Web Site Building Bits and Tips

Just a quick post to share some links you might find helpful if you are building a new web site. I've been helping several folks with their web site aspirations lately and came across these, in no particularly order:

First, how about a menu? It is pretty easy to create a nice top level menu using css and an unordered css. The tricky bit is a drop-down menu. That link will take you to a very simple but effective design which requires very little code.

If you are familiar with jquery you can use it to create a menu like the one on the left. The html/css/js code for doing this is available from this page, linked here. But what if you want to sketch out a complete web page design with menus and page elements?

For this there is a tool called Mocking Bird that you might want to check out (works best on a very broadband connection). Another new tool that might be worth looking into is: www.wix.com. It's a web site that let's you build a web site that uses Flash (like Mocking Bird, Wix is an example of an application delivered as a service, in other words, Software as a Service or SaaS, just like Salesforce or the marketing product that I've been working on: Monetate).

With these two web design apps you can create pages or edit templates using a web-based interface. As with many SaaS offerings the feature set is continually evolving so I suggest you check them out rather than rely on my giving you a snapshot of their capabilities.

When you are designing web pages, the grid approach can be very helpful. Here is an article on grid-based design that I found useful, full of links to related content (I am finding Smashing Magazine a good resource in general, for everything from WordPress themes and buttons, to coding tips).

The ability to draw a design on a grid and then have an application generate the required CSS is a huge boon to web site developers. Here's an article that has links to 15 ways of accomplishing this. (What a difference these would have made when I first started messing with CSS layouts.) Another solution, not on the list of 15, is 960 Grid System. As the name implies, 960GS simplifies designing around a width of 960 pixels, which is a common choice these days for page width.

Finally, for this post, I want to mention XAMPP, software that let's you test a lot of stuff on your Windows laptop or desktop before putting it on a Linux/UNIX web site. With XAMPP you get the ability to run Apache, MySQL, PHP and Perl (the AMPP). Of course, this then gives you the ability to install WordPress on your Windows box which is very handy when developing sites in WordPress. Fro Mac OS X users there is similar functionality in MAMP.

Happy page building!

Can You Hear Me? Radio interview at ad:tech

speakerAs you can see from the lack of recent posts on Cobbsblog, things have been particularly busy this month. My November started out with a trip to a trade show in New York called ad:tech. This event brings together a very interesting mix of companies that are in some way or another related to digital marketing.

Digital marketing is one way to describe what my work for Monetate is all about, so I was at the show checking out the digital marketing scene and looking to learn whatever I could. (Quote du jour: "A real expert always looks to learn more and does not always try to look like he's learned everything.")

Judging by the huge crowds, digital marketing is doing well these days. For all our sakes I am hoping that the larger-than-expected attendance bodes well for the economy in 2010.

Shortly after I fought my way through the check-in lines and gained entrance to the exhibit hall I was interviewed for WebmasterRadio by marketing guru Bryan Eisenberg. Here is a link to the interview. (I apologize for sounding out of breath but I had to shout to be heard above the crowd--the sound engineers at WebMasterRadio did an amazing job of filtering out background noise but they couldn't change the fact that I was shouting.) Oh, and here's a link to Bryan.

Anyway, if you take a listen to the interview you will get an idea of what Monetate is about and what my role as "evangelist" for the Monetate technology involves. (If you can't listen to the audio right now, the short answer is that my role as an evangelist is to get people excited about what the technology can do.)

I carry out my role by communicating across multiple media, most of which don't charge for participation. Over the years I have learned how to do this out of necessity, often working for startup companies that did not have a marketing budget to speak of (or we had a budget but it got eaten by engineering, or product delivery, or something else that was deemed a priority over marketing at the time).

Starting from back in the days when this type of thing was called guerilla marketing, I have pioneered the idea that if you offer up free content that is also valuable content, people will find that content, consume that content, and give some respect to the content creator. So when I created a web site back in the mid-nineties that was full of high quality computer security information, people who had read the content would call up looking for security advice, which we sold as security consulting, creating a blue ribbon client portfolio that became very valuable and was eventually snapped up by a much bigger company that paid us a premium for it.

A dozen years on and I am working on marketing a marketing product, finding that a lot of people have twigged to this strategy, so things are not quite so easy. But the strategy is still sound and I will keep persevering, adding new tactics like social media (an umbrella term for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs) to my arsenal. And of course, radio interviews whenever they present themselves.

Zombies, Swine Flu, and Kindling: What a Difference 6 Months Makes

Wow! I did not realize it was THAT long since I had posted here. I blame the day job, which is often the evening job and weekend job as well. Fortunately that job is going well and I am racking up kudos for my blog posts on marketing. I am also getting quite adept at the social media thing. (Here's a link to a personal post where I rounded up 19 things you should do if you want to promote your company, band, film, book, profile).

A lot of people are somewhat familiar with some of the social media basics, but it is how you employ them all in concert that makes social networking work, from Twitter to Facebook and LinkedIn, to your blog, your pics, your videos, your tr.ims, your stats and your Google Analytics (which reminds me, I need to add these last few to the list, maybe: Hey 19, Part 2, the Remix).

What has this got to do with art? Everything. There may be some artists who seek obscurity (like the Buddhist monks in Shangri-La that were on PBS last night). But most art is intended to be experienced. And that seldom happens without a push from somewhere. Consider Jeremy Dean, the Brooklyn-based artist who created the indie doc Dare Not Walk Alone (that I had the honor of producing). He has been cooking up some cool conceptual art for several years now, but it was connecting with a gallery that gave his private art a push in the public direction. Jeremy will be showing at big art events in December and March and already has some cool art video online.

Speaking of that aspect of pushing art forward which is often referred to as "publication" and/or "distribution," we are seeing the "and/or" converge taking place right now in technology like Amazon's Kindle. You can now read Kindle books on your iPhone and PC as well as on the actual Kindle device.

Which brings me to the book I wanted to review here: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. This is a novel by the first "new" author I have read entirely on the iPhone. The book came out in print a few years ago and sold well. It is currently around #300 on Amazon. But the book is in several top 10 lists on Kindle, which is how I came to see it while using Kindle on my iPhone. I was intrigued enough by the reviews to download the free preview and on reading that I figured I would like the book, so I paid for the full Kindle version.

There were three things that I enjoyed about World War Z. First and foremost I admired the extent to which author, Max Brooks, had thought through all the implications of zombieism (sp?). Then he extrapolated a new reality from a defined set of data: zombies eat flesh, zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, zombies can survive under water, zombieism spreads through biting and the dead re-animate after infection, and so on. The book explores the logical and logistical end game. By doing so it reveals worrying weaknesses in current technology, science, cultures, and religions. (Hint, this is a global catastrophe of 2012 proportions.)

Second, the narrative structure created by the interview excerpt device was refreshing and very effective. You learn very little about zombies or the war through direct description. You get most of it by inference. And you get a lot of rich characters too, which keeps things fresh. Brooks is skilfull at giving each a unique voice and strong presence, using little more than their recorded words. He also manages some great humor of the dark, battlefield kind.

Third, I found this to be a fascinating book to read against the backdrop of the global H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic. Indeed, I think that may be part of the reason for the book's success, the series of epidemics the world has been seeing, coming from far distant places right into our everyday lives and forcing us to think hard about a lot of things we would rather keep to the back of our minds.

I am not a big fan of horror stories, particularly ones that dabble in the supernatural. The genius of World War Z is that Brooks makes fighting zombies seem very real and anything but a figment of the imagination. Consider this: In talking about the book over dinner one night I found myself saying "If this zombie thing ever happened for real, it would be really bad." Talk about willing suspension of disbelief.

Lack of Broadband Access Further Depresses Property Values

Today we encountered a prime example of how the refusal of telecomm companies to adequately serve rural Americans with broadband is hitting home, literally. We spoke with a family that is having to sell their home and move just so they can get the broadband connectivity they need to continue their business and maintain their livelihood.

As if the perpetration of a giant sub-prime Ponzi scheme by the banks had not done enough damage to property values we are now seeing a rising tide of property devaluations due to a lack of broadband. Driving this trend are the following factors:
  1. A growing expectation of broadband access in all sectors of commerce and government. It is now normal to expect someone with whom you do business to be able to watch a video online, attend a webinar, log into the company network remotely, and download large files, all activities that are impossible without broadband.
  2. A growing realization that satellite Internet service, the connection of last resort in rural areas, is not really broadband at all. For example, it does not reliably support any of those 4 essential business activities in trend 1.
  3. A growing education gap is emerging in which children and adults without broadband access are being left behind, in K-12 and further education, not to mention distance learning. 
While trends 1 and 2 affect the ability of rural residents to conduct business on a level playing field or work remotely, trend 3 affects the entire family, sealing the fate of homes in areas without broadband access. The market for homes that lack broadband access is shrinking rapidly. The downward pressure on valuations will only continue.

Handy Tech Tip: Vista and Windows 7 Device Driver Uninstall

As you may have discovered by now, your PC may be able to run Windows 7 but the maker of your PC does not plan to support you in this endeavor (Sony is a "good" example of a PC maker that is telling loyal owners of "older" Viao machines you are out-of-luck and on-your-own when it comes to Windows 7 drivers).

Of course, with the aid of Google and the many good folks who like to share on the 'net, workarounds abound. However, one problem you can end up with, given the hit-or-miss nature of manufacturer support for Windows 7, is a bunch of installed drivers that you don't need. I found this page helpful in dealing with this:

Uninstall Drivers from Vista & Windows 7

Do bear in mind the author's advice to make copies of drivers before you remove them. The thing that surprises me about drivers for Windows 7 is that XP drivers often work okay. I will try to blog more about that when I get my Vaio VGN-S460P fully configured. (Hint: This is one of the machines that Sony has no intention of supporting under Windows 7, but you can do a clean install of Windows 7 and so far it is working well--thanks to a set of original XP drivers.)

FireFox + ScribeFire = A great way to blog

I just added ScribeFire to Firefox on my "new" Windows 7 laptop and I have to say, this is the way to blog, particularly if you are blogging web pages, i.e. posting links to pages of interest with some added commentary. This is a good page to start at ScribeFire:

Getting Started With ScribeFire - Scribefire: Fire up your blogging

I have barely scratched the surface of this app but already it is way ahead of things like the Blogger "Blog this" add-in. Hopefully this functionality will enable me to blog more of my experiences getting Windows 7 running on my "old" Sony Vaio, which is now my "new" laptop.

Comcast protests broadband stimulus grant applications

Comcast protests broadband stimulus grant applications - FierceTelecom
David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, claims that since the U.S. Broadband stimulus funding program was designated to bring broadband services to areas where service is not available, targeting areas where it already provides service could 'violate eligibility rules.'
Of course, "provides service" is a term that Comcast defines to mean one access point somewhere in the vicinity, not actual "service" that is available to all.

You Can't See My House From Here: And I'm okay with that

Having written several posts in the past about Google Street View, including one featuring the house in which I was born, I thought I would post a Street View picture of where I live now:

Cobb Hill on Google Street View

As you can see--or rather, not see--the Google Street View camera vehicle did not get very close. In fact, it drove along the state highway near us, but that was it. Street View does not extend to the county road on which our 'official' address is located. And I'm okay with that.

I remain ambiguous about Street View in light of it's potential for abuse as a scouting tool by burglars and perverts. This has been widely discussed, particularly in the context of English cities where the narrowness of streets can put the Google camera very close to living room windows. But past discussions have focused on urban street views. Now Google is photographing rural roads, adding a new dimension to the potential for abuse.

It is no secret that farmers and ranchers don't always store their tractors and trailers in barns. In fact, putting all the equipment away at the end of every day, or every time you left the homestead to go to town, well that would be hugely unproductive, not to mention being a major pain in the butt. It's also common knowledge that some farms are located close to, sometimes bifurcated by, state and county highways, as seen here on Street View.

But common knowledge and specific knowledge are two different things; keeping them apart may keep some light-fingered city types from pillaging trusting country dwellers. Now Google Street View is bringing them together. Who knows who is surfing the hinterlands looking for easy targets?

Please Read Before You Decide to Rely on Satellite Internet: Caveat Emptor, Googlius Checkum

In other words, Google the service you are considering. Consider the level of satisfaction indicated in these results from searching the word HughesNet and the word sux:

hughesnet sux - Google Search Shared via AddThis

And don't expect satellite Internet service to get any better. Service tends to go in cycles as the system becomes overcrowded with subscribers after a sales drive and special offers. New capacity is then added, which improves service for a while, then a news sales drive leads to declining service, and so on.

If you are considering buying residential property in a rural area and need Internet connectivity make sure the property has access to wired Internet access or reliable WiFi/WiMax wireless Internet. Do NOT buy into the false notion that you can get by with satellite service. The limitations and frustrations are just not worth it.

Seismic Stuff: Practical Electric Flight Takes Off (from China)

I wanted to point out a great article in this month's edition of Sport Aviation, the EAA magazine.

That would be EAA as in Experimental Aircraft Association.

Simply titled "Electric Flight," this article is the first description that I have read of practical electric flight, not as a concept, but as a reality, with an objective test pilot at the controls. Taking off and landing on battery power.

Just to be clear, the actual plane you see in the picture is capable of taking two people aloft for several hours with no fossil fuel, just batteries, with a recharging cost of about $3 per hour! Future developments could well produce versions that are capable of flying cross-country (in stages) just like any other Light Sport Aircraft, but without many of the pre-flight checks required by petroleum powered aircraft (e.g. there are no oil/air/fuel filters to check). And this is not the opinion of some electric vehicle nut. The author of this article, Dave Morss is a very practical test pilot with 25 years experience. He was clearly impressed by the plane, the Yuneec e430, and the team that created it. Consider these two quotes:
As for dependability, this may be the first plane I’ve tested that could fly nonstop, except for battery changes, for three days right out of the box (literally) with no squawks.
Nobody told them they couldn’t build an airplane in three months, so they just did it. It’s refreshing to work with a team with no limits. They’re relentless. They’re ingenious. And they’re determined to make electric flight a reality.
What makes this aircraft so seismic is not just the realization of practical, comfortable electric flight that can be mass produced--an enormous thing in itself--but also the fact that the team making it happen is from China. If anyone needed convincing that Chinese are serious competitors in both innovation as well as production, this is it.

(Unfortunately, I have not found the article posted in any public location on the web but I will keep looking and post a link if I find one.)