Travel Map theme for Wordpress

A few months back, I spent a few hours putting together a travel map template for Blogger, and mentioned it here. Much to my surprise, people started downloading and using it. Doing a quick search today, I see almost 500 sites running that theme now.

Cool!

So I figured I'd do the same for Wordpress users. Here is a screenshot of the Theme in action:

Travel Blog template for Blogger

As you can see, it's a pretty clean look, with a Map up top that you can customize to show where you've been and where you're going. Try it out and let me know what you think!

Get a free Travel Map theme for Wordpress from Blogabond.com!




Google Adsense Serving Malware?

Last night, I noticed some strange behavior from one of my sites that uses AdSense. In Internet Explorer, the site started asking me to install some plugins from google-adservice.com. Naturally, I declined, but the install message came right back. Eventually I had to kill the process to close the browser.

This morning, I opened the same site in Chrome, and was immediately greeted with this:

"Warning: Visiting this site may harm your computer! The website at oracle-dev.appspot.com contains elements from the site google-adservice.com, which appears to host malware – software that can hurt your computer or otherwise operate without your consent. Just visiting a site that contains malware can infect your computer. For detailed information about the problems with these elements, visit the Google Safe Browsing diagnostic page for google-adservice.com. Learn more about how to protect yourself from harmful software online. I understand that visiting this site may harm my computer. "

My first suspiction was that something else was running on that page and impersonating AdSense, but no. There's only one script include on that page, and it points to pagead2.googlesyndication.com. It seems that somebody has found a way to push out some arbitrary script through AdSense.

I did some digging around to see who else has been having this problem, and what Google was doing about it. Nothing, it seems. In fact, I only found one thread about it. But that one thread is filled with real people that are seeing the same thing.

I suspect this is an actual exploit.

EDIT: Here is another thread discussing the issue.




CloudFront costs compared to S3

A little over a month ago, I did a quick writeup comparing Amazon's CloudFront CDN performance with that of Amazon S3 on its own. The results weren't all that surprising. CloudFront kicked the stuffing out of its older sibling in terms of latency. Just like it was designed to do.

That silly article kicked off quite a bit of discussion, most of which was speculation about how much more expensive CloudFront was when compared with S3 on its own, and how its costs stacked up to other Content Delivery Networks.

Well, keeping in the style of that last article, here is one statistically insignificant datapoint from which I'll draw a conclusion. Namely, my Amazon Web Services bill for two months. The following tables represent the costs of hosting imagery for Blogabond, a medium sized blog hosting platform that sees traffic of around 100,000 unique visitors per month and a little over a million pageviews:

October - Amazon S3 alone

$8.12 Total

December - Amazon S3 + CloudFront:


$6.09 + $6.28 = $12.37 Total

So there you have it: It's a little less than twice as expensive to host the same content on CloudFront as compared to S3 alone. And it's still dirt cheap at twice the price! I don't know about you, but I'm going to stick with it.

DISCLAIMER: This is not intended to be a thorough, or even fair, comparison of every available CDN on the planet. So if you happen to be a sales rep for, say, Akamai, and you've got your feelings all hurt because of this post, please remember that it was not directed at you. I'm sure your thing is really really great, but we're not talking about it here.




CloudFront Performance Numbers

Yesterday, Amazon finally released the Content Delivery Network (CDN) they had been promising for several months. They're calling it CloudFront, and so far it seems to be living up to expectations.

It's dead simple to set up if you're already using S3 to store your content. Both Bucket Explorer and S3fox have already integrated CloudFront support, so you don't even need to write any new code. Just configure a few settings, switch the CNAME records in your DNS, and suddenly your content is serving a lot faster.

How much faster? Lots. Here are my numbers for serving a one pixel .gif file to my development machine here in the North of England (I've given URLs that are guaranteed to point to the right places, even after my CNAME changes propagate):

Amazon S3:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/img.twiddla.com/images/pixel.gif
300ms - 800ms latency, ~0s download time

CloudFront:
https://d2livl246cusvi.cloudfront.net/images/pixel.gif
46ms latency, ~0s download time

S3 performance is all over the map. As expected. Amazon never intended S3 to be used as a direct web host, so it's no surprise that it performs like a big dumb file storage system.

CloudFront, however, is amazingly well tuned. That 46ms time remained constant within 2ms every single time I loaded that file. In other words, CloudFront is so much faster and more consistent that there is simply no reason not to use it for all your S3 content hosting starting today.




How close to Zero Friction is your signup process?

StackOverflow.com just launched this last week, and it looks pretty cool. It seems like it might be our best shot at getting back to the sort of useful discussion that we used to have on the Usenet back in the 90's. Lots of signal, hardly any noise, and even the occasional correct answer. Sign me up!

Uh... wait a sec... I can't sign up.

StackOverflow has made the inexplicable blunder of requiring its users to sign in via OpenID. That means you can't simply pick a username and password, but must instead go away and find yourself an OpenID provider, sign up for that, and bring it back to StackOverflow. It's like 14 steps, depending on which provider you choose. Observe:

StackOverflow

  • Click login
  • Read a ton of instructions
  • Locate and click the "get one" link
  • Dismiss the javascript error popup from openid.net
  • Read a bunch more instructions
  • Find and click the "ClaimID" link (it's the first one on the list of providers)
  • Click "Create a new account"
  • Type in your information
  • Open your email, find their email, click the link
  • Go back to StackOverflow, click login again
  • Paste in that giant URL that is now your OpenID
  • Type in your Username & Password
  • Type in a bunch of Personal Info
  • ... and you're in! Easy as that!

Now, for sake of comparison, let's take a look at the steps required to start using Twiddla (the web meeting playground that we've been working on these last several months here at Expat):

Twiddla


Can you spot the difference?

Look, it's not just me saying this. Talk to any Usability expert you like, and they'll tell you that every barrier that you put in front of your users will cause a certain percentage of them to leave and not come back. For most sites, even stopping to ask for a Username & Password is too intrusive. That's why we built Twiddla the way we did.

Our stated goal with Twiddla is to get the hell out of your way so that you can get some work done. We've taken that idea so far that most of our users will never see a login screen of any description. Some might not ever know they've used Twiddla at all, since we keep our Logo hidden away in the corner where it's not in your way.

Can we say the same about StackOverflow's new registration system? Unfortunately not. For me, it was 10 minutes of grumbling "StackOverflow", "F'ng StackOverflow" under my breath while stumbling through the painful OpenID signup process. Complete usability failure. I can only hope they'll come to their senses and put in a reasonable username/password login like everybody else.




Canvas Rendering Issue in Google Chrome

Pop Quiz. What's wrong with this picture?

Google Chrome misrendering a Canvas element

That's what you'll see if you use Google Chrome to draw a rounded box in a Twiddla meeting today, and it highlights a minor cosmetic issue in Chrome's Canvas rendering engine. Oops.

If you think about how you would draw a rounded box on a canvas (straight line, curve, straight line, curve...), you can quickly see what's going on in that picture. We've told it to "turn right 90 degrees", and it though we meant "270 degrees". Or, in math terms, π/2 vs. -π/2, which is the same as 3π/2, since it ends you up in the same place.

Here is a Test Page that reproduces the Issue. Try it in a few browsers and see it for yourself.

The strange thing here is that Chrome is supposed to be using WebKit's Canvas engine. WebKit runs Safari, and Safari draws that box just fine. Funky.

As far as I'm concerned, Chrome is a great browser. With this one minor exception, it ran Twiddla perfectly right out of the box, which is certainly more than I can say for FireFox 3 (but that's another post...), and it's rendering engine is a bit faster than Safari (but not quite as fast as Internet Explorer. Go figure.)

Keep up the good work!


UPDATE: Google fixed this issue on December 11, 2008. Here'a a link to their bug report on the issue.




Windows Search gets worse!

I have no idea how they pulled it off, but Microsoft has somehow made it even harder to find files on your computer.

I'm already wistful for the good old days, when hitting "Search" from windows explorer would pull up an annoying dialog asking a bunch of stupid questions about what you wanted to search for.

The one thing that old dialog had going for it, and I'm afraid that I never gave it its due credit, is that when you hit the Search button, it would actually, you know, search your hard drive for files.

Well, that's all gone with the new & improved Search dialog. Now, you get a bunch of even stupider questions to look at, but when you hit the Search button it immediately comes up with this:

Nothing found for query "manage.py" because the folder F:\ is not indexed.
Nothing found for query "manage.py" because the folder F:\ is not indexed.

Roughly translated: "I didn't find anything because I didn't actually look."

Now, being a reasonably computer-savvy guy, I figured it should be a simple matter of hitting the "Index this folder" button somewhere on that screen. Uhh... maybe it's in a dropdown someplace... in a menu maybe??? Nope. It's nowhere. To this day, I have no idea where to even look for the tool that might be responsible for indexing that folder. It just became impossible to search for files anywhere except for my C drive.

So here is my advice for anybody on the Microsoft Search team that might be reading this. In the case where your clever little index of "Things on this drive" doesn't know about the file I'm searching for, or maybe if your clever little index doesn't actually know anything about the hard drive in the first place, maybe you should fall back to, you know, searching the hard drive. It would make my life a little easier.

As it is, I'm back to DOS, pulling out commands I haven't used in 15 years. Thanks Microsoft!

UPDATE: LazyWeb™ to the rescue!

This got picked up by Reddit, and 20,000 people have since written comments explaining how to actually convince Windows Search to index new content. Since this page is now the #1 Google result for that annoying message, I figured it might help if I actually explained how to turn indexing on.

You've got three basic choices:

  • Go to My Computer, right click F:\, Properties, check "Allow Indexing Service to index this disk for fast file searching."
  • or, click the text of that helpful error message (not the help icon), which will pop up a help page. Read through the longwinded description of how Indexing works and how it's making your life better, and eventually you'll find some form of link that sends you to a control panel that should let you turn it on. Somehow.
  • or, of cource, the obvious solution that anybody who's not a complete idiot (according to Reddit) would immediately know: Click the Dog!




Travel Map template for Blogger

Blogabond has been growing steadily this year, and one thing that has really taken off is the Travel Map Widget that lets you embed an itinerary map into your blog.

At first, it might seem strange that a blogging site like Blogabond should offer tools to help people blogging elsewhere. After all, why not just force people to migrate their stuff over to Blogabond if they want to get a little map up on top of their blog?

But there's the rub. Forcing people to do things is BAD. People hate being told what to do. In this case, they've got a perfectly good blog going already, thank you very much, and all they want is a stinking map to put on it. Personally, I'll take a little goodwill over a new user any day, so it makes a lot of sense to just give these little freebies away.

In that spirit, you can now download an entire Blogger template that will give you the best of all possible worlds. Here's what it will look like if you install it on your blog:

Travel Blog template for Blogger

So yeah, go nuts and try it out for yourself.

Get a free Travel Map template for Blogger from Blogabond.com!




The One Rule of DHTML Programming

I just don't get it.

How can so many smart people be so collectively bad at something as simple as Javascript on a web page?

It's just not that hard. And yet, not an hour goes by when I'm not stopped in my tracks by at least one javascript error. And it's especially sad because many of these errors are coming from well known sites, with huge development budgets and plenty of good talent that really should know better. Observe:

That was just a ten minute sample of browsing today.

The One Rule of DHTML Programming

Look, it's not that hard to do this stuff right. In fact, here is everything you'll ever need to know about Dynamic HTML Programming with Javascript:

Test EVERYTHING before you reference it.

That's it. Simple. Every little scrap of code you write needs to live inside its own little IF block that tests to make sure that the things it's expecting to interact with really exist. Here's how:

BAD:
gbN2Loaded.style.display='none';
Good:
if (window.gbN2Loaded)
{
  gbN2Loaded.style.display='none';
}
BAD:
document.getElementById('myDiv').innerHTML
     = 'stuff';
Good:
if (document.getElementById('myDiv'))
{
  document.getElementById('myDiv').innerHTML
       = 'stuff';
}

I don't care that Google's API Reference told you to put <body onunload='GUnload()'> into all your pages. That's just example code, and it's not intended to be used in the real world.

Real World Javascript will need to survive in dozens of strange browser environments that do things in strange unexpected ways, and as soon as you get it working right, Junior Dev Jimmy will accidently include it on every single page on your site and suddenly it won't be able to find the things it needs to live. When that happens, it needs to quietly stop trying to do stuff instead of throwing error messages all over the place.

What you need to do about it

Ok, cool, you've fixed everything, but you're not done yet. There's one more thing you need to do right this second. You need to turn on those annoying Script Error popups in both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and you need to keep them on from here on out. Don't just do it for your own machine, but for every computer owned by every employee of your company.

Yes, I know that you turned them off on purpose because they make the internet basically unsurfable, but most casual users of your site will have them on by default. That means that most casual users will see every single little script error that your site throws at them, and they won't like it. Those errors are pissing off real people right this minute, and you need to know about it. If you arrange it so that they start pissing off you and your co-workers too, you just might find the incentive to get rid of them once and for all.




Laid off? The one thing you absolutely need to do on the first day

You're in IT, right? So chances are you've been laid off at least once from some crappy company and it's going to happen again. Here is my one piece of advice to you. The single most important thing to do as soon as you make it back to your house with that box full of stuff:

Book a flight

Seriously. Do it now, before the initial shock wears off and that logical side of your brain starts coming up with lame excuses. You will never have a better chance to get out and see the world than right now. You have a pile of saving and a severance package. You've got 6 months to a year before your skills start getting rusty. There is absolutely no reason to start looking for work immediately, and every reason to take that round-the-world trip you've always dreamed about. Right. Now.

Trust me, your career will be just fine.

Where to go

This is the easiest question to answer: Bangkok. Seriously, the mere fact that you had to ask the question indicates that you're probably not a seasoned traveler and therefore should be going to Thailand first. I know you always wanted to do Europe, but it's crazy expensive and frankly, it's just not relaxed enough for you right now. You're going to need some serious chilling to recover from a layoff. Southeast Asia has that in Spades.

Make your way to Khao San Road, find a room, grab a Beer Chang and talk to a few other travelers. Your trip will plan itself from there.

Where to go if it's May

Ok, one modification to the above. Thailand is thoroughly uninhabitable for a few months between May and July. In that case, you're going to Africa. Book a flight to Cape Town instead. Follow this itinerary up through Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. Everybody there speaks English and you can get a room for $0.75. You'll do fine.

How long to go for

You're going to want to stay gone for 6-9 months. Less than that and it you'll be kicking yourself for not leaving enough time, and you'll be rushing through entire countries just to keep up with your itinerary. I know that this seems silly now, but somewhere along the way somebody will ask how long you've been in Vietnam for and you'll answer "Only one month." Timescales work differently on the road.

In my experience (did I mention that I take about 9 months vacation a year and spend most of that traveling in the developing world?), I tend to start missing work after about 6 months away. By 9 months, I'm pretty much ready to commit to a real job in a real office just so that I can start using my brain again. Talking to other software guys on the road, it seems that this is pretty common. You're going to want to come back eventually, so be sure to keep a few good contacts back home.

Regardless of how long you plan to be gone, try to book your flight one-way. It will give you unlimited flexibility with your travel plans and let you pick your return date later when you know what you actually want to do. As a last resort, pick the return date furthest in the future, since it's a lot easier to move it forward than to push it back.

How much will it cost?

I budget about $1,000 a month when I'm traveling in Southeast Asia, Central America, Africa or the Middle East. I seldom go through that much if I'm sticking to ground transport, but over the course of a year if you consider flights into the calculations, $1,000 a month is about right. Stay away from the developed world at all costs though, or you'll quickly triple that figure!

How do I get another job when I get back?

The nice thing about a 6 month timeframe is that it gives all of your ex-coworkers time to entrench themselves in other hopeless software companies. Email them and notice how everything around them seems to be on fire. They need you to start tomorrow. Line up a good offer based on one of their recommendations and book a flight home.

Three Lame Excuses and why they're not valid:

But I don't have any money saved...

You can't possibly be serious. Are you saying that you've been working in IT for all these years and haven't put away a lousy ten grand??? Shame on you. Get a book on life skills and open a bank account fer cryin' out loud.

But nobody will hire me after six months away...

Not true. Nobody will hire you if you're bad at what you do and have terrible interviewing skills. Those things won't change over the course of six months, but you might possibly wind up more relaxed (and with some good stories to tell) and that's actually a benefit when it comes to interviewing.

Regardless of what you may have heard, skilled developers are very hard to find. If you fit that category, there's very little that you can do to poison your resume. Certainly, heading off on your once-in-a-lifetime trip won't leave you unemployable.

But I'm married with a family and a house...

Ok, you win. You're screwed, but that's the life you chose for yourself so you're going to have to live it. It's worth noting, however, that most Europeans wouldn't consider that a reason not to travel. Right this second, there is a German couple pushing a stroller down a remote beach in Thailand, and they're not going home for another month. What's your excuse again?

Why you're not actually going to do it

When you get right down to it, you'll probably find a way to talk yourself out of taking that dream trip. You'll come up with some pretty believable excuses, but really it will come down to the fact that you're scared.

That's cool. Travel is pretty scary when you look at it from the outside. But here's the thing. It stops being scary the moment your feet hit the pavement on Khao San Road in Bangkok. You're going to get blasted by 100 degree heat, power-wafted by smells of the most amazing street food one minute and an open sewer the next, assaulted with music from a thousand bars, and crammed into a tiny room overlooking it all with a fan that doesn't work. And you won't be able to wipe the silly grin off your face.

Book the flight today, because every day you delay it is one more day wasted on the couch, and one more day to come up with lame excuses for why you shouldn't go.

It is all good here. Get your ass on a plane.



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Jason Kester
@jasonkester

I run a little company called Expat Software. Right now, the most interesting things we're doing are related to Cloud Storage Analytics, Online Classrooms, and Customer Lifecycle Metrics for SaaS Businesses. I'll leave it to you to figure out how those things tie together.


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