Points of Authority

Posted on 27th May 2011

Back in February I did a presentation for the Birmingham Perl Mongers, regarding a chunk of code I had been using to test websites. The code was originally based on simple XHTML validation, using the DTD headers found on each page. I then expanded the code to include pattern matching so I could verify key phrases existed in the pages being tested. After the presentation I received several hints and suggestions, which I've now implemented and have set up a GitHub repository.

Since the talk, I have now started to add some WAI compliance testing. I got frustrated with finding online sites that claimed to be able to validate full websites, but either didn't or charged for the service. There are some downloadable applications, but most require you to have Microsoft Windows installed or again charge for the service. As I already had the bulk of the DTD validation code, it seemed a reasonable step to add the WAI compliance code. There is a considerable way to go before I get all the compliance tests that can be automated written into the distribution, but some of the more immediate tests are now there.

As mentioned in my presentation to Birmingham.pm, I still have not decided on a name. Part of the problem being that the front-end wrapper, Test::XHTML, is written using Test::Builder so you can use it within a standard Perl test suite, while the underlying package, Test::XHTML::Valid uses a rather different approach and does provides a wider API than just validating single pages against a DTD specification. Originally, I had considered these two packages should be two separate releases, but now that I've added the WAI test package, I plan to expose more of the functionality of Test::XHTML::Valid within Test::XHTML. If you have namespace suggestions, please let me know, as I'm not sure Test-XHTML is necessarily suitable.

Ultimately I'm hoping this distribution can provide a more complete validation utility for web developers, which will be free to use and will work cross-platform. For those familiar with the Perl test suite structure, they can use it as such, but as it already has a basic stand-alone script to perform the DTD validation checks, it should be usable from the command-line too.

If this sounds interesting to you, please feel free to fork the GitHub repo and try it out. If you have suggestions for fixes and more tests, you are very welcome to send me pull requests. I'd be most interested in anyone who has the time to add more WAI compliance tests and can provide a better reporting structure, particularly when testing complete websites.

File Under: modules / opensource / perl / technology / testing / usability / web
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The Sanity Assassin

Posted on 12th May 2011

An update to my recent post.

With thanks to a fellow Perler, Smylers informs me that a Flash Cookie refers to the cookie used by Flash content on a site, which saves state on the users machines, by-passing browsers preferences. Odd that the advice singles out this type of cookie by name though, and not the others.

In an article on the Wall Street Journal I found after posting my article, I found it interesting to discover that the ICO themselves use Google Analytics. So after 25th May, if you visit the ICO website and see no pop-up, I guess that means Google Analytics are good to go. Failing that they'll see a deluge of complaints that their own website fails to follow the EU directive.

I also recommend reading the StatCounter's response too. They also note the problem with the way hosting locations are (not) covered by the directive, and the fact that the protection from behavioural advertising has got lost along the way.

After a discussion about this at the Birmingham.pm Social meeting last night, we came to the considered opinion that this would likely just be a wait and see game. Until the ICO bring a test case to court, we really won't know how much impact this will have. Which brings us back to the motives for the directives. If you're going to take someone to court, only big business is worth fining. Bankrupting an individual or a small business (ICO now have powers to fine up to £500,000) is going to give the ICO, the government and the EU a lot of really negative press.

Having tackled the problem in the wrong way, those the directives sort to bring into line are only going to use other technologies to retrieve and store the data they want. It may even effect EU hoisting companies, if a sizeable portion of their market decide to register and host their websites in non-EU countries.

In the end the only losers will be EU businesses, and thus the EU economy. Did anyone seriously think these directives through?

File Under: government / law / security / technology / usability / web / website
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The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong

Posted on 11th May 2011

On May 26th 2011, UK websites must adhere to a EU directive regarding cookies, that still hasn't been finalised. Other member states of the EU are also required to have laws in place that enforce the directive.

Within the web developer world this has caused a considerable amount of confusion and annoyance, for a variety of reasons, and has enabled media outlets to scaremonger the doom and gloom that could befall developers, businesses and users. It wouldn't be so bad if there was a clear piece of legislation that could be read, understood and followed, but there isn't. Even the original EU directives are vague in the presentation of their requirements.

If you have the time and/or inclination the documents to read are Article 2 of Directive 2009/136/EC (the Directive), which amends the E-Privacy Directive 2002/58/EC (the E-Privacy Directive), with both part of the EU Electronic Communications Framework (ECF).

Aside from the ludicrous situation of trying to enforce a law with no actual documentation to abide by (George Orwell would have a field day), and questioning why we are paying polictians for this shambolic situation, I have to question the motives behind the creation of this directive.

The basic Data Protection premise for tightening up the directive is a reasonable one, however the way it has been presented is potentially detremental to the way developers, businesses and users, particularly in the EU, are going to browse and use the internet. The directive needed tightening due to the way advertisers use cookies to track users as they browse the web and target adverts. There has been much to complain about in this regard, and far beyond the use of cookies with companies such as Phorm trying to track information at the server level too. However, the directive has ended up being too vague and covers too wide a perspective to tackle the problem effectively.

Others have already questioned whether it could push users to use non-EU websites to do their business because they get put off using EU based sites. Continually being asked whether you want to have information stored in a cookie every time you visit a website is going to get pretty tiresome pretty quickly. You see, if you do not consent to the use of cookies, that information cannot be saved in a cookie, and so when revisiting the site, the site doesn't know you said no, and will ask you all over again. For those happy to save simple preferences and settings stored in cookies, then you'll be asked once and never again. If you need an example of how bad it could get, Paul Carpenter took a sartirical look at a possible implementation.

On Monday 9th May 2011, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) issued an advice notice to UK businesses and organisation on how to comply with the new law. However even their own advice states the document "is a starting point for getting compliant rather than a definitive guide." They even invent cookie types that don't exist! Apparently "Flash Cookies" is a commonly used term, except in the web technology world there are just two types of cookie, Persistent Cookies and Session Cookies. They even reference the website AllAboutCookies, which makes no mention of "Flash Cookies". Still not convinced this is a complete shambolic mess?

The directives currently state that only cookies that are "strictly necessary" to the consumer are exempt from the ruling. In most cases shopping carts have been used as an example of cookie usage which would be exempt. However, it doesn't exempt all 1st party cookies (those that come from the originating domain), and especially targets 3rd party cookies (from other domains). The advice states "The exception would not apply, for example, just because you have decided that your website is more attractive if you remember users' preferences or if you decide to use a cookie to collect statistical information about the use of your website." Both of which have significant disruption potential for both websites and their visitors.

Many of the 1st party cookies I use are Session Cookies, which either store an encrypted key to keep you logged into the site, or store preferences to hide/show elements of the site. You could argue both are strictly necessary or not depending on your view. Of the 3rd party cookies, like many people these days, I use Google Analytics to study the use of my websites. Of particular interest to me is how people find the site, and the search words used that brough the visitor to the site. It could be argued that these are strictly necessary to help allow the site visitor find the site in the first place. Okay its a weak argument, but the point remains that people use these types of analysis to improve their sites and make the visitor experience more worthwhile.

Understandly many people have questioned the implications of using Google Analytics, and on one Google forum thread, the Google approved answer seems to imply that it will only mean websites make it clearer that they use Google Analtyics. However this is at odds with the ICO advice, which says that that isn't enough to comply with the law.

If the ruling had been more explicit about consent for the storing of personal data in cookies, such as a name or e-mail address, or the use of cookies to create a personal profile, such as with advertisier tracking cookies, it would have been much more reasonable and obvious what is permissible. Instead it feels like the politicians are using a wrecking ball to take out a few bricks, but then aiming at the wrong wall.

For a site like CPAN Testers Reports, it is quite likely that I will have to block anyone using the site, unless they explictly allow me to use cookies. The current plan is to redirect people to the static site, which will have Google Analytics switched off, and has no other cookies to require consent. It also doesn't have the full dynamic driven content of the main site. In Germany, which already has much stricter requirements for data protection, several personal bloggers have choosen to not use Google Analytics at all in case they are prosecuted. I'm undecided at the moment whether I will remove GA from my websites, but will watch with interest whether other bloggers use pop-ups or remove GA from their sites.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the directives and the advice is that it discusses only website compliance. It doesn't acknowledge that the websites and services may be hosted on servers outside the EU, although the organisation or domain may have been registered within the EU. It also doesn't differentiate between commercial businesses, voluntary organisations or individuals. Personal bloggers are just as at risk to prosecution as multinational, multibillion [currency of choice] businesses. The ICO is planning to issue a separate guidance on how they intend to enforce these Regulations, but no timescale is given. I hope that they make it absolutely clear that commercial businesses, voluntary organisations or individuals will all be treated differently from each other.

In their eagerness to appear to be doing something, the politicians, in their ignorance, have crafted a very misguided ruling that will largely fail to prevent the tracking of information and creation of personal profiles, which was the original intent of the changes. When companies, such as Phorm, can create all this personal information on their servers, using the same techology to capture the data, but sending it back to a server, rather than saving a cookie, have these directives actually protected us? By and large this will be a resounding No. Have they put in place a mission to disrupt EU business and web usage, and deter some from using EU based websites? Definitely. How much this truly affects web usage remains to be seen, but I suspect initially there will be an increase in pop-ups appearing on websites asking to use cookies.

It will also be interesting to see how many government websites adhere to the rulings too.

File Under: government / law / security / technology / usability / web / website
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Addicted to Chaos

Posted on 31st March 2011

Sometime ago, a website I was working on needed the ability to view images on the current page from a thumbnail. Many websites now feature this functionality, but at the time only a few seemed to offer this, and the assumption was that the javascript required was rather complex. As such, I did a search of the viewer libraries available, either as Open Source or for free download, that I could use for a commercial website.

The initial search revealed a rather more limited result than I expected, and seemed to imply that the complexity had put people off from developing such a library. However, in retrospect it seems that a market leader has become so popular, stable and robust, that others have choosen to provide different or limited presentations based on similar designs.

Back last year I began writing a review of some of the viewers, but never got around to finishing it. Having some time recently, I decided to both complete the review and revisit the viewers to see what improvements have been made since I first investigated them.

Before I begin the individual reviews, I should note the requirements I was looking for in a viewer. Firstly, the viewer needed to be self contained, both with files and directory structure, so that the feature could be added or removed with minimal changes to other website files. The viewer needed to be run completely on the client side, no AJAX or slow loading of large images would be acceptable. However, the most significant requirement was that all code needed to work in IE6. Unfortunately this latter requirement was non-negotiable.

I was quite surprised by the results of the solutions I could find around the web, and although there are likely to be others now, the following is a brief review of each of the four immediate solutions I found, and my experiences with them.

Lightbox

Possibly the best know thumbnail viewer library available, and now a clear market leader. The original review was with v2.04, which had been the stable release from 2008. This month (March 2011) has seen a version 2.05 release with added IE9 support. Lightbox is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License, and is free to use for commercial projects, although a donation would be very much appreciated.

While this viewer works in most browsers, and the features of images sets and loading effects looked great, it proved unworkable in many of the IE6 browsers I tried across multiple platforms. Despite searching in forums and in some howtos, there didn't seem to be an obvious fix to the problem. The viewer would either not load at all, load with a black layer over the whole web page, or begin to load and crash the browser. I know there are many problems and faults with IE6 and the javascript rendering engine, but these were supposedly stable releases.

As Lightbox makes use of the Prototype Framework and Scriptaculous Effects Library, which was already being used within the website the viewer was for, the library initially seemed to be the best fit. Failing IE6 so dramatically and consistently, disappointingly meant it couldn't be pursued further.

Slimbox

Slimbox is a Lightbox clone written for the JQuery Javascript Library. v2.04 is the last stable release, and the release that was originally reviewed. Slimbox is free software released under MIT License.

Slimbox is based on Lightbox 2, but utilises more of the JQuery framework and is thus slightly less bulky. While working well in the browsers I tried, it flickered several times in IE6 when loading the image. Anyone viewing the effect with eplipsy might well have felt ill. Even for someone not affected by eplisey this strobing effect was extremely off putting. I suspect this problem may well be an alternative side-effect to those seen with the original Lightbox, but again forums and howtos didn't provide a suitable fix in order to remedy this problem.

Dynamic Drive Thumbnail Viewer

This is the first thumbnail viewer that Dynamic Drive have available, as the second is an inline viewer rather than an overlay, which is what I was after, and is the version made available on July 7th, 2008. Scripts by Dynamic Drive are made available under their Terms of Use, and are free to use for commercial projects.

This a very basic viewer, relying on basic functionality rather than flashy effects. As such, it is simple in design and presentation. Rather than create a full browser window overlay, as both Lightbox and Slimbox do, the Dynamic Drive viewer simply contains the viewing image within a simple DIV layer tag. There is the possibility to add visual effects, but these can be easily turned off.

This seemed to work in most of the browser tried, except when clicking the image in IE6. The image appeared, but then immediately a javascript error popped up. After quickly reviewing the configuration and turning off the animation, the viewer opened and worked seamlessly across all the browsers tested.

Highslide JS

Highslide JS is a very feature rich library, which provides much more than an image viewer. Highslide JS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License, which means you are free to use the library for non-commercial projects. For commercial projects two payment methods are available, $29 for a single website, and $179 for unlimted use.

The feature set for displaying images includes the style of animation to open images, the positioning of text, and the linking of image sets. In addition, it also provides many features for regular content, which can then be used for tooltip type pop-ups, using embedded HTML, IFrames and AJAX. Another standard feature is the ability to allow the user to move the pop-up around the screen, to wherever might be convienent.

However, there is a downside. While this works well in most browsers, even just loading the Highslide JS website in IE6 throws up several errors. With the library being so feature rich, it is a considerably larger codebase, although removing comments can remove this down to just over 8KB, and I suspect some of the older browsers may not be able to handle some of the complexity. Their compatibility table suggests that it works all the way back to IE 5.5, but in the tests performed for IE6, when the site did open without crashing the browser, the viewer itself felt rather clunky when an image was opened and several of the visibility settings just didn't work. You also frequently get an 'Unterminated string constant' error pop-up, which just feels disconcerting considering they are asking you to pay for commercial usage.

If IE6 wasn't a factor, this may have been a contender, as the cost is very reasonable for a commercial project that would utilise all its features.

Conclusion

These are just the four viewers that were prominent in searches for a "thumbnail viewer". They all seem to have the same, or at least a similar, style of presentation of images, which is likely due to the limited way images can be displayed as an overlay. However, the basic functionality of displaying an image seems to have been overshadowed by how many cool shiny features some can fit into their library, with configuration seeming to be an after thought.

With the ease of configuration to disable the IE6 error, the basic functionality and the freedom to use for commercial projects, the Dynamic Drive solution was utimately chosen for the project I was working on. If IE6 wasn't a consideration, I would have gone with Lightbox, as we already use Prototype and Scriptaculous. With IE6 usage dwindling on the website in question (Jun 2010: 38.8%, down to Mar 2011: 13.2%), it is quite possible that we may upgrade to a more feature and effect rich viewer in the future, and Lightbox does seem to be a prime candidate.

Consider this post a point of reference, rather than a definitie suggestion of what image viewer library to use. There may be other choices that suit your needs better than these, but these four are worth initial consideration at the very least.

Browsers & Operating Systems

For reference these were the browsers I tried, and the respective operating systems. And yes, I did test IE6 on Linux, where it occasionally stood up better than the version on Windows! Though this may be due to the lack of ActiveX support.

  • IE6 (WinXP, Windows7, Linux)
  • IE7 (Windows7)
  • IE8 (Windows7)
  • Firefox 3.6 (WinXP, Windows7, Linux)
  • Opera 9.8 (Linux)
  • Opera 10.52 (Linux)
  • Chrome 5 (Windows7, Darwin)
  • Chromium 6 (Linux)
  • Safari 4 (Darwin, iOS)

File Under: opensource / review / technology / usability / web / website
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The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)

Posted on 9th May 2009

For quite sometime now, I like others I've seen on various forums, have got really irritated with one aspect of the colour scheme used on Linux when doing a directory listing. If you have the colour scheme enabled and haven't changed any settings, then likely as not, if you have any directory that is world writeable, then you probably won't be able to read the text.

When designing websites, it is common practice to use high contrast colours, as you want the site to be readable, and not cause headaches among your readers as they try to understand what you've written. Recently I was investigating some high contrasting colours, and found some good websites that explain what I mean.

With this in mind, why on earth would anyone think that blue text on a dark green background would be easily readable. Unless you get close to the screen and squint!

On Linux systems there is a application called 'dircolors' and if you're lucky enough on RedHat based systems, you even have the '/etc/DIR_COLORS' configuration file, so it is possible to try and figure out what needs to be changed. However, until now I've never manaed to find the offending attribute to change. After a lot of searching this morning, I finally found a site that explains all the short form and long form keys, and additional colours that can be used in the colour scheme, beyond the 8 foreground and 8 background colours. Even better it even explains the effects available. In most places only bold is mentioned.

So in the event anyone else has had the same problem with their directories disappearing before their eyes, take a look at Configuring LS_COLORS by David Newcomb. It turns out the offending key is OTHER_WRITABLE (or ow in LS_COLORS format). I've now set mine to something much more sensible (bold white on a blue background), and it's much much easier on the eyes :)

File Under: design / linux / usability
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Let Me In

Posted on 3rd April 2008

The problem with those that get high and mighty about username/password site logins, is that they often use examples where you really do want some degree of protection, not from yourself, but from others. Of the 16 Account Design Mistakes listed in Part 1 and Part 2 by Jared M. Spool, most include good ideas for developers, however, some use examples where the sites are quite right to be obscure.

Take #13 "Not Explaining If It's The Username or Password They Got Wrong", then proceeding to hold up Staples and American Express as the worst offenders. I'm sorry but if I have accounts with companies like that, then there is no way on earth I want them giving hints to crackers whether they got my username or password wrong. Those kinds of sites contain VERY sensitive personal information, not least of which is your credit card information. If Jared is that eager to share his financial information, I'm now wondering if he publishes it on his personal website. Could it be that perhaps the very security he ridicules actually protects him from identity theft?

Another is #16 "Requiring More Than One Element When Recovering Password", where a company requires some form of additional account information other than just your email address. Again this is a company that holds your credit information and by the sound of it some very personal information (such as my phone number). Does Jared post his personal phone number on his website? I doubt it as I assume he doesn't want all and sundry knowing it, thus exposing him to more identity theft.

Don't get me wrong, Jared does list some good thoughts about username/password site logins, but the context in which he uses to ridicule some sites and companies is grossly misplaced. The problem is that the author often thinks only in terms of making life easier for themselves, forgetting that you can also make it easy for those of a more malicious nature too. In all, or possibly nearly all, sites that I have a login for, the login is there to protect my account on the site from abuse. I know there are sites out there that only provide customisations with your login, but I don't use them. Even those that don't contain personal information, I would not want anyone to hack in to. If you're happy to make it easy for some one to login to your blog account and post spam, abusive or malicious content, then fine, make it easy. For the rest of us, we'd rather have some form of protection on the account that makes it a little harder for others to get through.

File Under: design / rant / security / usability / website
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Shout It Out Loud

Posted on 11th July 2007

This post is mostly to trigger my shiny new Technorati Profile into recognising this "blog" as mine.

For some time now I've wonder about the use of the word 'blog'. I know it comes from weblog and is in reality an online journal or diary, but the word 'blog' doesn't conjure up anything like the kind of articles, news and thoughts I plan to post here. In fact I find it quite a dismissive word.

That's not to say the people who actually create these online diaries are not important, they are. For friends it's a way for me to see what they're up to, what's bothering them and the like, and likewise those who I know through social networks. They're also valuable to those of us who are looking for solutions to a particular problem, answers to questions or looking for thought provoking posts.

The medium itself is a valuable tool for allowing the average person to be heard in amongst the often inflated egos of some journalists I've met (particularly in the music industry ... but that's another story). I like the fact I can find bits of news and information from sources I would never otherwise knew existed.

What I don't like is the term 'blog'. Bit too late to try and change it now, and I doubt a lone voice would get much airplay, but it would have been much nicer to associate myself to a term that conveys the value of the online community of storytellers. For me, blog just doesn't cut it.

File Under: rant / usability / web
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The Frayed Ends of Sanity

Posted on 1st June 2007

XWiki would seem to be in dire need of some sanity. When I upload a file, I expect to get an appropriate error message if it fails, or better still tell me before hand if it's likely to be too big. I don't expect there to be a two huge great Java exceptions thrown back at me. Thankfully, I'm a technical user and can decipher the program (the image was too big), but other users might not be so understanding.

This goes back to what I posted yesterday, don't send users down broken paths. If there are constraints tell them!

However, there is also another issue with sites that upload photos like this. If you have a limit on the size of the photos, resize the image. It isn't hard. This is what Labyrinth does, so although your original image might be 1280x1024 and be over 1MB, it will get saved as something like 800x800 or perhaps 150x150 for thumbnails all automatically, without the user having to worry about it. Why make the user jump through hoops, when you can so easily add a feature like that yourself?

The problem here though looks like the XWiki (or at least this installation of it) uses the database as a file store. The Java exception errors are from JDBC finding the data too big to store. Why is an image (or any media file) ever stored in the database? I've come across this idea a few times before and have never understood the point. Use the filesystem of the OS to store files and databases to store your textual content. You aren't going to search the content of the data block in the database, or if you are then I seriously doubt you get any benefit over using tools dedicated to accessing and interrogating files at the OS level.

Maybe it just comes down to the fact that Java programmers seem to want to try and do everything themselves. I've come across this several times when I was forced to use Silverstream many moons ago, also written in Java, and seem to be a mantra of Java in that it's the only tool for the job, even if it isn't.

File Under: design / usability / web
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Don't Come Around Here No More

Posted on 31st May 2007

Recently I joined the Facebook community. Seeing as several coworkers were prompting me, and it looked to be a more social version of LinkedIn, I thought I give it a try. For the most part it is a fun site, although there are a few dodgy parts, but you kind of expect someone is going to try and push the barriers of taste on a site like this.

However, there was one aspect that really irritated me the yesterday, that although I found it on Facebook, I've come across similar things on several sites over the years, and is a failing of the web designers to actually understand their audience. In web design there is a lot of emphasis on usability for a very good reason. It is absolutely pointless having a beautifully crafted web site if your potential users can't use it. Now most designers do get the idea of keeping the navigation clear and easily available, and generally layout has gotten less busy over the years, but usability is more than just understanding where everything is.

Your site needs to be functional, even if that means you only have static pages that provide other ways for your users to interact with you, such as providing a contact address. To me, functional means doing something useful and not irritating your user base.

The part of Facebook that fails this part of functionality, and irritates the hell out of me, is taking your users on a trail that is a pointless dead-end and completely wastes the users time even bothering to follow it. If you have ever clicked to 'Add a friend', then you will most likely be presented with a box that requests you to enter the CAPTCHA. Just above the box is a link that implies you can forego this CAPTCHA if you verify yourself. So I thought I do just that. The next page then asks you for your mobile phone number. As I didn't want to give them my personal mobile number, I thought I'd use my works mobile. Unfortunately I'm very bad at remembering phone numbers, so it took me a few minutes to find it. I entered the number and click to get verified. I was then presented with an error message which to me, reading between the lines, said "no you dolt, an American mobile phone number, because you know, obviously ONLY the interesting people are in America". No it doesn't actually say that, but it might as well have.

If you offer a piece of functionality that is only available to a small sliver of your potential audience, SAY SO! It isn't difficult. At the CAPTCHA they could so easily have in brackets "(available for US residents only)". It would have be midly disappointing that it was only available to a select group, but at least I wouldn't have wasted my time trying to use functionality that I was never going to be allowed to access, or felt insulted by the implication that I should have known this.

File Under: design / usability / web
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Somebody's Watching Me

Posted on 13th May 2007

I've had tracking code in Labyrinth for sometime, but it's mostly to track popular galleries and photos. It does count pages, but nothing as detailed as Google Analytics. I'd heard interesting comments about this Google service, and seeing as I can't use their AdSense service for any practical purpose, I thought I give it a try. So for the past few days I've been adding the appropriate code into several of my sites. I was looking at the reports this morning for some of the more popular sites and they make interesting reading.

Many of the sites are specifically aimed at the UK audience, so it's not too surprising to see the majority of visits are from UK residents. However, some, particluarly my Perl sites, are of global interest so I'm hoping to spot any interesting trends, and identify the popular pages. It's early days yet, but so far my CPAN Testers Statistics site is popular in Germany and the US. It'll be interesting to see what the analytics report when the CPAN Testers Wiki finally goes live.

However, the biggest benefit to using Google Analytics, is that I can show anyone I do sites for, a more active response to their site. Kev is always quite keen to see what the response is like after The Scooter Do has an event. The gallery for the night always seems popular, but now we'll be able to see whether that's true and whether site visitors browse the rest of the site.

File Under: google / technology / usability / web
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Dead And Bloated

Posted on 30th April 2007

If you've ever bought a desktop or laptop in recent years, that has come with a version of Windows on it, the chances are that there is an awful lot of "bloatware" preinstalled and taking up valueable resources, which often hinder the performance of the machine. It's often a reason why I've heard non-IT people complain about Windows. Now a technical savvy person can generally get rid of most of the unwanted applications, but I am seeing far too many getting in under the guise of helper and support functions.

My sister had a problem with her machine, and asked me to take a look. Apparently it took ages to load up and wasn't particularly fast when it did finally load. Considering it's a 2.70GHz machine, this wasn't a good sign. I did suggest getting some more memory, so before I called round she bought a 512MB memory stick, to compliment the 256MB she already had.

I started by turning on the machine and watching it load. It took nearly 10 minutes! She was running Windows XP, and even though it's sluggish on my laptop, it's nowhere near that bad. Then trying to open anything caused the disk drive to be almost permanently spinning. Taking a first look at the Taskbar and Start Menu items revealed a large collection of apps that mostly just sit there, then come alive to "check things" every few minutes. I immediately removed them all, except a couple of essential ones. I then install TweakAll, which I've often found to be a handy utility for find all the "invisible" start menu apps. Several featured, which on closer inspection where phone home type apps. The worst offender turned out to be Hewlett-Packard. They have a "Motive Chorus Daemon" application installed when you install the drivers and image apps from their CD, which came with my sister's All-In-One Scanner/Printer. I've blocked some of the network traffic, but I suspect there's more.

It really is horrendous how many spyware and intrusive applications are bundled with software these days. All the unwanted apps on my sister's machine were all either preinstalled or installed by driver CDs with new devices. It took 5 hours to clean the machine, after which I'd reclaimed over 1GB of disk space. The machine loaded in roughly 1 minute, and opening a browser window now happened in seconds with the disk drive barely spinning. In fact if you blinked you'd probably miss the orange flash of the LED. Not surprisingly my sister is very relieved, as it's been a cause of frustration for sometime.

I recently bought a new laptop from Dell, and although I specifically said I wanted a bare bones system, I still got bloatware on there. Thankfully not very much, but enough to be a nuisance to uninstall. However, on both the laptop (even though I made a point of explicitly saying 'remove it') and my sisters machine, there was a little app that appears to have different names, but does exactly the same thing. Remote Assistant. If you ever see anything like it on your machine, I would advise you to get rid of it as soon as possible. It allows someone to remotely log on to your machine, without you asking or even accepting, and alter your machine. This cropped up recently on a thread in a LUG mailing list and was thought to be a hoax. Unfortunately not. I'm absolutely amazed that vendors have actually got away with this, but then Microsoft have finally found a way to sell you software to cripple your machine, so why not the vendors too.

Incidentally the BBC reported the fact that Dell are offering XP again on some models. If you email them directly, like I did, you can get XP on any model you want. There is no way I wanted Vista installed anywhere near my machines, and from reports around the internet, there are too many driver and incompatible device issues that would ever encourage me to use it. The fact that it also comes with inbuilt "security protection" of DRM is now just another reason not to go near it. I don't think I've ever seen such a negative response to a new Windows OS. At a recent Birmingham Perl Mongers technical meeting, the comment made about the fancy graphics was that if you wanted XGL that badly, why not just install Linux. I installed Ubuntu :)

File Under: rant / technology / usability
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