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anti-mega: RSS. Sucks.

March 31, 2003

anti-mega: RSS. Sucks.

Chris Heathcote brings up some valid points about the current state of the art of RSS aggregators, something that I heartily agree with.

I’ve had reasonbly good luck recently with Syndirella on the PC.  The thing I like most? It’s a “3 pane” aggregator that opens a browser window within the third pane, rather than launching an external browser (you can easily do the latter, of course, with “open in new window” or by double-clicking the entry title in the second pane.

This is also the feature that’s missing from NewsGator that’s keeping it from being my tool of choice.

The downside of Syndirella is that at the moment, it has no way of organizing the feeds; it’d be nice to be able to categorize them by folders, or at least alphabetize them.

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After Long Absence

March 30, 2003

A long time ago, in an industry far, far away, I used to write Mac code.  About the time System 7 came out, the company I was working for’s interest in Mac faded, and I went off to do Windows. 

The Mac was a fine system, and had a consistently nicer interface than Windows, but I was fond of eating and so were my kids, and other Mac gigs were hard to find at the time.

My last Mac was a IIci—until this week.

Smugly nestled next to my P4 XP Pro box is now an eMac, running OS X Jaguar. 

Before you go “eww, an eMac!”, this thing is a bargain right now (under $700 from many sources, with 128K / 40 gig / CD)

Running a 700 mHz G4, with the addition of a little ram and an external firewire drive, this is pretty comparable performance-wise to a Power Mac G4 at a grand more.  Sure, I’d rather have an LCD screen than the 17” CRT (although it’s a damn nice 17” CRT)—for that matter, I’d rather have a 1 gHz TiBook, but it’s not much of a sacrifice for the difference in cost. 

Upgradability is a lesser concern; usually when I upgrade a machine (which is quite often in the PC world), I consider myself lucky if I can salvage the case and power supply; everything else changes too fast and it’s easier to just make wholesale changes.  I can live with confining my CD & DVD writing to the PCs for the time being, also.

I’m pleased to have finally found a reason to get one.  I now have two clients who are largely or entirely Mac internally, and I want to make sure that the sites I build for them render properly on the new crop of Mac browsers. 

I’ve also recently discovered that a substantial number of the users of my site building / e-marketing site is Mac based (due apparently to the amount of Mac users reading RSS feeds), and I’d certainly like to be selling them web development, e-marketing and web hosting services, as well.

Coming back to the Mac is a very interesting experience.  While there is a lot that is familiar, there’s a lot that’s changed in 12 years, too… I imagine I’ll have more to say as I learn my way long…

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SpamNet & Inbox Buddy

March 30, 2003

Continuing my love-hate relationship with Outlook XP, this week has brought a couple of nifty add-ons. 

Inbox Buddy

First, the folks who bring us Feedster have a nifty little package called “Inbox Buddy”.  Inbox Buddy analyzes your mailbox, asks you a few questions, and then categorizes and color-codes you mail from recipients into various categories ranging from friends to clients to family to spam.  Even better, it can show you a view of your inbox based on priorities you’ve set for each of these.  Spam, of course, is relegated to a holding folder until you review it. 

The upside—it does a wonderful job on the categorization and prioritization of e-mail, and a fairly passable job of spam detection (far, far better than my previous tool, “Junk Spy”). 

The downside—the analysis pass completely died on my Outlook, but as mentioned the other day, my Outlook environment is a little extreme.  The spam filter also required a fair amount of tuning to quit eating “good” messages.  Fortunately, this is a pretty easy task (highlight the message and hit the “reclassify” button on the toolbar).

For various reasons, I’ve had e-mail addresses on various web sites since 1994 or so.  This means I get a ton of spam—at least 1,000 a day, gusting to 3,000+.  I’d have been quite happy with the improvements in spam filtering with Inbox Buddy if I hadn’t discovered…

SpamNet

Cloudmark’s SpamNet is nothing short of amazing.  Instead of being based on a periodically updated rule set plus your own additions and deletions, it uses a collaborative ruleset based on spam identified by all of the users of the program.  Spamnet builds a signature for each message and compares it to the database—if it’s been identified as spam, it goes off to the holding folder.  If it misses one, you hit the “block” button and the message is moved to your spam catch, plus the central database is updated (weighted based on how good or bad a job of reporting each user has been doing, so one person can’t arbitrarily decide that messages from “so and so” are spam).  You can also “unblock” a mis-caught message the same way. 

The net result appears to be a set of rules that is very up-to-date (very important, as spams change at an alarmingly fast rate).  Over the course of a day, SpamNet appears to miss perhaps 5 – 7 messages for me (versus probably 50 – 60 for Junkspy), and even more importantly, has misidentified exactly ONE other message as spam. 

This thing works so well it’s stunning.

Minor quibbles: I have a set of wav files that play when messages are routed via rules to two or three of my more critical folders.  SpamNet filters after the messages arrive, so I’ll get the audible alert, bring up my mailbox and the folder will be empty… Which is certainly better than having spam in it, but of course, I want an egg in my beer too 🙂 I’m also not clear how much network traffic this thing does.  On a cable modem, the spam filtering happens very close to real-time; on a dial-up connection this might be a bit slower.

Best part—SpamNet is free.  Yep.  Free.  If you’re an Outlook user (sorry, Outlook Express isn’t supported), run don’t walk to get a copy.

Inbox Buddy is $39.95, with a 30 day trial.  Since I don’t need it’s spam filtering, I’m still deciding if the categorization is worth $40 to me, and it very well might be.  If you’re going to use it for spam filtering, it’s a bargain, however.

The In-Stack

March 26, 2003

Currently Reading:

Google Hacks – A nifty little book full of tips on how to do all sorts of things with Google.  Some of it I knew, but there is a substantial amount of stuff that is completely new to me; it won’t take long for this to pay for itself just in time saved, and I haven’t even gotten to any of the programatic stuff yet.

Currently ReReading:

The Portable Coach – Thomas Leonard’s recent tragic demise prompted me to go back and re-read his keystone work. Even on re-reading, there are still some absolutely great techniques and pieces of wisdom here.

Recently Finished:

Kingdom of Fear (Hunter S. Thompson) – I was expecting another book of older memoirs, but KoF has a surprising amount of recent material in it, a lot of it post 9/11.  As usual, once you dismiss a little of the “over-the-top”, Hunter still has some of the keenest insight into US politics and foreign policy of anyone writing on the scene today.  His views are seldom the popular ones at the time, but over the long haul he’s right a lot more than he’s wrong.

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The Shield, The Wire, Boomtown

March 25, 2003

One side-effect of all of the war coverage, in addition to post February sweeps hiatus, is that it’s given me a chance to finish going through The Shield’s season one DVD set

For those who haven’t seen it, The Shield is a seriously gritty cop show set in Los Angeles.  The show, and it’s anti-hero star, Michael Chiklis have gotten a substantial amount of critical acclaim, and is one of the few cop shows that gives a portrayal of the streets of LA that actually seems realistic to anyone who has been there. 

I’m particularly fond of the complex morality tales and take-no-prisoners dialog that creator Shawn Ryan brings to the show.  No surprise, he’s yet another alumni of the Mutant Enemy writing stable.

The DVD set is non-anamorphic, but features spectacularly good cast & crew commentary on each episode, the original pilot script, cast auditions, deleted scenes and a “behind the scenes” featurette. 

My only complaint is that the show only did 13 episodes in Season One; Season Two appears to be wrapping up next week with a similarly short season.

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HBO is reprising the first season of The Wire, with a second season getting ready to roll in June.  The series, which has also received much critical acclaim, is by David Simon, the creator of NBC’s Homicide: Life On the Street.  Set once again in the middle of the Baltimore PD, the show feels a lot like “Homicide: The Next Generation”.  If you enjoyed the original series, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. 

Simon, the series creator, was a crime-beat newspaper reporter in Baltimore who received a unique opportunity to spend a year with the night shift of Baltimore’s homicide squad.  His outstanding book giving his account of the experience, “Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets” was the basis of the NBC series, and the new HBO venue appears to have given him even more freedom to bring his experience of the Byzantine world of Baltimore PD to life on the small screen.

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As long as I’m recapping police series (I do watch other stuff too), also worth a mention this year is NBC’s “Boomtown“.  The show’s Wellesian “gimmic”, replaying scenes through the POV of different cast members (and occasionally the victims and perpetrators as well) has been toned down somewhat since the early episodes of the season, and the show hangs together well on the basis of its character development and the occasional multi-POV sequence placed where it will do the most good.

John Perry Barlow on the war

March 25, 2003

John Perry Barlow weighs in on the war.  (via Adam Curry) His earlier comments have been making the rounds for awhile.

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If this is Sunday, this must be Umm Qasr

March 23, 2003

I’d told myself I wasn’t going to write about this war, and I’m not going to break that little rule, but I might just bend it enough to put a crimp in it.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I’ve had the TV on and tuned to coverage of the situation in Iraq since Wednesday afternoon.  I go back and forth between actually leaving the volume up, and turning it down and cranking up the music while I work, but it’s always still there, like a sore tooth, or a houseguest that just won’t leave.

The coverage of this event frustrates me, and brings home my major issue with the media and real-time events, and TV news networks in particular.  Their job is to broadcast the news people want to see, and at the moment that’s the war with Iraq.  They have to be able to inform the viewer who just sat down, and hopefully not bore the person whose been there awhile too badly.

In order to do this, they have to take the news they have, and stretch it, leaven it, shuffle it, and re-mix it.  They bring in experts and animations and stock footage and graphs and charts and paintbox effects in order to fill an infinite amount of time with a finite amount of data while keeping it “fresh”.

There’s nothing new there, this happens with every major event—10% – 20% reporting news, 80% – 90% creating news.

What is new with this event is that we’ve got a zillion inputs, and at any given time some of them are idle, some are trickling news, and some are bursting.  It’s micronews on an unprecedented level.

But what’s missing, at least in the coverage I’m seeing, is any sort of big picture.  We’ve got all of this chunk-specific down-in-the-leaves coverage, and we don’t have any real big-chunk view of the forest.  We see an facsimile of what the embedded journalists must be experiencing, but we have to try to extrapolate guesses as to what the grand strategic picture must look like.

The net result, at least for me, is that I’ve got a lot of information but I often feel like I’m gaining no real knowledge. I want to skip ahead two years, see the Frontline documentary on what really happened and how it everything related to everything else, and then read a few books and THEN see all of this detail in some sort of context.

There is a qualitative difference between being stimulated, and being informed.  While I’ve thus far been amazed, captivated, horrified, and fascinated, I don’t feel substantially informed…

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Making PostNuke Autodiscoverable

March 21, 2003

I’m still getting my feet wet with all of the RSS stuff… Today’s neat discovery is that it’s trivial to make PostNuke (7.23 at least) support autodiscovery, so that various news aggregators can find the feed address.

(Warning… This may break your PostNuke.  It may even break MY PostNuke.  But I doubt it.  Use it at your own risk, if you break it you own both pieces, all models over 18 years of age, content subject to some settling)

In header.php, look for the link to the stylesheet (link rel=”stylesheet”).  In 7.23, this is about line 160.  Just before it (or just after it, it doesn’t matter), add this line:

echo “<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”/backend.php” />n”;

Save it.  Test it.

That’s all there is to it.  Remember it’ll go away with your next upgrade, so keep it handy in case the PostNuke team doesn’t get around to adding it to the code stream.

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E-Mail at 24 Inches of Mercury

March 20, 2003

Some days Outlook sucks so badly it pulls a hard vacuum. For me, today is one of them.  I like the idea of Outlook—in fact, I have for several generations.  It’s just the implementation that seems to lead to acts of explosive digital decompression. 

First and foremost, it does not handle a lot of mail gracefully.  I have (and keep) an enormous amount of mail, admittedly, but surely I can’t be the only one.  Outlook has a hard limit of 2 gig in a datafile (this is an OS limit, but it can’t be like the developers didn’t know it was there, and couldn’t plan on dealing with it gracefully).  If you ever hit this, you’re done as far as that mailfile is concerned (at least in Outlook XP).  You essentially can’t do anything, including delete mail to try to get under it. 

The only fix seems to be the “universal Outlook fix”—start a new data file, and copy (you can’t “move”, since move implies a delete) stuff from the old one to the new one.  You also get to remember where to change the setting to make this the default mail destination in the current version, and you get to re-do all of your rules to point to the new mailfolders, despite their having the same name as the old ones.  This process clocks in at about 4 hours for me, at least as of this morning.

The closer you get to this limit, the slower Outlook gets.  It takes forever to load, it hogs CPU time to run rules (this is better than it was in previous versions), and it can take forever to gracefully exit.  During each of these processes, there appears to be a window during which the data file is vulnerable to corruption should the machine crash or get reset.

Corrupted data files require the use of the “Inbox Repair Tool”.  I’ve never had this do anything meaningful other than waste my time; I’ve certainly never recovered a data file. The alternative seems to the old “Universal Fix” described above, and forget any folders or messages that are damaged.

The idea of Outlook is great.  It’s nice to have your to-dos, calendars, contacts, etc. in your mail program.  Even more, if you want to do anything that does “universal in-box” type stuff, such as synch with a handheld, you tend to be stuck with Outlook.  My Outlook talks to my Palm Pilot, it accumulates my voicemail (use caution here, this is a great way to bloat up a datafile), and most recently it does RSS aggregation for me with NewsGator (which is a neat toy).  It’s all very nice when it’s working right. But when it’s broken so is much of my infrastructure.

Hope springs eternal, however—theres a new version on the horizon, and perhaps this time they spent more time fixing problems than they did making it even more ubiquitous.  I’m not holding my breath however…

(Hmmm… my spellchecker suggests “malevolence” as the correct spelling for “mailfile”—I wonder if this is a coincidence…)

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I Brake for Beer Commercials

March 19, 2003

AdAge reports that a P&G study finds Tivo Less of a Threat? – apparently people who fast forward through ads with PVRs “still recall those ads at roughly the same rates as people who see them at normal speed in real time.”

I’m not sure if this is more a commentary about the remote control trigger-fingers of those surveyed, or the inattention of those who watch “unaided” TV.

I was an early Tivo adopter, and for the past two and a half years, I’ve considered it one of the slickest pieces of personal technology to hit the shelf—suddenly I watch the TV I want to watch, when I want to watch it. I don’t watch much more or less than I ever did, but I’m at least watching stuff I want to watch when I do plop my butt into the recliner.

But c’mon. One of the first symptoms of the Tivo effect is you quit watching live TV. I’ll pause a program and go do something else for 20 minutes just to get enough buffered up that I can fast forward through the commercials.

Now, as a healthy happily divorced male with normal testosterone levels, I am reasonably adept at spotting beer commercials with great looking women and action movie clips, even at 60x fast foward, and I do stop and watch a reasonable number of them. (This month’s winner—the Killians commercial with “The New Bartender”), but that’s about it. On those few occasions when through lack of planning or watching a less geeky friend’s TV I actually see the rest of the commericals, it’s almost fun, because I haven’t seen most of them before.

Therefore, I’ve got to believe that any reasonable survey would find me blissfully ignorant on the current advertising state of tampons, fast food, or any number of other products.

Which begs the question, just who did they survey? People who don’t know the Tivo button shuffle? (hit fast forward three times at the start of the commercial, and then hit “instant replay” as soon as you see the program come back on; with a little practice, this reliably puts you at the start of that section of content). People too arthritic to hit the buttons? Or was their control group just viewers who have the retention of fruit-flies and don’t remember any more than I do when I see a 30 second antacid commerical fly by in 500 milliseconds?

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