Improving Your Website With Pictures

January 3, 2010
'NeXTstation Turbo Color 33MHz' by blakespot (via Flickr). CC BY licence.

'NeXTstation Turbo Color 33MHz' by blakespot (via Flickr). CC BY licence.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do lately is improve my web design skills and keep my eyes open for sites that I like or that do things in an interesting way.

One observation I’ve made is that most of the blogs that I prefer always use some sort of stock image for each of their entries.

One of my concerns about doing this myself has been the licensing ramifications of using pictures from the Internet. I’m certainly not in a position to take pictures of a relevant item for each topic myself. This is where a site like Sprixi.com is most useful. Sprixi is a relatively new search engine (they are still in beta) for images that generally have a simple-to-use license. The neat thing about it is that in addition to having links explaining the licenses in a very simple way. They can also add a credit to the bottom of the image, as you can see here.

I’ve decided to double credit the image just to stay on the safe side and as an experiment for how the image will look. They have a wide variety of images. There is a legal warning for a variety of types of images.The part that caught my eye though was:

We warn you to be careful using images of people and children, especially for commercial purposes. You will most likely need to get a “model release” from the people in the image otherwise you could be infringing on a right of privacy or publicity. Do not assume the subjects of photos have consented to have their image used for anything. The same goes for images of private property, events, landmarks, attractions, artworks and copyrighted material.

So this is not a cure-all for all the legal obligations that you could be put under, so be careful before using the site. However, this site is much better than using Google Images and stealing something from there without attribution.

I’m still a bit torn about how this picture looks with the current WordPress system I’m using, so I still haven’t decided if I’ll keep doing them. It is a nice experiment to try.

Do you have any favorite sites for images or other types of content? How about other cool design tips? Let me know in the comments.


Making the Google News Loophole a Noose

December 5, 2009

This week Google announced a plan to prevent unlimited access to newspapers like the Wall Street Journal‘s complete content. Normally, non-subscribers would have limited access to the complete text of articles on these newspapers. However, using Google News and typing in the headline or the topic and source:Wall Street Journal, you could easily and reliably get access to the complete content.

The Wall Street Journal is getting the most attention in this matter as their owner, Rupert Murdoch, had previously threatened to remove all of their content from Google‘s search engine and go over to Microsoft’s upstart competitor Bing. (It’s kind of funny to consider Microsoft an upstart at anything nowadays, but so be it.) That didn’t materialize, at least not yet, but it is something Murdoch will continue to hold in his back pocket.

The new program Google has started is called the program First Click Free. Reports say that you’ll be able to use the loophole I’ve just described five time a day and then you’ll be treated as the non-subscriber that you are. I mention the reports because I don’t see the clearly described in Google’s blog entry on the subject.

Now, what is a Techeap user to do? There are a couple of options. The first and most obvious to me is to simply switch search engines. Google News is certainly not the only news aggregator that can use this technique. Bing has its own news aggregator and there are many others. If you are a technically savvy user, you could change your referer and tell the browser that you are coming from another site.

However, the problem for the Wall Street Journal and any other paper continues. Previously, I’ve talked about the problems that newspapers face, and those issues are still out there. The business model for online news has simply not been perfected and until that happens content creators are tasked with the difficult job of making more with less.

Do you have any ideas for fixing these problems? Let me know in the comments…or fix them and make a lot of money. 🙂


It’s Like Being Friends…with Audio

September 19, 2009

Sometimes you come across an interesting service that seems useful, but you aren’t exactly sure what to do with it.

Well, that’s the situation that I’m in with AudioPal.com. My previous post (if you linked here from somewhere, you can go to the main page at www.techeap.com to see both posts) shows you what this service is.

You go to AudioPal.com, call a toll-free line, enter a personalized code, and record a message. You give them an e-mail address to send the code to link it to your website. It also offers integration with many blogging services, including this one at WordPress.com. This makes it pretty convenient to add it to your site.

The drawback is that it only offer :60 of recording time. That really isn’t very much to do anything that amazing. I could see doing a contest or giveaway using a system like this. However, if you had a decent microphone at home, you could probably record something with better quality by yourself.

The site is very easy to use, and I’m impressed that they are offering this for free. This is serving as a way to market their other site at Sitepal.com. There you can get speaking avatars to talk to people logging in to a web site at a variety of different price points.

Now I’m left with an interesting service with which I can’t figure out any useful things to do.

Do you have any ideas? Let me know in the comments.


The Redbox of Doom

September 12, 2009

It’s the cheapest legal way I know of to see one new DVD release and this, if you take their word on the subject, means doom for the movie industry.

In my area, it’s called Redbox, but other similar companies include DVDPlay, Moviecube and DVDXpress. The idea is that you pick a movie from the machine, put in your credit card and out pops a DVD. You are charged a low amount (usually $1) each day that you have it out. If you lose it, you are charged $25 for not returning it and that’s the end of the transaction.

These machines usually pop out around grocery stores and pharmacies, which are very happy to have people coming back to them every day with a chance of picking up a few extra items.

The machines make money because there is very little overhead and increasingly they are able to get DVDs at wholesale cost, so it takes very few rentals to make a profit. Finally, some of the owners of the machines sell the DVDs as used after they’ve been rented out for a while, so they make money on both ends of the arrangement. Consumers pay much less for renting the DVDs than they would from a rental store and much less for buying a used DVD then they would pay for it as new.

Of course, as the New York Times reports, not everyone is happy with this arrangement. 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner Brothers are refusing to sell DVDs to Redbox until 28 days after a DVD has been released. The thinking goes that who will pay full price to buy a DVD or rent it from the cable company with the markup that they charge when they can get it from Redbox for a dollar.

Sony, who is one of the companies that has signed a deal with Redbox, got them to agree not to sell their DVDs as used and instead the destroy the DVDs after they left the boxes. This is probably one of the best solutions for both sides, as DVD rentals can still happen at a reasonable rate, but the movie companies won’t cannibalize sales of their DVDs.

It will be interesting to see the development of this market as Blockbuster plans to enter the market with their own line of kiosks.

Have you used these kiosks? Are they in your area? Let me know in the comments.


Yale and Berkeley at a Techeap Price

July 25, 2009

I loved getting my college education, however, I did not love (and still don’t love) paying the bills for it. So what’s a good way to get some of the benefits of a college education without cashing out for thousands of dollars?

On-line lecture series. (Isn’t it interesting that the plural of series is series? No? OK, then.)

There are a variety of sources to get on-line lectures, with the most obvious being at Youtube. My favorite, however, is AcademicEarth.org. The site is very well-designed and easy to navigate. You can search for a particular topic you are interested in, or browse through a series of different subject areas, schools, or professors.

The most impressive part of the site is the quality of the instruction. Professors from Yale, Berkeley, MIT and more have entire courses available for you to listen to or watch.

This is where another great design move pays off. They have RSS feeds of the lectures in both video and audio format. You can just pop them into your everyday RSS reader and just pull off the next lecture as you finish the previous one. The organization is stellar and I found a breeze to get through the technical part of using the site to the actual content.

I listened to the class on economic game theory from Yale’s Benjamin Polak, and was very impressed. How much you get out of the class. of course, depends on what you put in. I did not, however, buy the books or do any out of lecture reading assignments. I basically just listened to the lectures and thought about them during the day.

I found an amazing amount of applicability to this particular class in my every day life, though. For example, there was a leak in the ceiling of my apartment.  I would call the superintendent every couple of days to see that it would get fixed. For weeks this went on and nothing happened. It was only when I started calling and visiting his family every day, or to use the economic terms, when I added costs to the delay of fixing my ceiling and improved his payoffs, that he actually came to fix it.

While this is a pretty simple example, if you decided to listen to this particular course,  I think you’ll find a lot of application in your life like I did. It is pretty friendly to people who are uncomfortable with math. There isn’t a lot of it in the course, and in the lectures, you can safely ignore or skip over the sections that deal with the theory behind the examples.

So for a college experience that may not be so different from what many graduates actually did in college, check out AcademicEarth.org.

If you have any great sites for learning or education, just throw them in the comments.


Write Rightly

July 4, 2009

I’ve been thinking about my writing on this blog lately and wondering if I’ve been writing on appropriate level. My goal is to write clearly that a person not into technology in general can get something out of any given post if the topic is of interest to them. However, I also want those who follow the field, who I suspect are at least a good portion of readers here, to not be bored.

I wondered if there is any (free, of course) way to objectify some of these goals. At about that time, I found an interesting list of writing tools for bloggers and other writers at a publication I wasn’t familiar with, Smashing Magazine.

One that seemed of particular interest to me was Advanced Text analysis. Back when I used Windows ’95 (Yikes!) and Microsoft Works (Double Yikes!), one of the features that I liked was a readability grade. It gave you an idea of how complicated a text was by analyzing how many long and multi-syllabic words were used in your document.

The folks at UsingEnglish.com are giving you that tool and many others, but most of them require that you be registered.

Here are some of the results of the analysis of my last 10 blog posts.

Readability:

Overall Sampled Calculated Grading
Hard Words: 538 13
Long Words: 1,046 21
Lexical Density: 26.56 % 68.91 %
Gunning Fog Index: 12.38 12.30 Hard
Coleman-Liau Grade: 17.85 9.29 9th Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.40 8.31 8th Grade (3 years)
Flesch Reading Ease: 64.06 70.82 Fairly Easy: 6th Grade
ARI (Automated Readability Index): 15.69 8.55 8th Grade
SMOG: 11.03 11.06 11 Years (Some high school)
LIX (Laesbarhedsindex): 40.91 37.48 Standard

In some ways, I’m happy to see that my writing is not too complicated, but it seems that I might consider upping the bar a little bit. As a point of reference this article describes the writing level of various publications.

The thing that really struck me though were the values of different words used.

General:

Overall Sampled
Characters (all): 29,174 641
Characters (words only): 22,988 507
Words: 5,106 119
Different Words: 1,356 82

With over 5,000 words generated, I had only used 1,356 total words. That’s a pretty staggering figure to me. It may mean I need to vary my word choice a little more, or that I should talk about some different topics.

This is really only the beginning of the analysis on the site, and you can find lots of interesting and frankly not so interesting pieces of data about your writing.

Hopefully, you won’t find this analysis too self-indulgent, but if you are fellow or blogger or doing writing somewhere else in your life, it might be worthwhile to put your text through the analyzer and see what you get.

If you find some interesting results, let me know in the comments.


Grammar Rules for Twitter (Eventually)

June 6, 2009

Since it’s been almost two months since I’ve talked about microblogging site Twitter, I suppose it is time to go to the old war horse again. This time I want to discuss the language and grammar of Twitter and how with the help of a new non-profit could actually become codified.

On the Get Satisfaction message boards for Twitter I had posted a call for a Twitter grammar guide, or at least some official guidelines from the company. After a couple of bumps to get the subject noticed a friendly fellow user added what she had done as a presentation for work to get her company on board with Twitter. While it was a nice gesture and I agree with her conclusions, it lacked the official response for which I was hoping.

To quote her response here:

“I made this for a presentation at work:

Twitter = Platform
Twit = One who Tweets
Tweet = What the Twit is doing
Tweeps = Your favorite Twits
Tweeted = What the Twit did

“A twit is one who tweets on Twitter with their Tweeps” “

While I’m not very keen on Twit being someone who Tweets, the logical alternatives I’ve come up with aren’t very good either. (Twitterer? Tweeter? Twitter user?)

It is worth mentioning that this is not merely a semantic exercise as you can see how the grammar of Twitter can lead to embarrassment in this Stephen Colbert appearance on Today.

So what will save us from this grammatical abyss? A wiki, of course. The Microsyntax organization is hoping to solve these issues with their new wiki at http://microsyntax.pbworks.com/.  This wiki is a bit different from something like Wikipedia in that they are hoping that discussion will take place in the background before edits of people’s pages are done. I fear that this model may stifle the growth of the page, as I wonder how many people are going to be interested in doing the work necessary to succeed in “identifying, researching and finding consensus on information syntax.”

I do wish them luck, though and since they did get a posting about the effort on TechCrunch that may go a long way in getting them the attention they need to make this a success.

If you have any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments and if you want to follow me, I’m @dustin_gervais on the site.