opinion

On being a happy developer …

… is sometimes enough to get you quoted in the most prestigious circles. I was just skimming through the stats on Forargyll.com and found to my delight 4 hits today from the WPMU Developers site wpmudev.org — had a look, and there’s my profile pic from Facebook (sheesh) alongside a short testimonial from me. Top!

Of Genealogy and WordPress

When we wanted to create a site for a family tree we naturally turned to WP. Why? Well, the one-click install on BlueHost, a need to record research as it happened, and a flexible content management system were part of it, and the other was, that well, WP is our weapon of choice.

So, Dixon-Spain.com was launched and development done on an ad hoc basis. For 12 months that was fine. The site tickled along, and as more information became available on the net, references and summaries were added to the site. All well and good.

And then the genealogy research got a little more in depth, and the demands on the WP install became a little more onerous: particularly the need to display more than one line. How to accommodate this in one blog? Well, there was the TNG plugin, which is not really a proper integration, levering an external MySQL / PHP app. into the WP framework. That wasn’t a route which fitted well with our core aim: to do it all with WP. Then we looked at what we had available to install on our Bluehost server, and joy of joys, Buddypress presented itself. Actually we were more excited by the presence of the underlying WPMU architecture.

So we designed a theme off the back of the delightful twitterish Tworrder, installed 7 or 8 relevant plugins and constructed a useable environment for Genealogists with WP expertise. At the moment it is not in any way perfect, but given the use of pages for people, and the blog for research updates, it fulfills the brief in a ‘janky’ kinda way.

Moreover, as we develop it and develop our research we’re going to refine the family tree fit, and hopefully the site will become used by more families than ours. And the name? Our Illustrious Family! because all families are illustrious … of course.

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Going Web 2.0 with the NHS

Reading this on the ongoing farce that is the government procured NHS computer programme, it occurred to me that they really should have created a web-based suite of applications. No, really. Had they done so, they’d've immediately cut their budget from £12.7bn to maybe a tenth of that. They could have used existing PCs and networks, and ensured they were not locked in to proprietory technologies. Ok, so there’d be applications which would require more raw processing power than could be delivered by the network, but as long as the results could be broken down into manageable, readable files, then where’s the difficulty?

And accessing patient records would be a (very secure) breeze. It would work like this: everyone gets a personal website from the day they were born, where all their details are stored, and they’re the only people who can log on and see everything (once they’d reached their majority of course). There would be some things that the person can edit, like their address, personal preferences and relationships, and others that the professionals involved could edit, either with the consent of the individual, or in the case of, say a diagnosis or prescription, without it. Pages would only be viewable with the patient’s consent, and would be protected by the highest level of encryption available at that time.

Then of course all of the data would be held centrally, and be accessible to the patient anywhere in the world where there’s a PC with a browser capable of the required level of encryption. Imagine that, go to Turkey and find that if you get blood poisoning the medics there would be able to view your records and see what medication you are currently on. Big plus. You could granularise the access too: maybe we’d have publically available medical profiles for emergencies — which the patient could choose what to display.

So of course there are security issues, with huge levels of complexity about who can access what, and how access codes are securely distributed, but frankly if we wanted to future-proof the thing, well, shoving it in to a vast online database would do the trick. Maybe it wouldn’t be absolutely secure, but what government facility has ever been secure? I know that is not really an argument, but I am sure present levels of encryption would be good enough.

But then you take it further, perhaps each person should have a webpage which includes their education record, their criminal record, their income tax … everything. How would that be? A recipe for disaster or a way in which each individual can keep track of their affairs, and maybe have more control over them — imagine for example having a live readout on your credit rating by logging onto your personal webpage.

I come back to the original idea tho’ — they should have used the net, surely?

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The Blog is Dead! Long Live the Blog!

Charles Arthur declares the long tail of blogging dead in “Blogging: The Long and Short of it” and he’s got some persuasive observations about how the small fry of the blogosphere are pulling the plug on their weblogs and migrating wholesale to the likes of Facebook, Bebo and of course Twitter. Unsurprising really, given the effort it takes to keep a blog going if not relevant. For those who stick with it though, their audience is likely to increase simply by the ongoing attrition Arthur identifies.

The great effect of blogs has been to universalise the creation of webpages, to allow the common-or-garden user to make their mark on the internet. The logical development of the blog is the microblog and the social network, both of which have made the publication of these thoughts, links, pictures and connections easier again. The trade-off is between creating a clear online identity which can market your brand, your product or yourself, and swimming as part of a shoal in a more anonymous, transient mode, albeit one that may make meaningful connections between people easier.

In this light it is interesting to explore the way that WordPress – the leading open source blogging platform – has adapted and been adapted to incorporate these new forms of web-expression. The most notable and extraordinary development has been the BuddyPress project led by Andy Peatling. This converts a vanilla installation of the Multi-user version of WordPress into a reasonably fully-featured social network. Its success can be measured in the amount of spam sign-ups the software is already generating even on test installations. Is this supercharged modification an implicit acknowledgement that Blogs are on the way out? Perhaps. But then you can also use a WordPress installation as a shop (ScottishLaird.com), a members’-only website (PerfectPresenting.com), a corporate brochure (TheSportsConsultancy.com), a Group Blog or Community Newsite (ForArgyll.com), an online aggregating application etc etc. The blog doesn’t remain a blog for long it seems, but becomes the lead endeavour among many others. And in pinpointing this, it becomes clear that the form’s longevity depends upon this interaction with time and narrative, and how attractive to the user this remains. I think it will, afterall how many diarists pre-1999 were instantly published like this?

And then there are the other integrations which augment and support the older model, like posting to Facebook, or tweeting your posts to twitter (like this blog does), or using your flickr account as your picture library (I’ve used this one to great effect on ForArgyll.com) or aggregating a relevant youtube channel or … Well, you get the idea.

I’ve been running an experiment for a while at charlescharliecharles.com using a plugin called WP-o-matic: I aggregate all my online prose pieces* into one blog, which link directly back to the source post. (I could have done this with chi.mp, but I discovered it too late). ccc.com been going now for eight months, and its allowing me to see both the common threads in all my online endeavours and also the places where it ain’t working. It also means I tweet from this aggregate blog, and therefore create a vibrant and ever-changing thread which is always backed up with reasonably in-depth content, which in turn is publicising my work through the newer networks. In short, my blogs are getting more traffic from exactly the source which has killed off the long tail.

So Charles is right. Both of us. The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog!

* and yes, I do have a poetry blog which for reasons we need not rehearse here I keep separate

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Where’d Arbu go? A Tale of Corrupt Directories

At around midnight last night the Arbu.biz server went down. No, let’s be accurate here, the providers Bluehost.com took the Arbu server down. Why? Well, someone or somegroup has hacked into our ftp accounts and uploaded a little bitty .exe file along with some supporting images and such. And what was it’s function this ickle bitty file? Hmm? To insert trojans onto unsuspecting PC users’ computers.

The next question is “How did they do that?” A neat piece of software which exploits the fact that (a) cpanel webservers (like Arbu’s) have anonymous ftp accounts set up (b) that sysadmins use three letter abbreviations for their subdomains and (c) that cpanel has reached such a level of ubiquity that firing a specific request at servers to upload to ‘images’ folders works often enough for the effort to be worth it.

So the effect? Well aside from costing several of my sites and my clients’ sites 12 hours of downtime, impugning my reputation with Bluehost and stressing me to the eyeballs? It has shown me how easy it is for the black hats to take advantage of everyone else, especially those who don’t protect their pcs and don’t update their browsers. Here’s a shocking grab of the referrers to the hacked directory:

referrers-grab-for-arbu

The top entries are most revealing and show how the South Americans have used the directory to attack anyone with a live.com email. Evidently, a spam email referring to the .exe file. And how did we rid ourselves of this lurgi? We deleted it, and every other exe file on our server, all the images associated with it, and finally we discontinued our anonymous ftp service (sorry to those that use it) its too much trouble.

If you have had a similar experience let us know, or if we should be doing something more to protect ourselves and our server, let us know.

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An UK Open Source Political Party Anyone?

Thoroughly sick of MPs like Hazel Blears attempting to control the message and spin their way out of trouble, intrigued by John Naughton’s article extrapolating C. P. Snow’s theory on our divided society into the networked world and reminded of cyberpunk icon R. U. Sirius‘s Open Source Political Party (ars technica) for the American duopoly, it seems to me that there may be space in the political landscape of the UK for a new kind of open source party, one whose manifesto is a wiki, whose policy discussions are a forum, whose membership is a social network and whose progress is monitored on a blog. In other words a networked construct which is the antithesis of the present political system, based upon lack of control, lack of political ambition, lack of personal prejudice on the part of that party’s representatives who could only reflect the opinions and policies of their networked contributors and lack of any need or impulse to spin, or control the message because everything, even the warts and all policy discussion is already published.

Although all political parties pay lip service to the idea of transparency, there seems to be very little actual connection with the voting public in any meaningful policy-forming way. And this is a mark of the distance that the present political classes maintain or allow to be maintained by the media and their party political machines. Here in Scotland there is a slightly different modus operandi being attempted, most particularly by ministers like Jim Mather who has held a series of consultative seminars on a variety of subjects across the country. While the result is to be collated by Mr Mather’s department, these seminars are as open as the present political system allows, in that anyone in that industry or interest group can attend. But it is so time-consuming, especially for a topographically challenged area like the West Coast, isn’t it far better to render distance immaterial and do the whole thing via the network?

…. and do the whole thing via the network. For internerds like myself, bells ring here: reminding me of that halycon ideal where we all sit down at 8pm precisely and vote on the policy of the day as a nation – a proper, inclusive democracy, enabled by existing technologies (the TV, the remote and the red button) and which precisely because we’re lazy, indifferent or have better things to do, wouldn’t work. No, retreat from that slightly, offer an open membership site with all of the elements mentioned above, make sure there is some way of aggregating views, perhaps using some form of rolling polling system and ask people to contribute ideas for issues which need to be addressed and their thoughts on those ideas. See how it goes.

Maybe an organisation like mysociety.org should be attempting an OS political party rather than engaging with the present system – afterall there’ll need to be a moderator with excellent open source credentials.

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The Value of Twitter?

Another post, another list, but I wanted to clarify my thoughts on Twitter and its value to me, perhaps to you, and maybe to everybody …

  • Keeping me informed I’ve been twittering for a while now and the rolling status updates have kept me more informed than I have ever been: I’d no idea that the Deathly Hallows is to be filmed in two halves, nor that recently Stephen Fry was out in the Far East. Nor had I caught the rumours about the new Apple Netbook killer with its 10″ screen. All of these snippets I now know about because of twitter.
  • It makes the net more intimate I also know when @rainboweffect is having a good day in Sunny Argyll (it is sunny, more often than you think) …
  • And useful … or when social media type things are going on in Glasgae because @wodieskodie let’s me know. Not only that but my friend @waveydavie tends to let me know when I inadvertently get things wrong on the technical front … (btw, the link for waveydavie’s name came from Zemanta … now that’s impressive!)
  • It saves me (so much) time … and indeed @buddypress and @wordpress keep me updated on the techie latest from the important OS networks in America. Twitter has already proved itself an invaluable interlocutor in my life (when I remember to launch Nambu that is) between full-length media items and my short attention span (and it is short because there’s a lot out there and I have a lot to do onscreen other than consume).
  • Protecting me from crap As a shield it works extremely well because there are twitterers who aren’t worth the candle — for example there’s one bloke who simply quotes other people’s bon mots about mens’ relationships with women. Tedious. There are others who are out and out spammers: I’ve unfollowed the lot of them — that is if I didn’t spot their unworthiness beforehand. Such a relief in comparison with Email — when they have your email address, that’s it!
  • Making my online presence work harder Twitter is a champion for me (and it’s champion!): I can send direct messages to folk who I am following, like, for example, Stephen Fry when he was at the Digital Britain conference last week (I asked him to mention the ruinous state of rural broadband and the need for UK-wide superfast connectivity — whether he did or not is another matter). It also publishes links to all the posts I write (via RSS and some technical jiggery-pokery) and that draws some traffic in) as well as encouraging me to make direct comment on what I am doing at the moment.
  • Makes value out of the quotidian This of course is the traditional media’s big bug-bear with the Tweet-gen, that we don’t necessarily want to know who is changing a child’s nappy or picking his or her nose, but there is value in it, especially if you use filters. As an example let us take the everyday example of an electricity cut. Via Twitter I learned that the entire West Coast had been knocked out by a troublesome sub-station on the outskirts of Glasgow. A classic twitter moment (thank crikey I had enough charge in the laptop and my old 0845 dial-up account to hand otherwise I would still be on hold). This, and more famous moments caught in 140 character stereophonic brevity, show the site’s real value, which is as an unfiltered, unedited take on the moment, the Now.
  • The Now is the crucial value: being in it, focussing on it, reporting it and being reminded of it everytime I use it. That’s Twitter’s real value, enjoying your journey while enjoying everyone else’s (without all those silly f-ing applications on FB).
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Ten Rules for Writing a Truly Outstanding Post

Rule number one is make it relevant: to someone, preferably to somepeople, and, if you can, to everyone. Evidently, blogging is as much about doing it as consuming it, and there are a great many people blogging, so this post fulfills that criteria.

Second, the title shouldn’t be too long, too obscure or too short. Give it seven or eight words that will ensure the potential reader knows (more or less) what it is about. My title here isn’t imaginative (not like some on this blog, eg. The Google Discrepancy) but it says what it does between the H2s.

Rule the third, is to keep your post short enough to remain on point and entertaining, and long enough to be informative. This is a judgement call of course, but it has to be said there are a lot of non-posts out there tagging along in the wake of meme-leaders.

And this brings me to the fourth: don’t follow the zeitgeist, be the zeitgeist. What will make your post readable is you, not the subject (although the subject has to interest you). The bloggers who boast innumerable subscribers are the true originals, the guys and gals who write about their obsessions and do it well.

So to the fifth element in a truly outstanding post, get the subject right for you: now this might be in conflict with Rule One – making it relevant – but if it is relevant to you its going to be relevant to someone else. Having said that, if I find something interesting enough to write several hundred words about, and I don’t actually end up writing it then and there, someone else will. Get in there first.

That’s the sixth rule, get in there first. Don’t haver, hesitate or procrastinate – just write it. You get something wrong, someone out there will correct you in the comments, and that’s to the good, it’s traffic and traffic art our internet god.

Seventh rule: tell your truth in your voice. Getting in there first will mean you will post from the hip, and that sort of rapidfire engagement will mean you won’t get time to dissemble, nor will you be able to work the material up into some highly wrought treatise. You don’t need to, blogging is about moment – let the rest of the internet worry about posterity.

Eight is about the wider technical context: give your post wings. For example, Twitter it, load your rss feed into Facebook, use a service like Zemanta to reference ideas (like zeitgeist), if you have several blogs, create a metablog to aggregate all your work, use photos from your Flickr account and videos from YouTube.com, and ensure you enable social bookmarking as well –services like Digg can really help find your readership.

Lastly, SEO. Forget it. Just post every day according to rules 1 through 8 and you shall find blogging Nirvana.

That’s not lastly. Of course it’s not. I forgot to mention the power of ten: If all else fails write a top ten.

PS. Humour is good too ;-)

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The Google Discrepancy

Time for a rant. Just a short one. But the reason will become obvious. If you have followed my posts on Google Rank on Developing OTFA you’ll see a rapidly rising profile for forargyll.com. However, these rankings are on the .com model of Google. Not the domestic .co.uk. On the domestic we’re away down at 530, and we’ve been down there since time began. It ain’t the Google Dance, and it ain’t that we’re unrankable. Alexa marks us at just over 1,200,000 most visited blog, 2M further up the scale than the top of the heap, Argyllonline.co.uk. Our google pagerank is the same as Argyllonline for Ginger’s sake!

I’ve sent a couple of mails to the UK office, I have registered the site as a UK native on the webmaster tools and we are most definitely an Argyll-based operation. What gives?

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RSS Aggregation in WordPress

Splogging or Spagging or Blamming?! Not sure of the right term evidently, but I mean those ‘blogs‘ which take RSS feeds from others’ blogs and reproduce content verbatim in order to make an income from the traffic gathered therefrom. There ain’t no excuse for such laziness eh? We should be looking at banning such practices surely … ?

Well, there are times when it is justified, for example when a blogger has several blogs, in different contexts and wants to draw them together to create an über-feed. I have just done this. At charles.dixon-spain.com I have collected all the feeds from the various blogs I run or contribute to, as well as added my Twitter, Facebook and (eventually) Flickr accounts, and have created such a feed.

I am not sure whether this will be interesting or not, but I am feeling relieved that somewhere there’ll be a comprehensive listing of my output (which is not inconsiderable).

There’s a codisel to this though. The likes of google.com will positively discriminate against splogs, spags or blams and this discrimination may leak into their listing of the original site. Why? Well sometimes it may be difficult to work out which is the original story given the technical expertise of the blammers. I’m not sure on this one really, so while I research this issue I’m not going to let search engines know about the site.

Here’s the über-feed, go on! Subscribe, do!

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