My mama never hosted parties like these

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Choosing the right hosting company

If you've ever wondered about your hosting company, or are considering beginning a relationship with one, here is some must-have information before you get into a new relationship (or exit out of a bad one).

Just like you ought to know a little something about someone you're going to be kissing for a long time, turning over the web jewels for your site ought to entail similar background knowledge.

These three questions will help you enter into the right kind of relationship, and in the appropriate spirit - just like the dinner parties your parents used to have.

1. Has the hosting company recently been bought out or taken over by another company?

It turns out the road-to-perdition I just experienced with JustHost on behalf of a client who is a well-known travel writer was immeasurably and torturously lengthened by a chain of ownership that - scuttlebutt has it - goes all the way to a company called 'Endurance International' or EIG.

Here's how one commenter at WebHostingTalk.com put it:

"I've had experiences with EIG not once but twice -- each time buying out a host I was using, and essentially ___ing it all up in the process. It wasn't until some many months after the 2nd incident that I came to learn the foul presence that is Endurance. And honestly, as far as I'm concerned, EIG didn't just buy out Readyhosting and Hypermart -- they raped them. That's their track record -- buy and screw, buy and screw. When they start to move your data to their own servers, it's common to have LOTS of downtime, lost data, and lost emails."

Read that a second time.

If your host gets bought out, hit the road before they run you over.

I pity the tech support chat and phone lines at bottom-of-the-food-chain hosting companies. They are poorly trained, have no real autonomy to actually fix things for the customer, and are the frequent targets of misplaced rage. There but for the grace of God...

2. If you cancel your hosting, do you retain control of your domain name?

JustHost.com is a qualified reseller for ENOM.com, one of the bigger domain name registrars out there. Justhost resells domain names as a part of their hosting packages. They do not offer standalone domain name purchasing. When we set up another hosting account at another company in response the problems we were experiencing, JustHost cancelled the entire account and we were unable to access the domain name management tools, and our nameserver redirects were cancelled without notice. The site then loaded a "This Account Has Been Suspended" page. Inaccurate, damning, and entirely lacking in relationship-building attitude.

Many low-price hosting companies offer shared hosting accounts at rock bottom prices. They make their margins on volume, and once they think you're leaving, the gloves are off. A JustHost technical support person on chat actually put in writing, "You want to leave so why should we provide that [domain access] to you?" I've often wondered if this kind of thinking is unstated company policy. Guess the wondering is over.

We had to pay a fee to get the account restored - just to transfer the domain to a new registrar. To add insult to injury, it took days to work it out. Shift changes, different people managing the file, and my client watching the hours roll along while her clients and publication owners continued to see the suspension message.

A host like Webnames.ca offers double protection - they are a registrar AND an affordable hosting company now offering WordPress hosting. If you ever decide to cancel the hosting side of your account, you revert to domain management tools with the ability to use new nameservers or simply forward your domain to your new host. Critical to have.

3. What are the backup policies for your host?

Make sure you understand how your host manages backups and how you access them and have them restored should something go wrong. (Hey, if the Amazon Cloud can go down, anyone can.)

If you are an active blogger or update your site daily you're going to want nightly backups. If your site is all-Wordpress there are a few good plugins (I like Snapshot Backup a lot). If you use your host's cpanel services for email, shopping cart, or other add-ons, you're going to want an entire cpanel account backup done on a regular basis. We didn't find out until too late that JustHost only does a full backup every seven days, so if you lose your site on day six, that's 6 days of missing content, plugin upgrades, template changes etc that you will literally have to recreate.

Does your host have a methodology for doing backups, or is it just call or email in to technical support? Hostgator.com, though similar in some ways to JustHost (shared hosting, rapidly growing company), has standard request forms that must be filled out by the site owner or the web designer listed on their account via email address. This means it happens the same way every time and everyone involved knows where and how to intersect with the restore or transfer. Level one chat support are empowered to 'expedite' your email suppory ticket if volumes are high.

JustHost has a lot of mostly well-meaning but unempowered and highly siloed tech support people who don't really connect with each other. Adding to the negative impact of the client's site being down for a week was a classic who's-on-second layer of delays that were truly maddening. I'm sure the poor techsupport folks didn't like it much either.

Protect your wordpress self-hosted site with tools like BlogVault.net. This service backs up your entire site on a nightly basis for only $9/month and keeps up to 30 backed up copies in Amazon's secure cloud.  It's literally dead easy. The turnaround time on inquiries has been spectacular so far - within an hour.

In summation

Follow these guidelines and you will save yourself from the kind of week my client and I have had. And don't stick with your host just because you've 'always used them'... that's how things ended up the way they did a la JustHost. The client had been with them a long time for her html static site and when she decided to move her blog from WordPress.com due to limitations imposed there and go to self-hosted, JustHost offered it. If we'd only known then what we do now.

 

 

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Be paranoid. It’s good for WordPress.

Backup your critical WordPress asset!

Quick, answer this question: when is the last time you backed up your WordPress web site?

Uh-huh. I thought so.

THE RISKS OF NOT BACKING UP YOUR SITE REGULARLY

Just imagine any one of these scenarios:

  • Your web site is hacked and you are kicked out of Google. How do you get a clean copy of your site to restore from?
  • You install a plugin and it 'breaks' your blog. How do you go back in time before the problem plugin was installed?
  • You hit update WordPress and everything stops working.
  • You add 40 new products to your catalogue and save, and come back the next day to find they are not there.

I've dealt with all of these problems. Without backups they can become a big, urgent problems fast, and can cost you your search engine rankings, cause sites that link to you to pull their links, and subscribers to opt out of your feeds.

No business owner should ever be in this position.

TOOLS AND TIPS THAT CAN SAVE YOUR BUSINESS

I've been backing up my own network of sites, as well as the sites I manage for customers on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes not until there's a new upgrade to WordPress - and if I've not been retained to look after updates, customers will fall into two camps: run an upgrade WITHOUT backing up their site or DON'T update because it's all so confusing and intimidating.

I have tried a number of plugins and tools. WordPress Database Backup (wpdatabase backup) sends me a scheduled backup of Bigpacific.com's basic bones - database, images, themes and plugins - and I keep the latest version and delete anything older when that comes in. It's a workable solution but occasionally this plugin is incompatible with a theme or other plugins.

The current tool I'm using for my customers is 'Snapshot Backup'. It makes a mirror of your WordPress Site, on demand. It captures everything WordPress Backup does, but also the core files. If your host allows it, when you 'Create a New Snapshot' the system creates it and leaves it in a safe area on your FTP site. Or you can click to download & save. I'm still working on getting it to save into a specific location so I don't have to find it in my downloads folder and copy it into the client's folder ( I'm on a Mac OSX, so if you know, shoot me a note).

BACKING UP GUIDELINES

If you have a very static site, you'll only need to backup when you have to upgrade your WordPress version and perhaps key plugins.

If you have a busy site with a lot of new content coming on daily, you'll need to backup as often as every day, depending on your comfort level.

The basic guidelines are:

  • UPGRADES. Before you upgrade WordPress or key plugins, backup and download file to your computer
  • SIGNIFICANT CONTENT ADDITIONS. When you add a large amount of information, run a manual backup
  • BEFORE NEW PLUGINS ARE ADDED.

I find it hard to follow all of these rules myself - I've got a half dozen sites of my own - so I know it can be onerous. The alternative is just too awful to contemplate: having a runaway train suddenly ram into my life. I know from clients who have not followed the procedures that it can be a heart-attack inducing period of stress working without a backup - and it can take days instead of hours.

Learn from their experiences and back up your critical business storefront on a regular and disciplined basis. Snap!

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The Cloud – Computational Waterworld

Bigpacificmedia.com asks: To cloud, or not to cloud?

I make my living through technology. Everything I do is digital and virtual:  web sites, writing, publishing, photography, art. I often feel severed from the food on my table, the dirt under my feet, the weather outside the big windows of my office.

This 'weltschmerzen' is problematic. I love the Internet. The innovation; the power to transform societies, communities and businesses; the empowerment of the individual; the sense of belonging to a global family; the sudden and deep friendships formed online. All of these benefits make me feel engaged and enthusiastic in my web design and publishing business 13 years after starting it.

The flip side of computing, however, is creating a dark streak of cynicism, like a black hole gargling the Google galaxy with insatiable appetite.  The manipulation, the monopolies, the marauding powers of government to muscle its way into these data repositories for secret surveillance without our knowledge or consent: the opportunity for this technology to be able to negatively affect our lives is in direct relation to our dependency upon it.

Cloud computing brings with it an even sharper blade to hack at the ragged edges of the hole. Cloud computing is where our software and data is stored online and not on our resident computers: subscription-based software, medical tools, backup systems, our contacts file, email, documents, photos... everything.

The benefits are clear. Dumb terminals and snazzy monitors, along with an instant restore of lost data is a vast improvement over being held hostage by the computer manufacturers, in collusion with software companies. How many times have you discovered an upgrade of software means your current computer's operating system and memory is no longer up to the task and must be replaced?

Everyone going it alone creates massive e-waste, huge costs for endlessly updating equipment and software that take egregious advantage of buyers, and creates a barrier to participation for many people who could most benefit from the empowerment of the digital age.

The downside is nebulous and previously the rantings of conspiracy theorists. The constant barrage of data slamming around the Internet leaves us exposed to risks unimaginable even a generation ago - identity theft, mass profiling, pitting of citizen against citizen, citizens against corporations and/or governments (sometimes it seems those are the same animal).

For people accustomed to privacy, to discretion, to look-before-you-leap, moving to the cloud seems fraught with dangerous possibilities. For the first to throw themselves through any open door to see what life is like on the other side, the drawbacks often aren't encountered until it's too late. Think the Amazon Cloud going down a few weeks ago, or all the recent hacks into user databases for credit card data, passwords and other private information.

What's my take? On a personal basis, I take comfort in the masses, and compute that the chances I'll be a victim are lowered inversely by the numbers of people coming online. I am but one tiny minnow swimming in a vast ocean. In 14 years of working online, I have only ever had my information hacked once, way back when RealAudio was king of multimedia. My bank notified me immediately and sent me a new card right away.

I suggest, however, that those of a more conservative bent give it another 6 months to a year and keep your cards to your chest. This is how I treat my customers' data - I stand in as 'canary in the coal mine'. If I live then likely you will too. If I don't, I suspect I'll wish I was really dead!

Let's meet up in six months or so and compare stories from the front.

 

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Macy’s: Persistence Pays Off

Customer Support

MACY'S REDEMPTION, MY ELBOW GREASE

So if you haven't glanced through the original post in this series, "Macy's: How to Wreck a Brand in One Easy Lesson" I invite you to catch up. Suffice to say, a purchase of two pairs of jeans in July from the Macy's store in Portland, Oregon turned into a marathon war between our household and the various tentacled arms of Macy's internal billing center and a series of external collection agencies.

Everything finally came to a head about a week ago, when a new collection agency from Florida began calling. I answered, foolishly, thinking it was someone I know from that area code. I then descended into billing yell for about the 10th time. Billing Hell can be described as right hands being completely absent and left-hands repeatedly attacking via incessant phone calls from 6am through to 10pm at night. The hallmark of this hot-as-hades zone is an endless parade of telephone agents with collective amnesia on contents of the rapidly amassing depth of the dossier they had on me.

Anyway, after barely avoiding apoplexy, I decided to take things up a notch myself. No more talking with the collection agencies, or the billing centres in Ohio and Iowa for Macy's; no more twitter or facebook posts asking for a planned call by a decision-maker in customer service. This time I was going to end this torture, or die trying.

I put on my old recruiter hat and began hunting heads on the Web. I finally found a great tool at Jigsaw.com, and located the contact information for the head of Macy's Billing and Credit section for the US, with an email address! Bingo.

I wrote out the story of our experience with Macy's, organized into sections that could be easily followed, and then summed everything up. It was like writing an essay for college: say what you're going to say, say it, say what you said.

To my everlasting surprise and gratitude, the Director contacted me within a half hour! and within 3 hours I had information from Macy's that they would:

  • educate store personnel about offering the Macy's card to international customers
  • be clear on payment requirements
  • send me a cheque for $210+ to cover the cost of all of the mailing, money orders, and time spent managing the issue

Instantly, the harassing collection calls stopped, once again freeing up my cell phone from a dozen or so calls a day. That alone provided blissful relief. The refund from Macy's was the icing on my humble pie, and I immediately sent an email back with profuse thanks.

Macy's is now back in my good books, but I'll be paying cash next time and eschewing the card (which I cut up in a fit of pique anyhoo), which should make us ALL happy.

The moral of this story, the takeaway is:

  • BE PERSISTENT
  • Make sure you're speaking with someone who can make decisions. If you need to, go over the head of the people you are dealing with to get to a decision-maker.
  • Make sure you keep detailed notes of all conversations with the company or representatives
  • Take pictures of receipts and payments - they're easy to forward.
  • Don't talk with collections agents if you are questioning the bill. Go directly to a supervisor within Macy's internal billing office. Collections agents are usually commission-driven and their goal is to harass you into paying, even if the bill or credit practices are being disputed.
  • Be polite. For me, that means communicating in writing. I get so frustrated, so fast, at having to start all over with a new person that it can affect my health. So, I play to my strengths and go with written correspondence.
  • If you're someone who likes to do these kinds of negotiations verbally, record the conversation, even if it's just your side.
  • Always ask for the full name of the person you are speaking with, what their title is, and keep track of this info with the time and date in the file you have started. A little bit of housekeeping can save you time later on, and should  you ever need to go to court, a plaintiff with comprehensive notes will win out over a defendant who just wings it.
  • Finally, when you get resolution, send a thank you card to the individual(s) involved.
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Macy’s: How to wreck a brand, in one easy lesson

Macys and the modern instruments of torture

This is one of the clearest examples I have ever run across for how to alienate consumers, courtesy of Macy's Department Store.

Here's how to go about torpedoing your own brand:

  • give false information when selling the card idea to the consumer in your store (untrained staff)
  • don't provide world-standard payment methods online in your 'customer service portal' - no PayPal, no bank transfer, no payment via another card that can handle the exchange portion of the transaction
  • have a customer service center that requires having a Social Security Number to get out of the automated system (in Canada we have Social Insurance Number) and do this EVERY time they call
  • have a dozen left hands making constant and aggressive contact
  • misdirect with bogus solutions and mystery addresses
  • don't keep a customer's file up to date, and outsource your collection calling so the people on the other end of the phone are completely disconnected from your brand or the consumer
  • be totally okay with your customer having to pay $140 on a $49 purchase

How did it happen?

My daughter and I were traveling in Portland, and she needed some jeans. We headed out for the big mall south of us in Lloyd Centre, and were delighted to discover a Macy's department store. We'd had watched the Macy's parade on occasion and associated the brand with family, fun, and great shopping.

We found a couple of pairs of jeans, including a pair of 'distressed' jeans my daughter loved. We approached the cashier to pay and she suggested there was a way to save money.... I love saving money, so I asked how and this is what she told me: "You can sign up for a Macy's card today and get an immediate 40% discount AND a further discount when your bill arrives and you pay it off immediately."

I replied, "I can't, I'm not an American."

"Sure you can! We have lots of Canadians with Macy's cards."

"But I don't have a US bank account, only a Canadian one."

"You can pay online at Macy's - lots of people do that."

"I don't have an account in US funds, though, I'm sure we would need that to pay on the Macy's site," I continued. I had heard stories about currency issues and wanted to be triple sure.

She was really persuasive. "You don't need US Funds, you can pay with a Canadian card and pay the exchange rate. We have lots of Canadian customers doing that, you don't need to worry. It's a great deal!"

Famous last words. We got the card, and the discount, and the jeans and soon were headed home again to BC.

Fast forward: the first bill arrives in late September. I go online to pay and spend an hour on the Macy's site trying to find a way to pay with my credit card, my bank account or PayPal. Attempt to call Macy's via the number provided on the statements and on Customer Service. Must first register for the site. Automated phone system will not accept my Social Insurance Number and keeps returning me to that step. There are no other options provided for getting an operator, agent, or an alternate verification such as date of birth. Unable to connect.

We have a flood that destroys the flooring throughout the lower half of our house, prompting a chain reaction of events involving mass upheaval of our household and my office; all of the files and phones and computers are in different places, there's 10 workers a day trooping around interrupting and driving us out of the house with the noise of the fans and tools. Total chaos allowing only the most urgent of family and business issues to be dealt with for a 6 week period.

By the time we could actually reconnect on smaller issues in the family and business, the Macy's account was well overdue. I happened to answer a call from the customer service department and a very nice gentleman (the only one I would talk to who was helpful and interested in working WITH me) erased the interest charges and told me, no, you can't pay online as a Canadian, you'll need to send a cheque. We agreed that the account would be closed and that payment would clear the balance and I would be removed from their mailing lists. I sent that out as promised.

First Payment Attempt:

The cheque was returned due to it not being in US Funds. Collection calls began.

Second Payment Attempt:

I called back the collection agency - a different number - and the woman I dealt with spoke with her supervisor and told me to 'put USD next to the amount on a new cheque and send'. I did and sent it out, by mail, to the address she provided in Ohio.

The collection calls began again, several times a day, and continued for the month it took until my bank notified me that the cheque had been returned since it was not written on an account in US Funds.

Third Payment Attempt:

I called the same woman at the collection agency and had the interest reversed again. I negotiated a settlement of $83 USD on the original $49 purchase on the card in Portland. I was instructed to purchase a money order in US funds and send it to the address on the statement/bill. I did, and had the mail registered so someone would have to sign for it and acknowledge receipt and put it in the mail express post December 17.  We were now up to $99 on the bill. I called Macy's to let them know the money order had been sent, the date and time of the package departure, and the registration number for the mail - which I had to beg them to note in the file. I can not confirm if they did.

Late December the harassing collection calls began again. They had not received the money order. I called the number they provided and the customer service rep said, "You've sent it to the wrong address. It wasn't supposed to be sent to Ohio. It was supposed to go to our processing center in Des Moines. (!!!) I asked how I was to have known that given all of the statements came with 'please enclose your payment and send to.... Ohio." Nowhere in any of the correspondence from Macy's was there an Iowa address. She could not give me an answer and referred me to another customer service rep.

The new rep said, "You'll have to send another money order," to which I replied, "Why would I send another money order that if the first one never arrived and we can track the package into the US where it sits somewhere collecting dust, that's $80 of my money plus postage already sent once."

"I'm sorry, you'll have to send us another money order." Finally, after some wrangling, I was able to get a hold put on the file so Canada Post could track the package and work with the US Post Office to either get it forwarded out to Macy's, or returned to me. We set a time of three weeks.

Now I was working with Canada Post, a bureaucracy well-known to Canadians. Surprisingly the gal I talked with was excellent, though the news was not good: the US post office had a full 90 days from the point of inquiry to provide information back to Canada Post. She would do what she could.

In about 10 days the calls started again, sometimes up to a dozen times a day. After the full three weeks was up I called Canada Post again and asked for help. Again, they were excellent. She waived the 90 day waiting period, and issued the maximum refund allowed under CP for an undelivered package, which meant a cheque for $49 CDN was on its way to me.

Fourth Payment Attempt:

I called Macy's and gave them the status, and agreed to buy a second $83 USD money order and send it - again and confirmed - to the Ohio address. We agreed that the $83 uSD would be my final payment and would close out my account and my file with them and remove me from all of their mailing lists. But not before they asked me if I could drive across the border and pay the account out in Bellingham! A full day of travel and gas and ferries!

I went to the Post Office this time and bought a second money order and sent it off as agreed.

Fast forward to March 30. Macy's requested a call. I went through the phone process for about the 18th time, getting jammed every time on the same sticking point: "Please enter the last four digits of your Social Security Number". I put in the last four digits of my Social Insurance Number (provided when I registered for the card) and got back the same answer: that's not a valid number. Please repeat the last four digits..."

Finally I reached a human being - and what did I hear? Please provide the last four digits of your Social Security Number. The last four digits of your Social Insurance Number then. That number is incorrect.   Finally after doing the date of birth thing - again - we get to the discussion of the account. "Your account is in arrears and you have missed your payment for three months."

"I sent a money order - again - 10 days ago and that was to clear up and close my account."

"We have applied the $83 money order against your account but there is a balance remaining for the interest charges. You will have to pay these charges."

The term apoplexy does not begin to communicate the sense of frustration. The man seemed to have no reference of the earlier conversations I had had with other representatives and just repeated that I still owed money and the calls would continue.

In the meantime I weekly receive in my snail mail box more invoices with additional interest applied, and glossy inserts for the Macy's store. Oh, and the jeans didn't last longer than 3 months before literally falling apart.

_________________________________

Always, always get written confirmation that there is a payment mechanism for you as a Canadian consumer. Get a customer contact number that does not require a Social Security Number to reach an operator. Or better yet, pay cash. My $40 off the purchase cost me $160 and untold amounts of stress, and has damaged my credit rating.

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Clothing & Gear Fit for a Geek

SCOTTEVEST Women's Trench Coat, Geeked to the Max

These are a few of my favorite things... in case anyone is looking long-range at Christmas gifts for the geek in YOUR life.

SCOTTEVEST/SeV

What an innovative company. SCOTTEVEST dubs itself as "Travel Clothing for the Trip of Your Life" and offers a range of gear from long & short sleeve ts, polo shirts, Q-Zip pullovers, pocket-laden cargo pants and shorts... even boxers made to carry an iPhone or iPod, passport my ass!

I've also never seen so much information available for a pair of shorts: details, key features, reviews, pocket map (that's right, there's so many pockets you have to map them; they should have called them the Christopher Columbus Cargoes), X-Ray pocket view, and a 4+ minute video hosted on youtube. SCOTTEVEST certainly knows how to market online.

My top pick, shown above is the Women's Trench Coat. Not only does it look snazzy with a black turtleneck underneath, get this: it's 'compatible' with the iPad & Macbook Air. The Weight Management System, NoBulge terminology is designed to please your geeky girl on both fronts. $150.

Here's an inexpensive gift for those heading out on summer trips, or maybe even for yourself (ha! I am so getting one): The SeV TEC Hat. If you're tired of money belts or wallet packs hanging around your neck under your clothes, this hat does the trick.  In the brim of the hat is a place for bills and a single key; a pocket on the side of the hat takes coins and credit card/bank card. It's stylish and inexpensive at $18.

The only drawback is for out-of-country orders. The only shipper they use is USPS, which for Canadians means a) at least a week of extra delay and b) a 'brokerage' and customs fee that is usually at least 40% the cost of the items. Can you hear the gnashing of my tooth from where you are?

SELF-LACING SHOES & RAYGUNZ

Tired of bending over to re-tie laces? Feeling middle-age (literally) getting between you and your feet? Try these self-lacing shoes on for size - better yet, make them yourself following the directions at Instructables and you, too, can go Back to the Future.

 

And if ever there was an art piece for a geek, this is it: a blown glass ray gun, created by Vancouver artist Jeff Burnette at Joe Blow Glassworks. His web site seems to be down, and disappointingly the last show I can find referenced is back in 2009, but look at this, ain't it a stunner? I see via twitter that he is still active (@jeffburnette) so I'll do my best to find out studio location and times for a visit.

Joe Blow Glasswork's Ray Gun by Vancouver Artist Jeff Burnette

ROCK PAPER SCISSORS LIZARD SPOCK

Yes, Spock DOES trump everything on this ultra-cool t-shirt inspired by The Big Bang Theory TV show. Just in case there's a dispute, the shirt also shows arrows of supremacy.

For my full list of top picks, check out my wishlist at ThinkGeek: Stuff for Smart Masses.

 

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Carnage Culture: why do we watch?

Carnage Culture: Why do we watch?

Last night I sat down to flip through some channels and try and get my brain to calm down from the annual spring-forward time change where I live.

I stumbled across CNNs almost 24 hour live coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. I remembered catching a bit of it in the morning at the kitchen table with my caffeine eye-opener, and I was struck again by the tone and feel of the CNN broadcast.

Yet another young-ish and hollywood-ish anchor looked earnestly into the camera. They're all of a sameness on CNN these days; if Fox is near-retirement age apoplexies in suits, CNN is populated with glossy entertainment-tonight style clones: a uniform patina of makeup, youthful earnestness, and to our society's discredit, an endless thirst for disaster that is all the more disgusting given how they play the foil to Fox' more base and manamimalistic presentation style.

Time and time again, I saw fluff-headed anchors breathlessly badgering reporters (and ireporters) to up the ante on how things are going down in Japan post-disaster. Yes, yes, we all know the potential possible outcomes of what is now becoming clear was a catastrophic quake and insanely, brutishly fast tsunami. Isn't it bad enough as it is?

Like jackals, some media outlets simply eviscerate the story, dragging out of the entrails that is a country - and its people - reeling in the immediate aftermath of something the marjority of us will never have to face. The networks, in this case, CNN, cajole and tease in leadouts to commercials, their somber faces belying the lust for 'the story', the thing that is going to grab those eyeballs, my eyeballs specifically, and drag me into taking an almost participatory ringside seat. Voyeurism never felt so disgusting as it did in that moment. The network's greedy appetite for worse and worse news, extrapolations into the future ad infinitum, was played out across the faces of the shills on the screen: the sheen of hunger on their busily moving lips, their predatory body language as they leaned in so seriously to ask a pointed (and pointless question).

While the networks do post information about how to donate via a variety of charities and methods, it's almost an afterthought. It came across as a repulsive claim to legitimacy, to their right to 'help' - help us supposedly feel our fellow's pain.... and then what? I can send my $20 or my $100 - let's not get our donation recipients confused while we're at it... what was it last month? Oh yeah, New Zealand. That's so Haiti now - but most viewers will not, unless they're hankering for a new Lady GaGa bracelet. Even then it feels somehow like buying a ticket to a show, rather than giving.

Online is no better. Millions flock to YouTube - in schools as did my daughter's high school class Friday afternoon - as over and over, like a record with a jumping needle, the endless footage of waves, of inundation, of carnage, roll endlessly past us.

It feels sickening, this endless parade of disaster through all of these 'channels'. Anyone connected in the grid is as assaulted by the cascading onslaught of images  as to feel one short step away from the disaster themselves. A tsunami of its own.

To what end, I have to ask? I feel farther away from my fellow human being than ever, and now utterly distressed by the repetitive witnessing of their personal horrors. I feel I oughtn't gripe about the daylight savings time stretch, for just think what the Japanese are going through. How dare I? And yet what does my solemnity and silence add to their experience. Does watching a rescue at a car accident bestow some kind of magic protection upon the injured, or is the viewer simply in the way, or worse, entertained by it?

The political correctness, the perfect 'form' demanded of the witnessing, as if we attempted to attend a cricket match wearing clothes all wrong for the season, is stunningly depraved. The media, and our complicit participation in it, has us salivating at the bell of each fresh disaster, and if we don't fall into line, tune in that channel and cry at the images so carefully chosen for us we feel as alienated as if excommunicated.

So I'm going to unplug from the red-hot mainline of carnage culture. I'm going to make my donations, be as good a person as I can be - to myself, my kin and kind and my fellow human beings from every end of the earth - and I'm going to turn my over-avid adrenalin-fueled gaze away from the wreck and stop getting my jollies and water cooler currency from the greasy, overfed and underaged anchor talent at CNN.

Oh, and I'll be away from my desk. I'm developing an app that triggers a warning siren that something terrible has happened, that a new episode of Carnage Culture has hit the airwaves. I'm sure I'll be elbowing all those folks on their way in to see it, but I'm getting the hell out of THERE. Care to join me?

RELATED LINKS:

None. Grown ups know how to make donations to reputable aid organizations without any help from me, or the anchors on CNN.

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Reading this post could save you thousands

Licensed image I purchased from IStockPhoto.com for this post.

Ever since the major stock photography and image sites came online they have struggled with how to provide images under reasonable licensing agreements that the average user could afford. Over the past 10 years, formerly corporate-focused stock image sites have become ubiquitous, and yet ever since image search has taken off in Google and Bing people have been right-clicking and saving images to their hard drives like there's no tomorrow - ensuring a collision between 'innocent' small business owners and the image companies.

It's here.

The image companies have teamed up with a company called PicScout. PicScout's technology allows them to send out bots that actually 'look' at the images on web sites and compare them to images in the stock company's catalogue, regardless of whether the name on the photo has been changed. Once the image on your site is identified as one of the copyrighted images owned by a digital rights site, the stage is set and the wheels of justice begin their grinding, pulping turns.

What does this mean to you, the site owner?

You are legally bound to ensure the images and art you are using on your site meet one of the following criteria:

  • you took the photos or created the graphic artwork yourself
  • you directly hired an artist or photographer to create the works for you
  • you legally purchased the images or art from an online digital stock company and paid the licensing fee appropriate to the intended use.

That means if you're trolling around Google or Bing looking for images that look just right, you're more than likely setting yourself up for a Fedexed visit from the legal department of the stock company who owns that image you like so much.

The bill they slap you with will be in the $1000+ range depending on use of the image(s) and how critical a role it plays in financially rewarding you. For example, stock photo images used without consent/licensing for an E-Commerce site generating daily sales is going to incur a higher bill than a minor graphic on a business-card web site.

While you can argue 'innocent infringement', that argument is weakening every day. It's impossible to search for any image and not see results come back with watermark stamps on them identifying that they are comps from stock companies. Clicking on any image prompts a window to pop up with the message that the image may be subject to copyright. Pretty impossible to ignore.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU RECEIVE A LETTER

The companies sending out letters are Masterfile (particularly active in Canada at this time), Getty, Superstock, and Corbis for the most part. You will receive a letter outlining the breach of copyright, a photocopy of the image(s) in question as shown on your web site, and the catalogue information for the specific photo(s) from the Stock Company's library. Also included will be a 'Compliance Fee' settlement request that will look like a very professional invoice, with a total on the bottom that will make your heart drop into your stomach.

What should you do?

  • Number one - DON'T PANIC. There are many variables that affect the outcome in this kind of dispute: innocent vs. knowing infringement, your history, the traffic your site gets, and new judgements setting precedents that will undoubtably affect your negotiation of a settlement. These letters indicate an attempt to settle the company's claim that you infringed on their owned works; it's not an invoice and you are not bound to pay it as presented. Arm yourself with current information and you should be able to come to a reasonable settlement with the Image Company at a significantly lower cost than they have claimed. An important question to ask the claimant is "Is this image individually copyrighted or is it part of a larger catalogue that was copyrighted?" If it was the latter, whether you are using one or five images, it counts as ONE infringement, and the image owner is only owed ACTUAL DAMAGES. See this recent judgement for more details.
  • The next right thing you need to do is REMOVE THE IMAGE(S) and/or web page in dispute. This is critical and demonstrates your immediate rectification of the issue of continued display of the image(s).
  • Notify anyone else involved in the supply of the images, such as your web site template provider, or third party who sourced and provided the images to you to use on their behalf. Many can trace back paper trails that prove either prior legal ownership (the big image companies have been swallowing up the small ones for a few years now), or can go back to their own contacts who may have acquired the image legally.
  • Review your entire image directory. If you can't remember where you got an image and whether you have the legal right to use it - for those of us who have been online since before stock companies were online this is particularly difficult - play it safe and turf the image.
  • Collect statistical information about the benefit of use of the image. How much traffic does the page your image is on receive in a one-year period? How much does your company make in a year that could be reasonably tied to that message? For example, if you are an accommodation provider and you or your designer has snagged generic images of food, recreational pursuits etc. it could be reasonably argued that the entire success of your business can be attributed back to the use of those images!
  • Once you've collected the information you need, delete the page and the images from your server and then request Google remove the exact url from their database using this URL REMOVAL TOOL. The address must return a 404 page not found or image not found message or Google will not remove the link.
  • Also contact the WAYBACK MACHINE to request removal of the page from their archives. The address to write to is info-responderATarchive.org (convert AT to @).
  • Record any other relevant information about your company's historical use of images. For example, in my case, I came from a print publishing background and have always been aware of and respectful of copyright. I have always requested permission for the use of images, and when the stock companies came online I immediately began buying from them. I think my purchasing records go back to around 2004, proving that I was a frequent user of paid stock images appropriately licensed for the intended web use. In addition, I believe I have email correspondence on file going back to the early 2000s requesting that advertisers prove ownership of images or take down images from not only my web site, but their own, if I knew them to be in copyright violation either of mine or belonging to someone else in the community.
  • Read the information at www.extortionletter.com and if necessary, consult with your lawyer. Extortionletter.com offers a letter template for communicating with the digital image company, and keeps the site current with information about cases in the courts, judgments etc. that you can use on your own. Here's one key point from the last judgement, from Oscar Michelin, the lawyer who created the site: "We routinely advise offering more than $300 per image on MF claims so that had we represented CC we would have come in at or over the $1120 and likely avoided having any legal fees awarded."
  • Oh and here's another great piece of advice: "Do not take advice from amateur advice-givers who do not know copyright law, it's application in a court of law, or have never set foot in a courtroom." This means don't take my advice, do your own homework!

While some letter recipients advocate simply waiting for a lawsuit to materialize,  you need to weigh the risks in terms of stress and wondering if the other shoe out there is looking for your head. Besides, if you're like me and have gone to great lengths to protect copyright on your site and have been caught in the middle of something, ethics make it hard to just wait this one out.

My advertisers in question are going through their records as I write this as we all recall the images being purchased for use - I would have certainly stipulated it for my site. It was a long time ago and the page was mothballed in a forgotten corner of a site numbering almost a thousand pages. The images have been viewed 3 times in the past 6 six years, so that will certainly come up in the discussion with Masterfile. I'll keep you posted! Now, go and check your sites!

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Top 10 Plugins for WordPress Sites for 2010

Top WordPress Plugins for 2010

If you're bewildered by the thousands of plugins for WordPress, you're not alone.  The official WordPress site for the self-hosted variety, WordPress.org, lists over 12,000 in their directory alone. So what's a site owner to do?

Well, here's my top 10 for 2010, based on actual usage. REMEMBER: Always back up your site before adding new plugins, and if adding multiple plugins, view your site in a separate browser window and reload with each plugin addition. That way you can catch any conflicts immediately and know which plugin is responsible (you can deactivate the plugin and visit the plugin website for documentation on bugs, or delete the plugin entirely.)

ALL IN ONE SEO: Yes, WordPress is structured for SEO (search engine optimization) in the most basic ways. But why limit your site to the basics. The All in One SEO Pack allows you to create search engine friendly titles, meta descriptions and keyword tags that will amplify your posts for the engines.

NEXT GEN GALLERY: If you have a ton of images to manage in your site, whether it's pictures of rooms in your accommodations or photo albums that go in a particular section of your site, Next Gen is a great way to manage them. Drag & drop sorting, description and tag editing, multiple galleries, automatic pagination and easy to place shortcodes for showing them on your pages or posts. Flash addons are available (remember, they won't work on iPhones or iPads).

ULTIMATE GOOGLE ANALYTICS: Sure, you can go with the vanilla stats that wordpress.org provides in the plugin that mimics the environment of their public wordpress.com site. But why limit yourself to that when you can use Google Analytics. It's like strapping on a real rocket instead of lighting a tiny firecracker.

GOOGLE XML SITEMAPS: Now that meta information has dropped in effectiveness (too many people metajacking and abusing the system) sitemaps have become an indispensable tool for engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and others to find ALL of the information on your site.

ANTI-CAPTCHA: This is a transparent captcha solution that does not require users to enter in any special characters when commenting and protects against automated attacks by spambots - you know, all those bogus comments that need clearing out of the admin area. When a comment is posted without a valid Anti-Captcha token (automatically issued when you visit the site), the comment is instantly marked as spam. It requires javascript and cookies enabled for it to succeed.

SHARETHIS or SEXY BOOKMARKS: Make it easy for site visitors to share your blog or site with a plugin that appends social networking icons to the bottom of every page. Share This is the basic version, Sexy Bookmarks shows the icons popping up from below a line with a handwritten note recommending sharing (see this post). Choose from over 80 sites to share with, or select 'Most Popular' for the handful of the busiest sites. A sidebar widget version is also available.

TYNT: Somewhat similar to Highlighter, the best thing about this plugin is that if someone posts a part/excerpt of your post or page elsewhere on the Web, a small link is added to it (you control what the link says, for example, "Read the full post"). It's a great way to build backlinks to your site and control copyright using the Creative Commons licensing add-on.

WPTOUCH iPHONE THEME: Not an easy one to set up but worth the effort. When a mobile user visits your site a lighter version designed for the mobile market (almost all platforms and devices) is presented. You now have a fully mobile-friendly web site. Note: some plugins do not work with this mobile app: NextGen Gallery noted above, WP Super Cache are the notables.

WP-DBMANAGER: This nifty plugin allows you to manually create a backup of your site's database (not to be confused with exporting posts from the Settings area) or set an auto-backup and determine a regular schedule for mailing the .zip file to the address of your choosing. I set mine to send every two weeks as I only post occasionally on this site, and to optimize my database every 3 days. When it comes through to my email I delete the previous one so I only have the latest backup taking up space on my drive.

Have fun playing, and if you need help, contact Bad Dog Design at web@baddogdesign.com.

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Highlighter Plugin for WordPress a nifty way to snip & share

There's a couple of companies I follow on a regular basis because they regularly innovate, either in WordPress theming, or in developing unique plugins that enhance the user experience for visitors to WordPress-based sites.

Unique Blog Designs started out as a wordpress theming company, and that's where Bigpacific.com went for the design of our first WordPress foray online. They built us a beautiful, custom design that reflected all the beauty of the Sunshine Coast and allowed for extra promotional spaces for advertisers wanting a greater prominence on the site.

Since then, UBD as they are widely referred to today have broadened their themes to serve the affiliate, email and online marketers niches. These are not niches where I generally spend a lot of time, but I did review and test the themes for customers who do wish to work them, and they are loaded with features and plugins that automate and leverage a lot of the elbow grease that goes into running a great blog or marketing site.

Now UBD has launched a new product, a very handy plugin for WordPress sites called 'Highlighter'. If you've ever used an old-fashioned highlighter (don't laugh, some younger people haven't!) you'll be familiar with the concept, now employed in a unique digital format that makes for a novel way to share content online with colleagues and friends.

With the highlighter plugin, the barriers are removed for user engagement.Visitors to your site can highlight a word, phrase, sentence - even an image - and instantly share it online, with a comment via Facebook, Twitter or Email. The Highlight Box packs all the related comments and sharing in one handy spot - and the webmaster can moderate highlights the same as comments.

You can also collect email addresses with the Highlighter tool integrated with Aweber, MailChimp or GetResponse.

This is a FREE tool that will increase visitor engagement, build your email network and create conversation points in novel ways.

Use Highlighter on this post and share it with friends!

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