TextBar Drupal module for Markdown and Textile

Michael Geary | Sat, 2005-02-26 12:44
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Here’s a treat for Drupal users who support the Markdown and Textile input formats on their sites. The TextBar module adds a formatting toolbar for these input formats to Drupal’s content and comment texarea fields.

To try out the TextBar right now, you can comment on this message. (You don’t need to save your comment unless you want to :-) but you’ll be able to try out the toolbar while editing it.)

You can try it with both the Markdown and Textile input formats (and if you select the Filtered HTML format the toolbar will disappear). The Textile input filter is not actually installed on this site, though, because of a conflict between the Markdown and Textile modules. So you won’t be able to actually post a comment in Textile, but you can see how the TextBar generates Textile codes.

New version of FriendsLight

Michael Geary | Mon, 2005-02-21 01:09
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I turned off the page border completely. I think it looks a lot better this way. Also turned off the underline for hover, and replaced the gradient fill in the heading with a solid color. The gradient fill probably looks great on a CRT, but on my ThinkPad it is streaky and distracting.

Will revisit the other issues later.

Here’s the new version. Enjoy!

New Drupal themes

Michael Geary | Sun, 2005-02-20 12:50
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Steven Wittens has put together a nifty new Drupal theme called FriendsElectric. Here’s a discussion about the theme and a live demo.

Inspired by Steven’s efforts, I made a few little changes to his theme and called it FriendsLight. It’s a work in progress, but I like it better than the other Drupal themes I’ve tried.

Drupal is my (current) favorite content management system for building community websites. I keep trying other CMSes but keep coming back to Drupal.

Bugs

Michael Geary | Sun, 2005-02-20 12:38
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There are always bugs, aren’t there? I noticed that my code to remove the right sidebar for admin and editing pages only works if you use clean URLs. I’ll fix it to work with either kind of URL. Also, the footer text seems too big and bold. Anything else I should fix while I’m at it?

FriendsLight Drupal theme

Michael Geary | Sun, 2005-02-20 11:28
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Here is what I changed in FriendsElectric to arrive at FriendsLight:

  • Removed all the negative character spacing to make the text easier to read.
  • Replaced the graphic margins with a smaller white margin all the way around.
  • Moved the footer text into the main column instead of below the left sidebar.
  • Made the footer text larger and bold.
  • Changed some of the link colors to make them less lipsticky.
  • Added a light gray background color when hovering on most links.
  • Removed the bullets on the “by Author” and “Author’s blog” lines in each post.
  • Moved the “by Author” line up to the top of the post, below the title.
  • Fixed a bug where short page content caused the sidebar shading to be lost.
  • Lightened the text color of the primary and secondary links.
  • Added code to remove the right sidebar on all admin and content creation/editing pages.

If you like these changes, thank Steven Witten for making a theme that is so easy to change. If you don’t like them, blame me. :-)

Vonage, Si! WRT54GP2, No!

Michael Geary | Fri, 2005-01-07 16:41
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We got Vonage phone service at home a few weeks ago, and it has been just great. For $27.24/month total cost, we get unlimited calls to the US and Canada, with caller ID, voicemail, and all of the custom calling features the phone company offers and then some. I especially like the simultaneous call forwarding, where incoming calls ring both the Vonage line and another number (such as a cellphone) at the same time, and I can pick up the call on either one. The service works with our existing phones, and we are porting our old landline phone number to Vonage.

I found out about Vonage while shopping for a router at Circuit City. (Don’t laugh, it’s the closest store with a decent selection of computer stuff.) I was going to get another Linksys WRT54G, but then I saw they had the WRT54GP2 combo router and phone interface, so I got that instead. I figured with the router and phone interface combined, I wouldn’t have to worry about any quality of service (QoS) issues.

Big mistake. The first WRT54GP2 wouldn’t work at all. I spent an hour on the phone with Vonage tech support with no success. The replacement worked fine, but there was a problem in the sound quality that I couldn’t stand: a constant background noise similar to the sound a 56K modem makes after it’s connected. I thought, “This is what Vonage sounds like? It stinks!”

I got back on the phone with Vonage hoping they could do something about this, but the problem wasn’t with their network, it was noise being generated inside the unit itself. Even with nothing plugged into the WRT54GP2 but a phone and power, I could hear the noise. Reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere have noted the same problem.

So back this went and I got a regular WRT54G router and a separate PAP2 phone interface. The WRT54G connects to the cable modem as usual, and the PAP2 sits behind it on the LAN side. I updated the WRT54G to the latest firmware, which does support QoS, so I could give priority to the port the PAP2 is plugged into, and we were off and running with fine sound quality and hardly any background noise.

Subdivide your Netflix account

Michael Geary | Fri, 2005-01-07 01:47
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Netflix has a new feature in the works. You will be able to subdivide your account into “profiles” with their own queues and mailing addresses. If you have the typical 3-at-a-time Netflix program (meaning you can have three discs checked out at once), you could split it into three different profiles, each one effectively on a 1-at-a-time program. Or you could have one profile with 2-at-a-time and a second profile with 1-at-a-time.

I got an unintentional sneak preview of this feature when I went to the Change Shipping Address page on Netflix today. It looks like the Related Questions section on this page was accidentally linked to information about the profile feature instead of information about changing your address. In this section is a link to an Assign DVDs page, where you are supposed to be able to split up your queue to your different profiles, but the link doesn’t work.

If Netflix actually does roll this feature out, it will be very cool. But they may want to change the name: They already have something called a “profile” that is completely different (it’s a page where you can publish your reviews and comments).

Update: Account profiles are now available. If you go to your Netflix account you can create them. Here is more information about profiles.

You can also filter the Netflix site by movie rating for each profile. I’m going to use this to create a separate profile for our kids to log in and see only the family and kid-friendly movies.

100,000

Michael Geary | Wed, 2004-12-29 08:32
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And a million without their homes. Our prayers, and our tears, go out to everyone affected by this disaster.

Wikipedia coverage: 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake Affected countries USGS animation More Wikimedia

Cyberguys does it again

Michael Geary | Wed, 2004-11-10 17:18
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Where does Cyberguys find all these things? This month they have singing magnets (toss them in the air and they sing):

Singing magnets

A wallet made of duct tape:

Duct tape wallet

A USB aquarium:

USB aquarium

And a USB snowman:

USB snowman

Oh, they have all kinds of practical things too.

(Updated 1/17/2005 to fix broken links)

Basic Firefox tweaks

Michael Geary | Wed, 2004-11-10 16:39
category

Get Firefox!

Mozilla Firefox is a mighty fine browser right out of the box. If you haven’t tried it out yet, I highly recommend it.

Firefox is also highly customizable. Here are some basic tweaks that make Firefox even better.

Fonts

The first thing I do when I install Firefox is open the Tools/Options dialog and adjust a few of the settings there. On the General page, I click the Fonts & Colors button and choose better fonts. By default, Firefox uses the mediocre Times New Roman and Arial fonts. Georgia and Verdana are much more readable choices for the Serif and Sans-serif fonts.

I also change both of the Size (pixels) settings to 18, and the Minimum font size to 14. Finally, I change the Display resolution to 120 dpi to match my Windows setting.

Here are my font settings:

Firefox Fonts & Colors dialog

These are tuned to look good on the high-density 1600 x 1200 15” display on my ThinkPad. On a lower-density display you may prefer other settings, but in any case you’ll find it worthwhile to spend some time in this dialog.

The Display resolution setting has an unusual user interface. You don’t specify the resolution directly; instead you select Other… in the dropdown combo box, and then another dialog pops up with a line you’re supposed to measure. That’s nifty, but I just wanted to set it to 120 dpi, so I tried various values in the dialog until I found that 6.35 centimeters was the magic number.

Downloads

By default, Firefox saves all downloaded files on your desktop. I keep a Downloads folder with subfolders for the various programs and files I download. So back in the Options dialog’s Downloads page, I set it to Ask me where to save every file.

Tabbed Browsing

In the Advanced page of the Options dialog, I change the Open links from other applications in setting to a new window. The default setting is the most recent tab/window, which I don’t like at all. When I click a link in some other application such as my email client, I don’t want it to replace a website that I had already open, I want a new window.

Firefox’s tabbed browsing is wonderful, BTW. I use it to group related sites together in a single window. For example, I often investigate several topics in parallel. Typically I start by opening a new Firefox window and doing a Google search. Then I hold down the Ctrl key and click on various links from the search results. These pages all open as tabs in that same window.

Then I may have some other topic to research, so I open another new window and repeat the same procedure. So each window contains a set of related search results. It’s a great way to organize related pages, and you can save the entire set of tabs in a window together in a bookmark folder to re-open them as a group later.

Extensions

Firefox has hundreds of extensions available from the official site and the unofficial Texturizer site. I like to keep my Firefox lean and fast, so I only use a few of them. Here’s my basic set:

IE View

Alas, there are still some websites that are hard coded to work only with Internet Explorer, and IE View makes it convenient to get to those sites.

Clone Window

I like the way IE duplicates a window’s current state when you use Ctrl+N to open a new window. Firefox by default opens your home page in a new window when you use Ctrl+N, and if you use Ctrl+T to open a new tab, the new tab is blank.

I like IE’s window cloning, so the Clone Window extension fixes this. I set its Options to New Window command should open: Cloned Window and New Tab command should open: Cloned Tab.

Clone Window isn’t listed on the official Firefox update site, so when you click the installation link it you’ll get a warning at the top of the Firefox window that www.pikey.me.uk is trying to install software on your computer. Click the Edit Options button which will open the Allowed Sites dialog, then click Allow and OK. Finally, click the installation link again to install the Clone Window extension.

Googlebar

Firefox includes a basic Google search (along with several other searches) in its standard toolbar, but it doesn’t have all of the features of the Google toolbar for IE. The Googlebar brings these goodies to Firefox. One thing it doesn’t have is PageRank, but there are a number of variations of the Googlebar that include PageRank.

Like Clone Window, Googlebar isn’t listed on the official Firefox update site yet. The installer is located here (or via the link above). Follow the same procedure described for Clone Window to install it.

There are a lot more extensions than that. Every time I look at one of the Firefox extension sites I see something else I’m tempted to try, such as the nifty Wayback extension which gives you easy access to historical versions of sites from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Keyboard shortcuts

You probably know that Internet Explorer lets you go to a .com site without typing the www. and .com; just enter the domain name without those and hit Ctrl+Enter. Firefox does that too, and it also lets you use Shift+Enter for a .net site and Ctrl+Shift+Enter for a .org site. So, you can type “archive” in the address bar, hit Ctrl+Shift+Enter, and you’re at the Internet Archive.

You can increase the text size of any site (any site) with Ctrl+Plus (you don’t need the Shift key, so I suppose it’s really Ctrl+=, but it’s easier to remember it as Ctrl+Plus), and decrease the text size with Ctrl+Minus.

Ctrl+B opens the handy Bookmarks sidebar. Even if you like to use the Bookmarks menu to access your bookmarks, the sidebar is a great for creating them. To the left of the site address (URL) in the address bar there is an icon for the website you’re viewing. Drag that into the Bookmarks sidebar wherever you want it. (If there’s no icon, the blank spot to the left of http: will work as an icon anyway.)

The rest of the keyboard shortcuts are listed in the Firefox help.

Sorting your bookmarks

Firefox displays its bookmarks in some peculiar order by default. You can easily sort them by name, though.

For the Bookmarks menu, open the menu and right-click on any of the bookmarks, then select Sort by Name.

You can sort the Bookmarks sidebar (Ctrl+B) by opening the separate Bookmarks Manager using Bookmarks/Manage Bookmarks. On the View menu are several sort options which apply to the Bookmarks sidebar as well as the Bookmarks Manager.

Advanced tweaks

Fans of Reason Magazine’s lively Hit & Run blog may have noticed that the text on this blog comes out really tiny in Firefox, because of some unfortunate font choices in in the style sheets used on this site. This is likely to improve now that some of the Reason staffers have switched to Firefox.

But there’s no need to wait for Reason to fix their site. The font settings I listed above will fix most of the problems at Hit & Run. The one remaining problem is that the type used for comment text is still too small. It’s easy enough to fix this with Ctrl+Plus, but a better fix is to override Reason’s style sheet. If you don’t mind a bit of text editing, this is easy to do.

First, you need to find the “profile” folder for Firefox. On a Windows 2000 or XP system, this is located in:

C:\Documents and Settings\your name\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles

That’s a hidden folder, so you’ll need to use Tools/Options on the Windows Explorer folder window and go to the View tab, then turn on the Show hidden files and folders option.

On a Windows 98 or Windows Me system, the Firefox profile is likely to be in:

C:\Windows\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles

That location may be different if you’ve enabled multi-user settings in the Users control panel. If you don’t find it, use Start/Find/Files or Folders to search for the Firefox folder.

Inside the Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles folder on your system, you’ll see a folder with a name like v7qf3bzn.default. This is your actual Firefox profile folder. Firefox uses randomized names like this to help protect your profile against intruders.

Inside that folder is a folder called chrome. This is where you can do some interesting customization. In a fresh Firefox installation, there are two files here with a few examples of what you can do. userChrome-example.css is for customizing the “chrome”, things like the menu bar, toolbars, and such. userContent-example.css is about the content of a web page, and it’s the one we’re interested in here.

Copy userContent-example.css to userContent.css and then edit that new file. Add this text to the end and save the file:

/* Override Reason Hit & Run comment style */

div.comments-body {
  font-family: Georgia,serif !important;
  font-size: .95em !important;
}

Now close all Firefox browser windows, re-open Firefox and visit Hit & Run again. The comment text will display in the more readable Georgia font at a decent size, instead of the small Times font it uses by default.

One limitation here is that changes in userChrome.css apply to all sites that happen to use the same style tag, so this may affect other sites besides the one you want to customize. But it can still be very useful for sites like this.

Update: added installation information for Clone Window and Googlebar, and bookmark sorting information.

The Firefox vote

Michael Geary | Tue, 2004-11-02 15:31
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Looking at political party websites in Firefox tells me a little something about each party. (Click images for full size versions.)

The Republicans may be able to pack two grammatical errors into one sentence (“In 2000, less than 17,194 votes decided five states, and 55 Electoral College votes.”), but they have a big tent and Firefox visitors are welcome:

Republican Party in Firefox

Popups? We don’t need no steenkin’ popups. And the scrolling banner at the top is awfully annoying, but it offers an interesting optical illusion: Stare at the live GOP site for 30 seconds or so, and then look at the screen shot of the same site. Your eyes will tell you that the screen shot has a scrolling banner too, moving the opposite direction.

The Libertarians may have a very small tent, but it’s a friendly one:

Libertarian Party in Firefox

No problems with Firefox here, and no scrolling banner to play tricks on your eyes.

How about the Democrats?

Democratic Party in Firefox

Well! We are not using an approved browser, are we? Firefox users are not welcome here. You will use IE or you will use nothing.

Does it get better if we scroll down the page?

Democratic Party in Firefox

Oh. That’s easy to read, isn’t it?

One of the reasons I switched to Firefox is that I can override the font size of any website by simply using the Ctrl+Plus and Ctrl+Minus keys. What about the folks who are still using IE? Can they change the font size of a website? IE does have a Text Size button, but it only works for sites that are gracious enough to avoid absolute font sizes.

What if an IE user needs really big text because of poor vision? Do these sites allow it? Let’s take a look at each one in IE with the Text Size cranked all the way up. (No large versions this time, since the point is to show how the sites might look to someone who can’t see well.)

Republicans:

Republican Party in Internet Explorer

Democrats:

Democratic Party in Internet Explorer

It is nice to see that the Democratic Party actually does have a website (as long as you’re using their approved browser). And why should you be able to choose your own font size, anyway? The Democrats, just like the Republicans, have already picked out the font that they know is best for you.

Libertarians:

Libertarian Party in Internet Explorer

True to their philosophy, the Libertarian Party is the only one that lets you pick your own font size instead of being stuck with theirs.

(Where’s Ralph? Sorry, I got too tired to make that many screen shots. Summary: He’s Firefox-friendly, but just like the Demos and Repos, he knows what font size is best.)

Daylight Saving Tax

Michael Geary | Sun, 2004-10-31 09:27
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How many clocks did you have to change today? This year I’m pretty lucky. I only had to change 19.

Of course, I’ll probably find a few more in the next few days.

Here’s the list so far, for our family of four:

  • Oven
  • Microwave
  • Answering machine
  • Two wall clocks
  • Four cameras
  • Sony reverb (yes, it has a clock)
  • Two thermostats
  • Three alarm clocks
  • Fax machine
  • Sprinkler system
  • Two cars

Some years have been worse. I recall changing 28 clocks about ten years ago. That was before my computers adjusted themselves for daylight time. For a while that made things even worse, though: I was dual booting Windows 95 and NT, and when the time changed, both OSes decided to adjust the time for me. So I was an hour off in the wrong direction.

Now I do all my software testing in VMware virtual machines, and I’ve given up on putting those on daylight time. I let them run on standard time all year around, otherwise it gets too annoying. Revert to a snapshot and it will want to adjust the time all over again.

I do have one atomic clock that set itself back to standard time automatically. But my daughters have atomic clocks that didn’t, and I don’t see any way to change them unless I turn off the radio synchronization and set them manually. Must research this.

I can’t wait for spring, when we do it all over again, and probably get to church an hour late.

Whose idea was this? Democrats? Republicans? A pox on both their houses. The Libertarians would never pull a stunt like this.

Update: Roy Green informs me that it was not the Democrats, not the Republicans, and not even the Libertarians, but my hero Benjamin Franklin!

Installing OpenOffice (sigh)

Michael Geary | Sun, 2004-10-17 16:01
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“Hey Mike, we just got a new HP computer from Fry’s. They said it was ‘fully loaded,’ but it doesn’t seem to have Word and Excel on it. My daughter needs those to write her term papers and stuff. I don’t know why they aren’t there. Can you put them on the computer for us? I guess that’s kind of like piracy or something, I don’t know much about that. Can you help us out?”

“Sure, Mary, I can help you out. No, I can’t put Microsoft Office on your computer. But have you ever heard of Open Source software? It’s completely free and legal to give away copies. There’s a great program called OpenOffice that should do everything you need. I’ll burn a CD for you [Mary just has a dial-up connection] and bring it to church tomorrow. Then give me a call when you’re home later and I’ll talk you through installing it. Don’t just run the Setup program without talking to me first. Since you’re running Windows XP, there are a couple of little things you need to do specially when you install it.”

Couple of little things indeed. I almost wish I’d given her that pirated copy of Office she wanted. Then I could have just said, “Take the CD home and put it in your CD drive. It will install automatically. Have fun!”

Instead, we spent close to an hour on the phone.

You see, you don’t just install OpenOffice, not if you have multiple user accounts on your XP system like Mary and her daughters do. The normal OpenOffice install doesn’t know beans about multiple users. Instead, you have to first unpack the downloaded setup program (I did that ahead of time and put the unpacked version on the CD). Then you do a “network install” from the command line by running the Setup program in the unpacked directory with a /net option.

Finally, you log into each user account and hunt down another Setup program, this one located in the Program Files directory where OpenOffice was installed. This second Setup is where you enter your name and initials and other information, like what happens automatically with Microsoft Office. It also asks you a really confusing question about Workstation vs. Local installation, but luckily the default is OK.

All of this is after you’ve installed Java. (I did plan ahead and put the JRE on Mary’s CD.)

Now, Mary is a smart lady, but she’s not a technogeek, and she’d never even heard of a command line. I’d love to get all my friends set up with OpenOffice, but I don’t want to spend an hour on the phone every time. If OpenOffice is for normal people and not just geeks, it needs a setup program that works smoothly for a multiuser Windows installation, a single setup with no command lines and no special switches.

(Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s Open Source, so instead of complaining I should submit a patch…)

Acrobat, won't you please, please help me?

Michael Geary | Sat, 2004-10-16 13:31
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Adobe Acrobat has a feature where you can put a PDF file on your website and invite other Acrobat users to mark it up with comments directly on the Web. I was working my way through setting this up, when Acrobat asked me:

Acrobat, won't you please, please help me?

Uh, sure, no problem, click OK and the message box is closed. Let’s go find that Reviewing dialog and open its Online Commenting Settings. Hmm… Now which menu is that on? I don’t see it anywhere.

Oh, that’s right, they meant the Preferences dialog. Reviewing panel. Got it.

I don’t see a Reviewing panel? Oh! It was the Online Repository panel of the Preferences dialog, that was it! Hmm… Not there either. Where is this panel I’m supposed to fix?

Um, what was I trying to do in the first place? I forgot!

Confession time: I work at Adobe, on the Acrobat team, so this dialog is as much my fault as anyone’s. No, I didn’t write this particular piece of code, but I didn’t fix it either.

And it may not that easy to fix. If you develop software, especially if you work on large programs that have been around a while, you know how it is.

Does your software do this? I bet we’re not the only ones.

Computers are really, really good at following directions. I’m not. If a program can give me a four-step procedure to follow, why can’t it just do it itself?

Task Manager "tiny footprint" mode

Michael Geary | Sat, 2004-10-16 13:03
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A few months ago, Raymond Chen wrote about an obscure “feature” in Windows that makes Task Manager’s titlebar, menus, and tabs disappear, with no apparent way to ever get them back. This is called Tiny Footprint mode, and Raymond described it as

… one of those geek features that has created more problems than it solved. Sure, the geeks get their cute little CPU meter in the corner, but for each geek that does this, there are thousands of normal users who accidentally go into Tiny mode and can’t figure out how to get back.

The fortunate may find Microsoft’s Knowledge Base Article describing this mode and how to get out of it. Others are not so fortunate. One of Raymond’s commenters spent three days running antivirus software trying to find the problem. Another gave up and reinstalled Windows from scratch!

Well, after seeing all those complaints, I stayed far away from Tiny Footprint mode and didn’t give it a second thought.

Until one day, when I was working on a bug and I wanted to watch Acrobat’s memory allocation and GDI and USER handles. I was getting really annoyed with how much screen space the Task Manager was taking up. It’s odd that Task Manager has such a large minimum window size.

Then I remembered Raymond’s article and gave it a shot. I double-clicked in the whitespace in Task Manager’s window, and not only did the title and menu bars go away (which I didn’t care about one way or the other), but I could resize the window as small as I wanted!

Task Manager Tiny Footprint Mode

Now I use this mode all the time. Task Manager is a lot more useful when it can target just the information I want instead of taking up a big chunk of my screen.

It is unfortunate that there’s no easily discoverable way to get back out of this mode, but once you know that it just takes a double-click, there’s no real problem at all.