Twittering Away

A few weeks ago I gave in to peer pressure and joined Twitter. You can find me there under mrawdon. Okay, I wasn’t really being pressured, but I’d several of my cow-orkers were hanging out there making pithy remarks, so I decided to sign up.

I’ve joked that Twitter is “like blogging only without the pesky content”. I’ve also seen it called “microblogging”, which I take to mean, “There is content, but there isn’t very much of it.” Which seems about right: I see little tidbits of real content here and there, but most of Twitter consists of tiny, generic snippets of thought which are either devoid of depth, or devoid of meaning due to a lack of context.

It’s the lack of context that really makes Twitter a suboptimal experience compared to blogging: If I didn’t know the people I’m following personally, there’d be essentially nothing there for me. So it’s no surprise that the few times I’ve tried to go out and find new Twitterers to follow, I’ve come up empty because it’s all just random nattering without any context to give it meaning, or any depth to give it value in the absence of that context. (By contrast, I’ve found many fine journals and blogs over the years simply by poking around in one place or another on the Web, even if I didn’t know the author beforehand.)

If I were to use a single word to sum up Twitter, I think it would be “disposable”. It’s hard enough to build anything of lasting value in a blog format, and it looks to be nearly impossible on Twitter. I don’t expect to become educated or informed through Twitter, and I strongly doubt there’s anything of interest in “the archives”. Will I ever go back to look at my old tweets to recall what was, like I do with my journal? Probably not. I wonder whether anyone else does so with their tweets?

Clearly a lot of people are having fun on Twitter, though. A tool like Twitteriffic turns Twitter into something like a push-notification system, which means less effort on your part to keep up with what your friends are doing. (This isn’t very different from following a blog via an RSS feed, though.) But it seems like most of the fun is in following the snarky remarks and exchanges and the occasional raw outbursts that pepper the site.

So there’s some value in that; people have fun and get a few laughs. But there’s a lot of fun and plenty of laughs elsewhere in the world, and a lot of it is more rewarding when it’s not restricted to 140 characters.

Web Trickery

So I took a few minutes to learn how to use Dreamhost‘s built-in stats package to see who’s hitting my Web site where. (I’ve also been using StatCounter for this, but naturally my hosting service can provide a much more complete picture.)

Having done that, I noticed that several of my images are being hotlinked from other sites. While I’m not really anywhere close to using my bandwidth allocation (not within an order of magnitude – maybe two), hotlinking is just obnoxious on principle. So I took a few more minutes to learn how to block hotlinks.

Useful Web trickery, all learned in just a few minutes. (Dreamhost has a really useful Wiki for learning these things.)

I wonder what else I ought to learn in this space?

(I should probably see about blocking hotlinks to my old site, too.)

Why FP Doesn’t Have a Full-Text Web Feed

J.D. Roth commented in a recent post that he’d like Fascination Place to have a full-text web feed. In principle, I’d like this too, but I have several problems with full feeds, and while none of them is compelling by itself, they add up to my decision to go with a partial feed. Here’s an edited version of the reasons which I sent to J.D. in e-mail:

  1. Loss of content. Some information doesn’t come through in a feed. For instance, an entry with a YouTube embedded video won’t show the video in the feed. This seems contrary to the promise of a “full feed”. At the least, the feed should include a placeholder for items it can’t render so that people can actually tell that there’s something missing.
  2. Loss of formatting. Feeds often don’t reflect the formatting, e.g. of embedded images or other typical CSS tricks, of the content they’re displaying. For instance, floating images of books I review end up showing up in odd places in a full feed, rather than floating to the right like they’re supposed to. I find this annoying as both a content provider and a content consumer; formatting does matter.
  3. Hit tracking. This is admittedly a completely selfish reason: I like to see who’s coming in and reading which entries, which is difficult to do if people are reading only the feed. (I know J.D. use Feedburner for this, but my experience as a consumer is that Feedburner goes down a lot, and/or has serious performance issues sometimes, so I see it as a mediocre solution at best. I’m also reluctant to use a third party for feeds.)
  4. LiveJournal syndication. LJ syndication is nifty in that it’s fairly well automated, but annoying in that there’s no way (that I know of) to subscribe to the comments on a syndication account. With full feeds, people can (and probably will) comment on my entries and I’ll probably never see them. Using summary feeds essentially sidesteps the issue.

    (Plus, of course, if I switch to a full feed, then the LJ syndication account for FP will get spammed with new copies of all the recent entries available in the feed. Although, that would be a one-time – if ugly – thing.)

Basically, I think that feeds are still a young technology, with issues yet to be worked out. They’re still tremendously useful, but still require some compromises to be made. So I’ve chosen the compromise that works best for me. (I could probably address some of these issues through coding of my own, but time rarely permits such efforts these days.)

If people know of simple solutions to some or all of these solutions, I would consider them.

(BTW, if you have no idea what I’m talking about here, you can read the Wikipedia entry on web feeds. Two good ways to subscribe to feeds on the Mac are to use Safari RSS on Tiger – which is what I use – or to download NetNewsWire Lite.)

Amazon Christmas “Fun”

I’ve been using Amazon.com for a long long time. My oldest orders on record there are from 1998, but I’m sure I was ordering from them before that. I’ve always been very impressed with their business: Availability of items, fringe benefits like the Associates program and the free super saver shipping option, and their customer service, which has always been very helpful when I’ve had to contact them, which fortunately hasn’t been very often.

This Christmas season has eroded my faith in Amazon somewhat. Now, I’ll say up front that things turned out well overall, but my Christmas experience with Amazon resulted in more glitches in one month than I think I’ve seen since I started using them.

Here’s a rundown of what happened:

  1. I received a box from them which I opened and noticed that the gift cards were from “Mom” but to “Rachel”. The box was indeed addressed to me, so I opened the itinery to see that someone else’s order had been placed in a box addressed to me. I contacted my family, and the UPS tracking number was one my Dad had received. He contacted Amazon by phone and was told I would have to send the items back and would received a gift certificate for the value of the items Dad ordered. Dad’s comment: “That’s not very much like Christmas.”

    Well, instead I contacted Amazon customer service through e-mail, and after I provided them all the information they needed, they instead packed up a new box with the items Dad ordered and sent it to me. So all turned out well, and I didn’t need to send anything back. (Ironically, my aversion to calling people on the phone worked in our favor here.)

  2. I received another box with a wrapped item from my Mom, and another wrapped item addressed to someone else. Apparently someone else’s order got placed in the same box by mistake. Since there was no indication the first time around that they’d fix the other person’s problem unless that other person contacted them, I didn’t contact Amazon about this. (The item in question was a CD which actually looks kind of interesting.)
  3. My Dad received some items I ordered for him, and they were wrapped, but had no gift cards. The order didn’t show any gift note when I reviewed it, so in all fairness I might have screwed this up myself rather than Amazon losing my note. On the other hand, Dad says he received some gifts from someone else which were not wrapped but should have been.
  4. Finally, I received one CD from my Dad which should have been wrapped but was not. That’s not the fun part though: When I unwrapped presents from Dad, one of them was another copy of the same CD. However, if this was part of the order they had to re-ship, this might have just been a little fallout from the first problem. (Anyone want a copy of Shadow Gallery‘s Tyranny?)

None of this is likely to make me stop using Amazon in the future (fat chance!), but it is an unfortunate set of events. The moral of the story is: Take a look at what you received, even if it’s wrapped, to make sure it looks like it’s correct, because the sooner you notice any problems the sooner you can work with Amazon to get them fixed.

And Amazon’s customer service still rocks, for getting things fixed in time.

Library Thing

Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can enter up to 200 books for free. Or you can buy a membership for $10/year or $25 for your lifetime. (The latter is obviously a great value in the long run.)

I’ve started entering my library, starting with the hardcovers and trade paperbacks (otherwise known in my household as “the small bookcases”). You can view my library if you’d like, although it will take a while before I get it fleshed out. (Don’t expect me to get to the humor or non-fiction for a while.)

The site has its pros and cons, although its pros far outweigh its cons.

Pros:

  • You can search by author, title, ISBN, and other aspects to enter a book into your library.
  • Searches can be made against several sites (such as Amazon), which often come with default information and cover art.
  • The editing page is very easy to use, if you want to tweak an entry in your library.
  • You can link to reviews you’ve written in your journal so others can access them from Library Thing, or write a review directly on the site.

Cons:

  • The database doesn’t have separate fields for copyright date (i.e., when the book was first published) and publication date (i.e., the date this edition was published). Both are interesting to track.
  • The database doesn’t have a way to list individual stories in a collection, or (of more interest) individual books in an omnibus.
  • The Suggestions page doesn’t have a way to ask that it permanently exclude a volume from its recommendations (although “omit authors already in your catalog” gets close).

One thing that’s been interesting as I enter books is that I’ve found a few books I own which I could not easily locate via the search mechanism. For instance, I own first edition hardcovers of Vernor Vinge’s novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, and I couldn’t find the latter, so I entered it manually. That means I’ll probably also scan its cover to add to my library.

All of this is probably not the best way to spend my time. 🙂 As Cliff said when I told him about it, I’d probably do better spending my holiday vacation writing my own fiction.

Internet Explorer Vexes Me

So yesterday Debbi brought home her Windows laptop from work to show me what Fascination Place looks like in Internet Explorer.

And, uh, it’s not exactly what I’d intended.

The core problem is with the three-column layout: It’s supposed to have three neat columns below the header and above the footer with a fixed-width sidebar running down each side, and a fluid-width column (i.e., column that grows if you make the window wider) in the middle. What appears in IE is that once the central column’s content is long enough to run below a sidebar, it flows around the bottom of the sidebar to take up (nearly) the entire width of the window.

For those familiar with CSS, each column is its own div element. The left and right sidebars are set with float: left or right (respectively) and with fixed pixel widths, and the middle column does not float but is set with width: auto. I’ve tested this with several browsers on Mac OS X, and it works fine in all of them. But it looks poor on IE on Windows, and unspeakably awful in the ancient IE 5.2 which was (I think) the last version available for Mac OS X (and which has many known bugs).

There are a few lesser issues, such as the words “Fascination Place” in the banner not appearing in the large characters I intend, and the text scrolling off the right side of the page. Those aren’t as annoying as the essential column problem, though.

I’ve been doing a little research, and it appears that IE has a number of bugs and quirks in it where CSS is concerned, for instance these bugs, and these bugs, and this box model problem. Debbi’s machine is running IE 6 on Windows 2000 v5.0, and apparently many of these issues have been fixed in IE 7. (Whether it fixes my problems, I don’t know.)

Fascination Place is my first foray into using relatively modern (i.e., this millennium) Web technologies. I’m well aware that the nature of the Web is that not everything works well for all people, and that there are people out there still using Mac OS 9 and Windows 98 (some people can’t upgrade), so not everything will render well for those people. But I’m not sure how much effort I want to put into making FP look good for people using old technology, not because I don’t want them to read my site but because I have finite time, and I don’t have access to most non-Mac or older browsers.

(For the record, I’ve tested with Safari, FireFox, and Camino. I should probably also try Opera and OmniWeb.)

I’d appreciate some input from my readers, especially ones living in a Windows world or on older software:

  • Does FP look like what you expect it to look like, based on what I described above?
  • If it doesn’t, is it at least readable and usable?
  • If you’re familiar with CSS (and/or willing to look at my stylesheet), do you have any tips for improving the experience for other readers?
  • Do I suck at writing CSS, or what? 🙂

I would like to make (as they say) a good-faith effort to whip things into shape. And of course improve my understanding and use of CSS generally. But those of you for whom the page looks really whacked may need to bear with me for a bit.

Sorry about that.