Using Stock Photos to Show You Care

Creepy scary stock photoOne of the funniest parts of browsing the Internets is when I come across the funny stock photos of professional people in various professional settings, used by site owners to put a "human face" on their web presence in the most generic way possible. It began with using the headshot of the attentive and waiting customer service representative to show you that "operators are standing by now," and it's just gone crazy from there.

With the photo here, I don't even know what the hell is going on. It's like the creepy older guy is trying to arm wrestle with the maniacally screaming younger dude over who gets to use the laptop, while the two women totally ignore them and instead grin broadly at the hamster dancing on their screen. But I'm like "creepy older dude, BACK OFF!" Why does he need to lunge into younger dude's space like that, using his fingertips as a push-off to further invade? And why won't either of the women help younger dude? This is some messed up stock photography. What was the photographer yelling at them? "Pretend you went to the office holiday party and took Ecstasy!"
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Using real names in online communities

E7EBC5781A8911DA.jpg I remember the first time I was logging onto a remote computer system (a BBS) and was asked to choose a handle - an alias for my online activities. There'd been plenty of times where a computer game or other piece of software had asked for one, but this was the first time when other people were going to know me by this name. Wow! I thought about it carefully...what nickname would be the best representation of my personality and my approach to life, while also exuding the appropriate amount of playfulness, mystery and anonymity? At the time, I chose something that might politely be called "lame."

Since then, I've used a few other handles that were more appropriate and cool (to me, anyway), but lately, I've decided that the handle that best represents of my personality online is the same one that represents it offline: my real name. And in most cases, I'm of the opinion that we should all use our real names when engaging in online discussion and community-building.

It's sometimes a suggestion that makes people uncomfortable, so I want to provide some additional reasoning to consider and discuss:
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Watching the watchers

IMG_2396.JPGSometimes people forget how much information is being collected about them when they visit a website. It's actually not all that much - what IP address you're visiting from, what kind of operating system and web browser you're running, and perhaps what other website you came from in your visit. The real fun starts when you learn how to interpret the trends in that information, and start to drill down to what it might mean about a visitor.

For example, earlier this week, a user visited my website without any referring URL information. This means they probably entered the address directly in their browser's location bar, but it could also mean they followed a bookmark, or are actively trying to hide where they came from. As soon as they got to my site, they started searching for the word "congress" in my content. When I traced the IP address, it went back to a location in McLean, Virginia, which is the home of the Central Intelligence Agency.

So what can we conclude from this? Obviously, a CIA operative was investigating my website because in my ramblings about politics and the government, I've clearly come too close to the truth about a cover-up related to U.S. energy policy and the War on Terra, and now they're coming to take me away, ha-ha.

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All online data lost after Internet crashes

Sometimes when people call us for technical support at Summersault, they tell us that in trying to troubleshoot a problem on their desktop computer, they have "deleted the Internet." It's always tempting to feign shock and horror, saying "that was YOU!?" and ask them to "get it back, oh dear God, get it back right now!" But then decency steps in and dictates that we walk them through steps to get their network connection working again.

So I'm glad that someone out there is having fun imagining what the headlines will be on the day when the whole Internet crashes and all online data is lost. I can just hear Tony Snow saying that "we deeply regret that a backup of the Internet does not exist at this time...we had always meant to get around to making one."

What would it mean for your life?

Tired of social networking sites

At lunch today we were talking about all the social networking sites that have popped up on the Intertubes over the recent years. Mark and I sounded a little curmudgeonly about it, noting that we've long since been ignoring invitations to join the latest fad in making virtual connections to the rest of the world. First I was on BBSes back in the day. They I joined some mailing lists. Then there was Friendster, which kept losing my profile and whose software sucked. And then there was Orkut, which I signed up for because it was Googly but I wasn't popular enough to do anything useful with. And that's when I sort of gave up. MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, Linked In and all the rest can call me or send a representative to do lunch if they really want me. Except Myspace - puke.

Part of it is probably the sense that I'd rather be spending time strengthening ties in my real-world community than in an online one. Another part is just not caring. But most importantly, it seems the trend is such that soon we'll have one social networking site per each person with an Internet connection, and we'll be back where we started. I've got enough passwords to remember as it is, okay?

But it is funny to me when the networking sites scrape information off of my website in an attempt to make me look like a member. Like Spoke, which just did this without asking. Unfortunately, they get some significant things wrong, e.g. listing Earlham College President Doug Bennett as the president of my company, Summersault. To be clear, Doug has not left his position as the president of an internationally known liberal arts college to serve as President of a website development firm.

If he is looking for that kind of position with us, we're open to, um, networking with him...without the help of a website.

Props to the P-I for embracing conversation technologies

It wasn't too long ago that I took an inventory of the quality of public dialogue in Richmond, and in doing so, sprinkled in some cynicism about the role played and limitations imposed by the Palladium-Item in that measuring. A bit later I brought the cynicism up a notch (or, down a rung?) in predicting that their online forum wouldn't bear much fruit. Today I ought to take a moment to congratulate them on their recent efforts and successes in improving the quality of (or at least the opportunities for) public conversation in town, especially around the issues the paper covers. A few of the ways they've done this, if you haven't already noticed:
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Interviewed on WKBV, anyone hear it?

I was interviewed yesterday morning (at 7:10, jeesh) by Chris Nolte on AM 1490 WKBV about the "dangers of unsecured wireless networks at home." I already posted some follow-up technical information on the Summersault Weblog, but I thought I'd see if anyone reading here heard the interview? I've not to date thought of that station or time slot as the place to go for the latest technology news and discussion, but perhaps there's a trend I've been missing out on.

Switching to Parallax for home broadband

This is an unabashed plug for Parallax and their high speed wireless Internet access service. I complain enough on this blog about poor customer service experiences, so it's important to me that I document the rare but special times when I have a really positive experience. I'd been using Insight's cable broadband service, which costs $45/month and included somewhere around 3 MBps download and 400Kbps upload (your mileage may vary widely - learn about different connection technologies). It also malfunctioned every time my cat sneezed. Parallax's service is $40/month and includes 1 MBps download and 1 MBps upload (really nice for sending large files out or hosting something). Important: you don't need a wireless card to use this service - your home network can still be wired all the way. And they're local, which has a number of benefits. And they're reliable. And their customer service tends to be excellent. I know these things well since my business depends on them for mission critical network operations every day. So I didn't really know why I'd even waited as long as I had to get setup with their wireless service. (I did call Insight and ask them to make me a better offer...they couldn't.) The Parallax sales rep and installers treated me like a real human being, they worked fast and effectively, and the connection has worked great from day one. Thanks, Parallax, for being a quality local provider of a valued service!

Teaching software engineering

Today is the first day of the course I'm co-teaching at Earlham this semester, CS345: Software Engineering. I'm excited to be back in a classroom again and thinking in new ways and on different levels about a topic that's very much a part of what I do every day for Summersault (and why Summersault exists at all). Like the last course I taught at Earlham, this is sure to be a challenge and a joy. Wish me luck! I'll hopefully have some time to post general thoughts about teaching software engineering here, but the course website will be my main tool for collecting and sharing information and resources related to the class.