Wednesday, January 28, 2009

They Don't Get It

We received a letter this week from California's Franchise Tax Board that illustrates what I have long known: Our state government doesn't understand how business—or much else in the real world—works. Their ignorance and arrogance is embodied by the following statement from that letter, regarding the $800 annual tax on LLCs:
"The annual tax is paid for the privilege of doing business in California..."
On the contrary, they are privileged to have us and other LLCs doing business in California. Businesses create economic activity, jobs, and—when profitable—tax revenue for the government. By their own principle (i.e., privilege carries a price tag), they should be paying companies to do business here. This is, in fact, what several states indirectly do through their favorable corporate law, tax codes, regulations, and legal systems. If California was more business-friendly, they might not be contemplating sending out IOUs in lieu of tax-refund checks right now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ShareThis Update 3

After getting no response to my last email, I pinged ShareThis again regarding the two remaining problems I experienced with their widget. After another email conversation, I am fairly certain that there are currently no solutions to the problems I reported.

Both of these problems stem from their use of an image paired with a text label, as opposed to the image-only approach employed by AddThis. I'm not sure why ShareThis chose their particular approach, but I would recommend that they reconsider it given the number of issues it creates for some publishers—especially those who are using a template over which they have little control, as is common on blogging platforms.

The last suggestion I received from ShareThis was to use the custom-button approach. I tried that earlier, but getting the image and text to line up properly on different browsers was an exercise in futility. This time I took a cue from AddThis, and simply created a new image that includes the text. It's not perfect (see below left), but it looks better than before.

Update: After re-reading this post today (Wednesday, January 28, 2009), I decided to delete the final paragraph because of its cavalierly negative tone, which was not intentional. Whereas I was frustrated with the problems I encountered with the ShareThis widget, I was always satisfied with their responsive customer support—and that wasn't accurately reflected.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Truth Tunes Update 3

TechCrunch reports that a lot of people are very angry about the recent rift between Warner and YouTube. You can find a collection of their responses at YouTube—check them out before they are pulled. I wouldn't say that I am angry about the situation, but instead disappointed that the two sides were not able to reach mutually agreeable terms.

Who am I kidding? I am annoyed at both sides for letting it get to this point and also for the frequent inconvenience: The latest Truth Tunes casualties were both of the featured Depeche Mode videos, which were removed due to copyright claims by Warner Music Group. Thanks, guys. So, again, I replaced them with other versions that are still available. The remix of "Policy of Truth" is cool, so have a listen before it's gone, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sprout Fallout

The folks at Sprout have changed their tune—a little. As I wrote a week ago, they decided to start charging for their basic service, which we were led to believe would remain free. To add insult to injury, they gave account holders only two weeks' notice to start paying or stop using their sprouts. Without acknowledging this misstep, they have, nevertheless, announced that they will give users—in essence—a longer grace period:

If you are an existing user who is not sure whether you want to subscribe for service, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial and continue to manage your Sprout projects for 30 days after we implement our paid service. If you decide to cancel your account, you will no longer be able to access your account to edit your projects, but we will not deactivate your existing sprouts without providing at least 60 days notice.

In other words, we have been granted at least an additional 90 days to use our sprout if we sign up for the free trial next month. A longer grace period is one of the remedies I called for in my previous post on this subject, so I am satisfied with their new offer. I don't know what caused their change of heart, but I have a feeling we weren't the only customers displeased with last week's announcement.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ShareThis Update 2

I followed up on the bug reports I submitted to ShareThis last week, and was contacted by one of their employees. Over the course of two days and several emails, we were able to get the problems fixed. It seems that Blogger wasn't playing nice with the ShareThis widget code. In one case, the remedy was to change a pair of single quotes to double quotes. In the other case, counterintuitively replacing the Blogger-specific code with generic code fixed the problem. I would like to thank ShareThis for their assistance, and offer a free plug to the guy who helped me. If you like electronica, check it out!

There are two minor problems remaining: The widget icon is about five pixels too high, and the widget label has inherited my blog's template style, thus appearing tangerine instead of forest green. I don't expect these to be resolved, and won't be dissatisfied if they aren't. But I mentioned them to ShareThis anyway, just in case there is an easy fix. I will post an update if there is.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Diving into Drupal

My co-founder, Mike, and I finished the initial configuration and theme installation for our Drupal-powered development site today. After we finished, I mentioned to Mike that the only administration link I hadn't clicked on (visited links change color) was the help link. That speaks volumes about how intuitive the Drupal software is.

We selected the Zen theme and created a sub-theme so that we can easily customize the look and feel of the site. Last summer, Mike referred me to the CSS Zen Garden, a site that demonstrates how to properly design eye-catching sites using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). When I was looking through Drupal templates recently, I noticed the Zen theme, whose name is an homage to the CSS Zen Garden and which follows their design principles.

We completed the block layout, which designates the display location of each piece of information. Next, Mike will be working on theme customization, and I will begin creating our content types.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two Strikes and You're Sprout!

The folks behind Sprouts, the cool Flash widgets I wrote about last month, did something very uncool. Not only are they beginning to charge for their Pro accounts (which is fine), but they are also charging for their "free" Basic accounts. I specifically signed up for a Basic account because the Pro account, which was free until now, carried a disclaimer that they would start charging for it in the future. Because no such disclaimer was issued on the Basic account, I was left to infer that it would remain free. Their explanation is, "In order to maintain [Sprout Builder's] value, we have discontinued the free version." Huh?

Also uncool: They are beginning to charge in early February, which gives me only two weeks' warning to find and implement a replacement technology. Our company is bootstrapped, which means we have no investors, and thus all our business expenses are coming right out of our pockets. There is currently no room in our advertising budget for even their limited-time, special offer of $139.50 per year. But even this account level will only be available this year, with the next cheapest plan at $599.50 per year.

If I had known that they would be making these moves, I would have chosen a different company's widget in the first place. The time I invested in their product cannot be recovered, and I will have to divert time from site development to rectify this. It's cliché, but time is money, and they have wasted ours.

To be clear, I don't begrudge Sprout, Inc. for charging for their products. I think it is great that they have developed a cool product that people are willing to pay for. My only quarrel is with the aforementioned uncoolness. I think that if they wanted to eliminate the free account offering, they should have grandfathered current users' accounts, or simply given a longer grace period. Two weeks' notice doesn't cut it.

I want future Truth Rally users to know that we will not treat our customers this way: We will offer free membership that will stay free. We will also offer a premium membership option, which will offer additional features, but will be completely voluntary. Presumably, the Sprout gang anticipated that they would receive some bad reactions to their decision, and felt the trade-off was worth it.

Sadly, the Sprout featured on Truth Rally will be coming down by the end of the month, at which time we will have to close our Sprout Builder account.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Installing Drupal

It's simple to install Drupal. I should know—I've done it five times so far. The first time, I used the automatic installation provided with Go Daddy's shared hosting service. It automates everything, including database creation and cron configuration—two steps the uninitiated might find problematic. This convenience is offset, however, by a lack of security updates as the Drupal version they install is a few revisions behind.

Unsatisfied with this trade-off, I enabled the secure shell (SSH) option on our hosting account so that I could directly access our web server and install the latest version manually. Unfortunately, adding SSH meant waiting a day while our account was moved to a new server.

The next three installations went smoothly, with only minor problems caused by my experimentation with hosting multiple web sites in our account. Our hosting service's multi-site capability was almost certainly an afterthought: I had to contend with several annoyances stemming from its inexplicably asymmetrical domain requirements. Ugh. And just when I thought I was done, a new Drupal revision was released. That installation made five.

The reason we are installing Drupal on our web server now—as opposed to installing it on our local machines—is that we would like to do our development in the exact environment on which we will launch the live site. This avoids any differences in software versions, which will obviate migration debugging. Our hosting account has unlimited data transfers, so why not?

The next step was adding password protection to the Drupal site. This provides an extra layer of security and prevents web robots from crawling and caching our development area.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

ShareThis Update

The day after I posted about ShareThis, one of their executives sent me an email requesting more details about the problem I'd encountered. Now that's customer service: I had planned on reporting the issue the following Monday after giving it another try, but they came to me beforehand. I sent him a description of the problem, and he submitted a bug report. The problem was fixed by that Tuesday. Good job.

I returned to their site, but found that I couldn't sign up for a publisher account using the same email address I had used to sign up for my user account. I ended up deactiving the user account, and signing back in from the publisher sign-up page. This enabled the publisher tools, such as the analytics reporting. Cool.

Since then I have encoutered two problems with the ShareThis button, which I reported via their feedback page earlier today. As I mentioned previously, I manually installed the button so that I could place it above the byline, instead of below it. This worked fine, except for one problem: Sometimes the button mysteriously appears in the default position instead of the specified position, and other times two buttons appear—one in each position. This behavior seems to be browser-dependent, as I have observed it with Internet Explorer, but not with Firefox. The second problem concerns custom buttons. I followed the instructions, but no button at all appears. I played around with the code awhile, but to no avail. I will post an update once these issues have been addressed.

I appreciate how difficult it can be for a web startup to bring a product to market, especially if they have to contend with browser quirks and blogging-platform differences. Their best customers are the ones who give them feedback to help them overcome these obstacles, and are patient and understanding enough to stick with them through any rough patches. That is exactly the type of customers that Truth Rally is looking for in our upcoming beta test. Nice segué, eh? Sign up today by clicking on the sign-up button near the top of the right-hand column, or by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Social Networks, Part 3

The first steps in our marketing strategy involved adding social-networking widgets to make it easier for readers to share our content with a wider audience. The next step is actual participation in the social networks, which I have started only recently.

In 2007 I joined LinkedIn, a professional networking site. It's a great place to keep in touch with your business contacts and to maintain as little or as much of résumé as you choose. It's embarrassing, but I have been derelict in keeping an up-to-date résumé; in fact, the last time I used one was in 1991. Ugh. That's one of the hazards of working in one place for a very long time. LinkedIn has helped me in this regard by providing a simple, incremental means to list my education and work history and as many project details as I can recall (and have the inclination to add). I highly recommend this site. A similar—albeit less comprehensive and less popular—site is Plaxo. I joined this one recently, but I was not impressed and added only my current activity.

Yesterday I joined Facebook, a site that was originally limited to the college crowd, but is now open to the general public. Its international popularity recently surpassed that of MySpace, and it is quickly gaining on it here in the U.S. as well. Facebook makes it easy to share information, photos, and other media among a wide circle of friends, and can help you stay in touch with those you wouldn't otherwise have time to contact directly. In this respect, it could be a timesaver—provided your usage adheres to the Goldilocks Principle. I am reserving judgment until I've used the site for a while, but thus far I am pleasantly surprised. As for MySpace, my impression, which could be incorrect, is that it appeals more to the younger crowd, which I don't anticipate will be as interested in Truth Rally—at least not as partipating members. I will look into joining MySpace when I have more time.

Yesterday I added my current position at Truth Rally, as well as links to the web site and this blog, to my profiles at LinkedIn, Facebook, and Plaxo. Each of these sites requires you to be a member before viewing the complete profile, but you can get a taste. As for results, visitor traffic has increased at both the web site and the blog. I assume it is just a spike, but hopefully traffic will settle above the old level and begin a gradual upward trend. We shall see.

Monday, January 5, 2009

And The Winner Is...

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that we were evaluating content management systems that we could use to build Truth Rally. After a day or so, we narrowed down our evaluation to Joomla and Drupal, the two leading open-source CMS platforms. They are leaders for a reason, and both have active developer and user communities that will likely ensure continued support and improvements for years to come. Over my career, I've observed that safe choices are frequently not the best choices; however, after reviewing the available CMS platforms, I don't think we will be sacrificing anything with either of these offerings. In fact, just the opposite.

Interestingly, my co-founder, Mike, evaluated Joomla a couple of years ago, but found it didn't have all the features we needed. Not unexpectedly, this is no longer the case. I looked at a list of available features at CMS-comparison site CMS Matrix, and was very impressed with both Joomla and Drupal. By the way, I recommend CMS Matrix as a good starting point, because it allows comparisons between any of 1,000 CMS platforms, based on nearly 150 features. A comparison between Joomla and Drupal demonstrates that the two platforms have feature comparability of over 80%; for our criteria, it is over 95%. For most web-site developers, I think either would make a solid choice.

Based on our evaluation, though, one of the CMS platforms has an advantage in architecture, which is extremely important for us because of the custom modules we need to develop. This same platform also seems to have better documentation, which is critical for developers. Finally, it gets the nod on features: Its user-permission architecture, in particular, is precisely what we need.

And the winner is... [click to open envelope]

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Social Networks, Part 2

After adding the AddThis widget to my posts, I noticed several blogs using a widget from ShareThis, a similar service that launched in November 2007, about a year after AddThis. I tried signing up for a publisher account at ShareThis, but an alert box reported that this functionality was missing. Several attempts in two different browsers produced the same error. As a result, I was forced to sign up for a user account in order to obtain the widget code. Hopefully, the publisher signup will be available soon so that I have access to the widget's analytics, which are apparently not offered with user accounts.

ShareThis has an automated installation process, but it oddly places the widget between each post's byline and label line. Fortunately, they provide instructions for manual installation, so I was able to position it above the byline, opposite the AddThis button. Readers can choose the bookmarking service they prefer, though I'm not sure there is that much difference between them. Based on reader usage data and our evaluation of publisher support, we will select the service we use on Truth Rally result pages.

As you might have noticed, I replaced the Technorati widget near the top of the right-hand column with an AddThis button, which provides access to Technorati and dozens of other social networks. ShareThis doesn't currently offer a site-level widget for Blogger.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Me, Myself, and I

With my first post of 2009, I'd like to ask everyone to do me a favor by making the following New Year's resolution: "I will correctly use the words me, myself, and I." I don't mean to nitpick, but misuses of these pronouns epitomize the contemporary devolution of the English language, which I believe is worth saving. I'm certain that my readers already use these words correctly, so perhaps you can help me spread the word.

Over the years, I've noticed three primary misuses of these pronouns, which have become increasingly common. Each is typically committed by a different group:

  • The lower class use me when they should use I.
  • The upper class use I when they should use me.
  • The middle class use myself when they can't decide whether me or I is correct.

These mistakes are most common when the pronoun is conjoined with a noun phrase (e.g., "John and I" vs. "John and me" vs. "John and myself"). In these cases, it is easiest to determine the correct pronoun by removing the noun phrase and conjunction, and trusting your ear. If, however, you've been cursed with grammatical tone-deafness, then read on.

I is the nominative (i.e., subjective) case form, me is the objective, and myself is the reflexive and intensive, of the first-person singular pronoun. In layman's terms, use I as the subject (e.g., "John and I went to class.") and me as the object (e.g., "The teacher spoke with John and me."). And what about myself? This pronoun is used when the subject and object are the same person (e.g., "I spoke on behalf of John and myself.") or when the subject is given emphasis (e.g., "I did the assignment myself."). That's all there is to it. Simple, eh?

The other personal pronouns are similarly misused, but not as frequently. In any event, the same basic rules apply.

Go forth and spread the word. [Shakes fist.] Spread it!