You Try To Do A Nice Thing

Long-time readers will know that I’m involved with the nms project. This is a project which writes simple software that people can use on their web sites if they want guestbooks, forms that get emailed to them and all that very Web 1.0 stuff. It’s a nice thing that we’ve done. We’ve created something and donated it to the internet.

The programs are all open source. Anyone can download our software and use it pretty much wherever and however they want. We usually have no involvement at all if someone uses one of our programs. We’re most likely to get involved if something goes wrong. This can take two forms. Either the web site owner experiences problems setting up the program or, surprisingly often, the web site owner fails to notice that anything is wrong and it’s a visitor who discovers that the site is broken. The error page for many of the programs contains a link to our web site so a lot of the complaints come to us (who can do nothing about it) rather than the web site owners (who could probably fix it). That was a mistake. We should have made the programs so that the error page gave you the email address of someone who could help.

But it means that I get occasional email from very angry people who have been disappointed by a web site that uses one of our programs. I found this in my inbox this morning.


I don’t know who the hell you are, and I don’t care.
YOU are actively blocking my transmissions and receipts on the internet, and you can GO TO HELL.

YOU are the reason that millions of people are protesting all over the world, you ‘information funneling PRICKS’!.

Can’t you twits get a job in the REAL ‘private sector’, like cleaning toilets?

In closing, I would like to say, FUCK YOU TO HELL.

Tell STADMILLER to get fucked, as well, if he is ‘going along’ with this shit.
HE is still pissed that GCN still exists, isn’t he?
MAYBE he is pissed that I warned him about his on-air reference a couple of years ago to hanging the Congress by lightposts in D.C.,…
You are playing ‘the game’, and you will be held accountable.
How does that go, again?

Something like that, isn’t it?

[name redacted on the offchance that it’s not a pseudonym]

I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. The link goes to a web site that has a broken configuration of one of our programs. I can’t even be sure which one it is as the site owner has renamed it. I did what I always do in such situations. I replied politely and explained the situation. I told him that if he explained exactly what the problem was then I would do what I could to put him in touch with someone who runs the site in question. Often this approach leads to an apology for the original rudeness. Which is nice.

But it’s not much fun living in a world where you can do a nice thing like giving away software and that opens you up to abuse like this.


Daily Mail on Google and Adele

Today, the Daily Mail published the most hysterical pile of anti-internet crap that I think I’ve ever seen. And that takes some doing as Daily Mail articles usually combine a complete lack of understanding of the internet together with the deep distrust and fear that Mail writers have for most of the modern world.

In this article, writer Alex Brummer turns his attention to Google and the damage that they are doing to the UK’s digital industry. It’s the usual concoction of nonsense and half-truths and it contains a typical Mail conspiracy theory claiming that David Cameron is promoting Google as a good example of a digital success story because his strategy advisor Steve Hilton is married to Rachel Whetstone, Google’s head of communications. It doesn’t seem to occur to Brummer at all that Cameron is promoting Google as a good example of a digital success story because… well because it’s a bloody good example of a digital success story.

The article then goes seriously off the rails as Brummer explains how Google’s business plan is plunder the copyright of hard-working British artists like Adele and to share their work with everyone for free. It reaches a peak of insanity as he says this:

One only has to switch on the computer, call up the Google search engine and type in the name of a star like Adele to understand why the digital channel is such a threat to the UK’s performers, and for that matter our whole creative industry.

Nine out of the first ten websites which pop up on Google’s search engine are run by pirates who have downloaded Adele’s output and offer it online far more cheaply than official copyrighted sites and High Street retailers.

Claims like this aren’t new, of course and presumably Brummer assumes that everyone who reads those paragraphs will nod in agreement whilst thinking to themselves, “Of course that’s what happens – wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns up a few pages of porn too”. Brummer relies on his readership being people who have be told so many horror stories about Google search results that they are now scared to even visit the site.

So what happens if you actually bother to try Brummer’s suggestion. Here’s what I got:

  • Three links to videos on YouTube. Two of them are from her record label and the other one seems to be from Adele’s own channel.
  • Two links to Adele’s official web site.
  • Three links to news stories about Adele (including Brummer’s own story).
  • A link to Adele’s MySpace page.
  • Five images.
  • A link to a page about Adele on
  • A link to a page of Adele lyrics (this doesn’t look official).
  • A link to Adele’s Facebook page.
  • A link to an Amazon page promoting Adele.
  • A link to Adele’s record company’s page about her.

All of which rather seems to disprove Brummer’s theory. From this sample it seems that Google seems very adept at putting Adele’s fans in touch with official sources of information about her. Only the lyrics page seems unofficial or unapproved – and do lyrics really count as piracy?

There’s another option to consider here though. For a couple of years now Google have been providing customised search results. Whenever you search on Google, they take into account the links that you have clicked on from previous search results. I’m not surprised that I get a page of official links as those are the kinds of sites that I usually show most interest in. If Mr Brummer gets a page of pirate links then perhaps he should investigate who has been using his computer.


End of an Era

I’ve had a home internet connection for quite a long time. Originally I used Compuserve (I’m not too proud to admit it) but I’m pretty sure that I had switched to Demon before the beginning of 1995.

At the time there weren’t really many other options to choose from if you wanted a real internet connection (as opposed to the gated communities of services like Compuserve or AOL). For a “tenner a month” (plus VAT) you got a pretty much unfiltered connection to the net, a little bit of web space and as many email addresses as you wanted. Just about anyone who was connected to the net at home at that time used their service.

For fifteen years I stayed with Demon. It was partly a habit and partly a kind of badge of honour. It didn’t prove conclusively that you were around near the start of the UK’s home internet usage, but it might be seen as a bit of a hint. I moved to ISDN with them and, later, to ADSL (and now ADSL+).

But at some point in that fifteen years the company changed. The company was sold to Scottish Telecom (now Thus) in 1998 and I think that it all started to go wrong soon after that. Over the last couple of years, there have been a few extended connectivity outages when it’s been impossible to get through to anyone in technical support in order to find out what’s going on. It’s a bit galling to hang on a phone for an hour listening to a recorded message suggesting that you check their web site – when you’re trying to tell them that you have no internet connection.

After the last such outage, a couple of weeks ago, I finally decided that enough was enough. I called them to ask for a MAC and took my business to Be.

Today was the day of the change. My Demon connection vanished in the middle of the afternoon and when I got home we got the new connection working.

I do feel a bit nostalgic. It’s been years since I used the email address or the web site, but it’s strange to think they’re both completely dead now.

One change though. It appears that Be don’t have a Usenet service. I could sign up for something like EasyNews – but, to be honest, it’s quite tempting to just forget about it. I think it’s been almost ten years since I really had an interesting conversation in a newsgroup.

Is there anyone out there still using Demon? Why?


Internet Genealogy

In 1992 I started tracing my family history. The two main tools for amateur genealogists (at least until they get back to about 1840) are the indexes of registrations of births, deaths and marriages and the returns from the census which has been taken every ten years since 1841 (there are earlier censuses, but they don’t record individual names).

Back when I started, accessing these records was a painfully manual process. The BMD indexes were held in large leather-bound volumes in St Catherine’s House on the Aldwych. The members of the public were free to search these volumes looking for references to their ancestors. Once you had the reference numbers you needed, you could fill in a form, pay £5.50 and a week or so later a copy of the certificate would drop through your letterbox.

The census records were slightly easier to deal with. They had been scanned onto film and microfiche, so you had to go to the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane to spend hours searching for your ancestors’ names – often written in a hard to read nineteenth century hand. And, of course,  the records were ordered by parish, so if your ancestors moved it became a very hit and miss affair. I spent many days hunched over a microfiche reader or risking physical damage by lugging the oversized BMD indexes around and I still have piles of notebooks full of the notes I took over fifteen years ago.

I largely stopped research several years ago. It was just too hard to make much progress. I didn’t have the time to put into in. Towards the end of the period I was working on the project the census and BMD records were both brought together in the Family Records Centre in Islington, but the basic process was still just the same.

Recently I decided to get back into tracing my family tree. And I’m amazed to see how much things have changed in  the intervening years. These days you can do most of what I did fifteen years ago from the comfort of your own home. All of the census records are available online as are a large proportion of the BMD indexes. I put this down to a combination of two factors. Firstly the Public Records Office (who own the census) and the General Register Office (who own the BMD data) have become more aware of the potential of sharing this data across the internet. And secondly there has been a massive increase in the public’s interest in genealogy. This is obvious from the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are and the large number of family history magazines that are published each month.

It hasn’t all been successful. When the 1901 census was first put online in 2002, the site soon collapsed under the strain and remained unavailable for over six months. These days the government just licenses the data to commercial organisations like Ancestry and FindMyPast and lets them deal with the scaling issues. This leads to a slightly confusing situation where different companies have access to different sets of census data and you might end up having to pay more than one company in order to have access to all of the data you need. It’s not ideal but it’s far better than it was when I started out.

For example, all of the census search sites have indexed the data. That means that you’re no longer just skimming scans of the original documents. You can search for names and you’ll be given a list of matching records from anywhere in the country. That has helped me track down a large number of previously missing ancestors. Of course, you’re relying on someone else’s interpretation of nineteenth centrury handwriting, but you get used to typical transcription errors. I’m finding that my mother’s surname, Sowman, is often mistranscribed as “Lowman”. An easy mistake to make if you see the original document.

BMD records are also being indexed. But at a slower rate. A wonderful project called FreeBMD are working on it. Currently their coverage is great for the nineteenth century, but patchier for the twentieth. They’re working on that though and are still looking for volunteers to help with the project.

Soon after I started out, in the 90s, I bought a book called “The Genealogists Internet”. To be honest it was rather a desultory affair. There wasn’t much out there and what there was had been created by genealogists with very little knowledge of the power of the internet. Recently I bought a copy of the fourth edition. And what a change their has been. These days the internet has amazing amounts of genealogical data available. The book’s web site has a links section which I’m still working my way through almost a month later. Plenty of interesting stuff there.

If you’re interested in tracing your family tree then now is a great time to start. You can make great progress just sitting in front of your computer. I’ve got my tree back to the late eighteenth century without any trouble at all. And I’m from a line of complete peasants who made no mark on the world at all.

If you try to trace your family (or if you already have), I’d be very interested in hearing how you did.


Pointless Battles For Geeks

Geeks invented the internet. And for many years it was inhabited solely by geeks and academics. Over those years a number of unwritten rules arose which controlled the way people used the internet. The unwritten rules were passed on to newcomers who saw the wisdom of the rules and continued to follow them. Everyone followed the rules and all was well with the world.

But in the mid-90s the rest of the world discovered the internet and suddenly everything changed. The companies who were providing internet access to the public had no interest in the rules so the new users knew nothing of the rules and continuously broke them. Some companies (and I’m looking at you here, Microsoft) produced internet software that
encouraged users to break the rules.

This made the original internet users very sad. Many of them fought back against this abuse of what they saw as their system. They would try to enforce the rules but, of course, they had no power to do so and generally failed. Which made them even more sad.

You can’t beat that weight of numbers. The vast majority of internet users now see the (eminently sensible in my view) old internet rules as irrelevant to them. Most people that you meet on the internet have no knowledge of the rules. There’s only a tiny minority of people who still care. But many of that tiny minority still try to fight the barbarian hordes and impose their old rules.

So I think it’s time to give up. Much as I support the old rules, I think it’s pointless to go on fighting this battle. It’s a battle that the geeks can never win.

Here are three examples of rules that I think it’s time to abandon. These particular examples are all about email.

1/ Top Posting

Most of the time email is a conversation. I send a message to you and you send me a reply. I might then reply to your reply, clarifying some points and asking some more questions. And so we go on.

The sensible way to carry on a conversation like this is to format it so that it reads like a conversation – i.e. a question followed by its answer and then another question followed by another answer.

Geeks know this. Their email conversations are really easy to read. Everything is in the right order and it all makes sense. Non-geeks just dump everything they have to say at the top of the email. This means that firstly if you want to review everything that has been said then
you need to read from the bottom up and secondly it’s often really hard to know which parts of the reply refer to which parts of the original mail.

Life would be so much easier if everyone followed the geek way of doing things. But it’s never going to happen. There are still people holding out against this in geek communities, but most of the world top-posts all of its replies.

And that’s not going to change. Accept it. Deal with it. Move on.

2/ HTML Email

The same email software that initially encouraged top-posting also introduced the wonders of HTML mail (sometimes know as “rich text” mail) to the world. No longer would your mail be constrained to boring old plain text – now you can change fonts and colours, and include

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. No two email programmes work the same way and an email that looks great in Outlook might look like a complete mess in Thunderbird (or, as is more likely, on your mobile phone email application). As a result, people who design HTML email (and people apparently make a living doing just that!) have to ignore everything we’ve learned about HTML design in the last ten years and design to the lowest common denominator. Table-based HTML design isn’t dead; it’s been relegated to HTML email.

And then there’s the problem with viruses and phishing. The more complex an HTML email can be, the higher the chance that someone can use it for nefarious purposes. The net result of that scare is that many email programmes now won’t show external images unless specifically requested to by the users. Which means that your carefully designed marketing
message will actually end up looking a bit shit to many of your target audience.

But much as you might hate it (and if you’re sane you will), HTML email isn’t going to go away. Simply set your email application to display the plain text version of the email and let the idiots enjoy the pretty colours and viruses. If someone sends you an email that doesn’t have a plain text version then just ignore it. They weren’t worth talking to anyway.

HTML email is a fact of life. Ignore it. Move on.

3/ Reply-To On Mailing Lists

If someone sends a message to a mailing list and you reply using the “reply” button then your reply should just go to the person who wrote the original mail. That’s just common sense. It you want to reply to everyone on the mailing list then you should choose “reply all” or (in
better email applications) “reply to list”.

But somewhere over the last ten years or so, people stopped understanding that and mailing
list owners started to configure their mailing list software so that replying to a mailing list mail sent a mail to the whole list. That’s obviously completely broken behaviour and there aren’t many weeks that pass when I don’t see a geek being caught out by a broken mailing list
and sending what should have been a private mail to the whole list.

Geeks expect one behaviour. Non-geeks expect a different one. Once again the non-geeks will win through sheer weight of numbers. I used to be adamant about this and would configure any mailing list I ran so that replies would go to the sender. But so many people don’t understand that, so I have now capitulated and run most of mail mailing lists so
that a reply goes to the whole list. It’s broken and wrong, but it leads to fewer problems in the long run.

You might think that this is one area where geeks could still have their own way within
their own communities. Surely geeks could still run their own geek mailing list according to the old traditions. Well, some lists are still run like that but it seems that the inability to understand the semantics of the “reply” button event infects geeks. Often you’ll see a
mailing list that is configured correctly gets complaints about it being “broken” and the list owner changes the behaviour.

So now, in the majority of cases, a reply to a mailing list mail will go to the list. That’s not going to change. It’s not worth fighting about. Deal with it.

So, yes, the barbarians are at the gate. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Good ideas have been crushed by the number of people who don’t understand them. But there’s no point in complaining about it. You just have to accept it and move on.

Now I’d better stop before I start ranting about Betamax.


And We’re Back

This site (together with a number of other sites that I run on .uk domains and many domains run by other people) returned to life sometime this morning having fallen off the internet some time on Friday evening.

I use 123 Reg to handle the DNS for all of my .uk domains. It seems that this was a bad idea. They had some kind of DNS outage. It took them twelve hours to acknowledge the problem on the their status page and somewhere between another twelve and twenty-four hours to fix it.

Of course, this shouldn’t happen. All domains have at least two DNS servers. And they should be on different network segments. So it’s currently unclear how both of the DNS servers for my domains could be broken at the same time.

I’ve been using 123 Reg for the past few years because Gandi, my preferred DNS supplier didn’t support .uk domains. They recently added that support and this weekend’s problems have galvanised me into making the switch. My .uk domains will all be moving over the next week or so.

But I’m sorry if you’ve been unable to read any of my sites this weekend. And whilst the outage was short enough that any mail should still be queued for delivery somewhere on the internet, if you’ve sent something that I haven’t replied to, then please resend it.

Update: I’ve just received an email from Pipex (who own 123 Reg) in response to this blog posting. It’s interesting that they respond (in private!) to a public blog posting before they respond to the support mail that I sent them on Friday.

The email doesn’t add much useful information. I was going to ask for permission to quote it here, but I see it’s almost identical to the statement from 123 Reg quoted in this story on The Register covering the outage.

123-reg experienced intermittent performance issues on its DNS servers between late afternoon on Friday 16 November and Sunday 18 November. This meant that some customers have encountered difficulties with their domain names during this period.

This problem was caused by a combination of excessive loading on the DNS servers and a rare hardware failure. During this time, 123-reg engineers have replaced the hardware and full service has been resumed.

We apologise to our customers for the inconvenience that the outage would have caused and we have begun an investigation to identify the cause of the failure, and any necessary actions required will be implemented without delay.

They still haven’t explained how they managed to lose all DNS capability, despite the redundancy that is built into DNS.

And if anyone from Pipex is reading this and is thinking of sending another mail, why not leave a comment instead. That is, after all, how blogs are supposed to work.

Update: Tee hee. I just replied to that mail to see if I can get some more information. But the mail bounced back. Apparently that users mailbox is over quota. I wonder why?


Using TinyURL

The BBC Backstage mailing list has briefly turned its attention from the iPlayer’s DRM and Ashley Highfield’s estimates of Linux usage and is actually having an interesting conversation about URL schemes.

This was all set off by an email sent out to participants in the BBC archive trial. The mail used TinyURL to shorten a couple of long URLs that it mentioned. The URLs in question were

Long-time readers might remember that I’m interested in the problems that people have with URLs, so you won’t be surprised that this discussion piqued my interest.

The first interesting point that was raised was that URL-shortening services like TinyURL can be used to disguise dubious addresses in a phishing attack. When clicking on links in mail it’s always a good idea to ensure that you know which site the link is taking you too. URL-shortening services prevent you from doing this as the URL you see it is to, for example, It’s unlikely, of course, that anyone wants to get your login details to the BBC archive trial, but it’s certainly a bad habit for an organisation like the BBC to be encouraging.

The main point, for me, of a URL shortening service is that it’s an easy way to share URLs from sites that have nasty addressing schemes which lead to unmanageably long URLs – like the URLs created by most e-commerce and content management systems (or, at least, most of the ones that I see being used). It’s just a fact of internet life that you often want to share a URL which is far too long for sane people to deal with. And URL-shortening services are perfect for cases like that. You can shorten a long URL to a short link that won’t get broken by your friends’ email program.

But I see that as a solution to a temporary problem. As some point in the future, we will no longer have unmanageably long URLs. Everyone designing URL schemes will understand how they should work and no-one will encode session information in URLs. Well, I can dream can’t I?

More practically, URL-shortening is a solution to the problem of sharing problematic URLs when you have no control over the URL scheme in question. In other words, the problem of sharing other people’s URLs. If you’re trying to share one of your own URLs and you find yourself wanting to use a URL shortening service, then perhaps you should be reconsidering your URL scheme.

And that’s why I don’t think that the BBC should be using things like TinyURL. They shouldn’t need to as they control the URLs that they are sharing. Personally I think that the two URLs in question are pretty good URLs. They are both easily readable and they aren’t too long. Oh, you can make picky suggestions for improving them (I’d want to lose the ‘2’ from ‘login2.shtml’ at least) but they are a vast improvement over most of the URLs you see out on the web. But if however composed the email thought that they were too long to include, then they should have fixed the URLs rather than resorting to TinyURL. I realise that in an organisation like the BBC getting the relevant web server configuration in place might take time, but that’s just another argument for getting your URL scheme right from the start.

Your URLs are your address on the web. They are how people find the information that you want to share with them. It’s well worth putting some effort into them.


Selling Domains

I’ve been dabbling in web sites for some time now and over the years I’ve had my fair share of projects that either never got started or started well but eventually withered and died[1]. Most of these projects had an associated domain name.

Previously, once I’ve decided that a project is moribund, I’ve just let the domain name lapse. But now I wonder if that’s the best approach. Maybe it would make sense to sell them. Some domain names can be worth quite a lot of money. Obviously I don’t think I’ve got anything as valuable as but perhaps I can make a couple of quid selling these domains.

Currently I’m considering selling these:

  • – this is one of the first domains I registered. Many years ago I was running a UK standup comedy news site there. I even used it to blag press passes for the Edinburgh Fringe one year. But I ran out of ideas for it almost four years ago.
  • – this is far more recent. Last year I saw a good talk about Amazon Web Services and this was the site where I was going to experiment with the API. It was going to be a site where you’d register your wish list and you’d get notifications (email, RSS feeds – all that kind of stuff) if anything on your wish list went down in price. I still think it’s a good idea, but so does someone else and now I’ve lost all enthusiasm for implementing it.

So now I have a couple of problems. Firstly I have no idea how to value a domain name. And whilst there are plenty of people on the web who will do that for you, all of the decent ones (or, at least, the ones who look decent) charge for the service. And secondly I need to find somewhere to advertise and sell the domains. I’ve got no idea which of those (many, many) sites I can trust.

So while I ponder these issues I’ve just bunged Google Ads and a “this domain for sale” sign on them. Perhaps I’d be better off parking them with Sedo or someone like that.

This is all new ground to me and I’d be grateful for any advice from anyone who has done this before.

[1] I’ve had successful projects too. Don’t want to make it sound like everything I do is doomed to failure. It’s just that successful projects aren’t the subject of this post.


New Browsers

Last night I downloaded and installed two new browsers.

Firstly I booted my laptop into Windows for the first time for months (it’s the only computer in the house that has Windows installed) and installed IE7. First reactions? A big “so what?” It’s (obviously) a vast improvement on IE6, but I can’t see anything that will obviously draw Windows-based Firefox users back to IE. My big hope for it is that it will be adopted by IE6 users really quickly so that web designers (and I, laughably, like to include myself in that group) can stop using the horrible hacks that are needed to get round IE6’s nasty broken implementation of CSS.

Then, back on home ground in Linux, I installed the release candidate for Firefox 2.0 (the full release is expected within the next couple of weeks). I didn’t have long to play with it, but it seems pretty good. I’ll keep using it as my default browser for a few days and see how it goes.


Firefox vs Internet Explorer

A nice rant by Kate Bevan in today’s Guardian technology supplement. She’s fed up of going into corporate clients’ offices and finding that Internet Explorer is the only browser available. Firefox has been available and stable for 18 months. Why do corporate IT departments still insist on forcing IE onto their users?

So being dumped in front of a computer that insists on using IE is a nasty shock. For starters, only the beta of the very newest version – IE7 – uses tabbed browsing. Command-click on a link in any other version and it opens a new window. One office I regularly work at deploys ancient iMacs running a five-year-old operating system. Open more than two IE windows and it crashes. Bashing the keyboard or mouse won’t work – you have to go nuclear and pull out the power lead.

I have plenty of sympathy. IE is the corporate standard for my current clients. In fact I’ve recently learned that downloading and installing Firefox might be considered a sacking offence as it’s not on the list of approved software. But I’m prepared to take the risk as asking someone to develop web applications using IE constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But developing on Firefox for users who are going to be using IE has its own problems. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written something only to find that it doesn’t work in IE.

Memo to corporate IT departments: Get Firefox installed. You know it makes sense.