Friday, 31 August 2007

Firefox freezes or hangs computer: fixed! & backing up Firefox

I thought I'd found the solution to the problem of my Firefox browser freezing or hanging my Windows XP PC every few seconds (not just that browser and its tabs, but my entire computer - other programs and apps too). I reverted to an older version of Fox, and I found that a pre-release version of the next upgrade also worked fine. No more Firefox, or indeed my other software, not responding!

However, I was premature in my rejoicings - after a week or two, sadly those versions started making my computer hang too. So it was back to the drawing board on the troubleshooting front: and here are my steps and tips and the final answer, in case they may help anyone solve a similar problem.

The short answer: for me, I fixed the Firefox problem by creating a new profile and transferring selected settings across. Details below.

Firefox hangs

I started with the Mozillazine "Firefox hangs" page.

Now I knew it my case it wasn't Hang after prolonged or extensive use. I've been using Firefox for a couple of years or so, but they didn't mean "extensive" in that way; they meant, after opening Firefox and surfing for a while. Well, my problem was happening immediately on opening Firefox and viewing any webpage that wasn't blank - instant, not after lots of use. So that was out.

I also dismissed the topics about loading windows or certain sites, because it happened with Firefox viewing any site, plain Webpage, no need for any Java, Flash or PDF etc.

And I knew it wasn't down to anti-spyware or the like. In fact I'd recently got rid of anti-spyware installed by Google Pack which had been killing my computer (Norton Security Scan and Spyware Doctor, grrr. And a few months before that, WinPatrol). The problem only happened when Firefox was open on a webpage. Close it down, or leave it on a blank page, and everything else was fine again.

It wasn't my extensions. I didn't have any problematic extensions. I'd disabled, then in desperation uninstalled, every single one of my add ons - and still my PC was hanging. It certainly wasn't the addons.

So, it was on to the standard diagnostic.

Firefox diagnostics

I'd cleared my cache recently, but for good measure cleared it again. No go.

I was reluctant to try safe mode as I didn't want to lose my toolbar customisations and user preferences without trying other things first.

Now Susan had mentioned someone fixing their similar problem by cleaning their Firefox user profile (which stores your personalised bookmarks, passwords, extensions etc). So I thought I'd try that - creating a new profile while preserving the old one.

New profile - it worked!

There are very clear instructions on using the profile manager (with specific Windows instructions). The main thing is, after creating and naming a new profile, to make sure "Don't ask at startup" is NOT ticked. Then, just select or highlight the new profile and click Start Firefox to open Firefox using the new profile.

I found that with the new profile, everything worked brilliantly. So I had got to the bottom of my own particular problem. I carried on surfing for a couple of weeks in this way, selecting the new profile and making sure the freezes and hangs didn't recur. Once I was happy, I ticked "Don't ask at startup", selected the new profile and Start Firefox, and from then on whenever I launched Firefox it would automatically use my new profile.

Migrating profile settings

The final step was to transfer my settings from the old profile to the new one. Now you have to be careful with this because if the problem was with something that went wrong or corrupt in your old profile, then you could end up just transferring the problem across too.

Those with more courage than me and a lot more time on their hands may want to try figuring out and fixing the problem in the original profile. As I'd torn out enough hair on this, I was content just to transfer selected info across from old to new profile. Again the instructions were very clear. I followed their advice and did not copy across:
  • the extensions folder, or
  • prefs.js,
but instead I reinstalled my key extensions from scratch and set up my preferences from scratch too. Luckily I was able to copy across my bookmarks, history, cookies and saved passwords, which saved a lot of time.

I haven't yet deleted the old profile, but I could now.

I also had to re-set a few extension preferences, the most important (for me personally) being:
  • HTML validator opens up with Ctrl-Shift-a, but I use the same hotkeys for adding links in the Blogger post editor. I'd forgotten how to get rid of that - well it was in the Web Developer add-on options, Keys section - I just had to change Ctrl-Shift-a for Validate to something else, and my Blogger hotkeys were working again.
  • Tab Mix Plus options - in the Display options, Tab bar, I have to tick to display the Close tab button or else I don't know where I am, I really rely on that button! I'd also lost my rightclick context menu "Open links in background tab" option and it took me a while to figure out again that it's only visible in Tab Mix Plus's Menu option (Main Context Menu tab) if in Firefox's main Tools, Options, under Tabs, the box for "When I open a link in a new tab, switch to it immediately" is ticked.

Noting your extensions / add-ons

One thing I've learned from this is to make sure I have a list of my key extensions (I had to go into my old profile and painfully endure the hangs again to extract that info).

Easiest lazy way: in Firefox go to the Tools menu, Add-Ons, press the Print Screen key on the keyboard, paste (Ctrl-v) that into Word or a draft Outlook email etc, back to the extensions list, scroll down if necessary, do another screen print and paste again etc, save that document or note - and there's my list! Quick & dirty but it worked for me.

Less primitively, you could backup your fave extensions together with the rest of your profile, or even package up your fave extensions into a single xpi file to reinstall them all at once using CLEO, see below.

Backing up Firefox preferences, profile etc

All this has made me realise I ought to backup my Firefox settings regularly, in case of future disasters.

There are various options:
  • manually copy your profile folder somewhere else, or
  • use a dedicated backup tool like the free FEBE (which can even do scheduled backups, and selective restores). Use it with CLEO if you wish (see the CLEO FAQ - it's easiest to download and save the relevant .xpi files into the same folder on your computer first rather than fish around in your Extensions folder!).

Picasa: no animated GIFs

Google's Picasa doesn't support animated image files, so if you try to upload an animated image via Blogger, you'll have a problem as it'll stop being animated - because, behind the scenes, pics uploaded via the Blogger post editor are stored on Picasa Web Albums.

So if you want to post an animated pic on Blogger - perhaps an animation you've created from several separate images using a free animated GIF creator - the solution is just to upload it elsewhere to a free file host which allows hotlinking and supports animated GIFs, like Fileden, and then link to it from your post using the "Or add an image from the web" option of the Blogger toolbar's "Add Image" icon.

(Via Blogger's Known Issues blog.)

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Sony MicroVault USM-F: another rootkit security risk

Got a Sony MicroVault USM-F USB stick with fingerprint reader? If you've installed the software for the fingerprint reader, or indeed the updated software from the Sony site, then you may have opened the door to malware on your computer.

This seems to be a minor repeat by Sony of their rootkit disaster back in 2005 with the Sony BMG CDs digital rights management / copy protection scandal, because the fingerprint reader software also uses rootkit techniques to hide a directory and the files inside it within "C:\Windows\" on your computer.

A user won't see that directory or the files in it within Windows. But someone who knows the name of the directory can enter it via Command Prompt and create new hidden files.
This opens up a possible security hole. As anti-virus company F-Secure, who discovered this rootkit software, put it: "There are also ways to run files from this directory. Files in this directory are also hidden from some antivirus scanners (as with the Sony BMG DRM case) — depending on the techniques employed by the antivirus software. It is therefore technically possible for malware to use the hidden directory as a hiding place!".

Via Heise Security, who advise that if you don't need that fingerprint reading software then you should preferably uninstall it to eliminate a possible hiding place for malware.

UPDATE: Heise Security have since reported that Sony will be offering non-rootkit software for the MicroVault USM-F for download by mid-September.

Creative enterprises: free e-book "T-Shirts and Suits" download

The book "T-Shirts and Suits - A Guide to the Business of Creativity" is available for download as a PDF, free for personal use under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

It's by David Parrish, who works as a business consultant to the "creative industries" or "cultural industries" - defined as including advertising; architecture; the art and antiques market; crafts; design; designer fashion; film and video; interactive leisure software; music; the performing arts; publishing; software and computer games; and television and radio.

The book provides help, guidance on best practices and general advice for start-up or growing creative businesses under topics such as marketing, intellectual property, finance, competition and leadership, including 11 interesting "Ideas in action" case studies, under the chapter headings:
1. Creativity and Business
2. Know Yourself
3. Keeping a Lookout
4. The Magic of Marketing
5. Dealing with Competition
6. Protecting your Creativity
7. Counting your Money
9. Leadership and Management
10. Business Feasibility
11. Your Route to Success.

The book was first published in paperback in 2005 and has had some truly excellent endorsements and reviews, having been called "essential", "very useful", "practical", "inspirational" and more (e.g. see the Amazon reviews). It certainly is an easy read, a lot more jargon-free than many management books. Much of it appears to be "common sense" to me, but often a down to earth "back to basics", practical approach is exactly what's needed in terms of a how-to manual. And the case studies are instructive and helpful. Its RRP is £15 for the paperback, so if you're a would-be entrepreneur in a creative field, the e-book is well worth a download and read.

The PDF is just under 2 MB (117 pgs) and you can download it from: ECCA or David Parrish's site. Or buy the paperback if you prefer: T-shirts and Suits: A Guide to the Business of Creativity.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Blogger widgets list updated

I've updated my "Widgets for New Blogger Beta - the Magical Sheep collection" page, which lists some blog widgets related to Technorati and other blog sidebar widgets with some Add to Blogger easy one-click links.

Those widgets are mainly for New Blogger but there are instructions in some cases for "old Blogger" "classic template" blogs too.

That page now includes links to:

And Kirk's Picasa widget update, which I'd not properly incorporated before, is now a-OK. Thanks Kirk!

Friday, 24 August 2007

Funny names: Cornwall Record Office silly names list

The Cornwall Records Office's "Silly names list", compiled from names in their records dating back to the 16th century, was started in 2005 after archive assistant Renee Jackaman spotted a "Horatio Hornblower" in their records. It's been widely reported e.g. by the BBC.

The Cornwall Record office said on their original webpage: "The names illustrate how spelling, religion and family influence the population and what was a serious name now appears odd to the modern world". Any excuse for listing funny names, eh?

I love interesting names (e.g. my first post on nominative determinism, and other nominative determinism posts), so on checking again recently I was sad to find that the list is no longer on the Cornwall Record Office website. Fortunately, I gather this absence is only temporary, while their website is being revamped - they say it'll be back up soon.

In the meantime, I've found versions on the Internet Archive, so if you missed the list and can't wait for their site to be back up, here are the direct links:

Some other famous namesakes, apart from Horatio, include:
Jane Eyre, Levi Jeans, Isaak Newton and Thomas Tank.

My favourites from the "marriage" page are:
John Bath married Elizabeth Duckem
Nicholas Bone married Priscilla Skin
Richard Dinner married Mary Cook
John Mutton married Ann Veale
Charles Swine married Jane Ham.

As for George Edward Short Clampit (St. Breward - married 11/01/1868), well, ahem, all I can say is, I hope his marriage was fruitful nevertheless! At least he wasn't called Ann Inch.

I just like the following names. Some of them are awwww, some of them are "What were those parents thinking?", some are just plain "Huh?!":
Truth Bullock, Judah Bunny, Unite Bunny, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Flower Champion, Sophia Cheese, Charity Chilly, Elizabeth Disco, Foscurinus Turtluff Dyer, Ffaithfull Ffillips, Gentle Fudge, Flower Garland, Obedience Ginger, Silence Green, Offspring Gurney, Guy Guy, Cowbridge Jago, Marmaduke Jewel, Weymouth Lancaster, Freke Dorothy Fluck Lane, Dinah Laundry, Orange Libbye, Lovedy Locket, Longrocanger Long, Epiphany Lullaby, Mary Mutton, Pretty Pinkey, Mahershalalhashbaz Richards, Tobitha Safeguard, Gideon Savory, Orignalhouse Snell, Garthered Trebarfoot, Minnie Daffodil Treverrow, Epiphany Wills, Clobery Silly (who apparently then married a Woolcock).

And I sure hope that nominative determinism didn't prove true in the case of these names:
Patience Creep, Posthumos Dadson, Admonition Danger, Edward Evil, Talent Ferret, Honour Fraud, Blodwen Gripe, Weary Jackett, Kitty Jealous, Fanny Moody Manners, Sufferance Millet, Admonition Mould, Patience Muck, Maudlin Mundy, Faithful Nettle, Hapless Pellowe, Defiance Penfold, Prudence Rentfree, Discipline Richards, Friday Screetch, Fanny Scum, Gilbert Thick, Patience Upright, Freak Ustick, Ernest Evil West, Prissy Willmet.

Fans of the scatological or other bodily parts references may enjoy:
Lulilia Crap, Cornelius Kidney, Hephzibah Lillycrap, Phillipa Offal, Florinda Organ, Elizabeth Pee, Peter Piddle, Elizabeth Poo, Philidelphia Poope, Pee Rodda, Thomas Shewvalbottem, Thomas Tynckler (lucky his first name wasn't John!), Richard Wyndyeate.

The following names might be considered somewhat apt:
Noah Flood, Dyonysia Giddy, Lemon Hart, Cuttance Paine, Harry Vanderwoolf.

And finally, from the department of the faintly rude, at least if you have a naughty and terribly immature sense of humour as I do and think these could be porn star names, I give you:
Narcissus Backway, Absolom Beaglehole, Fanny Cobbledick, Faithful Cock, Fanny Forward, Fanny Honey, Fanny Job, Alice Pinckass, Jeedy Polestag, Lower Polpednick, Clement Rude, and Loveday Rutter.

Of course it isn't just Cornish names that could be silly. If you have come across any others, I'd love to hear them, please add a comment here!

And if you like funny names, you may be interested in my nominative determinism etc posts (warning some are rude!):

Happy birthday Blogger! But where's our pressies..?

Pete announced yesterday (must have been Californian time so I missed it) that Blogger is 8 years old.

Happy birthday, Blogger, and congratulations!

He also said "Come back later this afternoon for a present."

There's still no sign of a present though, and it's "tomorrow". It's not 1 April so they're probably just keeping us waiting to heighten the anticipation.

I want my pressie! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Cake! Icecream! (But hey I'm not fussy, I'll settle for fixing the killer ampersand thang...)

There. I'm wailing on behalf of Kirk so he doesn't have to. He can maintain a strong manly silence while still desperately checking back every few minutes for his Blogger present. :P

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Add Google map to site: problem with Google Maps, or Blogger?

Well it's nice that Google have now given us the ability to embed Google Maps on blog and website pages. Do a search on Google Maps, and the "Link to this page" link (marked out in red above) gives you the code to copy and paste into your blog or webpage at the location where you want your Google map to appear, no coding skills necessary.

You can even customise the map a bit, see the link marked in pink above:

But - but - there's one niggle, one problem.

The niggle - the map isn't centered automatically, you have to do that yourself (as with videos uploaded via Blogger in Draft).

The issue, or maybe bug: as you'll see from the screenshot below, I add the code to Blogger and while it's fine at first, if I edit it a bit, change tags from Edit HTML to Compose, Preview etc, and it won't take long before I get this instead of a map:

I think this is a issue with Blogger rather than Google Maps. Not everyone has this problem, but I have, for longer than I care to remember.

The problem is this: when I include code in the Blogger Post Editor (I use Firefox for blogging) which contains any ampersands, if I'm editing a post in Blogger, whether changing tabs or previewing or even updating a published post, Blogger throws in a zillion extra "amp;" characters at random points and messes up my post (not after every amp; just some and yes I'm deliberately leaving out the & and not trying to encode it or who knows what it'll do). The problem is worst when I'm using pre tags to show code as code; but what's happened with my attempt to embed a map proves that it happens with normal "do something with this"-type code too. And yes, I've pasted the code in Edit HTML view rather than Compose mode. Switching views (or saving a draft, then coming back to edit it) seems to be the trigger for the attack of the killer ampersands. I've spent too much of my life deleting those, and there are posts I don't dare to edit now because if I did I know the ampersands would run back and laugh at me evilly as I try to get rid of them.

This is what Blogger does to my poor innocent lil code, I'm including a pic rather than trying to replicate it here by encoding the entities as that would really kill me and stamp on my bones:

Here's the result of the code given by Google Maps for a map to Dallas which I tried to embed (we'll see if it's any better in the published post!), I've not touched it except pasted and then switched views:

View Larger Map

Here's another attempt to embed the map, after I pasted the code in again but then carefully edited out the stray amp;amp; ad infinitum in Edit HTML mode before posting it from there:

View Larger Map

I guess my gripe is, maybe I was the only person who had this problem before, but I doubt it. And as more and more people using Blogger / Blogspot are going to want to embed code for maps, videos etc, I hope this issue with the extra added amp; will be added to the bugs list and hopefully moved up it at some point. Or many more people than me will be having problems - and moaning about them, probably a lot more loudly than me. Were that possible.

Haute Secure review: browser security plugin

I tried Haute Secure when it first came out in beta just over a month ago. It's a browser plugin /toolbar for Internet Explorer which is supposed to warn you when you attempt to visit a "bad" site laden with malware which attacks your computer the moment you land on the site, and it will even block your browser from downloading nasty smelly germy webpages.

In their words, "When the bad content attempts to load, our behavior-based profiling algorithms identify and intercept it in real-time, before it installs itself on your computer." How it works: they have algorithms that analyse, identify and stop sneaky malware downloads in real time (and send reports home), plus a database of bad sites kept constantly updated from reports etc, or as they put it: "A distributed real-time malicious link database and a scanning infrastructure that is connected to the client software". They'll also include "malicious content found by others such as security experts and hobbyists joining the fight to stop malware attacks on unsuspecting users".

It's had good write-ups. But I go by my own experience. A favourable review will get me to try something, but I won't stick with it if I don't like it. I don't often blog about things that suck because usually I've picked up enough info to know that I should just avoid them in the first place. But if I come across something that's sucky, I'll say so. Haute Secure is sucky.

In more sober terms, here's my verdict. A most excellent idea in theory, but way too blunt an instrument in practice. I had to uninstall it after a few weeks, it was making my browsing unbearable.

Why? Like I said, it's far too blunderbuss in approach. It tars (and feathers) entire domains with the same brush, without bothering to distinguish between subdomains - like, is not the same site as, and may not even be run by the same person. Yep, you'd never credit it wouldja. And if you have a script or image on your webpage that's from a supposedly "bad" domain, that'll mark out your site as bad too.

For example, go to Yahoo-owned, and you'll get a yellowy reddish brown kinda warning in the toolbar (they call it "orange" but I guess my color vision is different...):

Or a messageboard where someone's posted pics from Photobucket:

Here's another well dodgy site, oooh look, see the warning on the right:

And why was my blog suspect, pray? You can click on the Haute Secure toolbar then 0, 1, 2 "Blocked URLs" to check, and, hey, whaddaya know, that well known and now Google-owned purveyor of malware Feedburner (not!) was one of the chief culprits. It wasn't me guv it was that nasty malicious Feedburner:

See, Haute Secure even went dramatically red on another site because of Feedburner, oooh we're really taking agin Feedburner now aren't we, bad bad bad Feedburner:

One of the few totally safe "blue flame" sites was Google:

But Google didn't escape entirely. Not all Google domains were considered non-evil, oh no - there's that suspicious dirty mac-donning, fer instance:

The last straw for me was when it stopped IE dead in its tracks when I tried to drop by John Tropea's site:

And why was John's site so all-fired dangerous then? (yeah yeah, can't resist those fiery puns, so poke me with a match). Because it's on naughty smackit Blogsome, is why:

At that point I completely had it (though I didn't quite lose it), and uninstalled Haute Secure. Sure, you can choose "Continue" to visit red sites anyway, or unblock a site it's decided to kill:

But really, why should you have to? Are Haute Secure having a laugh or what? Just because some bad guys have set up malware-ridden sites using or addresses, just because some of them burn their feeds using Feedburner, why should legitimate bloggers on one of those "tainted" domains (or who have incorporated pics or scripts from a tainted domain) be given a bad name and hung too? What on earth were Haute Secure thinking? My fingers are tired enough from constant typing thank you, why should I keep having to manually choose to continue to or unblock perfectly safe sites?

It's like anti-virus or anti-spyware software which keeps coming up with too many false positives, false alarms. It wastes your time, you stop trusting it, you stop using it.

Yes, Haute Secure issued an update a couple days ago, but it sounds like it's just fixing crashes etc. Me, I've lost interest, like many other people I just haven't got the time, I'm not going to bother to try it again. Not (perhaps) unless I know for sure that they've sorted out the sub-domain and scripts etc issues. Great great idea, huge glaring gap in the execution.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

How to create a conspiracy theory: 4 easy steps

New Scientist magazine back in July had a fascinating article by psychologist Dr Patrick Leman called "The Lure of the Conspiracy Theory" - about the psychology behind belief in conspiracy theories, which seems to be increasing in modern society, and indeed has become something of a cultural phenomenon.

The Net is partly to blame: "One factor fuelling the general growth of conspiracy beliefs is likely to be that the internet allows new theories to be quickly created, and endlessly debated by a wider audience than ever."

The article makes the point that there are good and bad things about conspiracy theories. The good: sometimes conspiracy theories are true (e.g. the Iran-Contra affair), and conspiracy theorists can be the little guys keeping big corporations or government in check. The bad: they can spread (misplaced) mistrust and fear, which can get in the way of reality and what is actually true and important.

Research has been conducted, by Dr Leman and others, into what makes people believe, who tend to be believers, and why. Age, ethnicity, income are apparently all factors. The possible link: those who feel generally disaffected, disempowered in society, are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Some other interesting concepts in the article:
  • "Flashbulb memory" - the recall of a sudden event, often shocking and global, which affects individuals on a personal level. Apparently this type of memory is more easily formed between 20 and 35 years of age, which is why different events tend to trigger flashbulb memories for different generations - the John F Kennedy assassination, Princess Diana's death, etc.

  • "Major event - major cause" - people often believe an event with major consequences is likely to have been caused by something major. Because if the cause was minor (e.g. a single drunk driver) then it seems like there's been no real cause and effect, life feels more unpredictable and uncertain, which makes us uncomfortable. Easier to assume the cause was something big.

  • "Confirmation bias" - people generally tend to pay more attention to info that is consistent with their existing beliefs, and absorb that kind of info more readily. This applies to both conspiracy theorists and anti-theorists equally (and, in my view, many so-called "scientists" too) - rather than objectively consider all the evidence, both look for "facts" which fit in with their existing theories and dismiss or discount evidence to the contrary, or change their theory to tie into the new info! Research in fact shows that different people can claim to use the same bit of evidence to support entirely different theories.

How to create the perfect conspiracy theory, step by step

Finally, based on his findings, he produced a presumably tongue in cheek howto on producing the perfect conspiracy theory. I can foresee some unscrupulous people cynically exploiting this to make up and spread conspiracy theories of their choice - but then they'd probably work all this out for themselves anyway, it actually seems pretty much common sense to me.

If I want to deliberately build a conspiracy theory for maximum dissemination and then make a fortune writing a book about it, well now I certainly know how to start!

Here's his guide on how to construct a conspiracy theory that'll seize the imagination of the masses, in 4 easy steps:
  1. Pick your bad guy - government, big corporations etc. Ideally also pick on some shadowy, cult-like organisation which can supposedly be connected with your adversary. (I know The Da Vinci Code is fictional but, heh, Opus Dei was a good pick!)

  2. Pick a major current event to base your theory on - especially an unexpected, shocking, visual event that's shared.

  3. Develop your story - pick & choose your source info, construct a compelling story from it, and hey if something doesn't fit your story, reinterpret it! Sow uncertainty, query the official evidence, find new facts contradicting it.

  4. Prepare your defence - be prepared to tweak your conspiracy theory around the edges should anyone point out any inconsistencies etc, but always hold to the core theory, emphasising that it's just a question of getting the evidence to prove its truth. And if others question your theory, well they must be in on the conspiracy too, mustn't they?

London Girl Geek Dinner videos: 16 August 2007 2nd anniversary - women in technology

UPDATE: seems to be down so I've removed the embed code for now to stop my blog loading so slowly (or not at all!).
FURTHER UPDATE: well it's back up now so the code is back!

The second anniversary of the London Girl Geek Dinners (blog) took place on 16 August 2007, organised by the inimitable Sarah Blow, and kindly hosted by Skype (Paul Amery and Antoine Bertout).

The focus of the panel discussion was on "Women, technology, breaking down the barriers".

I'm not going to say much about it (except pizza pizza pizza, cake, cake, cake!) because it's already been well blogged by:

(have I missed anyone?).

Maz has also linked to some Flickr pics of the London Girl Geek Dinner.

I'd just add that the comments I heard after the event were very mixed, from "Yeah too right!" and "Very interesting", to "We've heard it all before, when is there going to be less talk and more action about getting more women into IT?"

Also, there's one more point I'd like to add. There was lots of talk about how to get girls interested in technology at a young age. But one area which didn't get discussed at all was, what about getting "mature" women into technology, given the increasingly aging population and the growing trend, indeed encouragement, for people to have second or even third careers?

I'm still in my first career, doing something completely different, but I'd love to be able to work in technology. My sense is that IT is a pretty ageist industry, and while a 14-year old coding hotshot will be inundated with offers, what technology company is going to look at an oldie amateur who's not got a technology or science or maths degree, and who hasn't even put in any time in the IT business? Even if I gave up a decent salary to go off and be a poor student doing a CS degree, what would be the point? I'd be even older and less employable by the time I'd finished it... I'm certainly one of the few women there who could honestly, truly say "I'm not a real geek"!

The videos

I managed to video the proceedings, or some of them - unfortunately I didn't think the discussion would be quite so lengthy and hadn't topped up the charge, so my camcorder battery ran out partway through the audience discussion. Despite the camcorder being not too heavy my muscle power also ran out, in case anyone is tempted to suggest that the tremors are alcohol-induced! If I'd known it was going to take so long I'd have brought a tripod. Next time perhaps... Meanwhile, you may need seasickness remedies on occasion, don't say you've not been warned.

UPDATE: the videos are all on A Consuming Experience page, if that's more convenient.

Here's the intro (10:46):

( direct page, better quality)

And some words about Skype now and next, by Paul and Antoine, for developers - with their views on women in technology at the end (9:27):

( direct page, better quality )

And finally the full panel discussion, plus part of the audience debate (41:41, no that's not a typo, it was over 40 minutes long!):

( direct page, better quality)

I've also added the Show Creator app to Facebook so all my videos can be played in a row from my Facebook profile, yes even the BBC iPlayer hoohah ones.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Blogger: Adsense ads between posts (& backlinks)

If you're on Blogger / using widgets (rather than a classic template - most likely for FTP blogs), you can now display Google ads between your posts.

See the Adsense post which has a helpful step by step howto with pics.

Remember though that "AdSense policies limits you to a total of 3 ad units per page" - but the good news is that Blogger will automatically prevent you from going over this limit. Which is nice.

Digression on backlinks

I've actually known for a while that you can show ads between your posts in Blogger, thanks to the ever-vigilant Kirk plus I spotted the new Blogger Help on this, but refrained from posting earlier because I'm being mercenary about Blogger backlinks (Blogger on backlinks).

Did you know that if you publish a post, then later edit your post to add a link to another Blogger blog post, your post will not show up in the list of backlinks for that other Blogger post? It must be something to do with how blog search engines work, or how backlinks work, or both.

Many a time I've beaten Google blogs like Blogger Buzz to the punch and blogged about a new feature of Google or Blogger before it was announced on a Google blog - and my reward is not to have my blog post listed in the Google blog's backlinks.

So, this time, I've waited it out. Maybe sometimes it's better to be first to report on something, but not always... Of course, I bet that now I'm posting this there will be something on Buzz later this week, probably even tomorrow, so I'll still miss out on the backlinks listings somewhere!

Music search: Yahoo audio search; search by singing?

Yahoo Audio Search - free music samples to play

Do a text search on Yahoo! Audio Search for your favorite band, singer or song, and next to many search results you'll now get a cool "Play sample" link (actually it's a Flash music player, like the Playtagger) which lets you play a 30-second sample extract of the song or music in question. For example try searching Frank Zappa. (Via Yahoo! Search blog.) UPDATE: search link wasn't working, fixed now and as I've worked out the syntax to do that, scroll down for a live search form!

It's nice and simple: click it to play, and click again to stop - and there's even a little progress bar as it plays (see the 3rd result in the pic above). But you can't play more than one song at once, if you try it'll just stop whatever's currently playing and then play the new song. UPDATE: try the Yahoo! audio search yourself here (results open in new window) -

Searches don't seem to be slowed down by this feature at all, though admittedly I'm on broadband. See that "Select your preferred audio services" link at the top right of the screenshot above? You can set or change your favourite music website from there:

Good for Yahoo!, good for search engine users, good for the music websites from whom people will want to buy tunes they've sampled - a fabulous idea, everyone wins.

The only niggles I've noticed are:
  • Not all search results have a Play link (see the first result in the pic above). I don't know why some do and some don't. At first I thought it depended on whether Yahoo! had done a deal with the music website or not. But I've no idea. I've even deliberately set my preferred audio service to match a service (e.g. eMusic or iTunes) listed for a particular search result which had no Play link but which had that store listed as a download location, saved the preference and repeated the search just to see whether I could "force" a sample from that audio source, but there was still no Play link for that search result. Perhaps it depends on whether the music website has produced a sample of that particular song, but surely something like iTunes should have samples of all their tracks? And the first song in the pic above is one of the most popular Flying Lizards songs, why isn't there a sample? Who knows...
  • Samples are meant to be 30 seconds long but some are shorter - e.g. try the Michael Bolton version of Nessun Dorma from this Puccini search (scroll down a bit), which is actually less than 5 seconds long; just as well, some might say...! But those are really just niggles. Some relative unknowns do have proper play links, e.g. Yma Sumac the amazing Peruvian singer with a 4-octave voice, still going strong even though her heyday was the early 20th century - you gotta listen to the song Gopher in that results list. And Mambo and More: Remastered - classic album! But I digress. It's kinda fun searching for relatively obscure songs or singers just to see what results you get.

No prizes for predicting that Yahoo!'s new music clips feature will be a No. 1 hit. Google had better watch out...

And while we're on the subject of searching for music, the Yahoo Audio Search short audio clips feature may be a great way to find music, but there are signs of even more exciting innovations to come.

Search for music just by singing?

In Australia, RMIT University’s Dr Sandra Uitdenbogerd is a singer / musician as well as computer scientist specialising in music information retrieval. She's working on technology to enable online searches for songs just by singing the melody into a microphone plugged into a Net-connected computer running the music retrieval software. So even if you can't remember the exact lyrics (and I often can't!), as long as you know how the tune goes you should be able to track down that song or earworm that you just can't get out of your head.

While she thinks commercial availability is 3 or 4 years away, there are already working prototypes allowing users to search for music in basic MIDI format. Matching the sung voice waveform to MP3s is the next challenge, she says.

Of course, the more in tune you can sing, the better the results will be. But there's always the possibility of using autotune to pre-process the sung tune before trying to match it with the database of stored songs, isn't there?

Music is so important to so many people, and perhaps more significantly it's one area where people are more willing to spend their hard-earned money (given the right business model and price point of course), so the commercial potential of something like this is absolutely vast. I suspect it won't be long before Google or indeed Yahoo or other search engines beat a path to Dr Uitdenbogerd's door to throw wads of cash at her team. I'd love to try it out myself, there are lots of tunes I vaguely know where I just can't recall the name of the song or piece!

Monday, 20 August 2007

Keepon dancin' robot, yeah... to Spoon's Don't you Evah

That ever so cuddly lil robot Keepon, developed by Hideki Kozima and programmed by Marek Michalowski, had a hit music video on YouTube dancing to Texan band Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On".

For anyone who missed it, Keepon is back, starring with Hideki Kozima and some more dancing robots in a full music video for Spoon's "Don't you Evah", see above.

The video has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence so it can be freely copied and remixed ( link). (Via CC blog.)

If you didn't catch the first video, here it is below. All together now - awwwwwwwww.....

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Free Dreamweaver Tools for Google: mobile tools added

Webassist's free Dreamweaver tools for Google plugin (or Google tools for Dreamweaver?) has been enhanced in version 2.0 to make it easier for developers to add, to websites designed for mobile phones or cellphones, links to access various Google mobile services - obviously, intended for webmasters who use the well-known web design and development software Adobe Dreamweaver. (I previously blogged about the free Dreamweaver Google tools when they were first released, see my post for more info on the non-mobile features.)

This new version adds 6 new tools for easily integrating Google mobile functionality into a mobile webpage, creating the necessary code for you behind the scenes:
  • Mobile news - insert link to search Google News (the mobile version no doubt), including optionally a default search query (i.e. pre-populating the search box)
  • Mobile search - insert search form, which returns Google mobile search results in "almost any language"
  • Mobile map - link to embed a Google Maps for mobile map
  • Send to phone - insert a link to text a message to any cellphone via Google's Send-to-Phone service (only available in the US so far and not the same as Google SMS)
  • Click to call - set up Google's Click to call service from any mobile website - which enables potential customers to call companies found on Google search results pages, entirely at Google's expense (Google calls both of them and connects them, this service has been beta tested in the USA but I don't think it's available outside)
  • Mobile access keys - add 1-touch access keys to provide easy mobile key access to all Google Mobile tool links in one go.
See Webassist's Flash overview of Dreamweaver Tools for Google.

Get free Dreamweaver Tools for Google plugin.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Delicious (and Feedburner?) freebies

That granddaddy of social bookmarking sites is giving away goodies - stickers and bookmarks, as in, for marking your location in a hard copy book. Clever idea, that.

Just send them a pre-stamped envelope addressed to yourself - details here. If you send them a note with a useful or amazing Delicious story, you might even get a T-shirt.

What about us non-USians, though? How do we get hold of US stamps? Funny how the Americans never seem to consider that they may have customers outside the USA. E.g. unless you set your language preferences to English - US not UK, the British don't count - Google's Picasa didn't use to work properly, and for a while you couldn't access the full features of Gmail. (Some might say that that approach simply reflects a more general tendency of many Americans to be rather insular, not interested in or caring about what might be going on in the rest of the world outside of the vast and much-more-important-than-anyone-else US of A. But I won't as I am the very epitome of tact, me.)

It does seem though that normally Americans don't say in their initial info what people living outside the USA are supposed to do, and then they get a flood of questions asking precisely that.

Feed prestidigitators Feedburner, in offering their own flame-bearing swag, recently suggested (after the many queries that followed their original offer), that might be an option - they let you print out valid US stamps. I've not tried that service myself and they seem to require a monthly subscription, but at least they offer a 4-week free trial with $5 free postage "and a free Supplies Kit ($5 Value)", so that might do for some people - hey you could even try for both Delicious and Feedburner freebies, assuming Feedburner still have some swag left.

Neither Feedburner nor have positively indicated if they'll take international reply coupons, which is a shame as I suspect some people might prefer that to signing up for UPDATE: Feedburner do take IRCs, see the comment below, thanks Traci!

So. Anyone got some spare US stamps they wanna donate to me??

(Images borrowed from Delicious and Feedburner to illustrate this post, but if anyone has a copyright or other problem with that please let me know and I'll take it down immediately. Not risking any more BBC YouTube-like complaints.)

Friday, 17 August 2007

Foxit Reader: free PDF reader - review

UPDATE May 2008: there's a security hole in Foxit Reader version 2.3 build 2825 and possibly previous versions. This vulnerability is supposed to be fixed in the version 2.3 build 2912 to be released "shortly". Don't use Foxit if you have a vulnerable version, until it's upgraded - and obviously get the upgrade ASAP!

Having had it up to here with bloated Adobe Acrobat Reader crashing both Internet Explorer and Firefox and stalling my computer and always trying to update itself, as if it wasn't monstrous enough already, I decided to give up on it altogether. (See other Adobe Reader criticisms on Wikipedia).

So I said "Foxit!" to Adobe, downloaded the free Foxit Reader 2.0 for Windows (there's a Linux version too), and set that as my default reader for the PDF or Portable Document Format files that are ubiquitous on the Net (download Foxit Reader, Foxit Reader user manual). I've been using it for about 4 months now.

Tip: if you want to try Foxit as your PDF reader, uninstall Adobe Reader first, then install Foxit. You can always reinstall Adobe later if you prefer it, it's still free. But if you uninstall Adobe after you've got Foxit in place, Adobe will do its best to screw up your PDF file associations even as you try to consign it to oblivion.

Pros - Faster, FoxitCat! Go! Go!

Foxit has massively improved my productivity, efficiency and blood pressure:
  • PDFs open up a zillion times more quickly (or even a Gillian times, a unit which a friend and I maintain is much better than a billion, or even a zillion).
  • No more browser crashes - not Firefox, not even Internet Explorer (not caused by Adobe Reader, anyway).
  • No more Adobe Reader sneakily hiding in the background even after I think I've closed it down, and stymying my PC shutdown.
  • Enough keyboard shortcuts even for a keyboard fanatic like me (Alt-1 toggles the bookmarks sidebar by the way)
  • Decent manual (in PDF of course), which also includes an Appendix listing keyboard shortcuts, yay!
  • Quick download, only 1.7MB. And it installs (and uninstalls) in a second, I kid you not - I couldn't believe it had done it, but it had.
  • Takes up much less space on my hard drive too - according to Add/Remove Programs about 7 MB (compared with Adobe Reader, which hogged 117 MB of my precious space!)
  • Decent help FAQs and support forums.
  • Works on all consumer versions of Windows (including 98, XP and Vista), and they even have versions for Linux (tested on Fedora 4 and SuSe Linux 1.0 so far), Windows Mobile and U3 USB smart drives - but no Mac sorry (though they offer both a Linux and MacOS SDK).
  • Supports over 30 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew and even Valencian (but oddly not Hindi - even Blogger supports Hindi).
  • And - it's free!
It works in Internet Explorer (I have IE 7):

(Tip - in IE the search box seems greyed out if you want to use Alt-f or Enter to find the next term. The trick is to get rid of the box, click in the document and use F3 to move to the next hit.)

It also (sort of) works with Firefox, but see below...

And of course it works as a stand alone application:

You have to pay for the Pro version if you want more advanced features (they call that Foxit Reader Pro Pack - see what add-ons are free or must be paid for e.g. Foxit PDF Editor and Foxit PDF Creator). But the free version of Reader's got enough features for most of us:
  • PDF viewer, obviously
  • select text for copy/paste
  • searching text
  • printing
  • form filling.
There's even a special Text Viewer mode in the free version you can access via the toolbar:

The Text Viewer, as Foxit put it, lets you "work on all PDF documents in pure text view. It allows you to easily reuse the texts scattered among images and tables in a PDF document." This is what it looks like after choosing the text viewer:

And you can convert a PDF to text by a Save As:

Though I've not tried it myself and am unlikely to have call for it as I won't be doing fancy forms, there's also Javascript support in the free version. Etc etc.

Tip and troubleshooting

First general PDF tip - if you use Firefox (and if not why on earth not? ) then get the free PDF Download Firefox extension, it makes handling PDFs so much easier (Firefox extension installation howto).

If after you've tried Foxit you want to uninstall Adobe Reader, note that horrid horrid anti-social Adobe Reader won't get its claws out of your computer without a fight. It'll kick & scream and screw up your PDF associations as much as it can, leaving a big mess in your house, scratching your paintwork with screeching fingernails and hanging onto your doorframe while you try to shove it out the door.

In my case, the Adobe uninstall mucked up the opening of PDFs (even though I'd previously set Foxit Reader as the default program for opening PDFs):

The fix was, in the standalone Foxit Reader app, to choose menu Help, and Set Foxit to Default Reader a couple of times. If that doesn't work, just uninstall and reinstall Foxit, it literally only takes a couple of seconds to do.


Yes, this is a very positive review. There are only two minuses that I've come across, in terms of how I personally use PDF files:
  • No ability to email PDFs. There is no toolbar button or menu command to allow you to email a PDF. The workaround of course is to save the PDF to your computer's hard drive and then email it from there. UPDATE: Foxit 2.1 was released on 23 August 2007 and now allows you to email PDFs. Still no proper Firefox integration however, boo.
  • Firefox integration (not). Foxit still have work to do on Firefox integration. Best let it open PDFs in Foxit as a separate app, it's still very quick.

Inadequate Firefox integration

Foxit should open PDFs within a Firefox tab or window, but for me it wouldn't - not till I followed these instructions (similar ones) to download, install and register a plugin. Before you try that yourself, though, read on - it's at your own risk as it may not work and may muck up your other Fox tabs.

Why do I say that? Unfortunately, while that plugin got Foxit to open PDFs within a Firefox tab, the PDF tab took over completely - it wouldn't let me switch to another tab in Firefox - see below, the selected tab should be a blank one, but the Foxit PDF stubbornly stayed on screen:

In fact if I tried to open my history sidebar, it went and shunted what should be the selected active tab to a sidebar, sometimes left, sometimes right, sometimes underneath the PDF tab! See, weird mixed up views:

I had to close the PDF tab to view other tabs. And sometimes I was unable even to close that tab without closing Firefox altogether.

Also, some of the usual keyboard shortcuts don't work within that PDF tab - except (after you first click in the document) for the first Ctrl-f search (even F3 won't move to the next hit). And clicking on bookmarks doesn't take you anywhere. At least the toolbar icons work, and keyboard navigation (cursor arrows, Page Up etc). But really, messing up the other tabs in Firefox just defeats the object.

Others have had those problems too with the manually installed plugin (one person's workaround, little different from a separate app in my view!). This is clearly a bug.

So, I've reverted to opening PDFs from Firefox links in Foxit Reader as a separate app. It only takes half a second to open, it's so fast, and I don't mind switching windows between Firefox and Foxit Reader. (To revert, you have to delete the third party Foxit .dll plugin from the Firefox plugins folder altogether - changing PDF Download's "PDF Opening" options away from "Use PDF plugin" didn't work for me).

Foxit users have been clamouring for a working Fox plugin for ages and it's still on Foxit's to-do list (as is the ability to email PDFs). I hope Foxit will fixit properly soon - most people open PDFs from browsers, not email, and no PDF reader worth its salt can get away with lack of full Firefox integration for long.

But despite the Firefox issues, Foxit is still a Gillian times better than Adobe. So I'm sticking with it - at least until Sumatra comes with plugins to open PDFs within IE and Fox, in which case I may well try it instead..

As you can guess, no way am I going back to Adobe, not if I can help it. If only I could use Foxit at work too - Adobe Reader crashes my browser there at least twice a day.

If you want to try it: download Foxit Reader, Foxit Reader user manual.