Sometimes I really do wonder why I bother…

It’s a new day and the sun is shining, I spent some time playing with my kids before starting work – I should be in a good mood.

Except I’m not… I’m actually feeling quite insecure – and one of the reasons is the comments I get about this blog.

Last week I wrote a piece about getting Vodafone Mobile Connect working on a Mac. In that post I linked to someone who had managed to speak to a suitably skilled technician at Vodafone who talked him through the process of installing the application as the root user. Thankfully that person blogged about their experience, I found his post on the ‘net and it helped me, so I did my bit to spread the message. Then somebody (for whom I can apply several four-letter words… but I won’t in public) leaves a comment which says:

“This bears no resemblance to my experiences. I have installed VCM [sic] on about 100 Mac Laptops now and have never, ever had to use the method you describe.

The standard installation works fine and is a hassle free process.

I get the feeling you are making a simple installation process complicated by looking for problems where there are none.

Your advice is incorrect and you really should not attempt to act as a source of knowledge on subjects you know nothing about.”

Well, great, 15 years in IT (not including the time spent in education before that), over 1300 posts on this blog, some of which have apparently been useful to others, and now the insults start to arrive. I responded, then stewed about it for a while, before deciding that I have better things to worry about and to ignore the comments… until I heard that my efforts aren’t necessarily appreciated by technology companies either…

…a few weeks back, I was sent some information from a (very large) technology company in which the e-mail said “please cascade as appropriate”. I thought that the information would be of interest to people reading the blog (even though there’s a lot of stuff I chose not to write about) but it seems that some people in the company thought I had breached an NDA (I did not and would not – indeed I have many blog posts stored up that I can’t publish yet because of such agreements) and that small blogs (written by real people) shouldn’t be reporting things that company blogs (written by marketing departments) should be spinning. I double-checked my source – it definitely said cascade as appropriate, which meant I was in the clear – phew! (Furthermore, thankfully, there are people inside that technology company who have been prepared to defend my position).

Right now it seems that I have a blog which is neither small enough to just take a few hours a week, nor large enough to pay the bills. If I write about real world experiences with technology, I get flamed by fanboys who tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about; meanwhile if I write about technology subjects that are less “hands on”, then the companies those posts relate to get jumpy. It seems I can’t win.

I spend a huge about of time writing on this blog and if I work out how much it pays me then it’s well below the minimum wage so it’s certainly not worth it from a financial perspective. I used to find the writing therapeutic but now it’s just something else that I don’t have time for in my day. I need a break… especially if all I’m doing is creating Internet noise. It would be a shame to undo 5 years’ work and to pack it in, but sometimes really do I wonder why I bother…

I hate blog spam…

As I write this, Akismet is telling me that it has trapped 1988 spam comments in the last 7 days and Bad Behavior has blocked a further 5437 access attempts from known “bad” IP addresses over the same period. That’s pretty alarming – given that this is a pretty small blog run by one bloke in his spare time (albeit one with quite a lot of posts)… thank goodness I have these tools to help me out (I’ve long since given up checking for false positives).

I do moderate comments on the blog and some of the spammers are pretty blatant – stuff with suspect links like the spam e-mails we all get in our Inbox – but, as far as I know, none of those are live on the site. There are others that are more devious and, despite my rules for comments being pretty clear that I don’t welcome blog spam, if their product links are relevant to the discussion, then I’ll generally turn a blind eye (although one guy did repeatedly spam me to promote his product and then had the nerve to e-mail and request a direct link – as you can imagine, my answer was not a positive one).

Then, this afternoon, I noticed a very sly spammer. Some time back, I wrote a post that commented on how, after Nationwide Building Society suffered the theft of a notebook PC with several million customer records, they wrote to my two-year-old son and asked him to show the letter to his parent or guardian! I (somewhat provocatively) titled the post “a lack of business intelligence” and this seems to have grabbed the attention of a blog spammer…

You see, when someone leaves a comment on this blog, WordPress tells me their IP address (as detailed in the privacy policy and data protection notice for this site). I’ve removed the commenter’s personal details but do you notice anything strange about the following comment?

Author : [name removed] (IP: [IP address removed] , inetgw04.unx.sas.com)
E-mail : [e-mail address removed]
URL :
Whois : http://ws.arin.net/cgi-bin/whois.pl?queryinput=[IP address removed]
Comment:
I have just taken a job as a CIO at midsize corporation and have been tasked with implementing BI within the organiztion. This is new territory for me as I was working at a smaller company basically insuring that the essential computing infrasture was in place to insure day to day operations. One book I was going to mention that has been helpful to me is Business Intelligence Books – Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App [link removed]. I would be intersted to hear what others are reading out there.

It’s the reverse lookup on the IP address that gives it away. So you are a CIO at a midsize corporation are you? Well your e-mail seems to have coming from a pretty large business intelligence company (although it’s not clear what they have to do with the book that is being promoted).

It’s not the first time that a large company has spammed this blog. After I criticised Dell for their customer service (and to be fair they worked hard to rectify the situation – for which I gave them credit at the time), someone called “Anonymous” left a comment which linked to a forum post showing HP in a negative light. I smelt a rat and checked their IP address – sure enough it was registered to Dell Computer Corporation.

I really do hate blog spam…

First post from Windows Live Writer

I have a strange relationship with Microsoft’s Windows Live services.  To some extent, I have the same issue with Google in that sometimes I find them really useful but then I get uncomfortable with storing all of my information "in the cloud", rather than on a server that I control (and don’t get me started on the data that the UK Government stores on me…).

Well, for once, Microsoft seems to have the right idea.  It may all be based around shoring up their traditional cash cows of Windows and Office, but instead of saying "forget the desktop… switch to the webtop", they are developing applications that bridge the gap between desktop and web (as are Google with Google Gears).

A few months back I wrote about blogging from within Microsoft Office and this is my first post using Windows Live Writer.  Although I’ve only been using it for a few minutes I’m impressed – and this is why:

  • Firstly, although the installer told me about the other Windows Live applications that I might like to try, it didn’t force them on me.
  • Secondly, it was perfectly happy to accept that I don’t use Windows Live Spaces for blogging.
  • Thirdly, it was able to detect the settings for my WordPress site without me supplying any more than a URL, username and password – and then the advanced settings were quite happy with the idea that I publish images via FTP rather than storing them in the WordPress database.
  • It also downloaded the stylesheet that I use, so as I write this (offline), I can see what the post will look like when I publish (there are options to view unstyled, with the layout that I use on the site, preview the post on the site, or view the code).  I can also see that it’s also using valid XHTML.

For the last few years, I’ve been writing on the train using Windows Notepad or gedit, then coming home and finishing the post with weblinks and additional information.

Now I can streamline the process with Windows Live Writer (including setting categories and a publishing date) so that the rework when I get home should be fairly minimal.

Links

Windows Live Writer team blog

Blogging from within Microsoft Office

I’ve just started using Microsoft Office OneNote again (last time I tried, I lost all my data after a hard disk crash and, as I’m so bad at backups, I stuck with paper for a while but now my bookshelf is getting a bit full of Black n’ Red spiral bound notebooks and it really is time I got back with the program).

Spending as much time on the road as I do, and looking at the state of my desk, I’m determined to progress towards a paperless office and I’m convinced that OneNote is part of that solution – even if you’re not using a tablet PC (I’m not), it’s just a great way to stay organised.

Anyway, tonight I found another great feature – the Blog This option in OneNote (actually it’s in Word, but OneNote exposes the option as a simple right-click). Just tell it your blog provider details and it will send the current page from your notebook to your blog. Epstein Llewellyn’s has written a great tuturial for WordPress users.

Those who’ve tried writing HTML in Word before will be pleased to hear that it didn’t even create any HTML bloat!

Spreading some link love

The rel="nofollow" attribute on HTML anchors was supposed to help prevent comment spam. Unfortunately, as Michael Hampton explains at length, NoFollow hasn’t worked – at least not based on the volume of comment spam that Akismet has removed since I moved to WordPress (1048712 spam comments detected as you read this post).

U comment.  I follow.Randa Clay has created an alternative – the I Follow Movement – sites that acknowledge the contribution that commenting makes to the blogoshere (avoiding the need to specifically add links to a blogroll in order to spread some link love). I figure that if NoFollow is not preventing comment spam, the least I can do is let the information people leave here in comments work for them in the search engines (at the risk that a few spam comments will still make it through).

Following Owen’s example, I’ve implemented the DoFollow WordPress plug-in on this site so URLs in comments will now (hopefully) be picked up by the Googlebot, Slurp, MSNbot, Teoma and others. Incidentally, if I specifically add rel="nofollow" to a link, it still works – so it’s still possible to block links that you really don’t want the bots to follow (robots.txt directives are unaffected too).

So, please, comment away – and consider doing the same on your site.

Blogging as a social networking tool

Many organisations have realised the value of blogging from a corporate marketing perspective but I’ve recently gained first hand experience of blogging as a social networking tool.  In general, any relationships formed as a result of blogging activities are online (whilst other tools such as LinkedIn attempt to convert personal relationships into more complex social networks) but I keep bumping into people that actually read the stuff that I write here!

Earlier this month, over lunch at the UK highlights from the Microsoft Management Summit event, I realised that the chap sitting next to me had left a comment on this blog a few weeks back and we got talking (Hi Dan); then, tonight I was back at Microsoft for a TechNet event about Windows PowerShell, where another chap introduced himself and said that he reads my blog (Hi Mike).  It’s happened before too – I work for a very large organisation and a couple of colleagues have commented that they knew me from my blog before they met me.

Now, just to keep my ego in check, I should remember that this blog’s readership is not enormous (although it has grown steadily since I started tracking the metrics) but bearing in mind that must of what I write is just my notes for later re-use, it’s really good when someone says “hello” and lets me know that they’ve found something I wrote to be useful.

Earlier this week, I added a contact form to the site and I still allow comments on posts (even if 95% of the comments are spam, I get some good feedback too).  So, feel free to get in touch if you like what you see here.  I can’t promise to write on a particular subject as that’s not the way this blog works (I write about my technology experiences and they, by their very nature, are unplanned) but it’s good to know that sitting here in my hotel room writing something late at night is not a complete waste of time.

Moving back to the social engineering point for a moment; it’s worth pointing out that the blogroll on this site is XFN friendly (XFN is a simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks).

Note to ego: I am a blogger, not a journalist

Last week I wrote about how I was expecting to feature in a couple of upcoming articles for Computer Weekly and The Independent. In future, I should remember that what is said to a journalist is not always the message that makes it to paper and what is written is not always what is published!

My part in Rob Griffin’s how to blog your way to fame and fortune article was short and sweet, but that’s fine – Rob was a nice guy to chat to and getting so much information into 1500 words is always going to mean that there’s only room for a small soundbites from the likes of me. I’m also a techie, whereas the target audience for the article was a typical consumer who’s heard about blogging and wants to give it a go. The original idea was that I might feature in a case study, but in reality I’m a small-time blogger who can cover his hosting costs and buy the odd gadget with his advertising revenue – nowhere near the £2000 a month that the chosen case study (Craig Munro) says is possible. In fact, whilst that figure is theoretically possible, most bloggers won’t get near that sort of income because it would be a full-time task (and someone who can write that much original content could earn more in a proper full-time job).

Computer Weekly’s pretty interfaces alone do not make a business case was slightly disappointing. I was asked to rewrite two existing blog posts into about 500 words for publishing in Computer Weekly. After a few hours of unpaid editing and redrafting, I submitted a piece entitled Windows Vista is finally here… but XP’s not dead yet; however editorial considerations have meant that just over 500 words became just under 300. I’ll admit that what was published was much punchier than my original submission, but it inevitably lost some of the background information and slightly distorted the message (this is what I actually wrote). Still, at least I got a link back to this blog from a well-respected publisher (which may help to drive traffic to the site – a cursory glance over my web stats reveals no evidence of that yet though).

So what should be learnt from this? Firstly, that bloggers are not journalists (at least most of us aren’t). Blogging is a time-consuming creative process that can be fun but is unlikely to make you a fortune. Secondly, print media is a hard world that takes no prisoners. If you submit something for publishing, expect the final result to differ from your original creation.

Introduction to blogging

The chances are, that if you’re reading this, you already know what a blog is. You may even know about RSS (or Atom). But for anyone who’s just stumbled across this site, Microsoft MVP Sandi Hardmeier has published a Blogging 101 that’s a really good introduction to what it’s all about.

When blog spam goes wrong!

A few weeks back, I wrote about a device (called Diesel Guard) that I’d been told to fit to my company car to help prevent accidental mis-fuelling. A couple of weeks later, someone posted a comment on the post about an alternative product (called MagneCap). At the time, I thought of it as a bit of friendly advice and I didn’t think anything more of it, but now it looks as if the comment was blog spam (which, incidentally, is specifically mentioned as prohibited in the rules for comments on this site).

The thing is, that at the time of writing, this blog has a higher Google page rank than the official site for MagneCap. That means that if you search Google for MagneCap, what comes back is not what the owners of the MagneCap site would like to see:

Google search results for MagneCap

(especially as, out of context, the quote reads as if it’s MagneCap that’s the embarrassing product, rather than Diesel Guard!)

Yesterday afternoon, I received an e-mail asking me if I had any ideas to correct the “incorrect heading” but there is absolutely nothing I can do about Google’s index (which is quite correct in quoting the title of the page and a couple of lines from the blog spam comment). Either I, or the author, could remove the original blog spam comment (in which case I would also remove the following two anonymous comments, which I also suspect are blog spam as the timing is remarkable at 45 and 50 minutes after the e-mail asking for help…) but Google’s cached version will still be available online. I also suggested that MagneCap take out a paid ad so that their site appears above Google’s standard search results. Because I genuinely believe that this was simple product placement and not malicious in any way, I’m also writing this post, so that hopefully Google will pick this up as the next entry and it might become clear that MagneCap was not the embarrassing device which I originally wrote about.

Just like Aesop’s fables, there is a moral to this tale… if you feel like engaging in a bit of product placement on someone else’s website, ask them first. Or at least make sure the blog spam gives the message you want if only a few words are quoted out of context by a search engine.

Rules for blogging…

Back in February, I blogged about the dangers of blogging without your employer’s consent. My current employer does not appear to support blogging as an information sharing tool; however when I joined the company I asked if there were any specific guidelines regarding blogging other than the confidentially obligations as part of my employment terms and conditions (i.e. is it specifically prohibited). No response suggests to me that a) there are no specific guidelines and b) it is not specifically prohibited.

As my original post suggested, such grey areas can be problematic and as my blog seems to be building a reasonable following now, I’m reluctant to stop. For any IT (or PR) managers out there who want to allow blogging but are unsure how to keep it in check, below are some guidelines (reused with permission) from a previous employer:

Policy, guidelines and instructions for using blogs.company.com

This page includes policy, guidelines and instructions for using blogs.company.com

General Rules:

  • Take care not to disclose any other information that is confidential or proprietary to company or to any other third party, including project and client names. Consult the blogmaster if you are unsure.
  • Since blogs.company.com is a public space, please be as respectful to the company, our employees, our customers, our partners and affiliates, and others (including our competitors).
  • Be especially careful about releasing partner information which is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Again, if in doubt ask.
  • No profanity, no politics, no personal information.
  • We may ask you to stop if we believe it is necessary or advisable to ensure compliance with securities regulations or other laws.
  • Company reserves the right to remove any information which it believes contravenes these rules, any laws, our customer and partner relationships and agreements or shows us in an unfavourable light.

Guidance:

  • Be passionate about what you write, or don’t write it!
  • Publish as fact only that which you know to be true.
  • If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
  • Publicly correct any misinformation.
  • Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
  • Disclose any conflict of interest.
  • Note questionable and biased sources.
  • Post regularly; even if this is only once a month. Quality is better then quantity.
  • Don’t post too quickly. Take your time; spell and grammar check.
  • Once you start, don’t stop.
  • Keep it relevant.
  • Measure your effectiveness by seeing who is linking to you and who is visiting.
  • Monitor other blogs.

Guidelines for accessibility:

  • Do not use in-line font formatting – colour, size, etc. All control of font and paragraph styles should be done in the style sheet. If you are pasting formatted text in from elsewhere, go to the HTML tab and strip out any <font> tags.
  • All images must have an alt attribute. If the image is there just to look pretty, you may set the tag to null (i.e. alt=""); if however, the image has meaning (e.g. it’s a header or is not described in the text) then the tag must be descriptive. If in Internet Explorer (IE) you want to suppress the alt attribute from being displayed as a tool tip on mouse hover, simply set the title attribute to null which will override the alt text.
  • Do not use colour alone to communicate something.
  • Do not use the same text to refer to different resources on the same page (e.g. “Click here for more” at the end of every paragraph) and furthermore, make sure the link text makes sense when taken out of context (e.g. “Click here for more about .NET”).
  • Use ‘proper’ XHTML in the way it was intended to be used – i.e. don’t use markup that is intended to communicate structure for formatting. If you want something to be big and bold, don’t use the <h1> tag unless it really is a heading. Similarly if you want something to be italicised and indented, don’t use <blockquote> unless the text really is a quote. If something is a list, use the list tags to format it. Finally, use <p> to mark paragraphs, and not <br />.

For more information contact blogmaster@company.com.