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October 2006 Archives

October 3, 2006


Elvis Aaron Presley's Social Security Number.

October 5, 2006

Feed Tweaks

I'm mucking around a little bit with my RSS feed (for the whole six of you that subscribe to it.) After swapping out templates last week, I realized that it obscured the access-point to my FeedBurner feed for Soldier Ant. So I added that back in to the sidebar to your right. (If you're reading this from the site.)

While I was in there (signed in at FeedBurner) I tweaked the configuration of my feed a little, too. Having the digest of my delicious bookmarks in there was really starting to bother me. I realize that it's probably the closest thing to fresh content that my feed subscribers get, but I've really been using delicious more for personal bookmarking of odds, sods and digital detritus. Most of what I stick in there just isn't really audience-worthy, so I removed the once-daily digest that was appearing.

I really envy the way that John Tolva incorporates his delicious links in the 'marginalia' sidebar on his site. Tight, pithy titles and descriptions.. I just don't usually have the energy to make my bookmarks any more presentation-worthy than however the bookmarklet sucks 'em in. (So I end up with a lot of bm's titled things like "TUTORIAL: tether your motorola/nokia/se phone to your mac with via BT!" Snooze.)

And, anyway, I am exploring some other social bookmarking options. My homeboy Mr. Laaker is one more conversation away from enticing me over to MyWeb. The killer feature is the integration with Yahoo Search. Yep, you heard me right - when you do a Yahoo search, any sites that you yourself have personally bookmarked will appear high in the returned listings. (Of course, they only do so when they match the terms you searched on. We ain't dummies over at Yahoo, y'know.) This is hecka enticing.

I made one other slight change to my feed. Photos from my Flickr-stream will now appear in the Soldier Ant feed only if I tag them with a specific tag. (Cleverly enough, 'soldierant'.) I made this change for reasons that I am too tired to bother discussing right now.

October 11, 2006

Tufte's "Presenting Data and Information" Course

I was all set to attend Edward Tufte's 1-day course in Cincinnati last week (Presenting Data and Information) when.. wouldn't you know it.. a work meeting got bumped back to that day (the meeting was with some folks who's schedules are way less malleable than my own.) So... sorry, ET -- I guess I'll have to catch you next time around!

This has kind of become a sad running joke with me and Tufte -- I've probably tried to see him on at least 4 different occasions through the years, to the point of registering at least twice that I can remember.

But my friend Jason Long was one of several folks from Columbus who made it down for the event, and I liked his trip report so much that I asked him if I could share it here:

I thought it was a good course. Having read one of his books in the past and following the forum on his site, I had some preconceived notions regarding his personality going in (extremely opinionated, gruff, academic, but brilliant). He was definitely these things, but I found him to be a much more eloquent speaker than I had anticipated.

Personally, I was hoping for more on the nuts and bolts of data visualization design (use of color, contrast, small multiples,
reducing 'chartjunk', etc.), but the course was designed more for teaching how to give (and listen to) presentations - "serious"
presentations as he put it. All of his advice was very good, but not completely applicable to me.

There was definitely much to be entertained by: his insight into his role as a NASA consultant during the Columbia investigations, his 400 year old books by Galileo (still can't believe he travels with those), his insistence that "serious" computer work requires huge and/
or multiple high-res displays (agreed! - still trying to convince [my] wife though), his eccentric millionaire-grade "yard art" (that is,
massive steel sculptures all over his apparently enormous wooded lot), and much more.

All in all, I thought it was very enjoyable. Everyone got all four of his books (~$200 worth), so the price of the course was very

Jason, btw, is someone that I really wish would keep a blog. He's a busy guy doing cool stuff in Columbus (design, coding, Rails and fatherhood.) We need more voices like his from the ol' cow-town.

October 13, 2006

Muskingum County Courthouse

Muskingum County Courthouse, originally uploaded by RedRangerXXIV.

This is probably my favorite building in my hometown of Zanesville.

Best Practices for Feeds

John Panzer is an old compatriot from my AOL days in Mountain View (although I have to admit - I never got to work with John as closely as I would've liked. We always seemed to just miss each other on projects, or be off working on different bars of the same Gantt chart.) But the fact that John is still at AOL is one of the things that gives me great hope for the ol' mothership. John's a smart guy: he's knee-deep in the Microformats efforts, and he's just posted some best practices for constructing, serving and offering RSS & Atom feeds from your property/product/website/whatever. John says:

The following may be useful if making the pipes work is your job, and:
  • You need to produce RSS or Atom feeds.
  • You consume feed data.
  • You cache, proxy, or transform feed data.
  • You present feed data to an end user.
  • You need to create feed extensions.
  • You want to provide open, standard APIs for your data.
There's some good stuff in there (although a couple of the links seem to point to AOL internal locations.)

While John does make a couple of suggestions with user experience impact (see autodiscovery or 301 permanent redirect) none of his recommendations are specifically geared toward facilitating user consumption. I'd love to see a complimentary set of best practices around feeds user experience. (Ahem, are you listening Mr. Laaker™?)

Here are a couple of my suggestions for additions in that area:

  • Consider using the standard Feed Icons to indicate the presence of a subscribable feed on your site. (And pay attention to the usage guidelines, even though they're more like brand guidelines for the icons; I'd really appreciate some suggestions about where to place the icon, what text labels should accompany it or what the suggested course of action should be when you click on the icon.
  • Provide a styled and human-readable view of your feed from within the browser. (John hints at this with his suggestion: 'Consider XSLT style sheets.')
  • Include scaffolding information for new or potential feed users: tell them 'what is this?' as well as 'what can I do with it?' and suggest some tools for consuming feeds. Provide a link to more information.

October 16, 2006


I'm noticing an amusing trend in interface design lately (specifically, the aftermarket Mac market.) We undoubtedly have Quartz to thank for it (OS X's window 'Zoom' effect may in fact be the spiritual granddad of this whole movement.)

We are beginning the age of the truly superfluous interface effect. Like gratuitously superfluous.

Today, Daring Fireball points to this little gem: fun, interactive 'smokey' effects as you burn your CDs with Disco, a soon-to-market app for disc-burning. Totally unnecessary? Oh yeah. Will I leave the effect on anyway? Hell yeah!

Note this entry on the Disco blog, featuring the 'Enable superfluous effect' checkbox. Tee-hee.

Other data points: one of my favorite new apps (as in 'new to me') Quicksilver, also features a preference to toggle on 'Superfluous visual effects.' I like Quicksilver's effects so much that I've never turned them off, even just to see what the experience might be like with out the swooshes, winks and fades. If all I wanted was an App-launcher, then I'd be launching Excel from the Start-menu, eh?

And Apple's own Keynote is the new coin-fisted pimp on the superfluous block. Page peels, rotating 3D cubes, ripple waves.. the list goes on and on. Oh, and you can apply these effects to individual elements in a slide, not just to the transitions between slides. Powerpoint, what's my name, bitch!

Also... I'm experimenting with bringing comments back to Soldier Ant. Please try to sign in (sorry, Typekey account required) and share your favorite gratuitous visual effect.

October 19, 2006

Game-life Balance

Now here's an interesting cautionary tale. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that I've never played WoW.

I just left WoW permanently. I was a leader in one of the largest and most respected guilds in the world, a well-equipped and well-versed mage, and considered myself to have many close friends in my guild. Why did I leave? Simple: Blizzard has created an alternate universe where we don't have to be ourselves when we don't want to be. From my vantage point as a guild decision maker, I've seen it destroy more families and friendships and take a huge toll on individuals than any drug on the market today...


I remember clearly after fumbling around life for a few weeks that I dragged myself into the bathroom to get ready for work. I was tired because I was up until close to 2 AM raiding. Every week I read though email or I would run into one of my "real" friends and I'd hear "Andy, what's up, I haven't seen you in a while." I looked in the mirror and in a cinemaesque turn of events and a biblical moment of clarity, told myself "I haven't seen me in a while either."

October 21, 2006

Now with Ajax! (Tagliner is born)

Yep. I, too, have followed the siren call of superfluous interface effects.

If you visit the site, SoldierAnt.net (c'mon you feed-readers: fire up that browser and come check it out), you'll notice that I've added a dynamic tagline at the top of the page. (Right now, it appears on the main index page only -- I'll soon add it as a standard part of the header for all archives pages as well.) At first glance, the effect isn't that spectacular: it basically looks a lot like my static tagline that I used to updated on a semi-frequent basis.

But for a long time now, I've wanted the ability to update the site's tagline in an easier fashion. It's always come from Movable Type's MTBlogDescription template tag. The blog description is set under 'Configure > Settings' in the MT control panel. To be honest, it's not that tedious to get in there and change it from time to time, but I really wanted some way to keep track of past taglines. I played around just setting up a separate blog to hold them but for some reason that felt kinda dirty -- to keep a ~12 or 13-field MT blog around when all I wanted was 4 lousy fields. (I'm only using 2 of the fields right now, but have plans for the other two.)

When I was in California last week Lance mentioned that he got a mild kick out of my rotating taglines. (He said he sometimes looks them up to get the references.) Which further convinced me that I'd like to save some of my greatest hits from the past, and perhaps do something clever with them: swap them out randomly, or allow visitors to browse all of them.

So, long story short, I built a little Rails app that's custom-tailored to permit just that: it accepts tagline submissions from me (with a simple input form - none of the extra overhead of my previous MT-hack version) and stuffs 'em in a database.

Then I use the Yahoo UI library's Connection Manager to dynamically pull the taglines into the rendered page. With the Web2.0-ubiquitous spinner.gif to make it look all tricky and shit.

The easiest part, by far, of the whole process was building the Rails backend. I had a working version running in (seriously) no time. I just kept my copy of Agile Web Development With Rails cracked open at my elbow and ran through the first 4 or 5 steps of building the sample 'depot' app, changing the steps to suit my needs. (Remember, 4 database fields, and one of those is the Rails' convention id field.) I had the simple tagliner app running in about 20 minutes, and that was mostly due to my usual fumbling with Mysql (forgetting my admin password, fat-fingering a couple commands....)

I had slightly more trouble in trying to get the YUI Connection Mgr examples to work. Partially this was because of a bug that I uncovered with the examples that ship with the Library. But it was mostly due to my totally creaky skills with javascript (and my practically non-existent experience w/DOM scripting.)

Oh, and -- although the Rails development was the picture of simplicity, I wish I could say the same thing about deploying my finished app to Dreamhost, where Soldier Ant is hosted.

Actually, big ups to DH -- at least they do host rails stuff, and they've got some fairly comprehensive instructions on their wiki. But even with all the handholding, it took a while and a couple of silly missteps on my part. (Including one seriously stupid couple of minutes where I unknowingly dumped my whole app -- database configuration files with plaintext passwords and all -- into a world-readable section of the site.) Ah well, nothing is proof against fools...

Anyway, now it's done. It's a teensy, tiny little feature of a teensy, tiny, mostly-overlooked blog. But I'm pretty happy with it. And I've got some small plans for it in the immediate future. Like I said, I'm gonna add the functionality to every page on the site (as a Movable Type Template Module) and then I'm gonna play with the underlying display a little bit.

Right now, it just always displays the latest tagline that I've entered. I'd like to get it to pull a random tagline every time it loads. Or perhaps display a random one only after you click on it. And I definitely want to add a 'browse' view so you can see all my past taglines (and, for the truly bored, perhaps even subscribe to an RSS feed to see when I add new ones.)

Oh, and I would feel remiss if I didn't mention that a big inspiration for all of this was a feature that used to be in the internal Netscape bugtraq system (the precursor to the open-source Bugzilla. Used'ta'be, when you did a bug search, that you'd get a random quote provided by any one of hundreds of netscape developers. You could click on that quote to get the full list of all quotes, and.. of course.. provide one of your own.

You can imagine the typical quotes that would appear: UNIX humor, Star Trek references, "Buehler? Buehler?'- type of stuff. But it was great fun, and - dare I say it - an early example of social software features that helped humanize something that can otherwise be a fairly cold and technical act: filing a bug report (or following up on one.)

I'm kinda bummed to see it, but it doesn't look like the quote feature has survived into the bugzilla era.

So, that's kinda how I look at my site's tagline. Strangely, I think that the goofy, pithy things I choose to feature there say more about me than the bulk of the entries that I author. I think taglines are the poo.

So take a big whiff.

October 23, 2006

Robert Duffy should write more

My old pal Duffy's just posted a review of Silversun Pickups with Viva Voce over on my (once-frequent, now occasional) home a-web from home Donewaiting.com. To be honest, I don't know the bands, and I probably won't look into 'em for a while (okay, I lied, I'm wandering over to emusic in another tab already... Silversun Pickups aren't on there, but Viva Voce are.)

But, all of that aside.. I really wish Duffy would write more on the various sites of his web fiefdom. Back in the day, he kept a column all to himself on Donewaiting (Rob was also a guest-blogger on Soldier Ant years ago, but I muffed all of his entries a while back when I exported-and-reimported my whole database. Everything's still there, but it's all been attributed to me, and I haven't found the energy to go picking through the archives to set things aright.)

Writes young Rob (about Viva Voce):

The band melted my face right off. I needed emergency surgery to get through the rest of the night, that's how brutal the melting was. But I survived.
Indeed. What I love about Rob's writing is this: if you know the guy, then you know that this is exactly how he is. Reading Rob Duffy is just like talking to Rob Duffy. I swear, I fully believe that his face melted off that night, but he put it back together with nothing more than the sheer force of his lovable enthusiasm.

So c'mon Rob. Make less with the clicky and more with the clickety-clack.

October 24, 2006

Tagliner updated

A note of administrivia: I've updated the site's dynamic tagline a bit, as threatened. When the page first loads, you should always get the latest tagline from the database. If you click on the tagline, it will reload a random one from the DB.

The effect is kinda weak right now, unfortunately. Because the tagline database is still rather small (only 5 or 6 entries), you'll tend to cycle through them rather quickly. And, what's worse, you'll probably tend to get 'stuck' on one, that'll keep popping up through 3 or 4 refreshes.

October 25, 2006

My Little Things

Lance had a great idea today. He's listed some Little Things That Matter, and make a life better. Here're some of mine:

  • Waking up gently to three sniffing dogs (instead of a blaring alarm clock.)

  • Making eggs and bacon for your pregnant wife.

  • Calling your Dad on a weeknight, and hearing about his day.

  • A run up to Clintonville, for a trip to the Laughing Ogre.

  • Sitting by the gas stove in your living room, with your feet propped up in the orange glow.

October 26, 2006

Oooo... Shiny!

Hey! I notice that my pals at Shiny Object Design have their new website up and kicking, complete with company blog. Congratulations, Jason and Paul!

(Btw, the title for this blog-entry was provided by my dim memories of an old episode of my once-beloved cartoon series, The Tick. Remember the Tick? The Super Nintendo Tick title was a godawful mess, though.)

Web-wide Lurking Platform

Dave Winer calls for a search tool that follows a person's activities, regardless of the context they appear in. (And acknowledges the similarities to Facebook's missteps of a couple months back.) Meanwhile, the Internet wonders... Just how many old girlfriends could possibly be lurking in Dave's past?

October 28, 2006

1 life, 1 death and 1 irrational fear

Yesterday was a great day, and also a sad day. It was great because LeeAnn and I heard our baby's heartbeat for the first time. It was totally unexpected; we (okay, I -- LeeAnn probably had some inkling) were anticipating a weigh-in, blood pressure check.. probably some peeing in a cup. And, of course, there was all of that.

But then the doctor broke out the fetal heart monitor, and -- within seconds -- we were listening to this new life at work! The doctor said she'd probably have to hunt around for it, but nope: it's front and center, right where she first prodded.

LeeAnn and I agreed that the heartbeat sounded a lot like Pac Man. (Kind of a 'whooshy' Whawk-a-whawk-a-whock.) This led LeeAnn to (briefly) consider the possibility of naming the kid 'Pac Man Glass'. We'll let you know what we decide on that.

At this stage, the baby's heartbeat averages ~150 beats per minute. (if you've been watching your 'Lost', then you should know that the typical adult averages somewhere around 90bpm.) Somebody get this kid a Power-pill.

All in all, it was a good doctor's visit and I kinda walked around with a silly grin on my face for the rest of the day. In fact, the day was marred only by a small event that took place at the other end of the mortality spectrum: a squirrel died a long, slow and prolonged death in our backyard.

I discovered it when (our resident hunter) Polly took a headlong plunge into the shrubbery that borders our fence, and ended up in a tussle with it. I think it kinda freaked her out: she's spent most of her adult life chasing squirrels, barking at squirrels, and dreaming about squirrels: I don't think she ever, in her wildest dreams, expected to actually catch a squirrel. This one, she pulled from under the bush, and kinda.. dragged sideways 2 or 3 feet.

Something was obviously wrong. The squirrel fought back, feebly, before I barked Miss Polly back and off of her. (Dozer stood by watching nervously, and Kirby was asleep inside -- thank god. When he gets curious, he can be bull-headed and hard to control.)

I think it had crawled back in there to die. Had it been healthy, it could've run from Polly easily (they always do. Especially when they're by the fence. They usually scramble right up and out of harm's way.) I suspect that our neighbor Naked Jim has been up to his semi-yearly poisonings again.

So, to make a long story slightly longer.. we kept the dogs inside, but then watched this poor thing die over the course of the whole damn day. I swear I thought it had about 30 minutes left in the morning, but... it wasn't until 6pm that he finally gave up. LeeAnn was pretty upset, and .. I guess I was too. I hate to see any animal suffer.

Country dog Which leads to my irrational anxiety. Lately, I keep worrying ahead to a time when Kirby is too old to keep on going. (Remember, this part is totally irrational -- right now, he's healthy as a horse.) I just don't know how I'm going to deal with it. We've completely fallen for him, at this point. We're coming up on our 1-year anniversary with Kirby, btw.

I think the fear is partially coming from some coat problems he's having. What we thought was a normal seasonal shedding has since proven to be something else altogether: whole handfuls of his coat just fall off freely. He's going to the vet on Monday. (His regular vet -- someday soon I'll post about his ongoing dermatology visits for his never-quite-beaten ear infection.)

I don't know if it helps, or hurts, that we don't really know how old he is. We could have another 2 years with Kirby, or another 6. I suppose it's fruitless to worry about it. Whatever happens, I am so glad that we're giving him some long, lazy afternoons to lounge and dream.

October 30, 2006

Tag the world

This looks interesting:

Newmatica is a site for sharing information about consumer products ranging from groceries to sports equipment to books to consumer electronics — essentially, anything that has a barcode. Just type in the barcode that you find on the package, and then see if anyone else has left information about that product.
You can subsribe to RSS feeds for the products as well. Want to track popular opinion about a Real Hero Warrior Sword, for instance? Or Metamucil? Now you can.

About October 2006

This page contains all entries posted to Soldier Ant in October 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

September 2006 is the previous archive.

November 2006 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.


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