Archive for June, 2006

Superman

Tonight I saw the new movie, something I’ve been looking forward to all week, and although I nearly wet myself with delight during the opening credits, what with Brando’s original voiceover and John Williams’ original score (and the whizzy blue 3D titles which only this movie could get away with), after that it all became a little too Lois and Clark … also it felt like someone misplaced the second act because the movie seemed to end immediately after it began. Some really nice flight scenes though :)

Subscriptions

Regular visitors may have noticed things being a little broken here at intepid lately– I’ve been reworking a bunch of stuff, getting title-free posts happening for one thing, and more significantly I am going to trial email subscriptions, both to individual posts (to track comments) as well as to the blog as a whole. I decided I wanted to try email subscriptions after reading Scott’s recent post.

Although I still need to add some extra code to support comment subscriptions, I think I’m ready to test blog subscriptions now. The main goal is to keep it all as simple as humanly possible, so this is how it will work:

  1. You, the casual reader, come across this site and think “hmm… I’d like to keep track of this, but I still don’t know how to use alligators, and my bookmark menu is already three screens high!”
  2. You see the subscribe field, enter your email and press enter.
  3. That’s it! From then on you will receive each new post (only when first published, not every time I make a minor update) as a tidy HTML formatted email, with an unsubscribe link at the bottom.

So is this an appropriate solution for people who don’t use aggregators? At least now I won’t have to badger my friends to try Bloglines etc…

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BTW I’ve tried one 3rd party solution (FeedBlitz) and was a little disappointed with the number of steps required, hence the roll-yer-own approach (+ I am a control freak who enjoys reinventing the wheel).

Google has NOT jumped the You-Know-What

It’s looking like my previous rant about Google was a little premature– they seem to be having a few technical difficulties lately which would explain the crappiness of their results. So now I’m going to say something positive about them, which is that they still kick ass compared to other search engines! And I mean that from a totally self-serving content publisher’s point of view…

Recent vistors via search engine

Google (Images) 803 53.1 %
Google 649 42.9 %
Yahoo 23 1.5 %
MSN 18 1.1 %
Ask Jeeves 7 0.4 %
Dogpile 4 0.2 %
Unknown search engines 2 0.1 %
Excite 1 0 %
Search.com 1 0 %
Mamma 1 0 %
AOL 1 0 %

That’s a huge difference between Google and Yahoo there… although I could probably get by without Google Images, which serves mostly to help people harvest LiveJournal avatars from my site (I know this because a significant proportion of my bandwidth goes into serving these requests).

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Top 10 search terms this month: Father Ted ~ Dalek ~ Hubble Telescope ~ Cutting your own hair ~ Monochrome ~ Shiny things ~ Beautiful things ~ Beautiful scene ~ Atheist symbol ~ Hax ~ Color blindness

Untitled #594

Google has jumped the You-Know-What*

If you’re struggling to establish a bona fide presence on the internet (which I freely admit I am) then reading this article will probably make you feel very annoyed.

And sadly I think it might be coming true.

Several years ago, when Google was smaller and I had virtually no visitors, I could still count on having my entire site indexed. That was exactly why I spent so much time telling friends about the amazing search engine which seemed to be able to store a copy of every page on the internet!

But now I find that maybe half my blog entries are not properly indexed, and when something isn’t indexed the chances of someone finding it drops to zero. I don’t mind low ranking, but not being indexed at all…? That really pisses me off.

Hardly anyone links directly to my articles– I don’t know why that is exactly but as long as I’m searchable I don’t really mind. But when I’m not searchable I may as well not exist! Everyone knows that people find stuff online by searching, not browsing, and Google is the principal search tool for at least 50% of English speaking users.

I hate the idea that I could be searching for a specific set of terms, and Google might overlook a page (which may have been accessible for years) which may be the only match. Part of the point of a search engine is to expose information which might not be found by other means.

Details

A few months ago the problem was that Google didn’t even seem to bother crawling my whole site, but I think a bit of extra direction via META tags helped direct it to skip monthly archives and index individual entries (since they don’t store in-page anchor points, searches that arrive on large archive pages seem pretty pointless).

Now Google claims to have read every entry (ie if I pick a random entry and check their cache, there will be a copy) but there seems to be divergence in what they cache and what they index… eg this entry features the fairly distinctive phrase "third world police robot" and yet Google returns no matches on that term (ironically, simply writing this here will probably rectify that particular case).

Other examples as of this writing:

"Telescope Discovers Message From God"

"always wanted a vectrex"

"wrangle into shape" software

"incident of the shifting shirt"

"renowned curator" "Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair"

It’s not like this is all fantastic content, but these are my words and this is the only place you’ll find them– only you won’t find them because they’re not being indexed properly.

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* UPDATE June 20, 2006: It looks like I picked a bad time to do my testing– All the phrases above are now properly indexed, and out of ten other posts chosen at random only two appeared to be un-findable. Also, it’s not just my site; when I did the tests two days ago I got no results for any of the search terms above, whereas I now get multiple for "always wanted a vectrex"

Consumer ho

Out shopping again today, buying a few things like a new Apple USB Keyboard (my second in as many weeks*) and an electric shaver.

remapping apple keyboard

The keyboard I have now remapped to a more Windows friendly configuration, with left Alt and Windows keys swapped, and the F14/F15/F16 keys replaced with PrintScr/ScrollLock/Pause. Also I remapped the right Alt key (which I never use) to the Windows Application key (which I sometimes use). If you’ve got an Apple keyboard and want to do the same, you can use these settings (registry file for XP/2000 only). I created it using SharpKeys 1.1 which is a pretty simple (and free) app for remapping or disabling any key.

So now that I’ve got it all set up the way I want, let me say that it just feels better than others I’ve tried lately. It has a really small footprint for a full-sized keyboard (although you have to be careful to avoid resting your palm on the left control key). And what I like most about it is the sound– so many devices seem to be made with virtually no concern for the amount of noise they generate (think about the amount of noise the average microwave door makes when it closes), so I really appreciate the relatively quiet clicking of the keys.

BTW, the electric shaver… wow. Believe it or not this is the first time in my life that I have used one, and already I can’t believe I have wasted so much time, blood and shaving cream on razors over the years (not that I shave very often, because I’ve always hated it). Even though I bought the cheapest I could find, this is just so much better– I don’t even have to pay attention! No more Shaggy beard for me…

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*UPDATE: Arghh! Ok, I’m withdrawing my recommendation for the Apple keyboard again, because I am experiencing key bounce, just often enough to be noticable. This is happening mostly with the cursor keys but occasionally letters too. I thought it might be an issue with Windows but reading this forum and knowing a bit about basic electronics makes me think that this is actually a result of shonky design by Apple. Momentary contact switches need to be "debounced", which means that two contacts in rapid succession should be treated as a single press, since most switches will have a tendency to make/break contact in an uneven way. Depending on the touch I use I can make it happen quite consistently with my back arrow key– if I hit it hard or really really soft it’s fine, but weirdly if I press lightly (furtively?) it registers as two keystrokes [And it’s nothing to do with key repeat rates].

Washout

Woke up the smorning feeling very cosy and very disinclined to get out of bed, thinking, this is the perfect day to stay in bed all day and read a book. Somehow, in spite of the cold, wind and rain outside I managed to get myself out the door and on the road, only to discover that traffic lights (and all power) were out. I drove all the way to work in these bad conditions, marvelling at how politely moronic we become without these stalwart sentinels to stand over us at intersections and tell us what to do. I saw people doing the stupidest things, including two separate cases of veering onto the wrong side of the road for no apparent reason.

So of course by the time I get to work I realize how pointless it is, since there’s not a thing I can possibly do there without electricity. We weren’t even allowed inside because of safety regulations. So I milled about a bit and then came back home, where I decided to use up my precious hour or so of battery life by writing a blog entry. Right now I’m very glad I’ve got a wireless broadband card.

Power is out across all of Auckland, an event I assumed was unheard of, until I found out that Auckland has the dubious honour of holding the world record for longest blackout during peacetime.

UPDATE (a few hours later): Looks like I’m not the only one noticing the weird traffic behaviour. This from the New Zealand Herald:

Police asked people in Auckland to only contact them in emergencies as they were aware of the weather and power situation. They said some drivers were guilty of "lunacy" in the bad conditions, doing U-turns and driving the wrong way.

And now I’m feeling very twitchy and irritable as I try to come up with some sort of alternative caffeine delivery system, since I haven’t had a coffee yet.

Saturday 10/6/6

This picture has nothing to do with this post I saw The Omen today and really enjoyed it, especially the fact that it was almost exactly the same as the original. The main reason for this appreciation is that it means that there’s an outside chance that they will take this opportunity to go ahead and remake the sequels as well, only this time with less suck! Does anyone even remember the third one? Also it means a whole new generation has the chance to recognize a bunch of familiar movie references.

Before the movie I did a little book shopping, buying Douglas Coupland’s JPod on the strength of Cory Doctorow’s review (any book that can make Cory take a long hard look at himself has got to be worth reading– this is not intended as a cheap shot). The bizarro formatting of the first few pages and the fact that he uses ASCII code to spell out a certain unprintable word {101,100,103,121} is kind of appealing, but points off for not using hexadecimal ;)

I also bought Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, and am really looking forward to it, since I’ve very much enjoyed his other books. He has a knack for making one feel better about life, without being particularly instructive. A few weeks ago I heard him speak at the Auckland Writer’s Festival, and was impressed by his passion for the topic as well as his sheer WPM.

Eww… Serendipity is on TV and making me gag (John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, 2001). I’m not sure I would find it quite so cloying if I weren’t chronically single and nearly 34 years old…

Another remake I saw recently was Poseidon, again very much in the spirit of the original, although obviously with updated special effects. Enjoyable if you like the genre, but also rather forgettable.

Pixar’s Cars is of course completely original, although in my mind has a crappy premise. Voice talent carries this movie, with the cars themselves being rather disturbing with all these weird inconsistencies in their alternate universe; things like tiny flying cars instead of flies– I mean hello, Earth to Pixar… Couldn’t they have been sparkplugs or something? And for some reason the [normal-sized] cars have big ugly tongues even though they don’t eat (they get refuelled just like real cars). Though still very watchable, coming after The Incredibles this movie is a bit of a disappointment.

Projections used by Google Maps

Auckland my Auckland Someone asked me recently how to convert from a latitude & longitude to a Google Maps quadtree address (an URL to a particular image tile, as previously discussed in this entry), and I realized that I didn’t actually know. So I decided to work it out, and further realized that because it uses the Mercator projection it’s not as simple as I thought it would be.

One drawback of the Mercator projection is that it can never be complete, because at the upper and lower extremes of the map the magnification approaches infinity– which means that on an almost complete Mercator projection you would be able to read Santa’s newspaper, because it would appear as large as the Pacific Ocean!

For real world applications, if you want a map that’s not taller than it is wide you need to cut off the poles… but how much to cut off? Not really knowing this meant that I had to screw around comparing visual reference points (like the Empire State Building) in order to tweak the numbers to account for this, but I think I’ve got it almost right now. UPDATE: It was late, I was tired, and on second look I realized that the scale factor I had been zeroing in on (to seven decimal places) was in fact a natural one, in this case 1/2Ï€. This should have been obvious to me from the equations in the Wikipedia entry. Also I know that the Mercator projection is conformal, which means you can’t go applying arbitrary scaling factors willy-nilly without screwing that up.

So go visit this page to see all the image tiles (from big to small) that contain a given set of coordinates, and feel free to view the source if you want to see the details of the conversion.

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UPDATE: For more technical information, including sample code, see this entry.

My Desk

I’ve been slowly refining my home system, having purchased a whole bunch of computer crap yesterday, including a super cute little USB hub¹, which to my delight actually manages to run four devices (including my recharging iPod) without additional power!

I also bought my third external keyboard (after being unhappy with previous cheap & clacky keyboards), this time an Apple. I’d probably be recommending it right now if it weren’t for:

  1. The irritation that the Apple keys are in different positions from the Windows keys on PC keyboards. In fairness this is probably Microsoft’s fault (the windows key came much later than the apple key). Also the Scroll-Lock/Print-Screen/Pause-Break keys are replaced by F14/F15/F16. It is of course possible to remap keys, so it’s not that big a deal.
  2. The fact that the left control key occupies the lower left extremity on the keyboard means that it’s very easy to accidentally press it with my palm.
  3. The fact that my spacebar is broken! It’s actually listing to the right and only responds to presses on the leftmost two-thirds. I’ll be exchanging it tomorrow. So much for the theory that I was paying extra for quality ;)

And finally, I got myself a new graphics tablet (Genius 5×4″ MousePen) which so far appears more accurate and responsive than my 6×8″ Wacom, which is very touchy about power supply etc (I suspect this is related to their battery-less pen). The Genius comes with AAA battery for its pen, which I’m guessing will last quite a long time since these pens don’t require very much power.

I would have also purchased one of those tilted laptop stands (to replace the phone book) but unfortunately that would block access to the audio ports on the front of the computer (not a good location for ports). I’d really like it if that USB hub also had mic and headphone jacks– that would be sweet.

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1. Targus USB 2.0 Micro Travel Hub (ACH63US)

Feedzy

Have added those little orange icons all over the place to remind people that XML feeds are a useful way to keep up to date… but I’ve decided I have one little problem with the whole feed concept.

When Dave Winer invented RSS way back when, he probably thought it marked the end of the accursed mailing list, with all its spam-related issues. Over time the rest of us came to assume the same, but there is still an awkward gap which is not comfortably met by either solution, and that is the need for temporary feeds.

Most blogging software allows for per-entry feeds, which means you can subscribe to an entry to follow comments for that thread. The thing is, I never subscribe to these, because I don’t want to have to think about where to put the feed in my aggregator (Bloglines), and I sure as hell don’t want my personal blogroll getting bloated by a bunch of links to individual entries.

What I want is a clicky-click way to subscribe to an entry (eg I may have left a comment somewhere and want to be notified of replies) and have it either

a) Automatically removed from my aggregator after x days, or

b) Automatically removed from my aggregator after a period of inactivity of x days.

I would not want it to show up in my regular feed list, or require categorization. I also would not want to be notified when my subscription is removed, since it’s just not that important.

What would be ideal is if there was a tag in the feed which indicated whether this subscription should be temporary, and the condition of the expiry. I can’t see anything that meets this requirement in either the Atom or the RSS specifications [Please correct me if I have overlooked something].

Even without such a tag, aggregators could support this as an option when subscribing. If Bloglines offered this I would subscribe to individual entries all the time. But as it is I rarely see replies to my comments on other blogs because I simply forget to return.

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Update: CoComment attempts to solve this problem of tracking conversations, but does it in a pretty intrusive way, by inserting extra code into the page (when you click a bookmarklet). If you forget to click the bookmarklet, your conversation will not be tracked, although Firefox users can install an extension which handles it all automatically.

It also relies on a consistency of form field names, which means that it fails on this site (because of my super secret very effective anti spam bot solution). And the buttons it adds look pretty tacky are likely to clash with the style of the site you are viewing.

Rearranging the furniture

I just spent about two hours making minor changes to my blog layout, and one major change by putting comments on entry pages in a sidebar rather than at the end of the article… and now I suspect that wasn’t such a great idea, since it’s probably going to be a bit distracting trying to read an entry when you can already see people’s comments about it.

Why not try it out and tell me what you think… Should I put it back the way it was?