Tag Archives: internet

News and updates

Hi guys. Okay, so the blog has been languishing for a while, the good news is that I’ve been busy writing, and a few new titles should be coming out in the next few weeks. Another thing I’ll probably be doing is redesigning the site as a whole. This blog is not going anywhere, and the same goes for the legacy aspects of the site, but for the most part I’ll probably be changing the way in which things are organized by moving some things to a different site where I don’t have to worry about exceeding GreenGeek’s ridiculously limited ‘unlimited’ service (if you’ve been following this site for a while, you are probably aware that that’s been an ongoing issue for some time, as I’m fed up with the fact that traffic spikes are routinely penalized).

For a while there I considered of opening a facebook page. That would have been the logical thing, but I admit that by now my refusal to have a facebook account is pretty much a matter of principle (I don’t like the fact that having such an account seems to have become almost a requirement, especially considering their rather cavalier approach to privacy). Anyway, that’s where things stand, so watch this space!

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A limited view of ‘unlimited’

And just a little update on my problems with my ‘unlimited’ host (that would be greengeeks). Since my site was taken off line for the better part of an afternoon with no previous warning whatsoever for using too many resources last week I have been keeping a closer eye on things (I had assumed that ‘unlimited’ meant that I could relax, or that they would let me know if there was a problem…I learned the hard way that that wasn’t anywhere near the case).

So far I have managed to get the number of spam comments being posted down to zero (the problem was caused largely by excessive spammer activity), but given that the site is already in those spammers’ databases, the fact that they can no longer post hasn’t really had much of an impact on my resource usage yet (and I don’t know if it ever will, as getting deleted from those databases is likely to be all but impossible). Still, the most interesting thing was a little tidbit I came across as I checked my resources usage statistics, as it made crystal clear just how ‘unlimited’ is defined: 256 MB per day.  I am including a series of screengrabs showing not just the limitation notice, but also some additional details about my data usage for the month (the site was restricted on the 12th).

Resource usage restrictions

Daily usage statsDecember stats

That means that, at least as far as greengeeks is concerned, ‘unlimited’ translates into between seven and eight gigabytes per month tops (as traffic varies from day to day, that would be if you reach the resource limit on a daily basis without ever going over it, and that’s not likely to be the case). Assuming that these restrictions are close to the industry standard, I have to say that it is a pretty rotten deal. In fact, with the exception of the most limited of starter plans, few metered packages restrict you to less than 10 GB per month… the problem is that most of the hosts that used to offer rollover bandwidth have either gone out of business, or they have converted to an ‘unlimited’ service… and yes, I am incredibly frustrated by this whole mess (and by the fact that while greengeeks  offers free migrations to entice new customers, it disables the ‘Backup Wizard’, making it that much harder for existing customers to move away, or even take the most basic precautions to ensure their data’s safety).

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The problem with akismet

When it comes to fighting comment spam, akismet is the default, goto option… the problem is that, as I learned the hard way a few days ago when my host took my site off line for using up too many resources, it is an option that has a pretty major downside. Still, let’s focus on what akismet gets right first: it is extremely effective when it comes to identifying spam, quarantining it, and keeping it from showing up in your blog, that is most definitely a good thing. The problem is that this approach allows those comments to be added to your database before blocking them and keeping them from showing, and that means that it does nothing to keep spambots from using most of your bandwidth. In other words, what you need is something that can keep those comments from being posted in the first place, and that is where adding some sort of CAPTCHA can help you and/or an automated system that can tell bots from real users is bound to come in handy.

Now, I’m not saying that akismet is a bad idea, in fact I find it downright invaluable and it is definitely not going anywhere, but chances are that you’ll be better off making it your last resort for the odd spam comment that manages to get through, rather than your first line of defense.

And a word of caution, if you have a major spam problem already it may take a while to get the spam-bots off your case, as chances are that your site is already in their databases, and that means that they are going to keep on trying (if this remains a problem you may want to give blocking them via the .htaccess file a shot.. you can find the information on how to do that here, but the process is not for the faint of heart).

Okay, that’s it for now. Hopefully I will soon be able to go back to focusing on the things I actually care for, and I’ll finally be able to put spam and spam-bots off my mind.

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Will your host penalize your success?

Up until a few years ago when you purchased a hosting package you got a fixed amount of storage and bandwidth. If you went over your monthly quota, you could purchase some additional bandwidth. In fact you could even have a couple of days grace period in which the cost of that additional bandwidth was deducted from what you had paid in advance for your existing hosting package (usually up to 50% of your remaining credit) … not to mention that, if you were lucky that bandwidth was a ‘rollover bandwidth’, meaning that whatever you didn’t use in a given month, was added to your tally for the next one, giving you a nice cushion that enabled you to absorb a spike in traffic, and basically served to ensure that your site would remain online under most circumstances. In recent years, however, webhosts have hit on something that borders on a scam: they offer unlimited bandwidth in big bold letters in their homepages, and then tuck some very strict restrictions in their TOS, things like twenty simultaneous connections (or other even more obscure measurements). This means that rather than a monthly lump that can be allocated any which way, now your bandwidth is restricted on a minute by minute basis and you have no flexibility at all. If you exceed the limit, or have spammers get a little too active, or suffer a DDoS attack, tough luck… and this situation is then compounded by the fact that limited bandwidth hosts have been forced to switch to an ‘unlimited’ scheme or they have been driven out of business. After all, common sense would seem to suggest that ‘unlimited’ is a more generous option.

So what are the real world consequences of this arrangement? Basically that,  if you are lucky and one of your posts happens to go viral, your host will immediately take your site off-line, effectively robbing you of your success… and given that it may take a while for you to sort the situation out (usually by purchasing an upgrade to a more expensive unlimited package that is a tad more unlimited than the unlimited package you had purchased in the first place thinking that it was, you know… unlimited), all that potential traffic will be lost.

This is, as you can probably imagine, not a position you want to find yourself in… and the situation is further complicated by the fact that some hosts have made it needlessly complicated for you to migrate away from their servers by disabling the ‘Backup Wizard’ from their cPanel. Yes, you can still create a backup the old fashioned way, but especially when it comes to databases, the lack of a one-click solution is a pretty major pain.

In other words, if you are looking for a host, beware of the fact that chances are that the words ‘Unlimited bandwidth’ you see prominently displayed in their homepage don’t mean what you think they do, and -especially if you are not a pro- contact them to ask about the status of the ‘Backup Wizard’ before you sign on the dotted line.

After all, even though you are looking for a host,  you don’t want end up being taken hostage.

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The reader in me vs. the writer in me

I confess: when it comes to automated translations, I am a hypocrite. As a reader, I have turned to them on a couple of occasions. They are clumsy, and at times almost unreadable, but I admit I find them useful as a last resort. As a writer (one who does some translating on the side and is used to agonizing about each and every word), on the other hand, they make me cringe.

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The problem with ‘EVERYTHING’

Like too many people, I spend hours a day sitting in front of my computer. For the most part I do what I’m supposed to be doing, but being a writer I freely admit that at times the line between work and play can get more than a little blurry. I may be writing a story, and all of a sudden I realize that, to keep myself from looking like a fool, or like more of a fool than I usually do, I need to do a little research. Having the ability to do that almost without giving it a second thought is awesome. I type a few characters and, more often than not, the answer is there, before my eyes. The problem is that once I’m done I often find myself going off on some sort of tangent, rather than getting back to whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, and to be honest most of those things are a waste of time… the kind of lumber that accumulates in our minds, and winds up clogging everything. That’s the downside of having the world at our fingertips.

In the ‘old days’ if I wanted to do some research I had to reach for a book (if I was lucky… otherwise I had to go to that daunting place called ‘the library’); if I wanted to catch up with the news I’d have to either buy a newspaper or turn to my trusty old TV (either way I was stuck with one, or maybe two, points of view); if I wanted to watch a movie chances were that I’d have to leave my house altogether, either to go to a theater or to a video store. Today I don’t even own a TV, and books, music, news and movies are all a click away (as for games, I refuse to install any, not because I’m not interested, but rather because I know I’m too easily distracted, and I know that if I happened to get hooked on a game I’d never get anything done). In other words, as our gadgets converge our activities too become intertwined. For the most part that is a good thing, as many of the divisions that are being torn down were artificial (research may involve a news-former-paper article, a book, a documentary or a lecture, and being able to jump from one of those to the next, to say nothing of having them immediately accessible, is most definitely an advantage), but then there is the problem of our ever shrinking attention spans… or maybe I should say ‘my’ (hence my reluctance to install a single game).

I freely admit that, while I shake my head at my own inability to concentrate, the idea of doing research the old fashioned way terrifies me. I have gotten used to the convenience of having everything at my fingertips, but at the same time there is a problem with the fact that, as walls are torn down, and everything is at my fingertips, that is bound to include, well, everything, and that is where I tend to get in trouble. Put a kitten or a puppy on my path and all thoughts of doing what I’m supposed to be doing fly out the window.

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I wonder what THEY think

I was reading a story about a woman who found herself on the receiving end of a visit by the spook brigade because she was looking for a way to cook some lentils… okay so maybe it was a little more complicated than that, and there are some questions about the details, but basically what happened was that a series of innocent searches by different members of a household led someone to put two and two together and come up with twenty-two. That got me thinking: in a world in which our every search is logged, monitored and aggregated to create a ‘profile’, what would my search pattern say about me? The answer is that I suspect that my profile is likely to come up as puzzling to say the least. Why?

Well, as you know I am a writer. I may not be a great writer, or a successful one, but I am a writer. That means that some of my search terms are bound to be on the unsavory end of the spectrum. I can’t help it. If I want to write a less than pleasant character, and I want that character to come across as believable, then I have to try to understand that character’s world… and that is precisely where my research comes in. After all, the characters I have something in common with are easy, it’s the characters that are totally alien to me that require me to look things up to try to figure out just where it is that they are coming from, and at times that research can be pretty extensive. Oh, it’s not just the unsavory characters that lead me to Google’s door (the professional ones too tend to require their fair share of research), but those are the ones that are most likely to raise some eyebrows.

The thing is that doing that research can be an eyeopening experience. It can also be a puzzling one, or it can leave me feeling almost sick, but at the end of the day what I have is a situation in which what I search for says very little about who I am, what I think, or what I care about.

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In defense of porn

I can’t believe I’m writing this. No, I don’t like porn, and I agree that it is too easily available (in fact at times it seems to be all but inescapable), but at the same time I am fed up with moralists who want to restrict what others see and do in the privacy of their own homes to protect their children’s innocence, or some such nonsense. Let me be clear about it: they are your children, and while I applaud your determination to shield them from the big, bad world, that doesn’t give you the right to restrict what other adults see and do. Your job -a job you signed up for- is to world-proof your child, not to child-proof the world.

What got me thinking about this is the push by the British government to force ISPs to put content filters in place, and to have them turned on by default. If you want to turn them off you have to notify your ISP, and by extension the government, of your desire to do so. I don’t know how things work over there, but in most places you have to be an adult (or have parental consent) to sign a contract… so why shouldn’t the people who sign up for a service be treated as adults by default?

The thing is that while trying to argue against protecting the children feels wrong, I can’t forget that the crew that wants to shield the children’s eyes is mostly the same crew that -using what is basically the same argument- opposes marriage equality. It is also akin to the crew that not too long ago passed a law in Russia outlawing ‘gay propaganda’… and please don’t even get me started on how wide ranging, inaccurate and unreliable those filters happen to be.

These filters have never really worked, not like they were supposed to anyway, and requiring people to opt-out of a government mandated filter in order to access a certain kind of content is, to put it bluntly, nothing but an intimidation tactic.

Oh, I’m not that naive. I know that, filters or no filters, internet activity is monitored. I know there are very powerful interests that seek to control what I see and do while online. I know that the advent of mobile platforms built with the internet in mind, ridiculously restrictive app stores you can’t bypass (at least not legally), large social networks and walled gardens has effectively enabled the corporate world to set itself as a gatekeeper to the internet, and I know that even now efforts are underway to restrict my access even further by pushing the app store model onto the desktop. In that regard a government mandated filter that denies me access to a specific kind of content in order to ‘protect the children’ is just a small step. Other kinds of content are sure to follow. The wild, untamed internet poses a threat that makes both governments and corporations uncomfortable, and they are desperate to get a hold of it.

Yes, there is plenty of content out there that I find objectionable, but as long as the content doesn’t cross a legal boundary, I acknowledge that it has a right to exist. I realize that I don’t have a right to shove my opinion down other people’s throats… and, for better or for worse, that means that porn is one of those things I have no choice but to live with.

As I said, I’m not in the UK, the proposed law does not affect me, not directly, but I fear that these laws will spread, that sooner or later they will be adopted by other countries, and once porn is gone, what will the next target be?

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Something for nothing

A while ago I wrote a post about a POD company charging an outrageous fee and warning authors that they were better off paying that fee because ‘you get what you pay for’. Today we have the other side of the coin,with Instagram revising its terms of service and claiming the right to license its users’ work for free and in perpetuity… do I even have to say that these terms are outrageous?

Now, I am not saying that Instagram (or to be accurate Facebook) doesn’t have the right to try to make money out of its services, that’s what businesses are supposed to do, but there is a difference between showing your users some ads while on your site, or even compiling a profile you can then use to target those ads to a specific audience, and taking your users’ content and selling that instead. That is where I feel Instagram/Facebook have crossed the line here, but at the same time I am not particularly surprised that they would try something like this… in fact that is why I have stuck with hiring a host and maintaining a rather old-fashioned website rather than join the social network revolution, even if doing that has cost me in terms of my ability to get the word out there that my books exist: I am all too aware of the dangers lurking in too many of these companies TOS.

The question is where is the balance. Personally I think it is a matter of common sense that has to be determined on a case by case basis. Right off the bat I can tell you that going with the most expensive option because ‘you get what you paid for’ is probably a bad idea as it would probably lead you straight to the door of someone looking to fleece you. On the other hand it is also true that when someone offers you a free service you have to ask yourself how are you going to be made to pay, because not all payments take the form of dollars and cents.

There may be some services, such as CreateSpace that don’t charge you an outright fee but have a business model that does enable them to turn a profit (of course, that one isn’t a social media site at all, but rather a POD publisher, so that they can afford to operate based on a more traditional business model), but on our increasingly virtual world these are the exception rather than the rule, and that means that there is a race to monetize ‘free’ services these content-grabs are likely to become more and more common… unless the backlash to this one is such that they have no choice but to backtrack (and let’s remember that this is not the first time someone tries something like this. A few eons ago GeoCities tried something similar… it didn’t take then and hopefully it won’t take now).

UPDATE: It looks like Instagram is already backtracking and claiming that they never meant what they said. For the time being they have reverted to an earlier version of their TOS.

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I don’t like it and I won’t follow

Earlier today I had a very minor problem, in fact it was too minor to be called a problem, so much so that I didn’t even record on which site it had happened, but it kind of stayed with me: as I was browsing I came across a splash screen that said something along the lines of ‘to access this site either like us on Facebook or follow us on twitter’. Now, I am used to some sites requesting my e-mail address (though I usually balk at those too), and I guess in a way it is not that different, but in another one it does feel that way… especially when it comes to a site I don’t particularly know (i.e. a site I don’t know if I ‘like’ or if I’m interested in ‘following’). I guess in a way my reaction may also have to do with the fact that I am not too keen on social media, and I have some serious issues with the amount of information these sites gather and are willing to disclose about their users.

Yes, I have a Twitter account, and I don’t find that one too annoying, though I am not a heavy user and I rarely sign in, but Facebook is a site that, while I know it is extremely popular and even useful, I don’t particularly trust. Simply put, I seriously doubt the average user knows how much information Facebook has gathered about him/her, and I don’t think that the fact that at times keeping track of their constant policy and settings changes at times can seem like a full time job is a coincidence. The fact that unrelated news sites are now making being a user of Facebook or Twitter mandatory is yet another step in a process that has caused the web to become ever more intrusive.

Oh, I know this is something that has been in the works for some time, something that is going to make us hold-outs have to choose between submitting or living with a deliberately downgraded online experience, but the attitude of ‘follow me, like me or else’ that was reflected on that simple splash screen rubbed me the wrong way. It was not an invitation, it was a command and my response to that is ‘No, I don’t like you and I definitely won’t follow you… hell, I don’t even know you!’

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