Apple vs. Dell/Microsoft

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4318 days ago

I have a MacBook Air that I used as my work (consulting) computer for 18 months or so. Then my new job gave me a Dell laptop that feels seriously inferior, but as with all things Windows/Dell, it is sufficient.

So yesterday I did something I’ve done hundreds of times before with my Air, but never before with my Dell: I closed the lid at the end of the day without shutting things down first, stuffed it in my bag, and went home. (I was in a hurry.)

On the Air, that reliably sleeps the laptop, and I can always trust that everything will be exactly as I left it when I reopen the lid, and the battery won’t have drained at all.

I knew not to trust the same thing on Windows, but I was in a hurry so I decided to risk it, and maybe if it turned out well I’d adjust my opinion about Windows.

So what did I see when I opened it this morning? A boot-time message telling me that the laptop had shut itself down because it was overheating, which usually happens because it is in a tightly enclosed space with the fan vents blocked. Like, say, a laptop bag. And by “shut itself down” they mean “hard power off, no saving your work”. And they mean that they waited until the battery was half drained to do that.

Now, I checked and I do have the laptop set to sleep when I close the lid. So it should have just slept, and it shouldn’t have been generating heat (although I’m not certain if the Windows sleep really does go that far), so it shouldn’t have had this problem. But it did. I’m guessing the culprit is Outlook, which often prevents rebooting because of third-party integrations that aren’t very well-done, so maybe it also prevented sleeping.

But then of course, the culprit is Windows for actually listening to Outlook and not putting the laptop to sleep.

And then Dell is really the savior here; faced with Windows not sleeping when it was supposed to, Dell’s choice was either to let the laptop overheat (and break permanently), or build a feature to shut it off when it begins to. So, thanks, Dell!

But more than that, thanks to Apple for making devices where I just don’t have to worry about crap like this!

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I picked a bag: Tumi T-Tech Presidio Filbert T-Pass Organizer Laptop Briefcase

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4375 days ago

(See my previous post for context.)

What? Seriously? Tumi T-Tech Presidio Filbert T-Pass Organizer Laptop Briefcase? Let’s break that name down:

  • Tumi: The company who makes the bag. Well known for making quality, well-designed bags.
  • T-Tech: The “collection” (i.e. all the bags in the T-Tech line share key features and styling).
  • Presidio: Uh… an even more narrowly-defined “collection”.
  • Filbert: The model name of the bag. (Really, Filbert? Someone thought that was a good name? As my wife says, this bag is royalty!)
  • T-Pass: The brand name they use for their “checkpoint friendly” feature.
  • Organizer: It has dividers for paper.
  • Laptop: It is designed to hold a laptop.
  • Briefcase: It is carried by handles and/or a shoulder strap, and doesn’t have a flap over the top (in which case it would be called “Messenger”).

So yeah, their marketing department needs to be sacked. What I bought was the Tumi Filbert Laptop Bag. But apparently that wasn’t confusing enough.

On the other hand, their product design department seems quite healthy – this is a great bag. Let’s review the criteria:


Laptop bag 4.0, backlogs, and story form

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4383 days ago

Laptop bag 2.0

Somewhere out there is a laptop bag just waiting for me to find it. But first, I have to spec it out.

Like Rands, I recently got laptop bag religion and I spent an excessive amount of time cogitating about features, price, tradeoffs, where to buy, and features again.

Then I got serious about it.

I haven’t yet found the bag, but in the meantime, I’ve written this blog post, because it provided the excuse I needed to really go batshit insane do a thorough job of my analysis. Not only does this post include a detailed list of requirements for my perfect laptop bag, but it also includes a glance into what I do in my life as a Product Manager. Hopefully one or the other of those is interesting enough to keep your attention :)


Green Man Gaming

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4672 days ago

A month ago or so, I spotted a slickdeal for a pre-order of a game we really want, from a company I hadn’t heard of called Green Man Gaming. The comments under the deal indicated that Green Man Gaming was reputable, and the deal would provide a Steam download code, which is my preferred way to buy games, so it seemed like a no-brainer to buy it that way and save $30.

Until I tried to actually buy it, and the purchase process was terrible – but this post isn’t about that. It’s about the nasty-gram I sent to them, and their response – which was fantastic.

Let me back up for a moment… I used to be a Product Manager for a software company, so I care a lot about software user experience. I get really angry when I see someone who did a piss-poor job of it. As a product manager, I also crave feedback from my users, so when I see bad work, I usually take the time to tell the company about it.

My experience with that has been frustrating. Usually the feedback process goes like this:

  1. Try to figure out how to provide feedback, discover that you have to enter it into a tiny field on a webpage.
  2. Type a thoughtful / angry letter into that field. Re-reread it, improve it, etc.
  3. Hit Submit, and have the web page lose everything I just typed because it has some secret field-length limit or time-based timeout that they didn’t warn me about.
  4. Paste the letter back into the field (because I’ve learned to copy it by now!), shorten it to whatever limit they are using, and hit Submit again.
  5. A few days later, get a generic form response saying “we are sorry for your troubles and we hope you understand that we serve lots of customers and sometimes these things just happen” – even though my feedback is nearly always about design flaws, not about incidental things.

I expected nothing better from Green Man Gaming, but I sent them a letter anyway. (And I’m sorry to say, re-reading it now, that it’s way more rude than it should have been, and now I feel shame about that.) I’m going to quote the part of it that describes what I had just gone through, and leave the rest out:

  • Register (ok, fine)
  • Fill out one of those stupid captcha things (ok, fine)
  • Re-enter my date of birth because you wanted it in the UK format, rather than US (but that wasn’t obvious at all)
  • Go back to the buy page and re-click ‘buy’ because your site lost track of where I was in the process
  • NOT use my American Express card that I use for everything, because you don’t take it
  • Have to skip past a bunch of fields on your site because apparently you can’t take the time to hide them / show them per card-type
  • Do another captcha, even though I’d done one just moments before
  • Have my card declined twice, and have to re-enter my details each time (!!!), even though there is money in the (debit!) account
  • Try another debit card, have it send me through the “verified by visa” process – and then STILL be declined!
  • Finally go back and change my email address on my account to the one that matches my paypal account (but that I don’t usually give out to websites), just so I could go through paypal.
  • Re-start the whole purchase process for some reason
  • Re-enter the captcha!!!
  • Pay via paypal
  • Oh my god, that actually worked!

You might have thought that I should have just given up, but hey, anything for a deal, right? ;)

So I sent that in, and expected a crappy form letter back. But instead, I got the exact opposite:

Hi Nathan,

I apologise for the problems encountered when purchasing from us; I’ll do my best to answer the problems raised.

- Captcha is a requirement and is used to reduce fraudulent transactions via ‘bots’. I agree, being asked again to repeat it is a pain; I’ll speak to the tech team regarding this.

- DOB, under the DOB field it does clearly state ‘Please enter the date in dd/mm/YYYY format’

- American Express. We are currently evaluating our current payment processing service and hope to offer American Express in the near future.

- Credit card declined; over the weekend we did see an increase in cards being declined; we believe this to be an isolated issue and are actively looking at how/why this happened and stopping it from happening again.

- PayPal email – This requirement is to reduce fraudulent transactions. It is possible to set up additional email addresses through PayPal and assign any of those as the primary email address instead of changing your GMG email to match your PayPal.

- Having to go through the purchase process again – your basket should not have been emptied. If this is happening, it is something that our technical team needs to address and I will certainly raise this as an issue.

We appreciate the feedback and we take all your criticisms on board and will actively address those issues to improve our service. I can only apologise again for the problems encountered and the inconvenience to you.

Martin – HCO Green Man Gaming

Wow! A reply from a real human who thoughtfully addressed my concerns! And more than that, he said they’d actually do something about them!

Here’s what I sent back:

That’s a GREAT reply – thank you :)

Just a few suggestions in return:

  • Once I’ve done one captcha (to get an account), it seems pointless to keep making me do more of them. You really need to not require captchas for account-holders, when checking out.
  • DOB: perhaps use geolocation to see if the user is in the US, and reverse the expectation? I know that’s probably not worth implementing, but if you do end up having a lot of US sales, this will be a constant problem for US buyers.
  • AmEx: I understand that not all retailers take AmEx, and I’m usually quite forgiving about it. It just seems strange for a website to not take it.
  • Paypal email: (a long paragraph explaining why I didn’t want to use my paypal email, which isn’t really relevant here)

Thanks again for the thoughtful reply!

An in return, they upped the ante again:

Hi Nathan,
Thanks for your response; just wanted to follow up on it.

Captcha; we’ve removed this from the payment page now – so you will only see this the once.

AmEx: The reason we don’t accept it is because I believe our payment processing company SagePay, doesn’t – we are looking at alternatives to this so hopefully, we’ll be able to offer AmEx soon.

DOB: – Great suggestion, but may take longer to implement than simply putting: DD/MM/YY in the text box – that should hopefully make it a bit clearer for people.

PayPal – thanks for your insight and obvious concerns with that. As I briefly stated in my earlier mail, this ‘hoops’ are there to reduce fraud. However, we are continually looking at ways of improving both our customer experience while maintaining a good level of anti-fraud measures and so I will pass this feedback on to the team.

Thanks again for your reply.


So, wow. My letter made it through to a real human who both replied thoughtfully and was able to actually implement changes to make things better the next time. Just, wow.

My hat’s off to you, Green Man Gaming – thank you very much! I’ll certainly be buying from you again.

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Boon, Inc.

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4693 days ago

Just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to Boon Inc.. (They make baby gear.) We have their highchair (the “Flair”), and we really, really like it. It’s easy to clean, easy to move around, easy to load Benjamin into (and out of)… it just does what it should, with no irritations.

And I’ve had to call Boon about it, twice. Both times, I called late in the evening and left a voice message. Both times, a real human called me back and just talked to me about my issues. For the first call, I was concerned that something wasn’t working correctly, and they explained that it was actually working as designed, and that if it worked the way I thought it should, it would actually be dangerous. (Imagine that – a customer service person who can reason about product design!) The second time, the brake on the bottom had worn out and was coming off. The chair was out of warranty, but they offered (without me asking or mentioning the warranty) to send me a new one if I’d just send pictures of the old one, showing the problem. I did, and they did.

So the point is, not only do they have great products, but they also have great customer service. Pretty darn rare :)

And looking around, I realize we have a bunch of their products, and we like them all: Flo, Grass, Snack Ball, Squirt, and Fluid.

So, thanks, Boon, for being awesome!

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$80 a year for a great, great service

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4852 days ago

Amazon Prime. If you don’t have it, you’re missing out on something great. Get it. You won’t regret it.

It’s $80 a year to get free two-day shipping from anything Amazon sells, and/or $3.99 (per item) for overnight shipping. So you pay for that once a year, and your whole shopping lifestyle changes, in a really great way.

Need something around the house? Go to Amazon (on your phone, if you have a smartphone!) and just hit “Buy now with 1-click” (if you have 1-click set up) and BAM! Two days later it’s at your front door.

Need baby supplies, because you’re about to run out? Spend 2 minutes on your phone, and two days later, they arrive. No need to make a special trip to the store.

Need a Christmas present at the last minute? Spend two minutes (er… maybe more than that, to be sure it’s a good one), and two days later, it arrives – and you didn’t have to fret about paying extra for fast shipping.

Two days is probably sooner than you would have gotten any of these things if you’d put them on your shopping list. And they probably cost less from Amazon, too.

Even if it’s big (e.g. two boxes of 250-count diapers, shipped monthly). Even if it’s small (e.g. watch batteries). Even if it’s food (e.g. the particular brand of basmati rice we like). Same thing: two days later, no extra expense.

And it seems to affect returns also, in a great way. For example, I just received a pair of headphones that I ordered. I opened them and found a broken part. I went to Amazon, clicked a few links to find my order, said I wanted to return it, typed in a description of why, and chose “defective” as the reason. Amazon arranged for UPS to pick up the defective one from my front door tomorrow (I just had to print a page to include in the box, and re-tape the box – UPS will bring a shipping label with them!). The replacement headphones will be shipped tomorrow, one-day shipping, for free, and will arrive the day after tomorrow.

Again, faster (and MUCH cheaper, considering gas costs and time) than having to go back to a store and refund it. And I don’t have to deal with waiting in line, or with annoying store clerks.

So: do yourself a favor. Try a free trial of Amazon Prime, to gain back a little time in your life, and enjoy the experience of having a really great service right at your fingertips, all year long.

(No, I don’t get anything from Amazon for writing this review – it’s just my way of saying “thanks” to them for doing something exceptionally well.)

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Why I switched from Menalto Gallery to SmugMug

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5190 days ago

Two posts ago, I described my struggle to figure out how to fit my Menalto Gallery album structure into SmugMug. In a comment to that post, one of the Gallery developers asked why I switched from Gallery to SmugMug. I started to reply in the comments on that post, but the reply got to be long enough that I thought it deserved its own post instead; this is that post.

Note that it’s fairly mind-boggling (even to me) that saw my post and responded to it in a single day; I wonder how he did that?



Most of my experience is with Gallery 1, although I do have a site using Gallery 2. Back when I first started using Gallery 1, it was really the only choice (this was before Flickr, even!) that had the ability to handle a large gallery like mine, had the key features I wanted, and would preserve all my images in original form. So it was really my only choice.

For a long time it did what I needed, and I was grateful for that. I told people about it, and about why I chose it. I know one or two people who ended up using it because of me, but most of my friends and acquaintances ended up using Flickr or similar sites.

But even though I chose it, and was able to use it, I didn’t like it very much. It was clumsy, hard to modify, and too complex. It was just my only real option, so I stuck with it. About once a year, I would try to find something else, and I never could.

So when Gallery 2 was announced, I liked the redesign philosophy, but I thought you all were nuts to try to rewrite a product from the ground up. I was certain that it would be a year or more before Gallery 2 was even close to ready, and in the meantime Gallery 1 support would wane, so I was pretty sure I’d be forced to choose another product. That didn’t quite happen – you folks kept supporting Gallery 1 – but it took a very long time to get Gallery 2 out.

So when it was actually released, I was pleasantly surprised… but then it took an even longer time for Gallery 2 to catch up to some of the basic features from Gallery 1 that I needed. (I forget what they were, now.) So I still didn’t have the replacement for Gallery 1 that I was hoping for.

But eventually Gallery 2 did have the necessary features, so I gave it a try… and it was confusing. Sure, maybe the code was much better this time around, and it was certainly more themeable… but it wasn’t easily themeable, and it was confusing as heck to administer and to teach my users about. So I gave up on Gallery 2, decided to live with Gallery 1, and to search more earnestly for a replacement.

Back then, I had my hopes set on ZenPhoto, but it didn’t quite have everything I needed, either. I certainly liked their “simplicity first” approach, though. It did eventually get to the point where it had all the features I needed, and that was enough for me to install it and start working in earnest to switch over to it.

And then I had a system failure that suddenly forced me to host my gallery on my own local machine, which had me terrified – if my house burned down, with it would go all my pictures. So I had to figure out a better hosting option. I considered renting a virtual server somewhere, but it’s hard to find a low-cost NetBSD host, and I didn’t really want to host on Linux. So I looked around at other gallery options, and found SmugMug.

SmugMug isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty great, and I like that they care (a lot!) about usability, and that they have humans on their support staff, and that they’ll take good care of my pictures. I like that I don’t have to administer the site myself. I like that they are a commercial venture, and are therefore forced to prioritize customer needs first, or fail as a business. I like that the features I find lacking, now, are features that I never even dreamed up, back on Gallery.

So now that Gallery 3 is coming out… it seems somewhat surreal. I first heard about it in an April Fool’s post on ZenPhoto, and when I followed the link to the real announcement of Gallery 3, I really thought it was an elaborate April Fools joke from you folks. I couldn’t believe you’d have the gall to say “when we went back to do it right, we did it wrong, so now we’re going to do it right again!” But it turns out that that’s really what you were saying, and that you really are giving it a third go-round.

Sure, maybe Gallery 3 will be better, and maybe someday I will find a reason to move off SmugMug. If so, I’m sure I’ll look at Gallery 3 (or 5, or 9?) and see if it fits the bill. But my default stance will be wariness – I don’t trust that you’ll ever get it right, or feel that you have gotten it “good enough” to just keep supporting (or evolving) the platform you are already on.

Of course, it now seems ironic that you posted your comment in a post titled Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress. It looks like we all struggle with the balance between those issues! Perhaps we should both take the lesson from this – that our customers won’t give us many chances to find our balance.

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Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress

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5198 days ago

As I mentioned in the announcement, I have a temporary photo gallery set up with some early pictures of Benjamin in it. But I password protected that gallery, not because of any particular security or privacy concerns, but simply because the gallery is not in its final home, and I don’t want to publish the gallery to the wider internet until it has reached said destination. Recently, a friend asked about the delay in posting more pictures, and offered to help resolve any problems that might be impeding progress. I wrote a very long reply, which I have quoted (mostly) below.

It is, I think, and interesting way to both reveal why I haven’t opened up the gallery, and to allow my readership to understand more about me. Because in this email, it is clear how my perfectionism and my pragmatism do battle, and how I usually seek to resolve such conflicts.

And if you do take the time to read all the way to the end, please feel free to provide any suggestions!

Let me explain the root problem(s):

I plan to switch my pictures from (which uses Menalto Gallery) over to use SmugMug, and in fact have already paid SmugMug for a year of service which has already elapsed. (I signed up over a year ago.)

I don’t want to start dumping Benjamin pictures into Menalto; I have numerous other albums (like Thanksgiving from last year) that I haven’t uploaded to Menalto because I told myself that I was going to force a hard stop on using Menalto, to encourage me to finish my switch to SmugMug. So I don’t want to break that rule for Benjamin, and I also don’t want to publish one URL for Benjamin pictures and then change it to another URL later.

I don’t expect to be able to use for my SmugMug site, because I have other users of my Menalto gallery who won’t want to have the URL change out from under them. So I’ll have to leave Menalto at the old URL, and come up with a new URL for SmugMug.

When I tried to convert my gallery over to SmugMug, I discovered a (frustrating!) limitation of SmugMug wherein it doesn’t allow infinite nesting of albums. Specifically, it forces me to organize my pictures in a particular hierarchy, either:

Category -> Album -> Image
Category -> Subcategory -> Album -> Image

So some of my Menalto albums are nested 5 or 6 layers deep, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm. Also, some of my Menalto albums have both images and sub-albums, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm.

So a long time ago (April of ’09) I started work on Smuganizer, a tool to help me convert my Menalto gallery over to SmugMug. That tool has grown into a fairly awesome product, but it isn’t quite done yet – mostly because it has a few important missing features, and the documentation is out of date (and misleading!). Note, however, that SmugMug has given me a free Pro account for as long as I continue to maintain Smuganizer, so I don’t currently have to pay for my SmugMug account.

And I’ve been using my SmugMug site as the test database for Smuganizer, largely because I don’t have any other available SmugMug account. So my current SmugMug site (which is entirely password-protected) is filled with random test data, and in unsuitable for public consumption.

Concurrently with all of this, I discovered Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free app from Microsoft that (finally!) just works the way photo gallery apps always should have worked. Really. I have always hated photo management apps, up until this now. Now, I tell people that they should use it. (It does have some major flaws/gaps, but they are not sufficient to keep me from loving it anyway.)

One of the major features of WLPG is that you can tag people in pictures (like Facebook) and/or add arbitrary tags to images and/or give ratings (1-5 stars) to images, and then instantly browse your whole library by those elements (plus by date). They also make it really easy to publish selected photos to arbitrary photo sites, like SmugMug. So suddenly I have a really strong desktop app for managing my pictures, and I find myself caring much less about putting my entire photo library online.

So I modified my plan about converting from Menalto to SmugMug, such that I have decided instead to download all my Menalto pictures to my computer, tag and rate them all there, store them there primarily, and only upload the best ones to SmugMug. In other words, use SmugMug much like a normal human would use a photo gallery.

Problem is, that takes a lot of time. I’m only about half way through my existing pictures. And I’ve been working on it for 6 months or more.

Note that this also makes Smuganizer largely irrelevant to my current needs :) (Except that Smuganizer can also be used to upload pictures from my computer, and to manage the pictures once they are on SmugMug, so it does still have value to me.)

Note that this also means I won’t have an off-site backup for my entire gallery any more (like I had when you were hosting my gallery). To solve that problem, I signed up for Carbonite.

Net effect, I have a bunch of things that theoretically need to be resolved before I start posting more Benjamin pictures to SmugMug:

a) Finish tagging my existing photos
b) Finish and publish Smuganizer
c) Delete all the existing stuff out of SmugMug
d) Figure out how to organize my SmugMug gallery
e) Get SmugMug set up on its permanent URL
f) Upload my ‘featured’ pictures to SmugMug
g) Upload the new Benjamin pictures to wherever they fit in that structure

Of course, I recognize that this will take a year or more, and that Benjamin pictures can’t wait that long. So I figure I have a number of options:

1) Abandon Smuganizer, don’t worry about the other pictures, and just clear out SmugMug and upload Benjamin pictures for now. That would only require steps © (d) (e) and (g) and could probably be done in a few hours.

2) Try to split my SmugMug gallery into a few “Testing” categories and then “everything else” and just password protect the “Testing” categories. Go ahead and upload the Benjamin pictures into their final home, while concurrently working on everything else.

3) Some other option I haven’t thought of yet.

4) Follow the original plan and just wait until it is all done before publishing more Benjamin pictures.

5) Publish the Benjamin pictures on the Menalto gallery.

So I figure you can help in a few possible ways:

i) Talk me out of the tree and just convince me to do (5)
ii) Help me with (d) so I can do option (2)
iii) Come up with an idea for (3)
iv) Talk me into (1) (Note that this is probably impossible)

So you can see my dilemma :)

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Giving up on Facebook

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5285 days ago

(I originally tried to post this on Facebook, but apparently Facebook has a secret post-length-limit, so I had to post it here instead.)

I will no longer be monitoring my Facebook wall / news feed / whatever.

Let’s list the problems with facebook:

  • It has five nearly-identical features (News Feed, Live Feed, Profile, Wall, “Nathan Arthur”)
  • The help for those features is unbelievably bad
  • The “Settings” pages are unbelievably complex
  • It has a million oddball features, but a horrible UI that makes you think those features do things that they don’t really do
  • It has a post-length limit that you don’t find out about until you exceed it
  • It has generally insulting advertising
  • It is rife with predatory applications (many disguised as games) that are just trying to steal personal information, or to trick users into spending money
  • And the coup de grâce: there’s no way to get an RSS feed for my news feed.

On that last point: apparently facebook doesn’t want you to be able to get your news feed via an RSS reader. I can get it just fine through a desktop application (and that’s how I’ve been doing it, for a long time), but if I want to switch to a web-based RSS reader instead, I’m just out of luck. And of course, it’s impossible to discover this in their help. (They seem to actively avoid addressing the question, thereby actively wasting a lot of my time.)

So, I’m done spending energy on something that has a net negative value.

But I’m not going to shut off my account. I’ve configured twitter and my blog to both feed into Facebook, so any of my facebook friends who do still want the occasional update from me can still get it via facebook. (Hopefully this blog post shows up there, so they see it!)

I will definitely miss the day-to-day updates I get from facebook, but it’s just not worth it for me to keep trying to fight facebook in order to use facebook. Facebook friends: if you do use twitter (and I encourage you to do so!), please follow me, and I’ll follow you in return, and all will be better.

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New "archive" page

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5831 days ago

I’m working on the next version of tru_tags and one of its major features is the ability to create a tag-based archive page, like this one. After implementing the feature, I tried it out, and I liked it so much that I decided to use it on this site. Specifically, I removed the old “About” page, merged some of that content into the “Links” page (and generally edited that page), and put the “Archive” page in where the About page used to be.

This should all make sense if you look at the menu links at the top of the site. For those of you reading this via the feed – click here to see it.

It’s a really interesting page to browse through – I find it strangely fascinating to see so clearly all the articles I’ve written, and how they clump together. I’ve also used it a few times as a faster way to get to a specific page. It’s somehow more powerful than the normal tag cloud, functionally and emotionally, and that surprises me.

Or maybe it’s just late :)

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Major site redesign

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5961 days ago

Inspired by my copy of The Principles of Beautiful Web Design, I’ve been working on a redesign of this site since last March, and I’ve finally finished it and published it. The redesign doesn’t change the actual content at all, and in that sense is somewhat unimportant. It does dramatically change the look of the site, though, and in that sense is somewhat interesting. I also took the opportunity to refactor the underlying code that generates the site, to make it easier to maintain and redesign in the future.