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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Into The Blue

Posted on 7th May 2011

I haven't been posting recently about the Perl projects I'm currently working on, so over the next few posts I hope to remedy that.

To begin with, one of the major projects I've been involved with for the past 8 years has been CPAN Testers, although you can find out more of my work there on the CPAN Testers Blog. This year I've been releasing the code that runs some of the websites, specifically those that are based on my other major project, Labyrinth. Spearheading these releases have been the CPAN Testers Wiki and CPAN Testers Blog, with further releases for the Reports, Preferences and Admin sites also planned. The releases have taken time to put together mostly because of the major dependency they all have, which is Labyrinth.

Labyrinth is the website management framework I started writing back in 2002. Since then it has grown and become a stable platform on which to build websites. With both the CPAN Testers Wiki and the CPAN Testers Blog, three key plugins for Labyrinth have also been released which hopefully others can make use of.

The Wiki plugin, was intended to be written for the YAPC::Europe 2006 Wiki, but with pressures of organising the conference and setting up the main conference site (which also used Labyrinth), I didn't get it finished in time. Once a CPAN Testers Wiki was mooted, I began finishing off the plugin and integrating into Labyrinth. The plugin has been very stable for the last few years, and as a consequence was the first non-core plugin to be released. It's a fairly basic Wiki plugin, not too many bells and whistles, although there are a couple of Perlish shortcuts, but for the most part you don't need them. The CPAN Testers Wiki codebase release was also the first complete working site for Labyrinth, which was quite a milestone for me.

Following that success, the next release was for the CPAN Testers Blog. Again the underlying plugin, the Blog Plugin, has been stable for a few years, so was fairly quick to package and release, however the secondary plugin, the Event Plugin, has been evolving for quite some time and took a little more time. As I use both these plugin for several other sites, it was a good opportunity to bring together any minor bug fixes and layout changes. Some of these have seen slight modifications to the core Labyrinth codebase and the core set of plugins. In addition it has prompted me to start working on the documentation. It is still a long way from being complete, but at least the current documentation might provide some guidance to other users.

One of my major goals for Labyrinth was for it to be a 'website in a box'. Essentially this means that I wanted anyone to take a pre-packaged Labyrinth base (similar to the Demo site), drop it on a hosting service and be able to run a simple installation script to instantiate the database and configuration. The installation would then also be able to load requested plugins, and amend the database and configuration files appropriately. I haven't got to that stage yet, but it is still a goal.

With this goal in mind, I have read with interest the recent postings regarding the fact that DotCloud are now able to run Perl apps. This is definitely great news, and is exactly the kind of setup I had wanted to make best use of for the 'website in a box' idea. However, with several other frameworks now racing to have the coolest instance, it isn't something I'm going to concentrate on right now for Labyrinth. Plus there is the fact that Labyrinth isn't a PSGI framework, which others have eagerly added to their favourite framework. Labyrinth came from a very different mindset than other now more well known frameworks, and tries to solve some slightly different problems. With just me currently working on Labyrinth, as opposed to the teams of developers working on other frameworks, Labyrinth is never going to be the first choice for many reasons. I shall watch with interest the successes (and lessons learned from any hiccups) of the other frameworks as it is something I would like to get working with Labyrinth. If anyone who has the time and knows PGSI/Plack well enough, and would like to add those capabilities to Labyrinth, please get in touch.

The next notable plugins I'll be working on are the Survey, Music and Gallery Plugins. The former has its own post coming shortly. The next notable CPAN Testers site released planned is the Reports site. With it being considerably more involved, it might take a little longer to package and document, but it will likely be the most complex site release for Labyrinth, which will give anyone interested in the framework a good idea of how it can be used to drive several sites all at once.

File Under: labyrinth / opensource / perl / 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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Behind The Mask

Posted on 23rd August 2009

Last week it was noted that Why The Lucky Stiff had disappeared from the internet. There have been several thoughts regarding his disappearance, and some very strong reactions too. It strikes as very odd that rather than concern for someone, several have resorted to anger and made matters worse by now digging deeper into his personal life.

While I don't know _why, and I'm not part of the Ruby community, I have been aware of him and even read his Poignant Guide some time ago. He came across as a very creative and interesting character and I'm sure he was a credit to the Ruby community. He appears to have written alot of interesting code and been very good at promoting Ruby, both online and at conferences. So to me it seems strange to read some the "investigation" work going to try and understand why he has disappeared.

Some have suggested something serious has happened, and perhaps he had implemented a Dead Man's Switch, while others have summised that with having his birth name "outed" publicly recently, he just felt the intrusion into his personal life was too much. Whatever has happened I think it's sad that there seems to be lots of negative reaction to the situation. Of all the comments and articles I've read, only John Resig's Eulogy to _why seems to be in anyway a thought provoking hope that all is well the person.

Several people believe that he has taken it as a personal insult that someone has decided to research his birth name, and then publish it publicly. Whether this is true or not, I don't know, but it did make me think about how people treat those of us with an unusual online identity, that we happen to use in person too. One person struck as rather insensitive, as he acknowledged that after discovering something about _why's personal life, _why had asked him to keep it private. With the current wave of discussion, that person saw fit to announce it to the world, so they could show a bit of one-up-manship.

In all the time I've known of him, I've only ever known _why by his pen name, and like many others have never felt the need to know his birth name. In the Perl community there are three prominent characters to use an unusual identity both online and in person. chromatic, Abigail and myself. While I've been told the birth names of chromatic and Abigail, I've long since forgotten them as to me their pen names are who they what to be identified as. For myself, I've never gone to great lengths to hide my name, but my pen name is how I prefer to be known. My birth name is for my family (although even some of them refer to me as Barbie) and the tax man.

Once I sent a mail from a work account that included my birth name, to a friend in the Perl community. I received a reply asking if I could send from my personal account in future, as seeing my birth name had confused the hell out of the recipient and took a little while to suddenly realise it was me :) Another friend on discovering my birth name by way of a slip up online, felt the need to alert me, so that i could hide it. It seems some people actually quite like me having an unusual identity.

My pen name actually came about back in 1983, long before I ever got to use the internet, and was extremely useful when I was a Roadie. People remember an unusual name, and I know for a fact that I got asked to crew several gigs because tour managers and the like remembered me by name. I'd like to think it was also that I did a good job too, but that first impression of being introduced as Barbie was rarely forgotten. In all that time I was a roadie (1984-2005), no-one ever really put any effort to discovering my birth name. Some asked, but many more have been more interested in how I got to be named Barbie. Occasionally I've explained that it is my birth name and that my parents were rather eccentric. Amusingly some have even believed that.

However, Barbie is very much my public identity, and that's something that I'd rather keep. It has some very positive benefits for me, as it has helped me to get several jobs, and has often been a good introduction for some. My private life is not something I write about a lot, mostly because it's private. I talk about Dan, Ethne and Nicole from time to time as they are part of who I am, though others guard even that part of their life very carefully. In _why's case, this was something that he didn't seem to want to promote, at least not in the context of his _why persona. Respecting someone's privacy should be an obvious thing for any human to understand, though sadly there are some that feel that no-one has a right to a private life.

Does discovering someone's birth name really make any difference to how you see that person? The only reason I can see for anyone making something like that public, against the wishes of the individual, is to begin a character assassination. As I see it, _why may well have therefore taken steps to ensure that if people cannot respect his privacy, then why should he respect what they think about all he has given them. To some it is a tantrum, to me is purely about having had enough with the world that the persona of Why The Luck Stiff touched, and wanting to walk away completely and utterly, leaving no trace that it ever existed.

As I say at the beginning, I don't know the reasons for the disappearance, but I do hope that the person behind the persona is okay.

File Under: internet / life / people / web
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Open Your Eyes

Posted on 3rd March 2009

Thanks to a twitter post by Simon Phipps this morning, I read with interest a blog post by Patrick Finch, entitled Mozilla and Cybermentors. Mozilla are getting actively involved with the UK charity BeatBullying and their CyberMentors programme.

It's unlikely that anyone growing up hasn't suffered some form of bullying. It comes in all shapes and forms, and while for some of it may be minor or only last a short time, for some it can have devasating effects. A colleague recently took his own life, because the traumatic and abuse he suffered through primary and secondary school, even over ten years later, was still something that affected his life and personality, and was something he felt he could no longer cope with. I personally was first bullied by my 3rd year junior teacher. Yes you read that right a teacher, and I was just 9. It isn't just children that can be cruel and spiteful, adults can too. While I would dearly love to name the teacher in question, I have no proof beyond my word, and even now feel powerless to do anything about it, much as I did back then. Many children who suffer from bullying feel exactly the same way. Even if they told, who would listen and who would even believe them?

As Patrick points out in his post, many young people are growing up never knowing how we used to keep in contact with our friends, without using the internet or mobile phones. We play out so much of our lives online, that it shouldn't be a surprise that a recent Harvard University task force concluded that one of the biggest risks to children on the internet, isn't from sexual predators, but from bullies. The difference between the school yard bulling and cyber-bullying, is that the former is pretty much contain within a small sphere and often there are adults and peers who can deal with it and stop it. On the internet anyone can hide behind their relative anonymity and victimise just about anyone they choose. As it isn't within school grounds, teachers are often unable or ill-equiped to deal with it.

As such, the Cybermentors aims to be a way for youngsters experiencing bullying online to tell someone about it. Mozilla are offering to support 10 members of the Mozilla community to be trained as Cybermentors, who can then spend at least 2 hours a week for 4 months, helping children to cope and deal with any bullying issues. All credit to Mozilla for supporting this, and hopefully other companies will also be willing to help fund training for individuals to act as mentors.

A few years ago the GetSafeOnline campaign was initiated to help make parents and youngsters aware of the potential dangers on the internet. Identifying ways to protect themselves from viruses, phishing scams and spam, as well as unwanted websites, chatrooms and the like. While this programme is different in that it's targeting a very specific danger, it is still all about keeping the internet safe for everyone. I personally value efforts such as this, rather than the sometimes heavy-handed and misguided attempts by governments and self-appointed puritans of the internet to protect children from percieved threats.

I really hope BeatBullying and the Cybermentors programme gets a lot of internet and media exposure, as the more children are aware of it, the more chance they have of coping with it and not suffering mental anguish for the whole of their (possibly short) adult life. If you're a member of the Mozilla community, and think you can spare the time, please read Patrick's blog post and get in touch with him.

File Under: internet / life / school / security / web
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It's My Life

Posted on 4th February 2009

The twitter phenomenon has grown rather well over the past few months. I have started to use it more in the last month, and I note that a number of people I'm friends and acquaintences with have also been using it quite a lot. Which is nice, as although some use it to just tell everyone what they are doing now, others use it as a blogging tool to have a quick rant, or ask followers a question. Occasional conversations and idle banter make it quite a fun way to keep in touch with firends and people you like to talk to, plus there are the useful links to news items, etc. that people post.

Every one of my followers I either know personally, or have had contact with them online several times prior to twitter. Of the people I follow (discounting project/news feeds), only Stephen Fry and Henry Rollins I don't know personally. Seeing as they are well known personalities they expect to have a lot of followers, Stephen has recently reached over 100,000 followers. But I'm not a celebrity or well known personality, yet I'm starting to get twitter requests from people who I have never met, or know anything about. That's not to say that they are random people, as those are usually easy to spot and can be ignored, but are followers of and/or followed by other people I know. I have my twitterings protected as I really don't like the idea of people I don't know, randomly trying to follow everything I say. Not that I have anything necessarily personal to say, but to me I feel my whitterings have a limited personal appeal and are really only of interest to those that actually know me.

With that said, you could argue that I am well known in the Perl community, and indeed I am. But from that perspective people are really only interested in my projects, most specifically CPAN Testers. However, those projects I blog about elsewhere, and are not a regular part of my tweets. It feels awkward to actively block people from my twitter feed, so I usually leave them in the queue, hoping that I eventually meet them, or have someone else mention them, so I can get a reference as to who they are.

I wonder how others feel about random people listening in on their musings? Does it feel like an intrusion or do you feel you are reaching people with what's going on in your life. Do you use it as a way for others to keep tabs on what project you're working on, or do you like the idea of people being interested in you?

Twitter has certainly been a strange success. It's kind of like a global IRC, with a channel that you create. It's reached outside of the geeks that started to use it, and with the success of Facebook and the status updates, people who would never have thought to put their lives on the internet are now doing so. At the moment, outside of Japan, they have no revenue model, so it will be intriguing to see how long that can last, and whether any future changes turn off the new adopters of the service. I'm sure we'll hear a tweet or two about it when it does.

File Under: internet / life / people / web
1 COMMENT


Light Of Day

Posted on 25th August 2007

Back last year, I went to LUGRadio Live and was extremely impressed, as most people were, with the plasma screens around the building, particularly with the imagery they were displaying. It turned out that Aq had written it as a quick PHP/HTML hack. It certainly did the job and impressed me so much that I asked if I could use for the YAPC::Europe conference we were hosting in August. Aq was delighted.

The original code was written in PHP, but seeing as I don't do PHP, I rewrote the whole thing in Perl. I simplified some of the HTML and CSS, but essentially it was still the same concept. We lauch the code for YAPC::Europe and again people were suitably impressed.

Since last August I've been meaning to package up the code and release with a proper Open Source licence. I asked Aq whether he minded me using the Artistic License as used with tradional Perl libraries, and he was happy to release it. So here it is ... The Plasma Application.

All being well the guys in Vienna might be using it for YAPC::Europe 2007, but we'll have to wait and see.

File Under: conference / opensource / perl / web
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Who Are You

Posted on 20th July 2007

So I've been banned from Facebook.

They claim I can't use a fake name, but have failed to appreciate that they are a social networking site. In addition what is a "fake name". Barbie is my pseudonym, I've used it for over 20 years in both my careers in the music industry and the IT industry. Using a combination of 'perl', 'barbie' or 'birmingham' will bring up pages of me on Google. Most people in the companies I've worked for in the last 15 years have all referenced me as Barbie, including most CEOs, Managing Directors and board directors. Some have never been introduce to me with my birth name.

I find it a bit odd that a social site would try and impose their way of thinking onto anyone who doesn't fit their idea of who everyone should represent themselves online. I do understand that they might want to retain my birth name should they need to take any legal action for something I may write on their site, but I do not want my birth name to appear publically, just because they feel that everybody who uses their site must give up areas of their privacy.

I've emailed them to explain that Barbie is a true identity, and legally I am entitled to sign cheques and the like as Barbie. It is my professional pseudonym and for my last 3 jobs it has been stated from the outset that I am Barbie in the interview.

However, Mark has highlighted another issue with their system, that affects those that have names made up because either us westerners can't pronounce their true names or their language characters are not something westerners know how to pronounce. Are they going to be banned too?

The email I received stated that I have to provide a full first name (no initial) and a full last name. I can have a nickname providing it is derived from those one or both of those two fields. Why? I honestly fail to understand the logic of that. Many people I know have nicknames that are completely unrelated to their birth name and I find it difficult to understand why a social website wants to insist on what I call myself.

Are they a secret government site with covert reasons for knowing everybody's birth names? Somehow I don't think so. Do they have ideas far beyond what the rest of the world expects of them, quite probably. Will they reinstate me, probably not.

I hope they learn to understand their audience and not impose such silly restrictions on something that is essentially about connecting with friends and colleagues. They all know who I am, and I'm pretty sure every single one would vouch for me. Pity then that the people at Facebook have some draconian rule that they feel they need to enforce on those of us who don't fit their profile.

File Under: facebook / rant / web / website
3 COMMENTS


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
NO COMMENTS


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
NO COMMENTS


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