Hari's Corner

Humour, comics, tech, law, software, reviews, essays, articles and HOWTOs intermingled with random philosophy now and then

Conflict between style and utility

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Mon, May 16, 2005 at 17:14 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:30 IST)

Ever since I've got down to redesigning LiteraryForums.org (progress report on this coming up in the next community newsletter!) I've been thinking very hard about a certain issue that has eluded a straightforward answer in my own mind. It's a very simple question. When one gets down to design a dynamic website (in other words, server-side scripted, not static), does style (look, feel and design) come first or is the utility more important? In other words, should the web designer's focus be on style or should the focus be on features and utility? Mind you, I haven't mentioned the word "content" here at all...

Actually one might think that utility comes first. After all, who's bothered about the style of a website? Features should come first, right? For a long time I used to think so too, but these days, I'm not really sure. There are a couple of reasons for my dilemma.

First of all, a unique design certainly helps a website develop a certain sense of identity among your visitors. This is especially true of websites which need a reason to develop a faithful base of users, like a web forum, for its growth. A unique design also gives a sense of pride to you, the owner of the website. Last but not least, it is fairly easy to switch between different styles these days. Most present-generation server-side scripts for CMS, blogs and forums have some kind of a templating system that separates the functionality from the style, thus making it fairly easy to experiment with different styles before coming up with one that you like and can stick with. Almost nobody would use the default templates for most of these pre-built scripts because they end up looking pretty common as thousands of users download and use them (especially with the Open Source scripts).

On the other hand, is functionality as important as is made out to be? I've already mentioned in a previous blog entry (see phpBB: to BB or not to BB) about the disadvantages of "modding" scripts - customizing code and adding extra features and such - because maintaining and upgrading becomes a nightmare. Not only this, but I would add that some of the customizations and feature additions can actually end up adding very little value to a website while at the same time conflicting with a very real yearning for simplicity and elegance in design. A very good example of such a "useless feature" is avatars. Who can think of a more worthless, band-width sucking waste of disk and screen space than avatars: those annoying little images that members choose to place below their nicknames? And yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people consider them as an essential part of an online forum!

My take is that, while I always consider features to be of some importance, the design is equally important. In fact, most of your visitors may not care too much for all those features you might have, but will actually end up with a photographic image of your website design in their minds stored up for future reference. Since the design is the most visible aspect of your website and first impressions count a lot, it is so important to make a visible impression. And if you have to sacrifice a few "features" for the sake of a clean, elegant and (in most cases) professional design, then so be it.

But where does one find this right balance between style and functionality? At what point does a simple, elegant design conflict with "desired features"? I'm afraid I can offer no easy answers to that one.
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Spam Filtering in Google and Yahoo Mail

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 16:55 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:31 IST)

In the first place, let me mention that I get very little spam in my mailbox. Probably a couple a week (our ISP account gets flooded with them). So going by that standard, the free e-mail accounts I use are relatively spam-free. It may just be a natural consequence of my cautious nature in keeping my mail IDs fairly private.

Anyway, I have two e-mail accounts which I use. One is with Yahoo and the other is a gmail account. Both have spam filters and from what I have observed, I find the one in google mail to be far superior to Yahoo's "bulk mail" feature. For somebody who expected better results in Yahoo, this comes as a stunning fact. And I make my judgements on hard, practical experience over several months.

I have found Yahoo's "bulk mail" folder to be most unreliable. On more than one occasion, genuine e-mails have slipped through the inbox and fallen into the "bulk" box. On the other hand, spam does slip into the inbox rather more frequently. This has not been a one-time aberration but a regular event. Sure, you get the report spam options, but that's rather like the cure: not prevention. And as they say prevention is far better than cure. Especially when the disease is spam.

On the contrary, google mail's spam filter has been giving consistently better results. It is true that I get a lot more spam on my google account, but the fact is that the spam filter has had an accuracy of 99.99% in detecting spam so far (in my case) and even well-disguised spam mails (with ordinary looking subjects, plain text body with no images) have been consistently rejected. There was just one occasion when a spam managed to slip through its defences, but that's quite acceptable. Almost always I can be sure that the mail I receive in the Spam folder will be spam. With Yahoo, I can never take the chance of trashing my bulk mail before taking a glance at its contents.

An amazing fact, but I would have expected the more experienced Yahoo to be the leaders in this field. It shouldn't really have surprised me, though. It's not just in spam filtering that google has overtaken its competition...

Consider the fact that google has revolutionized the field of free webmail providers. In the first place, they made gmail the exclusive domain of a few beta-testers: making it all the more desirable in the eyes of everybody: a very astute move. Slowly and surely they expanded with the unique concept of "invitation-only" registration. They offered a mind-boggling 1 GB of mail space, which was unthinkable at that time. This has not only forced other webmail-giants like Yahoo to keep up with google as far as storage space is concerned (there were days when 6 MB was considered quite enough!), but google's innovative (some critics might say "gimmicky") ideas have been pushed rather aggressively and rapidly and not the least, the implementation of these ideas have been extremely successful. While Yahoo still keeps displaying annoying, full-blown graphical ads in my mailbox, with google, the annoyances never existed in the first place! Talk about revolutionary: their concepts have really made the competition look bad... and worse, obsolete.

How long google can keep this up is another matter, though. What is undeniable is that they have unleashed new, dynamic forces in the field of web services and one can only look forward to more innovations and advances in the future! I am an optimist and I believe that the rise of google can only mean more choices, higher value and better competition in the field of web services... and its a good thing for all of us.
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Debian and Gentoo: similar, yet so different - part one

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 11:47 IST (last updated: Thu, May 7, 2009 @ 21:09 IST)

Two Linux Distributions that are similar in many ways and yet so different... I'm talking about Debian and Gentoo. You can observe a bit of bias here, because I have both these operating systems in my computer and I can say that these two are my favourites. Of all the Linux distributions I've used, I have found Debian to be my best choice, closely followed by Gentoo.

So what is it about Debian and Gentoo that makes them so similar? Here are some of my impressions.

Firstly both are general purpose distributions (neither are particularly "tailored" or "customized" for any particular purpose). Both use built-in package management systems that makes installing and uninstalling applications a lot less painful than other distributions, mainly by resolving dependency issues automatically. Next, both these are easy as pie to maintain and upgrade and both provide stability as a priority by maintaining strict standards (especially Debian) controlling what versions of which applications make it to their package repositories. Rarely will you get "broken" applications in either unless you deliberately choose to use the unstable repositories. Thirdly both are extremely customizable to specific needs, though you won't find much by way of GUI configuration tools in either. But neither are too difficult. Gentoo, in particular, in spite of its scary reputation among newbies, is actually a breeze to configure once it's up and running thanks to the comprehensive documentation in the Gentoo handbook.

With Debian and Gentoo, what you get are two, well-tested, well-maintained, rock-solid, community supported distributions with considerable user bases. And Debian, in particular, has a long, illustrious history, being one of the oldest distributions (along with Slackware) in the world of Linux. I am proud to be a part of the Debian community because Debian's success can be seen in the way so many newer distributions (like Ubuntu and Mepis among others) are based on it. And no wonder: by first hand experience, I can only say that there is a certain "comfort-factor" with Debian that I cannot find in any other distribution. Not even Gentoo.

In the next part, I will cover some of the differences in the philosophy and approach of these two Linux distributions as I see them.
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Six (and a bit) months of LiteraryForums.org

Filed under: Site management by Hari
Posted on Thu, May 12, 2005 at 10:55 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:53 IST)

As promised, here is the first issue of the LiteraryForums.org newsletter! This is indeed a good time to sit back and take stock of the first six months (and a bit) of LiteraryForums.org.

Six months: 1000 odd posts, 60 odd members with an average of about 10 registered members per month doesn't seem much. And it isn't. But more on this later.

Let me first highlight some positive achievements of LiteraryForums.org. First of all, let me take this opportunity to thank all those members who have registered and taken an active part in the discussions. In particular I'd like to thank all those of you who have posted articles to enhance and enrich the site's content. And a special thanks to those of you who were kind enough to link to our site in their signatures in other forums. I certainly appreciate these small, but vital gestures that can help in spreading the word, expanding the community and enriching our ideas and knowledge. Please do continue to support us in this way: you have my sincere gratitude.

The community has been growing slowly but steadily. There have been no flame wars and almost no spamming till date. This is a credit to all those who have participated. The quality of posting has been kept to a high standard and I am pleased to say that our moderators presently have very little work to do. The only moderation that I've ever done is moving a couple of topics around to their correct forums. It's been a pleasure to lead such a well-behaved and mature community.

On the flip side, LiteraryForums.org hasn't really taken off the way I thought it would. Six-odd months and I expected at least to see 5000 posts and 100+ members. Still, it's not the statistics that bother me, but the fact that only a small fraction of the registered members who have actually taken an initiative to post new topics and start fresh discussions. Another strange aspect is that while the website statistics show a steady rise in traffic, this traffic hasn't really converted into community participation effectively. This has certainly baffled me and has baffled a few others as well.

These are some points that needs to be worked on and I urge all those who have registered but haven't been participating in the forums to do so. If you have trouble starting off, then a good idea is to begin by introducing yourself to the community.

That said, my hopes are high. They say that content is king. Going by the axiom, content is certainly a strong point of LiteraryForums.org. Quality comes above quantity and thanks to our members, this has certainly been the case. Hopefully the same quality will be maintained in the future with a lot more participation from the book-loving community.

Yours Sincerely,

Hari (Forum Host)
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Linux System Administration GUI: webmin

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Thu, May 12, 2005 at 08:32 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:08 IST)

Are you one of those people who believe that Linux equals the command-line? Do you believe that to effectively configure and control a Linux box, you need in-depth knowledge of the command line? If you are a typical newbie, your answers would be "yes" to both these questions. And this can be a troublesome conclusion to make, because getting to know the command-line effectively (apart from the basic commands like ls, dir, cat and such) can be time-consuming and, to most people coming from a Windows background, will involve a considerable learning curve. There will be some frustration and a resulting loss of productivity. While I cannot dispute the statement that the command-line gives a lot of power and flexibility if you are a power user, I must mention that there are alternatives to the command-line, which surprisingly do not get much attention in Linux-related debates and discussions.

And one of the more powerful administration tools for Linux (and a host of other operating systems: check here for a complete list) is webmin. Webmin is a web-based administration tool that can be used both remotely as well as locally and is platform independent, which is a great advantage. Merely by typing in https://<servername>:10000 as the URL in a web-browser (where <servername> is the IP address or the host name of the webmin server and 10000 is the default webmin port) you can administer almost every aspect of your system. Webmin comes with a variety of modules to cover most aspects of server and system administration and is a tool that can be used by novices and experts alike.

There are definitely other GUI tools for Linux System administration, but most of these are distro-dependent. Fedora and RedHat have their own native GUI administration tools as well and these serve the purpose equally well. But for a totally platform-independent solution, I would recommend webmin.

Linux need not be the exclusive domain for the "experts". Tools like webmin go a long way towards helping newbies gain control of their Linux box and administer every aspect of their system. Though, of course, nothing beats the command line and editing configuration files manually, as the Linux experts would point out to you, webmin serves the purpose quite adequately. Any aspiring Linux administrator should add this to his toolbox.
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phpBB: to BB or not to BB

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Wed, May 11, 2005 at 11:40 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:30 IST)

Of the current generation of online forum software, phpBB is one of the most popular scripts to power a bulletin board. Being Open Source, phpBB has gained a huge following among a wide audience who cannot afford the more powerful, secure and versatile vBulletin. vBulletin comes at a stiff price tag and those who can afford it will get their money's worth... which leaves phpBB for the rest of us.

Actually, one of the main problems of phpBB is that fact that it's not exactly rich in features. Sure, the basic feature set might be enough for most of us, but if you're like me, you won't be satisfied with it. Sooner or later, you'll end up "modding" it, that is enhancing its features by making changes to the code-base, incorporating more scripts and so on. And this is where the problem lies. By "modding" your board heavily to enhance its functionality, you will soon end up with a cluttered board: namely you will be unable to automatically install upgrades which are released not infrequently to address security issues. And phpBB, believe me, is notorious for its security issues, having recently been in the centre of media attention for the "highlight" exploits and the Santy worm which spread like wildfire using google to hack into phpBB powered boards. Another disadvantage of modding phpBB is that you're likely to introduce new security issues as well when poorly coded "mods" are installed. In short, you'll end up with a pretty cluttered board which would become a nightmare to maintain (read "upgrade").

The phpBB group has been working on phpBB 3.0 (codenamed Olympus) for quite a while now and to anxious people like me, it's taking far too long to come out of "beta". Till date, a "release" version has not been announced and is unavailable for download.

So where does that leave me? For one, I have been struggling to keep up with the ever frequent updates from phpBB.com. My board is heavily modded of course. And I have no choice but to make the code changes (updates) manually, editing each file painfully, one by one and then running the update script. Something that becomes more and more of a chore and cuts into my productivity.

Too bad I didn't do a bit of research before I implemented phpBB as a forum solution. Simple Machines Forum (SMF), which is a successor to the old YaBBSE, is a much more feature-rich forum solution with a lot more flexibility and a much more powerful administration control panel. To convert my existing board to SMF would leave me with a lot of data loss (thanks to the "mods") and yet, wisdom tells me that phpBB 2.0.x is not the ideal solution and sooner or later, a better solution will have to be found.

A catch-22 situation, but one that needs a solution. Allow me the liberty of advising you if you are planning to add a forum to your site. If you are thinking of phpBB, I suggest that you consider the pros and cons of phpBB very carefully before make a decision. With the existing feature set, phpBB won't satisfy a power-user. Unless you wait for phpBB 3.0 to come out (which can take some time to be released). On the other hand, SMF is a powerful and free solution and can easily be used "out of the box" with no mods. It's admin interface is somewhat complex, but with some learning, you can really configure almost every aspect of your forum with it. Definitely gets my vote on the "free" list.

Choose carefully and choose wisely. If you can afford a paid solution like vBulletin (and I've tested its admin interface in the free demo online: it's great!), go for it. It's worth the money if you're planning to build a serious community in the long run.
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