Wonderchicken 08

The exploratory committee has come back with a dog-choker of a bar bill, the Portobello market magic 8-ball has come up with a big och-aye, the goat entrails are vermiformally encouraging, and the Voices of The Peoples have been heard.
VOTE WONDERCHICKEN! (You know, eventually.)

I inhaled. Read my lips: I did have sex with that woman. I’ve torpedoed more companies than you’ve had hot meals, I avoided military service, I never did stop the drinking. And the Alzheimer’s, well, you know what Nancy says. I am a crook, and I’ve had lustful thoughts about other women.
I am a donut.
But I swear by the Vengeful Bearded Deity of The Midwest, I will emerge from the media birth canal triumphant, only mildly crumpled and sweaty, and wiping god-goo from my forehead, stride manfully forward into the cleansing light of the television cameras.

Movable Type on The Rebound

I’m really pleased to see Sixapart‘s new direction with Movable Type. I haven’t really seen that much talk about it around the blogs (which I only keep half an eye on these days, mostly because I’m busy on my own projects and building sites for other people), and I guess that’s an indication of how far the app has fallen in mindshare over the past few years out amongst the blogs.

Of course, there’ve been changes in the weblogging demographics, too, changes that Sixapart decided to chase with Typepad, the Livejournal aquisition, and Vox, possibly to the detriment of MT. The great majority of weblogs these days, I think it would be uncontroversial to say, are run by people who aren’t particularly web-savvy, who don’t care about the technology substrate, who don’t write code and don’t want to, and who are (and this continues to surprise me, because middling as my skills are, I’m in love with design) effectively blind to design. They’re writing their hearts out, or posting pictures of their kitties, or socializing, or trying to build readership and get famous, or just make a buck.

This is in contrast to the first wave of webloggers, who started playing with this stuff from, say, ’98 to around 2001. The tail end of that wave was when I hopped on. Back then, a lot of people were rolling their own content management systems, or (most of them) using Blogger or MT, basically. The relative complexity of MT was no great barrier to a lot of these folks, many of whom were techno-capable (or at least design-oriented) already. That’s changed.

Which is all as it should be, to some extent, perhaps. Since back near the beginnings of the Blog Era, I’ve argued that it’s all about the words. I’m starting to think that that’s less true that I once thought, and wasn’t even as true as I thought it was back when I thought it.

Use your words, stav.

So tools like Blogger continue to present a low barrier to entry, joined by LJ and Typepad and Vox and the very cool Tumblr and hosted WordPress and all the rest, and down in the moshpit, social stuff like MySpace and Facebook. WordPress appears, at least from where I stand, to have emerged triumphant in the host-your-own space, judging only from the enormous number of plugins and themes and tools available out there for it, and the number of high-profile old and new-school personal-website-maintainers that have adopted it.

I’ve tried to like it, but I can’t get my head around the way it cobbles together pages, and I keep coming back to MT.

But I’ve felt in the past few years of the MT Diaspora that I was one of the lonely few, those last couple of people at the party who just won’t go the hell home. I spent a great deal of time learning MT’s ins and outs, learning to love the power of it, and getting pretty handy with it, if I do say so myself. Every time I thought about a new web project (most of which haven’t seen the light of day, of course) that needed some form of structured content, I could always work out a way that MT would handle it. I still love the app, but I started to feel the way that people who never could make the jump from Wordperfect felt way back when, maybe, when it started to become less a de facto standard than a quirky outlier.

I watched Sixapart make all manner of bad and incomprehensible decisions (from the outsider’s perspective, of course). It’s unclear whether the mis-step and ensuing kerfuffle of the new and poorly thought-out licensing policy they introduced a couple of years back was the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning, but things started to seem to go sideways for MT around that time. And even though it turned out that a lot of the pushback and outrage amongst bloggers came as a result of poor corporate communication about the decision rather than the actual licensing changes, it was too late. The water was muddied. Successive revamps of the Movable Type section of the Sixapart site seemed like it was deliberately designed to show off the content-management aspects of MT in the worst possible light, and had to be offputting to anyone thinking of trying the application for the first time. Things became harder to find, the plugin directory was one-dimensionally hard-categorized, tag code examples (if you could find them) dried up and began disappearing entirely, it all seemed complicated and confusing, when the site that showcased the tool should have been showing it off in the best light.

Despite Anil Dash showing up everywhere MT was mentioned, it seemed, sometimes, and being consistently helpful and reasonable (Hi, Anil!), it has seemed for a couple of years that he was the only person left who actually gave a damn about the old-school MT community. I’m sure that impression was far from the truth of the matter, but it was discouraging, despite Anil’s best efforts.
Until recently. Sixapart seems, to me, to be doing almost everything right with the new open-sourcing of a basic version of MT. They’re running the beta wide-open, there’s a nice big download button on the front page of the new movabletype.org website (as opposed to hiding the free version so deep in the last few revs of the .com site that I couldn’t find the damn thing sometimes), they’ve put put up a new MTTags.com site with a whole bunch of reference materials (two tips there — 1) don’t link back to the execrable old movabletype.com reference materials ‘for more information’ please and 2) put a link to the MTTags site in a visible place on the movabletype.org site — I had to search through old posts to find the URL!).

As far as the new application itself goes, well, it’s evolutionary. I’m not overly thrilled or particularly disappointed, but I am happy to see that they’re rethinking some things. The widgets still seem like a half-baked afterthought to me, and the theme management is still opaque to me (which doesn’t matter, because I like to do my own css), but there are some good and interesting ideas there. I’ll continue to use it, of course, unless they break it horribly. But all indications are that they’re listening this time, and taking as much care as they can to make sure we know that.
The most important thing to me, though, is that MT 4.0 is going to have an open-source version, one with no licensing restrictions. I’ll be able to use MT guilt-free to build sites for people, and if they want to buy a license later, that’s up to them, regardless of what they use the site for. That makes me happy, because I still think that of all the tools in the same class that I’ve tried, MT is the one that works for me, and that I feel most comfortable building sites on.

Is it too little, too late? I don’t know. I’m sure there are a lot of other people who’ve hung on, hoping for an MT Renaissance. And I hope that the kind of community that once existed around the tool, all plugins and widgets and themes mutual aid society, like the one that has grown up around WordPress, will grow again. We’ll see.

Weird and Fractured

It’s all weird and fractured. It’s all electrical and chemical. It’s all bump and grind. It’s all cheese and mustard. It’s all time to drink and go to work. It’s all fuck you buddy and love your neighbour. It’s all speak truth to power and hunker down. It’s all shitstorm and cherry blossom. It’s all shits and giggles. It’s all 2.0 and it’s all in beta. It’s all primal scream and raised eyebrow. It’s all therapy and meds. It’s all beer and skittles. It’s all anger and love. It’s all young things and old farts. It’s all permalinks and permagrins. It’s all disappointment and hope. It’s all pimples and slipped discs. It’s all be, it’s all do. It’s all epistemology and metaphysics. It’s all cigarettes and beer. It’s all desire and it’s all thirst and hunger, it’s all middle way and eight-fold path, and it’s all a sacrament. It’s all beginnings and endings, and ends of beginnings, and beginnings of ends. It’s all dying young and cheating death. It’s all cancer wards and Pringles. It’s all rock and roll. It’s all good fun.

It’s all Cheap Trick at the Budokan. It’s all strungout sunrise, it’s all smell of night air. It’s all champagne Caribbean surf and acid artifacts. It’s better than the alternative. It’s all guitar and drum. It’s all night and all day. It’s all that you touch, it’s all that you see, all you taste, all you feel, it’s all that you buy, beg, borrow or steal. It’s failing flesh and willing spirit.

It’s all too hard, it’s all too goddamn easy. It’s all better than the alternative.

It’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.

Conditional Adsense — In Which I Hop On The Bandwagon

I’ve spent a lot of words over the years railing against the infiltration of advertising into our weblog world, and enjoyed that righteous glow that comes from standing up for a principle, regardless of how well- (or poorly-) founded the thinking on that principle be.
Here comes the ‘but’.

But I’ve rethought things a bit, in no small part after reading the essay Matt Haughey wrote here.

Imagine that — ads that actually make a page more valuable to readers, not just the site owners. Random people searching for information are much more likely to click on those related text ads if the ads help them find what they are looking for. Compare that to a regular visitor that comes to your site dozens of times a week: How often are they going to click on any ads? How quickly will they learn to visually filter out the ads entirely from the experience? Superfans develop banner blindness extremely quickly.

What I realized when I looked at my Google Analytics reports was that the majority of ad clicks are coming from these one-time visitors looking for information. I do it myself when searching, especially if it’s for a product of some type. I’ll search, dive into the results, and if the top 5 don’t have what I’m looking for, I’m very likely to click on related ads to see if that’s what I’m looking for. New visitors to a site love to click on anything that brings them closer to their goal, and often times that’s an ad. This, in essence, is the entire business model of per-click advertising.

I’ve always been annoyed by advertising in general, on the web or anywhere else. A lot of my ire in recent years has been directed at Adsense, and that has been mostly because of its ubiquity, I suppose. I’ve always been unshakeable in my conviction that advertising is about the enrichment of the marketing company and the manufacturer of the product or provider of the service being advertised, and about the deliberate manipulation of the people being advertised to, typically to their detriment. Defenders of the Ad often suggest that we, the Consumers, wouldn’t be able to find out about all these products and services created and sold to improve out lives. Well, I suppose there were times when I discovered something I simply couldn’t live without through advertising, but I can’t remember it ever happening. Documentaries like the excellent four part ‘Century of the Self’ did nothing to dissuade me from this, and hammered home for me the ways in which I thought that advertising had interpenetrated and cheapened our modern cultures.

I still think that I’m right about all that.

But Matt triggered some new thinking for me, new thinking that I suppose I’d been tenderized for by building one of my other sites and putting Adsense on it out the gate — the rarely-updated OutsideinKorea. From the get-go, I assumed that it would be a site that people would mostly arrive at from search engines, and not be a regularly-updated, regularly-visited-by-readers webloggy kind of project. And so I put up the ads (for which I’ve still not made enough to get a single check, more than a year later, but I’ve really let it languish, so the fault is nobody’s but my own, from a revenue point of view).

But I hadn’t really followed that thinking through, and what Matt had to say helped me do that.

Two ideas here: that when we’re talking about weblogs and advertising, that an awful lot of people who land on the site (by far the largest ongoing slice of visitors — bar the Digging and Slashdotting et al last year, which was a transient traffic rogue wave) come from search engines. From Google itself, mostly. These people are looking for something, something they’re hoping they might find here. Probably not a product. More likely some piece of information.

It’s possible, I hope, that they find it on the individual archive page they land on here at the ‘bottle, but they might not. If not, then they’ll go on to find it elsewhere, and it’s entirely possible that they might find it following a contextual ad from Adsense.
The ads might actually help them, as well as me, if they click on them. They might actually serve some useful purpose to both parties involved, something I’d never really been able to get behind as a justification for advertisements for the latest variation of Coca Cola, or the newest erectile-dysfunction chemical.

But I didn’t want ads plastered all over the place creating visual clutter for people who actually do regularly visit, who arrive from other weblogs or comments I make elsewhere, or from RSS feedreaders when I make an update. People who are here for the wonderchickeny goodness, not the sifting-through-sum-total-of-human-information.

The solution, of course, as Matt suggested, was to display ads only if people come from one of the traffic firehoses (Digg and Slashdot and Wikipedia and Stumbleupon and the search engines), and not display them if people come from their bookmarks or another weblog or pretty much anywhere else.
I don’t know why I never thought of it before.

So here’s what I’ve done to display ads to visitors conditionally, based on the referrer, using Movable Type. Feel free to borrow and use this yourself — it’s not complicated, and all the reading I’ve done has indicated that it does not in any way violate the Adsense terms of service. There may, of course, be better ways to do it. My coding skills are, to put it kindly, somewhat haphazard.

1) I created a couple of modules in Movable Type, one for each Adsense format I wanted to display. At the moment, I have two modules named module-banner and module-leaderboard Each holds the appropriate Adsense-generated code for that style of ad block, wrapped in a div and a bit of php code to check where the visitor has come from.

The modules look like this. I wrap the whole thing in a div so I can style it, if I want. (You could, of course, customize the referrer list anyway you liked.)

<div class="topbanner">
if (isset($_SERVER['HTTP_REFERER']) && preg_match("/^https?:\/\/[0-9a-z]*\.?(google|yahoo| stumbleupon|digg| wikipedia|slashdot|lycos|altavista)\..+\/.*$/i", $_SERVER['HTTP_REFERER']))  {
echo <<<END

2) I include the modules in any index template I wish to conditionally display Adsense ads like so:

<$MTInclude module="module-banner"$>


<$MTInclude module="module-leaderboard"$>

depending on which of the two ad styles I want to include.

I may make other module variations in future, of course. At the moment, I’m only displaying ads in Individual Archive Templates.
3) I long ago switched all of my extensions over to .php to use some other php inclusions, so that just worked for me. You may need to do make a filetype change (it’s in the settings area in Movable Type) (and possible .htaccess edit — I fly this stuff by the seat of my pants!) .
And that’s it. Now searchers/visitors from the sites I nominate get ads that may help them find what they’re looking for, if it isn’t here, and regular blog visitors who come from pretty much anywhere else don’t. You can test this out by hitting this Google search, then following the first hit back to here. You’ll see ads. Paste the URL directly in to the address bar (for example) and you won’t. Magic!
I probably won’t make much money from this, either. But given the 10,000+ visits that make up an average month at the bottle, more than half of which arrive from search engines, perhaps I’ll make enough for a beer or two each month, and do it without (I hope) annoying any of my loyal readers who’ve stuck with me for all these years.

Share and enjoy.

[Update: Thanks to the most excellent skills of my friends and neighbours, I’ve made a few changes to smarten up the referrer checking code. Major thanks to Ed Eliot, who was kind enough to whip up something better and explain what the Evil Regex was doing. I’ve updated the code for the MT modules above accordingly — my implementation is very slightly different from his, which ought to work anywhere PHP is spoken, of course.]