Are we real?

I wrote an article on the simulation argument which puts forward the view that we’re living inside a computer and that we may indeed have a God/creator. The article explores various elements of astrophysics, life and xenobiology, history of computing, gaming and looks at various thought experiments such as "brain in a vat".

Read the article.

Blog Spam

Blog spam is so, so, so annoying. I looked through the server logs and I have over 3200 requests to create a comment on a single blog entry of which none have gone through. So it’d seem like my CAPTCHAs have saved me the hassle of having to delete 3200 comments. And that’s just on one blog entry.

A lot of people use Akismet to deal with their spam needs. We don’t use this at the moment because Geneone lacks the support for Akismet and the CAPTCHAs seem to be a pretty good measure for stopping spam.

Even though I have CAPTCHAs, I still get blog spam. This started off several months ago and tended to consist of posts with a ton of links and junk in HTML and BBCode. I suppose the idea is that the blog software would support at least one of those input languages. This kind of obvious spam has more or less stopped.

Non-Obvious URL Link Spam 

Since then, I’ve been getting up to 3 spams on a bad day. The difference is, these commenters will often take the time to write something such as "Nice script, works in all the major browsers, I’m going to implement this on my site. Thanks!" It’s quite obvious that it’s spam as they will specify their name as "Trucks" and link to a website which just sells a ton of trucks. 

Sometimes people will take the content of an existing comment and paste that as a new comment to save them from having to write them. But they’re dead easy to spot.

CAPTCHA Sweatshops 

Even though I have CAPTCHAs, I still get spam. Why? Most likely because a human has been paid to sit there and to spam websites. This is when spammers employ people in developing countries a few cents an hour to go online and to solve CAPTCHAs. Solving 12 CAPTCHAS a minute, all day long.

An article on the Guardian website a few days talked about people in developing countries being paid to spam blogs.

Whilst we’re on the topics of blog spam, check out the blog entry from a while back about why nofollow is the wrong solution to blog spam. 

Planet Mozilla – Blog of the Week

Planet Mozilla isn’t a blog in the traditional sense. It’s an aggregation of all things Mozilla including build updates from The Burning Edge, the Mozilla Developer webwatch, discussions about the internals of Mozilla Corp., MozillaZine news, Mozilla Labs and posts from Mozilla developers. These range from posts about Thunderbird to Songbird, from XULRunner to Addons.

For anyone with an interest in browsers or Mozilla technologies in general, this is a fantastic aggregated blog to subscribe to. The number of off-topic posts seems to be pretty low and all the stuff there is pretty interesting. It also means you are the first to hear about Mozilla developments and straight from the mouth of the developers.

If you don’t want to subscribe to the full deal but just specific Mozilla blogs, check out the list of blogs on the right hand side.

Microsoft Licenses Office 2007 Interface

Office UI designer Jensen Harris reports on his blog that Microsoft has decided to license the Microsoft Office 2007 user interface to other developers under a royalty free license. This includes the Ribbon, galleries and mini toolbars.

Developers will have to get a license from Microsoft and it’ll come with several restrictions – for example it must change it’s layout when the window is resized, must include a quick access toolbar and the ribbon should disappear if the window gets below 300×250.

Word 2007 

At first glance it seems like Microsoft is simply licensing this out of the goodness of their heart. But it does make a lot of sense – people have already tried to imitate the Ribbon in their own products, without a license from Microsoft. Microsoft probably knew people were going to do it anyway so this way gives Microsoft a bit more control over how the UI is used in other programs.

There is a 120 page booklet of guidelines which developers must adhere to. Says Jensen Harris, "There’s tremendous value in making sure that we all use these models in a consistent way, because it helps to ensure that people have predictable user experiences moving between Office-style user interfaces."

To get a feel for what the guidelines look like, see this preview which shows the guidelines for ribbon resizing. 

You can use the Office 2007 UI on other operating systems but you can’t obtain a license if your product directly competes with Office 2007.

So is Microsoft’s license going to hinder or encourage the implementation of ribbon-like interfaces in other programs? Could we soon be seeing Firefox with a ribbon-like interface? Ribbon "Widgets" for your website? A whole GUI based on Ribbon?  

See the licensing web page or the press release for more information.

Via Inside Microsoft.

New Blog Design

I decided to freshen up the design on this blog. After 6 months, the old dark blue design has been retired. I’ve updated the blog to use this new theme which is the third major design iteration. This new design is based around the blues with a hint of purple and green. 

With this design, I hope to present a bigger emphasis on other content besides the blog entries. I also wanted to improve aesthetics and readability. You’ll see links from del.icio.us and photos from Flickr around the place.

I also wanted to turn the website into a better resource of useful content. As well as the del.icio.us bookmarks, the "Blog of the Week" feature has been integrated into the site. 

The Design

I based the colour theme of the site around the colours I found in the following photograph which I took in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. 

Victoria, B.C. 

This design marks a return to using sans-serif fonts, a dark on light colour scheme and a fixed width design for better readability. Oh, and a sensibly sized footer 🙂 

The design still isn’t totally final and the paint still needs to dry. I’ve been pointed towards several issues such as the fact it is quite hard to find your way home from blog entry pages, and the green header doesn’t always look in place (maybe it’d work better being purple).

I won’t claim to be a professional designer or somebody who has done a substantial amount of website designing, so any pointers in the right direction and critiques are welcome and greatly appreciated!

Old Designs

Just for comparison, here are screenshots of the two previous designs:

Salmon

Design 1 – Salmon – October 2005

2.0

Design 2 – Two Point Zero – May 2006 

Mobile Phones and Computer Speakers

Recently I’ve noticed that my computer speakers have been making strange "Bzzz" sounds periodically. I tracked down the cause to my mobile phone; I now place the mobile phone away from the computer and the sound has stopped.

This isn’t an ideal solution because the phone will need to be placed by the computer in order for data to be transferred or for the phone to be charged.

I did notice in the user manual that the mobile phone shouldn’t be used near computers but I suspect that this is simply a disclaimer for the manufacturer just incase anything does go wrong.

Has anybody experienced anything similar with their mobile phone? Are there any ways to prevent it? 

Modern Life is Rubbish – Blog of the Week

Modern Life is Rubbish is a really enjoyable web development blog. They talk about "Web 2.0" a bit too much, but the articles are really interesting.

It’s split into categories for web design & development, security and SEO

Among the interesting things recently:

And of course, let’s not forget the article on web design cliches. Reflection.js gets a link.

I love the design of this blog. 

Graphical Sparkline Microsummaries

A while ago, I wrote about Sparklines and how I implemented some sparklines into Geneone.

To recap, this is how Wikipedia describes Sparklines:

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.

Theres an interesting proposal at the Mozilla Wiki which will combine sparklines with microsummaries. Microsummaries or "Live Titles" allow you to show a succint "summary" of the bookmarked page in your bookmarks menu and toolbar.

Together, the two go really well. This is what graphical microsummaries could look like: 

Sparkline Summaries

Although it’s just a mockup, the screenshot looks absolutely beautiful and graphical microsummaries really could be a lot more useful than text-based ones.

The wiki page goes through some of the background to the idea and has some images of sparklines which give an indication of what graphic formats designers may choose to use. 

This feature gets a +1 from me.

Addendum: Unicode already has special "block characters". 

e.g. ▀▁▂▃▄▅▆▇█▉▊▋▌▍▎▏▐ ░ ▒ ▓ ▔▕▖▗▘▙ ▚ ▛ ▜▝ ▞ ▟

Sometimes people use these characters on Digg like ▀█▀ █▬█ █ ▄█▀ or MSN Messenger for special effect. Can we emulate graphical microsummaries using unicode and text?

Plans for Cow's Blog

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed a drop in the frequency of updates at this blog. This is due to several reasons mainly boiling down to the fact that I’ve now got so little free time.

The amount of work and commitments is stacking up and generally life has been a lot more busy. I haven’t managed to update Geneone, Evolution or Reflection.js recently for exactly the same reasons.

I haven’t written much recently simply because I haven’t been able to research material. I’ve tried to turn the blog into a hub of useful links and resources – into a homepage for my activities across the internet, into a useful resource of links and blogs.

The "Blog of the Week" feature provides an interesting blog each week which I hope will be of interest and I’m bookmarking a lot of pages on del.icio.us.

I’m hoping to redesign the blog sometime soon with a bigger emphasis on these features. I hope to keep the blog active as well but it probably won’t be running the two-updates-a-day routine which I’ve maintained previously.

Interestingly enough, I made a very similar post this time last year. Do autumns always spark downturns for blogs?

More on Firefox Tabs

Further to my post on Chromatabs, I decided to investigate a few other Firefox tabbed browsing related extensions.

Chromatabs

Chromatab was an interesting extension. Although it’s a really nice concept, I didn’t really like it so much in practice. It made it really hard to identify the active/selected tab and as the vast majority of sites I had open I had never visited before, I didn’t form a connection between the site and the colour. Additionally, various sites ended up with very similar colours.

See also: Colourful Tabs 

Aging Tabs

Aging Tabs is a really nice extension which stays out of the way. Its unobtrusive but it manages to display useful information. I love it on it’s default configuration. When I’m developing or designing I may often have about 6 or 7 tabs open – only two or three of which I use. Aging Tabs makes it really easy to identify those tabs pertaining to the current task.

If you are the kind of person who visits Slashdot or Digg and opens up 10 tabs and then spawns even more tabs for interesting links found on those pages, Aging Tabs could come in really handy.

I experimented with the options of Aging Tabs and adding colour, but I found it worked fantastically on it’s default configuration. 

FaviconizeTab 

This extension adds a new "FaviconizeTab" option to the context menu of the tab.
When it is clicked, The width of the tab becomes small up to the size of favicon.
It returns to the former size when "FaviconizeTab" is clicked again.

I haven’t tried this extension yet but it looks quite cool. It could come in handy if you have a few tabs open and you want to keep them open, but don’t plan on using them for quite a while.