CleverClogs

Experiments in writing, by Marjolein Hoekstra @OneNoteC

Archive for December, 2006

Instant On-site Facts: AnswerTips Enabled on CleverClogs

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I’m very excited to introduce AnswerTips here on CleverClogs. Quietly launched on the CBSNews website last October, the service required some additional fine-tuning before Answers.com gave me explicit permission last week to embed their code into my blog and to explain what it does.


Answers.com

Before you continue to read, please try AnswerTips for yourself: double-click any word on CleverClogs. You’ll notice that a nice call-out pops up showing the Answers.com page for that topic. Here’s a screenshot of the Bay Area AnswerTip, for example, taken from my previous blog post Tagged Twice: the Blog-Tag Game:

Answertip_bay_area

This screenshot not only demonstrates how visually attractive AnswerTips is, but also that it is capable of performing a contextual analysis: as you can see I double-clicked the word "Bay", adjacent to "Area" and logically AnswerTips presents me with the AnswerTip for "Bay Area".

Historical Background
Two years ago I wrote a rather extensive review of Answers.com in the blog post Instant Reference Library Becomes Free: 1-Click Answers—how AnswerPages were now being offered for free and what the desktop utility 1-Click Answers was like in every-day use. After this I engaged in an ongoing and at-times intense conversation with Answers.com product manager Gil Reich. Although the name AnswerTips didn’t surface yet in these chat sessions, we definitely talked at length about the pros and cons of turning 1-Click Answers into a universal feature that would allow web publishers to offer topic definitions on their web sites. 1-Click Answers pointed in the right direction, but we agreed it wasn’t ideal yet: people would still need to install a piece of desktop software, they’d have to memorize the Alt-Click keyboard-mouse combination and it seemed more natural to offer an inline pop-up instead of opening a new browser window with the topic page.

During 2005 Answers.com made available what is now known as the AnswerLinks feature: web site owners could point to individual AnswerPages and make the links stand out by using specific attributes of the <a href> element, such as the green dashed underlining and a mouse cursor in the shape of a question mark. Still, this feature requires some effort on behalf of the web site author and it doesn’t seem to have been widely adopted so far.

What I was asking for was basically a Javascript implementation of the 1-Click Answers behavior: people would be able to alt-click or double-click on any word in a browser window and then miraculously a widget with the relevant topic page would appear. No installation should be required on the end user’s side. Web publishers would only have to insert a piece of Javascript in the <head> section of their source code and needn’t worry about proper HTML mark-up after that.

Having dismissed the whole idea over time as being unfeasible, I still couldn’t resist bringing up the idea once again in a chat with Gil last August. Gil replied immediately, mumbling something along the lines of: " … wait until you see what we’re working on."

After Gil’s unmistakably clear hint I didn’t let go of the idea and kept reminding him that I was still interested. Then ‘finally’, last October, Gil pointed me to the CBS News site and said "go to their site, and click on any word". I was flabbergasted and kept nudging Gil to let me blog about it. Last week I received the long-awaited go-ahead—some browser-specific glitches had been ironed out and I could get started.

Implementing AnswerTips on CleverClogs took me less than two minutes: I had thoroughly studied the instructions that Michal Gorlin Becker of Answers.com had sent me. It was a mere cut and paste operation: I selected the piece of Javascript and put it into my TypePad templates, made sure I adjusted the value of the ANSW.nafid variable to the unique one that Michal assigned to me, rebuilt my blog and that was all there was to it.

Answers.com also provided an animated GIF that I put in my sidebar to indicate that my site now offers double-click functionality.

Answertips_implementation

Pre-selecting from Homonymic Definitions
Some topics, names and abbreviations are so ubiquitous that you may want to point to a particular topic page: in such cases publishers can override the default behavior and use a disambiguating AnswerTip hyperlink using the following HTML code:

<a href="http://www.answers.com/topic/harry-potter" 
class="bulbLink" onclick="return ANSW.b5.SendQuery
(this,'harry-potter');">Harry Potter</a>

Applied to the name of Harry Potter a direct link to his topic page would then appear as Harry Potter

Some afternotes

Of course AnswerTips are enabled on the Answers.com website itself. I trust they will soon put up a page that lists other AnswerTips-enabled web sites.

Other Answers.com tools that I find very useful are the Firefox extension (Windows, Mac OS X and Linux), which enables AnswerTips on any website, and
1-Click Answers (Windows, Mac OS X), which enables AnswerTips within all of your desktop applications.

It’s probably needless to say that I’m very impressed with AnswerTips. Please let me know if you agree that it’s an improvement to CleverClogs. I will definitely pass on your remarks to the Answers.com development team.

Written by CleverClogs

December 22nd, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Search Engine News

Tagged Twice: the Blog-Tag Game

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It started with Marc Slijper, who tagged me on his Dutch blog MarcNext yesterday. I must admit I had never seen Marc’s blog before. From his blogroll I understand he’s connected to several of my Dutch, RSS-enabled friends. I’ll definitely try to catch Marc’s posts about RSS from now on.  Then today my friend Chris Saad pulled me into the blog-tag game. So I’m now officially "it".

I’d be most interested to see a graphic presentation of how the blog-tag meme is spreading through the blogosphere, although some tell me privately it’s not really that new at all and actually really a boring game. I took it on as a writing exercise myself and use it as an excuse to introduce you to a couple of my dear friends.

So here are five things you may not want to know about me:

  1. I shared my whole school curriculum from age 5 until 18 with the same boy in my class room. I naturally fell in love with him more than once. I don’t believe the feelings were ever mutual, though. Ever since I secretly maintain a name list of those who fall victim to my charm.
  2. Deferment_for_dummies

  3. I’ve managed to make procrastination into that much of an art that I think I should write a book about it: "Deferment for Dummies". I try to hide my continually recurring writer’s block, for example, by pretending that sending out "have you seen this…" links to friends of mine is of a much higher priority than to focus on the next topic of my blog. My first blog AWesome, which deals with productivity tool ActiveWords, is still online but has grown embarrassingly stale. I picked up the passion again yesterday and wrote an ActiveWords script that basically opens two browser tabs about any Skype contact: one containing that person’s blog and another tab  with a Google Blog Search about that person. It was nice to play with ActiveWords again.
  4. I have an extreme passion for learning languages and proper word usage, up to the point where I sometimes make myself utterly ridiculous ("definately" and "recieved" being the most frequently made typo corrections in texts by native speakers of English). I’m told that I was born with a red pencil in my tiny fist, constantly improving other people’s language when I get the chance. Over time I learned that perfectionism is really not a good trait at all. Right now I’m learning Mandarin Chinese—my fourth attempt since 1994. This time my 6-yr old daughter Julia is kind enough to ruthlessly correct the shape and direction of my character strokes (I’m enjoying every minute).
  5. Shearing Sheep

  6. We own five ewe Shetland sheep. They live a pretty independent life on the field adjacent to our home. About six months ago I learned how to shear them by hand with special trimming scissors. This experience totally changed my relationship with the sheep. They have their own way of communicating and their own pecking order.
  7. Guy and Marjolein

  8. A few years ago my kids and I moved to the Bay Area so that I could carry a baby for dear friends of mine. The boy, Guy, turned three recently, is surrounded by the most loving circle of family and friends that I could ever imagine and constitutes the living reward of my giving nature.

I’m passing on the blog-tag token to these dear friends: David Tebbutt, David Rothman, Mark Lucovsky, Matthew Chen, and Amit Agarwal.

Written by CleverClogs

December 20th, 2006 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Art of Blogging

Creating a River of News Feed with mySyndicaat

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Over the past few months you may have come across several mentions of mySyndicaat in CleverClogs blog posts and in the Grazr widgets that I use. In short mySyndicaat allows you to publish RSS feeds as one news stream, also referred to as ‘River of News’ feed, or a newspaper. Some feed readers have this feed digesting capability inside their service, some even allow to publish custom feeds. mySyndicaat lets you publish feed digests and a whole lot more.

As it was about time to brush up my secondary blog RSS Tool Vendors, I decided to devote a blog post to my love for mySyndicaat. I hope you like it. Here it is: Getting Started with River of News Feeds: mySyndicaat.

Written by CleverClogs

December 12th, 2006 at 11:01 pm

Posted in RSS Tools

Making Offline Time Productive Time

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I’m not just a computer addict, I’m foremost addicted to finding stuff on the web: facts, feeds and friends. I’m told that I show severe signs of withdrawal when I’m without a computer for more than a day. Of course it had to happen: some external incident forced me to disconnect from the web. This post is about the activities I’ve listed should I ever find
myself forced again to spend several hours offline. I also point to the desktop and
productivity tools that I use on a regular basis.

Because of workmen cutting through my phone lines at the beginning of November, I was inadvertently offline for several days. The first part of that first day I spent negotiating in vain with the Dutch phone company about the cause and possible fix of this interruption of my precious DSL service. The remainder of that day I subdued to the phone company’s spurious problem solving techniques and decided to make the most of the offline time that was imposed on me.

Network_offline

Outages such as these don’t always come unexpected: these weeks I spent two times fifteen hours on planes to and from the US, which also forced me to think of things I could do on my PC while offline.

Switching from Desktop to Laptop
When I anticipate to be away from my desktop, I start preparing my laptop a couple of days ahead of time. I synchronize any notes, documents, contacts and any other files I might need from my Desktop. I backup my Firefox profile, preferences and extensions. I synchronize my feed subscriptions and I copy my entire email folder.

Then, about two days before I head out, I start using my laptop as if it were my main system. Given this grace period it is likely that any file that I work on on a daily basis will show missing in the case that I would have forgotten to copy it. Of course I also make sure that I have a spare, fully charged laptop battery with me.

The remainder of this post is about the activities I’ve listed should I ever find
myself forced again to spend time offline. I also point to the desktop and
productivity tools that I use on a regular basis. If you use any online flavor of these tools (Google Reader, Rojo, Bloglines, Newsgator Online, GMail, web mail), then you might as well skip these sections.

First Thing: Open Your Note Taker
Although this post tries to inspire you of thinking in the opposite direction, you’ll still likely run into things you just can’t do while you are offline. I suggest you open a digital notepad document or a task assignment page so that you can jot those to-do items down while they come up in your brain.

Compose Offline E-mail and IM Messages
Being offline doesn’t mean you can’t prepare messages to send off later. This is obvious of course for e-mail messages that you compose in your desktop e-mail client. But did you know that even IM chat sessions can be initiated offline from  the networks Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Windows Live Messenger?

Note that each network has its own way of delivering messages:
If Google Talk recipients are offline, they’ll receive their IM message delivered through the GMail web mail service.

Although Skype allows you to compose text chat messages offline, it does require sender and receiver to be online before these chat messages are actually delivered. Skype messages are never stored on a remote server: they remain on the sender’s computer until both parties are online.

Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Windows Live Messenger are capable of remotely storing a copy of sent out messages until the recipient gets online, independent of the sender’s online status at the time of delivery.

As far as I know AIM ignores offline messages completely.

Feed Reading
When offline I try to catch up with unread posts from the feeds that I care about most. My desktop feed reader BlogBridge fetches new feed items every 30 minutes, so from the moment that I get disconnected from the web I’m not more than half an hour behind the news. Then I go through my list of feeds and prune the ones that seem defunct and the ones that are no longer of interest to me. If you’re the scary type thinking you might miss important stuff: just as you could define an Evaluate category or tag for feeds that you intend to add to your list, you could also define a Purge category for feeds that you intend to remove after a certain time. More RSS housekeeping tips in my post 9 RSS Reader Housekeeping Secrets.

Whether you’re a professional in your particular field of interest, or someone with a list of feeds related
to personal hobbies, your feed subscriptions most likely reflect your attention stream. Whatever your profile, this may be a good time to make a backup of your feeds by exporting your feedsthem to an OPML file on your hard drive. If you haven’t backed up your feeds before: most RSS readers offer this functionality, usually from the File or Tools menu. Now that you’ve got a local copy of your blog roll, you might consider sharing your reading list with your web site visitors by presenting it in an OPML browser, such as Grazr or Bitty, as soon as your connectivity is restored.

Tag Your Interests—Outlining a News Radar
Talking about attention and interests: if you would like to stay informed about things that are important to you, you may consider to start building the foundation of your personal news radar by  collecting key words that describe you and your interests best. No surprise, my own news radars all relate to RSS and, yes, I’ve got some ego-trackers in place too. Consisting of a combination of several custom search queries, news radars grow organically and gradually become more complex over time. Once you get started, you’ll finetune the way you filter the news and most likely you will add new topics and remove obsolete interests as well.

My approach to building a news radar is that I constantly keep a text editor open (Boxer has been my preferred one for years) with my own list of keywords so that I can add new ones as soon as they come up. You could start out with the name of your blog, your own name, your profession, the topics that trigger your curiosity and anything else that you search for often. Put each keyword on a line of its own and make sure you surround word combinations such as your full name with double quotes: "Marjolein
Hoekstra". Include names of products and services that you like to stay informed about. Group your keywords if you consider that useful, otherwise leave everything in one group and order your keywords alphabetically so that it becomes easier to check for duplicates.

Once you become connected again, you can easily refer to your keyword list to create RSS-enabled queries in search engines such as Google Blog Search, IceRocket Blog Search and Technorati, simply by pasting the keywords into the query input box, if needed separated by the boolean search operator ‘ OR ‘, and pressing Enter. The resulting search feeds are then combined into a news radar (by some called a superfeed,  by others a feed bundle, or a River-of-News feed if you’re really a geek) using feed manipulation services such as mySyndicaat, FeedDigest or any other feed blending service. 

E-mail Inbox Clean-Up
Offline time offers the perfect opportunity to clean up your e-mail inbox. In the past my own inbox used to get cluttered with a couple of hundred messages all looking alike and without any importance flags, categorization, font color or font size variations that might have been indicators of the relevance of these messages. I was so annoyed by this recurring problem that over the years I developed a set of coherent rules and tricks to organize my stream of incoming messages, especially the ones from recurring senders. I initially intended to open my email trick box right here in this blog post, but, seeing how lengthy that section alone would become, I eventually decided to devote a separate post to it that I will publish right after this one (and insert the link to it here).


Browser Optimization

At times I reach the stage where I can no longer oversee my list of installed Firefox add-ons well. That’s when I need to decide which extensions stay, which ones go in ‘purge (= disable)’ state and which ones definitely get uninstalled. To give you an idea: I try to not have more than 20 extensions installed simultaneously, but that’s hard given my curiosity and the work that I happen to do. Sometimes I install a bunch of them at a time and forget why I ever downloaded them in the first place. As far as your add-ons do not explicitly require internet access, being offline needn’t keep you from evaluating their usefulness and exploring their Options settings.

And if, like me, you’d like to create a backup of your extensions and user profiles so that you can even transfer your configuration to another computer or share your preferred add-ons with your friends, then do read Lifehacker Adam Pash’  recommendation for FEBE + CLEO (whose download, of course, does require an internet connection 😉 in the blog post Download of the Day: FEBE and CLEO.


Desktop Wiper

My Windows Desktop is a pretty accurate mirror of my daily working procedure: I evaluate software that I download from the web (.exe, .msi, .zip files on my Desktop), I temporarily store screenshots, photos and other files that I receive through IM file transfers or e-mail attachments (all end up on my precious Desktop real estate), and I create my own daily bunch of work documents and screenshots. Every couple of weeks I scrutinize this mess of assorted icons, something that of course can also easily be done while offline: I run the executables that I haven’t installed yet, evaluate if they deserve further exploration and possibly blog coverage. I determine whether I want to preserve the download files in their appropriate subfolders or whether I might as well erase them altogether (as you may know, install files happen to become obsolete as soon as an update is released).

System Optimization
Usually I run other system optimization procedures too while I’m offline: I run a series of different spyware scanners (my preferred ones consistently varying between Webroot Spy Sweeper, Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy), a registry cleaner (AMUST Registry Cleaner getting my highest marks) and a drive defragmentation tool (Diskeeper 2007 Pro Premier). Lastly, I get rid of temp files in my Windows folder and any other files I no longer need.

By following these procedures every so often (honestly you could just fake being disconnected if you think they’re any good), you save yourself from getting stuck in a disorganized computer system. As for me: they are going to save me from any more panic attacks when my router shows signs of disconnection 😉

Written by CleverClogs

December 7th, 2006 at 8:28 pm