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“A Meetup Group That Matches Your Interests…”

Today is Delphi Meetup day, and, peculiarly, I got an email from Meetup.com a few minutes ago. It was peculiar because although we still call it Delphi Meetup, we dropped Meetup.com like a hot rock years back after it started charging $100+ per year to coordinate a monthly meeting. (Like that takes anything even close to $100 worth of cycles or storage or bandwidth.) Meetup.com keeps trying gamely to get me to come back by promising me interesting groups to join…just as soon as somebody ponies up that hundred bucks. Wi-Fi and New In Town were the ones I used to belong to circa 2003, when I was working on my Wi-Fi book and we were still new in town. I guess they gave up, as I haven’t heard from them in most of a year.

Until today, when I got an email with the breathlessly overcapitalized subject line: “A New Meetup Group That Matches Your Interests Has Started!” Hmm. Wi-Fi? Ebooks? Ham radio? Kites? Contrarianism?

No. Only inside the message do they reveal the group’s name: “Paranormal Erotic Romance Book Club of Colorado Springs.”

Wow. I never even knew that there were paranormal erotic romance books. Lesbian pirate novels, sure–a woman who used to work for me brokered foreign rights in that genre for awhile. So I guess anything’s possible…but I have to wonder how they fingered me as a potential member. Was it a mistake, or simple desperation?

In truth, I’m quite sure I don’t want to know.

How Do I Know You Again?

It happened again this morning. I got an email from LinkedIn with the headline, “Mary Mankiewicz wants to keep in touch on LinkedIn!” I scratched my head. No recall of Mary Mankiewicz. I went to her LinkedIn profile page. Interesting, ambitious woman, eight or nine years younger than I, lots of experience in publishing. But no least clue that I have ever even met her.

I get machine-generated notes from LinkedIn and Facebook all the time asking to connect to my network, and generally I friend those who ask. I turn off Mafia Wars and Farmville and all that other stuff (no offense; I’m not interested in who you stabbed last night or where that new piglet came from) and enjoy the short posts, even though the scroll rate has gotten mighty fast lately. But I think it would be very courteous to include a note saying something like, “Hi Jeff! I was down the hall from Randy Osgood at Ziff-Davis at One Park Ave and we all had lunch once while you were up from Baltimore for a meeting. Oh, forgot–my maiden name was Chisholm.”

Ahhh. Sure. Mary Chisholm. Worked for PC Mag when I was at PC Tech Journal mid-80s, and (I think) was dating Randy, who was one of our sales reps at the time. (Note well: All these names are utterly fictitious. The situation is utterly real.) That’s all it would take, and would obviate the awkward need for me to ask her straight-out when she wants to network: How do I know you again?

This problem is not unique to me, though I imagine even moderately famous people have it far worse than I do. Here’s my solution: Every friend request sent by any social network must require a fill-out form that at least has a list of checkboxes under “I know you from…” for high school, college, job, church, volunteer work, or whatever. And under that a simple text box with a noodge over it saying something like, “As a courtesy, please jot a short note here indicating how you knew this person in the past.”

That’s all it would take. Ladies, please include your maiden name if that’s how I knew you back in the day and you don’t use it anymore. Thanks!

An Attempted Classmates.com Scam

I hope all of you know by this time not to fall for any advertising pitch from Classmates.com. Their service can be useful, as we found when we put together our 40th grade school reunion back in 2006. However, I’ve seen a multitude of reports that their constant email come-ons are completely fictional, and (as far as I’m concerned) fraudulent.

Today I got one that I know is a fraud, and I didn’t have to sign up to find out. Ordinarily, the Classmates.com scam works like this: You get an email from Classmates that reads something like, “Someone is trying to find you! Click here to find out who!” You click and find that you have to pay to find out. Fair enough. But as many people have found, once you pay up you find that there’s no one there. Nobody was looking for you. It was a lie, or, as we say when you lie to sell somebody something, fraud.

So today I get the umptieth email from Classmates since my subscription expired, asking me: “Remember Linda Cripps? Newest Class of ’70 Alum!” This is half a hair better than saying that someone was trying to find me; note well that there is no imputed action on the part of Linda Cripps. However, there’s a huge worm in it:

The Lane Technical High School Class of 1970 had no girls in it.

Zero. Zip. Nada. Girls were not even admitted to the school until 1971, and none were graduated from Lane until 1973. So unless we’re in “boy named Sue” territory here, Classmates pulled some poor girl’s name out of its subscribers (or the Chicago phone book, or Facebook, or somewhere else) and told me she was in my graduating class at Lane Tech. (I just checked: There was no one of any gender named “Cripps” in my class, nor any class listed in the 2002 Alumni Directory, nor among the multitude of people I’ve met or dealt with in any way in my life.)

I don’t see anything online as to how the suit is going or whether it was dismissed, but I’ve seen enough reported sleaziness just looking to say, avoid these guys like H1N1. (The Plague is just so 1348…)

A Fine Fritter

Last night I did something I hadn’t expected to do: I signed up for Facebook. As Terry Dullmaier almost immediate wrote on my Wall: “Apparently we all end up on Facebook eventually!”

Indeed. And I guess I signed up for Facebook for the same reason I bought an XP machine: Sooner or later, I’m going to need to know something about it, so why not now? I was a little boggled at how many people I know are on there, including both of my nephews and most of my friends, some of whom go wayyyy back. (Terry and I went to Catholic grade school together. Dominus vobiscum and all that.)

So I’ve been doing a fair bit of frittering this afternoon, trying to make sense of it all as both a technology and a phenomenon. There are games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that I have no intention of playing, but which are interesting to watch. And refreshingly little politics, though I’ve already been warned that it’s out there. I’m just not looking hard enough. Thanks; I’m looking as hard as I want to.

I’m not sure what all it’s good for yet. I already have a blog in two places and plenty of Web pages, and the amount of email that shoots through here gets scary sometimes. Do I need any more social machinery? I’m not looking for a job (there’s plenty of contractor work for me if I want it) or a girlfriend (I’m very happy with the one I’ve had for forty years now) and whatever else I might need I generally find on Amazon, ABEBooks, eBay, Craigslist, or NewEgg.

It’s always good to be findable, but I think I was pretty findable before. I need to post covers of my books in an album, especially now that a new one’s in the chute. Beyond that, I stand a little puzzled before the whole thing. If you’ve got some insights as to how Facebook is best used (beyond the obvious: “sparingly”) definitely drop them in the comments.

Odd Lots

  • Pete Albrecht alerted me to Collecta, an interesting twist on a general Web search engine, in that it gathers news being posted Right Now, and displays it item by item on the screen in realtime While You Wait. Alas, most of what it seems to index are tweets, which may just barely count as information, for small values of “information.”
  • And yet another stab at the same concept.
  • Kingston has just announced a 128GB flash drive. Figuring an average MP3 is 5 MB in size, that’s 25,600 MP3s. And if the average MP3 runs 4 minutes, that’s 71 days of music running 24/7 with no repeats.
  • Rich Rostrom sent me a link to a (pretty dense) medical research paper suggesting another possible benefit of low-carb diets: ameliorating schizophrenia. A 70-year-old schizophrenic woman went on a low-carb diet and after eight days ceased experiencing hallucinations. Not any reasonable cause-effect here in this one case, but boy, this suggests a promising avenue of research. (Steak, cheese, and fish are way cheaper than designer drugs.)
  • It’s gotten cold enough in Brazil this year to allow Brazilian vineyards to make the first-ever Brazilian ice wine. (Babelfish translation of the original Portuguese.) Ice wine is a dessert wine delicacy made from grapes that are allowed to remain on the vine long enough to freeze in the first cold nights of autumn. Trouble is, there are almost never enough freezing nights in autumn in Brazil to make ice wine. (Most ice wine comes from places like Austria.) Ice wine is great stuff: I’ll continue to worry about global cooling but damn, I’ll buy a bottle!
  • Ten years or so ago at Coriolis, we had an underwear policy. We did not, however, have an open wounds policy. HR gets more complex all the time…

The Twilight of the Ad Era

I made a decision late last year without saying much about it: I won’t be using AdSense ads anymore. Now, I’m not going to remove them from existing pages, and I’m not going to shut my account down, but as you might have noticed if you’ve perused my articles over on junkbox.com, my new layouts do not contain ads.

There’s not a lot of point. The curve is heading in the wrong direction.

When I first used AdSense in 2006, my goal was to bring in a dollar a day on average, and I either met or beat that for the rest of 2006 and the first few months of 2007. After May, 2007 things went into a slow decline. My page impressions grew slowly, but revenue slumped, and over 2007 I averaged only 85c per day, which is still worth pursuing. Across 2008 I was averaging only 61c per day, even though page impressions were higher than they had ever been. People just seemed to stop clicking on ads. (“Ad-numb” is a coinage that I’ll offer here if no one else has.) 2009 has earned me an average of about 20c per day, and that’s really not enough to warrant the effort of designing ad spaces into my layouts, especially if it’ll be down to 10c per day next year.

An interesting thing has happened over the course of 2009 so far: Google-tracked page impressions have plunged, even though my overall page hits continue to climb. Some of this is doubtless the rearrangement of my Web content that I began last fall, but it was also true for individual pages (like my Homebrew Radio Gallery) that had not changed significantly since 2006. Daily AdSense page impressions for that single page were always up in the high 30s to low 50s, and are now down to 15-20 tops.

I didn’t start doing anything differently. I’ve never worked at building traffic to my site, and in fact the only way AdSense makes sense to me is if you don’t have to screw with it. Spending time and effort trying to drum up traffic for the sake of ad clicks is time and effort I can’t spend researching and writing new articles (or heaven knows, fiction) so I’ve never bothered.

I think I know what happened: Malware delivered from Web ads has gotten enough publicity that people in large numbers are starting to install ad blockers. This is the only way I can reconcile imploding AdSense page impressions with steadily growing traffic to my site as a whole. Google only counts a page impression when an ad is served; block the ads, and viewing the page does not generate an AdSense page impression.

I’ve never used an ad blocker before, and it was eerie surfing around using the Iron browser, which blocks ads from a huge number of major ad sites (including AdSense) by default. Eerie–and fast. Malware isn’t the only issue with Web ads: Overloaded ad servers slow down page render time, sometimes hugely. This is not new news, but until I saw it myself I couldn’t appreciate the scale of the problem. Iron may not be intrinsically faster than IE or FF, but it looks faster because it doesn’t wait on ads. Blocking ads still makes my conscience twinge a little; here is an interesting discussion on whether it’s wrong to block Web ads. The tipping issue is malware: If all it costs me is time to render your ads, then that may be the cost of viewing your pages. But if there is some significant chance that your ads are serving malware (whether you knew anything about it or not) I feel that I have a right to protect my system and my network. Remember that I can’t tell if your site even has ads before I go there, and if your ads serve malware, my system gets nailed faster than I can back out. The only way I can reliably protect myself against ad-served malware is to block ads entirely, so until each browser instance is a thoroughly isolated VM, there’s no other way.

Thus fades the Great Hope of “free” content supported by ads. What replaces it is obscure. One barely hears the term “micropayments” anymore, and those sites that have retreated behind paywalls don’t seem to be doing well. Among the pubs I read, The Atlantic Online dropped its paywall last year, and the only paywalled site I still read is The Wall Street Journal. Money does need to be involved somehow: I write better material when I get paid for it, and when I pay for material, I have higher standards for it than for what’s lying around free. That being the case, I intuit that a paid Web would be a smaller but far more useful thing than a free Web groaning under the weight of pages (you see them all the time) that exist solely to serve ads. Still, I’ll be damned if I can see the way there.

Iron Filings

I’m a little disappointed in the new Chromium-based browser SRWare Iron (see my entry for April 18, 2009) or perhaps I should say a little disappointed in SRWare itself. The browser has worked extremely well the last couple of days here on my quad-core XP machine. After only a little sleuthing I made the ad blocker work: All you have to do is download a text list of ad sites into the Iron directory, and the browser runs with it. (The browser is shipped with an empty adblock.ini file.) However, Pete Albrecht alerted me to the fact that Iron won’t run at all on his Windows 2000 machine–even though SRWare hints that it might.

Google is quite firm about it: Chrome won’t even install under Win2K. XP and Vista are all you get. However, down in the German-language portion of the SRWare Web site, Pete (who is fluent in German and in fact translates engineering texts for a living) found this:

There is something new for users of Windows 2000 as well; for cost reasons, there are still many users of this system, for example, in business. While Chrome can’t even be installed on Windows 2000 systems, Iron has also removed the warning message that appears whenever it is started on a Windows 2000 system. However, installations under Windows 2000 remain unsupported, as there may be isolated problems.

(Pete’s translation; the item is not present in English.) Well, if the problems are isolated, they’re isolated in a peculiarly concentrated fashion. I loaded Iron Portable on a Cruzer Mini and woke up every operational Win2K machine I still have in the house. (This took some waking; my poor 2001 ThinkPad doesn’t work very well anymore.) Iron failed on all four machines, with variations on the following error message:

The procedure entry point <whatever> could not be located in the dynamic link library KERNEL32.DLL.

KERNEL32.DLL is one of several places where the fundamental Windows API lives. The API call that failed was not always the same, but in every single case, Iron failed to start.

0 for 5 on Win2K, sigh. Iron won’t run on Linux or Mac either. (Nor will Chrome.) What bothers Pete and me is that SRWare suggests that the software should run under Win2K, with only “isolated problems.” Why not just be honest? If people get their hopes up that your software will run on their systems and then find out the hard way that it won’t, it only makes your software (and you) look bad. This is not the way to make a very promising software product catch on.

The Iron Sandbox

I’ve been pretty focused the last three or four months, so I mostly missed the whole discussion about Google Chrome and its pros and cons. Parts of Chrome are very impressive, particularly the “sandbox” security model–and parts are about what you’d expect from a monster company that makes its money on Web ads. I caught snatches of the debate here and there, but it wasn’t until I found myself at 3 PM today with 5,100 words’ worth of progress made since 7:30 AM that I decided, enough of this. (I’m now 133,000 words in and pretty much on schedule again, having lost some ground in March.) So I kicked back and started reading up on Chrome. In doing so, I found something I hadn’t expected, or heard about at all: SRWare Iron.

What Iron looks like to me is Chrome with Google’s business model stripped out. Chrome itself was based on a number of different technologies, most of them open-source, including Google Code’s Chromium browser framework and the WebKit rendering engine. Google built a number of tracking mechanisms into Chrome, including a unique user ID and a few other mechanisms for sending search statistics back to Google. These seemed relatively benign to me (perhaps I’ve seen too much of the really bad stuff, heh) but a lot of people got very upset over the Chrome privacy model.

Enter SRWare, a German software security firm. They took the open-source codebase for Chrome and stripped out whatever they considered dicey from a privacy standpoint. They updated the WebKit rendering engine, did a few other miscellaneous security tweaks, and re-released the product as Iron. This sounds presumptuous to some people, but that’s how open source works. (There’s nothing preventing Google from re-absorbing SRWare’s changes, but as the changes are mostly features removed, that wouldn’t be especially useful.) Basically, we have a Chrome variant that doesn’t track your searches and phone home.

That’s good, and as browsers both Chrome and Iron have reviewed well. Chrome (and therefore Iron) do well on Web standards, passing Acid1 completely and Acid2 with only minor glitches. But what I find best about Chrome/Iron is the security model. Each tab is a separate process, and each tab process has its system rights severely restricted. Even if the browser itself is running in an admin account, the tabs run as restricted users, with a few further restrictions. Malware may well run in a tab, but there is very little that the malware can do except run in the tab. It can’t install software, sniff other processes, write files, or survive the closing of the tab. It’s not a per-tab virtual machine (which is where I think malware will eventually force Web browsers to go) but it’s a giant step in the right direction. (InfoWorld has a nice discussion of the Chrome security model.) I’m still having a little trouble getting a technical grip on the merits and flaws of Chrome’s V8 javascript virtual machine, but I’ll keep sniffing around and will eventually figure it out.

The security model prevents many plug-ins from working correctly, and this may bother some people more than others. Not me: Plug-ins are the 900-square-foot hole in browser security generally, and for basic Web research, I can do without, well, all of them.

I’ve only had a couple of hours to fool with Iron, and I’ll tell you right now that I like it a lot. I installed the portable version, which confines all of its files to a single directory and does not touch the Windows Registry. The rendering is very snappy, snappier than Firefox 3. (I haven’t touched IE in so long I didn’t even bother making a comparison.) It imported all my bookmarks without a burp, though it did not automatically place my Firefox toolbar bookmarks in its own toolbar. (I did that from Iron’s bookmark manager with one drag and drop.) I read somewhere that Iron had a built-in ad blocker, but I don’t see any controls for it, and I’m still seeing lots of ads.

Still, what attracted me to Iron is its approach to Web security…and over and above everything in the code, what may make Iron safest of all browsers is that it’s rare. Security exploits are often (if not always) app-specific or at least library-specific. Malware depends heavily on the density of the installed base to succeed, which is why so many exploits target IE, and more recently Firefox. As long as the software works well for me, I don’t care how few copies are out there–in truth, the fewer the better. SRWare has kept up with patches on both the Chrome code base and the WebKit code base (which Chrome itself hasn’t kept up with) and assuming they continue to do so, we may have us a breakthrough in the malware wars. It’s still early, but I’m already very impressed. (I’ll come back with “highly recommended” if I still think so in a few weeks. Stay tuned.)

Michael Arrington’s Crunchpad Gets Real

crunchpadb.jpg

I read about Michael Arrington’s concept for a low-cost Web tablet back last summer, and was intrigued. Web is useful, but the resolution on this gadget (1024 X 768) would make it ideal for reading PDF ebooks, particularly textbooks and scientific/technical nonfiction with lots of illustrations. Not every type of book can be read on a cellphone, and the sorts of ebooks that require larger displays are getting precious little respect in the gadget world.

But I learned today that the Crunchpad (as the TechCrunch crowd is now informally calling it) has reached the prototype stage. They sound like they’re aimed in the right direction, but remarkably, I see no discussion at all of the device’s usefulness as an ebook reader. (I added a comment to the entry to this effect.) It looks like it can work in portrait mode, and has an accelerometer to sense when it’s been “spun.” Ebook reader utilities are not cycle-hogs, and would add little to the burden on the CPU or SSD storage.

I’m a little queasy about on-screen touch keyboards; I would use the USB port for a “real” keyboard when one is needed. I would also add an externally-accessible SDHC card slot for loading content without waiting for the inevitably slow Wi-Fi link. But beyond that, if the thing can render PDF and CHM ebooks well, I’d buy one like a shot, and pay $300 for it without regret. This is one to keep an eye on.

DDJ Ascending Into Heaven–Or At Least the Cloud

Back in the spring of 1976, my friend Gus Flassig showed me an issue of a new magazine called Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia, a thin but sprightly fanzine-ish item full of articles on programming the Altair, the Kim-1, and other primordial micros. The opcodes were thick as flies, but it was very cool in a slightly goofy bit-hippie way that none of us would appreciate yet for a number of years. I subscribed off and on for a long time, though I gave away a lot of the mags when I left Rochester NY in early 1985. In early 1989, I became a DDJ columnist myself, and wrote “Structured Programming” for over four years, focusing on Pascal but occasionally Modula 2 and related issues like database techniques. I had to give it up after I started my own publishing company and that quickly became several full-time jobs, but I will always be proud to have had that slot when I did, and will always cite Jon Erickson as one of the best technical media editors who has ever lived.

This is starting to sound like a euology, right? And that’s my point for this entry: DDJ is going all-Web with the January 2009 issue. The news was broken on the blog of Herb Sutter, a C++ force and long-time DDJ columnist. The entry is notable because Herb speaks of many other “ascent into the Cloud” events within the physical media world. It’s happening a lot. The big question remains: Is this a death sentence? It certainly was for Byte, and I can’t imagine that it won’t be for PC, though I could and would like to be wrong.

I’ve always liked magazines, as both a reader and a publisher, and if the magazine business model were still viable I would still be running one. Herb Sutter doesn’t say much about why magazines are fading away. Most people probably think it’s because of the cost of the paper, the cost of mailing, and so on. That’s certainly part of it, but we shouldn’t forget the following things:

  • Computer technology has gotten fearsomely complex in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s very difficult to treat a programming topic usefully at magazine length. I was confronting this issue as early as 1995.
  • As a corollary to the previous point, people are increasingly becoming specialists, of increasingly narrow specialties. This used to break down by languages (“I’m a C/C++ guy”) but ballooning complexity is cutting out niches much finer than that. (“I’m a client-side .NET IL guy.”) There simply isn’t enough time nor mental bandwidth to learn everything, and a magazine’s reader base can only be so small and remain economically viable.
  • The community elements of magazines (letter columns, Q/A columns, columnists treating reader requests, etc.) are now handled very capably by online forums, blogs, and other social networking mechanisms.

Money of course, remains an issue. Paper and postage cost money, which print ads traditionally provided. (Subscriber revenues are useful but not sufficient to float a decent mag, and this was true even in 1998.) It’s an issue for Web content as well. Authors and editors need to be paid, and server space is cheap (compared to paper channels of comparable bandwidth) but it is not free. I almost hate to say this, but the transition from commercial software to free software makes an ad-based model very difficult. My magazines lived on smallish ads from smallish tool companies, and the sorts of things they used to sell are now free downloads. This is in part a consequence of the fact that personal computing is now mature, and software tools that used to become obsolete in six months can now be used for years and perhaps indefinitely without regular, radical rewrites.

We forget sometimes what made magazines so compelling: The element of surprise. Magazines exposed us to ideas and technologies and products that we might not have discovered on our own. (This is precisely why broadcast radio is important to the music industry.) The Web world is a search-engine world, and we generally ascend into the Cloud looking for something very specific, and it is in the nature of clouds to make things difficult to see unless they’re right in your face. Search engines encourage us to become better and better at what we already know, further accelerating the natural trend toward specialization in the face of increasing complexity. Magazines tended to broaden our horizons, and they were useful bathroom reading too. Pervasive home Wi-Fi is eroding even this ancient bastion of print publishing, and once a decent convertible (tablet-like) netbook matures, well, the bathroom magazine rack may vanish, and be replaced by an EEEEEEE PC in a wall-mounted charging dock.

So I would like to see DDJ continue as a viable entity, and it may, but it has to be done very carefully. It also has to be done well. One way for them to proceed is to look around the Cloud and see what’s already there and works. Make, Lockergnome, and Slashdot may already be “magazines,” and Cloud portal platforms like Mambo and Joomla can work well when intelligently configured. We still need to figure out where the money will come from, and we must remind ourselves that reading outside our core preferences is a powerful intellectual advantage. There’s a pony up there somewhere. Let’s all of us, readers and editors alike, keep looking.