500

Well, this is the 500th post on my blog since it begun on August 17th last year – just under a year ago.

I’ve recieved 905 comments in the last year and I’d like to thank you all for your contributions and participation. I hope that you’ve found the blog an interesting read and a useful resource. I’ve enjoyed blogging and reading your comments and feedback. I’d like to return the favour so if you’ve got a blog, please let me know about it through the comments!

As I’ve reached 500, I’m going to take a bit of a break from blogging. Subscribe to the feed for updates.

YouTube

YouTube is probably the internet’s favourite video site. It has videos such as clips from television shows such as The Office, Extras and the Simpsons, movie trailers, Karl Pilkington clips, etc. There are also some great music videos and parodies.

It seems like everything on Youtube which is actually worth watching is copyrighted and may not be on Youtube legally. Type in the name of a television show or celebrity and you’ll normally find a few dozen clips from the show. These range from blatently pirated recordings where someone has taken a camcorder into a cinema to DVD rips of films and deleted scenes.

For example, type in the name of a fantastic science fiction television show and the videos include opening credits, whole episodes, outtakes, DVD features and even alternate opening titles

Most of this content probably isn’t legal although I know that Youtube have deals with some companies so there’s no telling whether what you’re watching on Youtube is actually allowed to be there. However, most of it is probably illegal so I don’t know how Youtube gets away with it. 

Besides copyrighted content, there is nothing decent to watch on Youtube. Music videos (where people take clips from a show and remix them to music) are most likely illegal as they contain copyrighted music. In fact, the only thing worth watching on Youtube which isn’t copyrighted commercial content is probably The Wine Kone. But even his videos often contain clips of copyrighted commercial music.

Google Video is an example of a website which actually stops people from uploading copyrighted content (or makes it difficult). It’s no where near as popular and there isn’t much to watch on it.

And apparently Youtube is worth $1bn. Anyone who buys Youtube is buying nothing but lawsuits.

IE7 to be distributed through Automatic Updates

The IE Team Blog:

To help our customers become more secure and up-to-date, we will distribute IE7 as a high-priority update via Automatic Updates (AU) shortly after the final version is released for Windows XP, planned for the fourth quarter of this year.

The blog entry adds that users will be given a option of whether to update but I suspect many people will just Install it without reading it. 

This news is kind of expected and it could be considered good news for web developers – a lot of people are going to have Internet Explorer 7 by sometime in the middle of next year and we’ll be able to use things such as PNGs with alpha transparency.

From a user point of view, I’m not too sure about this. IE7 totally changes the user interface, which IMO is a step backwards, which is going to confuse a lot of people. In fact, I suspect it’ll be easier for a user to upgrade from IE6 to Firefox 2.0 than to IE7 because Firefox feels more familiar. Certainly from experience with people I know, they barely noticed Firefox 1.5 was different to IE6 but IE7 felt alien.

A couple of weeks ago, I was pondering whether I should write a post proclaiming that IE7 is actually worse than IE6. I decided not to as I wanted to await the final version before making judgement. However, I believe the current beta of IE7 is harder to use than IE6 and a lot more complex and cluttered (some of the UI matches Mozilla Suite for complexity). It does add some great new features such as tabbed browsing, feed reading, phishing protection and an integrated search box which are nice but they are paid for by the messed up interface.

On the rendering side, I think IE7 is still pretty poor – the Javascript parser and debugger sucks, pages still look crap and it still lacks many of the web developer features which make it so much easier to develop for Firefox (WHATWG, Canvas, CSS3, etc.) 

Forum Sparklines

A few days ago I wrote about sparklines which are an interesting way of adding non-intrusive visual information through small graphs. I implemented some sparklines in the Geneone Forum mainly as an experiment but they seem to have been well-recieved (better than I expected) and I believe they are worth developing further.

The following screenshots come from the Evolution 5 Forum which has a different skin from the Geneone default so the actual look of the sparklines on a Geneone forum will be different. All the screenshots are from live data.

Forum View 

Sparkline 

A small sparkline has been added to the right of the "comment count" for each discussion. I thought this was the most logical place as the sparklines were directly related to the number of comments. The sparkline shows the number of comments made in the 7 previous days.

The sparkline has shown some interesting trends. Some discussions seem to have decreased in activity exponentially whilst others fluctuate.

No body has actually gone out of their way to complain about these mini-graphs but some people noted they are quite nice. The graphs certainly add a bit of clutter to the page but they also provide another way of visualizing data so these factors will have to be weighed up against each another.

Further work and investigation:

  • Investigate the best location and placement for the graphs.
  • Investigate the best way to format the graph (line or bar, width of bars, etc)
  • Determine how useful the information is.

Discussion Pages

Sparkline 

In the sidebar, the number of views and comments are shown along with graphs of activity over the last 14 days. These two graphs are pretty unintrusive so I don’t think anyone would have a problem with this information in the sidebar.

The Safety of Root

These days it’s more or less recommended practice to use your computer from a limited account for day to day use. On Linux, this is standard procedure but on Windows a lot of people still use their system under the Administrator account. I certainly don’t disagree with the suggestion to use a limited user account.

Under Linux, I use a limited user account. On Windows, I use the Administrator account. 

Firstly, I don’t think running your computer under a limited user account provides much extra protection. The most important thing, to me, on my computer is my data – my work, photos and music. I’m not too bothered about my software as if I ever had to wipe my computer, I could reinstall it all again.

As far as I am concerned, the worst thing a malicious program could do would be to ransom or delete all my work, photos and music. I don’t care if it deletes all the programs or renders the system unbootable – I can always reinstall it. For normal home users it may be more of a pain to have to start again but there are some pretty decent software packages today to get your data.

So whilst using a standard account makes it harder for someone to compromise your whole system, it’s just as easy to compromise your data which is what really matters (IMO). For that reason, I still use the Administrator account on Windows.

On my system, I also have several other accounts configured for family members. I know they won’t be installing any programs but yet I have given them Administrator accounts. This is because when I tried it with normal user accounts there were all kinds of problems with the printer not working properly, applications breaking, etc. It’s a lot less hassle on Windows to use an Administrator account. And the trade-off in security isn’t too great.

On Linux there is no reason to be using the root account every day because all software for Linux is designed to work under standard user priviledges. Hopefully Vista will change this for Windows.

The Internet's Obsession with Google

I only use 2 Google services every day: Google Search (Web & Images) and Google Adsense (not out of choice but because every site on the net has Adsense these days). I have not replaced MSN Messenger with Google Talk, I have not replaced Thunderbird with Gmail, I have not replaced Microsoft Office with Writely and Google Spreadsheets.

I admit, Google makes some decent products. Google’s search engine is still miles ahead of the competition and I can’t see myself using another search engine for quite an amount of time. Google Earth provides fantastic satellite imagery but I’ve never used it for anything else. Google Toolbar, Picasa, Desktop, Talk, Spreadsheets can be useful utilities but I’ve never liked them. Other companies – notably Microsoft – make much better products. Google Video is pretty decent but Youtube knocks the socks off Google (primarily because it has decent content). Google Maps has been easily rivalled by Yahoo and Microsoft’s offerings.

What really annoys me is every time I log on to the internet there’ll be an article on half the blogs I read and Digg speculating about a future Google product launch. Everytime there is a change in the robots.txt file it’ll make headline news. Someone will find a file which Google has accidently left on the web and people begin speculating. A small change to the visual user interface of Adsense or some screenshots of some user interface changes to Google which are currently being tested get posted again and again and again.

Sure, Google are a great company. They’ve done some great things. But people are obsessed with Google and every single trivial thing to do with Google will make the headlines. And right now, I’m sick of reading about Google. 

PHP 5.2

The guys at PHP are getting ready for a 5.2 release – the third major release in the 5.x range. A public release candidate has been released though I’m not sure if you can get binaries or where you can get them.

Given that it took a few months to reach this point and addition of new features was allowed the changelog already looks extremely impressive. Some of the key changes include things like 3 new extensions (filter, json and zip), the date extension had the rest of its functionality enabled, much work was done in terms of getting PHP 5.2 to run faster and more efficiently (in terms on memory usage). There have also been nearly 80 bug fixes made to existing functionality, which hopefully translates to a more stable release.

Filter functionality is really nice. There’s a bit of info on it on the PHP.net documentation; it gives a safe and quick way of getting user input. It does a similar job to PEAR::Validate and the Gene_Request class I use. Hopefully this will be turned on by default.

JSON support can be really useful. JSON is emerging as a new standard for data exchange between server and clients, often used with XmlHttpRequest. I’ve currently got my own code to convert a PHP object into a JSON object which is about 50 lines long but it’s not fantastic. JSON support could save a lot of time. Again, I hope this is turned on by default.

Other changes including the bundled MySQL client library being updated to v5.0.22, quite a lot of performance improvements, image_type_to_extension(), data: stream support, memory_get_peak_usage(), error_get_last() and many bug fixes.

Sparklines

Sparklines are a really interesting way of presenting information on a webpage.

According to Wikipedia:

Sparklines are a format developed by Edward Tufte for small graphic charts which can be inserted within text on a page.

Tufte describes sparklines as "data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics". Whereas the typical chart is designed to show as much data as possible, and is set off from the flow of text, sparklines are intended to be succinct, memorable, and located precisely where appropriate.

You can see an example of their usage on the Information Aesthetics blog. You can use the PHP Sparkline graphing library which can make it easy to generate some Sparklines.

I think Sparklines are a great way of showing information in cases where a graph would present the information well but the information isn’t really important enough to warrant a large graph. Another advantage of sparklines is that they can appear inline in a passage of text.

Forum 

I decided to experiment with introducing Sparklines a bit by trying to introduce them into a forum. It’s possible that sparklines can show all kinds of stuff such as when posts are made, how active a user is on the forum, etc. I’ve currently implemented them as an indicator of activity in a forum discussion.

Geneone Forum Sparklines

This screenshot is actually photoshopped as I don’t have a large enough forum on Localhost to produce any decent graphs. I’ve pasted a graph using some sample data on top of the blank graphs which I actually get on Localhost. A lot of forums these days will show information such as the number of views but I’ve never particularly found it useful. Several users have been asking for it and it’d be interesting to see whether using Sparklines will make the data any more useful.

Possible uses of Sparklines in a forum:

  • To show a user’s activity
  • To show the "karma" or the number of upvotes/downvotes on a comment
  • To show the activity of a discussion or forum
  • To show the number of people online over the last 24 or 48 hours 

Google Blogoscoped – Blog of the Week

As fed up as I am of continuously reading about Google every day (more on this later), Philipp Lenssen’s Google Blogoscoped still manages to be a really interesting blog. Although it’s mainly about Google, it’s not all about Google. There are posts on other search engines, cool web sites, challenges and some cool experiments. It’s written by the same guy who wrote 55 Ways to Have Fun With Google.

I really like the writing style of Blogoscoped – the posts are generally quite short and easy to read – they link to the source and relevant sites and the blog doesn’t obsess about tedious stuff like a new domain registered to Google or a change to the robots.txt file.

Google Operating System is a similar blog which I also enjoy reading; again mainly about Google but also about related stuff.

Messenger Birthday and Games

A lot of people don’t know that today (July 22nd), MSN Messenger (or Windows Live Messenger as it is now called) has turned 7. In those 7 years, the MSN Messenger network has brought millions of people together. I’ve been using MSN Messenger for about 5 years, since the days of version 2.

In that time, I’ve changed my MSN e-mail address about 6 times. I remember the second version when MSN Messenger was very simple; it did very little – it was a bit like what Google Talk is today. I’ve never really used any other IM system or network for an extended amount of time (though I had a brief stint on ICQ before I found MSN.

As annoying as Messenger can be sometimes, there is no doubt that it has saved me a lot of hassle and pain. Homework collaboration and sharing resources is a lot easier as is checking arrangements for events.

Messenger Games

Through MSN Messenger you can play a lot of games with your contacts and you also get a ranking table for each game comparing your wins and losses with your contacts. You can launch Games by clicking on the Games icon at the top of conversation window. In Windows Live Messenger, this is indicated by a chess piece and a card.

The games you can launch will vary depending on your region; for example people in Denmark get tons of games from Sporkle. The games you can get in the UK are pretty poor but you can launch games which are only available in other territories in the Mess.be Games Launcher (click on Games Launcher in the left hand nav; you’ll need to use IE).

The most addictive game is probably 7 Hand Poker. It’s slightly different from normal poker and of course because it’s being played over the internet, it can be easier/harder to bluff. I’ve set up a little poker launcher which will let you launch the game really quickly. It’s really easy to get the hang of – the "Help" button pretty much explains it all. I played a few friends and now it seems like everyone is addicted. I’ve won about 60% of my 110 games so far.

MSN Poker 

Other great activities include Hexic, Checkers, Cubis, Mozaki Blocks and Bejeweled. Messenger games tend to require you to think so they can work as a pretty good workout for the brain.

You can get some additional third party games at World’s Best App. Sudoku Sniper is really nice.