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  • Newsletter Issue #400

    July 29th, 2007

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    On this week’s all-star episode The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we took a brief look at the latest quarterly financials from Apple and Microsoft with Joe Wilcox, editor of Microsoft Watch, who, once again, talked to us on his iPhone. It’s unfortunate that Wall Street got so embroiled in outlandish expectations about initial iPhone sales, and I don’t expect that’s going to change when Apple is involved.

    We also explored the best solutions for running Windows and Linux on your Mac with John Rizzo of MacWindows.com.

    In other show segments, you’ll discover how to find a host for your personal and business Web site, and what to do when your site becomes successful, with Denis Motova. In addition, author Sharon Zardetto, co-author of the new e-book, “Take Control: The Mac OS X Lexicon,” was on hand to entertain you with a mad romp covering Mac- and Internet-related terms.

    This week on The Paracast, we present a special all-star Roswell and State of the UFO Field Roundtable. This informative session features Nicholas Redfern, Jeff Ritzmann and Mac Tonnies.

    Coming August 5: Introducing John Greenewald, Jr., who manages a huge repository of paranormal and conspiracy theory information online at The Black Vault.

    In light of this week’s episode, you have to wonder if there any hope for progress in the UFO field? That question arises again and again as the in-fighting continues among researchers with not only different points of view, but sometimes having very similar approaches to the subject.

    Of course, this is nothing new. Back in the 1950s, the so-called “scientific” researchers were pitted against contactees, those who claimed to have made direct contact with entities from other planets. The position of the former was that the experiences of the latter could not possibly be authentic, and, to tell you the truth, I was inclined to agree with that approach.

    I mean, how could humans live on Venus, which is where some of the entities those contactees allegedly met claim they came from? Clearly the claimants must be lying or deluded, right?

    I thought that until one of those contactees told me and UFO researcher Jim Moseley, a decade later, that he thought that he had actually been the subject of an experiment by some forces within the government. Maybe he was just being self-serving, since the book about his experiences evidently didn’t sell very well. Or maybe he was telling the truth.

    Of course, these days, most of the entities reported in the modern-day equivalent of those contacts — UFO abductions — appear decidedly alien, and, when those creatures bother to communicate with us, they explain that they come from another system.

    That doesn’t mean they should be believed, any more than you could believe the blond Venusians who allegedly appeared in the desert back in the 1950s.

    WHY IS IT SO HARD TO BE EASY?

    The other day, I got involved in a lengthy debate over finding an easier way to install message board software. Now this may not seem to be a big deal to you, except when you realize that any site you visit that includes a discussion forum is using some kind of software to generate those features. It may be something home built or a third-party application, but that’s how it is.

    Now for The Paracast discussion forums, we use vBulletin, published by Jelsoft, a British company recently acquired by Internet Brands, Inc. It’s commercial, meaning you pay for a user license and ongoing support. There are lots of other forum applications out there that are actually open source, which means they are free, such as MyBB, which we use on some of our other less-trafficked sites.

    Alas, vBulletin suffers from some of the same deficiencies as its open source-based brethren, because the installation process is a throwback to the 1980s. Instead of just double-clicking an installer, you first have to manually place all of vBulletin’s files in a folder on your Web server. Then you must run an installer or upgrade script to set everything up.

    The manual file placement process is, in the scheme of things, not so difficult, except there are serious issues to confront if you’ve done any serious modifications to the software. You see, vBulletin is programmed in PHP, a scripting language, and all the files are open for power users to configure to their own needs. Sometimes it’s just to change the look and feel, but it also allows you to enhance the program’s capabilities, such as adding ad banners and other features.

    Now that’s where the fun begins.

    A lot of vBulletin’s formatting code is contained in templates that cover every element of your online forum, such as the buttons in the navigation bar, and so on and so forth. Every time the application receives more than a simple update, many of those templates are revised to incorporate enhanced security, improved performance, bug fixes and all the rest that you’d expect in a new software release.

    Unfortunately, if you’ve fiddled with any of those templates, you are left with the dilemma of how to reconcile those changes with the ones the publisher has made.

    If you thought manual file copying was drudgery, imagine the manual labor involved in comparing the old and new versions of those templates and then choosing whether or not to paste in your custom changes? Every step of the way, there’s room for error, and if you put the wrong stuff in the wrong place, your attractive online forum can end up looking like a mess, and that’s putting it mildly. So you’re forced to go back through all your steps to see where you went wrong and set things right, and that can take hours.

    Indeed, if this sounds so 1980s to you, I agree. In fact, I raised the issue on vBulletin’s own support forums, suggesting that an intelligent installer and/or patching mechanism might ease the process of performing these upgrades. Isn’t that, after all, the Apple way? Why are thousands of computer jockeys still doing all this manual, error-prone labor in the 21st century?

    Now you’d think that the people who inhabit those forums would welcome someone’s suggestion that things ought to be easier. I mean, vBulletin is updated every month or two, so I’ve had to endure several of these updates since installing the application last December. Of course, I keep my modifications simple, so I can restore them quickly and get on with my life. Some vBulletin regulars have performed hundreds of modifications that have to be reconciled to conclude the update process.

    Alas, the responses have been almost hateful at times. Some just accuse me of not knowing what I’m doing, suggesting that they’re not responsible if I can’t do the job properly. That, of course, has nothing to do with my request.

    The company itself wasn’t very helpful. They point to alleged security dangers in running online installers and all the rest, forgetting that Apple has managed to make it easy for you to install software on your Mac without confronting such consequences. Moreover, since many vBulletin users are running a Unix-based operating system on their Web servers, this should be second nature.

    I won’t get into the question of the Windows dilemma, though I fail to see why it should be more dangerous with the proper precautions, such as the regular need to authenticate an installer before it does its thing.

    Now you might just suggest that I should move to a different forum platform, to avoid having to deal with this head-in-the-sand attitude. Maybe you’re right, but I happen to like the way vBulletin runs, and the behind-the-scenes management interface. Our forum visitors do as well, and translating to another application isn’t always a seamless process.

    Worse, other bulletin board systems are little better, it seems, as they are largely developed in the same fashion with the same setup shortcomings.

    But I do welcome your suggestions. Meantime, it’s sad, very sad, that in this era of Apple’s ascendancy, so many people persist in believing that the hard way must be the better solution. Maybe that’s why so many millions continue to tolerate the mess that is Windows.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: SHOULD VERIZON WIRELESS HAVE SECOND THOUGHTS?

    It’s no secret that Apple went to Verizon Wireless before AT&T in is grand quest to find a suitable partner for the iPhone. Now, we can only guess at Apple’s demands, based on how the iPhone developed, but what’s important is that Verizon’s executives said no.

    Now it’s not just that 270,000 iPhones were sold during the first 30 hours, or that Apple appears poised to actually meet a sales goal of one million by the end of the September quarter. According to early estimates from AT&T, some 40% of the buyers of the iPhone switched from other wireless carriers. No doubt Verizon was impacted, though it’s not clear how much, or how this trend might continue.

    In the meantime, though, I would help the wireless carriers will try to learn a few lessons from Apple. I mean, their interfaces are almost universally dreadful. Even performing what should be a simple operation, such as backing up your contact list ahead of upgrading to a new phone, ought to be a fairly straightforward process, right?

    Certainly the combination of iTunes and the iPhone makes synchronization of contacts, music or whatever a usually smooth process. Verizon could learn a few lessons.

    Just this weekend, my son, Grayson, decided that his three-year-old LG phone had seen better days and it was time to consign it to the recycle bin at a local cell phone store. In its place, I bequeathed to him my Motorola RAZR V3c. Now he could have gone to the dealer and, for $10, had them transfer the 80 people in his contact database, but he decided to try Verizon’s Backup application instead, a move he quickly learned to regret.

    The problems first erupted during an attempt at online activation, where we got a message that we needed to call Verizon to complete the process. No explanation, but I had Grayson follow through with activating his replacement phone, after which we spent a few moments making sure he could make and receive calls on the RAZR.

    Then we tried to restore his contact list, and that’s where things got really interesting. Backup had already been installed on the RAZR, but we kept getting a peculiar error message about needing to install the “card” used when the software was first installed whenever it was launched. Verizon’s technical support was clearly befuddled, and finally suggested to Grayson that the phone’s firmware was corrupted and he needed to take it to a dealer for an update.

    Instead, I decided to try another solution. So I took the phone and used the “Master” reset and clear functions, to restore the handset to its factory configuration. The application launched, all right, but it wanted to link to my original online backup rather than Grayson’s.

    Another call to Verizon brought the proper solution, which was to unsubscribe to the application, reinstall and then Grayson was finally able to restore his contact list.

    No wonder many mobile phone features go unused. To be sure, the wireless phone industry ought to be frightened to death over the initial success of the iPhone. On the other hand, maybe they’ll learn something from the experience, such as how to design interfaces that aren’t so user hostile.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    6 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #400”

    1. […] Story continued in this week’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter. […]

    2. Magnus says:

      Not sure you should give vBulletin a hard time for this. We’ve not modified our forum that heavily but usually an upgrade is simply just to upload all new files, run the upgrade script, and that’s it. No big fuss really. Installation is not bad either. Upload files, set up database, run installation script, and that’s it. Personally I think you’re overstating the difficulties. That’s not saying it couldn’t be easier. They could put in a lot of effort into making installation and upgrade a lot easier, I’m sure. But then there is so much else I’d rather see before that happens.

    3. On July 29, 2007 at 9:23 pm, Magnus said:

      Not sure you should give vBulletin a hard time for this. We’ve not modified our forum that heavily but usually an upgrade is simply just to upload all new files, run the upgrade script, and that’s it. No big fuss really. Installation is not bad either. Upload files, set up database, run installation script, and that’s it. Personally I think you’re overstating the difficulties. That’s not saying it couldn’t be easier. They could put in a lot of effort into making installation and upgrade a lot easier, I’m sure. But then there is so much else I’d rather see before that happens.

      The issue really comes to the fore when you have modified templates. Then what is just a minor annoyance can become extremely cumbersome and trouble-prone.

      Peace,
      Gene

    4. John says:

      Being the creator of a custom content management system and the owner of a couple of websites running on WordPress, I can tell you that what you’re asking for is extremely difficult to do.

      To create an installer that can check the old installation for modifications and then patch around those modification is nearly impossible to do.

      What Apple does is simple. They create the software and simply upgrade the package that they created. Actually, if you think about it, even Apple doesn’t do such a hot job; what happens if you move one of Apple’s apps from where they installed it? What do you think would happen if you opened the nib file in any apple application and modified it? do you think that Apple’s update process would preserve those modifications for you?

    5. Being the creator of a custom content management system and the owner of a couple of websites running on WordPress, I can tell you that what you’re asking for is extremely difficult to do.

      To create an installer that can check the old installation for modifications and then patch around those modification is nearly impossible to do.

      What Apple does is simple. They create the software and simply upgrade the package that they created. Actually, if you think about it, even Apple doesn’t do such a hot job; what happens if you move one of Apple’s apps from where they installed it? What do you think would happen if you opened the nib file in any apple application and modified it? do you think that Apple’s update process would preserve those modifications for you?

      I envision something with several levels of automation, from fully automatic to, in the case of extensive modifications, something that would require user intervention, but would smooth over the chance for mistakes. Call it an intelligent installer, if you will.

      When I read about someone having to fix 97 different templates for a vBulletin upgrade, it was clear that there has to be a better way.

      In saying that, let me add that our WordPress installation used for this site contains approximately 20 plugins, which make a fair number of modifications to the look and feel. But most of the changes require no theme changing, and a few require, at best, minor alterations, such as putting in a placeholder to insert a certain element, such as the stock quotes.

      I can freely update WordPress versions without having to deal with these changes, assuming, of course, that the plugins remain compatible. And most have been, at least so far.

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. […] If you have direct access to your site via FTP, rather than some fancy front end, you can actually install your own forum software, and it’s usually not very difficult, so long as you’re not afraid of a little manual labor. Now in last week’s commentary on why things are sometimes unnecessarily complicated, I singled out vBulletin, from Jelsoft, as a major offender. […]

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