April 2, 2006

The writing on the wall

No, yesterday’s lack of a post was not an April Fool’s joke :p I ended up having to attend a family funeral on Friday and given that it was about eight hours away from home, I was playing catch up most of yesterday. So no post yesterday.

Today, I have something interesting (or not so interesting, depending on your perspective :p) to announce. I was thinking the other day about the ancient art of graffiti :p No, not crude obscenities scrawled on a toilet wall somewhere but artistic (or near artistic) work put up on a wall by some aspiring artist who wanted a different (and larger) canvas. We have an example of that on a wall at the tennis court below our house. It is adorned with the most intricately painted lettering announcing something or other.

But let’s forget the art for a moment. What do people do in this electronic age when they need to just scrawl something on a wall to express themselves? Sure forums and message boards abound, but what do you do to express yourself graphically? Where can you scrawl "Kilroy was here" in the age of the Internet? What about those "secret admirer" columns that the newspapers here are so fond of? Where can you say "To the girl wearing the red t-shirt I saw at the mall – I love you!" on the Web?

I was thinking about this the other day and I began working on something which might fulfil this need – or not :p I call it Shout Out! It’s simply a site where you can put up a message to be read by all the anonymous millions out there on the Net. Yes, you can put up a text message as well but I would prefer it to be graphical – even if it is simply a graphic using a "handwriting" font so that it keeps true to the spirit of graffiti. So come on, if you have a message to send to the rest of the world, a secret to share with strangers or a thought to share with somebody that you’re too shy to say out loud, this is the place to go 🙂 Send me your message and I’ll put it up on Shout Out!

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Posted by Fahim at 7:58 am  |  No Comments

March 31, 2006

Blog, why do I do it?

Should I scream out "for absolutely no reason!"? :p Actually, sometimes I do wonder why I continue to blog. In the old days, before blogging was a buzz-word and you didn’t have all the blogging sites and blogging tools, I remember that I hand coded my blog in DreamWeaver. I was hosted on Tripod at that time and that first Paleolithic blog actually served a purpose. I was doing LiteStep development at that point and since I was the sole developer on the project at that point, I used my blog (it wasn’t called a blog then – I don’t know if the term had been coined by then :p) to keep LiteStep users informed as to what was going on with development.

Then I left the LiteStep project and started my own break-away project, DarkStep. And the blog continued so that people can see what was going on with DarkStep, download new builds and so on. I believe these development blogs continued from 1999 till about 2000 – though I can’t be totally certain of the time frames now 🙂 In March of 2001, I think I first became aware of the actual concept of blogging and wanted to give it a go since it was suddenly the rage :p I think I set up a Blogger account as the first step and used it for about a week. I became tired of the constant service outages and the fact that sometimes I’d post an entry but it would not get published due to date/time inconsistencies or some other junk like that.

I believe I wanted to try GreyMatter at this point but Tripod would not let me run perl scripts at that point (not sure if does now). So I looked around a little bit longer for a good blogging alternative but didn’t find anything which did everything that I wanted. So, I decided to write my own and so, Blog was born :p So what with my development work on Blog and other software I was developing and all the users who were interested to know what was going on, there was actually a need for a blog and I kept the blog going. In fact, by this time the original blog on Tripod had developed two other mirrors courtesy of a couple of kind people who liked my development work 🙂

Eventually, the blog became such a tightly integrated part of my schedule and I was blogging about so many things both about day-to-day life stuff and coding related stuff, that I decided to create another blog for the personal stuff and keep the main blog limited to coding related issues. So, I created Solipsistic Meanderings – the main blog was called The Developer’s Corner at that time. The first instance of SM ran on Movable Type but I was writing my entries in an alternate version of Blog that I called BlogMan and was publishing via XMLRPC. After a while, I switched to WordPress when MovableType went commercial and BlogMan became integrated into Blog itself. Then life got really busy and my freeware coding slowed down and even SM went into a sort of hibernation for a while.

When SM finally did come out of its hibernation, I realized that maintaining two blogs was just too much hassle and so I combined The Developer’s Corner and Solipsistic Meandering back into one blog :p Yes, it’s been quite a long journey and in many forms. There were needs for this blog at certain points because it served a purpose. Now, I simply write because I want to. I don’t really know how many people read it any longer. I know some of the old readers from the days gone by still hang out here but most of my traffic seems to come from Google hits :p I sometimes wonder if there is a need for a blog any longer but since I enjoy writing it, I keep going 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:26 am  |  1 Comment

March 30, 2006

Blogging, traffic and reasons

One of the writing forums I frequent also has a forum on blogging. Somebody mentioned BlogExplosion and BlogMad there recently as a means of increasing your blog traffic. Now I don’t particularly care about traffic to my blogs but I do like technology and so I decided to sign up for both and see how they work 🙂

They both work pretty much about the same. You sign up for free, create a profile, add your blog(s) to your profile and then you start earning credits by browsing the blogs of other members of the service. For each credit you earn, you get a visit sent your way by BlogMad or BlogExplosion. The differences between the two services are minimal. In fact, the only real difference that I see is that BlogExplosion gives you half a credit for visiting a member site but takes away a credit when a member visits your site. BlogMad on the other hand keeps it at a 1:1 ratio.

So how do they ensure that a member actually visits your site and stays long enough to read anything? :p That’s the tricky part. What both services do is to have little navigation bar at the bottom or top of the browser window while you visit member sites. Each time you go to a new member site, the navigation bar starts a little counter. You have to wait till the counter goes down to zero and then select a displayed number from a list of numbers to signify that you are actually doing the browsing instead of having a robot (or a macro) do it for you :p Of course, this still does not mean that the person actually reads the site.

And that’s the problem with both the services. I signed up yesterday and had 80 visitors from BlogMad (they give you some credits to start off with :p) and about 20 visitors from BlogExplosion but I’m not sure that any of them actually read my site. Or maybe I was just too boring for them to comment on :p Either way, I guess the issue is that there a lot of people out there who just want the traffic and aren’t interested in doing any real work to get it. So not sure that BlogMad or BlogExplosion works in the spirit they are intended to be used in …. Of course, that’s just my opinion 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 8:46 am  |  1 Comment

March 25, 2006

That fiendish spam :p

First there were the blogs. Then came the comment systems. And then came blog spam. In the old days when Blogger was new and "blog" wasn’t a buzzword, we didn’t have to deal with stuff like comment spam. We could go online, post our thoughts and that would be that. Now, I spend most of my time weeding out comment spam on my blog than I do on actually writing an entry :p

Of course, comment spam mutated into trackback spam and then pingback spam. For the longest time, I would get up in the morning and would have hundreds of trackback spam entries to wade through and to delete. I then developed the WPBlacklist plugin for WordPress and that made things a bit easier – it would automatically delete all comments, trackbacks and pingbacks marked as spam. But as these things have a tendency to do, spammers got smarter. Simple blacklisting wasn’t enough after a while. They would consistently get around blacklisting, again and again. So I switched WordPress plugins to combat the problem.

I installed Bad Behaviour for WordPress and Spam Karma. For a few months, I had no trackback spam attacks and whatever comment spam that came my way was caught by Spam Karma most of the time. That was till a week or so ago. Instead of a couple of spam messages a night, I suddenly started getting ten or so a night. And then a couple of days ago, I started getting trackback spam again. Now I get about fifty spam messages a night. This is still a far cry from the hundreds that I used to get nightly but it looks as if that I might be back to that soon if this trend continues.

So I have to conclude one of two things – I have either become very popular amongst spammers or Bad Behaviour is not as effective as it used to be. Spam Karma still does tag all of this as spam and does not display it on my blog but the problem is that I have to wade through all this spam in the morning and delete it since Spam Karma simply holds the spam – it does not automatically delete it. The authors of both Spam Karma and Bad Behaviour have said that spammers are becoming smarter in how they write they spambots. Perhaps this is just an indication that this is true. If so, then it’s time for the next generation of weapons in the anti-spam arsenal. I just hope they get here soon :p

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Posted by Fahim at 7:58 am  |  No Comments

March 23, 2006

Maps and miscellanies

A couple of days ago, I came across Frappr while doing some web browsing and decided to join up myself 🙂 So I created a group for this site and put up up a map on the sidebar. Of course, it doesn’t seem to work too well since I can’t get the world beyond America to show up! Maybe there is no world beyond America? :p I honestly have no idea what is going on with Frappr but then again, my Net connection has been rather slow lately and so the map not showing correctly might be just a symptom of this overall issue.

Moving on, I constantly run into an interesting phenomena – the paranoia of authors 🙂 Now, given how many scammers seem to be out there and the variety of ingenious ways they seem to find to part poor, naive would-be authors from their money, you can’t really blame the authors for being imbued with a healthy sense of suspicion. But on the other hand, there can be such a thing as too much of anything 🙂

The problem is when instead of being simply wary, people start going down the "guilty until proven innocent" track. There is at least one writers’ forum that I’m part of where a publisher only has to come in and post that they are looking for submissions before the inquisition starts (and it’s not Spanish :p) You’d get a bunch of posts about how the said publisher does not have any sales or that they haven’t published anything recently or what not. Again, I can understand caution but every business has to start somewhere, right? A start up business is not going to have any publications to its credit. Does that automatically make it suspect? I for one, do not think so.

However, this is not to say that you should not proceed with caution in any dealings. Of course, this doesn’t apply just to writers but if you’re a writer, I guess you should be especially careful. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is :p If they start asking you for money, do some checking – no matter how trivial the amount or how reasonable the request. But, do not go around in fear all your life and do not stop submitting just because there are a lot of crooks out there 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:09 am  |  No Comments

March 10, 2006

Things to do and places to be

Today is my off day but unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if I will have much time to rest or relax :p There’s quite a few things that I need to get done and we also have to go out today. First, there is the server that I’m setting up for a friend. That’s kind of set up with Apache, PHP and mySQL but I want to do some changes to the SMTP and POP daemons and I still haven’t got around to doing that.

Then there are some site changes that I’m contemplating 🙂 Yesterday I realized that my writing page needed more stuff in there. I only had a few lines on the books I’m working on at the moment but nothing about all the stuff that I’ve published so far. So I started work on modifying the page and adding a lot more information but that’s going rather slowly 🙂 I’ve managed to set up separate pages for my fiction and non-fiction, to put up a few samples of fiction I’ve published so far and that was about it. I still need to complete the non-fiction page but that’s a pretty large task by itself since I have had around five or six regular columns at one time or another – not to mention all the other miscellaneous articles that I’d done. So the non-fiction page is going to need some work 🙂

Then there is the fact that my niece and nephew are leaving today. We’ll have to take them over the airport, see them off and so on. Since it’s an hours trip to the airport and an hour back, that’s probably going to take care of the whole afternoon. And that’s my whole day gone for today and I start work tomorrow again. Ah, to have a five day week instead of a six day one! I long for the days when I used to work only five days a week :p

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Posted by Fahim at 8:17 am  |  No Comments

March 5, 2006

Things to do and places to be …

With people in the house (rather than just the two of us) the days are blending into one rapid blur which is becoming rather alarming in a way. We left on Friday morning (since Friday is my day off) for a bout of shopping and did not return till late in the day on Friday. I think we bought over 60 DVD’s in one day alone :p The rest of the day was spent in simply cataloguing all the DVD’s we’d bought.

Yesterday went by so fast that I didn’t even have time to turn around. I didn’t make my usual blog entry because I just didn’t have the time and then on top of it all, I’ve been falling behind on my writing as well. It’s really hard to concentrate with the TV blaring on one side, a child asking questions and so many things going on around you. I really envy Louis L’Amour who said that he could sit in the busiest plaza in the world, have hist typewriter on his knee and be able to hammer out a story :p Actually, I’ve done something similar and so, I guess the problem isn’t crowds but having people around that know you and can interrupt you 🙂

Today’s been another whirlwind day and I have only been up for a couple of hours! A friend of mine is getting a new dedicated server for his site and he’s been kind enough to invite me (at least the virtual me :p) to take residence on his server. I’m still not certain when/if I will move but I’ve been working on setting up his server, ensuring things are shipshape and generally making sure that it will be secure and functional. That’s been taking up a bit of time since yesterday. I still am in the process of doing some of the stuff there and have some questions about a few things since this is a slightly different environment than I’m used to. So lots of stuff to do but not much in the way of writing :p

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Posted by Fahim at 8:33 am  |  2 Comments

February 26, 2006

Heavenly movies and other stuff

I am a sucker for a good love story – anybody who’s read these pages for long enough knows this :p Despite all the bed-hopping that would put an Olympic-class bedbug to shame, Hollywood still manages to put out a good love story every once in a while that leaves both the Bollywood and Mollywood movie industries combined in the dust. "Just Like Heaven" is such a movie.

We got the movie just a couple of days ago and we went in not knowing anything about it. In fact, we got the movie mostly because it had Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon in it. We watched it last night and I was enthralled. Sure, others might call it a typical, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy or something but to me, it was a beautiful, funny and moving cinematic experience :p

There wasn’t anything spectacular or though provoking about the story or the movie. Nothing which makes you sit up and think about stuff. But still, it tells a story about characters that are real – or can be real, in a believable way. I liked the central characters, their mannerisms and the way they interact with the rest of the world. Once you’ve got good, believable characters that you are invested in, the rest is all the way downhill :p If you like a good, solid love story with some good bits of humour thrown in, "Just Like Heaven" is one not to be missed 🙂

In other news, I’ve decided to do a release of Blog 8.0 beta 5 sometime today or tomorrow 🙂 I’ve finally managed to spruce up the Blog page so that it is consistent with the look of the new Bytes page. I have to do the same for the other application pages but haven’t gotten around to doing so yet :p But eventually, I should get that done too. In the meantime, I want to release this beta of Blog since it is at a stage where I feel comfortable about the functionality. However, I must confess that most of the stuff that I’ve been working on these days have been related to XMLRPC-based posting rather than classic Blog posting. But the classic stuff should (hopefully) work fine too 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 8:13 am  |  No Comments

February 25, 2006

To Analyze and Categorize

Now that I’ve got Blog categories working fine via WordPress (or vice versa :p) and the Heat Map plugin is doing an excellent job of displaying a tag cloud (or at least simulating one), I decided that it was time to do one more thing – go through all my old entries and re-categorize them to reflect the actual subject matter.

Since none of my old entries had categories assigned, it was easy enough. All I had to do was make the default category (General) count zero :p Of course, in order to actually do this, I had to go read all of my old entries, find the categories that they belonged to, create the categories if they weren’t there and then add the categories to the entries. This meant that I basically had to do a lot of reading of my own old entries.

I did learn a few interesting stuff about how I used to do things :p It looks as if I wasn’t as compulsive about entries in the past as I am now. But it also looks as if I was a lot less controlled in what I wrote. There were a lot more introspective entries where I would just talk out loud to clarify my thoughts and there certainly was a lot more about what was going on with me on a day to day basis. And there was a lot more soapboxing too :p

It looks as if I have gotten too busy (or a bit more reserved) nowadays. I hardly ever talk about stuff going on in real life any more and I don’t do that much of reflective writing (at least not the soul searching variety). Even my comments on movies used to be much more reflective whereas now, it’s more descriptive but not does not go into so much detail about the ideas behind the movie. Not sure if the changes are a good thing but they certainly are there 🙂

Of course, now that categories have become that much more important, I have started thinking about how Blog can be improved to utilize categories. One idea is to have a way to navigate entries not just by date but also by category. I’m not exactly sure how to implement this yet – perhaps a tab panel where the calendar currently is so that you can switch between calendar and category views? – but I do want to look into a method to do this. The other thing is to have a hierarchical category view so that you can have a bunch of categories under another category – for instance, movies, books, television and music under entertainment. WordPress supports such a hierarchy but it does not affect how things work beyond the categorization itself. In Blog, I simply want it for ease of organization and for ease of access to different categories. Again not quite sure how to implement it (without breaking any existing functionality that is :p)

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Posted by Fahim at 8:24 am  |  No Comments

February 24, 2006

Tags, categories and changes

After getting the latest builds of Blog to work, I have decided to remove Ultimate Tag Warrior from the mix here on SM. This is not due to any issues with UTW itself – it’s a great plugin and does the job well – but due to me realizing that UTW was overkill and that for what I was doing, it introduced overhead that wasn’t needed 🙂

Basically, I post all my entries from Blog. I never use the WP admin interface much except to remove spam. I do all my editing, posting and other entry management stuff via Blog itself. The only reason I was looking for a tag cloud mechanism was so that I could show a visual representation of the various topics covered on this site and let somebody interested drill down easily to only the posts that interested them. UTW allows you to do all that but in my case, I was simply converting categories to tags to do this. Since the categories are a built-in feature of WordPress, it occurred to me that I didn’t need the overhead of UTW (which would slow down XMLRPC to an extent) if I had a plugin which displayed a tag cloud based on my categories.

Enter the WordPress Heat Map plugin which does exactly that 🙂 After a brief search of the Net, I actually found a couple of different alternatives. The other one was the Weighted Categories plugin, which apparently inspired the author of the Heat Map Plugin. However, the Heat Map plugin appeared to be better maintained and supported and so, I went with that :p Incidentally, the author of the Weighted Categories plugin is apparently working on a way to make his plugin work with keywords instead of categories. I would be interested in that if it didn’t create too much overhead and worked without any issues with XMLRPC-based posting. But I doubt it … There is another plugin which supports keywords – the Keywords plugin, and the author is apparently working on tag cloud kind of support. Unfortunately, it works basically the same as UTW (just not as well :p) and so, I don’t see the point to pursuing that one either :p

Basically, what I’d like from a keyword tagging plugin for WP, is for the plugin to examine each new post, identify the keywords automatically and then add them as tags. Of course, at the moment, that appears to be too much to ask for :p The biggest problem appears to be identifying the keywords. Yahoo Content Analysis doesn’t do too great a job of it as I’ve mentioned before and while Tagyu does do a much better job, it is abominably slow and tends to end up in my XMLRCP session timing out before the analysis is done :p The best solution would be something that the plugin can do itself instead of contacting an external server but the implementation is the key ….

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