Appalling Quality of Journalism Today

If you’ve been living in the western world this week you’ve probably heard of the woes with News Corporation and News International regarding the phone tapping ‘scandal’ at the News of the World newspaper. To me, the scandal itself is bad enough, but realistically it only highlights what I’ve been thinking myself for many years about journalism today.

I can only speak from my perspective lately as an Australian (previously a Briton). Not much has changed in the media over the 5 years that I’ve been here in Australia, and maybe what I’m seeing is really only because I’ve shifted continents in my midlife. But when I was growing up, journalism was a career that required an excellent grasp of English, with at least an A level pass. It required one to be objective, unbiased and report the facts. Opinion was only relevant in a column dedicated to opinion pieces. Perhaps there’s some rose coloured spectacles casting a different hue over the past, I’m not sure. I’d like to know what others think about that.

But today, I find it more and more frustrating to read anything in the traditional media. This traditional media that claims ‘new media’ will kill it off because information is available for free whereas printed news must be paid for, appears to be completely unaware that, at least for me, what is killing it off is not the new media being free, but the new media at least generally providing facts, not the opinion of the editor or owner of the media. I don’t want to read how bad government policy is, I want to read what government policy is and then form my own opinion on it.

It seems these days that media’s job is not to tell people the news, it’s to tell them how to think. The carbon tax in Australia is one giant example of this. So many newspapers (and I suspect most are owned by News Corp) are against the carbon tax, so they’ve omitted much of the detail and included much opinion. The problem is (and media moguls are well aware of this) that the phenomenon of crowd thinking is very much a real one. If you’re told lots of people think something is bad, you’re quite likely to think it’s bad too, regardless of whether you know anything about it.

I have spoken with a number of people who when asked about the carbon tax think it is bad. I ask them about details of the tax and they have no idea. They have no idea that their tax free threshold will go up to compensate them. They have no idea that the carbon tax can actually reduce emissions of larger producers through market forces because the commercial media isn’t telling them. Do you have any of the details about the tax while you’re reading this and forming opinions? Most of my friends don’t yet they’re against it.

The only person I’ve spoken to who had the facts (and was actually in favour of the new carbon tax too) watches ABC News 24 and SBS. These two channels are government owned and to a large extent better regulated than the commercial TV stations. They’re better regulated because they HAVE to provide the facts otherwise people will cry that taxpayers money is being used to fund bias. No-one seems to care that their advertising dollar is funding bias. The price you pay for everything in the shop is being used to tell you how to think by the commercial media.

I’d like to see the return of the ‘Party Political Broadcast’ – where the major political parties spend 5 or 10 minutes every so often explaining their policies, on TV – not in an advertising format but in a┬áprogrammatic format. It should be a condition of a broadcasting license that these major political parties (and I’m not sure on who should qualify as major, but definitely the government of the day and the opposition) be afforded at least 30 minutes of prime time viewing per month to tell people about their policies. This is particularly true in Australia where voting is compulsory but having a clue is not.

If you force people to vote, you must force them to at least be aware of what it is they’re voting on. Most people have not got the true facts. They’ve got the facts as the commercial media wants you to have them. They’re making their vote based on some rich person’s opinion, not their own. This is true because in general most people are too lazy, too busy, or simply don’t know how to find the facts themselves. They rely on the media to tell them – and they believe what they’re seeing is unbiased. That’s the worst part, the people I’ve spoken to genuinely believe that they’re being fed the facts, not the bias.

Are you aware you can write to your politician and ask them questions? Are you aware that democracy doesn’t just happen once every 3 (or 4, depending on where you are) years?

This is a bit of a rant I know. But it scares me that the decisions that affect my future, the future of my kids and their kids are being made by an elite few who happen to own media outlets. No, I’m not singling out Rupert Murdoch, although his influence is significant he’s not the only one. But there aren’t many of the elite few, and I suspect, because of their position, their views are pretty similar. Whilst they don’t control the politicians directly, they do so by controlling the opinions of a significant proportion of the voting population.

Bring back the quality to journalism. Stop selling opinion pieces as fact.

Is Google Chrome for OSX any good?

The short answer to this is yes – definitely!

I suppose I better fill this article out a bit and explain why I arrived at that answer? Ok, here goes.

Some years ago Google released their Chrome browser for Windows. It was OK, but there was already Firefox as an alternative to Internet Exploder, and if you really wanted to step out onto a limb, there was Safari for Windows. But then one day I purchased a nice shiny Macbook Pro and didn’t care about Windows any more. Unfortunately Google Chrome wasn’t available for Mac back then. And then it was – but boy was it buggy. And slow, and nasty.

Gradually I’ve gone off Firefox. It isn’t as quick as it once was, Safari certainly felt significantly quicker. But then something strange happened and for some reason Safari started crashing alarmingly regularly. Probably its time I re-installed my Macbook, preferably with Snow Leopard straight out of the box rather than the Leopard – SL upgrade. But that’s another issue – I don’t expect Mac software to start showing cracks like this, but Safari is. So I checked out Google Chrome.

It’s a LOT faster than Safari, and definitely faster than Firefox. And it doesn’t crash. And they’ve combined the search bar into the address bar, so you don’t have to tab into a new box to search Google. That’s an innovation right there – why have an extra box taking up screen real estate.

And that’s probably the biggest thing with Chrome – more space for your web pages, less taken up with clutter.

And now Chrome supports extensions, so the Web Developer extensions I used to know and love on Firefox are now available for Chrome – but they don’t seem to bog down the browsing speed.

All in all, if you’re after speed, stability and screen real estate on your mac browsing experience, then I’d highly recommend giving Chrome a go now.

CS-Cart, A Very Excellent E-Commerce Engine

I’ve been in the Web Development Business now for more years than I care to remember. In that time I’ve worked with plenty of E-Commerce engines, some of which were entirely bespoke before ‘off the shelf’ solutions such as osCommerce or Magento existed.

In more recent years I’ve been using osCommerce. I took a look at Magento but reviews of its fairly serious need for horsepower and to be honest I found it quite difficult to get around. Before any Magento fans flame me I’m quite prepared to admit that is probably much more down to me than it is to Magento. So I stuck with osCommerce. I’ve released a number of E-Commerce sites based on osCommerce and in general I had been fairly happy with it. But, it’s very old technology now – my first shop was released back in 2005, on osCommerce 2.2 and today the platform is still the same, 4.5 years later. And I’m sure I wasn’t on the bleeding edge back then. I don’t want to bash osCommerce here either – that’s not the purpose of this article. But it is my basis for comparison and as such I have to point out the shortfalls it has when compared to CS-Cart.

I took the plunge and started looking at CS-Cart. It was a brave (and potentially stupid) move because I chose to investigate it’s use for a large client site. Sometimes when taking on a large project it can be better the devil you know. In this case though, I was pleasantly surprised. It was better the devil I didn’t know.

CS-Cart is based on the Smarty Template Engine and I have good experience with Smarty, having developed the more recent parts of DearDiary.Net in Smarty, along with the original version of Kabarty Collector, plus the playing around with WHMCS (which also uses Smarty) and a couple of other smaller projects. CS-Cart is also structured into a Model – View – Controller paradigm, which with my commercial background with Java Server Faces, Struts and CodeIgniter appealed to me from the outset. Perhaps having experience in both these technologies helped me to understand CS-Cart quicker than others might was an advantage but I soon found I could get around the software quickly and easily.

CS-Cart is written in PHP using the Smarty Template Engine, and although it is commercial software (which I might add is very reasonably priced at $265US) it does come with full source code so you can find your way around it. Just like the WordPress world though it is highly recommended that you do not make any edits to the core code. Doing so will make your upgrade path much harder – and it’s just about never necessary (although I did have to for one of my customers as it was a bug in the core).

CS-Cart uses a skin architecture (made simple by the use of MVC) so you can make it look exactly how you want – and I’ve applied a pretty radical design to one of my new sites. I’ll update the URL later once it’s been made public. But you can hook in jQuery effects and just totally radically alter the way the site looks whilst not having to stress at all about how the engine works. The engine is totally seperate from the display – which is how a modern system should be designed.

The engine also supports the concept of Add-Ons which means you can plugin extra functionality. In the case of CS-Cart these are quite literally ‘plug ins’. You don’t have to get your editor out and search for line Y in file blah.php and modify this query to show Z. You place the addon into the addons directory – possibly add the addon skin additions to the skins directory, and then activate the addon in the Administration screen. You may need to configure the addon and that’s all done through the Admin screen.

CS-Cart, straight out of the box, comes with dozens of Payment Gateways, including Paypal, eWay, WestPac (sadly, no Commonwealth Bank of Australia or ANZ (yet)), noChex and too many more to mention. Along with those payment gateways, it also comes with a bunch of pre-installed Postage Handlers, including live postage rate calculations from Australia Post and others. It supports multiple taxation models for sales tax, so if you’re a multi-national you can apply VAT to British Addresses, GST to Australian addresses and whatever other sales taxes you might need, all at different taxation rates as defined by you.

CS-Cart is also very user friendly for the customer. It contains its own Content Management System which allows the customer to add additional pages that aren’t product specific (for example, Terms and Conditions, Returns Information, Privacy Policy). The user does not have to understand any PHP to do this, CS-Cart provides an editor built into the Administration Screens.

Positively THE most powerful part of CS-Cart is found in its ‘Blocks Management’. This allows a designer of the site and/or addons to create blocks of content which can be placed on certain (or all) pages and the intuitive interface allows the cart administrator to move these blocks all around to fit how they want it to look. No need to edit HTML – the administrator simply drags the block from (for example) the left sidebar over to the right sidebar, or even to the top. The blocks manager seems to be almost infinitely flexible and even allows certain blocks to be only shown on specific product or category pages.

The only strange part I’ve found to CS-Cart at this stage is the business model that CS-Cart employs when a specific add on is required. You can write to CS-Cart and request a particular addon be coded, which they will quote you a price for. If you agree, and pay the price, they will code the addon. All good there. But that addon could then appear in a later version of the CS-Cart product – even though you just paid for it to be developed. It’s not a huge deal, and I think it’s just something that will happen more in the bespoke software world.

All in all, I’ve been really very pleased with the easy way CS-Cart can be extended and the intuitive and very powerful customer administration interface that makes it a great system to deploy to customers and not have to continually go back and make changes for them.

Why You Shouldn’t Just Rely On Subversion For ‘Backups’

If you’re developing a software solution, whether it’s for yourself or for a larger project, there’s plenty of source control products out there from CVS, Subversion or more modern solutions like git and Mercurial that distribute the load. Regardless of whichever you might be using, if you’re just developing personal projects, you’re probably using the source control so that if you make a mistake somewhere down the track you know you can always get back to what you’re working on today by looking at an earlier revision.

There’s some flaws to this when you’re working in a less structured environment;

  1. You probably simply won’t commit your changes often enough to be able to get back to a sensible status if you mess something up.
  2. If you’re using SVN and move a tree structure in place – particularly if you overwrite an existing tree structure – you just hosed all the SVN metadata. That leads to a whole heap of trouble when you try to commit.
  3. If you’re developing using WordPress you may get part way through your development cycle when WordPress issues an update. Or you may have tweaked a WordPress plugin that gets updated. If you mistakenly click the ‘auto update’ button you just lost all your local changes. Coupled with Point #1 above, you lost your work.

Enter TIME MACHINE (if you’re on a Mac – you’re on your own if you’re using Windows ;-)). It sits in the background and backs up hourly. So at least when you inevitably do make that mistake you only have to go back an hour.

Time Machine can be a pain in the butt when it slows your machine down while it does its backup – but that inconvenience will be priceless when you realise you really goofed up and mistakenly overwrote an entire directory that you were working in…

Trust me – I did exactly that last night with WordPress MU – developing a new ‘home’ theme for MU when I updated to 2.9.1 release and that overwrote all my changes. Yeah, it’s my own fault, I should have realised an update would include the ‘home’ theme – but knowing whose fault it is doesn’t comfort you all that much! Time Machine comforted me. If you’re on a Mac and doing dev work, I really highly recommend getting an external disk and backing up hourly with Time Machine. It WILL save your bacon on more than one occasion.

Telstra iPhone Tethering ‘Call Telstra on 125 111 to enable tethering’

iphoneIf you’re an iPhone user on Telstra’s NextG network you may have been disappointed when iPhone tethering suddenly stopped working back in July or sometime there about, when a new set of ‘Carrier Settings’ were downloaded from iTunes onto your iPhone. The good news is that this weekend just gone, Telstra issued a new set of Carrier Settings through iTunes which re-enables tethering – and this time properly and officially.

I installed the new Carrier Settings after reading of everyone’s success around the net. I was rapt. The Optus coverage at mother-in-laws is pants and I often need to work from there while my wife and mother-in-law do other things.

Except that it didn’t work. Every time I went into Settings -> General -> Network and tried to enable tethering I just got a popup message that said to enable tethering I must contact Telstra on 125 111 or visit http://www.telstra.com. It gives you three buttons, Call, Go to Website, or Cancel. Nothing about switching it on anyway. I spent an hour on the phone with Telstra, who eventually handed me off to Apple.

After an iPhone reset, a Network Settings Reset followed by an iPhone reset, and then a full Restore of my iPhone I was still no better off.

And then I found this thread which explained that my Telstra account probably wasn’t set up right. It was highly likely since I’d actually bought my iPhone from Optus and then transferred to Telstra after the Kinglake bushfires rendered Optus unusable for weeks. My APN was set to telstra.internet because telstra.iph didn’t work. As is indicated in the thread previously mentioned, you DO need to have the ability to use telstra.iph to use tethering.

The trouble is that most people on the Telstra helpdesk don’t know about this. So you have to ring 1800 IPHONE and ask them clearly to add the iPhone codes to your account. You’ll need to be specific and possibly need to justify why you want it. But if you’re not specific they’ll go through hours of trying to diagnose why your iPhone consistently tells you to call them on 125 111.

I hope that helps someone. Please leave a comment if it does!

Twitter Causes Death of Blogging

twitter-iconA scary headline. One I’ve read in many places on the web recently and one which I entirely disagree with. The same headline has been thrown around regarding Facebook too. Facebook and Twitter have been credited with the rise of social media, many new marketing tactics and probably the cause of global warming too. If you believe global warming is an entirely human created phenomenon. Which I don’t. But that’s the subject of another article I suspect.

So – will Twitter cause the death of Blogging? I think not. For one thing, this is a blog article not a Tweet – and you’re obviously reading it right now, otherwise I’m not really here, and if I think there I am, when I don’t I am not and I disappear in a puff of logic. Or something like that. Put simply, the existence of this article, essentially a blog article, and the fact that you are reading this proves that Twitter has not caused the death of blogging. If it had, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Why will Twitter not cause the death of blogging? In my opinion it won’t for one plain and simple reason. 140 characters is great for headlining, but pretty poor for any in depth discussion of anything. It’d be hard to describe the mechanics of Woopra for example in 140 characters. You can headline it, but that headline has to lead somewhere with more information to actually make any sense. It’s interesting that in the mobile phone world SMS came first and then, because 160 characters isn’t always sufficient, long SMS messaging was introduced, and then because you simply can’t always describe something accurately enough in text, MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) was introduced. The interaction of Twitter and blogs is almost the same.

Twitter is utterly fantastic for those small, quick soundbytes that give an insight into someone elses life, business, habits, technological field or a myriad of other human activities and interactions. But those soundbytes need to be padded out to be meaningful – and for this reason, I believe Twitter doesn’t spell the end of blogging but in fact, will act more as a front end to blogging. Twitter enables information to come to you through relationships with people rather than relationships with subjects (which is largely how RSS feeds were used). Twitter has very cleverly turned something that was already being done (RSS feeds) into a personal experience.

So I say, long live the Blog, and let’s use Twitter to let people who know us, know about our blogs.

WordPress permalink nextpage doesn’t work

I’ve been struggling with an aspect of WordPress that should ‘just work’ but didn’t. That is, if you have decided to restrict the number of pages/posts shown on a page, WordPress automatically generates a ‘next page’ and ‘previous page’ button.

This works fine if you have the standard ‘ugly permalinks’ set up, but if you use custom permalinks it breaks.

The problem is with the .htaccess code that WordPress generates – at least if you’re using it on a server that runs PHP as a CGI. To fix it, I simply edited the .htaccess and instead of the RewriteRule looking thus;

RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

Make it

RewriteRule (.*) /index.php/$1 [L]

This has the effect of passing the PATH_INFO data through to index.php which was stripped by the previous rule. Now WordPress will find your pages properly again and all will work ­čÖé

This fixes the problem of permalink nextpage giving a 404 error page. The existing WordPress articles probably will work for you if you’re just seeing the ‘no posts’ error.

Christian Meditation

Someone who’s about to become famous said ‘prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening’. I don’t think the world does enough listening to God. We’re always busy with our tight schedule and we don’t stop for long enough to hear that small voice in the wind. I wonder how the world would be if we stopped, just every so often, and listened for the voice of God among us. Continue reading “Christian Meditation”