Friday, May 25, 2007

Captcha (n.)

You know what a captcha is, right? Sure you do. You know -- those annoying little "tests" on websites where you to type the wacky image text into a form box to prove that you're actually a human being and not a computer.*

Yeah, they bug the hell out of me too.

Well, the folks over at Carnegie Mellon University have done a very smart thing. See, they've tied the text used in those captcha images with a large database of digitized, but not transcribed, books. When a book is electronically scanned, the character recognition software is usually enough to transcribe 90% of what's there into the correct computer text. The other 10%, though, has to be done by humans, who are smart enough to parse the visual part of the text, even when it's slightly blurry, or has lines drawn through it, or whatever.

With the marriage of this slightly illegible text and the constant need for new captchas for website verifications, the Carnegie Mellon group have released "reCAPTCHA" as a web service so that websites can take advantage of the idea (for free!) and all of us poor human users who have to use captchas to log on or sign up will actually be contributing to the digitization of human knowledge via this effort.

Next time you're filling in one of those de-humanizing "human" tests on a website, make sure the site is using the reCAPTCHA system. If they are, you can feel good that once again, you're better than a machine.

* CAPTCHA is actually an acronym for "Completely Automatic Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart". See? The 3'oclock blog isn't just about fun, it's also about learning.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hey Developer: they're MY documents, not yours

A bit of a rant today, I'm afraid.

I've never been a huge fan of how Windows organizes a User's programs and files. The move to "My Documents" and "Program Files" in Windows 95 (if I recall correctly) made things probably worse than in the Windows 3.1 and DOS days. Now we found ourselves subject to programs installing into "C:\Progra~1\Micros~1\" and user files winding up inside a hodgepodge of folders like "C:\Documen~1\Steve~1\Access~1\" and so forth.

Vista has made things a little tidier. Users are still given an individual "home" folder, but it's in a more reasonable place: C:\Users\Steve -- no more spaces in the filenames. However, they're still using the poorly named "C:\Program Files\" folder as a destination for program installs. Why, oh why, can't we just have a "C:\Programs\" directory instead?!?! It's less than 8 characters, and there's no spaces. It would eliminate all the "~1" garbage now and forever.

Honestly, though, I'm digressing. The point of this post is that I took a close look in my "My Documents" folder today, and I was just disgusted to see how many other applications feel that they have the right to install their related files into MY documents folder, without so much as a by your leave. 10 different applications had all dumped settings and output files into my home location!

A few points for every application developer to take note:
  1. Settings for your application should go into an appropriately labeled sub-folder under the User's "Application Data" folder, not into this documents folder, where a User can easily change and/or delete your application's settings.
  2. If an application needs a spot for temporarily downloading files (for updates or whatever), this is NOT the place for that. Use one of Windows' myriad of temp directories, or create your own under the User's base (C:\Documents and Settings\\) directory. And for the love of all that is sweet and good -- if you absolutely, positively have to, have to, have to, create a temporary folder here -- CLEAN IT UP WHEN YOU'RE DONE!! I have no need to see the ugliness of your update system's directories and files, especially in amongst my personal documents! Augh!
  3. If you have any sort of graphical installer -- and this is Windows, so 99% of you do -- during the install, make sure to ask the user where they want to install the program. Sure, having a "Program Files" folder preset as a default is great, and some folks will be fine to just hit the "Next" button, but be sure to include an option for users that don't like to default to the C: drive, or who use a separate "Programs" folder. And make sure your application knows how to deal with this scenario. It's no good asking for user input if you're just going to ignore it.
  4. Also ask the user where in the Start Menu they want to have your shortcuts. I cannot stand Start Menus that spew out to multiple columns. I have my own organization, and I ask that you respect it.
  5. If you do require a place for user specific settings and update temp files to live, provide an Options panel choice so the user can pick where to put these files. Don't leave the location option specified in a lonely .ini file somewhere, and the only place that option is documented is in the .ini file itself. Likely the average user won't be bothered to change it, provided your location makes sense, but it's a great feature to have for the advanced user.
Anyway, I'm off to get my delete key out for these morons who don't respect my computer, and won't leave my documents alone.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Smart DB2 searches

As a follow up to my earlier post about using keyword searches in Firefox, it's simple to run searches of the DB2 documentation, straight from your Firefox address bar:
  1. Create a new bookmark. Select "Organize Bookmarks" from your Bookmarks menu, then click "New Bookmark..."
  2. In the Properties for the new bookmark, fill out the fields as follows:
    Name: DB2 Quick Search
    Keyword: db2
    Description: DB2 Information Center Quick Search
  3. Click OK
Now you can run all your DB2 documentation searches from the Firefox address bar by simply typing db2 in the address bar (e.g. "db2 db2look")

Firefox Keywords

A quick tip today -- get rid of the Firefox search bar. I came across this site that explains the concept of smart keyword searches in Firefox. This lets you move all the search functionality of the search bar into simple search keywords.

It's as easy as adding a new bookmark to the search portion of your desired site and assigning a short keyword.

(image from

Then, instead of typing the search query into your Firefox search bar, you just type the keyword, followed by the search query into your address bar. In this example, it would be "g widgets", which takes us to:

More importantly, any site that has a search field can be added as a new keyword. Just right-click in the search text area, and select the "Add a keyword for this Search ..." option.

Once you've replaced all the search bar choices, you can remove it by right clicking any toolbar and then select the "Customize ..." option. Drag off the search bar, and you've saved yourself some toolbar space, as well as sped up your searching.

Very, very handy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pandora loses the Great White North

For a long while, I've used Pandora to get my music fix. I have a weighty iTunes library for sure, but sometimes iTunes is too much of a pain to manage and tough set a good mix of what I feel like at that moment. That's where Pandora came in. The basic idea was that you set up a "radio station" by listing a few songs or artists that fit what you're looking for, then Pandora searches for and plays similar music in that area. You then help out by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the song they suggested. For example, I had a "Rock ON" station that was primarily for 80's hard rock, a "U2 Radio" that was for 90's and 00's medium rock, and a "Cream Station" for 70's prog rock. My Pandora site bookmark even reached the coveted "Bookmarks Toolbar Folder" status on my systems.

But last night, I received this email from Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora and the Music Genome Project:
Dear Pandora listener,

Today we have some extremely disappointing news to share with you. Due to international licensing constraints, we are deeply, deeply sorry to say that we must begin proactively preventing access to Pandora's streaming service from Canada. We began blocking access from almost all countries outside the U.S. last week and had originally hoped to maintain access to Canada. However, it has become clear in the last week that we just haven't been able to make enough progress to continue streaming.

It is difficult to convey just how disappointing this is for us. Our vision remains to eventually make Pandora a truly global service, but for the time being, we can no longer continue as we have been. As a small company, the best chance we have of realizing our dream of Pandora all around the world is to grow as the licensing landscape allows.

Delivery of Pandora is based on proper licensing from the people who created the music - we have always believed in honoring the guidelines as determined by legislators and regulators, artists and songwriters, and the labels and publishers they work with. In the U.S. there is a federal statute that provides this license for all the music streamed on Pandora. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent license outside the U.S. and there is no global licensing organization to enable any webcaster to legitimately offer its service around the world. The volume of listening on Pandora makes it a very expensive service to run. Streaming costs are very high, and since our inception, we have been making publishing and performance royalty payments for every song we play.

Until last week, we have not been able to tell where a listener is based, relying only on zip code information provided upon registration. We are now able to recognize a listener's country of origin based on the IP address from which they are accessing the service. Consequently, on May 16th, we will begin blocking access to Pandora to listeners from Canada. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We will be posting updates on our blog regarding our ongoing effort to launch in other countries, so please stay in touch. We will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you. We deeply share your sense of disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.
-Tim Westergren
(Pandora founder)
I've had email exchanges with Tim a couple of times before -- I'm always impressed when founders and C-level execs of companies take the time to respond to customers/users. I'm very disappointed to lose Pandora, and I'll put a candle in the window for its return.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Joost: The Verdict

I'd love to tell you that Joost was the coolest thing I've seen come down the pike, and that it will revolutionize television/internet convergence, but that just ain't the case, babe.

I tried running Joost about 10 times, but every time I started the software, my CPU went straight to 100%, and when I did get any video, it was blocky and skippy. I couldn't understand the interface icons, or even how to pick a show. My searches found nothing. The GUI takes over the entire computer screen, including the Windows bar, without asking, or without an easily found minimize option.

Maybe the blocky viewing was my pipe -- I only have a 2 MB/s line into the house, but even still, YouTube and other video clips show fine.I tried rebooting, I tried shut down everything else running on the system, but I couldn't get any real improvement.

Joost is still just in beta release, but as Google has shown, these days, if you're in beta, you'd better be just about ready for prime time.

And Joost is anything but prime time.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Joost: Pt. 2

I was able to get a Joost invite here:

I'll take a look and let you know what I think.


My ever intrepid reader, DS -- who frankly seems to be my only reader -- put up a suggestion at the 3'oclock blog's site that I should blog about Joost. Joost is the cool new internet-based TV killer app that's been put together by the guys who made Skype a reality.

[Sidebar: if you made freaking millions off of one idea, and honestly never had to work another day in your life, would you really go back to it? Wouldn't you want to go out and experience life outside of your current world? I guess if it really is what you love, then leaving it would be bad. I'd be soaking up the sun on a yacht in the Caribbean faster than you can say "department re-org".]

There's only one problem -- Joost is currently only in a "friends-only" beta stage, which means you have to have an invite from Joost to join. But I don't have an invite.


(stay tuned)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Software the bad: Microsoft Vista Ultimate

I love computer eye candy. Love it. Show me a slick juicy icon or desktop wallpaper, or a cool windowing function and I'm all over it.

That's why I had such hopes for Vista. It looks really cool (provided your system can run the full Aero glass GUI).

I went so far as to get an extra hard drive from work (remember this post? -- usually hard drives aplenty, but not for my laptop), so that I could install Vista and get the full effects of a dedicated install, but without trashing my current work system. I installed and toyed around with Vista a bit during my parental leave, but never got serious about installing my full software "environment" that I use on a day to day basis.

Cut to this week -- I'm growing seriously annoyed and bored with my T60 Thinkpad. Windows XP even crashed on me (only the second or third time it's ever done that) and frankly, I'm ready for a change of pace and some new eye candy. I pulled out the Vista drive and swapped it for my XP drive.

First thing I always need on my work computers is virtual private network (VPN) software to connect to work. Without that VPN tunnel to work, installing half of the software I need is either impossible, or really time consuming. So I put the Cisco VPN software on, only to have it fail multiple times, telling me that the service needed to be restarted each time. I Googled the problem, and Cisco says to try their new beta version. Great, beta software for one of my primary applications. OK, fine. It installed, but the connections seem really really slow.

So now I'm connected, the next thing is to install the corporate anti-virus. Only Symantec still haven't worked out how to get their enterprise client to work properly on Vista. Hey, Symantec, Vista's been out for over 6 months and your flagship product doesn't work on it -- get working, numskulls.

By now I've basically given up -- without a reliable connection to work and proper virus protection, this dog just won't hunt. On top of that, my D-link DNS-323 Network Attached Storage device gets recognized on the network, but I keep getting told to install the drivers for it, and the password keeps getting refused. But D-Link doesn't seem to have Vista drivers on its website; and thus I can't log on to my storage device, where all the rest of my software application installers are kept.

Forget this. Vista may be pretty, and the new games are indeed cool, but until the driver issues are fixed, and Vista becomes the mainstream application, I'm going to have to stick with XP (sigh) for the foreseeable future. My Vista installation will just be an occasional plaything.

Unless I figure out a way to buy a MacBook Pro once Leopard comes out in the fall. ;-)

Software the good: DB2 Express-C

As some of you may know, I spend my working days pushing bits and bytes for the man at IBM. I primarily work on a database software product called DB2, specifically the free version, DB2 Express-C. This week we made a big announcement -- you can now pay for it!

"Uhh....what?" you ask. "Why would I pay for something that's free?"

Ok, that's a good question. The answer is that DB2 Express-C is still as free as before. But now you have the option of purchasing a 12-month support contract, so as they say, you have someone to choke when things go wrong. Database not agreeing with your OS? Call IBM support. DB2 throwing an error that you can't track down on google? Call IBM support.

And to make things even sweeter, with the purchase of the support contract, we throw in licenses to allow you to use DB2 in an HADR configuration, and to work as a database replication server. Trust me, if you know what those things are, you'd be excited by now.

Anyway, come on down and visit us at Jed's discount database emporium, and we'll set you up right. Tell 'em Ian sent ya.