Archive for the 'The Art of Blogging' Category

29
Jul

Cuil Runnings Part 2

Part 1 of Cuil Runnings described the self-proclaimed Google-beating search engine and summarized industry’s initial response after launch. Their reception was … frosty, to say the least. Was the response justified? Several tests were performed using common search types to determine whether Cuil is fit to replace Google on discerning desktops.

Test 1: Music Group

For engineers, these ex-Googlers did a poor job of estimating the initial server load but let’s not be petty – it’s only day one. The search results matter most and in particular page 1 of the search results (which is where most people look). Total number of search results, while often used as a selling point, mean very little in practical terms since most surfers only look at the top 10 or 20.

Cuil Search Engine Test 1: 4Hero

My first test was done using a moderately popular music group, the British RnB / Drum n Bass outfit 4Hero. Cuil really showed its best side for this example: firstly, the results displayed in a three-column magazine style (two-column displays are selectable). To the right are a series of categories related to the group 4Hero, including albums from the group and related artists. If you were to click on the link titled “Goldie” (another Drum n Bass artist) Cuil would search for “4Hero Goldie”. This accessible drill down display will be indispensable for people doing actual research.

Test 2: Ancient Civilization

Cuil Search Engine Test 2: Nubia

Inspired by the implications from the first test, I keyed in an ancient civilization –Nubia- to determine how easily research could be accomplished. Again, the category drill down was available on the right but this time a result filter was available above the search results. Since Nubia is a pretty broad topic, Cuil gave the option to filter the existing results on major subtopics like Ancient Nubia and Rhadopis of Nubia. Cuil’s interface is closer to an interactive encyclopedia than a straight search engine.

Test 3: Direct Website Reference

cuil4.jpg

Cuil really fails when it comes to identifying name of actual websites. This is important because a worrying number of people still find websites by entering the English name in a search engine and clicking on the first link they see. I tried that with Jack’s NewsWatch and no link to the site root exists on the front page. In fact, the first link on the list is to Jack’s new-found nemesis at StageLeft. The average site-owner probably doesn’t want a large % of potential search traffic going to his detractors. A significant % of the search results were also coming from third-party services like HaloScan and blog aggregators. Conversely, Google’s first link went directly to the front of Jack’s site, with lesser quantities of the parasitic sites in later links. The same test was performed with other blog sites (Cynics Unlimited, Crux of the Matter, Blue Like You) and only Google linked to the root of the actual site within the first page. The first search result for Small Dead Animals links to a site attacking the blog owner. The first search for Blink 7 links to Blink 182’s band site.

Cuil was much better at identifying major websites like CNN, but that’s hardly an indication of a search engine’s ability to determine link relevance.

Test 4: Recent News Articles

Cuil Search Engine Test 4: Recent News ArticleTesting Cuil’s ability to retrieve the latest news stories involved writing two tests per article. First, the full title of the article entered verbatim into the browser to determine whether a link to the actual article or reprint of the article appeared on the first page. The second test was completed using key words. The tests are listed below (key words in brackets)

  • Associated Press: Bush OKs execution of Army death row prisoner (keywords: Bush Ronald Gray Execution)
  • Reuters: Zimbabwe crisis negotiations deadlocked (keywords: Zimbabwe negotiations)
  • Canadian Press: Bell Canada to cut 2,500 jobs to lower operating costs ahead of takeover (keywords: Bell Canada job cuts)

Cuil returned no results for the title of the AP or CP articles. The Reuters subject line returned an excerpt from a Zimbabwe site unrelated to the article in question. Amazingly, Cuil had no results at all for they keywords related to the AP article, meaning not even info on traditional websites. The CP keywords returned several Wikipedia pages about Bell and one WSWS article about Bell cutting jobs … in 1999. Conversely, Google found all of the articles by title and keywords within the first page. Cuil may be indexing more pages than Google but surely aren’t doing so with great speed.

Conclusion

Cuil’s interface is beautiful and intuitive. General-purpose researchers and students will quickly take to its OLAP-style interface and numerous search refinement options. The search engine itself needs help, however. Cuil was not intuitive enough to recognize all by the most ubiquitous site names while third party sites and junk aggregators pushed actual site content out of the top listings. Cuil performed abysmally at retrieving current events or recently-updated sites, which is unacceptable in a 24-hour news environment. As of now, Google has little to fear.

29
Jul

Cuil Runnings Part 1

Cuil Search Engine

Cuil (pronounced “cool”) is the creation of Google alumnus Anna Patterson, who is working in conjunction with her husband (former IBM employee Tom Costello) and two other ex Google engineers. Patterson’s last major search engine effort was purchased by the mighty Google in 2004. Costello’s previous efforts include a 1990’s search engine called Xift and IBM’s WebFountain technology. Monier is the former Chief Technology officer of AltaVista – considered by many to be the best search engine in the pre-Google webverse. This group has credentials. They also have funding, to the tune of $33 million in venture capital investments.

Cuil’s self-purported advantages over the competition (read: Google) are as follows

  • More Links. The Cuil search engine claims an index spanning 120 billion web pages, dwarfing both Google’s most recently reported figure of 8.2 billion web pages and the industry’s estimate of 40 billion pages
  • More privacy. Cuil promises not to track the habits of individual users, purporting to track general web trends instead. This feature seems designed to appeal to the privacy experts who have complained about Google’s invasive data gathering efforts.
  • Content-based rankings. Cuil’s engine reportedly places more emphasis on the content of the page than which pages link to it. This is a potential advantage to both users more interested in research than buzz and content providers who concentrate on quality rather than social networking to build their sites.

Survey Says …

Alas, many engines have come and faltered in light of Google’s massive 62% market share (USA). How well did Cuil hold up on its opening day? Not too well, judging by reports in the IT media:

“If you are going to roll out a new search engine, please try to make one that has more going for it than a silly name and cheap, misleading PR. Thus we have Cuil, the search engine rolled out this last week by some ex-Google folks who see a market opportunity. While all the people involved seem competent and have great resumes, the site itself out-and-out stinks”
-John C. Dvorak

“Cuil went live last night and then went down after only a couple of hours of operation due to an apparently overwhelming response which lead to a server melt down. At the time of writing this article they were back up again, but you’d have thought that with all the hype around their launch they would have been better prepared?”
-New Zealand Herald

“What’s the first thing people check in a new, more-powerful Internet search? Their own name, of course. The SAI staff ran our own names through Cuil’s search. It hadn’t heard of some of us, while for others it returned our bylines next to pictures of… other people.
SAI’s commenters noted that searches for terms like “penguins” or “failure” returned zero results.”

-Silicon Valley Insider

Cuil’s lackluster performance is explained briefly in an equally critical CNET article

“Cuil isn’t set up as a massively parallel search network the way, say, Google is. Tom Costello had explained this to me a bit when we talked last week. Each of Cuil’s search appliances is specialized to a particular subcategory of results. There are machines that understand and index sports; others are experts on medicine, etc. As these search machines get overloaded, Sollitto said, they drop offline for some queries, and the machines left online return less-than-relevant results that then appear at the top of users’ pages.”
-WebWare

Overall, it can be said Cuil’s launch was one of the least successful in recent tech history. Is the criticism fair, however? Proceed to part 2 to find out!

22
Apr

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Some of you may not know the name Richard Warman but he may cause you to delete your Blogger account:

Linking one blog to another and allowing comments on her blog postings has landed one prominent Saskatchewan blogger in a legal quandary.

Kate McMillan of Small Dead Animals is one of several named as defendants in a statement of claim filed by Richard Warman with the Ontario Superior Court on April 7. Others include Ezra Levant, the National Post and one of its journalists, Jonathon Kay.

In the statement of claim, Warman alleges he was defamed on a blog known as freedominion.ca. He alleges that those comments were linked to or commented upon on other blogs, including McMillan and the National Post’s.

This round of lawsuits stems from criticism of Warman’s earlier lawsuits via the Canada Human Rights Commission:

A complaint to police alleges that federal human-rights investigators used an unwitting woman’s wireless Internet connection to log on to white supremacist websites and make postings to chat groups.

The complaint to the RCMP and Ottawa police was made this week by Toronto resident Mark Lemire, who runs a website that has been the subject of a long-standing hate case before the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Among other things, Lemire’s complaint alleges that commission investigators breached sections of the Criminal Code by “wilfully and with malicious intent” using the woman’s connection without authorization and “committed theft of telecommunication service.”

Lemire’s freedomsite.org website, started in 1995, became the subject of a commission hearing in 2003 after Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman complained that postings on the site promoted hatred or could subject a group to contempt.

So far the following bloggers have been targeted:

  1. Ezra Levant
  2. Kate McMillan (Small Dead Animals)
  3. Free Dominion (two members)
  4. Kathy Shaidle (Five Feet of Fury)

Jack (Jack’s NewsWatch) has created a thread for those who want to contribute to the defense fund for bloggers targeted by Warman. Chances are most donations will come from supporters who agree with the bloggers’ views, which could be best described as anti-immigrant and extremely critical of Islam. Kathy has a strong penchant for attacking blacks while Ezra hawkishly stalks Muslim groups for even the slightest confrontational statement. The large percentage of Canadians, who tend to value tolerance, may not see a problem with suing a handful of bloggers who profit from whipping up nationalist sentiment.

However, one needs to look at the big picture before saying “good riddance” to a few extremists. Suppose Warman and the HRC successfully sue the current crop of bloggers. Who’s next? Any of us could be next, so long as we dare to say anything even slightly critical of an activist group that declares itself to speak for a demographic group. For instance, Emilia’s article on the Hijab was followed by a rather heated discussion between two of my long-term readers and a Muslim poster named Insha Marri. My readers disagreed with the use of the hijab, arguing it was oppressive to women. Insha sharply disagreed and the ensuing exchange wasn’t friendly. Do my readers’ opposition to a devout Muslim practice qualify as “hate speech” and, if so, am I on the hook for their comments?

So far the answer to both questions is no but there is a very limited number of open neo-nazis and cultural supremacists in Canada. To stay employed, full-time activists like Warman need to continuously find new enemies and launch lawsuits. This eventually will mean having to lower the bar on what constitutes “hate speech”. The current standard of open denigration will soon be lowered to principled opposition and eventually to failed compliance. When failed compliance with a special interest group’s agenda puts bloggers in danger of a lawsuit then independent thought itself is in danger. All of us will be potential targets, not just the far right. Equally hateful statements by the activist groups themselves could go unpunished, as they first aligned with the HRC.

Canada’s treatment of those who hold unpopular opinions must be monitored alongside its treatment of demographic minorities, as both are an indication of the actual freedoms we enjoy in this nation. Both groups represent the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when the government starts to overstep its bounds and use the charter as a sword against dissidence rather than a shield against abuse.

30
Mar

WordPress 2.5 is Out – How Well does it Work?

WordPress 2.5 is finally out and, like many, I chose to install it before the developers addressed the critical security fixes. The changelog can be found on the original website but here are some of the highlights:

  1. Cleaner, faster, less cluttered dashboard
  2. Dashboard Widgets
  3. Multi-file upload with progress bar
  4. EXIF extraction
  5. Search posts and pages
  6. Tag management
  7. Password strength meter
  8. Concurrent editing protection
  9. Few-click plugin upgrades
  10. Friendlier visual post editor
  11. Built-in galleries (create a gallery automatically, allow comments for individual photos!)

So far the upgrade has not caused any major malfunctions. The biggest improvement I see so far is improved use of real-estate in the editor – the save buttons are now beside the edit window and the user can easily see when the post in progress was last saved. The concurrent editing protection is nice because it allows multiple users to work on a post without clobbering each others’ changes. The image gallery (see below) is a very welcome addition that should reduce dependency on Flickr and similar external services.

This thread is for comments from anyone who has upgraded or is considering upgrading to WordPress 2.5. Please share any comments, questions and observations.

Updates: Compatibility Issues

2008-03-31:
Redoable Template v1.2 – LiveSearch option no longer works. Searches fail to find any results (tested searches that previously worked under WP2.3)
2008-04-15:
Inserting a picture from the gallery works absolutely perfectly on one computer but hangs on the other. Both machines are running Firefox 2 on Windows XP. The non-working machine requires the user to load the picture to the gallery, copy the URL, exit the gallery, press the image button and paste the URL.

Updates: Welcome Discoveries

2008-03-31:
Editor opens and reloads in most recently used editing mode. No more defaulting to Visual/WYSIWYG mode after saving a post.
2008-04-13:
Upgrading to WP2.5 can improve the display of certain templates. After upgrading Crux of the Matter, the template WP-Andreas09 2.1 now displays the font consistently in the left and right columns on IE browsers. Previously the fonts were noticeably larger in the right column, although the CSS template did not specify this difference.

Updates: Other Views

2008-04-13:
Sandy (Crux of the Matter) recently upgraded to WP 2.5 and has shared her own observations.

01
Jan

2 Years of Cynicism

How it Began

The 2005 formation of Cynics Unlimited (CU) was sudden and unscripted. After several months of reading blogs, ranging from the political to the perverted (and all points in between), it was clear that pretty much anyone could write a blog. The worst I could do was equal some of the more obscure corners of Blogspot.

Alas, to a self-described hacker, Blogspot would not suffice – nor would any hosted service. The site had to be totally independent, driven by configurable software and supplemented by selectable plugins. Among blogging software, WordPress offered the most options in terms of plugins, themes and general support. I’ve since experimented with blogging under alternative frameworks, including Joomla, Drupal and b2evolution, but WordPress continues to lead in terms of simplicity and expandability (at least from the user perspective).

The name “Cynics Unlimited” is a swipe at the Toronto Unlimited ad campaign, which according to the designer for this site’s logo, is considered by the to be one of the worst-conceived campaigns in recent memory. As the tourism bureau’s best response to city’s SARS-driven economic fallout amounted to a twisted ‘T’, cynicism came rather easy to this layman. “Cynapse” is a cross between the words cynic and synapse, conveying the idea of cynical thinker. The pseudonym was also created to distance new writing from … erm … disturbances that I may or may not have created on chat boards under other handles.

Early Success

After a month of testing the waters, CU broke through with “The Jane Creba Factor”, a slightly embittered diatribe about the inordinate attention given to the Boxing Day slaying of the Toronto teen. My argument that Canadians only cared about the shooting because of the victim’s Barbie-like appearance attract a fiery debate in the comment section, along with a year of steady Google traffic and a mention in the Toronto Sun. Unfortunately, the Toronto Sun quote was incorrectly attributed to a then small and unfamiliar blog called Jack’s Newswatch (JNW). The site owner was decent enough to track down the real source and drive some of his new-found traffic to CU. Respect was won instantly and we forged an association that resulted in my hosting several future generations of JNW (including the current one).

The second positive consequence of The Jane Creba Factor was the combative yet superbly-communicated comments of poster who went by the handle “Emilia Liz”. Her writing was so elegant that I had to persuade her to write an entire essay about her thoughts on the incident (she was in close proximity at the time of the shooting). Emilia continues to contribute to CU, both as a writer and in the comment section.

The Traffic Game

Regardless of what bloggers may state about inner fulfillment and spreading the message, virtually all of us check traffic statistics religiously. More visitors means more bragging rights, which substitutes for revenue in the blogosphere, and in some cases more real revenue. CU currently draws about 5,000 unique visitors per month, which is decent given:

  • Posts are sometimes infrequent and become available as we become available
  • CU has no specific political slant or target audience. Left-leaning readers brand us as heartless right-wing bastards for failing to bless the latest social ponzi / redistribution scheme; The Stephen Harper rank and file dismiss us as bleeding-heart lefties for showing even slight conscience about those “conquered” folks. Some of CU’s most popular threads have nothing to do with politics.

What also separates CU traffic from the traffic of other blogs is that most of it is driven by search engines. While we do get some repeat traffic for hot-button threads and a small core of regulars, a strong majority of visitors are Google-spawned surfers looking for information. The result is a site with a relatively inelastic traffic flow – few other blogs can cease posting for several weeks without a sharp decline in visitors. It’s a bonus for bloggers with busy lives who nonetheless want to remain somewhat relevant.

Noteworthy Posts

Special Thanks

Of course, nothing is accomplished in a bubble, and CU was essentially a group effort even when it was a “solo” blog. My thanks go to:

  • Emilia Liz for her tireless participation as blogger, administrative assistant and comment combatant. Her posts have added dimension to the site and provided CU’s readership with a wealth of original material. Thanks as well for minding the site while I was on holiday!
  • Jack for his helpful suggestions, promotion on his hugely-successful site and support. His kind words and input have saved this site from being mothballed.
  • Witchdoctor, NewsJunkie, Blink7, Quadrant Interceptor and Dashmaster for their periodic contributions.
  • Mac, Sandy and B Psycho. My blogging circle. I’ve also had the pleasure of hosting the latter two, and it is exciting to watch from the inside as new sites develop.
  • Shay at Booker Rising for being a first-responder when this site was looking for initial linkers (I’ve since fallen out of favor in that community, but I wish Shay all the best with her future endeavors)
  • The WordPress development team for making setting up blogs so dead-simple.
  • Google. Nuff said?
  • Last but certainly not least I must thank my wife, who not only provided a wealth of high-quality photos for various posts but also endured the ranting and pacing around one encounters when living with a perfectionist. She has the patience of a saint.

The Future

The future is uncertain … and I’d have it no other way. Blogging, like most activities, will continue for as long as I can find a new way to experiment with it. Once there is no opportunity left to try something new, CU will vanish as quickly as it appeared. After all, isn’t it is a sin to waste spare time on the mundane?

19
Jul

Blog Upgrade: Comment Subscription

Cynics Unlimited was just updated with the Subscribe to Comments plugin.  Now readers who submit a comment can check off the box titled “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail”.  A message will be sent to the provided email when another comment is submitted within the same post.

subscribeto.jpg

 This plugin has poven very popular at one of our sister sites and saves the hassle of finding old conversations via the search engine.

14
May

Crux of the Matter

As some of you may be aware, Cynics Unlimited is hosted on a general site called Cynasta.com. While the web space was originally intended for CU, there are several other sites hosted in the same space with a few under consideration.

This week, we welcome Crux of the Matter, a new and improved version of the blogger.com classic. For awhile it looked like Sandy (the blog’s author) was going to leave the blogging game, as she shut down her original site and announced an early retirement. Fortunately, she accepted a guest-writing spot at Jack’s site and later had a change of heart about having her own space. Since Sandy and I are both perfectionists, there will be much tinkering with the template over the next few weeks; however, Crux of the Matter is essentially open for business and you are encouraged to check out her posts. From the site description:

Crux-of-the-Matter is a registered domain and Sandy is the blogger here, as well as a guest writer at Jack’s Newswatch. She is a retired educator and academic, as well as having several years experience as a political writer and strategist while working for an Ontario MPP in the first Mike Harris government. She currently supports the Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario and the Stephen Harper government in Ottawa.

Apart from political writing, Crux of the Matter deals with education and learning disability issues. It is well worth your while to have a look at this welcome source of original material.

Other Cynasta sites:
Cynics Unlimited – Somewhat of my soapbox, but also home to the the meanderings of several diverse people with strong opinions
Psychopolitik – Libertarian blog from an unlikely sourced located down South
Jack’s NewsWatch – News and editorials from an ex-police officer who is not afraid to lay a smack down.

17
Nov

2006 Canadian Blog Awards

It’s that time of year again – time to vote for the best blogs of 2006. The voting timetable is as follows -

Round 1 Voting Closes: Tuesday November 21, 2006
Round 1 Results: Thursday November 23, 2006
Round 2 Voting Opens: Saturday November 25, 2006
Round 2 Voting Closes: Friday December 1, 2006
Round 2 Results: Sunday December 3, 2006 9pm EST

Will Accordian Guy retain the top spot as Canada’s best blog or surrender the title to one of the other high profile blogs like SDA or Warren Kinsella’s page?

It would be nice to see a category for News Aggregating blogs. As a host donor for one such blog, I know they can generate a lot of traffic and gain cult status. Being nominated in even one category would have also been nice, although at least one cynic made the list.

Steve Janke’s blog is even more conspicuous by its absence. It could be an “oversight” … but is more likely attributable to Janke’s ongoing feud with Robert McClelland (owner of the blog awards).

12
Nov

Site Move

Changes coming up within the next 24 hours:

  1. The site is being moved to a new server with a fresh installation of WordPress. There may be some minor disruptions to service within the next 24 hours
  2. A new template will be chosen. Jack was kind enough to point out that the current template with installed plugins renders garbage under Internet Explorer 7, which an unfortunately high number of people will be using within the coming months
  3. New content will actually appear. It’s election time in Toronto – I would like to be one of the first Toronto bloggers to rap the knuckles of fellow Torontonians for re-electing “his blondness” (acknowledgment to Lorrie Goldstein), David Miller.

CUonIE7.jpg
Cynics Unlimited on IE7. Lovely.

Apologies in advance for any inconvenience, though I don’t expect much since the routine of changing servers is becoming rather … routine.

Update: Finally got the permalinks working and I’m back in business. The template still looks a bit ugly in IE7 … so use Firefox! IE doesn’t play by the rules anyway.

19
Aug

A Dark Note from Dr. Dawg

I’m a bit late to discover this (on vacation), but tragedy has struck the household of one of Canada’s most prominent and most thoughtful bloggers -

From Dawg’s Blawg -

I shall be taking my leave from the blogosphere for a period, and may return only sporadically for the foreseeable future. My dear partner Marianne has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is not one of the better ones to have. Every moment with her has become infinitely precious, while the world outside now seems both monstrous and trivial at once.

Dr. Dawg distinguished himself in the Canadian blogosphere by providing measured and intelligent rebuttal to present NeoConservative dogma. While heavily combative in the comments sections of prominent right-leaning sites like Small Dead Animals and Steve Janke, he nonetheless earned the respect of his peers/foes. Dawg’s Blog is often a first stop for those looking for an intelligent “progressive” opinion on current events.

Condolences to Dawg and his partner.




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