Jeff Barr from on web services

Jeff Barr of was in town last week and spoke at the Thursday evening UPHPU meeting. His position at is “Web Services Evangelist” — he spends a lot of time traveling to talk about’s web services.

Web services are “backdoors” to websites. For example, a popular app called Fetch Art lets Mac users download all the album art for their iTunes songs. It uses web services to connect to and look up all the albums. Other popular sites with web services are Google, Yahoo, HotOrNot, and Flickr. A fairly complete list can be found at The point of web services is that web sites and apps can be connected together (sometimes called “remixing”) to provide more interesting and powerful applications.’s web services allow people to make money using Almost 1 million people sell their products on and over 100,000 people earn money by selling Amazon’s products as associates. Jeff pointed out several cool websites that use web services to change or improve or niche the buying experience:

  • TV Mojo — a website by a guy in Logan, UT, that only sells TVs. It uses product information but has a very clean, uncluttered look.
  • ScoutPal — lets you book check prices from your cell phone. For example, if you see a cheap book at D.I. (they’re all cheap) you can find out whether you should buy the book to sell for a profit on
  • liveplasma — shows music recommendations with floating bubbles connected by curvy lines — cool
  • HoneyComb — shows products graphically with different colors and sizes — cool

Jeff also pointed out that microformats are essentially half way between websites [scraping] and full-blown web services. Microformats allow for structured data to be embedded in a web page so it looks the same to a person but can also be interpreted by a computer. For example, you might list your mailing address on your website, and while it would look normal, it could be directly downloaded into someone’s address book program.

Take-away for the layperson: the “new” web — they’re calling it “web 2.0” — combines previously separate services (HotOrNot on a Google Map, or album covers in iTunes) and anyone can do it.


David McCullough on the Founding

When I learned that David McCullough was going to speak at last week’s BYU forum, I marked it on my calendar. He’s the author of 1776, John Adams, and other best-selling history books. (He has even appeared in several movies.) Roommate Cody and I ended up going to the lecture and we both loved it. Mr. McCullough gave an awesome lecture on the founding of the United States and what it means for us today. Phil Windley took notes:

David McCullough at BYU

And it should be here eventually:

BYU Devotional archive


Phil Windley on blogging

Last Monday I went to a lecture on blogging and wikis by Phil Windley. Here are my notes:

  • the internet is like a river and we are like fly fishermen — our experience depends on where we’re standing and what flows by
  • My Yahoo and Personal Google let you customize what information you want to be in front of
  • reading blogs lets you customize your experience
  • bloggers practice the virtuous cycle — they write about what they read, then others write about what they have written — everyone learns — the body of knowledge grows
  • blogs are conversations — you can respond to things you read and then other response to you; comments and trackbacks help with this
  • if you find a blog you’re interested in, that person becomes a human router for you — he or she finds and filters information that’s interesting to you
  • by regularly reading blogs you like, you create your own panel of experts (or “cabinet” or “brain trust”) — you can learn about any topic you want from an expert
  • you can be someone else’s expert
  • if you don’t write about something, you’re probably writing about nothing (not all bad if readers are just your friends)
  • [non-friend] readers want to know what to expect, they want a topic
  • be sure to practice the virtuous cycle — link to others, comment on others’ blogs — they’ll see it
  • centuries ago, journals and letters were for sharing scientific information and other learning — today blogs and wikis allow everyone to share in the learning
  • the old model was to peer review, then publish — the new model is to publish, then peer review
  • everyone can publish (start your own blog!) — and the best stuff floats to the top through services like and digg
  • wikis are collaborative websites, like multi-person blogs
  • Wikipedia, an encyclopedia built on wiki software, is the “best encyclopedia ever” including World Book and Britannica
  • blogs to help hurricane Katrina victims popped up quickly — blogs are great for non-tech uses as well — anytime information needs to be published

On the way out of the lecture, I heard Paul Allen say that he wished even more people had been at the lecture because it represented a “massive shift” in the way we get information. Incidentally, one of Phil Windley’s lectures a couple years ago was what got me started blogging.

Update: Errors in the Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia, why it works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.


Firefox Extensions and Greasemonkey


If you use Firefox, and we all hope you use Firefox, then you should know about Extensions. Firefox Extensions let you add new functionality to Firefox — there are extensions for blocking ads, showing the weather, or checking your Gmail account for new mail. There’s even a Google Toolbar. Web developers will love the swiss-army-knife-of-an-extension from Chris Pederick.

One of the coolest extensions, with awesome potential, is Greasemonkey. Greasemonkey doesn’t do anything by itself, but when loaded with Greasemonkey scripts, it lets you change websites. If you don’t like the colors of a certain website, you can change them. Or you can add a Delete button to Gmail. There’s even a Greasemonkey script that will show you what books are available are your public library when you’re browsing Greasemonkey is Burger King for the Internet — have it your way.

Here’s how I used Greasemonkey this week:

My home page is My Yahoo, which I like because I can customize it with weather, stocks, a Foxtrot comic, movie show times, and TV guide listings. However, the TV guide listings always look so busy — so many channels, so much on TV — it’s not well suited for quick glances.

So I set up a Greasemonkey script that highlights my favorite TV shows. If Seinfeld is on, I can easily see it because it’s highlighted in yellow. I love it.

TV listings on My Yahoo
my yahoo before greasemonkey

TV listings on My Yahoo with Greasemonkey
my yahoo after greasemonkey


Diving Deep

The internet is a big place. Search engines like Google and Yahoo are the best tools we have for knowing what’s out there, but even they don’t capture everything.

A little background: Think of a search engine as an automated browser that clicks on every link it can find and saves every page it can find. Together all the saved pages make an “index”. Google claims to have an index of 8 billion pages, meaning it has saved 8 billion pages from the internet. And it re-saves them every week or two. When you search Google for “iPod earphones”, Google looks in its own index for those terms, then lets you know where the original content was. (So with Google, or any search engine, you’re not really searching the internet but searching a “copy” of the internet. For Google that’s an 8-billion-page copy, but still just a subset of the entire internet.)

While Google claims to index 8 billion pages, Yahoo claims 20 billion pages. Recent news pieces have asked if Yahoo’s larger index makes it a better search engine, but they’ve found that Google gives more relevant results slightly more often, despite having fewer pages in its index. The challenge for them is to add more pages to their indexes without losing efficacy. No search engine comes even close to finding everything on the internet.

For instance, take your local library website. At you can search the Provo library for thousands of books. But type “” into Google (that’s how you see what pages Google has indexed for that “site”) and you won’t find any books — just a couple hundred garbage pages. That means that while Google can help you find the library, it can’t help you find library books (maybe you already noticed).

Another example is the LDS Church‘s “Gospel Library”: at you can browse or search hundreds of volumes of Church magazines and books, but when you type “” into Google, you get just 39 hits. And those 39 aren’t the least bit useful.

Tons of data is inaccessible to search engines because its found on sites like these — real estate listings on MLS websites, legal proceedings on court websites, and job listings on some company websites.

A startup company called Glenbrook Networks is hoping to change this. It is developing a search engine to dive into the “deep web”. I look forward to when Glenbrook or Google will help us find information from these previously unavailable sources. It will mean billions more pages of relevant information available to the world.

In the meantime, websites like the LDS Gospel Library can use “rewrite engines” (for example, Apache’s mod_rewrite) to make themselves more accessible to search engines.