Category Archives: Blogging

Aleaping we will go

It’s February 29th today, so I thought, like 90% of bloggers on the planet, I would do a post about leap years.

Those silly people who think our planet is less than 6000 years old also sometimes think that the leap year thing is because science somehow screwed up and we have to fudge the numbers occasionally or that it’s because the Earth’s orbit is speeding up.

In fact, the leap year was refined over many years, starting with the romans who added an extra month every couple of years, basically whenever they felt like it, to keep the seasons in sync. Then Julius came along and realised the seasons were still all messed up, so abolished the extra month concept, replacing it with a slightly longer year of 365 days (it was 355 before) with extra days added to various months. There was also an extra day added every three years to try to keep the seasons lined up, but it wasn’t enough and they drifted again. A few years later the period was changed to four years, and things were better, but not perfect.

It wasn’t until the 1500s that someone realised that things weren’t quite right. It happened to be a Pope, Pope Gregory XIII to be precise. He noticed that if things carried on, Easter would eventually bump into Christmas, and we obviously couldn’t have Jesus being nailed to the cross on the day he was born, so he changed the rules, with the help of Kepler’s astronomical observations.

The Gregorian Calendar has been used ever since, and the leap year calculation remains unchanged. The calculation Gregory implemented is one I’ve used many times in computer programs. A year is a leap year if it’s divisible by 4 but not divisible by 100 except when it’s divisible by 400 (that’s why 2000 was a leap year).

Our year now averages out to be 365.2425 days long which is accurate enough that we’ll only be out by one day after 4000 years.

We need more Popes like Gregory XIII, even though he was a bit of a bastard to the English and Irish.

The Habits Meme

I got tagged by that guy, which means I don’t have to agonize about what to blog about today.

The rules:

  • Link to the person that tagged you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself.
  • Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
  • Let each random person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their website.

So here goes:

  1. Ever since Blork blogged about “try to” (correct) and “try and” (horribly wrong) I’ve become slightly obsessive about it to the point of making strangling noises every time Pullman makes the error in his Dark Materials.
  2. I like port. And single malts. But I don’t smoke cigars or read the Financial Times.
  3. I have a scar on my right knee from falling out of my bed onto my etch-a-sketch as a boy. I left the removed stitches in a small plastic vial on a table in a pub garden.
  4. I have an Avenging Unicorn on my desk at work.
  5. When I sleep, my right foot has a mind of its own. My son has inherited this trait. It drives my wife crazy.
  6. I have been strip searched by UK Customs and Excise.

I tag her and him and her and him and double tag her.

I got weirded

Tara tagged me which is fortuitous as I had nothing to blog about today apart from my failure to walk to work because of the snow storm (but I made it as far as Greene Avenue!).

Anyway, the rules are: People who get tagged must write in a blog of their own ten weird things or habits or little known facts about themselves as well as state this rule clearly. At the end you must choose six people to be tagged and list their names. No tag backs!

I’m so transparent that it’s hard to find 10 but let’s give it a go:

  1. I once almost died walking from one Portugese village to another.
  2. I have a big mole on one of my toes which I once tried to cut off in a fit of teen angst.
  3. I love the winter and the cold and snow it brings. Winter Wonderlands cheer me up.
  4. I was once taken to the ER twice in one day for two completely unrelated accidents.
  5. I have an Avenging Unicorn on my desk.
  6. One new years eve I passed out in the graveyard across the street from the pub and when I woke up the pub was closed and everyone had gone home.
  7. I like peanut butter and chili sauce on toast.
  8. I have visited four Canadian provinces, eight US states, three commonwealth countries, fifteen European nations and every English county.
  9. At school I was a member of the pet club and the computer club and I helped run the school bookshop, mostly to get early lunch passes.
  10. I brought a pair of slippers back with me from New Zealand which I love but which are falling apart. I am planning to have another pair shipped from NZ to replace them.

I tag him, her, her, and him. Oh and her if she ever blogs again.

Still here

Yes, I’m still here. I took a blog break last week as my family were visiting from the UK and France. They did all the things tourists are expected to do in Montreal, including:

  • The Underground City
  • Old Montreal
  • Notre Dame
  • Walking up the mountain
  • Skating on the mountain
  • Driving over the mountain
  • Drinking in the Irish pubs
  • Going to Eggspectations for breakfast and The Keg for dinner
  • Shopping on St Denis
  • Experiencing temperatures below -20
  • Snowboarding in St Saveur

The snowboarding was 5 days ago, but I’m still in pain. Who knew balancing on a plank of wood uses so many muscles??

We also had “Second Christmas” complete with a pancake breakfast, full turkey dinner, festive music and stockings and presents. I got a bunch of British stuff including a Union Jack mug, a London tube map jigsaw and lots of Brit edibles (mmmmm Jelly Babies).

8 year old blog!

I took my old web diary and converted it into blog posts today, so this blog now has posts dating back to 1998. Does that make this blog the oldest in Montreal??

It was strange reading that old stuff, my blogging style has obviously changed and evolved over the years but I should try to get back into the habit of actually writing about my life instead of essays on blogging and religion.

CAPTCHAs, who needs them?

Update: This essay is now up at WLTC, if you like it, go vote for it!

They’re everywhere, and they’re annoying. They’re called CAPTCHAs and they’ve become a ubiquitious part of blog commenting. Bloggers use them as a quick and dirty solution to an annoying problem without consideration for the annoyance they will cause the reader.

I want to persuade all bloggers who are using them to please stop.

What are they?

CAPTCHA stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”. I know it should really be CAPTTTTCHA but hey, I didn’t come up with the acronym.

Before bigots destroyed his life, Alan Turing posited the idea of a test to determine machine sentience. His test was designed to decide if a computer had achieved artificial intelligence. So far no computer has passed a Turing test, but the CAPTCHA uses the idea of a Turing test in reverse, testing if a supposed person is really a person and not a computer program pretending to be a person.

So a CAPTCHA is a test to make sure the person posting a comment (or anything else, but I’m concentrating on the blogging usage here) is really a person, and not a spam generator trying to post comments about card games, prescription drugs or sex. It usually involves an image showing some distorted text, requiring the user to type in what they see in the distorted text.

Why are they bad?

Anything that stop spammers is good, right? Well generally yes, but some things that stop spammers are better than others; so much better that the inferior solutions become un-necessary. There are many problems with CAPTCHAs:

  • Any extra work required to comment is likely to deter some people from commenting at all.
  • Sometimes the images are so distorted they’re almost impossible to read, even with perfect eyesight.
  • CAPTCHAs are hackable. Spammers are smart, they can get past many of our barriers.
  • Visually impaired users are completely excluded (although there are audio CAPTCHAs available now).
  • Dyslexics have a hard time too.
  • There are better and less intrusive solutions.

What are these better solutions?

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that CAPTCHAs are not the best solution to the spam flood. Now it’s time to bring in the alternatives, but before I offer my alternatives, we should decide what our requirements are. An effective and non-intrusive spam blocker should:

  • Require nothing or as little as possible from the valid commenter.
  • Require as little effort as possible from the webmaster/blog owner.
  • Work on as many blog platforms as possible, or have similar alternatives for other blogging platforms.
  • Stop as much spam as possible.
  • Not interfere with valid comments

Here are the solutions which I feel best meet these requirements:

Centralized spam database

This is what I use, in the form of Akismet. The idea is that all spam comments get submitted to a central server. Each time someone comments on your blog the comment gets checked against the central database. If the comment looks like spam it is automatically flagged as such. The person leaving the comment didn’t have to do anything. The blogger just has to check for false positives occasionally. Everybody is happy.

So far Akismet has stopped over 15,000 comments from being published on my blog with about three false positives (comments marked as spam which were not spam) that I know of and about 5 false negatives (spam comments that did not get marked as spam).

Akismet is designed for WordPress but will work with other blogging platforms, and the API is open source.

The downside of this solution is the reliance you have on a central database. If the database goes down or disappears altogether then the spam flood will begin again. But while it’s around, why not take advantage of it?

Comment analysis programs

Programs like the Bad Behaviour plugin for WordPress take all comments received and analyze them for telltale signs of spaminess. Using data hidden in the HTTP headers like user agent information it is possible to tell if a comment came from a legitimate user or a spambot.

The downside of this kind of solution is that it has to be smarter than the spammers, and spammers are smart. Bad Behaviour works very well though, or so I’ve heard; Akismet takes care of things so well that I haven’t needed extra solutions.

Filtering, whitelisting and blacklisting

If your spam problem isn’t big enough to warrant external tools, you can probably get a fairly good spam filter going just with what your blogging software offers natively. You should be able to filter out comments which contain common spammy words (like phentermine, poker, viagra, holdem, etc.).

If spam is still getting through you can look at whitelisting; maybe your blog has an option like “only allow comments from people who have commented before” which is like an automatic whitelist after the first moderated comment is approved.

Blacklisting is trickier, but if you see spam constantly coming from the same source then you can blacklist that source. Most spammers will get around this easily though.

For a list of other spam busters, you can try this page, which is for WordPress, but the concepts still apply to other blog platforms.

Summary

CAPTCHAs are bad. They don’t test for humans, they test for smart non-lazy humans with good eyesight and smart spambots that have CAPTCHAs all figured out. They are at best an annoyance and at worst discriminatory.

Using some or all of the suggestions I offered above, you can eliminate your spam problem without making your readers jump through hoops and without losing your own time dealing with the problem. If your chosen blogging platform doesn’t support these solutions, then think seriously about changing your platform. I heartily recommend WordPress for all your blogging needs, either hosted or your own installation.

My final piece of advice is for quitters. If you give up trying to deal with comment spam, or you give up blogging completely, please please please remember to disable commenting before abandoning your blog. Every spam comment that gets published is a victory for the spammers.

NB: This post is longer than my usual offerings because it’s my entry into the WLTC blogging essay competition.

I needs…

Procrasto tagged me, so here goes. I have to type “(your name) needs” into Google to see what I need. Here’s what I need:

  • M needs a chick. Think I already have one.
  • M needs help
  • M needs part-time and backup nurses
  • M needs Amanda Buttram, Gotta love that surname.
  • M needs to change course or he will plunge into hell at Mach 666. Yep, I’m an evil sinner.
  • M needs simple tools. Complicated tools confuse me.
  • M needs help to avoid another 2nd-place points finish. Story of my life.
  • M needs a bra. Oh now come on…
  • M needs to articulate what he wants. I WANT CANDY!
  • M needs more room. More. Always More

Who do I tag? I tag Zach Braff. I’ll keep tagging Zach Braff until he acknowledges me.

Meme-arific

OK so I’m in a memey mood this week. Another meme, this time from my wife.

  1. LAST MOVIE YOU SAW IN A THEATER: Serenity, gorram it!
  2. WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING? It’s in my sidebar.
  3. FAVORITE BOARD GAME? Risk.
  4. FAVORITE MAGAZINE? Magazines are so last century.
  5. FAVORITE SMELL? Whiteboard markers, baking bread.
  6. FAVORITE FOOD? Chocolate or Sushi.
  7. FAVORITE SOUND? Silence.
  8. WORST FEELING IN THE WORLD? Being kicked in the testicles.
  9. WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU THINK OF WHEN YOU WAKE UP? Morning? Already?
  10. FAVORITE FAST FOOD PLACE? Junk: KFC (aka PFK), not so junk: Baton Rouge
  11. FUTURE CHILD’S NAME: Children? Me?
  12. FINISH THIS STATEMENT. IF I HAD A LOT OF MONEY: I’d be rich
  13. DO YOU DRIVE FAST? Ask my wife
  14. DO YOU SLEEP WITH A STUFFED ANIMAL? Only when Jen has a cold.
  15. STORMS-COOL OR SCARY? Uber-cool.
  16. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR? Red Ford Escort Mark II
  17. FAVORITE DRINK? British Beer
  18. FINISH THIS STATEMENT, “IF I HAD THE TIME I”: I’d be rich
  19. DO YOU EAT THE STEMS ON BROCCOLI? Do I eat Broccoli?
  20. IF YOU COULD DYE YOUR HAIR ANY COLOR, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR CHOICE? Black or Blue.
  21. NAME ALL THE DIFFERENT CITIES/TOWNS YOU HAVE LIVED IN: Coryton, Newmarket, Corringham, Stanford-Le-Hope, Surbiton, New Malden, Swindon, Shrewsbury, Montreal, Beaconsfield.
  22. HALF EMPTY OR FULL? Overflowing
  23. FAVORITE SPORTS TO WATCH: Formula 1 racing, Wimbledon
  24. ONE NICE THING ABOUT THE PERSON WHO SENT THIS! There are way too many to narrow it down to just one.
  25. MORNING PERSON, OR NIGHT OWL? Nocturnal
  26. OVER EASY, OR SUNNY SIDE UP? Over. Just Over.
  27. FAVORITE PLACE TO RELAX? Anywhere remote.
  28. FAVORITE PIE? All pie is good
  29. OF ALL THE PEOPLE YOU E-MAILED THIS TO, WHO’S MOST LIKELY TO RESPOND? Hopefully Zach Braff.
  30. LEAST LIKELY TO RESPOND? Zach Braff never does my memes, the git.

I’m passing this meme on to Zach Braff, and anyone else who wants it.

The Blogger’s Handbook

Here in Canada we are lucky enough to enjoy the freedom to express ourselves. I can write just about anything I want on my blog without fear of persecution or prosecution (yes, there are exceptions but we still rank in the top 10 most free countries in the world).

People in other countries are often not so fortunate. Reporters Without Borders have released the Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, mainly aimed at those people living under repressive regimes, but it also looks useful for other bloggers. From their introduction:

Blogs get people excited. Or else they disturb and worry them. Some people distrust them. Others see them as the vanguard of a new information revolution. Because they allow and encourage ordinary people to speak up, they’re tremendous tools of freedom of expression.

Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure. Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest.

Reporters Without Borders has produced this handbook to help them, with handy tips and technical advice on how to to remain anonymous and to get round censorship, by choosing the most suitable method for each situation. It also explains how to set up and make the most of a blog, to publicise it (getting it picked up efficiently by search-engines) and to establish its credibility through observing basic ethical and journalistic principles.

He Memed Me

I guess it’s time to respond to his meme tag.

5 CDs in your Player:

The only CD player I use is the one in our car, and that tends to have Jen’s mix CDs in it. I’ll give you five CDs that have recently come into our posession instead…

  1. Arcade Fire – Funeral
  2. The Killers – Hot Fuss
  3. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow
  4. Blue Rodeo – Are You Ready
  5. Jack Johnson – In Between Dreams

5 Movies You’ve watched Recently:

  1. Wilby Wonderful – quirky Paul Gross movie set in Nova Scotia
  2. House of 1000 corpses – Rob Zombie is a twisted, twisted man
  3. Stepford Wives – Well the vibrator gag was funny
  4. Bladerunner – It’s a classic
  5. Lord of the Rings – all three, extended editions, over one weekend

5 Nice Things That Happened To You Lately

  1. Dan, Susan and our nephew Simon visited us
  2. Simon gave me a hug
  3. I made bread that turned out ok
  4. One of my blog posts was really popular
  5. I was tagged with this meme, giving me one less post to think up

5 MP3s on your playlist:

Not listening to anything right now, but these are off my laptop…

  1. The Streets – Close Your Eyes
  2. Kings of Leon – Molly’s Chambers
  3. Mr Brightside – The Killers
  4. Cake – Short Skirt, Long Jacket
  5. Modest Mouse – Ocean Breathes Salty

5 Friends You’re Passing This To:

Pssh, like I have 5 friends. Let’s try…

  1. Jen – because she hasn’t taken John up on his offer yet
  2. Blork
  3. Orac
  4. Lisa
  5. And uh, Zach Braff – well, you never know.

The book meme

I got tagged

Number of books I own…

A lot less than I used to, but I still have an almost complete Pratchett collection, all the Harry Potter books and the complete works of Stephen Donaldson.

Last book bought…

Well I’ve already ordered two copies of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Does that count?

Last book read (still reading)…

Queenan Country by Joe Queenan

Five books that mean a lot to me…

  1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. It’s been with me since I was a teenager.
  2. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. See above.
  3. The Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. I grew up reading them and had the complete collection.
  4. Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, another childhood favourite.
  5. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read. The first of the Discworld novels, it set me on the road to collecting them all.

Who shall I send this too?

Procrasto
Orac
Jonas Parker
and Jen (Kowy already tagged her, but she needs a push)

Did blogging kill Usenet?

Back in 1995/1996, when there was only one web browser (and it wasn’t IE), and the web hardly had anything on it, my main activity online was to read and contribute in various newsgroups. I went back and read some of my old posts in a bored moment today, and got all nostalgic. Hence this post.

These days a large percentage of internet users don’t even know what a newsgroup is. If you are one of those people, here’s a brief primer:

Back before the World Wide Web, before things got pretty with graphics and video and sound and blinky flashy moving things, before we were bombarded with advertising, spam and commercialization, things were a lot quieter online. Most people who went online just wanted to talk to other people. More specifically they wanted to talk to other people with similar interests. Out of that desire, Usenet was born. Usenet is a collection of communities, each community having a different interest. Each community was called a newsgroup, and all the newsgroups were held together in a big hierarchical tree of newsgroups. That was Usenet. It was text based. The closest it got to pretty graphics was the ubiquitous smiley.

Usenet is still around. There are literally thousands of newsgroups out there. Think of any topic, anything at all, and there is probably a newsgroup for it. If by some bizarre fluke there isn’t, you can go ahead and create one. But Usenet is slowly dying.

First came the spam. Once upon a time, Usenet was spam free. The whole internet was spam free. Then someone noticed. Soon Usenet started filling with spam. A war erupted between the spammers and the spammed. An arms race began with each side inventing new and creative techniques to outwit their enemy. That fight still goes on, but the spam never stops. Sometimes the flow is slowed, but it never stops.

The second nail in the Usenet coffin was web based bulletin board systems. These lacked the inter-connectedness of Usenet, but they had the advantage of being web based, and the web browser was fast becoming the tool of choice for all online activity. Dejanews helped a bit with their web based Usenet archival service, which now belongs to Google but still people flocked to the new web based forums, boards and chatrooms.

Finally, along came blogs. Even less connected (at first) than bulletin boards, but everyone could have one to call their own, and although some might dispute the fact, we are material beings, we want to own stuff. Where once we would go to our favourite newsgroup to vent or rant, now we could do it on our very own webpage, and receive comments back from like-minded people without worrying (so much) about spam, flames and the other dangers of Usenet living.

With tools like Technorati, Pingomatic and trackbacks, blogs are becoming more connected. Blog clubs are being formed for blogs with similar interests. Slowly the blogging world is taking on everything Usenet once was.

So has blogging killed Usenet? Well no, not yet. Usenet is still alive, the newsgroups still have content even if the signal to noise ratio has increased dramatically. It will probably survive, but it is a shadow of what it once was. It has become a backwater, part of the “internet underground”. Fewer and fewer people are aware of its existence.

Adherent of the Repeated Meme

I’m not big on blog memes, but when someone like Saint Nate invites me to do one, how can I refuse? This is what the meme wants me to do:

Behold, the Caesar’s Bath meme! List five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can’t really understand the fuss over. To use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice.

So here goes:

  1. Little Britain – A comedy sketch show currently airing on BBC Canada. It has its moments, but it suffers the same problem as so many sketch shows before it; the sketches go on too long and the jokes get repeated so many times that they get tedious.
  2. The Pope – Not really my peer group, but the populace in general seems to be obsessed with anything and everything popely. I don’t care. Unless you’re a devout Roman Catholic, you shouldn’t care either.
  3. The Da Vinci Code – I’m sure it’s a good piece of fiction, but it’s been so over hyped that I can’t bring myself to read it.
  4. Football – That’s soccer for you North Americans. I grew up in England, where football (yeah yeah, soccer) is the national obsession. My Dad tried so hard to get me interested, taking me to games, making me watch it with him on TV. I never got it. Everyone around me was obsessed with the sport and devoted to their chosen team. I supported a team because it was the done thing, but my heart was never in it.
  5. Desperate Housewives – Why?

Now I need to invite some people to continue the meme; how about him, him and him?