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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 del.icio.us 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.

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Firefox Extensions and Greasemonkey

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 Amazon.com. 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

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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 pac.provo.lib.ut.us you can search the Provo library for thousands of books. But type “site:pac.provo.lib.ut.us” 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 library.lds.org you can browse or search hundreds of volumes of Church magazines and books, but when you type “site:library.lds.org” 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.

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Alan Miller, Illustrator

I just wanted to point out a newspaper article that ran yesterday about my brother Alan. When he was 15, he illustrated a coloring book for the neighborhood where we live. Then the last time we were home in Las Vegas (a couple of weeks ago) they did a follow-up interview:

Alan Miller illustrated a coloring book about the life of Summerlin Sam, the jackrabbit mascot of the Summerlin community, nearly a decade ago. At the time, Miller was a 15-year-old student at Cimarron-Memorial High School. These days, he attends Brigham Young University. (Source: Illustrator visits Summerlin)

These days Alan keeps some of his art on his portfolio website, Ashman Art. He has also started a website of original Star Wars comics, with other projects on the way.

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My open letter to Google

Dear Larry Page, Sergey Brin & Co.,

I am a huge Google/Gmail/GoogleMaps/GoogleSMS fan and a web developer. If rumors are true about your developing a merchant system to compete with PayPal Pro services, I will be excited to use it.

However, after seeing an open letter from pornographer Sam Sugar to Google. I must express my concerns with a Google payment system supporting the adult industry. Contrary to Mr. Sugar’s rhetoric, support the adult/porn industry is the wrong thing to do. It goes against Google’s mantra of doing no evil. Pornography is a filthy tar in our society; common maybe, but definitely the stuff of back alleys and less-reputable companies. Don’t let pornography tarnish the Google name. I personally would avoid and discredit a Google payment system if it were to support the porn industry. PayPal, who has chosen to avoid the financially and morally risky adult industry, is the baseline. If Google does at least this much, I have no doubts that the Google payment system will be the best in the world.

Richard K Miller

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