I discovered that the n95 has barcode reading software built in. I was really excited about that, thinking that we could use it with PULP, but it turns out it doesn't work with the kinds of standard UPC barcodes on most products in the US. It works with 2D barcodes (aka QR codes), which are much more common in Asia.

gaga over grand central

I had seen a few references lately to the Grand Central service that Google purchased, but it wasn't until I saw a Twitter about it from Gina Trapani, life hacker extraordinaire, that I decided to take a closer look at it. After I read a bit on their web page, I immediately wanted in...and managed to find a friend with an invitation still available.

So, what exactly is it?

In a nutshell, they issue you a new phone number (you get to choose the area code, then select from a set of numbers). You can then have that phone number ring as many of your existing phones as you'd like when it's called. You can set times of day for some numbers, and you can customized what happens based on who's calling you. When you get a call, it shows up on your phone as your Grand Central number. But when you answer it, the system doesn't immediately connect you to the caller. Instead, it tells you who is calling (by name if they're in your address book), and asks if you want to take the call, send it to voicemail, or "listen in"--which allows you to listen as they leave voice mail, and decide if you want to break in and answer the call after all (like screening calls on a home answering machine).

There's more you can do, much of it useful. For example, you can transfer a call between your phones--so if you pick up the call on your cell phone, and want to transfer it to your home or office phone because your battery is low, you can do that with two key presses. You can add a "call me" button to a web page that doesn't reveal your telephone number, and can be turned off whenever you want. And, best of all, you can centralize and access all of your voice mail through a web interface that looks a lot like the iPhone's "visual voicemail."

The down side? For it to work, I have to give Google an awful lot of information about myself. Not just my phone numbers, but all the interaction data about who calls me and when they call.

That's always the rub in social software, of course--the tension between convenience and privacy. And really--is anybody better at leveraging that convenience card than Google?

how my 17" macbook pro has killed my apple fangirlness

It takes a lot for me to stop loving a brand that I'm really enamored of. But Apple has managed to do it to me with this lemon of a MacBook Pro that I'm toting around. Sure, I know, buying a first generation anything is risky. But it shouldn't be this much of a disaster.

I can live with the nuclear heat and resulting inability to put it on my lap without a pillow and a lapdesk shielding my legs.

I can live with the significant weight of lugging it around.

I can live with the less-than-state-of-the-art graphics, and the limited memory capacity (2GB max), and the loud fans.

I've even been managing to forgive the increasingly flaky wake-from-sleep behavior. (Sometimes it wakes, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it wakes, and after I log in the screen goes black. Sometimes it goes to sleep when I close it, sometimes it doesnt.)

But I simply cannot live with the completely unreliable wifi. It's been going on for a long time, and I first documented here in May. But it's gone from bad to worse. In the past two months I've had the following replaced:

  • Airport card
  • Logic board
  • DVD drive
  • Keyboard
  • Hard drive
  • OS

Did any of that work? Nope. If anything, it's worse now. I can't pick up a wifi signal in 90% of the locations on campus that everyone else can use--including my office, my classrooms, and the conference rooms. And the last straw is that now I can't even get a consistent connection at home, where it used to give me poor but serviceable reception. Now I can pick up the signal (two bars from 20 feet away from router), but although the signal doesn't drop, I lose my ability to talk to the network every 5-10 minutes. (This doesn't happen to any of the other computers in the house--a MacBook and three PCs--or when I'm connected via Ethernet.)

I'm at a loss as to what to do next. Our tech guys want me to send it back to our Apple-authorized tech person again, but what's she going to do? What's left to replace? The display, I guess, since that's where the antenna is. But I'm dubious about getting this machine to work properly, ever. And as I result, I'm pretty well over my 20+ year infatuation with Apple. Buy an iPhone? I think not. Replace this MacBook Pro with another one when I'm up for a new machine next year? Unlikely.

I'm blogging this less as a warning to others, and more as a probably useless attempt to get Apple to notice that they're slowly alienating some of their very best customers. But you know, I don't think they really care about that any more. Which just makes it worse. :(

technology troubleshooting

I brought two computers with me on this trip to Redmond--my Macbook Pro, and the Thinkpad that I need to return to MSR when the symposium is over.

The reason that I kept the Thinkpad until now was that a lot of key symposium information was in my copy of Outlook, and Outlook 2007 doesn't offer any easy or obvious way to export a batch of messages.

Unfortunately, when we arrived here at the hotel and tried to turn on the Thinkpad, it appeared to be completely and utterly dead. Wouldn't start up, wouldn't light up the charging light when plugged in. Ack! But after having gotten up at 4:30am eastern time for our flight, I was in no shape cognitively to do much about it.

This morning I woke up somewhat refreshed, and took another look at the machine. There were no obvious problems visible from the exterior, and the whole thing seemed to be purely power related. Finally it occurred to me to not just remove and replace the battery (which I'd tried), but to remove it and then plug in the power cord. Success! The power indicator light came on, and the machine starts up.

I'll grab the information I need off the machine, and then see if reinserting the battery allows it to be recognized now. But I'm delighted that the immediate problem of "how do I get that data back right now" has bee solved. :)

Now if only all the problems that are bound to arise over the next three days can be resolved that easily...

rochester mac repair recommendation

I'm in the midst of my usual pre-trip panic--Lane and I leave for Seattle at 6am tomorrow morning, and I feel completely unprepared.

The panic was magnified by the fact that my beloved MacBook Pro went out for repair this week--a new logic board, as part of the ongoing attempt to fix the intermittent and frustrating wifi problems I've been encountering for months.

When it got picked up yesterday, it seemed pretty unlikely that I'd get it back in time, and I've been frantically trying to prep a PC laptop for the trip. But the wonderful woman who does our department's Apple-authorized mac repair emailed me this afternoon to say that she'd finished the logic board swap, and was willing to drop the machine off at my house since RIT was already closed for the day.

Wow. I am impressed and delighted. So I want to give her a plug here, for people who might be looking for Rochester area Mac repairs -- her name is Christine Cormack, and her company is CoreMac. Send some business her way if you're in the area--that kind of service is hard to come by, and it sure beats spending hours on the phone with Apple's service center, or dealing with long waits at the Apple Store genius bar!

Now all I have to do is finish the laundry, buy Lane a pair of pants that fit and don't have rips or stains, pack, and try to get to sleep early enough so that the 4am wakeup call isn't completely unmanageable...

using an existing cookie to control access to mediawiki?

For an upcoming event, I've created a homegrown registration system with unique user IDs and logins. It's handling the basics of what I need well, but I'd also like to give registered participants access to a wiki for some pre-event coordination.

Does anyone know if it's possible to use the existing cookie that's set when my users login to control access to a mediawiki (or other wiki) installation? Either through built-in access control in the wiki software, or through some kind of .htaccess-level checking? I'd really prefer not to add a second level of authentication if I can avoid it, but I also don't want to depend on security through obscurity.

microsoft lifechat lx-3000 headset on mac os x

The short version: it works, perfectly. Yay!

The long version: I've been wanting a USB headset (headphones + microphone) for a while, primarily to use with Teamspeak (a voice chat program that my WoW guild uses when we do group activities online), but also for VOIP tools like Skype. I'd looked over the options in local stores, and on Amazon, and couldn't find a low-priced but reasonably well rated model that claimed to work with my Mac.

At the Microsoft company store last week, I decided to pick up the Microsoft Lifechat LX-3000--it was only $20, and I figured I could use it on my Vaio even if it didn't work on my Mac. The packaging claimed it was for Windows only (unlike MSFT mice, which usually advertise their cross-platform compatibility quite prominently), so my expectations were low.

I was very pleasantly surprised, however, when I plugged the headset into my MacBook Pro's USB port. Under my sound options I immediately saw "Lifechat LX-3000" as a choice for both input and output. It worked like a charm in the Mac version of Teamspeak.

The headset is comfortable, and the quality of sound seems quite good. On the downside, it's hard to imagine looking any geekier than I do with it on. :)

no, i still don't want an iphone

We saw quite a few iPhone-toting folks at GLS, and also visited an AT&T store where we got to play with them for a while.

Yes, the UI is amazing. It's beautiful. It's seductive. And no, I still don't want one.

Biggest reason why not? I have semi-long fingernails (not outrageous, but feminine). And they make it nearly impossible for me to hit the keys on the iPhone's screen-based keyboard. It was incredibly frustrating trying to type in URLs or addresses. I don't have that problem with the keyboard on my Blackjack, nor is it an issue on a stylus-based interface. But the iPhone is really tough for me to enter information onto. That's bad.

My hope is that future models will include a styus option, or something that makes it easier for me to do text entry. 3G data would be nice, too. And the ability to send photos directly to Flickr. So, I can wait.

why i'm not lusting after an iphone (yet)

I've been an Apple early adopter since before most of my students were born. I had a 128K Mac hot off the assembly line in 1984--my father paid for half of its $2400 cost as my college graduation present.

I've owned a Mac SE, a Quadra, a Powerbook 170, a Newton (yes, a Newton!), a PowerBook 540c, an iMac, a PowerBook G3, a 17" PowerBook G4, and I currently have a 17" MacBook Pro. I owned a first generation iPod, too.

So why don't I have (or even want) an iPhone? It's not that I can't afford it--right now is actually a time when I can afford new gadgets. And it's not because I'm tied to another cellular carrier--I'm already an AT&T/Cingular customer. It's not because I don't want my phone to be more than a phone, because I do.

There are two reasons.

The first is that after over twenty years of being an early adopter of new Apple products, I'm starting to realize that the fun of being the first on the block to own the new gadget is often outweighed by the speed with which Apple releases a new, improved, and often cheaper version of that same gadget. With the MacBook Pro, I really feel that I got burned (even literally) by that. My MBP is outrageously hot (so hot that even the keyboard becomes uncomfortable to use when a graphics intensive program is running), has a loud hard drive, gets terrible wifi reception, and is significantly slower and smaller in capacity than the versions most of my colleagues are getting this year.

The second is that there are certain things I really want from my phone, and for many of those things the iPhone is currently very weak. I use my phone as an actual phone on a regular basis, and things like voice dial and quick phone number lookup/dialing aren't available on the iPhone. (On my smartphone I can simply start typing a name on the keyboard, and it pops up a list of names that's narrowed down as I continue to type.) I frequently use my phone to take photos and upload them to Flickr, and (so far as I know) there's no way to automatically upload to flickr with a single click on the iPhone (as I can with ShoZu on my smartphone), or even to send them via MMS to someone else's phone. And because I'm one of those boring business users, I love my smartphone's ability to synchronize over the air with Exchange, making not just my email but (more importantly) all my calendar events and contacts available from my phone without ever having to connect it to my computer. (I'm not holding my breath on that last item being addressed, but if it were, the iPhone would pop to the very top of my wanted list.)

There are definitely things about the iPhone that I really really covet. The beautiful screen and multitouch interface, for example. The extremely cool and very useful visual voicemail interface. But those simply aren't enough for me to give up a platform that does exactly what I need it to do from a functionality standpoint. At least not yet.

i love this mouse!

For about two years now I've been using Microsoft's wireless optical notebook mouse, which I've really loved. I have small hands, and the notebook mouse fits me perfectly. The wirelessness keeps me from knocking things over with the cord (like cans of diet coke), which I used to do a lot. I wasn't in any hurry to replace it--it's held up like a champ under heavy usage and lots of travel. But when I got to MSR this summer, I was browsing the company store and saw the brand new Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000 (why 8000? who knows? who cares? silly msft naming people).

Why was this one so seductive? Look at it:


See those buttons on the bottom? You can use them to control a Powerpoint presentation! On Windows or a Mac! w00t!

I have the Mira software that lets me control a presentation using my Macbook Pro remote, but that (a) requires me to remember to bring and use two separate devices (the mouse and the remote), and (b) won't work when I'm using my Vaio (which I often travel with because it's so light).

And this mouse feels great to use. It's...dare I say it?! Sleek, silky, smooth. Just the right weight and shape. Lovely.

I told someone a few months ago that my Windows Mobile phone was the only Microsoft-powered item that I had any kind of emotional attachment to, but I'd forgotten what a kick-ass job they do on mice, too...

macbook pro network problems?

I'm trying to figure out if the problem I'm currently experiencing is a function of my cable modem, my macbook pro, or neither.

When I first go online with my new cable modem and my mbp (whether I'm directly connected via an ethernet cable or using an airport express for wifi), the speeds are fine. But if I'm on for more than an hour, the speeds gradually begin to slow down. It's most obvious if I'm playing WoW, since it gives me latency in milliseconds, and I can see it creep up. But it's also causing all other net-related apps to slow, and traceroutes are sluggish.

If I reboot the mbp, everything goes back to normal again, and speeds are fine.

A couple of technical people have told me that "there's no way" the mbp could be causing the network slowdown, but the fact that I can consistently repeat the process of rebooting the machine and having the network speeds immediately improve seems awfully suspicious.

Any suggestions as to what could be causing the problem, or what utilities I could use to better diagnose it?

I am planning on taking the mbp in to the Apple Store this weekend because there are other annoying things (the frequent wifi connection problems I mentioned a few weeks ago, a loud whirring noise from either the fan or the hard drive, problems with the screen not coming back after sleep, etc). But the more specific I can be when telling them what's wrong, the more likely it is that they might actually fix it :)

For the past several months, I've had increasing trouble with my 17" MacBook Pro (purchased last summer) not finding my regular wifi networks, getting terrible connections to access points that are very close by, and generally making it much easier for me to use wired rather than wireless access whenever possible. I've been waiting 'til the school year ended to send it in for service, but now I think that was a mistake in judgment.

I'm out of town at the moment, in Canada, where my cell phone incurs expensive roaming charges, and where I really need to be able to be online to do work as well as communicate with friends and family. Except my computer will not connect to the hotel network from either of the two rooms I've tried. It will work (most of the time) in the hallway, or the lobby. But not in the room--the signal drops to one bar, and then disappears completely.

I finally discovered that if I set the computer up on the bathroom counter (that's the hallway-facing wall), I can get only with at least a weak signal. So right now I'm sitting at a chair I've dragged into the bathroom from the guest room, with my hands at a completely uncomfortable angle, just so I could make a Skype call home and start grading online assignments.

I've been through a bunch of forum suggestions for fixing this...from trashing the system preferences to zapping the PRAM. No luck. Even in the bathroom, the signal keeps dipping from 3 bars back down to one, which is making me think that it's a hardward problem rather than a software one. As danah, would say, "le sigh".

I leave Winnipeg tomorrow for Montreal, where hopefully the hotel room will have a hardwired connection rather than only wifi. And next time I travel, I'm bringing my Vaio with me.

google maps has forgotten where i live

I don't know when it happened, but sometime in the past few weeks Google Maps has suddenly decided that it doesn't know how to find my house.

This is definitely new--I've used it for mapping and directions since its release. But now, no matter what form of my address I enter, it claims it can't find the address.

Which makes me wonder--how often does this happen? And what recourse do any of us have if Google suddenly makes us invisible, whether it's from missing map data or messed-up page rank? There's nowhere on the Google Maps site to report something like this, so I suppose I just have to hope that at some point the missing data reappears. And, in the meantime, switch to Yahoo Maps (which has updated its interface and is much more enjoyable to use).

why twitter matters

I'm completely fascinated by Twitter right now--in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

If you haven't tried it yet, Twitter is a site that allows you to post one-line messages about what you're currently doing--via the web interface, IM, or SMS. You can limit who sees the messages to people you've explicitly added to your friends list, or you can make the messages public. (My Twitter posts are private, but my friend Joi's are public.)

What Twitter does, in a simple and brilliant way, is to merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage--personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages--into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.

The big "P" word in technology these days is "participatory." But I'm increasingly convinced that a more important "P" word is "presence." In a world where we're seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you're doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.

I've experimented a bit with a visual form of this lightweight presence indication, through cameraphone photos taken while traveling. A photo of a boarding gate sign, or of a hotel entrance, conveys where I am and what I'm doing quickly and easily. But that only works if people are near a computer and are watching my Flickr photo feed, and that's a lot to ask.

I also use IM status messages to broadcast what I'm doing. My iChat has a stack of custom messages that I've saved for re-use, from "packing" and "at the airpot" to "breaking up sibling squabbles" and "grading...the horror! the horror!" But status messages have no permanence to them, and require some degree of synchronicity--people have to be logged into IM, and looking at status messages, while I'm there. Because Twitter archives your messages on the web (and can send them as SMS that you can check at any time), that requirement for synchronous connections goes away.

Blogs allow this kind of archived update, of course--but they're not lightweight. Where one might easily post a Twitter message along the lines of "on my way to work", a blog post like that wouldn't be worth the effort and overhead.

I've heard two kinds of criticisms of Twitter already.

The first criticizes the triviality of the content. But asking "who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day" misses the whole point of presence. This isn't about conveying complex theory--it's about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you're doing. And we crave this, I think. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is "what are you doing?" Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they're working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days. No, most people don't care that I'm sitting in the airport at DCA, or watching a TV show with my husband. But the people who miss being able to share in day-to-day activity with me--family and close friends--do care.

The second type of criticism is that the last thing we need is more interruptions in our already discontinuous and partially attentive connected worlds. What's interesting to me about Twitter, though, is that it actually reduces my craving to surf the web, ping people via IM, and cruise Facebook. I can keep a Twitter IM window open in the background, and check it occasionally just to see what people are up to. There's no obligation to respond, which I typically feel when updates come from individuals via IM or email. Or I can just check my text messages or the web site when I feel like getting a big picture of what my friends are up to.

Which then leads to one of the aspects of Twitter that I find most fascinating--exploring clusters of loosely related people by looking at the updates from their friends. There are stories told in between updates. Who's at a conference, and do they know each other? Who's on the road, and who's at home. Narratives that wind around and between the updates and the people, that show connections. Updates that echo each other, or even directly respond to another Twitter post.

There's more to it than that, but I'm still sorting it all out in my head. Just wanted to post an early-warning signal that I see something important happening here, something worth paying (more than partial) attention to.

microsoft innovation: features rather than products

Robert Scoble has a rather surprising post up claiming that nothing he's seen come out of Microsoft in the past three years has made him go "wow." It's surprising for two reasons.

First, for more than two of those years Robert wrote nearly daily blog posts about things at Microsoft that made him say "wow"--and that contradiction, to me, raises some credibility questions.

Second, and more importantly, despite the fact that I'm no Microsoft fangirl (as Robert knows, I'm a long-time Mac user, and a big fan of many of the startups he names), there are quite a few aspects of Microsoft products that have made me say "wow" over the past three years.

The thing is, they're not brand-new products or services--instead, they're features of existing products that I've discovered just as I needed them, or that changed the way I worked. And most of them are a function of innovative integration. Here are three examples:

  • Windows Mobile + Exchange email and calendaring. Nothing else touches this for a seamless experience. If I add a contact to my phone, it shows up on my computer. If I receive email, it appears on my phone. If I add an appointment to my computer, it shows up on my phone. No wires, no manual sync, it just happens. It's wonderful.
  • Microsoft Word + Excel + Entourage merge integration. This has been there for a while, I assume, but I never needed it before. Since I use Excel for grading, and Word for creating formatted gradesheets, it suddenly occurred to me this year that I might be able to email those formatted gradesheets rather than printing them out and using up paper. And it worked like a charm. Had me going "wow" and "cool" and showing it to anyone who'd come into my office.
  • Windows Live Messenger sharing folders. Makes me wish that people I know used Live Messenger, or that Live Messenger worked with AIM accounts--this is a super-cool feature that's hobbled by the fact that IM services don't all interoperate.

(And now, back to grading. Amazing how much more attractive blogging becomes when you've got an onerous task you're trying to avoid.)

lightweight and ubiquitous

No, not me. (I wish.)

My travel computing solution, which I'm thoroughly appreciating during this delay-ridden trip to Colorado Springs.

My lightweight (< 4 pounds) Vaio, plus a Verizon broadband access card, equals easy online access from anywhere...including this table at the Chili's Too restaurant in O'Hare. Lovely.

totally amazing video about the web

In under five minutes, Michael Wesch gives us the history and future of the web, complete with linguistic and social implications.

Unbelievably good.

(via Jill)

software of men

A great post from Karen Schneider:

Too much OSS is, in a way, Software of Men: grim, grey, and--for those who have ever attempted to ask a newbie question on an OSS list--pugilistic and thoroughly patriarchal. You either are part of the in-group or you are a "fugee" (Children of Men jargon for 'refugee'--a major subtext of the movie is the treatment of immigrants). If you are a fugee, God help you; you are no equal to the developers.

Now, before you think this is going to drift into "Command line execution is from Mars, GUIs are from Venus," I know plenty of women who think in code--women for whom a command line is bliss--women who are geek from the git-go. (I keep referring to the "guys" in my department, even though several of us, including me, are female.) I am also not going to describe us as the kinder, gentler sex--not after working in libraries for fifteen years.

But I will ask this of you, ye who are of the geekish inclination. Go see Children of Men, and then think about software development. Who do you want building your software? What kind of world do they come from?

I hadn't planned to see Children of Men (I tend to like my movies on the lighter side), but I think now I may have to.

a flickr feature i wish for

When I go to someone's page of Flickr friends, I'd love to be able to see who we have in common. (This is a feature that I wish a lot of sites had, but I thought of it again tonight while browsing some Flickr photos.)

Just wanted to make a note of that before I moved on to another task.

comments fixed

I hadn't realized that comments were broken--happened when I upgraded to 3.33, and forgot to rename the comments script. :(

All's well again.

smartphone not synchronizing exchange calendar :(

I love my smartphone, and what I love most about it is its seamless synchronization with our campus Exchange server--email, calendar, and contacts. Add a phone number to my phone, the contact gets updated on the server and then synchronized with my computer--no wires necessary. Add a meeting to my calendar on the computer, and it shows up on my phone, complete with reminders. Fabulous.

Until last week, when suddenly calendar events stopped synchronizing. My email works just fine--I'm still getting it sent to my phone with no problems. But Calendar events won't synchronize. If I go into ActiveSync and watch the process, it shows it connecting, shows it seeing that there calendar events to sync, but then the events never make it onto the phone.

I am so so so so sad about this. I depend on my phone to tell me where I need to be an when, and now I can't trust it.

Our helpdesk, of course, pleads ignorance. I haven't changed anything on my phone--no new software, no nothing.

Can anyone help? Please?

sidebar photos fixed

If you don't just read this site in an aggregator, you may have noticed that a couple of months ago I replaced the "most recent five photos from Flickr" sidebar with one of their Flash widgets. I did this not because I liked the widget better (I didn't), but because the 5-photo badge had somehow stopped working.

Happily, the badge seems to be working again, so I've put it back in the sidebar (click on "Recent Photos" to reveal it).

lost data


mira remote control software for macs

My new Mac came with a nifty little remote control that works with the Mac's "FrontRow" software to play DVDs, music, slideshows, etc on the computer. That's nice for home stuff, but I found myself wishing I could also use the remote for business applications--specifically, for PowerPoint presentations that I use in class and at conferences. I was jealous of people like Larry Lessig and Dick Hardt who didn't have to hunch over their keyboard while they clicked through lots and lots of one-word slides.

Then last week I saw an article about Mira, a Mac software tool that allows you to use the "Front Row" remote bundled with new Macs for a variety of other applications. For $16, it seemed worth trying, so I bought a copy.

And it works! It adds a little control panel to the system preferences pane, and allows me to configure what each remote control button does for any given application. It comes preinstalled with a huge number of defaults, including some for PowerPoint, so I didn't actually need to configure a thing...just point and click and it works.

Well worth the price, and it will make it easier for me to do the kind of presentations I'd like to in class and at conferences.

i got my moo minicards!

My Moo "minicards" finally arrived yesterday (I was notified on 9/23 that they'd shipped, but the postmark was 10/13, so something must have gone temporarily awry).

They. Are. Beautiful.


I'll take a picture of them tonight and add it to the entry. I selected ten of my favorite sunset photos for the sample set, figuring that it would give me a good sense of how good the color quality was on the cards. And I was blown away by it. They are really beautiful. The color is perfect--better than any online prints of my photos that I've ever ordered. I will definitely be buying more cards. Goodbye standard business cards, hellooooo moo minicards.

(Just realized I could take some screen shots of my WoW avatar in various locations around Azeroth and use them to create special gam3r cards. w00t!)

nick carr on "algorithmic integrity"

Nick Carr has a stunningly good post up today about search engine rankings, which can easily be manipulated by determined parties (a process known as "Google bombing").

He quotes spokespeople from both Google and Microsoft defending the fact that the number one result for a search on Martin Luther King is a white supremacist site. Google's spokesperson said that they "can't tweak the results because of that automation and the need to maintain the integrity of the results," while Microsoft's representative said that they "always work to maintain the integrity of [their] results to ensure that they are not editorialized."

Here's how Carr responds to those positions:

By "editorialized," [the Microsoft spokesperson] seems to mean "subjected to the exercise of human judgment." And human judgment, it seems, is an unfit substitute for the mindless, automated calculations of an algorithm. We are not worthy to question the machine we have made. It is so pure that even its corruption is a sign of its integrity.

how do i love flickr? let me count the ways

I just renewed my Flickr Pro membership, which got me to thinking about how much I love Flickr.

I first used Flickr when it bore no resemblance to the service it is today--back in those early days, it was focused on real-time photo sharing and chatting in an interactive Flash-based environment. The first photo I uploaded, in December of 2003, is photo number 216 in the system--which makes it, so far as I know, the first photo uploaded by someone who didn't work for Flickr.

Three years later, I've uploaded 2,160 photos, which have garnered (as of a few moments ago) 99,914 views.


So, that list...

Flickr revitalized my interest in photography. I take more pictures because I want to share them with others.

I bought my first cameraphone because of Flickr, and now it's an essential part of my life. I use it--along with Flickr and the marvelous Shozu software--to document day-to-day details of my life. The small events that are under the bloggable radar, but important enough to remember and share.

My Flickr photos led me to long-lost family members in Brazil.

This week I'll be receiving the ten free cards from Moo that my Flickr Pro account entitled me to. The samples I ordered will include ten different sunset photos I've taken. If they're as good as everyone who's written about them says, I'm pretty sure I'll be buying lots more--for myself and as gifts.

Because of Flickr, every day I get visual updates from people I care about. I know that Eric and Nicole dressed as pirates for "Talk Like a Pirate" Day. I know that Stewart is (was?) in Taipei, that Tantek is in Tokyo, and that Jill has a new camera (ooooo....I'm so jealous! a canon digital slr is at the very top of my wish list these days). I know that Weez has the boys this weekend, that Julie took her kids to visit a salmon hatchery, and that Gina went to a wedding. And I know all that not because of lengthy emails or telephone conversations, but from the constant stream of photos from friends that I see in Bloglines.

I know there are more reasons I love Flickr, but it's lunchtime and I promised to take Alex to Panera.

i love my new cingular 3125

There's nothing like a new toy to cheer me up after a long day. And I'm happy to report that my brand-new Cingular 3125 has not disappointed in any way. It's beautiful, particularly the lovely analog clock that the external LCD displays when a button is pressed. The keys and the click wheel are a big improvement over my old Audiovox SMT 5600. Reception is surprisingly good, even in our house (typically a cell phone "dead zone"). And it connected flawlessly to RIT's Exchange server today, which means my phone can once again be my primary tool for checking calendars, emails, and to-do lists. Yay!

Now I just need to acquire a Micro SD card so I can put some of my favorite tunes on the phone (and use them to replace the crappy ringtone selection).

my mobile number is changing...again

While we were in Seattle, I got a new cellphone (a smartphone) with a Seattle-based phone number. I don't remember why, but at the time it made sense to have it on an account separate from our Cingular family plan. Now that we're back in Rochester, we've decided it makes more sense financially to consolidate our cell phone plans, so I'm ditching the Seattle number and will have a brand-new 585 mobile phone number.

Unfortunately, that means friends and family will need to update their address books with my information (again). Sorry, everyone.

I'll send out email to people who I'm pretty sure call my mobile on a regular basis. But if you don't get email from me today with that number, drop me a line and I'll send it along.

show_cingular_3125.jpgGiven that we just upgraded all our phones to new equipment , we'll be on these phone numbers for at least two years.

Wait, what's that? You want to know what my new phone looks like? That's it, over there to the left. I'm getting a new Cingular 3125, aka the HTC "StarTrk", because my older Audiovox SMT5600 seems to have bit the dust entirely, refusing to boot properly. My friend Lili has been using one for a while now (she had one from overseas, where it's been available longer), and loves it. I much prefer flip phones to the "candybar" style of the Audiovox. My only concern about the 3125 is whether it will get a decent signal in our house, which is notoriously bad for cell reception. I'll report back after it arrives tomorrow.

timely post from presentation zen on scott mccloud's work

I wrote yesterday about Scott McCloud's upcoming visit to RIT. Today I opened up my aggregator and found a post from one of my favorite design-focused blogs, Presentation Zen, on how McCloud's book Understanding Comics informs design of all kinds. There are good reasons why McCloud's book is a favorite not just of aspiring graphic novelists, but also of lovers of graphic design and narrative of all kinds.

Read the post.

Then come to the talk. I'll be there (along with as many of my students I can convince to attend).

i give up

Today I tried changing the name of the comment script on my site, thinking that might at least slow the barrage of sp*m that took the whole server down this month.


Within seconds of changing the script variable in the config file, I had my first new spam message.

I give up.

To comment on the site now, you will have to use a (free) TypeKey ID. Sorry. I hate to do that--nobody needs yet another hoop to jump through or password to remember. But I simply can't spend any more time trying to safeguard the site. :(

kudos to the rochester apple store

This summer, we promised to buy Lane a new computer. He's been doing a lot of cool stuff with borrowed time on the family computer, and a barely-hanging-on, nearly six-year-old Powerbook, so we wanted him to have a decent machine he could call his own.

Last night we headed out to the Apple Store at Eastview Mall, and headed home with a shiny new MacBook (and iPod Nano, and printer, both of which were free after rebate). We turned it on, and started in on the process of transferring files from the old computer to the new. We watched impatiently as the time remaining dropped from 45 minutes to 30 minutes to 7 minutes...and then stopped. Full stop. No animation on the progress bar, no sign of life whatsoever. We waited. And waited. Finally I tried rebooting...only to be greeted with a flat, grey screen. I tried again. Same thing. I tried putting in the system software DVD and rebooting from that drive, which seemed to work (after a lengthy delay). But two steps into the welcome sequence it froze, and generated a kernel panic screen. I followed the instructions on the Apple web site for what to do if your MacBook won't start. No luck.

Needless to say, I was not a happy camper. I was quite sure that I'd have to (a) wait forever for a genius bar appointment the next day, and (b) end up having to send the machine back to Apple and wait an indeterminate amount of time for them to return it.

This morning we got to the store right after it opened, and I walked up to the cash register with the machine. I explained briefly what had happened, and the young man at the register quickly called over the manager. The manager listened to my (highly detailed) tale of woe and said "Sounds like you did everything you were supposed to. Let's get you a new machine." <blink> So not what I expected to hear.

"But what about the receipt," I asked. After all, I'd been told quite clearly the night before that all the serial numbers had to match up on the receipt for the Nano and printer rebates to be honored. "Not a problem," he replied. "We'll generate brand-new receipts with the new computer's number on them."

Ten minutes later, we walked out of the store with a(nother) brand-new MacBook, which started up perfectly and has been making Lane happy all day.

It's quite amazing how much good customer service can do to turn a bad out-of-box experience into a great one. You can bet I'll be buying all my equpment there from now on. (They even gave me my faculty discount based on my RIT ID!)

spam kills (sites)

Saturday morning, I received an email from my hosting company telling me that they had shut down due to "excessive load" issues, and that I needed to contact the abuse department to get things running again.

The culprit? Comment and trackback spam.

I have it all set to be moderated here, which means you seldom see it, but it's been increasing at a depressing rate, and it takes a lot of time to clean out the trash sitting in the "unapproved" list every day.

For the time being, they've disabled the mt-trackback and mt-comment scripts, so that at least the content of the site is accessible. And I'll start working on a solution. The easiest option would be to simply restrict commenting to users with TypeKey accounts. I hate to do that, but it may be my best option.

What I may try for the short term is a two-fold approach--renaming the script (so that it's a little more work for the spambots to find it), and adding a CAPTCHA. Until I get that done, however, you won't be able to comment here. :(

ain't it funny how time slips away?

Wow. How did it get to be mid-August already?

We're settling back in, still happy to be back. But I'm starting to feel that old familiar twinge of "you really ought to be [prepping for classes/answering emails/working on grant research/writing articles/building software]." Relaxation doesn't come easily to me, and the world doesn't stop expecting things just because I'm feeling the need for some downtime.

I'm going to try to implement a regular routine of exercise and scheduled office time starting Monday--not so much time working that I feel that I've totally lost my summer to work, but enough to help shut up the gremlins in my head who keep reminding me of all my open loops.

And I really, really, really want to try to get organized this fall. That means re-reading (and setting aside a full day to implement) a GTD system. I'm getting my new MacBook Pro early this week (it shipped last week, so this time it's for real), and I want to set it up in a way that will facilitate my getting things done -- which means I'll be spending a lot of time in Merlin's archives.

For today, however, I figure I've earned my downtime with the three hours I spent cleaning the pre-installed crap off of my Vaio and then installing and running virus and spyware protection tools. It seems to have fixed whatever was causing slowdowns on my system, but I continue to marvel over how frustrating it is to configure a Windows system in a stable, workable way--particularly in comparison to setting up and configuring a Mac.

(No, I have no plans to follow the PC elite and install Ubuntu Linux on my Vaio...but it is extremely entertaining to watch Nick Carr's prediction come true.)

sixapart's lousy timing

If TypeKey (and TypePad!) had to go down for several hours, it would have been nice if it was't during the one block of time I'd set aside this week for downloading current versions of MovableType to upgrade my various course weblog servers.

The lack of information provided on the status site is frustrating, as are the inaccurate promises (at 3pm, there's still a note from 1:30pm saying it should be up within the hour).

Come on, SixApart. If you want people to buy into your centralized authentication (and blogging) services, you can't have outages of four or more hours at a time.

Why, I actually watch a videoblog for the first time, that's what. I even downloaded a new video player (VLC) in order to watch it.

Here's Mark's introduction to the video: "Welcome to the first annual “dive into mark” show! It’s just like reading my blog, except it takes forever to download, requires an unwieldy array of third-party software, and it’s not accessible to blind people, deaf people, or search engines."

Also, his response in the comments to his post: "Zefrank was obviously my inspiration to try out video blogging. Of course, Dave Winer was my inspiration to try out text blogging, and we all know how well that turned out. Here’s hoping."

It was worth watching this one, because I've never actually_met_ Mark--we seem not to frequent the same conferences--and I'm a total fangirl of his writing. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get a sense of what he looks and sounds like.

Will I keep watching if he keeps uploading videos? Probably not. For all the reasons he alludes to above. The text of his video is in his blog entry, and it doesn't require speakers or headphones or adjusting video settings. Plus it's a lot harder to quote video.

david farkas on "how powerpoint adversely mediates thought"

I'm at an MSR talk by David Farkas from UW entitled "Need: How PowerPoint Adversely Mediates Thought and Possible Remedies." Since anyone who's been reading my blog for a while knows how much I dislike most uses of PowerPoint, I'm particularly keen to hear why Farkas thinks Tufte is wrong, and also what he suggests as remediation.

He cites a Microsoft estimate of 30 million powerpoint presentations being given per day. Ouch. I wonder if that's a verifiable statistic.

(In an aside, Farkas notes that PPT is more constraining than Word, since Word provides more of a blank canvas. Farkas says that Tufte believes Word has no cognitive style, while Farkas says that's obviously not true--our tools inevitably shape our message. I'd have to agree with that.)

Discusses a critique by Ian Parker called Absolute Powerpoint, as well as Tufte's The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.

Where Tufte claims that PPT encourages deep hierarchies (many levels of nested bullets), Farkas argues that the reverse is actually true--there's an upward vector on content, resulting in a flattening of hierarchies.

Farkas asks us to take a step back and look at the larger picture of presentation contexts--audiences, presentation genres (product rollout vs technical briefing vs slide show). Tufte focuses on technical genres of presentations, whereas many PPT presentations are focused on "light" genres.

He says you can't assess a PPT deck outside of the context of the presenter's performance/style. The amount of time spent on each slide, whether or not there's a handout provided, and other factors can influence the effectiveness of the deck. The audience has to be considered, as well...their information needs, their cognitive styles, all impact the effectiveness of the presentation.

He describes PPT as inherently "topo-centric"--the presentation of each slide is static and fixed, rather than scrolling. This is good because it provides persistent context during the presenter's discussio of the slide, but bad because it flattens hierarchies.

Print (and HTML), Farkas argues, have a "downward vector and a nesting problem." Print hierarchies naturally run deeper. (Missed the rest of this because I was briefly distracted...)

"The PowerPoint distortion hypothesis" - It is highly plausible that PPT causes deck authors to distort the visual representation of their logical hierarchies. What, then, are the implications for audiences and presenters?

He uses an example deck to show some of the distortions that can occur, but I'm unable to see anything but the ugliness of this deck. White and yellow Times text, in seemingly random sizes, on a bright purple background. Why does discussion of content always seem to ignore the impact of aesthetics?

Oneof my MSR colleagues questions the underlying assumption that all content is hierarchical. Farkas argues that this is necessarily true, that it's a function of how we think. I'm not convinced--many of the best powerpoint-supported presentations I've seen used no bullet points, and no explicit hierarchies.

When I raise my concerns, he responds by saying he wants to limit his discussion to the genre of presentations that need to present hierarchical content--main ideas, sub ideas, supporting material, etc. I'm still not convinced. One of my frustrations with PowerPoint is that it does in fact push that idea on us--that presentations are and should be made up of hierarchical point/subpoint content. In fact, the people doing the best work with PPT tend to go "beyond bullet points," and use it as a narrative medium. But that doesn't prevent them from presenting very detailed and even technical information--it's just that they're presenting it in a way that doesn't fit into this hierachical structure. (For example...Dick Hardt's identity presentation, or Lawrence Lessig's inimitable talks.)

Another commenter argues that the slide should be the secondary channel, and the presenter should be the primary channel. I wish more people here thought this way...that's a big part of what I was critiquing when I wrote about the "culture of the deck" here.

He makes a number of suggestions about how to make it possible to show complex hierarchies more easily in Powerpoint...something that, quite honestly, makes me cringe. I do like his suggestion, however, that you provide breadcrumb-like information at the top of each slide to show where it fits in a hierarchy (if you choose to make your hierarchy explicit).

Suggests some good directions for future research. How do audiences process information in presentations? Can we better udnerstand deck authoring processes? And the last, which I find last compelling, "develop a meaningful taxonomy /vocabulary of deck content and glossing behavior." I'm not sure we need special language to describe ideas/content in decks as opposed to other text or graphical materials.

An audience member I don't know points out the extent to which the slides were forcing him as a presenter to stick to a script, and not engage the audience. He notes that Farkas engaged the audience in his presentation exactly 3 times, and never more than for ten seconds at a time.) Is this an effect of the hierarchical structuring of the content?

Another questioner asks about ways that we can support more creative presentation styles and more creative presenters. The research question here is "are there ways to identify, incorporate and disseminate best practices in presentation methods?"

There's some discussion about the prevalence (seen as both inevitable and necessary) of PPT decks as standalone documents as opposed to presentation aids. Also some discussion about the ways that the "Notes" section can be used in that context.

(It's amazing to be in a room full of not just smart researchers, but also the people who actually build these tools...several PowerPoint team members are here, responding directly on the intended use of specific features. I will so miss this about MSR talks.)

Farkas slams Atkinson's "Beyond Bullet Points," describing it as destructive rather than helpful. It's a terrible direction, he says, to throw out bullet points entirely. It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

There's some discussion then about Atkinson's argument, which Farkas says is based on Richard Mayer's work, but is a distortion of it. (Just looked at Mayer's web site, and his work looks fascinating. Note to self: bookmark that for summer reading.) Is it a problem if you've got material on the screen that's unrelated to what you're talking about?

All in all, I'm left with more questions than answers (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and a sense that there needs to be a great deal more research into the underlying assumptions on presentation methods and materials.


Bonus links to PPTs I've seen and loved:

milken conference: media moguls on parade

This last panel--"The New Media Age: Surviving and Thriving in a World of Changing Technology"--is moderated by the very entertaining Dennis Kneale, the managing editor of Forbes. Speakers are:

  • Peter Chernin, President and COO, News Corp.; Chairman and CEO, Fox Group
  • Robert Iger, President and CEO, The Walt Disney Co.
  • Jonathan Miller, Chairman and CEO, AOL

Moderator: Are we really at the digital revolution now, or are we still a decade away?
Chernin: There's been unbelievable change over the past ten years, but that the pace of change will only accelerate from this point. People are still desperate to see stories, to see content, to consume information. They want to be entertained, be informed. (Wow. Amazingly passive view of the audience.)

Moderator: Is Disney catching up to online piracy, or are they still trying to stop it the way Disney tried to stop the VCR?
Iger: We're not playing a game of catchup, but we do need to get on board the train, so to speak. Otherwise the consumer will simply pass us by. Technology to media companies is what refrigeration was to Coca Cola.
Miller: The old projections were that the new media would replace the old media. But that's not what happens. The new doesn't replace the old, but things rebalance. What's going on now is real convergence. People are being convergent--they are multimedia, multidimensional, in ways they haven't been before.

Moderator: Is the video industry doing a better job than the music industry?
Miller: We're not stupid. We see what happened to the music industry!
Iger: WE've got to get with the program--the barriers we've perceived are dissolving, and we have to occupy this space.
Chernin: We as an industry were better positioned to deal with piracy. You get piracy when price points and access aren't acceptable to the market. The video industry has a long history of tailoring products to different needs and different markets (PPV, DVD, theatres, HBO, etc). They understand that different platforms require different price points.

Moderator: Have any of you visited YouTube? 40 million viewings a day of tiny little web-based videos. All from users. The revolution is happening from the bottom up--how do you deal with that?
Chernin: The incredible pent-up demand for video is amazing to see. Most of the favorites on YouTube are copyrighted material. There's a huge demand for our video product.
Iger: User-generated content, as ridiculous as it is (he's talking about America's Funniest Home Videos, which he first started at ABC), is endlessly fascinating to people. It won't put us out of business. We're living in a world where people are spending more time consuming media of all kinds--for companies int he business of creating media, that's a good thing.
Miller: Amazon didn't replace WalMart. YouTube won't replace current content creators. The big question is how do you find the things you want? Your social network becomes important as well as formal guides.

Moderator: Are the movie studios the ones who will create this content? Or will other, younger people need to do it?
Miller: The history of the media world says that the great broadcasting companies didn't create the great cable companies, and neither of those created the great internet companies. New companies tend to arise, while they may well later combine.
Chernin: MySpace cost 540 million, and was probably the best deal they ever made. He asks the moderator why the edge he seems to have about MySpace--is his profile not attracting the kinds of people he wants?

Moderator: The decision to put Disney/ABC shows on iTunes was stunning. How many conversations did they have with affiliates over this?
Iger: None.
Moderator: Excellent!
Iger: Of course new delivery puts a strain on existing channels. But asking permission would have resulted in it never getting done. We create a lot of value for the stations when we create these shows, and the stations still get to show them first. What the music industry ignored is that the customer had a lot more power over how they got and used music in a digital age, and ignoring that power shift was their biggest problem. Disney's not going to ignore that power shift. We're going to continue to make moves for the big screen, but they'll move onto new media more quickly.
Chernin: Fox is trying to do a 60-day post-theatrical high-def release. That's a better direction than trying to have the two compete with each other. "My job is not to protect the existing business, it's to maximize the current business and find ways to grow the new business." You have grow more than you erode, or someone else will be sitting in your chair. We won't replace the billions in revenue from theatrical releases until we've got something that will generate more revenue.

Moderator: What's happening with new development in content?
Miller: New kinds of music content--downloadable music videos and concerts. You can't put music on TV and get good ratings, but you can put it online and "cum" (as in "accumulate") an audience over time. A big question is how do you find content? They want to make video search as good as text-based search.

Moderator: If I can download a show without commercials for $2, aren't you undervaluing commercials?
Iger: We're selling a few things. Convenience is critical (mobile, time-shifted). The experience is good, but not nearly as good as what you'll get on a big HD TV. Their experience has been very positive. They put a $9.99 movie called "High School Musical" on iTunes, and it was incredibly popular.
Moderator: What more are you doing with properties like High School Musical?
Iger: It's out on DVD this week--you can buy it at WalMart. :) We're also looking to turn the company into a more global company--we have great brand depth but not as much breadth as we'd like. They're releasing it in other languages, they're releasing materials for schools to be able to do it as a school play. The soundtrack album went double platinum in 7 weeks.
Miller: Disney has always set a standard of multiple platforms for products. These things are additive, not subtractive. They grow the reach of the property. The fact that something's been viewed 30 million times on YouTube doesn't mean they won't watch more of it on TV. It may make them more likely to watch it on TV.
Chernin: We're thinking a lot about different media for delivery. We're thinking a lot about interactive aspects of delivery. We invented "Mobisodes" for wireless. That's about as exciting a platform as exists. There are twice as many cellphones as televisions in the world, and probably 3-4x as many as there are computers. Our new affiliate deal lets us run shows not just after they run on the network, but also run it before it's on the network for a higher fee. Are there people desperate to see the finale of a show, and willing to pay $4 for it. In return, they give the network affiliates a 12% share of that first year's revenue.

Moderator: Bob Iger, are you cutting a share of your extra revenues to your local affiliates?
Iger: Not from our iTunes downloads. We have a very different relationship with our affiliates than Fox has. ABC pays compensation to their stations already, whereas Fox gets paid by their affiliates.
Miller: If you think about what Google did, they cut everybody in on the action. Because of that, everyone put that box up there and it kept spreading. The web model says figure out how to cut everybody in on the action and they'll be your distribution path.

Moderator: Is Google a distribution rival?
Iger: We don't see them as a rival--perhaps that's a mistake. They're a tool that consumers can use to find our content. Google is both distribution and content; search results are a kind of content. They have become a real force in the advertising world, for good reason. Advertisers are paying extra to advertise in the Internet-based distribution. They won't be able to charge for shows that force you to watch ads. But other choices for download may well be for pay (downloadable, archivable versions, for instance).
Miller: Internet advertising is becoming as expensive in CPM terms is comparable to many cable channels. Search fragments things--it sends people in lots of different places. In a world that fragments, the people who have things that are truly unique stand out the most.
Iger: In a world with much more choice and fragmentation, the value of brands will increase. Most of our investment is in brand.
Chernin: Traditionally, CPM have tracked audience size. Advertisers are so desperate to get video advertising on the web, they're willing to now pay a premium for getting those ads online.

Moderator: Most of the time our ads don't hit people when they most need them. Google does this perfectly--you see the ad when you're engaged in the shopping behavior. It's more targeted, shouldn't it be more expensive?
Miller: If someone visits a car site, they're 10-30% more likely to click on a car ad the next time they see it.
Chernin: That's a very simplistic view of advertising. Ads aren't just to sell things. Some are there to build brands, some are intended to generate interest, others to sell a specific product.
Iger: I agree completely.
Miller: Google ads can't, be definition, be underpriced--they're offered in a marketplace, and you pay what the market thinks it's worth.

Moderator: Why the $2 price for television shows? Why not higher?
Iger: Well, these were things that were already available for free the night before. You're going to watch this on a much smaller and lower quality screen than your television. They felt they should be reasonable in their pricing.
Miller: The scarier thing would be will anybody buy it? Will they buy something they could get for free on their TV?

Moderator: What are the obstacles? Does anybody really want to watch Gary Coleman in a rerun on their cell phone?
Chernin: None of these models work at all if there's rampant piracy. [missed some here]
Miller: The biggest obstacle is making great experiences. People want what they want when they want it...moving media across platforms is not fluid and easy now. What Jobs and Apple did was they made it great, they made the experience great. Great experiences lead to adoption, and then the money follows.
Iger: Conflict and competition among channels and retailers. We want to create more value for our shareholders, and we're not sure we can grow these new channels without damaging existing ones. We need to stay in touch with the consumer in this ever-changing world. It's not an obstacle, but it is a challenge.

Moderator: Was their internal opposition at Disney to these changes?
Iger: Of course. Change results in fear, but you have to overcome that. That's why I'm charged to do, really, more than anything else in my role as CEO. You can't ask all the questions and get all the answers before you make these have to take some risks and get things out there. We have to give people what they want often before they know they want it.
Chernin: The most positive thing happening right now is all this experimentation. There's very little first mover advantage now, we can steal ideas that work from each other. (laughter) The growth of the distribution model benefits the content creators.

Moderator: I'm fascinated with "sellavision", the 24 promotion. How did that work?
Chernin: I thought it was both a brilliant idea, and a dopey idea. Cell phones aren't great platforms for narrative content. But it allowed them to learn a lot about how to deliver short-form content. This is a rush hour medium--people are watching on trains and in airports.
Moderator: what wins? Cell phones or ipods?
Iger: They all win. They're all important. And cell phones are enormously important in helping them to enter global markets with branded content.
Miller: We still don't know if cell phones are a derivative medium (a tiny TV), or a truly new medium. We're focused on mobile search right now more than mobile content. (Wow, search is a big theme for AOL in today's presentations. Fascinating.)

Moderator: So, if this new distribution takes off, who loses? Does Comcast lose?
Iger: Not if they migrate off their traditional approach and start to deliver to multiple platforms--they could be fine. But he's not focused on who loses, he's focused on who wins. Content companies are well positioned to win.
Chernin: The losers are those who are trying to protect rather than grow their businesses.
Iger: "You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, the times they are a changin'..."
Miller: Is geography now a limiting factor or an enabling factor for companies? That's shifting.

There's some brief Q&A at the end, but I'm all typed out.

milken conference: "internet from 10 feet away"

I'm not quite sure what the title of this panel has to do with the description they've provided, but the lineup of speakers was interesting enough that I wanted to check it out.

  • Mark Burnett, President and Founder, Mark Burnett Productions Inc.
  • Kevin Conroy, Executive Vice President and COO, AOL Media Networks
  • Kevin Corbett, Vice President, Digital Home Group, and General Manager, Content Services Group, Intel Corp.
  • Blair Westlake, Corporate Vice President, Media, Content and Partner Strategy Group, Microsoft Corp.
  • Moderator: Ken Rutkowski, Host, President, KenRadio Broadcasting

Westlake talks about the NAB conference--notes that HD was a huge focus, but the conference seemed light in terms of people.

(The moderator is extraordinarily annoying. I suspect he may have been a used car salesman before he became a radio announcer.)

Programming, search, playback, monetization--these are the important aspects of video that the AOL guy identifies. He leaves out things like "creation," of course, because this panel is clearly about the Internet as a broadcast tool. (The description begins with the outrageous line "The Internet is finally emerging as a true entertainment medium.") The world is divided up into "content owners" and "consumers."

Burnett says the "new primetime" is 9-to-5, because so many people in offices have broadband access and use it constantly to access content for personal reasons (chat, email, shopping). But there's "nothing to watch or do," he says, which is what he sees as his job to remedy.

(Must. Not. Speak.)

Am looking around the room...once again, I seem to be the only person with an open computer. The free wifi has disappeared, much to my chagrin, but I'm using Ecto to write this so.

Moderator raises the "user generated content" flag--"what about YouTube? Will it make you more accountable?" Mark Burnett says he thinks YouTube is great. Why would anyone who's a professional content maker fear user-generated content? In the end, it makes you better at your job, which is to give the advert-watching public what they want. And there are incredibly talented undiscovered filmmakers out there, who are using YouTube to get things out.

Burnett claims that the Intenret will allow us to know everything about who's watching what. The complete disregard for privacy issues here is stunning. He dismisses those trying to block this kind of surveillance as blocking inevitable progress. "Of course we need to know exactly who's watching."

Burnett again: "Who would buy a computer without Intel? They'd be crazy to do that!" (Oy.)

AOL guy says "Version 1 of the internet was about typing in a URL and going to what we think of as an immersive experience." (Huh?) New profiles are people who aren't interested in going to a URL and being in the environment you create--they want the material made available to them (widgets, gadgets, etc). I think what he's trying to describe is the aggregation process--people wanting to pull in your content into "their" space (MySpace page, etc). Ah, yes. Now he uses the "Web 2.0" term.

They're all convinced that text gives way to audio which gives way to video--and that everything's about video. Why would anyone want audio when they could have video? (And, implied, why on earth would they still be bothering with text?)

Blair gets tagged on DRM. "Unfortunately it's gotten a bad reputation." Notes that the Sony root kit was a big factor in making the perception more negative, but says the root kit was not DRM, and that those shouldn't be confused.

AOL guy says this is a non-issue, that we just need a "rebranding effort" around DRM. All DRM is intended to do is establish some business rules. If you get it right, you can have new business models (like pay-per-view).

Burnett says he's not concerned about illegal downloads. "Nobody up here is missing any meals as a result," he points out to laughter. The opportunities to sell more content are massive, he says. Bigger than ever.

"It's gone from the information superhighway to the content superhighway," says the Intel guy.

The AOL guy says they're building an interactive programming guide to online content. Search and browse becomes the organizing principle for finding interesting timely content. (That's not an organizing principle!)

At this point I think I've heard enough. I'm off to take a break before the last panel of the day.

time is money, friend

Here's what the iTunes music store gets right: they make it faster and easier to get what you want, and they do it at a price point that doesn't make you feel like you're being gouged.

That was clear to me last night, when I realized that I wanted to watch the first few episodes of Battlestar Galactica while flying from Seattle to Philly (en route to Durham, for an NSF PI meeting). I had the episodes on NetFlix, but didn't want to (a) bring the DVDs with me because it's too easy for them to get broken or lost, or (b) use up precious working battery power on my laptop when I could watch the episodes on my video iPod. So I started to rip the episodes onto my hard drive (and yes, fair use zealots, I had every intention of deleting them after I'd watched them, since they were rentals). An hour later, with only one episode onto my hard drive, with mediocre video quality, I realized this was not time well spent. A quick look at iTMS showed me that I could buy all of season 2 (20 episodes) for about $25--and that I could start the downloading before I went to bed and have all the episodes not just on my computer but automatically transferred to my iPod before I had to leave. It was worth every penny to not have to laboriously go through disc after disc identifying, ripping, and transferring individual episodes.

I watch very little TV these days (with WoW to play, who has time?), and what little I do watch is typically on the video iPod while at the gym. Other than Lost, however, I haven't had many shows I've even wanted to watch there. BSG has changed that. For those of you who haven't watched the series, it's spectacular. And it's nice to find a show that I really like that hasn't already been cancelled (like Firefly, for instance). The writing, editing, and acting are all superb. Highly recommended.

(Fellow WoW addicts will probably recognize the game reference in the title of this really needs to be said with the right goblin accent for full effect, though.)

Currently playing in iTunes: Tocceilidh from the album "Re: Bach" by Lara St. John

conference registration software?

Does anyone know of a good, free, lightweight, event registration software system that I could install on a unix-based web server?

I'm running an event that will have ~90 people at it, and I want an easy way for them to be able to register for the event, and submit basic bios (and photos, ideally, but I can live without that). No money collection, no complex program management. And it would be nice to be able to have basic functionality built in to generate a list of participants, and even nametags.

Yes, I know this is buildable, probably with relatively little effort. But I have zero free time and zero dev resources to devote to this, so would much rather avoid reinventing the wheel if the wheel already exists.

yet another thing i owe to my blog...

I'm always a little bit amused by people who still wonder aloud how and why I find the time to blog. I find time the same way most people find time to watch their favorite television shows, or go to movies (neither of which I do very often at all). And I do it because I've had extraordinarily personal and professional rewards accrue to me as a direct result of the effort I put into blogging--not the least of which is the visiting researcher position I currently hold here at Microsoft.

blog bootyBut today's mail brought an unexpected bonus from my blogging, in the form of five copies of the second edition of Edward Tufte's wonderful essay on Powerpoint. It's new enough that it doesn't even seem to be advertised on his site yet. Since the only time I met Dr. Tufte was as a student in one of his workshops more than ten years ago, I can only assume that the "with the compliments of Edward Tufte" card attached to the essays was entirely a result of the posts I've made here about Powerpoint, many of which reference the original essay.

A nice bright spot in an otherwise gray day. And a good reminder of the blessings this blog has brought.

powerbook wifi woes

My son's aging Powerbook G4 (an original TiBook) has been having problems with wifi connectivity over the past several months. He gets only an intermittent signal from our Airport Express. I've isolated the problem to his machine--other laptops in the same place at the same time have no connectivity problems.

I've opened the machine and reseated the Airport card, and checked the antenna cable--I don't see any obvious cable problems, or oxidation, but there may well be problems with the cables going from the card up into the antennas in the screen.

I really don't want to put a lot of money into this machine, so I'm trying to figure out how to easily put a wired connection in his room. What's the easiest, cheapest way to do that? It seems like there must be something that will pick up the wifi signal from our network and send it over an ethernet cable to his computer--but I don't know what they'd be called, and thus can't search for them effectively.

(Oh...and merry christmas to all of you, especially those who, like me, serve as family sysadmin over the holidays!)

revenge of the grownups

My father just sent me a link to a NYTimes piece called "What's the Buzz? Rowdy Teenagers Don't Want to Hear It" that totally cracked me up. Here's the key concept:

Mr. Stapleton has taken the lesson he learned that day - that children can hear sounds at higher frequencies than adults can - to fashion a novel device that he hopes will provide a solution to the eternal problem of obstreperous teenagers who hang around outside stores and cause trouble. The device, called the Mosquito ("It's small and annoying," Mr. Stapleton said), emits a high-frequency pulsing sound that, he says, can be heard by most people younger than 20 and almost no one older than 30. The sound is designed to so irritate young people that after several minutes, they cannot stand it and go away.

Oh, I so want a room-sized version of this. Wouldn't it be lovely to have a room that kids couldn't stand to go into, but grownups could sit in and relax? Or to turn this on in my office at RIT when I'm willing to talk to colleagues but not students? The possibilities are endless...

switching to dynamic publishing

Ever since I upgraded to Movable Type 3.2, rebuilding has been much slower on my current host. That's caused two problems, one just annoying and the other more serious. The annoying part is that marking comments as junk (an all-too-frequent need) forces a rebuild, which is painfully slow and often times out on the intranet at work. The serious part is that most incoming trackbacks are failing, probably due to timeout issues.

So tonight I'm going to try switching from static to dynamic publishing--for the non-geek readers out there, it means that most pages on the site won't be saved as individual static documents, but instead will be generated on-the-fly when you request them.

If the site breaks in the process, don't panic--it's all backed up. Worst case I'll revert back to original settings and live with the problems. Best case it'll be working perfectly in a few minutes, and trackbacks will start working as they should again.


Update: It worked. Only two real problems, which were relatively easy to fix. The first problem was that I use mt-textile and smartypants for text formatting on the blog (the former lets me use things like underscores to create italicized text, or asterixes to generated bulleted ists; the latter handles typographic niceties like em dashes, curly quotes, and true ellipses). Those text processors don't work properly with dynamic publishing, but I found this post on Movalog with information on how to fix that. The second problem involved the fact that I had some custom PHP code in my templates that used movable type tag variables--apparently since the dynamic templates are PHP based, this causes some problems. There are apparently ways to call the variables, but I didn't feel like mucking with them, so I just changed the few instances to non-variable code (using rather than the BlogURL variable, etc). Not the most elegant fix, but it was expedient, and now it all works. And since I'm planning on a site redesign over the holidays, it wasn't worth spending too long on the template code.

The good news is that the trackback problem does appear to be fixed--a number of new trackbacks have appeared over the past few days, after a long dry spell that I suspect was technological (especially since I saw several inbound links on other sites that hadn't registered here). Mission accomplished!

google and anonymity

I'm a big fan of Google's search engine, and use it regularly. I also use GMail, and Google Groups, and Google Maps, among other services. But recently I've been thinking about just how much information Google has about me based on my use of those services.

Most of us assume that when we do a search on Google that it's essentially anonymous. But in fact, most people have a small file sitting on their hard drive (a "cookie") that Google uses to uniquely identify them--not just when they're logged in to a Google services like GMail, but all the time. And personally, that creeps me out. The fact that every aspect of my information seeking behavior is being recorded, and that use of that data isn't really restricted by any laws or policies (other than the amorphous "do no evil" mantra) feels...well...icky.

So today I did some poking around, and found a very nice little bookmarklet (basically an "active" bookmark that takes an action rather than simply loading a page) called GoogleAnon that I've added to all of my browsers (with three computers that I use regularly, and at least two browsers running on each, that's a lot of browsers...). The web site explains it in detail, but in a nutshell what it does is replace the unique identifier in your Google cookie with a zeroed-out version. You can still use all the services you'd normally use, but it will no longer associate those with the identifier on your computer.

Installing the bookmarklet is quite simple--just follow the instructions on the GoogleAnon page.

Even if you don't install the bookmarklet, or clear out your Google cookie, it's worth reading through the whole site, and thinking about the issues of search and privacy. There's always a balance to be struck between the convenience and the risk of personalization, and I think we should all be making informed choices about that balance.

hooked on blummy

Like many of the enthusiastic early technology adopters (a nice way of saying "obsessive geeks") I know, my browser's bookmark toolbar (the bookmarks that are ever-present along the top of my Firefox window) is overflowing with special-purpose "bookmarklets"--special-purpose bookmarks that actually run a javascript to accomplish a task. One of them, for example, lets me add a page to my bookmarks. Another converts an Amazon item page URL to a version that includes my Amazon Associates ID so that I can get a small % of the profits when someone buys an item because I linked to it. Two others do a searches for the page I'm looking at in or Technorati, so I can see who's linking to or writing about the site.

The problem is that they're overflowing the bookmark bar now, so I have to give them short, cryptic names to fit them all in. And that makes them hard to find.

The solution? A nifty little too called "Blummy," which lets me consolidate them all into one. The web-based interface on the Blummy site lets you configure the size and contents of your bookmarklet collection. When you're done configuring the tool, you simply put the Blummly bookmarklet link in your toolbar in place of the many links it contains. Clicking on the Blummly link displays a nice little CSS div on your screen that contains all of the blummlets you've specificied.

They've got a quite a few "standard issue" bookmarklets on there for people who are looking to add some functionality. But more importantly, for me, they offer the ability for you to build your own "blummlet," thereby allowing me to replicate all the bookmarklets that were cluttering up my toolbar.

So, what's in my Blummly box? Right now, I've got 7 blummlets:

  1. post to (explained above)
  2. lookup (list of users who've linked to the page I'm currently viewing)
  3. Technorati Cosmos (list of weblogs linking to the page I'm currently viewing)
  4. CiteUlike (post to the academic equivalent of
  5. Wikipedia Lookup (look up the selected/highlighted text on the page in Wikipedia)
  6. Amazon Associates link-maker (explained above)
  7. King County Library System lookup (Jon Udell's "library lookup" tool--looks up a book in the library catalog of your choice)

Most people won't ever have a need for this...but for those of us who tend to collect these special-purpose bookmarks, Blummly is a great tool.

amazing essay on google by george dyson

Presented without comment. (See the previous post...) But here's a lengthy excerpt from an essay that should be required reading for technologists:

My visit to Google? Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral -- not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. "We are not scanning all those books to be read by people," explained one of my hosts after my talk. "We are scanning them to be read by an AI."

When I returned to highway 101, I found myself recollecting the words of Alan Turing, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, a founding document in the quest for true AI. "In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children," Turing had advised. "Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates."

Google is Turing's cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: "When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?"

Dyson closes with a powerful quote from science fiction writer Simon Ings (can't find what book this is from; if you know, please leave a comment):

"When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain."

joel spolsky on splogs

Joel Spolsky has a great post on problems with AdSense, click fraud, and splogs. Especially splogs. I love this passage:

First, they create a lot of fake blogs. There are slimy companies that make easy to use software to do this for you. They scrape bits and pieces of legitimate blogs and repost them, as if they were just another link blog. It is very hard to tell the difference between a fake blog and a real blog until you read it for a while and realize there's no human brain behind it, like one of those Jack Format radio stations that fired all their DJs, or maybe FEMA.

powerbook video adapter needed!

If any powerbook-toting Internet Librarian attendees are reading this, I desperately need a powerbook DVI-to-VGA video adapter for my keynote tomorrow morning. I left both of mine at home :(

Worst case scenario, I'll borrow a laptop from someone else and load up my images from a USB drive, but it would be nice if I could use my Mac.

So, if you're here in Monterey and have one of these that you could lend me for 45 minutes tomorrow morning, email me at myblogname at gmail dot com, or comment here, or just stop by the podium before my talk tomorrow morning....

audiovox dumbphone

A couple of weeks ago I received a hand-me-down Audiovox SMT 5600 "smartphone" from Marc Smith (my manager at Microsoft), so that I could start to test out the various mobile apps that the research and product groups are developing. (I'm paying for my own service, though, in case you're wondering.) It took quite some time to get service set up on the phone, due to the overall stupidity of Cingular and its handling of the AT&T merger. The short version is I can't use a Cingular SIM in the card, because Cingular won't unlock it for me to use with their service; instead, I have to use an AT&T SIM, with an AT&T billing plan, even though Cingular took over AT&T. Silliness.

Marc gave me the phone and a USB cable for it--and when I also asked for an AC charger, he told me the USB cable could be used to charge the phone. Good enough, I thought. One less cable to use. Until this Friday, when I plugged my low-on-power phone into my laptop and went to bed. My laptop sensibly turned itself off not long after that, since I'd forgotten to override the power settings. And the phone ran completely out of power and went dead.

In the morning, I turned the computer on, figuring I could recharge the phone before we headed out for the day...but the amber charging light didn't come on. I tried it on another USB port, and then on another computer. Still no luck. I spent some time poking around online, and discovered that the SMT5600 will only charge over USB if the ActiveSync software has established a connection. And if the phone is dead, obviously the connection can't be established. That's not a smart phone--it's a really, really dumb phone.

We tried five different stores yesterday looking for an AC (or auto) charger--Cingular sells the phone, but the store didn't have a charger. Neither did Best Buy. Or Fry's. Or Car Toys. Or Radio Shack. Feh. Then I had a brainstorm--we now live 1.1 miles from Robert Scoble, who I know has the same phone. So I called Robert, only to find that his AC charger was at the office rather than at home. He pointed out that I could use my magical blue employee badge to get into his building and retrieve it from his office (non-managerial offices at Microsoft seem not to have locks for the most part). Then this morning I remembered that one of my colleagues has a whole pile of iMates (rebranded SMT5600s, basically), and that the chances were good there was a spare charger there. So this morning I headed over to campus with the kids, and found a whole pile of chargers in my colleague's office. I borrowed one, which I'll return tomorrow morning--I felt a little awkward "stealing" it like that, but it clearly wasn't being used today, and it was out in plain sight. :/

The phone's charging now, and I'll be careful not to let it get to the danger level again until I have my own AC charger.

mindshare, market share, and monopolies

I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media...) with danah boyd, who took me to task for my last post. Her concern wasn't with my negativity about Google, but about the extent to which the post made it seem that I'd become an unapologetic supporter of the Microsoft culture (or cult). Her argument was that in fact, Google doesn't dominate search, it only dominates among the technocrats--much like Powerboks are the toy of choice for social software geeks, but not for the world at large.

I was a little taken aback by this, because I'd been fully convinced that Google's dominant mindshare (when was the last time you heard someone use MSN or Yahoo as a verb meaning "search"?) reflected an equally dominant market share. My interest in seeing MSN succeed was never (and still isn't) about having a Microsoft monopoly replace a Google monopoly--it was, and still is, about there being legitimate competion in this space. I don't want anybody having a chokehold on online information access. So I set out to do some fact-checking. (I assume that the MSN Search folks have very detailed numbers, but I didn't want to ask for anything that I couldn't blog about.)

I started at the Pew Internet & American Life site, since they're generally my favorite source of solid stats on Internet use. In May & June of 2004, they conducted a survey on search engine usage. They reported on the results in both a memo from August 2004 and a more detailed report in January of 2005--the relevant piece of this survey found that when asked "Which search engine do you use MOST OFTEN," 47% of respondents replied Google , followed by Yahoo at 26%. MSN trailed well behind both at 7%.

In an attempt to find something more recent, I did some broader searches on search engine statistics and market share, and found a Business Week article from last month entitled "Google's Leap May Slow Rival's Growth." The article opens with this paragraph:

Nearly a year after Google's (GOOG ) IPO marked the start of a new phase in Web search competition, the upstart is making industry giants Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN and Yahoo! (YHOO ) look like also-rans. Google's share of U.S. searches hit 52% in June, up from 45% a year ago, according to Web analytics firm WebSideStory Inc. By contrast, Yahoo's and MSN's share slipped to 25% and 10% respectively. Says Mark S. Mahaney, an analyst at Smith Barney Citigroup (C ): "People haven't been given a good reason to switch from Google."

I also found an article from February 2005 on SearchEngineWatch by Danny Sullivan, in which he cites data received from comScore. The results he cites show Google with a 35% share, Yahoo with a 32% share, and MSN with a 16% share. Here's how Danny describes that data:

The comScore Media Metrix qSearch service measures search-specific traffic on the internet. qSearch data is gathered by monitoring the web activities of 1.5 million English-speakers worldwide (1 million in the United States) via proxy metering.

Proxy metering allows comScore to see exactly how those within its panel have surfed the web. From this data, the company then extracts activity that's considered to be specifically search-related.

[...] The qSearch figures are search-specific but not necessarily web-search specific. For example, a search performed at Yahoo Sports would count toward Yahoo's overall total. That's important to understand.

So, what am I missing? I can't find any evidence that my perception of Google as the dominant player in this market is incorrect. If you know of research that contradicts this conclusion, I'd really love to know about it--please add a comment with a cite!

Right now, I don't think that Microsoft's search product is as good as Google's. And I think that what Yahoo is doing with MyWeb is in fact the killer app of search. My working with MSN for a year isn't going to suddenly catapult the company into a monopoly on web search (although it is giving me a fascinating view into how corporate culture influences the direction of products, not always in a good way). But I do think there's value in evening the playing field. Microsoft is going after search market share--that's a given. If I'm here, I can try to help them do it in a way that benefits the users of their service. If I'm not here, they only thing that changes is that my input into the product disappears. My presence has no impact on Microsoft's business practices or goals. But it might well result in some influence on the direction of their product development, and I'm okay with that.

At the end of the day, I still harbor a healthy distrust of most corporations and their cultures, regardless of how much I like the people that work there, or the products they produce.

Update, 2:51pm

SearchEngineWatch has a few other articles on market share. This one provides the May 2005 Nielsen NetRating figures, showing Google with 48%, Yahoo with 21.2%, and MSN with 12.4%.

why i want msn to succeed

No, it's not because the evil empire is paying me enough to shift my priorities. It's the same reason that I agreed to be a part of MSN's Search Champs program when they invited me last year--having Google as the gatekeeper to all online information is something that scares the crap out of me.

I don't think Google is evil. But I know that they're capable of making mistakes. And when they're thought of by much of the world as the authoritative online source, their mistakes take on more magnitude than they might in a more balanced and competitive context.

I've had a great reminder of this over the past week, as I've struggled to find out from Google why the pagerank for my blog URL ( has suddenly dropped to zero. For over a year it's been solidly at 6 every time I've checked (which wasn't often, since the Google toolbar didn't work on my mac, so I had to go to an external site to check it). But last week I installed the Google toolbar for Firefox, and loaded up my blog. I was shocked to see that it didn't register at all.

I checked a couple of things before I contacted Google. First, I checked an external pagerank monitoring site to confirm the result. Then I searched for my first name in before, came up as the third result in the set, which seems to indicate that the site still retains some importance in the index--that didn't seem to match the zero pagerank number. Then I did a link: search on on Google, and found that the number of results had dropped dramatically. Note the following:

link: (Google) : 897 (MSN): 25,811
link: (Yahoo): 103,000


So I emailed Google's customer support, explaining the details of the situation, particularly the precipitous drop combined with the continuing high results for a first name search. I received a response from the "Google Team" (no names, of course) with a very simplistic response:

Hi Liz,

Thank you for your note. Please be assured that your site is not currently penalized by Google.

A page may be assigned a rank of zero if Google crawls very few sites that link to it. Additionally, pages recently added to the Google index may also show a PageRank score of zero because they haven't been crawled by Googlebot yet and haven't been ranked. A page's PageRank score may increase naturally with subsequent crawls, so this shouldn't be a cause for concern. To learn more about PageRank, please see

The Google Team

Well, that was helpful. (Not.)

So I replied to "The Google Team," explaining that I was fully aware of how pagerank worked, and that I continued to feel that the precipitous drop indicated a "cause for concern."

I got another reply from "The Google Team," this time telling me that they'd discovered a mirror site ( that had a higher pagerank (I automatically mirror the .net site on .com because so many people tend to assume the .com domain, but the number of actual links to that page is quite low), and that if I was to redirect from the .com to the .net with a 301 message that the problem would probably be resolved.

Well, maybe that would increase pagerank a bit. But it still doesn't explain why my site went from a rank of 6 to one of 0.

In response to my providing them with the same URLs referenced above, they said only that:

Also, we'd like to reiterate that our link search does not return a comprehensive set of results. We recommend selecting the "Find web pages that contain the term" link for a more comprehensive list of the links that point to your page.

Lastly, please note that we can't comment on other search engines' results.

So at the end of the day, they (a) won't explain why or how my pagerank could have dropped so quickly and completely, and (b) won't explain why so many links to my site have apparently disappeared from their index.

It's a damn good thing that I'm not running a commercial site where pagerank is more of an issue. As it is, for me this is just an annoyance. But for many others, it would be far more problematic.

What this underscores to me is how dangerous Google's current dominance in search engine mindshare is, particularly when combined with their lack of incentive to be accountable to siteowners. Monopolies of any kind make me nervous. Monopolies on information make me particuarly nervous. I'm very glad that Yahoo and MSN are making credible efforts to make search a more competitive space, and I'm also quite glad to be involved with Microsoft's efforts to do so.

google dissatisfaction

Despite the title, I'm not dissatisfied with Google. Far from it. But I discovered a feature today that I've never seen before, and that I can't find referenced anywhere--I don't know if it's brand-new, or if I just hadn't discovered it yet.

I was looking for a student's blog, and foolishly typed in the blog's name (Jay is) without using quotes. Google unsurprisingly dropped the "is" from the search, and told me it had found 34 million results for "Jay."

But after the first five results, I saw this (click to see full screen results):

Below it were the results for the (much better) phrase search, with Jay's blog as the first link.

It's been a long time since a search engine did something to improve my experience in such a direct way. Bravo, Google.

streets and trips with gps problems

One of the reasons I bought the MS Streets & Trips with GPS for my tablet pc was to help me navigate around Seattle when we arrived. And it worked fine, for about a day.

Now when I start it up, it works for about 5 minutes, then dies. The software seems to be fine, but it claims that it's not receiving data from the COM port. When I run a device check, the GPS shows up and claims to be working. If I do a full reboot of the machine, it starts working again...for about 5 more minutes, tops. Then it stops again. If I unplug or replug the GPS receiver, the computer acknowledges it with a little sound, the way it usually does. So is it the GPS receiver itself? If so, since I've only had it for a few months, will MS replace it? How do I go about finding that out? Do I take it back to the MS store next week after I start work?

Can't find any information anywhere on how to isolate the problem. The documentation is next to worthless, and PC troubleshooting has so many different places to look--the application software, the drivers, the OS, the GPS manufacturer, the laptop manufacturer. Feh.

So much for the GPS helping me navigate Seattle. So much for me navigating Windows. Scoble, got any suggestions?

*&^%$ server

I wrote my response to the book meme last night, and tried to post it with ecto. I got an error saying that the server had killed the connection, so I tried again. Same thing. Upgraded ecto. Still the same thing. Copied and pasted the entry into the web interface and tried again--nothing happened. So I tried again. And again. Finally I gave up and went to bed.

This morning I finally upgraded my MT from 3.15 to 3.17 (a serious pain in the ass because I don't have shell access on my new host, so each upgrade directory or file has to be copied in individually using the web interface). Tried again. Seemed like nothing happened, so I gave up.

A few minutes ago Gerald came downstairs and said "However many times you tried to post that entry last night...they all worked."


I logged back in, and damned if he wasn't right. 16 copies of the stupid post. So I deleted all but the last one. Sorry if it flooded your aggregator with duplicate posts before I rebuilt. I have no idea what caused that hiccup, alas, so I can't promise it will never happen again. Next time, however, I won't try quite so many times to post an entry.

new obsession

I have a long-standing tradition of acquiring and becoming obsessive about a new video game during vacations and holidays. This summer is no different--except for the fact that this obsession is actually healthy!

We bought DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) for Lane for his birthday, and it's turned out that I'm the one who's playing it nonstop. Calories burned today: 550 650 900! More fun than a treadmill, that's for sure.

As usual, obsessive game playing will take precedence over blogging, so don't expect to see too much of my here. (Plus there's that pesky packing problem to deal with, too, seeing as how we're leaving in a mere 3 weeks...)

parental controls in os x tiger

I just updated my kids' laptops (yes, I know how insanely privileged we are...) to Tiger. In the process, I discovered that my younger son has been doing some Google searches with his friends for items that I would not consider to be entirely appropriate for unsupervised 8-year-old consumption. <sigh>

We went through this a couple of years ago with my older son, so I wasn't exactly shocked. Gerald and I talked about what to do, and I was leaning towards taking the computer out of his room and limiting his use to public areas of the house. Then I remembered that I'd seen some information in the Tiger feature list about parental controls, so I took a closer look. Eureka!

So, for the time being, I've enabled controls on his computer for Safari, Mail, and iChat. It's a whitelist approach--Gerald or I have to approve any new contacts for email or iChat, and add new domains to his approved list in Safari. I prefer whitelists to blacklists in this context, since it's so hard to anticipate the many ways that kids (and spammers) can get around filters.

This won't be a permanent state--I trust my 10-year-old to administer his own computer, despite a rough patch when he was around 8. But as a short-term response to the situation I think this will work. Yet another reason to be glad of the upgrade to Tiger.

small successes

During the ten days I spent in Seattle, I was surrounded mostly by people who qualify for the label "technical elite." And too many of them, I fear, are beginning to forget that their worldview is not exactly representative.

This was particularly obvious when someone (Rael Dornfest?) asked the teen panel at the Social Computing Symposium whether they ever listened to podcasts. Their response? "Huh?" That didn't surprise me at all, because it's been clear to me for a while that podcasting has a pretty narrow band of followers and enthusiasts (almost all of whom, so far as I can tell, have lengthy commutes).

But what would probably surprise this group even more is how many people still don't see blogs as anything more than a fringe phenomenon. I teach in an IT department at a technical university, and most of my students still don't recognize the potential professional value of blogs.

This quarter I'm trying to change all that by really teaching about blogs and their uses in technical contexts. And based on the midterms I'm finishing grading today (yes, very very very late), I'm making some progress. Take this excerpt, for example, which I found particularly gratifying:

As I mentioned earlier, I am seeing the importance of blogs in the work place. A co-worker and I want to start a blog to make others in our group aware of available upgrades for the software tools we commonly use or any new functions or ideas that one of us may be working on. We may also use it to keep our common procedures in one place. A good example of how this would be of benefit is by providing annotated instructions on how to install or upgrade a piece of software. And, as of [this Monday], a blog will prove especially important for our group; our pointy-haired boss will be splitting us up along application lines (our web apps, client/server apps and mainframe apps) as opposed to what function we provide as a group. So we'll be working for different mangers, depending on which applications we're working on. (I will continue to refer to us as a 'group' in this paper.)

A weblog will then be a great way for us to communicate because of its interactive nature. It will also be a great tool to "advertise" what our group does. Others will surely want to check out our blog simply from a curiosity standpoint. Then perhaps other groups will have blogs of their own and the proliferation of information flowing between groups will be mind-numbing (right!).

Or this one:

This class for example has exposed me to the opinions and insights of a community of learners, where we all take turns at being lectures and listeners, all from the comfort of my home. Even as I search the web for the answers to the weekly questions I find that many times the freshest perspectives on the subject matter to be in weblogs. Unfortunately it seems like I spend more time sifting through the weblog to find the gem I was looking for. Since working full time and raising a family, it has been difficult for me to travel to campus at least three times a week taking traditional classes. The weblog has been an excellent way for me to learn, while at the same time putting a little extra time back in my day for my family. I was a bit apprehensive about taking a distance-learning course, but I find that I have learned as much from the format of this class as I have from the content on the on-line chats and reading assignments. This class has exposed me to a new method of study I would have never considered.

Maybe they're just trying to tell me what I want to hear--or maybe I'm actually making some progress. I prefer to believe it's the latter.

dying powerbook

I did take my powerbook to the apple store on Wednesday. The diagnosis? A hard drive that's on the verge of collapse. I spent Wednesday night backing up files to DVDs (my most recent backup in Rochester is several months old, alas), and being grateful that I'd brought two computers with me.

The powerbook is still partially functional. I can run my browser and email programs, as well as iTunes and iPhoto, which meant I was able to backup everythign that mattered. But my aggregator (NetNewsWire) and blogging client (ecto) have already stopped working, and the email's starting to get a little flaky.

So while I'm here, I'll be working mostly with the TabletPC. I'll have our tech guys send my laptop in for repairs when I get home. (It has one other really odd problem; when I'm in an airplane, the E key doesn't work properly; I'm guessing this has to do with the effect of cabin pressurization, but I don't know if it's the keyboard or the logic board that's reacting.)

laughing out loud

Via Weez, a wonderful collection of IRC conversations guaranteed to make geeks fall on the floor and roll around laughing.

My favorite thus far:

<Cthon98> hey, if you type in your pw, it will show as stars
<Cthon98> ********* see!
<AzureDiamond> hunter2
<AzureDiamond> doesnt look like stars to me
<Cthon98> <AzureDiamond> *******
<Cthon98> thats what I see
<AzureDiamond> oh, really?
<Cthon98> Absolutely
<AzureDiamond> you can go hunter2 my hunter2-ing hunter2
<AzureDiamond> haha, does that look funny to you?
<Cthon98> lol, yes. See, when YOU type hunter2, it shows 
 to us as *******
<AzureDiamond> thats neat, I didnt know IRC did that
<Cthon98> yep, no matter how many times you type hunter2, 
 it will show to us as *******
<AzureDiamond> awesome!
<AzureDiamond> wait, how do you know my pw?
<Cthon98> er, I just copy pasted YOUR ******'s and it appears 
 to YOU as hunter2 cause its your pw
<AzureDiamond> oh, ok.

serendipitous blog-based discoveries


There's now a craigslist for Rochester!

I've been spending a good bit of time on the Seattle craigslist this week, looking at housing and furniture ads, and thinking how nice it would have been to have had one for did I miss that there was one already?

I found it through a roundabout way. This morning in the coffee room I introduced myself to a woman I didn't know (there aren't many of us around here, so it seems wise to talk with the ones who are!), and found out she's a grad assistant working with the HCI/eyetracking group here. She mentioned that she read my blog (why does it always surprise me, still, when people I don't know say that?), and I asked if she had one of her own. She does--and a good one, too that I've added to my aggregator.

One of her posts was related to, so I looked at her links there, where I found the craigslist link. I also saw how she was using colors in urls, which I found fascinating.

And now I have to stop exploring and get back to writing and analyzing. Much less fun.

google prefetching links

Via Cameo Wood, I found out why it is that I'm occasionally getting unexpected requests to set a cookie for other sites when I search in Google--it's because Google is now using the "pre-fetch" functionality in some browsers (like Firefox) to automatically load the first result in your search in the background, whether or not you click on the link.

This is annoying for several reasons. First of all, if your company is monitoring where you go on the net, it makes it look like you've gone to that page--the page is in your cache, the cookies are set on your computer, etc. Second of all, it messes up the logs on that site's server, by making it look like you went to their site from a Google search even if you didn't click on the link.

The Google FAQ on this "feature" does tell you how to disable it in Firefox or Mozilla:

  1. Type "about:config" the address bar.
  2. Scroll down to the setting "network.prefetch-next" and set the value to "False".

airport express and non-apple wifi networks

I have an Airport Express, which I love, but I've had no end of problems trying to get it to join our house wifi network so that I can use AirTunes to stream music to the Bose radio in the family room.

Last night I finally found a page that explains why. It's a post to a discussion forum on the Apple site, entitled How to make the Airport Express work with Windows XP and an existing D-Link router. Now, I don't have XP or a D-Link router, but it turns out the instructions were relevant for my OS X and Linksys (I think...can't remember the brand) router combo.

The basic problem, it seems, is that by default the AirportExpress only wants to join networks using 10.0.x.x DHCP ranges. Many routers, however, use the 192.168.x.x (or 172.16.x.x) range for DHCP. As a result, the AirportExpress could see my home network, but couldn't successfully join it.

The solution is a kludge, but it works. You have to go into the Airport Admin Utility, and start to set up a new wireless network. That allows you then to go into the network settings and tell it to use the appropriate IP range. When you switch it back to joining an existing network, it remembers the IP range. Yes, I know, it's ugly. But it worked!

The instructions I linked to are pretty clear, and work for either OS X or Win XP. But they do have one glaring error--in step 10, they say to unplug the Ethernet cable from the AirportExpress. Don't do it! You can't do step 11 (update the settings) when it's unplugged. (D'oh!) Don't unplug the Ethernet cable until after you've successfully run the settings update.

It worked like a charm for us, and I have good music in the family room again. Yay!

(I should note that when I called Apple tech support about this last month, they told me that the AirportExpress couldn't join a non-Apple network. I'm glad they were wrong.)

return to redmond

I've received an invitation to participate in the MSN Search Champs v2 meeting next month in Redmond. So far, I've determined that Don Park and David Weinberger were invited back but can't attend, that Shelley Powers was invited but declined, and that Dave Winer isn't attending this time.

The guy who writes PalmSolo (whose name escapes me at the moment) is returning this time. I know that Halley Suitt is going, and I heard that Loïc LeMeur was going to be there as well.

Who else? They say they were shooting for more diversity this time (I was the only person there last time who wasn't a white male), so it will be interesting to see how successful they were.

(And before you ask, no, I don't know how you can get invited. I'm only an invitee, not an inviter.)

disappearing cursor in os x panther?

Over the past two months (before the 10.3.8 update) I've been having trouble with my mouse pointer disappearing. It happens after I've had an external display hooked up. If I put the computer to sleep while the external display is connected (or just after disconnecting it), I frequently (but not always) don't have a cursor when I wake it back up. The keyboard still functions, and the mouse still works--I just can't see where it's pointing. So, if I move it up and left, eventually I can click on menus, but I have to guess where the cursor really is.

Can't track anything down online, so I thought I'd ask here--anybody seen this happen? Better yet, anybody know a fix? (And yes, Jeremy, I'll call it into the help desk, too... :)

camera comparison

Gerald's taken the boys to Polarwave (the winter equivalent of a waterpark), and I'm home playing with my new camera. Since one of the things I really wanted was the ability to take better, more detailed close-up shots, I decided to test the old and new cameras on the same image. I took close-up photos of the afghan I'm working on for Alex (same pattern as the one I did for my sister, different yarn color).

Here's the image from the old camera:

Yarn Closeup With Old Camera

And here's the one from the new camera:

Crochet Hook

Big difference in detail and clarity; and, since the second is a 5mp rather than 2mp image, I can crop it and get even closer in.

new toy!

ZA95A.JPGOur tax refund arrived this week (yes, we filed early this year), and I'd promised myself that when it did I'd finally upgrade my digital camera. I've been using a Kodak DX3600 for nearly three years now, and while I've been very happy with its operation and image quality, I was starting to want something a little higher-end.

I'm not a photo enthusiast, by any means, and I know that if even if I had the money to buy something like a Nikon D70 I'd never really learn how to use it properly. But I wanted something that had higher resolution that my 2.1mp model, did a better job in low-light contexts, and offered things like portrait and macro modes.

After spending a lot of hours reading through camera reviews on Dave Etchell's wonderful Imaging Resource web site, I finally made a decision--I wanted a Canon A95. Here's Dave's summary of the camera:

The PowerShot A95 is one of the few digital cameras that just seem to get everything right, with very few weaknesses. In virtually all respects (color, resolution, image noise), its images are good to excellent, and its range of features and capabilities is hard to beat for the price. Its 5-megapixel CCD and good-quality lens deliver sharp images with good color and little distortion. At the same time, it manages to make just the right tradeoff between image noise and sharpness, delivering plenty of the latter, with very little of the former. (A difficult balance for any camera, and one that many models get wrong.) Its combination of automatic and manual features make it very approachable for novices, but interesting for experienced users, the net result being a camera that will satisfy a broad range of interests and provide a good path for novice users to expand their photographic horizons as their experience grows. Other features like its excellent battery life and nifty tilt/swivel LCD are added bonuses. Bottom line, if you're looking for a great "all around" digicam for either individual or family, the Canon PowerShot A95 deserves serious consideration. Easily a "Dave's Pick!"

The best price the Imaging Resource site showed online was $314, via, but I was in an instant-gratification kind of mood, so I went to RIT's bookstore to see if they had one in stock. They did, priced at $334...but they were out of stock. After some discussion, they offered to sell me the demo model for 10% off. Since they keep these cameras inside a glass case, and are very picky about handing them over (and this wasn't a high-traffic electronics store), I decided to go that route, and walked out of the store with my nearly-new A95.

The controls are a bit daunting; the A95 offers far more options and adjustments than my old camera did, but I'll start working my way through the manual tomorrow. I've also ordered a new battery charger, based on Imaging Resource's Great Battery Shootout. I'd noticed that my rechargeable batteries had gotten exceedingly short-lived, and was pretty frustrated about it. I didn't realize that the type of charger made such a difference in battery life, and I also wasn't aware of the variation in battery capacity. So I ordered the Maha C204W charger with 4 Energizer 2500mAh batteries ($41.97) and an extra 4-pack of 4 PowerEx 2300mAh batteries ($9.97) from Thomas Distributing, and should have it later this week.

running a local smtp server on my powerbook

One of the great frustrations of being a mobile user who doesn't use webmail is having to manually change SMTP servers each time I switch locations. There's one for when I'm at home, another for when I'm at work. And when I'm on the road, I have to remember to VPN into work in order to use their SMTP server. (Yes, I know, I should be using the VPN all the time...but it only protects traffic between my computer and RIT, and much of my traffic goes elsewhere.)

No more.

Yesterday I found an article by David Reitter, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, called Send E-Mail Everywhere: Postfix on Mac OS X (and other Unix systems). It has step-by-step instructions on how to securely set up a local SMTP server on your Powerbook.

It seems to be working...I ran a test where I sent mail to myself on six or seven different email accounts, and the test messages all arrived safely. And it's a whole lot faster than using the RIT SMTP server.

So, Mac tech gurus...have a made a terrible mistake? Has this set me up for abuse of my system in ways I can't anticipate or protect from?


The relative quiet around here hasn't been a sign of malaise. Instead, it's been an indication that I've been deeply engaged in activities that take me away from the blogosphere...and for good reason.

At the beginning of the year, I think I tripped an internal circuit breaker on clutter--in my office, in my house, in my brain. I didn't make any resolutions, per se, but I started looking seriously at how I could find a way to reduce clutter and the stress that it causes.

For dealing with household clutter and disorganization, I started with FlyLady. But while the basic approach is wonderful, I find the constant all-caps email reminders too much to deal with. So I went to the library and acquired FlyLady's book "Sink Reflections." From that, I learned that much of her method is derived from the book Sidetracked Home Executives by Pam Young and Peggy Jones. And it turns out Pam and Peggy have another (more recent) book on organization called Get Your Act Together!: A 7-Day Get-Organized Program for the Overworked, Overbooked, and Overwhelmed that sounded like something Gerald and I could really use to get our day-to-day activities better organized. I bought that one via Amazon, and it was money well spent--the book is well-written, entertaining, and full of good practical do-able advice. We'll see how that goes.

I've also started tackling our most cluttered areas, one at a time, in an attempt to lighten my psyche a bit. I started with the drawers in the kitchen (a manageable hour-at-a-time project with clear rewards), and I was ruthless about throwing things away. It doesn't make sense to try to store old knives and ladles for a garage sale we'll probably never have time to hold. Then I moved on to the cupboards in the dining room, which have traditionally been where we hide everything before company comes over. That was a job, but it's done now. And Gerald and I are working on the basement disaster area, as well, starting from opposite sides (I'm working through baskets, wrapping, and old toys; he's starting with the workbench and tools) and trying to clear a path. As evidence of what pathological hoarders we've been, last night I found an old plastic garbage can (the kind people put in their bathrooms) filled with the contents of our junk drawer--from Tuscaloosa. We apparently dumped it out into this container and moved it up to Rochester back in '97...and hadn't touched it since. <sigh> But we're making real progress, as evidenced by the mounting piles of trash in the garage.

On the work and mind clearing front, I've joined the growing number of geeks gone wild over David Allen's Getting Things Done method. There's no question in my mind that it's the most valuable book I've bought in a long time (and at only $10.20 on Amazon, you'd be nuts not to get your own copy). I'm carrying it everywhere with me right now. (Scoble, I'm so jealous that you got a house call!) I've got the book, and the only blog I've been reading regularly over the past week is Merlin Mann's 43 Folders.

My office has been mostly cleaned out, my piles are greatly diminished, and my files are starting to take shape. I've also jumped on the Moleskine love train, and have acquired both pocket and standard-sized notebooks, as well as a fabulous Fisher Bullet Space Pen (black matte). It turns out that all those people who say that having a high-quality notebook and pen makes a difference in your willingness to carry them with you and use them are absolutely right. I love the silky feel of the Moleskine paper, and the solid feel (and durability) of the Fisher pen. It's freed me from feeling lost and unable to work when I don't have my computer with me, and allows me to sit anywhere--not just near a power outlet!

I've still got a ways to go in implementing a full GTD approach, but even my baby steps thus far are helping me to feel less overwhelmed and out of control. And Allen's ideas for visualizing "WILD SUCCESS!" (with no "Yeah, but..."s) has helped me in getting unstuck from some important work that had really been stalled.

My next challenge will be figuring out how to balance and integrate the digital part of my GTD approach with the analog version. I've acquired DevonThink and OmniOutliner, and haven't really been able to figure out how to use them well--until this week, when I found some great sites describing how others are using them. That's how I learn best--by modifying what others have done. If you're in the same boat, I highly recommend Steven Johnson's recent post on DevonThink (and the NYTimes Book Review article he wrote on the subject), Frasier Spears' post on OmniOutliner Pro, and on the analog side, Omar Shanine's "How the Moleskine Rocked My World."

So yes, I'm still here. And doing well, thanks. I suspect I'll be blogging regularly again soon (I've even set aside a section of one of my Moleskines for blog post ideas).

windows-based desktop player

One of my grad students has written a (free, as in beer) Windows desktop player for music streams, called myLastFM.


Why use it?

We use to stream music all day long. Sometimes the web interface from does not refresh correcty. Usually this is not a problem... unless a song that you do not care for comes on and you can't skip it! myLastFM prevents that from happening by giving control of the music stream to a desktop player. Using myLastFM also helps take some of the load off of the webserver. The whole community benefits from a lesser load on the site. This makes it faster for new users to signup and for existing users to login and utilize the music community features.

From the screen shots, it looks lovely (not a surprise; this is someone who consistently does high-quality work).

(So, Eric, when are you writing the Cocoa-based version for your real computer? ;) )

what exactly is a CMS? part one (sponsored post)

If I'm going to be a shill, I figure I can at least try to mix my shilling with something useful to my readers.

For some time now I've been meaning to write a beginner's guide to what a CMS (Content Management System) is, and what they're used for. So I'm using my 'paid blogging' gig for Marqui to subsidize some of that content here. Since Marqui is a CMS (though they call it a "communication management system" rather than "content management system"), it makes sense to combine my required (and slightly late) weekly post with that tutorial and some link-loggery.

So, if you'd like to know more about what a CMS is, and why people use them, read on. If you're so put off by the scent of paid blogging that you can't bear to read any more, that's okay, too. :)

multiple urls in os x address book?

Recently, it's occurred to me that I'd really love to be able to integrate my address book more with the social tools I use online. For example, Quicksilver makes it easy for me to go to a person's card in my address book and send them email, chat with them via IM, or copy their snail mail address or phone number. But what if I could, from the same screen, view their bookmarks, or their Flickr photos?

At first I was thinking that these would need to be customized fields, but then I realized that it's just an issue of adding additional URLs. Which would be simple, except that in Address Book you can't add more than one URL. That's stupid. Most of us have more than one URL that we'd like associated with us (or with others).

So, is there a plugin or hack for Address Book that allows adding additional URLs? So that QS will recognize them as launchable URLs? And if not, could someone please write one?

how i used quicksilver today

A few colleagues have asked me what makes Quicksilver better than other launcher programs that they already use (besides the fact that it's free). I thought I'd keep some notes today about how I used the software so that the day-to-day value was more obvious.

  1. After turning on the computer, I wanted to go to the comments moderation page for my blog. I've got a bookmark in Firefox called "comments," so I invoked Quicksilver and typed "comm". Quicksilver immediately suggested the comments bookmark, so I pressed enter. Firefox launched and went right to the page I wanted.
  2. I wanted to listen to Sarah McLachlan's Afterglow album while I worked, so I invoked Quicksilver and typed Browse. I arrowed down to "Browse Albums," then used right arrow to see my list of albums. I typed "Afterglow" and pressed enter. iTunes launched and started playing the album.
  3. Today's grading day. I use an excel spreadsheet to store student names and URLs, and to record marks for individual components of the assignment. I invoked QS and typed "409-042 grades" to find the spreadsheet (409 is the course number, 042 is the current quarter; I use this naming convention for all course-related materials), and enter to launch it in Excel.
  4. My dock icon for Adium started jumping to tell me I had an incoming IM. I invoked QS and typed "ad" to bring up Adium, and pressed enter to make it the active application.
  5. While grading, I had to send out an advising alert for a student who hadn't turned in an assignment. I have a bookmark for the Advising system, so I invoked QS and typed "advising" to find the bookmark and then enter to open it in Firefox.
  6. I noticed that there was still a PDF article that I'd downloaded yesterday sitting on my desktop. I invoked QS, typed the name of the document (well, the first few characters, actually). Then I pressed tab and typed "move", and tab again and typed the name of the research folder that the document belonged in. Pressing enter resulted in the document disappearing from the desktop and magically being relocated to the appropriate folder.
  7. I remembered that I'd promised a family member that I'd get some information from a mutual friend, so I invoked QS and typed the friend's name. When her entry from my address book appeared, I pressed tab and typed "mail" to find the "Email" command. I selected it with the down arrow, then pressed enter. Mail became the active application (it was already open in the background; otherwise it would have been launched), opened a new message addressed to the friend.

And that's just an hour or two of computer use. There are lots of other nifty tricks that you can use once you master the tool. I highly recommend reading 43 Folders for ongoing ideas and tricks.

help needed digitizing videotape

When Gerald and I got married in Jamaica, back in 1993, a lovely Irish couple videotaped the ceremony for us, and gave us the tape.

The problem is, the tape is a European format that we never had the ability to view. It's a PAL8 8mm videocassette. Specifically, a Sony Metal MP90, which says in various places on its case that it's "P5-90MP," "Video8," and "PAL8".

I would really, really like to be able to preserve this tape (and even watch it someday...). Is there anybody within the reach of this blog who has equipment to decode the tape and transfer it to a digital video file? I would be so grateful...


Update: A point of clarification. There are plenty of places around here (including several departments here at RIT) that could help me transfer this if it were a standard US tape format (like NTSC). But this is a European (PAL8) videotape format, which not many US video shops support.


Update 2: Never mind. I found a place online (APM Studio in Boca Raton, FL) that will convert the PAL 8mm tape to an NTSC-format DVD for $14.95.


Update 3: Wow! Seems our ed tech center here at RIT may be able to do it for me. Very cool. Thanks, Brock, for letting me know...I probably should have checked with them first! inboxes are back!

...and there was much rejoicing.

What's a inbox, you might ask? It's a list of all the new bookmarks added by the people you subscribe to in, and all the new posts to tags that you subscribe to. Here's mine. Links on the left, subscriptions on the right.

As Joshua has pointed out to me, it's really just an aggregator. Whatever. It's my information lifeline--my sense of what the people whose "information instincts" I trust are looking at. My personalized web recommendation system. And I'm soooooo glad it's back.

Thanks, Josh!

geeking out with os x tools

As part of this whole "get things organized" kick I've been on, I'm also taking a hard look at the tools I use on my computer, and trying to find a way to streamline my workflow there. The first step was Quicksilver, but there's more than I'm working on.

First of all, I just installed Adium as an alternative for iChat. Don't get me wrong--I love iChat. I love the way it works, the way it looks, the AV support, etc. But it only allows me to log into an AIM account--and only one AIM account at that. I maintain two AIM accounts, one for day-to-day personal and professional work, and one specifically for students and office hours. It was a pain to have to log out of one to be in the other, or to have to run two different programs. Adium lets me log into more than one AIM account at once, so that's a big bonus. It also supports multiple protocols, so I can also be logged into Yahoo, MSN Messenger, Jabber, etc. Since not everyone I want to chat with is on AIM, this is also very helpful. And finally, it integrates nicely with Quicksilver (I can start QS, type in a contact's name, hit tab, type "IM", and Quicksilver uses Adium to open a chat window with them. Sweet.)

Adium's not as pretty as iChat, and I don't think there's an equivalent to my beloved "iChat Status" plug-in, which is how I put whatever song I was listening to in iTunes in my status message. And, of course, there's no AV support. :( That means I'll still have to use iChat when I want to do a video chat--but since that's not all that frequent a need, it's not a major issue.

Other tools I've just acquired (or will be receiving this week) include OminOutliner Pro, DevonThink, and VooDooPad. All have been mentioned positively by other OS X geeks, and since they weren't outrageously priced I figured I'd give them a shot. As I try them I'll report back here. In addition, I'm getting a copy of Aladdin's Spring Cleaning, and the 8.0 upgrade to my BBEdit 7.0.

On the non-computer side, I've ordered a Moleskine notebook and Fisher Bullet Space Pen, just because I know that I do better work when I have nice things to do the work with, and I'm a lot less likely to lose an expensive notebook and pen than a cheap one (the notebook was far less expensive that I thought it would be, though).

Finally, I got rid of about 25 books from my office today, and then set up my 43-folder tickler file. I've still got a ways to go before I hit the "mind like water" state of productivity. But as they say in recovery, "progress, not perfection."

falling in love again

It's been a while since I fell in love with a software application (apologies to those who thought they were going to get some juicy personal tidbits here). But it's happened, so I feel the need to share my happiness with the world. :)

The application in question this time is Quicksilver, an amazing tool that allows you to locate and launch documents, applications, and URLs quickly and easily. And to add icing to the cake, it's free! Yes, that's right. Free.

For years I've been using the very nice DragThing, which often draws queries from students and others who watch me using my system. But DragThing can be a pain to maintain--adding and removing folders and documents, making sure that the applications I'm using at the moment are in the launcher, etc. Plus it requires taking my fingers off the keyboard to click with the mouse/trackpad, which can slow things down.

Quicksilver is different. Once it's been installed, it runs in the background, and can be called up at any time by pressing a key combination. By default, the combination is ctrl-space, but I've changed it to command-space because that's easier to reach with my thumbs. (The reason it's no longer command-space by default is that OS X uses that key combination to switch between input menus in the character palette--that means those of us with Japanese language support enabled with find ourselves accidentally triggering Japanese character input when we press command-space unless you go into system preferences and delete that mapping.)

Here's a quick illustrated overview of how it works--or, at least, how I'm using it:

if you're seeing this entry, i've moved!

This entry is an indication that I've successfully migrated mamamusings to a new host. (From WebIntellects to Total Choice, in case you're wondering.)

If you find anything behaving in an untoward way, let me know...

getting a deskjet printer to work with an airport express

The title doesn't sound like it would be hard, does it? <sigh> But it was. And I want to document what I ended up doing here--both for others who have the same problem, and for myself the next time I have to set up a computer at home to print to the shared printer.

We bought an HP Deskjet 3740 a couple of weeks ago--the price was right ($39), and our old Lexmark was on its last legs. It worked fine connected directly to our powerbooks, and even when used as a shared printer. So when Gerald got me the Airport Express for Christmas, it seemed as though we ought to be able to just plug the printer into the USB port and go. But it didn't work. The Airport Express could see the printer, and the powerbooks could tell that there was a printer, but there was no convincing the powerbooks that they had the right driver. Apparently HP uses a proprietary driver approach, rather than creating nice little PPD files.

There wasn't much online to help with this. I finally found a site called iFelix, which had an excellent page entitled "HP Printers not on compatibility list and Airport Extreme Printing." It had some useful instructions, but they involved having a PPD file again, which I didn't have. But they also pointed me to the HPIJS for Mac OS X site, which provides a "Foomatic" interface for HP printers. (According to the website, "Foomatic is a database-driven system for integrating free software printer drivers with common spoolers under Unix."). Unfortunately, after installing the two packages from that page (the Ghostscript package and the HPJIS package, both of which had nice package installers to make it easy, there was still no sign of a driver for the 3740.

I'd invested too much time at this point to give up, so I tried doing a Google search on "deskjet 3740 foomatic," and found that the same site that had the Foomatic software ( also had a tool to let you generate a PPD for the 3740. I put the resulting file into my /Library/Printers/PPDs folder, and was finally able to use the instructions on the iFelix site to add the printer. I was also able to successfully print two test pages--one from BBEdit, and one from a browser.

It's not perfect--the printer status doesn't always reflect the current job properly--but we can print, and that's the important part.

I do have to say that I'm very disappointed with Apple's support site, which had no information whatsoever (that I could find, anyhow...) explaining the potential problems with printing over the Airport Express.

new personal website

After more hours of tweaking CSS and MT than I'm willing to admit, I've got a new personal website up and running on my RIT account. It's based on MT as a content management system--the navigation menu is generated from the catgory list, and the content pages are made up of entries in those categories. All comments and trackbacks are off, and I'm using only category archives.

The advantage of this is that i didn't have to design and implement my own database and coding scheme to store and output the content. Now that it's running well, I can just use MT to add or edit entries in any of the categories, or to add and delete categories.

The site is valid CSS and XHTML, with the exception of one javascript instruction on the main page that I've still got to figure out how to make xhtml-valid. (I had to change "onClick" to "onclick".) And it's graphics-free, with the exception of the picture of me in the corner. It degrades gracefully without CSS, as well.

(I figured if I was going to demand all this of my students, I really ought to do it myself, too...)

Oh, and many thanks to bopuc (Boris) for his help in squashing a couple of odd CSS bugs I encountered late last night!

vacation, all i ever needed

There are precious few times when I'm able to sit alone, quietly, in my own house. But this week is different. I'm out of school for the break, and the kids are in school through tomorrow. Every day I've watched them leave for school at 7:30am, followed soon after by Gerald leaving for the gym and the day's errands. And then I've settled myself into my corner of the couch, diet vanilla coke at hand and powerbook on lap. I've had time to read, to think, to write (three posts in a row from me at Many-to-Many, no less--I've never managed that before ), to play.

I'm more relaxed right now than I've been in a long time. No big trips planned for a month or two, no major holiday shopping to do (we're trying very hard to simplify the holidays). Some baking that I need to do in the morning and deliver to the women who work in our department office, a few gifts for the boys that need to be wrapped.

Amazingly, I'm almost caught up on blog reading, having plowed through hundreds of accumulated blog posts, not to mention Flickr photos from my friends. And I've even had time to follow interesting links! Tonight Ross posted a Flickr image of a new toy from Ambient Devices, makers of interesting objects that monitor information and present it to you in an environmental form--globes that glow different colors based on the stock market, cubes that reflect outside temperatures based on their hue. This new one, though, is the first one that I've found myself really lusting after. It's called the Executive Dashboard, and it uses a retro analog needle approach to show you any three of a number of possible information flows in real-time--from number of email messages in your inbox to traffic congestion in your area to whether or not a "special someone" on your buddy list. Too cool.

Some of my technolust of the season has already been satisfied, however. Gerald (who's constitutionally incapable of buying a gift and not giving it to the recipient immediately, and thus usually shops on Christmas eve) got me the Bluetooth headset I've been wanting. And it rocks! Works like a charm, and might even help protect me from all that nasty DNA damage I've been reading about...

And now I suppose I should actually go to sleep, since the boys will be waking me up tomorrow at 7:15 to say goodbye. Of course, I can just go back to sleep after more day of true vacation bliss. Yum.

more free wifi @ panera

I showed up this afternoon at Panera Bread to do some more grading, sat down at my favorite table near the fireplace, and fired up my laptop. Much to my surprise, there were two access points--the regular "Panera" SSID, and a brand new "SurfThing" SSID to accompany it.

Out of curiousity I selected the second, and was able to get online instantly--no login necessary (Panera requires a login, which is free but annoying, every two hours). Even better, there's no SonicWall filtering, which means I can even occasionally check blogs like Dooce and, both of which are blocked by SonicWall.

I'm somewhat baffled by the appearance of the SurfThing access point, since there are no other locations in this plaza that would be likely to offer access, and seems to indicate that they're a midwestern (minn/wisc) provider. (Their shockwave-based site won't work in Firefox, it seems...I had to load it in Safari.) But I'm certainly not complaining!

first trip to the middle east!

It looks like I'm going to be taking my first trip to the Middle East next year. In early March, I'll be traveling to Dubai to speak at the 7th Woibex Women in Business Conference.

I've waited to say anything about this until I was relatively sure it was going to happen; now that they've put my photo and bio up on the site, however, I think it's safe.

The conference is being held at the spectacular Burj Al Arab hotel--I haven't gotten details yet, but I'm hoping that's where they'll be putting me up while I'm there.

When I was first contacted by the organizers, I was a little concerned about traveling to the Middle East, but from what I've read since then about Dubai, it's a remarkably progressive and technologically forward-looking country. Wired Magazine did a feature article on Dubai in July, and it really piqued my interest in the country--not just in its commitment to technology and business development, but also in the status of women there:

Dubai also stands in contrast to the Saudi kingdom in another Arab-world indicator, the role of women. Where Saudi women are still waiting for the right to drive, Dubai women play a pivotal role in society. "My success means success for other women here," says Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the CEO of Tejari, an Internet business-to-business procurement firm, noting that women form 65 percent of Internet City's workforce.

The fact that they're running a conference on women in business is a pretty strong indication of the importance and value of women in their culture and economy, and I'm looking forward to having an opportunity to talk with from the area about their experiences and their uses of technology.

painfully slow powerbook

A few weeks ago, I noticed that my 17" Powerbook was starting to slow down significantly. I was also seeing more unexpected application quits than usual--mostly with iChat, Mail, and Firefox (the three applications I use most often).

While I was in DC last week, I stopped in to the Clarendon Apple Store, and chatted with the "geniuses" there. They didn't strike as particularly knowledgeable, alas, and only suggested running Norton Disk Doctor and Speed Disk, which I did that night. NDD found a number of "major errors," which it fixed, and SD said the disk was severely fragmented, and spent 8 hours repairing that. When it was done, the computer seemed to run well again--for about four hours. Then it slowed back down.

After scouring the net for suggestions, I ran Disk Utility (it found no problems), updated the prebinding (which gave a number of "unable to prebind" errors for iPhoto, GarageBand, and other apps), ran all the periodic maintenance tasks, and used Preferential Treatment to check all the .plist files (no problems there). I'm running the most recent version of OS X (10.3.6) with all software updates installed, and Virex running. Running top in the Terminal doesn't seem to show any problematic processes eating up cycles.

But still no significant improvements.

So, I'm thinking the next step is to reinstall OS X. Are there other options I should try first? And if I do reinstall, what's the best way to go about it? I hate the idea of having to totally reinstall all my applications (there are a lot of them), but I'm concerned that if I just back them up, I may end up with the same problems when I copy them back.

Help! I want my reliable, responsive computer back!


Update: Thanks to jeremy hunsinger and Randall Kelly's suggestions, the problem is solved. It was Virex 7.5.1 that was the culprit. When I launched Activity Monitor and sorted processes by CPU usage, the Virex processes were clearly hogging cycles. I downloaded the Virex package from RIT again, and ran the uninstaller. Already everything's moving along at a snappy pace. Hallelujah!

making it look easy

Google's new "Suggest" interface is deceptively simple--hiding a significant amount of heavy lifting behind the scenes. Fascinating approach to search.

great site-building advice from 43 folders

Today's post on 43 Folders is targeted at sites for bands and musicians, but the advice is useful for a far wider range of sites. Given that this quarter I'm teaching a web design class to students who are likely to want to use Flash for everything, this snippet from the post is particularly relevant:

Use Flash like you would cilantro—sparingly and for a single high-impact effect. Nobody wants to eat a whole bowl of cilantro, and nobody wants an animated death march when they have a "passionate task" to complete. Also, build your pages to make it super-easy to link to anything. Use sub-page anchors, and clearly identify why they're there.

new phone!

v551.jpgSo, after my phone was stolen, I found myself in a need of a new one. I went to the Cingular store, where I discovered that they no longer sell the v400 that I'd been using. However, the phone that they offered in its place, the v551, turns out to be so much better for me than the v400, so it all worked out for the best.

The two major advantages of the v551 over the v400 are Bluetooth and AIM--both of which I really wished for on the v400. It also seems to take better quality photos, as evidenced by the sunset shot I got out my office window today. And it even has video! Haven't tried it yet, but it might be fun to use occasionally.

The downsides? Not too many. The v400 came with Bejeweled and Prince of Persia, but the v551 has only the demo version of Bejeweled. My kids really liked Prince of Persia, so that's disappointing.

More importantly, I seem to be having some trouble with battery life--it drains much more quickly than the v400, with comparable usage. (Yes, I have Bluetooth turned off most of the time. No, I don't spend a lot of time talking on it. No, I haven't spent hours on IM.) With usage almost identical to what I had with the v400, I'm getting only a fraction of the battery life. It only takes about 24 hours before it's dangerously low, and that's with maybe 20 minutes at most of talking, one or two photos taken and sent via MMS, and a few minutes of AIM. I went by the store today and they put in a new battery...although now that I've done a little more reading, it may just be that I need to condition the battery I've got through a few power cycles before it will work to its full capacity.

Anybody had similar battery problems?

the other side of the classroom

I'm sitting in on a colleague's class on digital video this quarter. Not just any colleague, though--it's Weez. It's fun to be on the other side of the room for a change, listening to someone else talk. We've got very different styles, but that doesn't mean there aren't things that I can learn from watching her teach.

She's already made me laugh with some of her slide titles. The one we're looking at right now, for example, is on bandwidth and other technical topics. The title of the slide is "The hard stuff: Size matters". The students didn't even crack a smile when it appeared, alas. First day of class, they haven't yet gotten a sense of what the classroom protocols are, and most of them probably don't know Weez well enough to know that the humor was intentional.

With the exception of me, the students are sitting behind computer screens but not using them--they're focused on her, because they care about what she's telling them. (This is not to say that I don't care...simply that I'm distracted by having to prep for my 12:00 class, which follows hers in this same classroom.

is swapping sims really simple?

Okay, in preparation for the trip to Greece I started looking at cell phone options. The idiots at Cingular won't let me use international roaming until I've had my phone for a year (what bozo thought up that policy??), so that won't work--and would be prohibitive expensive, anyhow.

Via Matt Barrett's incomparable Athens travel guide I found information about Greece Travel-Phones, which rents cell phones and will deliver them to your hotel--but I wasn't sure I'd be able to get one with a cameraphone and MMS messaging, which I'd really like (mostly so I can post camphone photos from Flickr while we tour).

A little more online poking around led me to think that the best option is to purchase a pre-paid SIM card in Greece and use it in my Motorola v400 quad-band GSM phone. I checked with Best Buy (where I purchased it), and they told me it's unlocked--which is backed up by most of what I've seen on the online phone forums. I couldn't find anyone with a SIM I could test it with, so I'll have to take their word for it.

I sent email to the address provided for Greece Travel-Phones and got an immediate reply from the owner, who was extremely helpful. They do sell prepaid SIMS, and can deliver it directly to our hotel. He provided me with rates and options, and I was able to pay with PayPal. Yay! We'll be able to receive calls on the phone for free (011-30-693-970-0752, if you want to chat while we're there!), and outgoing calls, SMS, and MMS are reasonably priced. I bought it with €20 worth of credit, which I suspect will be plenty for what we need.

So...for those of you who travel internationally more than I do--is this likely to be a fairly simple process? Do I really just put the new SIM in and instantly have a Greek phone number? Are there any pitfalls I should know about? Any suggestions would be welcome, particularly if they're sent before I leave at lunchtime tomorrow!

i suppose i should be flattered...

...that somebody cares enough to want to google bomb me!

Many thanks to Rob Page for (a) catching it, and (b) letting me know.

Update, Saturday 11/13
For those of you who are coming to the site after having received a comment on your blog with my URL in it, here's an explanation.

I did not post the comments. They were generated by a kind of spamming software which is usually used to promote commercial web sites. In this case, the software is being put to use by someone (I don't know who) that's upset with either me or my writing, and is trying to accomplish two things. First, they want to associate my blog with the unpleasant descriptive term that's being placed in the 'name' field on the comment, so that when people search for that term my site will be the first result. (That's called "Googlebombing.") Second, they want unsuspecting site owners to see the comments, assume I'm just another spammer, and add my site's URL to their blacklist.

There's not much I can do about it, except for enjoy the surge in traffic to my site, and hope that people will take the time to check out my site before reflexively blacklisting it.

fascinating msn beta search result

Via a student, this extremely entertaining query on the MSN Search beta.

(Thanks, Brian!)

(Update: More on this from Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineWatch...)

(One more update: John Battelle comments, as well. Now that my initial fit of giggles has subsided, I have to say that I share some of John's concerns. I believe that the 1999 Google version of this was a genuine algorithmic result, based on the often-negative comments that people post online about Microsoft. But I find it hard to believe that this turnabout version is also a legitimate algorithmic result. And while it's funny at first glance, it does lead to deeper questions about the integrity of the results.)

the art of the apology

I almost wrote a post yesterday entitled "i'm a search chump." In it, I was going to complain about some poor communication between microsoft's search team and the "Search Champs" group regarding this week's launch of the new MSN Search beta.

But before I posted it, I called Robert Scoble--one of the few people associated with the Microsoft side of the Search Champ group whom I genuinely trusted--and told him what was going on and why I was upset. A few hours later--perhaps because of Robert, perhaps because of some email that was exchanged between the "Champs" and the project team--I had three extremely gracious and constructive apologies in my mailbox (one from Robert, and two from MSN team members). All my indignation evaporated in the face of such a positive response.

It got me thinking about the art of the gracious apology. It's an art that's practiced by too few, but which often yields amazing rewards for those who master it. So this morning at breakfast I mentioned to my husband that I was going to write this post on the power of a good apology. He looked at me, startled, and held up the front page of the local paper that he was reading--where there was an AP story about the value of doctors' apologies. (It's in today's Salon, too...) The author, Lindsay Tanner, provides a graphic example of the financial value of an apology:

The hospitals in the University of Michigan Health System have been encouraging doctors since 2002 to apologize for mistakes. The system's annual attorney fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year, said Rick Boothman, a former trial attorney who launched the practice there.

Unfortunately, many of the people I deal with personally and professionally haven't figured this basic bit of relationship management out. They spend far more trying to explain or excuse their actions, and end up making situations worse.

I overheard a smaller-scale example of this on my way home from Chicago. I was camped out near a power outlet in the Newark airport, waiting for my delayed flight home, when a man sitting across from me answered his cell phone. I could only hear his side of the conversation, but it was easy enough to extrapolate the rest of it. I've added (in italics) what I was thinking as I listened...

"Oh, hi!"

said with some obvious pleasure. clearly someone he likes talking to.

"What? Oh! Well, I looked for you, but you'd disappeared."
"Well, I went on to lunch, I assumed I'd see you there."

uh-oh. you know what they say about assumptions, right?

"What was I supposed to do? I didn't see you anywhere."
"Oh...I guess I had my phone off because of the presentation."

dude! this is obviously the part where you APOLOGIZE! get a clue! i am so not surprised there's no ring on your finger.

"I don't see why you're so upset!"

oh, no. you're making things worse! you don't have to see why she's upset to acknowledge that she is. would a simple "i'm sorry" kill you, here?

"Okay. Bye."

uh-oh. that was abrupt. he's screwed.

He put the phone away with a bemused and frustrated look on his face.

Odds that he's been forgiven by the woman he was talking to? Close to zero. (No, I'm not assuming; somewhere in there he referred to her by name.)

Chances that he has any idea how badly he handled that? Equally close to zero.

The words of Elton John's classic song came immediately to mind:

It's sad, so sad
It's a sad, sad situation
And it's getting more and more absurd
It's sad, so sad
Why can't we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

At any rate, I'm glad that Microsoft still seems committed to working with the impressive bunch of people it brought together for the Search Champs meeting. It's a smart and interesting group, and it would be a shame to see them lose the goodwill they gained so quickly. And if they're half as good at building products as they are at crafting apologies, I'd say Google should be getting worried right about now.

Oh...and if you've made a mistake yourself? Don't just say "oops." That's not enough. Own up to your actions. Acknowledge what you've done wrong, so the person knows that you're aware of the problem. And then say what you'll do differently in the future, so they know it won't happen again. Trust me on this. It works. Really.

rit mt site license

I'm delighted to be able to announce that RIT has signed a site licensing deal with Six Apart for MT 3.x. That means that students, faculty, and staff have unlimited non-commercial licenses for the software. The license is person-centric rather than server-centric, so you don't have to install it on Grace.

Down the road, I know we're looking at putting in a central version of the software that allows individuals to create blogs based on their DCE ID.


protecting im conversations

So, I know that I can encrypt email with PGP, and encrypt web sites with SSL. Is there any way to protect IM conversations? It's come to my attention that some of our more enterprising students have developed tools for monitoring IM conversations floating across the wireless network on campus.

There is a campus-wide VPN--is that sufficient? Are there IM clients that can encrypt conversations?

It's not so much that I'm having super-secret conversations...but it's the principle of the thing.

very cool os x app for cataloging your personal media

This is brilliant.

Delicious Monster has nothing to do with the bookmarking system, but it's every bit as cool.

Run your very own library from your home or office using our impossibly simple interface. Delicious Library's digital shelves act as a visual card-catalog of your books, movies, music and video games. A scan of a barcode is all Delicious Library needs to add an item to your digital shelves, downloading tons of info from the internet like the author, release date, current value, description, and even a high-resolution picture of the cover. Import your entire library using our exclusive full-speed iSight video barcode scanner, our Flic® Wireless Laser Bar Code Scanner, or (the slow way) entering the titles by hand. Once you have all of your items in your Mac, you can browse though your digital shelves, check stuff out to friends using Apple's built-in Address Book and calendar, and find new items to read, watch, and play using Library's recommendations.

Wow. I'll definitely be trying this out this week. Stay tuned for a review. (And eat your heart out, Windows users. This is OS X Panther only...)

Update, 11/11/04

It's as good as it looks! It took only seconds to install. I clicked on the camera button, held a book's bar code in front of my iSight, and with a scanner-like beep all the information appeared in the window (and the program read the title out loud). w00t! This is so cool! I am so sending in my $40 today.

nifty powerpoint feature

On the rare occasions that I use Powerpoint in the classroom, I generally have my computer set to mirror the display on the projection unit--so I see the same thing on my laptop as the students do on the wall screens.

Today, however, I was previewing some slides while my computer was hooked up to an external monitor, and I discovered an awesome feature of the current version of Powerpoint for the Mac. On my external monitor, I got the expected slide display. But on my laptop monitor, I got this nifty screen:


Very, very cool. I get a timer in the top left corner, the surrounding slides on the left so I can see where I am in the presentation, any notes associated with the slide at the bottom, an "up next" version of the slide so I'll know what happens if/when I click, and clearly visible arrows to click to move forward or backwards through the presentation. Color me impressed.


David already listed the remarkable amount of swag that the Microsoft Search team provided to the "Search Champs"--but he left before the final bonus, which was a $120 gift certificate at the Microsoft company store. w00t!

I bought a new Bluetooth mouse, which I wasn't sure would work with my Mac...but it does, perfectly. I've mapped some of the thumb buttons to Exposé, which is amazingly convenient. My trackpad has been causing some thumb pain for me recently, so this will be a really useful acquisition.

I also picked up a pile of gifts for the kids, for colleagues, and even for myself. Lots of books and branded merchandise, rather than software, since RIT has an academic alliance license and a site licensing agreement that get me all the MS software I need.

Tonight I'm off to the blogger/geek dinner in Bellevue, and tomorrow I'll head back home. All in all, it's been a very interesting and enjoyable trip.

msr presentations to search champs

Susan Dumais from MSR is our first presenter today, and explicitly released what she's showing from the NDA. Yay!

She's showing some really nifty stuff, including a personalized search tool that lets you do a web search, then drag a slider to make the results more customized based on what your local computer knows about you. It's a split screen result, so you see the original results on the left, and the increasingly personalized results on the right. Very, very cool.

I spoke with her last night about some of my feeling that what I want from search is to be able to find things that are important, which for me means being alerted if things that are typically similar suddenly diverge, or if things that are typically very different suddenly overlap. (I wrote about this on M2M some time ago, in a piece called The Power of Overlap.)

Susan is followed by Eric Brill. He's talking about how it's often difficult for users to extract the relevant information/answer from a larger document in search results. Information-centric search" rather than "document-centric search." He shows some "AnswerBot" technologies that let you ask a question, and be provided with a range of suggested answers, complete with probabilities. He shows an example of the question "Who did Britney Spears run off and marry in Las Vegas?" and the suggested answers of Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline ranked first and second. Clicking on a suggested answer provides the supporting documents.

He then talks about how this works on the back end, in terms of the AI of parsing both the user's question and the possible answers. Turns out that the size of the web, and the repetition of content, makes it much easier to locate patterns that are likely to answer the question. Great line: Moving from: 'Does the page contain the query terms' to 'Does the page satisfy the information need'

Lili Cheng from the social computing group is the last up, and she shows some of their "personal map" work, where your activities (email, calendar, etc) affect the way your contacts are arranged and grouped. But, she points out, we already know who we interact with. How can we put this in a larger context. For example, who do you know that knows someone else--basically the LinkedIn facilitated introduction idea. But again, what's interestingn to me is how this shows overlap. It lets you map how you're connected to another person, and through what paths. I'm less interested in the endpoints than the nature of the paths that lead there.

She shows and talks about Wallop--of the 424 people invited in, about a quarter have been regularly active. What this lets them do is build maps of inferred social networks--"who's important to whom." People want to explicitly control, to be able to add/remove people. But they also don't want to have to spend a lot of time organizing. They're going to start to do a larger scale deployment of Wallop, seeding the network with controlled invites (please do not leaave comments here asking me how to get an invite. i cannot get you an invite. really.).

So, how can this be integrated into other activities, including search. Apply it to email, for example--put the people most important in your current network in an easy list, click on their name to get all the communication with them. This idea of integrating the social tools into other tools is great!

(What we're seeing supports my sense that MSR has some amazingly smart and interesting people working on these problems. Why does this keep surprising me? Why is there such a disjoint between what they produce and these smart people who are helping to produce it?)

hoist by their own petards

Yesterday afternoon when I arrived at the hotel in Seattle, my connectivity (wireless in the lobby, wired in the room) worked beautifully. But last night and this morning, connectivity was awful. First I couldn't get IPs, then the response time was beyond sluggish. They assured us that by this evening it would be fixed, and right before we got on the bus I tried it again and it seemed fine, so I was reassured.

But when we returned this evening, it was awful again. I called the front desk and threw a fit, and they sent their tech support guy up to my room. He was baffled, because he'd been on the network with no problems the entire day while our group was away. (Figured it out yet?)

Well, he finally fired up a packet sniffer and took a look at the network. It was being flooded with junk, almost definitely the product of a worm like MyDoom. And it was coming from multiple machines on the hotel network.

What that means is that one (or more) of the people in the "Search Champs" group showed up with a worm already on their computer, and proceeded to both flood the network with DoS traffic and infect other computers on the network.

As the only Mac user one of the very few Mac users in the group, I must admit I'm feeling a bit smug at the moment. I'm 100% sure that I'm not the culprit, and that I'm not at risk.

The hotel's service provider is in the process of banning the offending machines from the network, and those folks will have to get their machines cleaned before they go back online. Good thing we're headed back to the Microsoft campus tomorrow...maybe they'll be able to find someone there to help them get their systems under control.

Ah, sweet irony.

frontiernet dsl router update

The short version: Yay!

The long version: The new DSL modem self-install kit arrived in the mail today, complete with install disk, cables, and four (count 'em, four!) line filters.

Total time from opening box to complete household connectivity was approximately 20 minutes, and most of that was spent untangling the power cord from the router in one room and looking for a power outlet for it in the other room.

Here's what I had to do:

1) Plug a line filter into the phone jack. The filter has two clearly marked jacks on it--one for the DSL modem, the other for the phone.

2) Plug the phone back into the filter.

3) Plug the modem into the filter, and hook up its power cord. Green power light went on, as did the green DSL light (which blinked occasionally).

4) Connect my G4 Powerbook to the modem via the provided Ethernet cable.

5) Insert the provided CD and run the "Install Frontier DSL" software on it.

6) Follow a series of prompts on the screen as the software searched for and configured the router.

7) Unplugged the Ethernet cable from my computer, and plugged it into the wireless router (Microsoft brand).

At that point I had a brief moment of panic, as my airport card had mysteriously turned itself off, and the "turn airport on" link wasn't in the menu. However, starting up the Network panel in System Preferences and telling the computer that everything was just fine, thank you, restored it to normal operating conditions.

And poof, everything's working. Just like that. I have to admit, I'm surprised. I expected far more snafus. (Yes, I know, the night is young.)

Oh, and yes, we installed the line filters on the other phone lines in the house, as well. For those of you not familiar with DSL and who don't know what that means (I didn't), the DSL runs over the same phone line that we use for voice. So the line filters split out the DSL from the voice connectivity so that when we use the phone it doesn't affect the DSL modem. One has to go at every jack where there's a phone, so as to keep the DSL line clear.

So, all's well that ends well. Many thanks to those who weighed in on the earlier post with helpful comments and explanations.

microsoft "search champs"

On Sunday I'm leaving for a short trip to Redmond, where I'll be part of a new advisory group ("Search Champs") that Microsoft is forming to provide feedback on their search engine development.

Back when I was more active in the library profession, I once heard a wonderful conference talk by Herb White. He was bemoaning the trend in libraries to teach end-users how to do complex online searching so that they'd discover "the joy of searching." "I have no joy of searching," he said. "I have joy of finding!"

Those of us who chose to go to library school really are different from most other people, in that we do have "joy of searching"'s the hunt that's fun for us, not the catch. We're like the housecat that triumphantly drops the dead mouse on the doorstep--we don't want to consume it, we just want to show you how good we are at tracking it down. So I'm not the typical search engine user. I'm interested in the high-end functionality, the little-known tips and tricks that let you find elusive materials quickly.

I'll be curious to see who else turns up in this "search champ" group. They aren't releasing the names before we arrive (privacy issues, apparently, though the privacy will be moot once we all meet face to face...), so I have no idea who they're targeting for advice. (If you're going, feel free to "out" yourself here!) I'm not 100% sure how I ended up on the list, though I suspect that Scoble may have had something to do with it, since he was copied on my original invitation.

There's an NDA involved in this, natch, but I'll blog what aspects of it I can without violating any confidentiality. Process, at least, if not content. Oh...and I do tentatively plan to hit the Redmond/Seattle-area blogger meetup next Tuesday night.

mt as content management software

In the comments of my evangelism post on Friday, a discussion on the merits of Movable Type as a CMS for general purpose (non-blog-like) sites has begun. It got me thinking that it would be nice to have a list of sites using MT (or other weblog software) for more traditional CMS purposes.

So here's my start, with the stuff I know about. Feel free to add links in the comments, and when I finally get my wiki running, I'll shift it (and the edublogging resources page) over there. (Full disclosure: I've shamelessly stolen some of the examples from the Tutorials and References listed below...)




I spent an hour this afternoon trying to convince decision-makers at RIT to invest a relatively small (by site license standards) amount in a campus license for Movable Type. It was wonderful being able to merge my social software interests with my home institution, since typically the two haven't been closely connected. And with luck, it will turn into something that benefits many of my colleagues and the students here at RIT.

The idea would be to set up something similar to what Minnesota has at UThink, but also to start looking at MT as a platform for content management on departmental sites, class sites, etc. We would also be looking at ways to integrate other pedagogical tools (like testing and gradebook software) into MT templates so that students could have something like my MT courseware, but with RIT-specific private components embedded and/or linked. Fun stuff.

In preparation for the talk, I created a list of educational blogging resources and examples (cribbed from another list on a private server that danah boyd and I have been working on for a workshop). It occurred to me that the list could be useful to others trying to convince their institutions to implement wide-scale blogging initiatives, so feel free to steal from it, point to it, add to it, etc. (Yes, I know, it should be on a wiki. I'm working on installing one that I like, but haven't had time for it recently...) In the meantime, if you leave comments here with things you think should be included, I'll consider them for the list.

domain name pricing

So, someone has been trying to contact me about purchasing a domain name that I don't use much anymore, but that does have some sentimental value (because it was the first one I acquired, back in '92 when you didn't even have to pay for them...)

It's a four-letter .com domain name that I suspect corresponds to their company name, and I've been getting an increasing amount of mail in the catch-all account for it that probably should be going to them.

I have no idea what's a reasonable rate for these things these days. If it's not worth much, I probably won't sell it, but I don't even know what's a reasonable starting point for asking. I suspect they'll put the ball in my court, asking what I want for it, and I'd like not to start with a lowball number.

Any advice would be appreciated.

dsl router question

I'm about to switch my broadband connection from cable to dsl (because that's what work's willing to pay for), and I'm trying to figure out what, if anything, I'll have to change about how we have the network set up here.

Right now the cable comes into an upstairs bedroom that doesn't have a phone line, and the wireless router is attached to the cable modem. One computer (an older mac) is physically attached to the router, and the rest of the computers in the house use WiFi.

The DSL provider (Frontier) is telling me that the phone line for the DSL has to go directly to a computer, which doesn't make sense to me. If that's true, we'll have to pay $70 to have a new phone line run upstairs, which I really don't want to do.

So the question is, can I handle a DSL line the same way I do a cable line, hooking it into a router without having a CPU in the same place? Or was the Frontier rep on the phone right about needing to co-locate the incoming DSL with an actual CPU?

educause on educational social software

The September/October issue of Educause Review is devoted to "New Tools for Back-to-School: Blogs, Swarms, Wikis, and Games." The articles are well worth taking a look at.

wonderful web development toolbar

Thanks to Tona (and her student Chris), I've installed Chris Pederick's excellent Web Developer Extension for Firefox (also available for Mozilla).

It adds a new toolbar to my browser, with a slew of useful tools--from quickly displaying and tweaking a document's CSS to running validator and accessibility checks. One of the coolest features is its ability to outline elements on a you can see all the block elements, for example, or all the frames. Extremely useful for me when grading student projects, and even more useful for showing underlying structure when teaching.

v400 - os x sync issues

So, Apple finally released a version of iSync (1.5) that recognizes my Motorola v400 cell phone, which is great news. But it only lets me sync contacts and calendar information--which means there's still no way for me to download photos or upload ringtones. <sigh>

I've poked around quite a bit, and can't find any sign of an OS X utility that will provide this functionality. I really wish I were enough of a programmer to write something myself, but I'm not.

Anybody know of something that will do this? Either existing or in the works? Failing that, perhaps the lazyweb will come to the rescue...

TypeMover rocks!

On Anil's recommendation, I just installed Sebastian Delmont's MT3 plugin TypeMover.

Oh. My. God.

Sebastian, you rock!

This is exactly what I've been wishing for...a way to selectively clone an existing MT blog. The biggest problem with my courseware has been the need to recreate all the customization for each new class (or section of a class).

TypeMover makes it easy to create a new blog including just the components you need. So I can create a new instance of a class and include all the configuration, template, category, and entry data...but leave out the comments and trackbacks! w00t!!

typemover options screen

I can also distribute the courseware as an archived backup without entries or comments of any kind, greatly reducing the installation burden for new users. All they'll have to do is import the single file that I distribute, then make minor editing changes to reflect their content.

typemover import screen

The only downside of TypeMover is that it requires an FTP server to be running on the server where your weblog resides. But I can live with that. It's only an issue for my localhost installation.

So, between TypeMover for cloning blogs, and MultiBlog for coordinating content (announcements and calendars for multiple sections, for example), the courseware should see some nice improvements by the end of the month. I'm glad I stuck with MT through the upgrade storm...these are the kind of improvements that I really hoped we'd see with a new version, and that weren't immediately apparent when the pricing was first announced. tools

Just found a couple of new bookmarklets for that are extremely useful.

The first is, which replaces the pop-up posting window with one that includes your tags, as well as an option to view the history for the link so that you can see how other people have tagged it before assigning your own tags. Brilliant!

Another useful tool is Tasty!, which lets you simply view the history for a link to see who's bookmarked it. If you're just curious, and don't want to bookmark it yourself, this one is nice--the rest of the time, the approach seems more useful.

phone shopping when i should be sleeping

Having trouble sleeping tonight--unusual for me, but it happens occasionally.

So I'm shopping for new cell phones for me and Gerald. I've been using a Sidekick with TMobile for over a year, and while I love its features, the reception on it is crappy, and the keyboard is getting sticky. Gerald has a 3yo Samsung phone with Sprint that's serviceable, but the power seems to go off without warning, which is not a good thing.

We need to consolidate the plans onto one service, so we can cut costs, share minutes and have free mobile-to-mobile time. Plus I'd really like a cameraphone, especially now that Flickr has so many camphone-friendly features.

After a surfing Amazon's cell phone offerings, and the sites of the major providers, I wasn't seeing much that had the range of features I wanted at a price that seemed reasonable--particularly since I needed two phones, not just one.

I finally ended up on Wirefly, where I found some remarkably good deals, including this one on a pair of Motorola v300 phones. What's not to like about two free cameraphones and $100 back? Seems too good to be true, though, so feedback on Wirefly and/or the v300 would be greatly appreciated before I take the plunge.


Update, Saturday afternoon

Well, after hitting a few local stores, checking out newspaper ads, and spending a lot of time on Amazon and Wirefly, I've decided that I'm better off switching to either Verizon or Cingular for broader local and travel coverage (especially when we're visiting family in Alabama). The local stores have poor selections and lousy specials, so online seems like a better approach.

I think I've narrowed it down to either the Sony Ericsson T637 (free after rebates) or the Motorola V400g, $50/each after rebates.

The Motorola seems like a nicer phone overall, with lots of useful features (including one of the kids' and my favorite games, Bejeweled...). It's also a flip phone, which Gerald and I both prefer. The Ericsson has Bluetooth and better battery life, however, and is a little cheaper. (The Motorola V600 would add Bluetooth, but it would be $100/phone after rebates, which is a little steep for us.)

There are also good deals on Samsung SCH-a610

Right now the Bluetooth doesn't seem terribly important, but I'm wondering if I'll end up regretting not having it.

favicon frustration

Okay, I give up. I've created a favicon for my site. It's a 16×16px, 4-bit image, created in Photoshop and saved as an .ico using the Telegraphics plugin.

It works fine in Mozilla, but it doesn't show up in Safari, or in Bloglines. I've tried a range of saving options, to no avail. Any suggestions?

new revisions to movable type licensing

Late Tuesday night, Six Apart announced yet another revision to the pricing structure for Movable Type 3.0 licenses. The prices are lower, the licenses are less restrictive, and the range of options is far less confusing.

There are now four types of licenses--personal, commercial, education, and not-for-profit. Personal users have three options: free for 1 author and 3 weblogs, a basic supported version for $69.95 that supports 5 authors and unlimited weblogs, and an unlimited personal version for $99.95. This ought to address a lot of the concerns that people raised about the pricing structure (though, of course, it won't change the minds of people who've decided that free-as-in-speech software is a better option for them).

As an educator, I'm particularly happy to see that the educational licenses are spelled out clearly, and that an affordable option for a single professor is included in the mix ($39.95 for unlimited use by one teacher). That will make it much easier for me to continue developing and maintaining my MT Courseware package.

What I'd really like to see for educational use is a TypePad-style interface that allows easy blog creation by users at an educational institution. That would make a big difference in terms of institutional adoption.

the gmail-rich get gmail-richer

I've closed comments on this entry, because the flow of invitations has subsided, but the number of requests (particularly from people with whom I have no prior interaction) has started to snowball. If you already know me--from offline or online interactions--and want an account, let me know through alternate means.

Five more GMail invites have appeared in my account today. If you'd like one, let me know.

Update: Mine are all gone. Five more new ones just appeared. Brilliant marketing by Google. Leave a comment if you want one.

You can also try here, here, or here. I'm assuming they all got additional invites to distribute tonight, as well.

computer archaeology

A few months ago, we split the boys out of their large, shared bedroom into smaller rooms of their own--that meant consolidating everything from our office/study and our guest bedroom/library into their former room. We took the easy path then, and simply piled everything in the larger room so that we could expedite the boys' moving process. This week I started tackling the boxes and piles and drawers of stuff that stand between us and a combined office/guest room.

My husband and I are both computer geeks, and have been since before we mett. We're celebrating our eleventh anniversary this week, and I think we've saved every disk, device, and cable that we've purchased in those eleven years.

I should have take some pictures as I cleaned yesterday--I'll try to get some today. There's an entire dresser drawer full of phones--most corded, a couple of cordless. There's a file drawer full of telephone cords and accessories. There are bags full of cable adapters--9-to-25-pin, 25-to-50pin, male-to-female, yada yada yada. There are parallel cables, SCSI cables, and serial cables. There are oldstyle AppleTalk network adapters. There's a staggering array of power adapters and cords. There's also another entire drawer of AV cables and accessories, which I left for Gerald to sort out.

And disks? You don't want to know. Cartons of not just 3.5" floppies (400K, 800K, and 1.44MB) but also of ancient 5.25" disks. Zip disks, Jaz disks, old internal hard disks. I got lost in nostalgia for a while, looking at the old floppy disks. Original system disks for my 1984 128K Mac (and MacPaint and MacWrite, as well). Early versions of classic software programs, from games (Zork, Hitchhiker's Guide, Wizardry) to utilities (Suitcase 1.0, DeBabelizer, and EndNote 2.0). Backup disks from consulting projects I worked on back in the early 1990s. Piles of font disks...I was a fontaholic for a long time. Clip art and stock photos (I'm going to try to recover some of that).

I've thrown away bags of clearly broken or unusable stuff, but I'm left with so much more that we need. It kills me to throw away cables that I spent $50 for years ago, or perfectly functional two-line telephones. So I'm going to call around and find out if there's anyplace that would like these as a donation.

Today I start on the books. Visual Quickstart books on Fireworks 2 and Flash 4, early versions of O'Reilly internet-related books, ASP 3.0 tutorials, and ColdFusion manuals (from back in the Allaire days). Oy.

Thursday morning we leave for a long weekend in New Orleans--we'll celebrate our eleventh anniversary with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants (Alex Patout's), and then attend the wedding of friends on Saturday. We're staying at Grenoble House, which looks quite lovely. Don't know how much blogging I'll be doing, but you never know...

my 24 hours of online fame

It's not quite the /. effect, but it was close enough. Here's what happened to my site after it was linked by Dan Gillmor, BoingBoing, Making Light, Electrolite, and TechTV all in one day.

SiteMeter stats for this week

Update: Holy cr*p. Jon Henshaw points out in my comments that my post has also been picked up on Wired News. Battening down the hatches, and hoping for the best. (I'm too afraid to check out the cost of bandwidth excess in my current hosting package...)

comments problem fixed

I tried installing MT Blacklist yesterday, but had some problems with it. Didn't realize that it had resulted in breaking comments entirely...Ted Pearson let me know about the problem this afternoon, and I've fixed it. (Thanks, Ted!)

serious os x security problem

Final Update: The most comprehensive overview of both the problem and the solutions can be found on Daring Fireball I strongly suggest that you go there, rather than slogging through the comments below.


If you're an OS X user, it's extremely important for you to be aware of a security vulnerability that's been identified by users but not acknowledged or corrected by Apple.

(Update: The problem appears to be specific to Panther--OS X 10.3--so if you're running an earlier version of OS X you should be okay.)

(Update: Apparently the problem is not Panther-specific; most, if not all, OS X systems are vulnerable. See this comment on Jay Allen's site for details.)

You can read about it on Jay Allen's site (which is where I heard about it). Essentially, Mac browsers (including Safari, Mozilla, and Firefox) are all designed to launch the Help Viewer program when the help: protocol is invoked in a web link. Unfortunately, the Help Viewer program, in turn, is able to run scripts. What this means is that a malicious user can set up a page with an automatic redirect that runs a dangerous script. More details for the tech-minded can be found on this MacNN thread. And if you want a terrifying (but harmless) example of this, go to It will launch Terminal and run a harmless du command--but it's scary as hell to see that Terminal window launch and files start scrolling. (There's also an advisory on the Secunia site, but it offers no helpful suggestions; just verifies the seriousness of the problem.)

If, like me, you just want to know how to fix this fast (since Apple has apparently known about this since February and hasn't fixed it, it wouldn't be wise to wait for their patch), here's the approach to use.

  1. Download the freeware tool MoreInternet.
  2. From the disk image, run "install prefpane," which will put the MoreInternet preference panel into your System Preferences panel.
  3. Open the MoreInternet panel, and select the help: protocol.
  4. Change the application it launches from the Help Viewer (which has the script-running vulnerability) to something benign. (I used TextEdit.) I used Chess, which, unlike TextEdit, gives me a clear visual cue that a page tried to invoke the help: protocol.
  5. Make sure it worked by going to the scary but harmless example.

Update: In my comments, Jay Allen points out that you should repeat steps 3 and 4 for the disk: protocol, as well.

tablet pc: first thoughts

When I went to the social software symposium that Microsoft sponsored in March, I found myself sitting at a table with Todd Needham, the head of the MS Research's University Relations/Research Programs group (though I didn't at the time know who he was). He was taking notes on a Tablet PC, while most of the people sitting around him, including me and Clay, were using Apple Powerbooks.

As I watched him using the tablet, it occurred to me how useful the pen-based features would be in grading the kinds of documents students hand in to me--there are often diagrams and page mock-ups that I want to write on, and I end up having to either make do with Word's commenting features or printing the documents out and writing on the paper version. Todd and others there had also mentioned how convenient the tablets were when traveling, since they didn't require unfolding and using the keyboard in a cramped seat--instead, you could work with it much like a notepad or book.

Since I had spent a lot of time on airplanes this year, and was in the process of grading a stack of design documents while I was in Seattle, I finally said to Todd, jokingly, that I was experiencing tablet envy. He asked me if I was serious (which I was), and then made me an offer that was hard to refuse. "What if I sent you a TabletPC to try out for six months? Put it through its paces, see what you think, and at the end of that time if you're willing to switch, you can keep it."

It was a no-risk offer, and I was genuinely intrigued by the tablet's features, so I agreed. And less than two weeks after I arrived back in Rochester, a Toshiba Portégé showed up in my office.

Here are my first impressions, after a few weeks of playing around with the new system.

teaching new technologies

Most of the time, I really do like my job--I get to teach interesting topics to interested students, and that's a lot of fun.

There are times, however, when I really wonder why I left behind the relatively stable world of library science for the chasing-your-tail world of cutting edge technologies.

Take, for example, the web-database class that I developed four years ago--not particularly long in most academic lifecycles. At the time, PHP and ASP were the cutting edge technologies du jour, and students came into the class knowing nothing about PHP, MySQL, or ASP.

Over the past several years, a number of factors have signficantly changed the context for the class.

  • Students now learn PHP in the web programming class that precedes my class (that class used to be JavaScript and Perl only)
  • Students now learn MySQL in their introductory database class
  • Component-based technologies like JSP and .NET have emerged as successors to page-based technologies like PHP and ASP

As a result, before I've really even solidified the course in its original form, I'm having to learn entirely new technologies and teach to a differently prepared audience. All of which, as any teacher will tell you, is more than a little stress-inducing.

I've spent most of the past two weeks trying to re-teach myself JSP, this time incorporating Tomcat 5 and JSTL. The nice part of using JSTL is that it hides all the Java code from me--and since I never did learn to program in Java, that's a goodness. The downside is the documentation really stinks--I've found a ton of web sites, but none of them are clear and direct, particularly when it comes to doing simple database-related tasks.

After four days of banging my head against the code, I've finally figured out how to do the simplest of tasks--retrieve several hundred records from a MySQL database and display them ten at a time. Oy.

The future, I think, is to let go of the traditional approach of teaching how to do things in a specific language, and instead offer a more studio-like environment in which students are given access to resources and tools, and then work on developing a project. (We teach most of our classes in "studio mode," but in most cases they're far from real studio approaches--they're lectures with occasional hands-on exercises.) Surprisingly, it's the students who are often most resistant to this mode of teaching--we've successfully conditioned them to see school as a series of core dumps, and switching gears into a more user-directed model often generates resentment and confusion rather than enthusiasm and creativity.

installing tomcat 5 on os x

You'd think there'd be some documentation of this somewhere, wouldn't you?

Nope. None. Lots on Tomcat 4. None on Tomcat 5. And none that don't assume some crucial details that I had to bang my head against for a while.

So, for my own reference later (and for the benefit of others who want to do this without having to read a book on the subject), here's what I ended up doing.

I installed all the XCode 1.1 developer tools for OS X 10.3 (the December 2003 CD). Then I installed the Java 1.42 developer tool update and the Java application server package from the Apple developer site.

The appserver package install gave me Tomcat 4 in the /Library/Tomcat directory, which I then renamed to Tomcat4.

Then I downloaded the latest binary of Tomcat 5 from the Apache Jakarta site.

Following guidelines that I found on for installing Tomcat 4, I extracted the Tomcat 5 files into a directory in usr/local, and then created a symbolic link to it from the Library directory, like so:

ln -s /usr/local/jakarta-tomcat-5.0.19 /Library/Tomcat

Turns out that when you download and extract the files from the .zip archive, the permissions aren't set properly to allow execution of the files, so I had to change the permissions on the .bat and .sh files in the /Library/Tomcat/bin directory to allow execution.

chmod 755 /Library/Tomcat/*.sh
chmod 755 /Library/Tomcat/*.bat

When I tried to run Tomcat at this point (/Library/Tomcat/, I got an error telling me that JAVA_HOME was not defined. You'd be surprised how hard it is to find out how to fix this seemingly small problem. Several sites told me that I could set JAVA_HOME to /usr, but that was not successful. Then I tried setting it to /Library/Java, but that didn't work, either. I finally found the solution on (although their server wasn't responding, so I had to use the Google-cached version). Turns out you have to set it to /Library/Java/Home, like so:

setenv JAVA_HOME /Library/Java/Home

Once I'd done that I was able to run, and at that point loading http://localhost:8080 successfully brought up the Tomcat 5 home page.


Update, 5/1/04

In order to connect to my mySQL db install using JSP, I downloaded Connector/J 3.0 and installed it using these instructions.

shrook problems

So, I really do like Shrook, and I even paid for my copy. However, I'm having consistent problems with it killing my Internet connection, which may mean I have to drop it in favor of another newsreader (NetNewsWire comes highly recommended).

I've never before had the experience of an application single-handedly killing my Internet connectivity, but I've been able to replicate the problem enough times that I'm quite sure it's not coincidence.

The problem occurs only when I'm viewing a site that I've set to show me web pages rather than the RSS entry--one if the features I like best about Shrook, really, so I'm loathe to just turn it off.

The process is this...I start up Shrook, it does its checking, all with no problem. I can then view entries from any of my "channels" without difficulty, until I get to one where the setting is to view web pages. More than 50% of the time (but not 100%, which is frustrating from a troubleshooting standpoint) nothing happens. No information appears in the window. And at that point, all of my other TCP/IP apps stop working. If I pull up the Network control panel in OS X, it shows me as being online with a valid IP address for 1-2 minutes after that, but then it switches to a 169.254 self-assigned IP. Attempting to renew my DHCP lease doesn't do anything; I have to restart the computer to get my connectivity back. This happens both at home and in the office, and only when I click on a Shrook entry that's been set for web page viewing.

(I'm running OS X 10.3.3 with all current software updates installed, btw.)

I figured I'd post about it in case anyone else has or had the same problem; I searched for it and couldn't find any other information about it. If you've got any ideas or solutions, please let me know!

Update, 4/26: It's getting worse; now it appears to be causing my connection to die without my even loading a web-view channel. I'll need to stop using it until an update comes out to address whatever network instability the application is introducing.

silver linings

I'm getting better at this traveling thing (though not more enthusiastic about it). Packed in about ten minutes flat last night, into a suitcase small and light enough for me to hoist into the overhead compartments without assistance (now that they hand-screen checked luggage, it's immeasurably faster to go the carry-on route). Everything I need in route easily accessible from the backpack. Magazines for when the computer needs to be stowed, three fully-charged batteries for when it doesn't, and good-quality Sony earbuds for music and/or Audible audiobooks. (This year for my birthday I want some Shure E2C sound isolating earphones. Actually, I really want the E5C's, but there's no way I could justify buying--or using--$500 earphones!)

Even more effective, however, has been my new power-blogger online/offline tool setup. Between Shrook for reading blogs and news offline, and Ecto for writing posts offline, I'm finding airport and airplane time ideal for catching up on both reading and writing. (More about Shrook in my M2M post...) I can mark posts for later review in Shrook, then respond and link to them in Ecto...all without a network connection to be found.

I'm also rediscovering magazines--the print kind. They're a lot lighter to cart around than, say, a hardcover copy of Quicksilver. When I'm not traveling, I seldom have time to read them, but on these recent trips I've realized that I've become far too accustomed to getting my content online--and have missed a lot of great writing as a result.

On my last trip, I passed over People, and instead bought a copy of The Atlantic, intrigued by the cover image and headline "Dispatches from the Nanny Wars," and the story listed below it, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement, by Caitlin Flanagan." A book review that turns out to be a full-length, fascinating essay on working women and domestic labor, it was worth more than the price of the magazine (and will probably result in a lengthy post to this week). But an added bonus was the range of great writing in the issue--from a chilling story on Rumsfeld, Cheney, and their Reagan-era Dr. Strangelove plot to subvert presidential succession in the event of a catastrophe, to the delightful "Word Fugitives" column on the last page, in which readers recount situations in need of a simple descriptor, and others write in with brilliant suggestions (e.g. "the phenomenon wherein a mechanical or electronic device, having gone on the blink, resumes working perfectly while the repair person examines it"--which yielded suggestions of devious ex machina, deus hex machina, afixia, refixicidivism, rekaputulation, on the wink, and hocus operandi.

So yes, I'm tired of traveling, tired of airports and airplanes and hotels and shuttle buses and unshakable coughs and not being with my family. But I'm also grateful for the opportunity to sit quietly and be offline--reading, writing, or just staring out the window.

Expect heavy, rather than light blogging on this trip, particularly now that I've mastered this Shrook/Ecto integration act. The symposium I'm headed to will be full of interesting people, ideas, and conversations, and I'll do my best to report my take on it while I'm there, here and on M2M.

don't click that link, says microsoft

Too funny not to share. From Microsoft's support site:

Things that you can do to help protect yourself from malicious hyperlinks

The most effective step that you can take to help protect yourself from malicious hyperlinks is not to click them. Rather, type the URL of your intended destination in the address bar yourself. By manually typing the URL in the address bar, you can verify the information that Internet Explorer uses to access the destination Web site. To do so, type the URL in the Address bar, and then press ENTER.

No, it's not a joke. (Well, not an intentional one.) Yes, it's really a Microsoft support site.

Do you really need another reason to switch to Mozilla?

And now I really am going to the airport.

(Via BoingBoing)

a contrarian view of rss

One more entertaining quote before I leave, taken from Zeldman's old About page:

If you offered an RSS feed, I could read your stuff without visiting your site.

If you stored your groceries on the sidewalk, we could eat your food without sitting across the table from you.

jobs in nyc

This post is primarily for the students who I know read my blog.

Devala Hanley has posted a note indicating that there are a number of IT jobs available at in NY.

Those of you on the brink of graduation would be well advised to check this opportunity out. Those of you looking for co-ops might also want to think about contacting them directly to see if they'd consider that.

server migration snafus


After 20+ back-and-forth messages with WebIntellects, my hosting provider, the problems seem to have subsided.

They finally set the permissions so I could access my database, and I was able to restore the lost month of data from my backups, and get things back to where they were yesterday afternoon.

Except...I suddenly ran out of disk space. Which didn't make any sense, because the only thing on this server is the blog, which isn't that big. I increased the disk allocation from 100MB to 300MB in my reseller panel (I manage multiple domains from one account), noting to my surprise that I was using 175MB of that space, and tried again to update the database...only to get another space-related error. A check of the control panel showed I was now using all 300MB! Clearly a process had run amok. But I have no access to processes, so I couldn't list them, let alone kill the responsible party.

After a few messages back and forth with tech support (through an annoying trouble-ticket system), I determined that the file that was growing so quickly was the error log. When I peeked at it, I found that it was the module from MT-Blacklist that was cycling, adding hundreds of lines per second to the log.

I deleted all the MT-Blacklist files, and then had the tech guy kill the process and delete the log. Once I was sure comments worked again, I went in and tried to reinstall MT-Blacklist, but I got errors about undefined arrays. I've got a query in to the host about whether they've changed somethign about the perl install on the new server. In the meantime, I'm keeping comments closed on posts more than 30 days old, and hoping not to get hit too badly with spam between now and when I can get things running again.

server migration

My hosting provider is attempting to migrate to a new data center today, so this site may go down. In addition, comments made here today will probably disappear when the new DNS resolves, so don't take it personally if you leave a comments and it's not there in a day or two. I'll save the emailed versions of comments and trackbacks so that they can be restored if possible.

software development essay

A colleague of mine, Mike Axelrod, has posted an essay on software development "traditions" on his blog, and is looking for feedback and comments. Take a look, and let him know what you think.

css/xhtml formatting oddity

A student emailed me last night, frustrated because adding an XHTML doctype to his document had caused it to stop formatting the way he wanted it to.

He had a content div in the center of the page, and he wanted it to display at 100% of the browser window. He had properly set the height of the body element to 100%, and then set the content div to 100%, but it wouldn't work when the doctype was there; it defaulted to height:auto.

I played with it for a while, and finally got it to work by adding position:absolute and top:0px properties to the content div style.

Anybody know why the height:100% property only works when the element is being absolutely positioned?

emergent vocabularies

As I was showing to my students last night, I realized that it's an amazingly useful tool for information architects. I regularly tell my students that asking people is a generally bad way to find out what they want, or how they want it organized (and point them to Cory's Metacrap article for examples). But if you're trying to figure out what set of labels to use for a set of domain-specific content, and you don't have a multi-thousand dollar budget for studies and consultants, how do you create a usable, appropriate vocabulary?

Here's how. Add a site to your bookmarks, and then look to see who else has added it. What descriptive tags did they use for it? As an example, here are the current links to Metacrap in the system. I used the terms metadata and semweb. Other terms used include taxonomy, ontology, ia, humanFactor, and xml. That's a great start for thinking about how to make it part of a collection, and how to organize/label that collection.

It's also interesting to watch how people's tag collections grow and change. VirtualTraveler has started using a pseudo-hierarchical tagging system, by including a / character in some tags (e.g. ComputerHistory/Books, ComputerHistory/DesignReports).

Would the system benefit at all from a collaborative thesaurus, I wonder? As an optional rather than require tool? How hard would it be to implement that?

What a great sandbox...

Update: Just found an equally enthusiastic assessment of (through what else? somebody else's bookmarks....) on the Robin Good site:

And as rapidly learning and collaborating ants you can admire how fast this growing web of contributors learns and evolves without any top-down coordination.

Through delicious you can actually see patterns evolve over time as information miners learn rapidly how to select, reference, categorize and post information resources of their own interest.

sterling on spam

This is wonderful. From Bruce Sterling:

Spam is now forced to mutter eerie magic charms as it routes its way past the growing host
of armed spam guards to my mailbox. 'No, no kill me,
I am not spaaaaam... Would spam speak of
"Orinoco Apocrypha"? Would mere spam muse
on "brutal Prussia," "discernable Petersburg"
and an "Acapulco assault"? I do these cultured,
verbally elaborate things in my "Pillsbury showboat,"
and hence I cannot be spam! Let me through with my
"hierarchic bronchiole", do not extinguish me o router and repeater!'


I know, I know. Bookmarklet technology has been around for a long time. But lately it seems as though there are more useful bookmarklets around. I've been using several on a regular basis, including the HTML and CSS validator bookmarklets at W3C, and the post to bookmarklet mentioned in my last post.

I've found some other useful ones out there, as well as collections like this and this. (And there are plenty more.) and bloglines combination

After playing a bit with the social bookmarking system, I've found that one of the interesting things about it is the ability to subscribe to people's bookmark lists. Some people already provide this capability by providing daily or remaindered links--like Anil, for example.

Unlike blogs themselves, lists of links are less dependent on user-supplied formatting for effect, which means I'm willing to read them in an aggregator. So I subscribe to Anil's links in Bloglines, which I use primarily not for blogs, but for informational feeds (NYTimes,, comics, etc).

Turns out creates an RSS feed of your inbox, which is where new links added by your friends (or anyone whose links you subscribe to) are placed. So by adding that RSS feed to bloglines, I centralize my "interesting tidbits" in one place. Add to that the nifty bookmarklet for adding things to, and the site becomes essentially a backend tool, rather than a destination. Cool.

So, who else is using, so I can add them to my subscriptions?

css and rss

Joi Ito is playing around with sending CSS along with his RSS feed, and an intersting discussion is already brewing in his comments. Most of the comment focus on specific problems that the embedded CSS is causing in some newsreaders. But others are starting to touch on what I think is a very interesting philosophical issue--should content syndication be just about content, or should authors also be able to specify presentation guidelines?

My gut response to this is discomfort with the idea of trying to use CSS with syndicaated content--that it seems somehow contrary to the entire idea of syndicating simple content. But I know from long experience not to trust that kind of initial negativity too much, since it's often connected with changes that turn out to be quite positive.

So I started wondering...isn't this the kind of thing that the folks in the Atom project might be thinking about? In the many discussions surrounding the development of this new syndication format, wouldn't they have been likely to have touched on issues related to sending (optional) stylistic/presentation information along with content?

Yup. The first hit from a Google search on "Atom syndication CSS" was Jason Shellen's Atom Info Proposal, which "adds two optional tags to the Atom syndication format, adding a way to address an info tag with CSS. One tag invokes a CSS file and another tag to contain the info data." The second hit was a Sam Ruby post entitled "Atom + CSS." And the third hit was even more interesting, as it was a message from Phil Wolff to the atom-syntax mailing list entitled "Syndicating CSS?".

In that last item, Phil Wolff suggests some specific strategies for including style informtion with syndicated feeds, and also describes feedback on those suggestions that he received from Jesse James Garrett.

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of this discussion, but it seemed worth mentioning those items and tracking back to Joi's entry, since one of the problems in the blogosphere is that discussions like these seem too often to take place in parallel rather than being intertwingled.

(And btw, Joi, when are you going to put up an Atom feed? ;)

more feeds

No good deed goes unpunished, it seems, and my additional feeds were met with more complaints ("but I really wanted a full feed with no comments"; "why are you duplicating content in your excerpts?", etc). In response, I've added a few more feeds, including a full (no comments) Atom 0.3 feed for Joi, and a separate comments feed for people who like their comments on the side.

Before you fuss at me about specifics, however, let me add that I am not writing these templates myself. I don't have the time or the inclination to learn enough about the syntax to do that. I'm relying on templates posted by others--Mark Pilgrim, Jennifer, and those on the MT site. Want a different feed than what you see here? Point me to an MT template I can use and I'll consider it.

rss feed changes

I've bowed to peer pressure (honestly, who can resist a personal plea from Joi?), and added a full RSS 2.0 feed to the site, complete with comments. It can be found at I've also replaced my old RSS .91 excerpt feed ( with a shiny new RSS 2.0 excerpt feed. The RSS 1.0 ( feed remains unchanged.

The new 2.0 excerpt feed template comes from Mark Pilgrim, and the full + comments template comes from Jennifer (no last name visible anywhere that I can find...) on her "geek blog," etc..

(Side note: I arrived at Jennifer's site after a search for rss 2.0 full feed templates, but I'll be back--not just to her geek blog, but also to her personal blog, which is beautifully designed and well written.)

wavelan wireless cards and os x

I'm a Mac user, which means I'm used to everything just...well...working when I turn it on. Unfortunately, that's not the case for OS X and an old Lucent WaveLAN card on a PowerBook G3 (bronze keyboard), which is what I had to work with today. We gave Lane my mother's old PowerBook for Christmas, and after installing 256MB of memory in it today (it only had 64MB), I upgraded it to OS X (Panther)...forgetting that Apple doesn't support the WaveLAN card, and that the drivers I was using don't work under OS X.

My first attempt at solving the problem was an open source driver available on SourceForge, with the creative name of "WirelessDriver." But after multiple attempts at installing, it became clear that it wasn't going to work. The problems I encountered were described on the forums, but there were no clear answers (other than an oblique reference to needing to do some "kext-fu" -- apparently in reference to problems with kext files).

After fighting with it for a while, I followed another link to, which in turn pointed me to the not open source and not free IOxperts 802.11b Driver for Mac OS X. Worked on the first try, so I cheerfully ponied up the $19.95 before the 30 minute trial period ended.

Moral of the story? Not sure there is one. But I do have one very happy 9-year-old, who's now happily IM'ing and emailing everyone he knows on his very own laptop.

a public service message: back up your blog!

Ouch. Weez's server--with all the family blogs on it--has been hacked. I'm hoping the provider has a recent backup she can restore from. I took this as a sign, and did a quick backup of mamamusings just now. I use MT with mySQL, so I was able to use the phpMyAdmin interface my hosting provider offers to export all the data quickly and easily, and it's now one of a series of archived files sitting on my hard drive. (Last backup was 12/9.) Will probably burn some CDs of critical data this week, too, just to be extra careful.

Regular backups of critical data--that's an excellent goal for the new year, don't you think? Email. Blogs. Curricular materials. Etc. Etc. A small investment in recordable media, a huge return in peace of mind.

why i won't buy music from walmart

In general, I don't have a problem with Walmart. I buy school supplies and small appliances there on a regular basis. So when Gerald told me that Walmart was now selling music online for 88 cents a song, I figured I'd take a look.

But here's what the technical requirements FAQ has to say:

Can I play music from Music Downloads on my Macintosh∆ computer? No. Music Downloads from are not compatible with any Macintosh computer. The music that you download requires Digital Rights Management 9 (DRM 9) software, which is not compatible with the Macintosh operating system.

And it appears that the WMA/DRM9 software has far more problematic restrictions than Apple's AAC encoded files. You can't transfer the songs to another computer, for example. (The AAC-encoded files can be placed on up to 3 computers, and de-authorizing one and re-authorizing a new one is fairly easy.) You can only burn a given song to CD 10 times (with AAC, you can burn a given playlist up to ten times, but the song can be placed on an unlimited number of playlists).

So I'll be sticking with the iTunes music store for the time being; I'm not willing to give up the flexibility of their DRM, or the ability to use my iPod.

libraries and standards

Dorothea has a curmudgeonly post today about what she sees as the absence of librarians in the technical standards community.

She's says she might be wrong--and she is. So here's my curmudgeonly response. :)

There are many, many librarians and libraries involved in technical standards development and implementation. For goodness sake, who do you think developed the Dublin Core?

Making generalizations about the library profession based on one academic library is a bit like making generalizations about the web development profession based on one development firm. People with an interest in standards tend to cluster, and there are plenty of places in library land to find them:

  • OCLC, of course. (Based in Dublin, Ohio, for those not familiar with them...which is how the Dublin Core got its name.) Take a look at some of the research initiatives they're involved with, most (if not all) of which have librarians in key positions.
  • The Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), a deeply library-focused organization formed jointly by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and EDUCAUSE. Its founder, the late Paul Peters, was one of my most-favorite library people. And its current director, Cliff Lynch, is a near legend in the library technology field. Take a look at their current projects
  • The Open Archives Initiative--check out the number of library folks on their Technical Committee
  • The NISO OpenURL committee, based at CalTech's library.

I know there have been librarians on a variety of IETF and W3C committees, as well, but I don't have time to look all of that up. My guess is that some of my regular library community readers will add some of that in my comments section.

operating system biculturalism

Via Anil's daily links, an excellent article in Joel on Software on the topic of biculturalism between Linux and Windows programmers.

It's a great article, with spot-on assessments of core values in both communities, and nice analogies to geographically based cultural differences. Here's a representative excerpt:

I have heard economists claim that Silicon Valley could never be recreated in, say, France, because the French culture puts such a high penalty on failure that entrepreneurs are not willing to risk it. Maybe the same thing is true of Linux: it may never be a desktop operating system because the culture values things which prevent it. OS X is the proof: Apple finally created Unix for Aunt Marge, but only because the engineers and managers at Apple were firmly of the end-user culture (which I've been imperialistically calling "the Windows Culture" even though historically it originated at Apple). They rejected the Unix culture's fundamental norm of programmer-centricity. They even renamed core directories -- heretical! -- to use common English words like "applications" and "library" instead of "bin" and "lib."

ui widget site

Christina Wodtke, author of the Information Architecture book I use in my web classes, has a new weblog called Widgetopia. In it, she's collecting and annotating examples of UI components--ratings stars, download menus, date entry forms, etc.

Very nice resource for use in teaching HCI topics.

a public service message

If you use blogrolling (and I know most of the blogs I read do), you really ought to consider upgrading to Gold status. Why? Well, you could do it because it gives you the ability to create multiple blogrolls (that's how I separate out the daily, academic, rit, and tech blogrolls in the my sidebar--as well as maintaining the misbehaving elsewhere list and my class blogrolls). But more importantly, you could do it because Jason deserves some support for providing such an excellent service. It's free for you, but it's sure not free for him--he pays for the resources to support it, and the time to keep it humming.

So do the right thing, and upgrade. Mkay?

useless faqs

I received email today alerting me to a competition for faculty and students to develop plug-ins using the Eclipse Platform. Never heard of it. So I went to the web site, and checked out the FAQ. Under "What is the Eclipse Platform?," I found this:

The Eclipse Platform is an open extensible IDE for anything and yet nothing in particular. The Eclipse Platform provides building blocks and a foundation for constructing and running integrated software-development tools. The Eclipse Platform allows tool builders to independently develop tools that integrate with other people's tools so seamlessly you can't tell where one tool ends and another starts.

Huh? For "anything and nothing in particular?" Does this answer actually say anything? Or is it just a string of buzzwords, signifying nothing? I'm not willing to spend much more time poking around this site for information, but I'm curious as to whether any of the more technically-minded folks who read my site have any knowledge of or experience with this IDE.

shirky touches off a storm of semantic web posts

Clay's latest essay, The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview, has resulted in quite the flurry of interesting responses.

Mark Pilgrim has a number of these responses collected in his "B-Links" sidebar, but I'm going to put them here, as well, so that I can find them more easily in the future.

(I'll update this list as I find other interesting responses. Feel free to add relevant links in the comments, as well.)

My inner librarian has a response brewing, as well, but it will have to wait a bit. It's the last week of the quarter, and I've got exams and project to give and grade. Next week is blogging and reading catch-up time.

my aggregator compromise

I finally realized that there is a way that I can use the power of aggregators without giving up my (perhaps irrational) attachment to the visual space of weblogs.

I'm going to use an aggreagator (Bloglines, to be specific) to read the online magazines that I haven't been remembering to check regularly. Boxes and Arrows, A List Apart,, Wired News, and BoingBoing.

Because Bloglines is a browser-based aggregator, I won't have to remember to launch a new application. I just have to add the link to my start page (which right now features my blogrolls) so that I remember to check it regularly.

color picker site

I'm always on the lookout for cool tools for my students, and I just found a nice one via Kottke's remaindered links.

One of the problems with teaching web design is that many of my students have, shall we say, only a rudimentary sense of color combinations. For several years, I've pointed them to this Shockwave-based site.

But the Javascript-based site Kottke points to is far better. Not only does it provide a better interface for selection and refinement, it even adds a wonderful component to let you see how your colors will appear to someone with a variety of colorblindnesses. (I tested it with my husband, who's red-green colorblind. "Do you see the difference between these?" I asked, toggling between the "normal" and "deuteranpy" modes. "Between what?" he responded. Guess it works!)

stopping spam with transaction costs

One of the ideas that seems to have reached some level of "escape velocity" out of O'Reillys "FooCamp" this weekend is the email transaction cost approach to stopping spam.

Don Park (who proposed his own "Trsted Email Network" solution a few days ago) points to Tim Bray's description of the idea.

I've heard this tiny-cost-per-message proposal before, and while I appreciate its advantages, it raises some concerns for me.

There would need to be a way, at the minimum, to provide no-charge email within an organization (so I wouldn't be charged for mail sent from my RIT account to students with RIT accounts notifying them of exam grades, for example).

I'm also worried about the "digital divide" impact--what does this do to people who don't have credit cards, for example? Do they stop being able to send and recieve email? Will there be email vending machines, or prepaid email cards?

The idea works really well for the technological elite, those of us for whom a few extra dollars a month for email would be a trivial expense, and for whom adding a level of complexity would have minimal impact. I'm not sure if it holds up when you get outside of the inner circle of privilege and skill. Will my grandmother pay an additional cost for email? Probably not. She'll stop using it. Will most parents give their kids extra allowance for sending email? Only if they're pretty technologically sophisticated, I suspect.

ICANN to Verisign: cease and desist!

Wow. Check out this letter from ICANN president Paul Twomey to Verisign EVP Russell Lewis, dated today:

Given the magnitude of the issues that have been raised, and their potential impact on the security and stability of the Internet, the DNS and the .com and .net top level domains, VeriSign must suspend the changes to the .com and .net top-level domains introduced on 15 September 2003 by 6:00 PM PDT on 4 October 2003. Failure to comply with this demand by that time will leave ICANN with no choice but to seek promptly to enforce VeriSign's contractual obligations.

You go, ICANN.

the end of the email story

It's not good, but it could be worse.

I was unable to restore anything from the hard drive. However, it turns out that (a) mail from before I switched to OS X was unaffected (it wasn't associated with an "account"), and (b) my husband did not overwrite my external firewire drive, so I was able to import the inbox and sent mail from 12/02 through 6/20/03.

That means I lost more than three month's worth of mail, including a lot of stuff related to our grant (administrative, not data), and all the mail related to my three upcoming trips. I'll spend most of today trying to figure out how to reconstruct the most critical components--flight itineraries, hotel information, etc.

So, if you sent me mail that had critical information, or needed a reply in the past 3 months, it might be wise to resend it, or to at least check with me about whether I need another copy.

To prevent another such disaster, I've installed Norton Utilities (to allow for better recovery of erased files in the future), and will be regularly backing up my data to my external hard drive. I think that will be a weekly ritual now.

mucking with comments

I'm currently using SimpleComments on all of my blogs, because I like being able to treat trackbacks as "remote comments." However, given that my courseware blog will be generating lots of comments (I'm posting discussion questions there, and I've got 34 students in the class), I'm thinking that ThreadedComments would be more valuable.

It appears, based on the documentation of MTThreadedComments, that the two plug-ins together. But I'm going to attempt the integration here first, rather than risking my now in-production class blog. If you run into problems here today with adding comments, be patient. I'm working on it.

It seems my hosting provider (WebIntellects) doesn't have the "patch" command available, which means I can't install the ThreadedComments on that server. Guess I"ll have to do an MT install on my PowerBook and play there before I do anything else. <sigh>

mt courseware update

I've recruited two other faculty members to test the MT courseware this quarter, and we're in the process of locating and squashing various bugs. Turns out I made a number of things more difficult than I needed to, so I'm streamlining as I go.

Nevertheless, initial results are encouraging. Students are using the comment feature--not just on entries where they're required to post (like "Introductions"), but also on other entries, like the assigned readings. I have a good feeling about all this.

I expect that by the end of this quarter, I'll have a better version of the courseware available, complete with documentation. As one of my colleagues said, right now it isn't plug-and-play, it's more like plug-and-shock.

However, now that the initial configuration headaches have eased, it is remarkably easy to maintain and add to the site. And MT's templating features make it easy to repurpose information--for example, putting the "instructor information" in the syllabus as well as the sidebar.

One thing I'm considering is finding a student next quarter to help me write an installer of some kind for implementing the courseware in a more automated way. It may only be doable in a mySQL backend environment...I'm not sure yet. But it would be nice for folks not to have to go in and do all the template creation and category addition by hand.

the pixel turns 50

I discovered a new (to me) publication today--core77 design magazine. (How? I followed a link from Stewart Butterfield's blog to a post by Andrew Zolli on Z+ Blog, and from there to core77.)

In particular, I ended up on an article--also by Andrew Zolli--called "Pixelvision: A Meditation." The article, written in anticipation of the pixel's 50th anniversary next year, is a very nice piece on the history and use of pixels as design elements. I want to try to work it into the readings for my Intro to Multimedia class, probably when we talk about digital image concepts midway through the quarter.

site vandalism

I have no idea how or when it happened (apparently not just now, since there are several cached versions of it in Google), but vig-rx managed to replace the contents of one of my blog entries with its vile spam contents.

I discovered this only because it stupidly added a comment to that post today, and when I went to delete the comment spam, I realized the entry itself was gone.

This scares the crap out of me. I don't know what security hole enabled someone to do this, but whatever it is I want it fixed!!!

Crap. A quick site search indicates that it was two entries. I didn't have a backup of the original database (just did a dump, which I'll now start doing on a regular basis), so those two entries are gone for good.

(And I only send an excerpt of my posts in my RSS feed...guess that's going to change, as well, since otherwise I could have retrieved the originals from Feedster's cache.)



Update: Joi says it's a Safari bug, which kicked in when I deleted the problem comment. I've retrieved the second problem entry from Google's cache. First one I couldn't find there.

That's a pretty big bug. Guess I'm back to using Mozilla.

safari cookie problems

Ever since I switched to my new Powerbook, my blog's cookies don't seem to "stick" in Safari. They're fine in Mozilla, but not Safari.

I haven't changed anything on the pages, so I'm baffled. Yes, I've got Safari set up to allow cookies. But when I list cookies in the security pane, it shows only my login cookie, not my comments cookie. Any ideas?

why i still hate wikis


I'm not posting this on Many-to-Many, despite the fact that it's really a follow up to my other posts there. I don't want to stir the pot and start a debate right now. I just want to express my extreme frustration with trying to use a wiki, before I explode.

Tonight Dorothea and I started talking about the architecture for the syndication project wiki (pie/echo/atom/whatever). I figured it made all kinds of sense to create wiki pages for our discussion, so I created one for our thoughts on topical organization, and one for our thoughts on audience-focused organization. The file names both included FirstDraft at the end, because I'm accustomed to keeping drafts separate from "production" files.

After I'd edited them a bit, though, I realized that given the nature of the wiki, it made more sense to simply name them with the topics, and let the drafts evolve into the finished products. But it turns out there's no way to rename a wiki page. Once you've picked a name, you're stuck with it. And while the documentation refers to a DeletePage action, I'll be damned if I can figure out how to implement it (and I resent having to do so, anyways, since I don't want to delete it, I want to rename it).

I spent a good hour going through the docs for MoinMoin, which are about as well organized as every other wiki I've ever dealt with. No luck. No way to rename, no help on how to delete. I give up. The pages will probably join hundreds of other orphans on the site. Blech.

It seems to me that wikis are designed for people who don't really care whether their informtion is organized or accessible. People who want to throw stuff out and not worry about what it's called or what its context is. This is so not how I like dealing with content. I think names matter. I think structured information has value. And I think clear, well-organized documentation is essential.

It's easy for me to consider using blogs in a class--I can implement them in a way that I'm relatively sure will cause minimal frustration and confusion for my students. But wikis are another story. I can't see subjecting my students to this level of frustration--with formatting, with renaming, with organizing, with finding information.


recent viruses and lost opportunities

Why, oh why, doesn't Apple take advantage of all the current virus traffic to run ads that point out that Mac users don't get these viruses ??? It seems so obvious.

We were watching NBC news last night, and they were explaining the SOBIG virus and how it works. Not once did they mention that it only affects computers running Windows. (When I remarked about this, Gerald gently reminded me of the MS-NBC relationship. Duh.)

Even on campus, none of the dire warnings about having your computer carefully checked by the tech folks before connecting it to the network mention that Mac and Linux users aren't affected.

What an (unseized) opportunity for Apple to push OS X. How much lost time (which equals money) goes into (a) installing security patches on MS systems and (b) cleaning up the mess that viruses make when they get past the patches? One would think that would factor into purchasing decisions up front.

css frustration

I'm working on the design for my MT-driven class website for this fall, and I'm running into a problem with displaying it in Safari. Not sure if it's a Safari bug, or a problem with my CSS, but it's driving me nuts. (Seems to work in Mac IE5 and Mac Mozilla...haven't tested it on a PC yet.)

The problem is that I have a tiled background image, which I want to have appear behind the sidebar and title bar. So I set the background-image property for the body to use that image. Then I set the background-color for the main blog content to be white.

The problem in Safari appears when the blog content takes up less space on the page than the sidebar. At the point where the blog content ends, the white background spills over to the left, into the sidebar--for no apparent good reason that I can see. I've tried tweaking z-indexes (z-indices?) and height properties for both blog and sidebar, to no avail.

So, is this a Safari thing? Or am I missing something that I could do in my code to make this work properly? Wise counsel from those learned in CSS lore would be greatly appreciated.

wikis and information architecture

I participated today in an IRC chat on "wiki gardening" for the Atom/Pie/Echo syndication format project wiki. There are over 700 pages on the wiki, which makes it pretty darn big by anyone's standards. Of those, more than 80 are "orphaned" pages (pages that no other pages point to).

The topic of the chat when I joined was "organization of the wiki," and it became painfully clear that most of the people generating and organizing content on the site had little or no background in information architecture. (I was particularly amused when someone asked what the difference was between the FrontPage and SiteNavigation items on the main navigation bar of the wiki, and I realized that despite the link, the SiteNavigation page didn't even exist.)

It got me thinking about Christina Wodtke's book Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. In her introduction, Christina has a section entitled "Why Bother?"--and I'm going to quote directly from it, because the example she provides is so perfectly suited to this situation. (I've done a minor edit in the third paragraph, however.)

In 1844, Sara Winchester, convinced that the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle would come after her for revenge, asked a psychic for advice. The psychic told her the way to keep the ghosts at bay was to build a house--that the sound of hammers must never stop. For 38 years, Sarah kept a team of workers building on to her house. She never made blueprints, although occasionally she would sketch out what she wanted on a random piece of paper or a tablecloth. The resulting house is a rambling four acres of stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to brick walls, and windows in the floor: The Winchester Mystery House.

Flash forward to 1998. A CEO has heard about this Internet thing. Convinced his company will fail if he doesn't deal with it, he asks a consultant for advice. The consultant tells him that to keep his company afloat, he must build a web site. For all these years, until now, teams of people have been working on this site without a blueprint. Occasionally they have plans for one area or another drawn on a cocktail napkin by the east coast sales team and faxed to the design team on the west coast.

Now the web site is huge, with thousands of pages with links that lead nowhere, marketing speak that says nothing, and outdated facts: The Winchester Mystery Site a giant wiki!

Okay, okay. She didn't say wiki. But what a great parallel. Teams of people working on the site without a blueprint. Occasional partial plans generated by a subset of people in chats or meetings. Hundreds of pages, links that lead nowhere, and outdated/orphaned content.

Wikis, as Clay Shirky has said, remove personality from the process. But by placing the emphasis entirely on "bottom-up," emergent content, they also remove organization and structure from the process. The resulting "mystery site" becomes frustrating for users who aren't already intimately familiar with every nook and cranny.

I'm not a web services developer (and I don't want to be one when I grow up, either). But I am an information architect, and an interested observer of this process. And in general, I don't like to complain publicly about something that I'm not willing to help fix. So I'm going to take a stab at creating some navigation pages for the project wiki, focused on the kinds of users that the wiki currently has, as well as those it's intended to serve. That means not just experienced developers, but also interested laypeople. And probably some categories in between.

Because it's a wiki, it's by nature a collaborative space, and you can play, too. Once I've got some first cuts at organizational structure done, I'll put them on the SiteNavigation page of the wiki. And by then there may well be a documentation-focused blog to support the effort (work is underway to make that happen), where comments and suggestions for revisions will be welcome.

I leave on a family vacation this Monday, with limited or no Internet connectivity while I'm there, so I don't know how quickly this will happen. But I will try to get something up before I leave.

duplicate pings from radio weblogs

Apparently Radio is now offering trackback tools for its weblogs. I know this because I've gotten pinged by several of them today. This would be a Good Thing, but for one problem--most of them have been duplicate pings. Some pinged me twice, some pinged me as many as four times. Ick.

I've manually deleted a bunch of the extra pings from the entries, so that they don't clutter up my pages. But if anyone from Radio is reading this (like Jake Savin, maybe), I'd be grateful if they'd look into what it is about either the infrastructure or the interface that's causing this problem. :(

For troubleshooting purposes, this URL pinged one of my entries 4 times:

This one pinged me twice each on two different posts:

we have met the enemy and he is us

(That's one of my favorite Pogo quotes of all time. So glad I've found a way to use it as a post title.)

Sam Ruby points to a wonderful post by Phil Ringnalda entitled "There is No They."

What Phil describes--the "small town" feel of weblogging where change is effected by "us" rather than "them"--is a big part of why I like using weblogs in classes. I'm often asked by colleagues why I don't just use the conferencing tools already available to me--the Prometheus-based courseware, the FirstClass conferencing system, etc. The reason is that when I use weblogs in a class, we become a part of the big small town that is the technical weblogging world. The example I like to use is how Shelley Powers, author of the new O'Reilly book Practical RDF, stopped by our XML class weblog to comment on students' posts when we talked about RDF and metadata.

When you know that the author of the book you're discussing may be reading your posts, and may stop by to debate with you, it has a significant impact on the tone and content of the discussion--and that influence is primarily positive.

(As I was writing this post, Anil Dash [of Six Apart] commented on my last post about TypePad. An excellent example of exactly what I'm talking about! Knowing that Anil and others in the technical development community read this blog keeps me honest in my comments and criticisms, because I know I'll be called on it if I'm out of line!)

5 steps to flagrant bandwidth abuse

1) Turn on iSight camera

2) Launch QuickTime Broadcaster

3) Send video stream of self to QuickTime Streaming Server in Tokyo

4) Launch QuickTime to view stream at rtsp://

5) Show results to family on couch, who note that real-time viewing of mom is far better than the QT player version (which appears to have latency of approximately 8 seconds)

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