Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Perspective, people.

A few years ago there were headlines about research that indicated that most people don't know the difference between a search engine and a browser. There's a good description of the phenomenon at this blog post, along with this video of pedestrians in Times Square describing the "difference", in case you don't believe it.

I loved this bit of news. It really punctured the bubble of the high-flying digerati who are busy talking about whether Kickstarter is making nonprofits obsolete or if people are upset about Flickr using flash instead of HTML5*. Really, the number of people who even know these issues even exist is a vanishingly small portion of the public. The majority of internet users know that there's this internet thing that happens in this box on their computer and they can type things into that space at the top to read the news.

Any time you're talking or thinking about something technology-related, you should keep this in mind. 90% of everyone is not even going to understand the words you're saying, let alone care. They interact with technology on a very pragmatic, basal level. And honestly, that's okay. There's no obligation to spend a big portion of your life learning about this complicated realm. Maybe you don't have the time. Maybe you have to prepare that presentation or get groceries. Even if not, perhaps you'd rather work on your bike or go to a show. Those are legitimate interests, as is technology.

However, I happen to have an interest in technology so I usually enjoy these types of stories**. I just get a little fed up now and then when I remember how little it really, actually matters.

Anyway, now I just heard on This Week In Google (like I said, I do enjoy this stuff) that 90% of the American public doesn't know how to use Ctrl+F in a webpage. Bam! Again, we get our perspective re-adjusted.

It's not that I think everyone is clueless with computers. But I like these little reminders that there are a lot of assumptions we make about computer literacy and they aren't all based in reality.

Footnote: Google employee Dan Russell gave that Ctrl+F figure on TWIG #88, somewhere near mid-way.

*FYI, if you're trying to think of examples of this kind of fluff, a great resource is just browsing the Mashable front page.
**But I still don't like Mashable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fix the Awesomebar in Firefox 4

In the interest of duly contributing to this meta-brain we call the internets, I thought I'd clearly outline a tip I figured out only after some Internet Detective (NSFW) work.

In Firefox 4, they took a smart cue from Chrome and combined the URL bar and the search bar. So if you enter a URL, it goes to that page. But if you enter anything else, it uses your entry as a Google search, then goes to the Google results page.

Unfortunately, this means they lost an advantage Firefox has always had over Chrome, which is that if the non-URL terms you put into the bar have a single, obvious destination, Firefox will go directly there. It's basically Google's I'm Feeling Lucky result. So you can just type in, say, "youtube" or "gmail" and it'll go right to those services. Or, more interestingly, you can type "wikipedia giraffe" to get right to that article or "minecraft wiki" if you can't remember the name of Minepedia, the de facto standard wiki for Minecraft. But you know Google would know what you mean, so you know you'll going right there. Basically, you're typing exactly what you desire, which is already in your head in "words" format, instead of first translating it into URL format.

Beyond the time saving, it feels more natural and, well, it makes Firefox's "Awesomebar" truly awesome. I remember back in 2008 when I first downloaded Firefox 3, the first thing I did was type in "add ons" and it took me right there. It definitely felt like the future. So no, I can't stand to go back. ..I still don't really know the add-ons site URL.

Man, sorry bout the tl;dr. Here's the fix, gleaned from this Google groups thread.

Open a new tab
Enter "about:config"
Promise to be careful
In the "Filter" box, type "keyword.URL"
Double-click on the one result
Enter this as the string value: ""

Want to know what you're doing? Well the about:config page is good to know about. It's the whole, deep set of user-changeable preferences in Firefox. There's often a way there to fix something there that you just can't find a regular option or add-on to change. But yes, you can mess up your browser there.

Anyway, the keyword.URL preference seems to be the URL template that Firefox uses for non-URL terms you put into the Awesomebar. As in, if you put "" in there, then entered "test" into the Awesomebar, Firefox would direct the browser to "". And apparently there's a way to form the URL that gives you the I'm Feeling Lucky result. It seems to require including "sourceid=navclient" and "gfns=1". Go ahead, try out I swear that link isn't actually to Paste it in your browser to see for yourself. Cool, right? You learn something new every day.

Update: This guy has an even better explanation of the issue, as well as some behind-the-scenes info on how the decision to remove the feature was made in the first place.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Weirdest Google Spam I've seen

I was just using Google to troubleshoot a Windows problem and noticed a very weird thing.

First I discovered a forum thread on exactly the problem I've been having. Woohoo, right? Then the next search result was someone on another forum having the same problem again. But no new info. In fact, it seemed to be similar information to that in the first thread. Very similar.

By the third repetitive thread, I started wondering so I went back and compared them all. It was the same thread, give or take a post, even with the same usernames for the posters. It wasn't just that someone had posted the same question in multiple troubleshooting forums. The posts were replicated in their entirety on all these different sites. One site even reconstructed the thread in the form of blog post comments. And these sites were every result on the first page of Google! (Ok, minus one conventional spam result.)

If you're anything like me you've got a whole number of different questions in your head right now.

First, how did they accomplish this? Did they actually copy and paste the posts into a page structured just like a real forum but actually fabricated? Some of them I swear are real forums I've seen around, like and But then again, am I just thinking of similar-looking sites like I guess the spammers could've copied their exact look to elicit this reaction of "Ok great, I think I recognize this forum.."

So then if they did copy fake threads then, uh, why? It's not the normal search engine spam where the page is full of keywords, links, and phrases that make it seem kind of like a real, thought-out webpage but on second look could all be auto-generated (I guess? They're so good these days!). In fact, most of these sites don't even have ads, which would at least explain the business model. Of course, that's with NoScript blocking all JavaScript so maybe there's actually a few ads.

Oh no, speaking of NoScript there's a possible explanation. If you wanted to build a shady site that distributed malware (via JavaScript and browser exploits) but needed visitors, why not copy/paste a tech support forum thread? People always arrive at those via Google search terms, clicking willy-nilly whether or not they know the site. Well I guess the damage is done, having already opened the pages. Hopefully they're not using any exploits that NoScript won't block.

In that case, though I'm listing the links for my reference and yours, I won't hyperlink them (even with a nofollow):

You are advised not to visit these. I regret doing it myself. I have reconstructed the thread after the jump so you don't even have to visit out of curiosity.

In order of appearance in the Google search results for "LocalSystemNetworkRestricted startup":*
    *This one is actually a conventional spam site (without the forum thread)

The mysterious forum thread after the jump:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This is about as old school as you can get

Found on the Wikipedia page for "At sign."

It's so perfect. Green monochrome monitor, Cyrillic, BASIC, and the ambiance of some aging university basement. It's even got an .su address in there.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NPH would never do that

Can we all just agree that Neil Patrick Harris is awesome? Also it's awesome that "NPH" has completely caught on:

And I'd like to take this opportunity to claim credit to Harold & Kumar for both launching his current wave of popularity AND for the whole "NPH" thing.

Oh, and one more NPH's-awesomeness-related image:
*note: I just discovered this is from How I Met Your Mother but I'd rather believe it's just an image macro about NPH in general.

image sources: and I forget, sorry.