Thursday, December 10, 2009


I've been using meebo for quite some time now as my primary IM client. I started out many years ago using the individual IM clients, and then I discovered multi-client IM with Trillian and, later, Miranda IM, and LOVED the ability to use many IM protocols with only one piece of software! What I didn't love was that I couldn't boot up my computer at home and look back at the IMs I had exchanged with someone while I was at work, because chat logs were stored locally. And I STILL had to install the software to be able to use it in a new location. These days you can install your multiprotocol IM client on a thumb drive (I have a portable copy of Digsby handy now, if I ever want to use that!) but that is a relatively new development, and anyway, what if I'm at the library and can't run software off my thumb drive?

Meebo (along with other Web-based IM clients) addresses all of these concerns. All you have to do to try out meebo is go to the Web site and supply the login and password for one of the many IM networks they support (the ones on the home page... AIM, Yahoo, MySpace, MSN, Facebook, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, etc. ...those are only the tip of the iceberg). Meebo is compatible with all of the major browsers, so in general it should work for you (I regularly use it in MS Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows). Once logged in, you will see a list of your contacts on that network, including any categories you might have placed them into (friends, family, school buddies, whatever), and you will be able to chat with them just as you would with a traditional client. You will even hear a little "ding" sound when you send or receive a message. The "ding" can be silenced, but it cannot currently be reconfigured to a different sound.

If you set up a "meebo account" with its own separate login and password, you can add multiple IM accounts to your meebo account. With one password, I log in daily to accounts on AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, MSN, Google Talk, Facebook, and even Jabber accounts on and! Meebo adds new networks fairly frequently, so if you have an account on another network, even one that is a bit obscure, give it a look... it might be on the list!

When I first started using meebo, all IM windows existed within the main browser window. That limitation is now a thing of the past, and now you can (and I do, quite frequently) "pop out" an IM window so that it looks almost exactly like an IM conversation in a traditional piece of IM software! You can then "pop" it back in if you like. If you pop out a window and then close it, the next time that contact IMs you, the window will even start out popped out. I don't care for that (although it's a pretty cool trick!) so I generally pop the windows back in before closing them.

Meebo supports your basic set of smiley-faces (called "emoticons"), and they have a few of their own, like a "(pacman)" and a "(ghost)", a monkey and a pig, and even hidden emoticons like a "(pirate)"! (You just have to do a little research to find out about the hidden emoticons. ;) ) One problem with all "alternate" IM clients (and really, with IM clients in general) is that emoticons are sent as text and not as graphics... so if you send someone a monkey emoticon in meebo and they're not using meebo, they probably won't see your monkey. And if they send you some weird emoticon from their IM client, you might see :*>J-] or something even crazier-looking. Some emoticons are common across most IM clients, but sometimes it helps to search out online lists of the emoticons in your friends' IM clients to see what they're trying to show you. Unless all IM client builders agree on a common set of emoticons (not likely!), this is just part of using IM. If you stick to :) and :( and maybe a ;) or two, you'll be all right.

One thing that has been bothering me lately about meebo is that if I am typing in one IM window and someone IMs me from another window, the first window loses focus and the end of whatever I'm typing winds up in the new IM conversation. This is an annoyance, but I'm pretty sure this is a problem common in IM clients, so I can't fault meebo TOO much for it. In the past I've had trouble with meebo taking a long time to start up or occasionally hanging in the browser, but these kinds of bugs have a way of suddenly disappearing; the coding staff at meebo clearly works hard to clean up their own messes so that the experience is as smooth as possible.

There are mobile meebo apps for iPhone and Android, and there is a "phone-friendly" version of meebo that comes up on cell phone browsers (although we haven't been able to get it to work on my wife's LG Neon). If you have an unlimited data plan but sending IMs from your phone eats up text messages, using a Web IM application like meebo might be your ticket to sending IMs whenever you want (plus, it supports most any IM protocol you could want, while most phones only support one or two!)

If you are using meebo on your computer and you crash your browser, your meebo session goes down too. This likely doesn't happen very often to most people, but as a Web site programmer, crashing my browser can sometimes be a fact of life. There are a number if ways around this. You could simply run meebo from a different browser if you have one installed on your computer (a different window of the same browser will often crash right along with the first window, so that's probably not a helpful strategy.) You could use something like Prism (Firefox) or Bubbles (MSIE) to essentially convert meebo into something resembling a desktop application (I have used it with both, and was happy with both). Or you could do something which seems like a step backwards... install the Meebo Notifier (Windows only) desktop application! Another big advantage of using the Notifier (which is how I currently run meebo most of the time) is that you get pop-up, WIndowsey notifications when someone IMs you... you don't even have to have the browser window open! (Conversely, whcn someone IMs you, if you don't already have a browser window open it takes a significant amount of time for the software to open, causing people to wonder why you're not answering them... I keep the browser window open and minimized when I'm using the Notifier).

Audio/video teleconferencing on IM clients seems to still be a little bit of a jumbled landscape, and interoperability is sketchy. Meebo does support audion and video conferencing, even with users that are not using meebo, although the conference for them will take place using a third-party Web app and not directly in their IM client. I have my doubts about how often people use that kind of capability anyway; I think most people use Skype for their video phone use. I've used meebo for this myself, though, and the experience was unexpectedly easy.

The one thing I really wish meebo would do... and I know it's on their radar, but I wish they would go ahead and get it done... is grouping of contacts. My brother, for example, routinely logs into three IM networks, but we generally chat on MSN Messenger. There's no reason for me to see his name three times; it would be great to see his name once and be able to click on it and chat using MSN Messenger if he's logged into it, or if he's only logged into one of the other networks, chat with him using Yahoo Messenger or whatever else instead. I have several other friends with multiple accounts, and it would be so nice to link those suckers up so that I only have to keep track of one name.

Another IM client I've looked at recently, Digsby, does allow you to group your clients. Digsby is not a Web-based client; it is a supercharged desktop client. It supports many IM networks, and it even does some really cool stuff with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Plus, it can help you keep track of your email accounts! The only problem I have with Digsby is that it seems to have a really large memory footprint... it takes a considerable amount of time to start up, and on a slow system, Digsby is going to be pretty sluggish, while meebo has been quite nimble for me, even on underpowered desktop systems. One thing Digsby does share with online IM services like meebo is that the information about your accounts is stored on the Digsby servers, so if I go to a friend's house and log into Digsby using my Digsby login information, all of my IM clients will be set up instantly (the new version of Trillian, called Trillian Astra, seems to have this, in addition to a Web version!) But the fact is, meebo is versatile, easy to use, and very fast. New features are added quite frequently, and the company is very proactive abotu fixing any problems that arise.

I can't think of any compelling reason to use any IM client for day-to-day use other than meebo. The "official" clients are sometimes necessary for a few infrequently-needed tasks such as blocking users or changing settings, but overall, meebo is, in my opinion, best-of-breed for IM clients. Give it a try!

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Piece of the Google Voice Puzzle

Today I discovered some news that's pretty interesting... if not brand new, only a few weeks old. I've been using Google Voice for some time now (ever since it was GrandCentral before Google purchased it), and I've known for a long time that it supported something called "Gizmo." I looked into Gizmo a while back to see what it was, and it's a voice-over-IP (VoIP) system, much like Skype. At the time I didn't have a headset anyway so there was no way for me to make a Gizmo call, so I didn't look into it further at the time.

A few days ago I was given a headset for use on WebEx conferences at work, and today I took a look at the Gizmo Web site to see if I might want to start using Gizmo in conjunction with my Google Voice account. Turns out there might be no need... new user account activation has been suspended, because Gizmo has been bought by... wait for it... Google! Take a look at the blog post about the acquisition.

There's a lot of speculation about what Google is up to, and by much more plugged-in people than I, but here's what I know:

July 2005: Google buys Android, a company that made software for mobile phones.
July 2007: Google buys GrandCentral. Eventually they re-brand it as "Google Voice" and add some new features.
October 2008: Google Android cell phone operating system is released as open-source software.
October 2008-present: Android-based phones begin to filter out into the market; a big marketing push for the "Droid" Android phone happens just before the holiday season (have you seen Verizon's demo?). Some see it as the first serious contender for the iPhone.
Mid-2009: rumors begin to circulate about a "Google Phone" (Android phone with Google branding, with hardware specifications by Google and with no customizations to Android.)
November 2009: Google buys Gizmo.

(I will have to note right here why I'm mentioning Android. Part of the lure of Google Voice is that you can use it with multiple phones, but the way it does this is that when you tell Google Voice to place a call, it first calls you and then when you answer, it calls the other party. Not a problem, but not the way phones usually work, either, or at least not since the days when you called a human operator and she called you back when your party was available! On Android phones, it is possible to fully integrate Google Voice into the phone's OS, so that when you dial a number on the phone, it seamlessly uses Google Voice. No callback to you at all! So if you use Google Voice, having an Android phone is very much to your advantage.)

You would have to be completely dense to not see all of these things coming together. Google is clearly serious about this telephony thing. I've been wondering why Google hasn't been introducing any new features in Google Voice lately, despite the fact that they have a "suggestion box"-style form on the Google Voice site; clearly they've been holding off because they expected to incorporate some cool Gizmo tech later on and avoid re-inventing the wheel. So presumably as soon as Google feels comfortable that the Gizmo architecture can handle the number of new users they will be throwing at it, the Gizmo features will be incorporated into the Google Talk client (which already does PC-to-PC calling... and which uses the same XMPP protocol for chat as the Gizmo software does) and Google "Talk" and Google "Voice" will (finally?) merge into one uber-service (this might also explain why Google Voice and Google Talk have remained separate for so long up to this point). Add in the reported Google Phone hardware, and you've got a pretty full-blown telephony system going on here. Look out, AT&T! Look out, Verizon and Sprint! Google may be coming to town, and they may take a bite out of your apple!

Update: I figured out a way to get to the Gizmo Knowledgebase, and learned something else that I find interesting. Not only can the Gizmo software chat with MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger (and Google Talk), but it can actually place VoIP calls to contacts on those services! So if Google incorporates that tech into Google Talk, GT may well become the first of the "official" IM clients that can talk to just about anyone who uses instant messaging. The only thing Gizmo doesn't support on those calls is the video portion of the equation. I so wish I had signed up for Gizmo before they closed it up for new users! Maybe current Google Voice users will get first crack at it once they open things back up.

[Full disclosure (of irony): Blogger (the service on which this blog resides) is owned by Google. I don't work for Google, and I'm not shilling for them. I just thought it was funny that I was talking about this on their own blogging platform. Acquired in 2003. No, I don't see Blogger as part of the telephony picture. :) ]


Anyone who spends any amount of time using a computer discovers that a good text editor can be your best friend. I even found that to be the case back in my brief stint using a Mac/Amiga setup at work in the mid-'90s. Even further back, back when the world was young, I loved a DOS editor called PC Write. Not only could this thing control printer formatting and edit files of almost any size, but it could actually find-and-replace things like tabs and newline characters. That editor was the first piece of shareware that I ever paid to register... it was that good. It even had a built-in thesaurus!

I hung on to PC-Write for several years even after I got into the Windows universe, but eventually I realized that it was just going to be better to go with something that was integrated into Windows... for example, you couldn't easily copy and paste to and from the Windows clipboard from PC-Write. I needed to start using a Windows program. Windows Notepad is handy mainly because it is a true text editor (in contrast with Wordpad, which is liable to insert who-knows-what control characters into your document) and because it's pretty much always present on any Windows machine (and basically always the same, although I haven't used it on Windows 7 yet). But if you want to do anything other than typing characters and some light find and replace, Windows Notepad just doesn't cut it.

So we techies tend to find our own favorite text editors. If you don't have one yet, why not give my favorite a try: metapad! Metapad does not have an installer; you download it, unzip it, and click the icon to run it... I typically create a "metapad" folder in the C:\Program Files directory and unzip it there, then I create a shortcut to the executable in the Program Files folder and add C:\Program Files to the XP environment variables (right-click My Computer, choose "Properties", "Advanced" tab, "Environment Variables" button, add "C:\Program Files" to the end of the Path's "Variable Value") so I can just type "metapad" into the start/run dialog and get on the way to editing right away. I also set it as the default editor for .txt files, and sometimes some other file types as well. But because no installation is required, you can carry it around in your pocket on a flash drive as well (and I do). I plug in the flash drive and click the icon and I'm in business.

Metapad can do everything that Windows Notepad can do, but it takes several of those things to the next level. In a PC-Write-like feature, it is able to find and replace newline characters and tabs; I use that frequently when cleaning up snippets of code or when editing csv exports from MS Excel or other sources. There is an option to turn hyperlinks within the file into live links, so you can click directly on them and open a browser to the site. Word Wrap can be on or off, just like Notepad, so you can display files just as they actually exist or you can make sure every character is visible. You can mark a block of text and change it to all-uppercase, all-lowercase, "title case" (every word capitalized), "sentence case" (first word of each sentence capitalized), or "invert" the case of the marked block (every capital letter switched to lower-case and vice-versa). You can jump directly to a line number, which can come in very useful when editing code. And check this out: there is no file size limit! If you load a file that is larger than the memory of the computer can hold, metapad uses some clever paging to load as much of the file at once as it can, and it loads the rest of it as needed. Good stuff!

There are editors out there with a billion functions in them, ten of which you will use and the rest of which you will immediately forget that they even exist, or if you remember that they exist, you'll immediately forget how they work. Metapad has a fairly small number of functions, but the ones that are there are easy to use and worth discovering. There are a few functions that I haven't mentioned here (external viewer support, commit word wrap, support of text files from different platforms, etc.) but the feature set remains very basic... just what you need for the task at hand, and nothing more. It's like the perfect little Swiss army knife, the one with just the blade, the can opener, and the nail file, but not the toothpick/tweezers/magnifying glass/extensible fishing pole. It has just the feature set you need with no fluff. Give it a try!

Friday, October 30, 2009


Lately I've been thinking about all of the ways that Facebook fails to live up to its potential. It's an incredible concept and on that level it works well, but when it comes right down to it, Facebook fails as an example of a good application. How, you ask? Well, let me think:

  • Facebook is slow. I can't believe how often I sit there waiting on a page to load. There's a statistic for Web design: if it takes more than ten seconds for the page to load, people will give up and load a different page. I don't know if Facebook has hit that threshold yet, but they certainly do try my patience.
  • Facebook is accident-prone. I see error messages on Facebook almost every day. Ever see the cryptic and inexplicable "Profile Unavailable - Sorry, this profile is not available at the moment. Please try again shortly"? How about the even more cryptic "Database Write Failed - An error occurred while writing to our database. Please try again later or contact customer support"? And those are only two of what seems like a multitude of cryptic, unhelpful, and downright scary error messages that come up right in the users' faces. Users shouldn't see error messages consistently like we do on Facebook... the problems can, and should, be fixed. This is a BUSINESS site, for crying out loud. An error on my hobby site I do for free is one thing; somebody is presumably getting PAID to keep this stuff working. Even worse: sometimes users post something and it never shows up on the site at all. For no apparent reason. With no error message. They just never appear.
  • Facebook is hard to configure. There are some things about your profile that you can control, and other things that you can't. In the left-hand column, for example, there are certain things that you can add, using apps designed to do that. However, as far as I can tell, it's always GOT to be your profile picture on top, then "Information", then "Friends", and THEN whatever else you want on there. What if I want my Flickr pictures up under "Information"? Can't do it. And even things that you can configure sometimes have hidden gotchas. For example: ever notice that on your "Info" page you can list things like favorite TV shows, music, etc. and it will automatically create a link to other people with that same interest? Except if there happens to be a comma in whatever you put in there, in which case the links are all jacked up. Or if you put something like "The Beatles, Eric Clapton, & etc." in which case you will get a link to everyone else who also enjoys listening to "& etc."

    How about this: I've put in a bunch of email addresses that I use, so that if someone searches for my work email address they'll be able to find me, but really I only want people to contact me at my Gmail address. Can I "hide" the other addresses on my info page so people don't try to contact me at those? Apparently not. Same thing with my work history... I don't think anyone really wants to know everywhere I've worked since 1994, but I do want all of those people to be able to find me if they're looking.
  • Facebook is hard to use. There are still things that I know good and well I can do on Facebook but can't find them when I need them. Case in point: find someone on your "Home" page whose updates you can do without in your newsfeed. Hover your mouse cursor over one of their posts until you see the "Hide" link. Click "Hide" and all of their posts should disappear from your news feed.

    Now, un-hide them so they show up in your feed again. See if you can figure out how to do it without using Google. I couldn't!

    Here's another example: in the "Inbox" area where you can send private messages to people, you can actually send one "private" message with multiple recipients. Problem is, when any of those recipients replies "normally" to the message (the blue button at the bottom of the screen, which says "Reply All"), the reply goes to everyone on the original distribution list! It is possible to "branch" off the "original thread" and reply to only the sender. See if you can figure out how to do it. It's right there in front of you, if you're looking! But it's FAR from obvious.

    One more quick example: ever try to quit being a "fan" of something and remove it from your "Pages" list? Try it. I dare ya. It's easy to do... it's just impossible to figure out HOW to do it. An application has failed to be user-friendly if obvious tasks like this are hard to accomplish without a lot of concentration (and occasionally, a search engine).
  • Most apps are a menace. To use them you have to basically agree to let them read your mail, carry your checkbook in their purse when they go shopping, and take naked pictures of you as you sleep, but most of the apps have no need of the information they request. Even worse, some of the apps are what I would consider viral. I don't mind "verifying" that I was your classmate in school or that I'm your third cousin or whatever, but I don't want to give the "tru 2 ur skool" and "hiya, cuz!" apps permission to read all of my friends' names and check their medical records for evidence that they have embarrassing diseases. But apparently even to courteously say "yes, I went to school with Fred", I have to also become a user of whatever jacked-up Facebook app that Fred is trying out (and will ultimately decide that he doesn't even like). Plus, a good portion of the apps are just plain slow (which brings us full circle to my first point).
  • A new one since I posted this article on Facebook itself: major changes to the interface without any warning. Well, that's not entirely true; if you follow the Facebook blog you'll basically know what's going on. So, how about putting that blog on the login page, linking to it from the user's home page, SOMETHING like that? I didn't even think there was a Facebook blog until I Googled it. Did you? At any rate, major changes to the interface (like the one that happened last week) need to be announced in a way that users will know what's going on. The users don't like it... as evidenced groups called things like "bring back the old news feed" that pop up every time they roll out a new feed.
So why use Facebook at all? Because of the people. Since I've gotten on Facebook, I've reconnected with people I haven't seen since literally I was in my early teens. I've become re-acquainted with some of my dearest friends from other periods of my life, and in some cases, I've realized what it was that I liked so much about certain people in the first place. In some cases, I've found that I like people more now than I did when I knew them in a previous life! You guys who are reading this are the reason why I put up with all of Facebook's quirks. I'm having a great time (in between annoying error messages), and I hope you are too!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friendster helped me spam my friends

So, I thought I would take a look at Friendster and see what it was all about. An account is free, right? I got logged in, but then realized that there's not too much you can do without... well, without friends who are also on Friendster. So I decided to load up my address book from Gmail and see who it found.

That was mistake #1.

Then since I don't like to give out my email password, I thought I'd export my contacts as a .csv file and import them into Friendster that way.

That was mistake #2.

Turns out that when you import a .csv file to Friendster, it apparently assumes that you want to send an invitation to everyone in that list. No veto. No "look them up and see if they're on Friendster and if not let them alone." No nothing. It just instantly emails everyone in the .csv file!

Now, I had cleaned it up a little before uploading, but there were still some people in there I would have rather left out... fortunately, for most of those people my contact information was old so those emails bounced anyway. For the others, I sent out an email explaining what had happened and telling them that I didn't mean to spam them with Friendster invites. "I don't even particularly intend to use it forever," I told them. "...Just wanted to get the flavor. The flavor of spamming my entire address book isn't particularly tasty!"

Lesson to learn: social networking sites don't always act like you think they will. Make sure you know what you're doing when you tell them who your friends are!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Moving Web Site = Not Fun

I've been having problems with 100 Megs Web Hosting for years. They've shut down housekeeping scripts that I set up on CRON jobs (and not told me they did it), they've shut down other scripts that they suspected of something, and finally last month they shut down my entire account. At that point I did two things: I pestered them until they turned the sites back on (which is basically the only way to get them to do anything), and then I did something I should have done years ago: opened a hosting account with

Quite some time ago I moved my domain purchasing to APlus from Go Daddy when Go Daddy started using sexually-charged advertising to grow its business. The reason I went with Go Daddy in the first place was because I knew the founder also created the Bible software I was using and loving at the time: QuickVerse. When the advertising started going the way it did, I realized that either the company had been sold, or the founder wasn't that big of a Christian in the first place. At any rate, I found APlus, and I was just about convinced to move my hosting there... and I would have, too, except for a few technical issues that were a problem. But, I figured, now was the time.

I hope I didn't jump too soon: APlus is spinning off their shared server hosting to a company called and forum posts seem to indicate that their customer service hasn't been the same quality as previously. My account wound up being one of the "not-upgraded-yet" accounts; I guess all of the hosting servers are being "upgraded" as part of the switchover, but I have yet to experience the new setup. I do know that the current setup is impressive, allowing the Webmaster to control a lot of things with the control panel that I had to do manually on my 100 Megs account. There are some things that are harder (such as accessing an external data source; because of their firewall setup you have to individually request them to open a port for each data source, by IP address!) but mostly things are easier, and there are multiple ways to get support (voice telephone, live chat, email).

I did want to document one thing. On my sites I like to let php parse my .html files; security by obscurity, although I don't particularly hide that I use php for my coding. php can be run either as a CGI or as an Apache module. On 100 Megs it was running as a module, btu on APlus they run it in CGI mode. It took me a day or two to get the syntax right in my .htaccess file. Here it is:
# CGI version
AddHandler x-httpd-php .html .htm .php
# Apache module version
#AddType application/x-httpd-php .html .htm .php

The hardest part, and something I ultimately had to find out from tech support because I didn't find it documented on the Web, was that the CGI syntax does not include "application/" on the name of the handler. Maybe this blog post will help somebody else out. Tech support recommended both the AddHandler and the AddType, but you should only need the one appropriate to the way php is running on your servers (although I don't imagine it would hurt to have both in place if you're nervous). I've commented out the AddType line with hash marks in my case.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Twitterfeed: The Sequel

Last week I posted a blog entry about Twitterfeed... but then just a few days later Twitterfeed itself got a makeover! The big change that immediately became obvious to me was that now Twitterfeed can post to Facebook in addition to Twitter. I've had my Twitter account and my Facebook account linked up so that my blog posts would show up on Facebook, but this allows me to decouple them and let the blog posts go separately to Facebook. I like the idea of the "description" going to Facebook and just the "title" going to the more character-restricted Twitter, but your tastes may vary.

Twitterfeed is also now reportedly supporting Pubsubhubbub, which is a technology which should allow feed posts to show up on Twitter/Facebook nearly instantaneously. When I tried it on the day that Twitterfeed posted the announcement about the new upgrades, it didn't seem to happen that way, but it should be come apparent over the next week or so whether that is working.

They have also added some Google Analytics integration; I don't actively monitor my Google Analytics, so I can't really comment too much on this.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Glo Bible - Cool Queries

A new piece of software launched this week, and I was so impressed with just what is shown in the demo videos that I blogged about it at one of my other blogs. I was especially blown away at the ease with which complex queries of the data can be constructed... take a look particularly at "Glo Demo Part 2 of 2", about 4 or 5 minutes in, where the answer to a complicated Bible question is figured out in mere minutes. Here's my blog post, which has the demo videos embedded in it.

Monday, October 12, 2009


If you follow my Twitter account, you'll notice that whenever I post to one of my blogs (there's a list of them on the right-hand side of this page) a tweet always shows up. I don't do this manually; I use a great service called Twitterfeed:

Twitterfeed is a simple service... you set it up with an RSS feed and with your Twitter account(s), and then when new information is added to the RSS feed, the link automatically gets posted to Twitter. I don't limit its use to my blogs, either... I use a service called to keep track of books I read and movies I watch, and it can output RSS feeds as well. So when I read a book, everyone following me on Twitter automatically knows it! That's just for fun... the best thing is that it helps me publicize my blogs without having to think too much about it.

Something else I like about Twitterfeed is that it allows you to create an account using OpenID. This is accomplished using a nice service called RPX which handles all of the confusing parts of implementing OpenID. If you click "Sign in with OpenID" you'll see this screen:

RPX-powered login screen
 Click the logo of one of the services on which you have an account, log into that service (if you are already logged in, as I usually am with my Gmail account, you're all done without having to log in again at all!), and your Twitterfeed account is ready to go! It couldn't be simpler. I'm planning on incorporating RPX into the redesign of my Guide to Petra Web site, coming up soon. As it is now, people have to go through a series of click-a-link-in-this-email steps to use the interactive portions of my site; this will work MUCH more smoothly!

You can set up multiple RSS feeds with one single Twitterfeed account, and you can actually post to multiple Twitter accounts as well. It also supports some services I hadn't heard of... laconica,, and HelloTxt are in the drop-down. I've tested it with more than one Twitter account, and it worked great. You "link" the account using OAuth (basically, you log into the Twitter account from Twitterfeed) and then you put in a "Feed Name" and the URL for the RSS feed. And then you're done! Of course, there are some great "Advanced Settings" you might want to look at:

Twitterfeed settings for this blog
My favorite things to change are the "Update Frequency" (I set it really long because my blogs seldom update more often then once a day) and the "Post Prefix" (which is added to the beginning of each tweet), but there are also some other settings you might want to look at... whether the tweet is the title from the feed, the description from the feed, or both, for example, or whether the "newness" of the posts is determined by pubDate or GUID (if you don't know what that is, try one and see if it works as you expect... if it does, you're good). You also have the option of using any one of a large batch of URL shorteners... I use (you can even give it your account information, if you like to use a account) but TinyURL is there, and SnipURL, and a couple dozen others.

Once you have some feeds set up, the feed dashboard (which shows a list of all of the feeds you are automatically sending to Twitter) provides some interesting information; link click-throughs are tracked and displayed as bar-graphs. If you use Feedburner, as I do, you can even set things up so that you know how many click-throughs came via the (or other service) link, and how many came directly through the Feedburner link. If you are thinking of using Twitterfeed for a business purpose, these kinds of metrics could be very informative.

The only time I've found the service to be anything but reliable was during a recent Twitter outage... but during the outage, Twitterfeed communicated status reports frequently through their own Twitter account. There was never a time during the outage that I felt like I didn't know what was going on with Twitterfeed. It truly is a set-it-and-forget-it situation; it just works, day-in, day-out. It's the glue that connects my social network friends with my blogs, and I've seen more comments than ever before on my blogs in the weeks since I started auto-tweeting my new posts. It's been a great help to me in getting my blog posts noticed!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Google Wave: What I'd Like To Use It For

This week there's been a lot of chatter about something called Google Wave. The reason the buzz ramped up this week is that Tuesday Google announced that they would be expanding their beta-testing to 100,000 more users (plus their friends and relatives, apparently, because each invite comes with more invites for buddies attached). Wave is not something that is easy to explain in a few words, although the concepts are not hard to understand. It's kind of like email, except with the immediacy of an instant message and the editability of an online document. I know, that doesn't seem to make sense, so you have a couple of options to get you up to speed for this post. You can go to and watch their eighty-minute video... but who in the heck in this Twitterized, cell-phone-infused world has eighty minutes to sit and watch a video online? Instead, I recommend that you take a look at this one. It's a lot of fun to watch, is quite a bit shorter than the ten minutes they mention at the beginning, and it'll help you wrap your head around the basics:

Back? OK, so that kind of explains it. If you're still having trouble or want some more detail, I thought this Lifehacker article was helpful. Go ahead, I'll wait for ya.


OK. So Google Wave is looking like the coolest thing to come down the pike in a long time. Basically, it's a platform that a bunch of other things can kind of piggyback on. Now, I've been reading some articles on how people envision that Wave might be helpful in what they do... businessmen, for example, or newspaper writers or even filmmakers. For myself, the first thing I thought of when I saw it was, "That looks MUCH nicer than Facebook!" Indeed, some have speculated as to whether Wave could eventually do in both Facebook and Twitter, and I agree that it may give them (or the bug-riddled Facebook, at least) a run for their money at some point (of course, if they're smart they may actually incorporate the Google Wave technology themselves and then it becomes a question of who has the cooler interface and the most users, but anyway). But the more I thought about the capabilities of this thing, the more my mind started going in another direction.

Where I work we've been on a quest to find an effective trouble-ticket system. Our business is almost completely centered around what we can do with our Web sites, and customized computer coding is what I do all day long. When something is wrong with one of our sites, we get an email or a phone call, or sometimes we get a "drive-by" request (those are pretty common when your office is on the way to the bathroom for a lot of people!). Once upon a time we hired a contractor to build a trouble-ticketing system for us. It worked OK, and it was integrated with our internal systems, but there were still some things about it that were inflexible and caused problems. To a computer programmer, writing a ticketing system (someone logs a problem into the system, it is classified and prioritized, someone works on it and solves the problem, the ticket is closed, end of story) seems like a deceptively simple task, but things get complicated VERY quickly. Who can see the ticket I'm working on? The person who submitted it? What if they called it in on the phone and someone else keyed it in? Can they see my comments? I need to add a comment that is critical for developers but which might be confusing for end-users. What do I do with the screen shot the user emailed to me? What about this pdf they sent in as an example? Trust me, it gets crazy quick. So we abandoned the home-grown system and began shopping.

First we tried out a system called Trac which our I.T. director had used at a previous job. Trac is a combination wiki/ticketing system, and there are some things it does incredibly well... automatically linking text in the format "#123" to trouble ticket #123, for example. We ran into problems, though, when we tried to figure out ways for our customers to see the status of their tickets. There's just no obvious way to show part of what's in the system; it's pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. So the I.T. director went shopping elsewhere.

Enter Jira. Besides the fact that the name makes me want to say "Gojira! Gojira!", the software is able to do all of the things we need it to... there is a flexible permissions system that allows you to show things to only the people who need to see them, but there are other great bells and whistles (like pasting in a screen shot directly from your Windows clipboard... how cool is THAT?) that impressed us so much that we are likely going to adopt it as our new ticketing system very soon. (It is a commercial product, by the way, but I am receiving no compensation for mentioning them.)

But just for a second, let's think about how Google Wave could be used as a trouble ticketing system. The hypothetical Wave-based ticketing system need not reside on Google's servers; the platform will be open-sourced, so the ticketing service could be a private machine owned by the company using it, or it could even be on a third-party hosting provider. Each new ticket would be a wave (when "wave" is lower-case, it means a particular "message thread" or "document", as opposed to the upper-case "Wave" referring to Google's product as a whole). When a ticket is opened by internal personnel, all of the stakeholders could easily be added to the wave; if the ticket comes from an external source, when the staff became aware of it they could add stakeholders to the wave themselves. As progress is made on the ticket, technicians could update the wave, and even add questions for the client; the client could modify or add information as necessary. I was particularly intrigued when I visited the Wave extensions page and saw the Ribbit extension. Assuming enough storage space is available to store them, the wave could conceivably hold the entire contents of a conference call, recorded for reference back if needed! Tickets could also be submitted via telephone and immediately and automatically added to the appropriate waves. Those audio tickets would be exactly what the client requested, with no intentional or unintentional translating done during data entry. The phone call IS the request.

The possibility of adding robust phone call/teleconference recording capabilities to the wave would be what would make it a killer app for trouble ticketing. One of the most frustrating problems we have with some of the people that we do work for is that a request is placed via telephone and either misunderstood or forgotten, and then it winds up never getting taken care of properly (or messed up, which may or may not be worse!) To be able to go back and follow every part of the ticket wave through its complete development, to have that granularity on the project, would be invaluable. It would be like the difference of getting where you want to go via horse cart, automobile, or jet plane.

Why oh why couldn't I have been one of those first 100,000 to request access? :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

AutoTweeter Pro

I haven't been on Twitter very long, but I'm a sort of scattered thinker, and I had been tweeting only a few days when I found that I would get on a roll, thinking of things I wanted to tweet, and tweet five or six times in rapid succession. I also discovered that whenever someone else did that, I hated it. Especially if they kept going... nine or ten tweets in a row and my whole Twitter home page was filled with one person's profile picture. I realized that what I really needed was a way to kind of queue up those tweets and let them out a little at a time. Enter AutoTweeter.

AutoTweeter is a tray application for Windows. The basics are very simple: you save your tweets into a plain old Notepad-friendly text file, tell AutoTweeter how often you want to tweet them, click on "start tweeting", and AutoTweeter does the busy-work for you. Very straightforward. And it works like a charm... I can queue up several tweets at a time and let them come out every 60 minutes, 45 minutes, 30 minutes... whatever I want. I even spent an entire Monday recently, just for fun, letting AutoTweeter tweet random Animaniacs quotes every fifteen minutes! And I instituted a new tradition for my Sundays... throwing a list of quotes from a VeggieTales episode at it and letting it tweet one every thirty minutes all day (get laughs! Annoy the living heck out of your friends! That tradition ended with some thinly-veiled hostility from those same friends this weekend... lesson learned. Not everyone loves VeggieTales.) Usually I use it at work during the day, queuing up tweets on the fly, so when I think of two or three things to say I can spread them out over time and keep adding to the list as I go. During the day I'm seldom without a fresh tweet for more than an hour at a time! And I never have to worry about "spamming" my friends and followers (at least, not since I cooled it with the VeggieTales thing).

Anyway, let me explain how AutoTweeter works, and then I'll tell you the good things (there are lots of them) and the bad things (there are a few) about the application. AutoTweeter has no installer (a plus in my book); you just unzip it to any location you like (I put mine in C:\Program Files\AutoTweeterPro), click the .exe file, and you're ready to go. An icon that looks like a bluebird's head will appear in your system tray; there's a little bit of fairly straightforward setup to do first, so you will have to double-click it to look at the dashboard. First you'll need to go to the "configure" tab and put in your Twitter username and password; there's no OAuth support in this release so it's old school authentication for now (I understand OAuth is in the plans for a future release). You also might want to change the default tweet interval from 1 minute to something longer unless you're going to have a tweet file that has a lot lines in it... and friends who will put up with you tweeting every sixty seconds!

The default tweet file, sample.txt, has one tweet in it already, but you will almost certainly want to set up your own file. You can set up your own .txt text files in the autotweeterservices directory (in my case, C:\Program Files\AutoTweeterPro\autotweeterservices) and even switch between them whenever you want. I set up a file called tweets.txt in that directory and then put tweets.txt next to "tweet file" in the "configure" tab. Make sure you click the "save" button or else your changes will be lost. (If you leave the default tweet file in place, the first tweet is an @-message to the software's creator... which is not a problem, but you probably don't want your permanent tweet file to be called "sample.txt"!)

Once you have everything configured, you're ready to add some tweets. You can use a text editor like Windows Notepad, but a much easier way to add tweets is the "auto tweet" tab. The auto-tweet tab has two boxes: the large box for the tweet itself, and a "shorten url" box. Type your tweet into the large box, and click "tweet later" and the tweet will be added to your tweet file. You can add as many tweets to the file as you like; however, the trial version will only send fifty tweets before it automatically stops tweeting (we'll talk more about the limitations of the unregistered version in a minute). The "shorten url" functionality is disabled in the trial version.

If you want to tweet right this minute, click over to the "quick tweet" box and add your tweet there. Once you click "tweet it," your tweet immediately goes to your Twitter account. I just used that function to tweet "Writing a blog post about #AutoTweeterPro!" It's very handy if you don't happen to have the Twitter Web site open but have something to say, and you don't want to queue it up in your AutoTweeter tweet file.

The "house keeping" tab helps you to keep track of your tweet files and how many tweets are left in each. If you did what I did (creating a tweets.txt file), when you click "load data" you will see that the sample.txt file has one tweet in it but zero have been sent, and the tweets.txt file has zero tweets in it (my "quick tweet" never went to the tweet file). There is also a "delete" button (which actually physically deletes a tweet file... you can use it to delete your sample.txt if you like), and a "reset" button which is disabled in the trial version.

Let's talk about the limitations of the unregistered version. Registration at the current time is $15, and it is well worth the price if you like the unregistered features. Once you register and your key is in place, the "reset" button becomes active, and you can reset the "tweets done" to any number... for example, if you had a 50-line tweet file and you had tweeted all of them, you could reset the "tweets done" to 26 and tweet the last 25 tweets again. The process for doing this is a little bit clunky (check the checkbox for the file you want to reset, click under "reset to", key in the new value, click under "tweets done", and click the "reset" button) but it gets the job done. You can manually change this value in the configuration file using your text editor, but it is certainly more convenient to make the change right in the "house keeping" tab. The "shorten url" boxes are another terrific convenience you get with registration; using those boxes, you can change any http://www. URL to a link without having to go to the Web site. Oddly, any URL that does not start with http://www. will be rejected by these boxes... https: URLs are not acceptable (even though handles them just fine) and any URL that doesn't start with a "www" will not work (for example, one of my blogs is no good for the "shorten url" boxes). It would be nice if this box would accept any URL... limiting it this way seems kind of odd.

Another (intentional) limitation of the unregistered version is that the "repeat tweets" and "windows startup" checkboxes are disabled. I can't imagine a situation when I personally would want to "repeat tweets" unless I decided to run a service of some kind where I had hundreds of tweets in my tweet file and wanted to recycle them every so often (quote of the day services or such). The checkbox is mostly there for Twitter marketers, so if that's your bag, definitely pony up the $15 for the registered version. When I checked the "windows startup" checkbox, AutoTweeterPro started up when windows started, but for some reason it couldn't read the configuration file... I had to exit AutoTweeter entirely and start it back up manually to get it to work. Your mileage may vary... I think I may have moved the executable file after the first time I used the software, so maybe that was the problem. For that reason, I'm not sure if a power outage would mess things up or not; if the computer came back up, the software would come back up, but I don't know if it would be tweeting without a manual click or not (in my case, until I logged into the computer, I would be out of luck anyway!) I also had a little trouble getting my registration key to "stick" when I first registered; the tech support people were very patient with me and we finally got that worked out. The registration process is fairly simple; you make payment via Paypal and a key file comes in your email. The key file just needs to be present in the folder where your executable is.

There are a few minor things about the software that bother me. When you click "start tweeting", no tweet is immediately sent; if you have your interval set to 60 minutes, it will be 60 minutes after you click "start tweeting" before any tweets go to Twitter. Not a bug, but something to be aware of. The presence of the "quick tweet" tab helps a little bit on this.

Also, sometimes I wonder if tweets added to the queue will happen without clicking "start tweeting" again, particularly if you've already tweeted the last line in your tweets file. If there are two or three tweets left in the queue I don't notice a problem, but if I'm on the last tweet already, it seems like the software loses its place. To make things worse, the "tweets done" number in the "house keeping" tab doesn't always update when tweets happen; it definitely updates when you exit the software, but the program doesn't update the configuration file on the fly, so re-loading the data while you're tweeting doesn't tell you anything new. And you're on your own if you try to manually update the tweet file or configuration file with a text editor while the program is running. It would be nice to have a way to view or even edit the tweets file on the fly; I keep an eye on the tweets file using a text editor, but I would certainly rather keep that within the program. And if the configuration file was physically updated after every tweet, it might provide some more useful information in the "house keeping" tab while you're tweeting.

A BIG update I would love to see is a deamon that could be run as a Windows service. That way, even if I was logged off of the computer I could be tweeting. For most people that might be overkill, but at work I log off when it's not business hours, and at home, each member of my family has his or her own login for the computer. If I'm logged off either one, no auto tweets. This would also solve the power outage problem I mentioned before. Maybe for version 3.0?

Overall, I really like the software! It is a tremendous step up from the previous version, which started out as just a sort of daemon for tweeting a text file; initially there was no gui at all. The dashboard is a much easier way to control the program. I know there are online options to queue up tweets, but for sheer immediacy of access and ease of use, AutoTweeterPro is a terrific option. Visit and try it out! And if you like the trial version, consider spending the small amount to register. It's worth it to remove the software's built-in limitations, and it never hurts to help support a developer who is making software you enjoy!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Google Sidewiki

A few days ago Google announced a new project of theirs: Google Sidewiki. Visit that link for details, but the gist is that if you have the Google Toolbar installed, you can browse the Web with a new sidekick on the edge of your browser. This sidekick will comment on the page you are looking at for you, and you can in turn comment on the page as well. The idea is that experts can add more information, say about a medical or science page. But any page can have a Sidewiki, and some of the information will apparently be generated automatically based on other pages, blog posts, etc. Here's Google's video about it:

This is not a particularly new idea. I remember years ago, someone introduced a browser plugin that you could use to comment directly on Web pages... almost like taking out your can of spray paint and tagging the page with your gang sign. The reason that didn't fly at the time was this: Web page owners don't WANT people adding content to their Web pages. If they did, they would add comment boxes at the bottom. By piggybacking other content onto an existing site, you're infringing on the page owner's right to control what comes up when their domain name is accessed. I don't know if there is a legal challenge there (I doubt it), but there is certainly a moral responsibility to not "walk on my lawn", so to speak. I don't remember what the name of that project was, but this post mentions a couple of other current similar

And what about pages that do already have a commenting mechanism? What about this page, for example? It looks like that's already happening... read to the bottom of this page and you'll find that the page's author wound up having to mess with two sets of comment threads, one on his page and one in the sidewiki. Kind of a pain in the neck for the page author, don't you think?

And what am I supposed to do when someone emails me and says they saw something specifically on one of my pages, but it wasn't actually there? It was in Sidewiki, and I don't know about it. Or it was in Sidewiki when they visited the page, but it has since been deleted, moved, demoted, or otherwise obscured, so now even if I look at Sidewiki, I still don't see it. Users are not always educated very well in the tools they're using; this adds a layer of complexity that I'm not interested in trying to deal with.

I can't imagine how Google will deal with exceptions to the standard "rules" in Web page design: dynamically-generated pages and pages that utilize frames, for example. I know frames are oh-so-1997, but I was just updating a framed site for a friend of mine. Does Sidewiki follow the frame on the left, or the frame on the right? I hope the one on the right, because that's where the content is. But do I as the Webmaster have any control over what page Sidewiki follows? I don't think so.

In order to see the Sidewiki, you apparently have to be using Google Toolbar in your browser (actually, it looks like it may have to be this special version of the toolbar). I am not interested in adding toolbars to my browsers. I use tons of Firefox add-ons, but not toolbars. Why? Because a toolbar is a jack-of-all-trades, and we know how many things a JOAT is a master of. I would MUCH rather pick and choose only the "tools" I want to use rather than have a whole "toolbar" foisted on me. As often as not, they are resource hogs, and the last thing I need is one more piece of software eating my CPU cycles and dragging down my performance. So I avoid toolbars, and unless Google comes out with a Firefox add-in to see their Sidewiki (and since they've created a public API, I'm sure someone will do it very soon), I probably won't ever see it... and even if I do eventually see it, it will be only to protect the content of my own pages, not as a willing participant.


My first post on my new tech blog. Nobody's going to read it... nobody knows the blog is here. What to say, what to say?

Well, I'm setting up this blog because there is generally no place on my other blogs for stuff about technology. Web sites, gadgets, even legislation and other offline stuff. And sometimes I hear about that stuff. Then I want to talk about it. But I haven't had anyplace to do so. Until now! I'm basically just a regular guy... never even been to Silicon Valley, never worked for a big technology company. Just been around the block a few times. Maybe someone cares what I have to say. Do you?

Add me to your RSS feeds, follow me in Google Reader or Google Friend Connect, follow my Twitter feed for updates, or just check in every once in a while. It should be fun!