Archive for August, 2006

Giving up google

The title to this post is probably a bit hyperbolic in the sense that I still use Google for many services, including search on occassion. But a number of things have begun to bother me about Google. Firstly, I’m finding that search results are becoming less and less relevant. For instance, this morning, I had to search for a printer driver for an “hp 2280TN” printer. I put in my query as “hp 2280TN driver” and HP’s web site didn’t even appear in the first 10 results. That’s shocking! Fortunately, the page I was looking for was the third link down in Yahoo’s search.

The concept of “googling” for something (and I am aware of Google’s antagonism to such a term), is quickly becoming synonomous with “searching the web and finding things that you weren’t looking for”. Often interesting things, but generally time-wasting. And so, for my online searching, I am finding myself turning to Google less frequently.

But there are other worrying things tied up with Google. My last post was all about gathering web statistics. One thing that I mentioned was how logging into services online help webmasters gather information about what specific users do. As Google provides more commonly used services such as GMail, and now Google Checkout, more people are voluntarily giving up their personal information to Google. Of course, once you login to one service, Google search can then track individual search queries that you make and tie them directly to you. And once they have that information, there is no way for you to delete it.

That might not be so worrying to some people. And arguments about privacy are all quite tired now. We’ve all heard about this sort of stuff in the media a lot lately. And I’m not about to turn this space into my own little political forum. However, a friend sent me this article this morning, and I thought it deserved mention. Not least because it pointed me on to Ixquick, which is a search engine aggregator. Now I’ve seen a lot of these since the search engine wars started, and there are plenty of these that are much more established. Dogpile is another. However, Ixquick promises to delete all personal search detail gleaned from its users from the log files within 24 hours. The other key point about Ixquick is that it returns relevant information. My HP 2280TN search returned HP’s own website as the top result of my search. Now that’s what I need to see.

So, next time you’re about to do a search, try another search engine. Get a second opinion. You may be surprised that Google is not all its cracked up to be.

August 30, 2006 at 10:57 am Leave a comment

Are web statistics relevant?

In my twenty odd years on the internet, statistics for all kinds of services have found their special places. Certainly, from a system’s administration perspective statistical information can be quite valuable. It helps identify the various loads on a network, or individual server, and is extremely handy when troubleshooting various problems. But a whole new market for statistical information was born when the commercial sector finally caught onto the power of HTML and the world wide web. And this market is fraught with error.

Primarily, the big problem with web statistics is that the statistics that are available in themselves are generally technologically relevant. From a business perspective, the information that can be obtained from a web server is not a realistic representation of end user activity on a particular website. From a technical perspective, business relevant information is not well catered for by the various protocols and technologies used for any web application.

Back in the early nineties, the only way to obtain information about visitors coming to a particular website was to trawl through the server logfiles and to attempt to make sense of the information that could be gleaned by the server for each web request. While log files are exceedingly useful to people who look after servers, the information in them is rarely useful from a pure business perspective. For instance, web logs cannot tell you, accurately, how many unique visitors have come to your website. Nor how many visits you have actually had. You can’t really tell anything about your visitors. Not how long they visited for. Nor where they have come from. Nor which individual pages they have viewed.

Sure, you can tell how many requests reached your server, and from which IP address. But hits could be anything from downloading a little graphic on a web page to a web page itself. With some fancy scripting, you can filter out all of the hits that comprise a single web page, and calculate unique page views. And in fact, this became a web marketing standard, a currency, to indicate how much traffic your site was getting. Right until the present day, people still talk about the number of PageViews they get a month. When selling advertising, this is a powerful statistic. But while it remains log centric, the statistic itself is wrong. Its worse than wrong, its meaningless.

Wow! That sorta flies in the face of all those web statistics programs you can buy out there. It also doesn’t make sense. Surely there must be ways that you can actually get this information. I mean, sometimes I go to GMail, or MySpace and it knows who I am?!!! And indeed, there are ways out of logfile hell. But truth be told, they’re not your salvation either.
Slowly,  through the release of articles such as this and this, the concept of Web Analytics shifted from a log centric approach to the use of embedded technologies that would force browsers to give up information about themselves. Heavy use of cookies and other session identifiers began to become commonplace. This helped to make tracking a little easier, because browsers would store visiting information locally and then render it up to the server whenever the server asked for it. Of course, with the proliferation of spyware, and with blunders like this, not everybody uses cookies in the way that you would expect them to. Certainly, I anonymize my cookie to google using this neat plugin. And certainly, there are a host of applications and articles out there to help people clear out cookies and browser hosted junk.

So with this lack of reliability, sites like NY Times will frequently greet you with this page when you try to view news articles. In the hope that they will force you a) to enable cookies to view content; and b) so that they can actually track what you view on their site. And of course, this is simply met with the frequently used BugMeNot tool.

But the whole Web Analytics game is getting worse. With the advent of Web 2.0 (shudder) and the use of technologies such as AJAX, that refresh content items within a page without submitting a new page request, PageViews are rapidly becoming obsolete. In fact, this is nothing new, many flash driven sites are incapable of providing any useful statistical information precisely because of the technology used.

Okay, I’ve ranted about web statistics enough. Why did I even get into it? It seems to me, that all too frequently in my position I am asked to provide information to managers that is actually completely meaningless to them. Truth be told, very few stores count the number of people who walk into them. Certainly, bricks and mortar shops have little hope of tracking “user” activity. From a business perspective, if you’re judging your online business potential on web statistics and not on actual revenue generated from your website, you need to go back to business school.

So, if you’re thinking of asking for some webstats from your IT staff so that you can get an idea of how well or not your website is doing, think carefully about what you are asking for and try to get a basic grip of how the web works before you even come banging on the IT department door!

August 29, 2006 at 2:59 pm Leave a comment

Hunting for Rare Books in Britain

Yesterday, Rare Book News ran a press release that mentioned how Oxfam had made it into an American newspaper as a rare book dealer. In fact, the article claims that Oxfam is the biggest single retailer of second-hand (including rare) books in Britain. Personally, I would never have imagined Oxfam as being even slightly involved with the rare book trade. Generally, I head on down to my local charity shops to look for cheap paperbacks that will keep me company on my tube journey in to work every day. And in this area, there is no doubt that shops like Oxfam’s are better than magic. I guess, they’re like libraries where you pay your “late back” fine up front. If you really like the book, you can keep it, and if not, you can donate it back in your own time. But all that said, all the books I’ve ever seen at Oxfam have cost under £5 and are about as far from rare as a steak cooked by my grandmother.

So I decided to look around on Oxfam’s website to see what all the hullabaloo was about. First up, was my discovery that Oxfam sells books through ABE, and that it has quite an extensive catalogue. But this still didn’t bring me much closer to any indication that Oxfam dealt with rare books. And then I discovered this press release! It seems that Oxfam has its own internal valuation service that deals with high value donations and ensures that these items fetch the best possible prices in order to maximise the charitable donation. The most exciting prospect raised by this article, from the rare book dealer’s perspective, is that some potentially interesting items are making their way into the charity world.

August 29, 2006 at 9:36 am Leave a comment

How to manage and support your workstations from your desktop

For many small companies, the number of workstations around the building doesn’t ever reach the size to justify advanced IT staff to implement a well managed Windows domain. And as a result, support and management of all of the computers on the network becomes tedious. Generally, somebody has to run around to each computer to install new software or updates or to fix problems or help other users achieve the various things they need to do. Even if your company does implement some more advanced technologies to take care of installations and updates, support often requires somebody to physically get up and go to the relevant workstation to help out.

However, there are a number of ways to get out of this sort of bind. Firstly, most Windows XP systems (and some Windows 2000 systems) are capable of being managed using RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) or Windows Terminal Services.  For Windows users, check out what Microsoft has to say about using Remote Desktop. As a linux user, I tend to use rdesktop as my client to connect to Windows computers running Terminal Services.

Using Remote Desktop, you can login to your Windows computer from anywhere on the network and access it as if you were sitting in front of it. This is exceedingly useful if you simply need to do a quick install or run Windows update, or if you just want to change a few settings. However, it is not that useful when it comes to support, because this system doesn’t allow you to see the screen of anybody already logged onto the remote system. For this, I generally use VNC, which is a free open source application that allows you to actually take over somebody’s session remotely.

There are a host of Windows VNC servers and clients. Generally I use TightVNC because it works, and it works well. VNC also works on Macintosh computers and on Linux workstations, which means that no matter what platform is being used in the organisation, I will be able to access each and every workstation without hassle. Most importantly, when somebody calls me up to tell me that they have an error message on their screen or that they need to do something but don’t know how, I can help them without leaving my desk. I simply open my VNC client and connect to their computer and I’m in. I can see everything on their screen, and I can take over the mouse and keyboard to show them how to solve their problem.

I’ve been using VNC for remote support for well on five years now, and highly recommend it in a support environment. For my own network, I’ve written a neat little python wrapper application that scans the network for computers running VNC and then uses nmb (from Windows File Sharing) to list the computers by name. As a result, each support phone call simply requires me to click on the relevant computer name, enter a password and I’m in.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, give it a try!

Warning: Because VNC actually allows someone to remotely take over your machine and to watch what you are doing, it is highly inadvisable to use it without a firewall. You may also find some antivirus applications report it as potentially harmful, on the grounds that if it is installed without you knowing it could mean that somebody else is watching your every action on your computer.

August 24, 2006 at 4:02 pm 1 comment

Chinese Take-away

I just discovered that Bloomsbury Auctions is having a Chinese Poster sale. Perhaps it is through my working with computers for so long, and my love of open-source software, and my enjoyment of leftwardly leaning sci-fi, and my interest in politics, and my general appreciation of art and design and symbols and signs. Perhaps all of these things make a sale like this stand out to me. But really, I just think that the images are wonderful. The colours are fantastically vivid and the images range from the completely obscure (see the strange spitting poster on the left) to more traditional propaganda in a style borrowed from Stalinist Russia.

The collection consists of over 500 original posters, most of which are considered fairly rare. Estimated fetching prices start at around £50 and scale right up to £1,500 for a collection of rare chinese New Year prints.

I think these make great collectors items even if you aren’t seriously into the rare art and prints trade. They make for unique gifts and with Christmas just around the corner, I expect this sale could do quite well. On the downside, Bloomsbury Auctions currently seems to cater to a very niche market and it will be interesting to see if they try to push their marketing further for a sale like this. If I was working in their Marketing department, I would certainly be running press releases in papers like the Guardian or the Economist by now.

Frequently Bloomsbury Auctions sales appear online at Ebay’s Live Auctions, so if you’re over the pond and these catch your eye, keep an eye out here. I may even be bidding against you! 😛

August 22, 2006 at 10:43 am 1 comment

ABPC to be released online!

I recently wrote to Bancroft-Parkman, the publishers behind American Book Prices Current to find out where they stood on getting ABPC online, and received an email back from Katherine Leab (the editor of ABPC on CD-ROM). Her email is short and sweet, but offers some hope for next year:

You will be pleased to know that ABPC will be available online early in 2007.  Network users will be able to log in by IP range, and folks with laptops will be able to log in by access and pass.  Some people will continue to use the CD-ROM; others will migrate; still others will have both.

Here’s looking to a better ABPC!

August 21, 2006 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Bookseller and Filemaker

In previous posts, I have given mention to BookSeller, which is the database system that we use to catalogue our stock. The BookSeller system is built on top of FileMaker Pro, which is a RAD (Rapid Application Development) environment that features its own database, scripting language and form/report building facilities. BookSeller is not a pretty looking system, but is incredibly feature rich. Certainly, it has extensive stock cataloguing functionality, as well as some pretty in-depth customer management, invoicing, and portal export facilities.

On top of this vague collection of good reasons to use BookSeller, due to the ease with which forms and reports can be created in the FileMaker system, it is relatively easy to convince the application developer to customise and tweak the application so that it best suits your own needs. Indeed, Tom Dupre, the developer in question, is a pretty cool guy with a whole life outside of BookSeller.

Anyway, the real reason I decided to post anything about BookSeller, was that I was looking up something about FileMaker to see if I could do something, and I somehow managed to stumble on Tom’s name in a FileMaker forum. Of course, that got me wondering if he actually has a website that provides any information on BookSeller. With a small hunt around Google, I tracked it down, and decided it was at least worth posting it here for the sake of completeness.

So for anybody interested in BookSeller, you can find out more information about it here.

Important Note: While in this post I have been decidedly positive about BookSeller and FileMaker, there are some fundamental issues that I have with FileMaker on a more technical level. Specifically, the way in which there is no separation between the data layer and the application layer within any FileMaker Application. The methods of getting data in and out of FileMaker are obscure and make it almost impossible to automate tasks through scripts outside of the FileMaker application. Finally, FileMaker’s silent withdrawal of support for Linux is a major thorn in my side, as we made a number of decisions about our applications and server software based on FileMaker’s initial advertising of support for Linux as a server platform.

But aside from my issues with FileMaker, I also believe that BookSeller has grown organically as an application and in some areas, it would benefit from a complete rewrite and redesign. That said, I believe that Tom has already thought about this considerably, and with his reasonably large and impressive customer base, I guess he’s got something right.

August 9, 2006 at 3:38 pm 1 comment

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