Monday, August 28, 2006
I know it's only August, but I think I may have found my album of the year. Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is their best album in a while, maybe since 1995's Electr-O-Pura (which is not to say that their most recent albums were bad, just that this one is exceptionally good). It displays the whole range of YLTmusik, from the hushed late night near whispers of "The Race Is On Again", through the bouncy pop stylings of "Beanbag Chair" to the 10+ minute long guitar freakouts that bookend the album, "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and "The Story of Yo La Tengo". It blows me away that 21 years after releasing their first single, not only have they not jumped the shark (most bands that have been around this long have by now), they're releasing one of the best albums of their career.
"But wait a minute, Ralph," you say. "That album isn't supposed to be out for another two weeks!" True as far as it goes. But if you pre-order the album from one of a select number of fine independent music emporia (as detailed on the album's web site), you'll get access to the I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass Season Pass, which includes the ability to listen to the album streaming over the tubes of the Internets. They'll also be posting a couple of MP3s that won't be available elsewhere. Not sure what those are yet, but they'll be posted over the next two weeks.
You're going to get the album anyway; you might as well get it early. Anyone can download MP3s of the first two songs from the album, the aforementioned "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and "Beanbag Chair", from the band's web site.
Posted at 11:43 AM
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Thursday, August 24, 2006
The web has been all aflutter with news of Dave Winer's latest, greatest invention, the ability to view web sites on mobile devices, which he calls "A River of News". Neat metaphor, but the approach he takes, which amounts to little more than scraping poorly authored web sites and stripping out most of the crufty presentational HTML, is wrong-headed, a gnarly hack. As Danny Ayers points out in the comments to a post by Doc Searls, there are reams of documentation on best practices for authoring web sites to allow them to display on a wide variety of devices. Winer's approach removes all branding from the sites in question, something that is absolutely unnecessary to display a site on mobile devices. It also requires visiting a different address than the normal address for a web site, which also harms the brand of the site in question.
About six weeks ago, I detailed the steps I took to make There Is No Cat work properly on mobile devices. From the user's perspective, there's no need to visit another site. From my perspective, I largely maintain my design and associated branding, adapted for the small screen. So, to show what this can look like for those of you without appropriate mobile devices, I shot a couple of photographs of this site being displayed on a couple of mobile devices. First, There Is No Cat as seen on my Palm Tungsten C, using the browser WebPro 2.5. I understand that Treos come with a later version of this browser, and it has a different name now, but the user experience should be similar.
The background is missing, but the top graphic is still there, and legible. The text is perfectly readable. The site has been reformatted to fit into a single column on mobile devices rather than the three columns shown on a computer. The user experience is comparable to that of a computer user, but tailored for the small screen.
Now, this site as seen on my wife's Siemens SX66, a Windows Mobile 2003-based PDA/phone:
The browser here is Internet Explorer Mobile. The elements of my design are largely still present. I created an alternate background graphic that presents the same kind of look and feel on smaller devices; the squares that make up the graphics are about a quarter the size they are on a computer. The header graphic is still present. The background I use for dates is different; rather than use the amorphous shape I use on a full-sized computer, I just set an identical background color; that way the background expands to fit the size of the date text when needed. On the larger computer, my graphic is pretty much large enough to fit any potential date, but it wasn't so easy to do that for mobile devices, so I compromised. But by and large, the elements of my design are still present.
And look at the URL in both of these screen shots. They're exactly the same as the URL a large screen computer user would use. The HTML is exactly the same.
It took me about an hour to create the CSS stylesheet and graphics and make one minor adjustment to my HTML to read in the mobile stylesheet. I don't have to worry about ensuring that the data on my mobile site is synchronized with that on my mainstream site; they're exactly the same site. Users don't have to remember to go to thereisnocatriver.com, or pda.thereisnocat.com; the exact same www.thereisnocat.com URL works as intended in their mobile devices.
I just know Winer's going to make another several million dollars off this move. And in doing so, that's going to set back the idea of creating standards-based sites as companies spend millions of dollars to create separate River Of News-compatible sites. But it shouldn't be that way. A conscientious web site developer who knows how to create a compelling design without using crufty HTML can create a more compelling user experience that better serves the branding needs of their clients. River of News takes the 1990s HTML "anything goes" attitude and validates it, when it should be standards-compliant code being validated. That's a mistake, a huge and potentially needlessly costly step in the wrong direction. Not to mention that it's already hard enough to convince those web developers still stuck in 1998 that developing sites to web standards is best practice. Gnarly hacks like River of News don't help.
Posted at 5:36 PM
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Wednesday, August 23, 2006
I started blogging back in December, 1999, at a blog that's now defunct. I started There Is No Cat in April, 2002, and in all that time, I've never really had a good answer to the question that comes up every so often: why do I blog?
I finally figured it out yesterday.
I have this fear that at some point, I won't be able to do this for a living any more. This probably goes back to when I was laid off in December, 2001, and went six months in my job search without a bite. (That six months was the genesis of There Is No Cat; I had a lot of free time on my hands, which I used to teach myself PHP and MySQL by writing the content management system behind TINC and my other blog, Geneablogy.) And then, when I did find a job, it was for a company that would go two and three months without paying me. Not a good situation. It really felt at the time like I would never find another job, and I don't think I've ever really lost that feeling. It's different when you don't live in Silicon Valley, I think.
I've been doing this web thing for a long time. I made my first web site in late May, 1993, at a time when there were about 130 web sites in the world. I think I read somewhere today that there are something north of 92 million web sites today, although if Technorati's claims of tracking 50 million weblogs are true, 92 million seems a little on the low side. At one early point, I looked into the possibility of licensing Mosaic to provide documentation for products I was working on, but at the time, Mosaic didn't support tables, and tables were a must for certain features of our documentation. I've given classes on how to write for the web. I've attended conferences on usability, information architecture, and the web in general for over ten years (not many in recent years, mind you). I've been voracious in my appetite for learning how best to make web sites. I've buried my head in academic research on how people use the web. I first ranted about how HTML should be marked up semantically instead of presentationally in 1996 or thereabouts when the FONT tag was introduced by Netscape. This is my medium; I know how it works, and I know what I need to do to take advantage of it. I'm a student of the history of radio, and I see a lot of parallels between the early days of radio and the early days of the net and web, and I feel honored and privileged to have been present for much of that. I would hate to lose my ability to participate in it.
In my current day job, I work on a number of sites that I didn't design (and in one case, one that I did design but that was then taken over for a couple of years by someone else and altered to the point where the fruits of my efforts are largely invisible). I have to work to code specifications that were written in the late 1990s by people who knew a lot less about how the web works than I do, specifications that dictate the use of the worst possible HTML combined with some of the worst possible writing practices. I have to grit my teeth every time someone rewrites a perfectly serviceable sentence to include the words "Click here" so they'll have something to hang a link off of. Links that consist of the word "More" don't help Google rank your content. I cringe every time I have to add a meaningless class attribute to a tag because the people who defined the stylesheets so many years ago didn't understand that you didn't have to apply a class to everything you wanted to style. I want to scream every time I have to debug a table nested seven layers deep. And when you're working on sites with several thousand pages authored to these practices, you make changes to these specifications very carefully or not at all.
It hasn't all been bleak frustration. I've had some successes. [Specific examples from my first draft of this post deleted because some of the work is not public.] But every step forward seems to be followed by two steps back. One marketing person I worked with, who seemed to take on board certain lessons from one of our projects, particularly in regard to search engine optimization, was laid off, and everyone else seemed to forget everything that was learned there despite my efforts. For political reasons I'm not free to spell out, my group was frozen out of some new efforts. Another person with whom I could talk about some concerns I had looking ahead was moved into another job. [More specifics deleted before posting.]
Nobody listens to me at work. They don't take advantage of anywhere near what I'm capable of doing. And what I do wind up doing goes against everything I know about how to succeed on the web.
By contrast, on my own sites, I do my own thing. I'm able to create sites that validate. I can make them accessible. I can code them in ways that make them easy to redesign when the urge strikes. I can code them in ways that make them perform well in search engine results. I can concentrate on creating useful microcontent like headlines and link text. I can design them. I can define designing them to include so much more than just how pretty the site is. I can define the structure, the information architecture, the page flow. I can put to use all the skills that I've developed over the years, all the reading and research I've done, all that I know and all that I've forgotten and rediscovered.
In short, I can prove that I do understand this medium, that I know what I'm doing, that I really am capable of doing so much more than I have scope for in my day job. And I prove that to myself; if I prove it to anyone else, that's great (got any job openings?), but mainly, I prove it to myself. If I wasn't able to do that, if I had to judge my abilities as a professional in my chosen field by what I do every day at work, I would go crazy.
I blog to stay sane.
Posted at 9:24 PM
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Monday, August 21, 2006
Looking through my logs, one of the worst offenders in trying to spam There Is No Cat are hosts with IP addresses from BezeqNet in Israel. In particular, I get a ton of attempted spams from IP addresses in the range 22.214.171.124 through 126.96.36.199. I decided tonight that I've had enough of BezeqNet and that, despite the fact that my spam filters are catching all of their requests and filtering them out, I just want to prevent hosts on that net from accessing my site at all, period, end of sentence, full stop, hey hey hey, good bye. I do this occasionally for the worst offenders by adding their IP addresses to my .htaccess file. Typically, if you want to deny access from a single host, an entry like the following would suffice:
Deny from 188.8.131.52
But that would only prevent accesses from that one host. I get spam attempts from a number of IP addresses in that subnet. So maybe I want to be a little more aggressive and ban everything from that subnet:
Deny from 84.110.224
Now any machine with an IP address starting with those numbers will be prevented from accessing There Is No Cat. But my logs show that I'm being hit by computers in every subnet from 84.110.224 to 84.110.255. That's a lot of entries to cover each individual set of IP addresses.
There's a quicker way of doing this.
Classless Inter Domain Routing, or CIDR, is a way of specifying a range of IP addresses that doesn't cover an entire group, just a large section of it. This is done by adding a slash and a number representing a bit mask at the end of the IP address representing the network. In the case of the Bezeqnet network I wanted to block, this could be represented as follows:
Deny from 184.108.40.206/19
Now, binary math is not my strong suit, and I'm not really inclined to explain why this works, but if you find yourself in a situation where you need to specify a number of networks like this, there are calculators online that will help you out. I like this subnet calculator, which also includes other pages for other formats of IP addresses if you're a network administrator and need such things. For the purposes of adding a list of networks to deny access to in your .htaccess file, the CIDR calculator should suffice.
I really hope at some point to be able to stop writing about this stuff. It seems silly to maintain a weblog that then draws spam and devote the whole damned thing to preventing spam. If that's all I'm going to write about, then the most effective prevention would be to not have the weblog to start with. I do expect to do one more post exploring what are the characteristics of the spam POST requests I get, then hopefully that will be it for a while.
Posted at 10:37 PM
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Tuesday, August 8, 2006
WFMU is the coolest radio station in the world, hands down. They even have a widely read station weblog. One of their program hosts, The Professor (of their program The Audio Kitchen) has for the past several months been publishing a fascinating series of posts called "Adventures in Amplitude Modulation" about listening to distant stations on AM and shortwave radio. He typically also posts recordings of the receptions he describes. A few posts back, he asked for contributions from any readers who might have interesting audio to share. I have some experience in this. So I figured I would put something together.
This week's entry in the series was largely written by me, based on a recording I made tuning across the 25 meter shortwave band in late June, shortly after the summer solstice. There are some interesting tidbits in the recordings. All told, there's about two hours worth of audio associated with the post, which may be a bit much to digest in one setting. My personal favorite is of the late evangelist Dr. Gene Scott® talking about getting laid. Dr. Gene always was a bit outrageous. I also quite like the recording of Radio Nacional da Amazonia from Brazil; there's some nice music followed by station promos that sound like commercials, kinda neat. There's also an extra bonus recording of Radio Tanzania Zanzibar on 11735 kHz; honestly, that station typically comes in somewhat better than the recording I gave The Professor to post. The summer solstice is pretty much the worst time to try to hear them from here. For anyone visiting here from the post, here's a recording of the station made today (just over an hour long, about 21 MBytes), about a month and a half after the one on the WFMU site.
I had a lot of fun putting the post together.
Posted at 10:54 PM
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