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.


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.

Main Pornography

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



Do-It-Yourself IT

Last week I listened to an IT Conversations podcast with Doc Searls. Doc Searls is a prominent technologist and has one of the most visited blogs on the Internet. He’s also the co-author of a popular book called The Cluetrain Manifesto. The interview with him was interesting.

One of his recent campaigns is “Do-it-Yourself IT (Information Technology)” or “DIY-IT”. The idea is that with open-source software, you can build whatever solution you need because all the pieces are commodities.

For the uninitiated, the largest division of any kind in the software industry is between the camps of “open-source” software and proprietary software. For example, Apache is an open-source web server; Linux is an open-source operating system. Conversely, Microsoft IIS is a proprietary web server; Microsoft Windows is a proprietary operating system. As you can tell, proprietary software is the kind backed by large companies and heavily marketed. On the other hand, you may have never heard of Apache or Linux, or of “open source” in general; open-source software is the kind developed by informal groups of programmers in an ad-hoc manner. Proprietary software is built from the top down in a hierarchical manner, while open-source software is built in a grassroots manner.

Returning to the interview, Doc Searls says that open-source software is particularly well suited to become a commodity; it can be mixed and matched in pieces because it is not controlled by a single company and is usually free. Kind of like Lincoln logs. Contrast that with Microsoft’s philosophy of trying to provide every solution you might ever need (as best they can imagine) and charging you for every piece. Kind of like Lego. Legos may be more flashy and fun than Lincoln logs, but if you don’t have the piece you need, you have to buy it at a premium, or do without. And don’t try to get the piece from a competitor; Lego insists that you not use interlocking blocks from anyone but them.

As Doc Searls put it, in the home construction industry we never talk about building a “Home Depot” house or a “Sears” house. We simply get lumber, nails, and whatever pieces are necessary to do the job, from the store that is most convenient or has the best price. Doc envisions a time when Information Technology will go that way.

During the interview, the host Doug Kaye commented that open-source software usually comes into organizations through the backdoor — through IT employees or users, not generally through management. That has been the case at the medical office where I have worked as IT manager. While business or trade magazines they might read are full of Microsoft ads, almost no one there had heard of Mozilla Firefox. I switched several of our computers from Internet Explorer to Firefox, hoping to avoid plagues of spyware that are so easy to contract when you browse with Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, there’s always some aversion to trying something new, and some of the other software we use, like our punch-card software, requires Internet Explorer. Notwithstanding, I’ll keep pushing Firefox.

The other open-source technology I introduced to the medical office is PHP. I don’t think anyone in the office would know we’re using it (nor do they need to know), but we use PHP to create a daily report of which of our patients may have passed away. Each morning my PHP program compares the Review-Journal‘s obituary page against our patient database, looking for matches. It then emails any matches to an employee who can then close the file and send out a condolences letter. As a medical practice, it’s embarrassing to unknowingly send mail or a bill to a deceased person’s family, yet there was no systematic way of tracking this before. You would certainly never find any “obituary tracking software” in a Microsoft ad.

And no doubt there’s a way to solve this problem with Microsoft technologies (ASP?), but PHP was the right solution for us because I already knew PHP, PHP is free, and PHP integrated perfectly into our environment. (It even connects to the patient database that’s running on Microsoft SQL Server, and it can send email through our Microsoft Exchange server.) Having to learn a new Microsoft technology or having to pay for something extra were barriers that PHP didn’t have.

We also use PHP to run our wiki-based intranet.

Finally, Phil Windley touches the same subject by asking “Does Your Platform Matter?” He argues that an open-source platform (specifically the “LAMP stack”) scales better. I would tend to agree. I think open-source technologies are great building blocks for innovation, and the skies are the limit. While Microsoft asks “Where do you want to go today?”, open-source says, “here are the keys to the car. Have a ball.”