Archives » April, 2004

April 30, 2004

Spam spam spam

What a coincidence. Just when I’ve been fighting with a new spam filter at my office, I run across this article about the duty to your users.

The problem with any Bayesian filter is that it starts out extraordinarily dumb. It isn’t until it’s been properly trained over a period of time that it starts to reach the 99.5% accuracy that the vendors always brag about. I knew this, and I installed the filter fully expecting plenty of false positives and negatives the first week.

The problem was that it wasn’t just running on my computer. This was our new server-based solution, running on our brand new Exchange 2003 computer, filtering everybody’s e-mail. So I warned everybody right off that good messages might end up in the Junk folder for the first couple of weeks. But still, within a couple of days, I started getting complaints from around the office that their e-mails were getting marked as junk. Some of the people asked me to go so far as to turn the filter off. I’ve had to reassure everyone three or four times now that this is just a temporary solution, that the filter will get much better very soon. Still, I can start to feel public opinion turning against the idea of a spam filter, since their first experience with one isn’t turning out to be very positive.

Now, I’m not going to be shutting down the filter. I’m confident that it will get better soon, especially now that I solved the problem that was stopping me from training it manually. And there are only 50 people in the office, so we’re all like a little family. I think I can convince everyone to stick it out for a little while, and they can have patience without storming my office with pitchforks. I’m not sure how you’d handle something like this in a larger organization, though. If you have 50 users, and 10 percent of them are fed up with the new filters, that can be handled though a little personal diplomacy. But what if you have 1,000 users, or 10,000? That ten percent figure starts to become a group with some real power, and if you can’t convince them to be patient, where does that leave you and your new spam filter?

The article brings up some good points about the duty to the users, how it’s the IT department’s responsibility to make sure everyone gets all their e-mails. And I definitely agree with them that the best approach is to filter into a separate “Junk E-mail” folder—not send all spams into a black hole. And I know I can’t ask my coworkers to be patient for too long. We’ve had the filter for one week now; if after another week it’s still junking good messages, I’ll get rid of the program. That’s the advantage to trial periods for software!

Rebate mess

Ed Foster dives deep into rebates, and finds out why it’s in the rebate companies’ best interest not to send you the rebate. I try to avoid it by not shopping at places that need rebates. Most online shopping gives you a straight price, as does Office Depot. We have our shiny new Best Buy here in town, but it seems like every single item they sell has some kind of rebate attached, so I never go there.

Burger Invasion

In-N-Out logo The news came down yesterday that In-N-Out Burger has broken ground on their first store in Reno. This? Is an extraordinarily good thing. It’s one of three planned for the area, another one of which will only be a few miles from my house. The Reno one will open first, but oh well. Let them get the crowds. Of course, when the Del Taco opened in Carson City, you had to wait half an hour to get a burrito. I don’t even want to imagine the crowds that are going to swarm In-N-Out when it opens.

April 25, 2004

Windows 2003 won’t shut down

I’ve been working with Windows 2003 and Exchange 2003 all weekend, so I guess I better toss out a tip about what I’ve learned.

If you have Exchange 2003 running on a Windows 2003 computer, especially one that is a domain controller, the computer may never shut down. Well, it will shut down eventually, but it could be ten or twenty minutes. Personally I never had the patience to wait for it, and just did a hard power off.

I’e heard a couple of reasons for why it sits there so long shutting down. One is that LDAP gets shut down before Exchange, and then Exchange hangs searching for LDAP. That puts it into an endless loop until the system gets tired of it and stops the services. Another explanation is that the ten-minute wait is built into Windows, and it will sit there whether it needs to or not. This is because it doesn’t want to accidentally kill Exchange while Exchange is still cleaning house.

Each one of those theories has its own solution. One thing to do is to manually stop Exchange before you shut down. That way you know how long Exchange is taking and when it’s done. This can be done manually, or scripted. The other way is to adjust the wait period that Windows has built it. It’s set for ten minutes, but by editing the registry you can change it to anything you want.

I did both of those just for good measure, and now my server shuts down in about 45 seconds. Much much better.

April 20, 2004

Netscape risen from the dead

The latest news (from CNET and IDG) is that AOL is going to bring the Netscape brand back to life after killing it last summer.

We are treating Netscape as a “restart”, with a mandate and a budget to take Netscape in a dramatically different direction.

The Netscape name was never completely dead, with still kicking as a news and entertainment portal, and the launch of Netscape Internet Service in January. But now they’re bringing back the browser, version 7.2, as well as the Desktop Navigator search thingy.

I think it’s too late for Netscape to have any kind of serious comeback, but you can never tell. We’ll have to see what turns out.

April 16, 2004


For a couple of years now I’ve been reading Television Without Pity, a site which mercilessly skewers TV shows through in-depth scene by scene reviews (“recaps”). They ridicule the bad, and in rare cases, applaud the good. It’s also a good way to catch up on an episode you missed, or one from a couple of years ago that you’ve forgotten.

Last week I finally came across a site that does the same for movies. The Agony Booth, “an ongoing inquisition into some of the worst movies humanity has to offer”. Now, there’s no shortage of websites about bad movies out there. The number has got to be in the thousands. But the Agony Booth seems to be unique in adopting the TWoP style: tearing the movie apart in a scene-by-scene, sometimes even line-by-line, recap that stretches out to a dozen or more pages. The recaps take almost as long to read as the movies do to watch. And while a lot of bad movie sites only seem to go after B movies from an era long ago, Agony Booth is not afraid to take on modern big-budget stinkers like Armageddon and Batman & Robin. In fact, Armageddon was so bad, one person couldn’t stomach the task of recapping it. It took a team of writers, each tackling fifteen minutes and then passing it off, to get through that movie.

While the writing style on Agony Booth was obviously influenced by TWoP, their repertoire owes a great deal to Mystery Science Theater 3000. After all, if MST3K hadn’t riffed on Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, would any of us have ever again been subjected to the horrors of Raul Julia doing voice overs for a baboon? I think not. And the site does go after the classics, like Terror from the Year 5000 and “Manos” The Hands of Fate. In all, a rather well-blended mix of cinema throughout the years.

The site isn’t updated often enough to make it a daily visit, although it’s going to take me weeks to catch up with all the recaps already there. But from the looks of the twice-monthly schedule he’s been keeping this year, we should be due for another posting any day now. Can’t wait!

April 13, 2004

Enter the Matrix

We used to have a Ford. It was a used Contour, six years old when we bought it, over 70,000 miles. During the first year we had it, it ran fine. One day we made the mistake of thinking we could drive over the mountains with it, and on the return trip the automatic transmission started jolting in the shift from first to second. I thought maybe it was just overworked and need the night to cool off. But it didn’t. It was a permanent problem. We took it into the shop, which began an eight-month odyssey of repairs that resulted in a new transmission and two new torque converters being put in. That right there convinced us of the value of an extended warranty.

Anyway, ever since then we’ve hated that Ford. We would have driven it off a cliff if it didn’t have a little value to it. The Check Engine light was still on and the transmission still had occasional fits. There was no way we were ever driving that car out of state. We knew it had to go. So we decided to trade it in. But for what?

Since we’re both working now, we figured a brand new car was within our reach. A used one under 5,000 miles would be even better, but those are a little harder to come by. We started our search with one core idea: no more Fords. From there we narrowed it down a little, took our new family addition into account, thought about what cars out there really made us salivate, and in the end realized there was only one car we could be happy with. So we bought it.

This is our new beast, the 2004 Toyota Matrix. First of all, it’s a Toyota, so it has a life expectancy of about 300,000 miles over your standard Ford. Also, it’s a station wagon/extended hatchback/“crossover utility” type vehicle, giving us a lot more room for taking a mountain of baby supplies on vacation. And third, it’s just damn spiffy. We’ve been in love with this car ever since it came on the market, and once we realized it was in our price range, we knew there was no turning back. My love affair with the Mini Cooper still holds, but the Matrix was always second on my list. And since we were looking for a family car, the Mini unfortunately had to take a back seat.

There’s something exciting about owning a new car. Sure, you know it’s worth about $3,000 less than it was last week. And you have to be careful how you drive it during the break-in period. But knowing that this car went in a straight line from the factory to the lot to your driveway gives you a special connection to it. You don’t have to worry about what the previous owners did to it, what surprises you might find hiding under the seat or in the deep recesses of the trunk. You only have to worry what folks did to it during the test drives. This is your car. Not a cast-off, not somebody else’s reject, but all yours. For the amount of money you’re spending, you better get that special feeling.

So now we’re really living life. The new car smell is still so strong that it stays in your clothes after you get out. We’re taking a road trip this weekend just because we haven’t been able to for so long. And, most amazingly, our baby, who hated going anywhere in the Ford, loves this car. Even at seven months, we can tell he has exquisite taste.

April 2, 2004

Parking in the future

Read this article, look at the picture and visit the site. And think about how great it is to be living in the future.

April 1, 2004

A CMS doesn’t replace an editor

Jeffrey Veen—Why Content Management Fails:

Over and over I’ve heard the same complaint about these projects, “Turns out, after all the budget and time we spent, we really didn’t need a content management system at all. We just needed some editors.”

Put editors in charge. You need an editorial staff in place to make the content on your site as interesting and consistent as it can be.

Set up a process something like this: An editor manages all content on the site. Give that editor a staff of writers to send out into your business units. These writers act like reporters in the field, working on stories that they submit to a copy desk.

In my company I’m the editor. That’s probably going against Jeff’s advice; his essay does go on to say that this shouldn’t be an IT responsbility. But when there are only fifty employees, everybody has to wear several hats. And since I’m the one who’s done the most study on writing and marketing for the web, I put on my editor/publisher hat whenever I dive into the web site. Also with such a small company, I don’t have a “staff of writers” at my beck and call. So what it usually boils down to is repurposing material that the marketing department is pumping out. Either that or twisting the arms of the project staff to get them to write about what they’re working on. And everybody here lives in MS Word, so that’s what I always get sent. Even if it’s just a single photo, they’ll create a Word document and insert the picture and send it to me. I then have to needle them and track down the original JPG.

But doing Word-to-HTML conversions is all code monkey stuff. Mostly what I have to do is clean up what they’ve written and make it suitable for our website. Everyone is entrenched in the mindset of creating stand-alone documents. So everything I get, everything that’s supposedly meant to be part of a larger whole, always starts out with “RCI is a multidisciplinary consulting firm…” and “Since 1978 we have…” Well, all that mumbo jumbo is the first thing on our homepage. We don’t need to repeat it on every page. So, every time, I have to strip it out. Sometimes I’m lucky and the author’s just copied and pasted a whole paragraph verbatim. Then I can just highlight and delete. But sometimes I’ll get a document where all the introductory blah-blahs about the company have been woven in with the details about a specific area of expertise. And then I’m faced with the chore of extricating the good stuff, the stuff our audience hasn’t heard before, from the basic “What is RCI?” info. After that’s done there are usually more editing tasks to polish up the writing, and then of course digging into the HTML for formatting. The result is a website that looks coherent and focused, rather than being a jumble of unrelated documents.

So editors are crucial for a website. It’s perfectly fine to have employees from each of the departments be your writers; I usually request that somebody involved with the project does all the writeups, because they have the insider information that I don’t have access to. But letting what they’ve written go on the site, unedited, is a recipe for a disjointed site. Jeff isn’t attacking CMSs in general, he’s attacking the process where companies think implementing some kind of distributed publishing system makes the need for centralized editorial control obsolete. Jeff’s giving a one-day seminar on just that topic May 20th in Chicago. Probably going to be good stuff.