Divine Revelation – or just another form of the 419 Nigerian Email Scam?

This past Monday night, Mike Boyink received an email from peterokiki@latinmail.com, via an email address Mike only uses for comments on my site — that smoke you smell is me thinking of ways of poisoning the well!

Anyway, I figured this would be a good time to remind everyone of a point that Mike Wendland in an article in the Freep entitled “Nigerian e-mail scam still collecting from its victims.” Basically, people have lost fortunes, been kidnapped and murdered.

So here is the deal. If you ever get an email that offers you a huge fortune if you’ll only help them out by sending them some money first, then you’re more than likely looking at the 419 Nigerian Email Scam, or some variant thereof. Be especially careful if it is dripping with “churchy” terms and phrases aimed at tugging on your generous heart strings.

In which case, I suggest you take Wendland’s advice on his blog and just hit the delete button. Meanwhile, I’m going to see if I can eliminate email addresses from displaying on the comments sometime later tonight or this weekend.

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Sloppy – the slow proxy

Sloppy, the slow proxy, deliberately slows the transfer of data between your computer and a web server.

Why would you want to take your nice fast DSL line and slow it down to the speed of a 28.8k modem? Simulation.

If you’re like me, you probably build web sites via a CableModem, DSL or perhaps even a T1 line. Using Sloppy is one way to get the “dial-up experience” of your work without the hassle of having to install a modem.

Perhaps if more of us used tools like this, we’d have less sites with bloated graphics.

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Test your Speed!

I’ve been up late the past few nights, working on the Redland Baptist redesign … don’t worry, I’m taking notes and I’ll share how I’ve hammered MovableType into a CMS. In the meantime, here is a VERY cool tool, actually a very cool set of tools, I ran across: Bandwidth Place’s Speed Test.

This little beauty tests the speed of your Internet connection. In fact, it was the tool I used the other day to gauge my DSL speed when I reviewed the Calvary Temple Worship just to make sure it wasn’t a slow Internet connection on my side gumming up the works. As it turns out, Verizon is delivering me respectable 88.5 kilobytes per second.

You may also notice on the Bandwidth Place’s Speed Test page, you can also test the speed of a remote server. This is an incredibly useful service to test how fast data is getting from your web server to the rest of the world. I’d suggest a 10k image, or downloading the 60k image they provide, which you can then FTP to your web server.

The benefit of the server test is to make sure your web host provider’s connection is what they say it is. Or in my case 867.4 kilobits per second throughput, which translates into 105.9 kilobytes per second or 9.7 seconds for a 1mb file.

While this is good news for me, it also means that I need to be careful when sitting at home with my nice fast DSL line developing web sites because both my web server and my DSL line are running faster than the reality of many of the individuals of my church who are still using a dail-up connection. Something those of us with bigger bandwidth sometimes forget about when developing a site.

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What is Niphal?

Today’s mandatory reading:

Do you ever get the feeling that there’s just nothing out there? You can’t find a site that makes you think twice? That makes you come back and at the same time is Christ centered? Niphal.com is here to serve the Christian online community in this way.

There is a perception that design by Christians is generally low quality or otherwise unknown. Niphal was set up to encourage good design and show it off when appropriate. Pretty basic!

If you haven’t been to Niphal.com, then go now, I’ll wait …

Niphal.com is a wonderful blog/e-zine who’s purpose is to network geeks such as you and me who are involved in designing, building and/or maintaining our church and para-church web sites.

BTW, you might also enjoy their most current interview with their featured web designer. Also mandatory reading for obvious reasons.

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the Calvary Temple Worship Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana

My DSL service is pretty good, and late at night, very fast. I’m up around 715 kbits/sec., which translates to downloading 1mb of data in about 11.7 seconds. Which is why I was shocked that it took around 7 seconds for me to load the web page for The Calvary Temple Worship Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Okay, sure, so they have a 47,000 square foot, 2,200 seat worship center. But just because you’ve got a big honking church doesn’t mean you should have a big honking front page. In other words, just because you can say everything about your church on the front page, doesn’t mean you should.

Truly I say unto you, less is more.

Mount Montage

Let’s start with the montage on the front page, the 81k front page. I understand that they’re trying to leverage the picture is worth 1000 words adage, but there are more bandwidth friendly ways of communicating this. For example, why not install any one of several open source photo gallery applications with a conspicuous set of links to it.

Then to communicate the varieties of people served, replace the 81k montage – along with the girthy plus 43.5k picture below the fold, with a simple string of four 100×100 images along the top left of the masthead? Here’s something I whipped together in about 5 minutes:
Draft of a Simpler Masthead Idea

Or at least reduce the montage to the building, one shot of the senior lady on the montage, and perhaps some kids having fun? It could even be on the background of the interior of the worship center during a service. For example, something I’ve been toying with for the Redland redesign:
draft Redland montage/masthead - only 8.5k

Menu Madness

Another big bandwidth saver would be to jettison the graphic images used on the left column menu. Aside from the fact that using JPG for text/line-art pushed the individual menu items somewhere between 1.7 and 2.0k each, there are 29 such items — 1.85 x 29 = 53.65k of images that needs to be loaded on a page that is already 81+43.5 = 124.5k large, pushing the total image weight of almost 222k! Believe me when I tell you, that’s enough to scare away even the most devout dial-up user.

Here is how I would heal this. First, I would create a top level of categories, each one level of sub categories. For example, “About Us” would encapsulate “Pastors/Directors”, “Technical Director”, “What we believe”, “Contact Us.” Some other top-level categories that would help simplify the front-page overload might be “Ministries” and “Related Sites.” Most people who use the Internet these days are smart enough to know how to dig down into well-defined and well-documented site hierarchies, provided they’re not too deep.

Then again, I personally would ditch the graphic menu links altogether for text links. Perhaps implementing some CSS to give newer browsers a nice rollover effect.

Site maps and Search engines help any place where navigation fails.

Healing the Sub Pages

I took time to visit the sub pages. Here are some quick notes of things I’d address:

  • The masthead graphic is just too big at 31.25k. Especially when most of it is text.
  • boxes and table borders really interrupt the flow of how one reads. Consider using simpler means of separating text, such as paragraphs, tags <h1> through <h2> or sub pages when the information requires several page-downs of very small text
  • I found the Activities page a bit disorienting as it didn’t look and feel like the rest.
  • better check the background on that MidAmerica Masters Commission on computers with greater than 600×400 screen resolution
  • the Seniors Ministry is another perfect place for a photo gallery
  • But I have to say the most irritating thing is the yellow text on the black background. Perhaps its just my personal taste, but such dark color combinations are usually associated with hackers and p0rn sites (so I’m told). I mean the entire personality of the sight is so heavy and goth-like, which I’ll bet the house is the exact the opposite of this particular church’s personality and purpose.

Again, we have lots of content, but just as it is clear this church ‘broke a vase‘ to create an incredible worship center, perhaps they need to do the same to create at least an attractive web site.

Since much of today’s review is subjective, what are your thoughts? As always, your comments are most welcome.

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If Airlines were Operating Systems

Some more Friday Fun from yet another anonymous usenet joke that’s been passed almost as much as the “FCC To Ban Religious Broadcasting / Madalyn Murray O’Hair” urban legend. Today’s topic was selected with the hope that would help Jordon Cooper get through his Windows re-install without entirely losing his sanity.

  • DOS Air – All the passengers go out onto the runway, grab hold of the
    plane, push it until it gets in the air, hop on, jump off when it hits
    the ground again. Then they grab the plane again, push it back into
    the air, hop on, et cetera.
  • DOS with QEMM Airlines – The same thing but with more leg room to push.
  • Mac Airways – The cashiers, flight attendants and pilots all
    look the same, feel the same and act the same. When asked questions
    about the flight, they reply that you don’t want to know, don’t need
    to know and would you please return to your seat and watch the movie.
  • Fly Windows 95 – The terminal is very neat and clean, the
    attendants all very attractive, the pilots very capable. The fleet
    of Learjets the carrier operates is immense. Your jet takes off
    without a hitch, pushing above the clouds, and at 20,000 feet it
    explodes without warning.
  • Windows NT Air – All the passengers carry their seats out
    onto the tarmac, placing the chairs in the outline of a plane.
    They all sit down, flap their arms and make jet swooshing sounds
    as if they are flying.
  • OS/2 Skyways – The terminal is almost empty, with only a
    few prospective passengers milling about. The announcer says
    that their flight has just departed, wishes them a good flight,
    though there are no planes on the runway. Airline personnel walk
    around, apologizing profusely to customers in hushed voices,
    pointing from time to time to the sleek, powerful jets outside
    the terminal on the field. They tell each passenger how good
    the real flight will be on these new jets and how much safer
    it will be than Windows Airlines, but that they will have to
    wait a little longer for the technicians to finish the flight
    systems. Maybe another 10 years. Maybe longer.
  • Amiga Airline – The airport terminal is nice and colorful, with friendly
    stewards and stewardesses, easy access to the plane, an uneventful takeoff. For
    the more adventurous: travelers can travel on multiple planes and visit
    multiple destinations all at the same time. During these multiple plane trips
    the user can even take a side trip on Mac, DOS, Unix, or Windows airlines.
  • Unix Express – All passenger bring a piece of the airplane
    and a box of tools with them to the airport. They gather on the
    tarmac, arguing constantly about what kind of plane they want
    to build and how to put it together. Eventually, the passengers split
    into groups and build several different aircraft, but give them all
    the same name. Some passengers actually reach their destinations. All
    passengers believe they got there.
  • Wings of OS/400 – The airline has bought ancient DC-3s,
    arguably the best and safest planes that ever flew, and painted “747”
    on their tails to make them look as if they are fast. The flight
    attendants, of course, attend to your every need, though the drinks
    cost $15 a pop. Stupid questions cost $230 per hour, unless you have
    SupportLine, which requires a first class ticket and membership in the
    frequent flyer club. Then they cost $500, but your accounting
    department can call it overhead.
  • MVS Air Lines – The passengers all gather in the hangar,
    watching hundreds of technicians check the flight systems on this
    immense, luxury aircraft. This plane has at least 10 engines and seats
    over 1,000 passengers; bigger models in the fleet can have more
    engines than anyone can count and fly even more passengers than there
    are on Earth. It is claimed to cost less per passenger mile to operate
    these humungous planes than any other aircraft ever built, unless you
    personally have to pay for the ticket. All the passengers scramble
    aboard, as do the 200 technicians needed to keep it from crashing. The
    pilot takes his place up in the glass cockpit. He guns the engines,
    only to realize that the plane is too big to get through the hangar
    doors.
  • MPE Airline – It’s a little difficult to get a ticket because you have to sign
    up for the right plane, specify you want a seat to sit in, identify each piece
    of baggage and list it on your ticket, and once you enter the plane you may
    never see the same steward/ess twice. However, once the plane takes off, the
    ride is exceptionally smooth and usually on-time, unless you cross a timezone
    (this results in your being placed in a holding pattern for 1 hour until the
    plane’s clock and the local clocks are synchronized). Should the unthinkable
    happen and your flight ends in a crash, you will be magically whisked back to
    the origin of the flight where you will be placed on the next plane out.
  • OpenVMS Airline – Security to get on the plane can be tight, but once you get
    on, everyone has their own roomy area (depending on your pilot, of course).
    You sit down in a comfortable roomy seat, and brace yourself for the launch to
    warp by the powerful Alpha/AXP engines. You enjoy looking out your first-class
    DEC-and-X-windows at the other planes flying haplessly in circles below. You
    feel almost guilty that they are limited to the Earth’s atmosphere, except for
    the Amiga, which is just off your port wing. πŸ™‚ You enjoy witty,
    scintillating conversations with other passengers, and even other planes of
    almost any type. But the plane is too fast, and the air traffic controller
    doesn’t want to let you leave the country “for National Security”. Then you
    realize that your boss has you bumped from first-class to coach where your
    client PC’s are all contemplating closing their eyes, shouting “Geronimo!”, and
    jumping ship without a parachute, hoping to land on a Unix plane without
    crashing it…
  • RISC-OS Airways – The plane looks like a twin-turboprop commuter aircraft, but
    as you take off it accelerates to Mach 1.2. The drinks are
    a lot cheaper than on most other airways, and the flight
    attendants are much friendlier, even if their appearance
    leaves something to be desired.
  • Air PalmEveryone is in such a hurry that they bring their own ultralite. They pull it out of their pockets, proceed to unfold it, then they get their backpacks with all of the attachment parts (or their extreme geek belt where everything is attached to it). After plugging in their phone conduit, they call the traffic control and say that they are taking off. Air traffic says that they aren’t really a plane. Ultimately, the palm plane just plugs itself into a device attached to a real plane and the cool owner just presses a button and waits until the flight comes to an end, hopefully without some “out of something or another” message being sent back.
  • Linux Atlantic – Disgruntled employees of all the other OS airlines decide to start their own airline. They build the planes, ticket counters, and pave the runways themselves. They charge a small fee to cover the cost of printing the ticket, but you can also download and print the ticket yourself. When you board the plane, you are given a seat, four bolts, a wrench and a copy of the seat-HOWTO.html. Once settled, the fully adjustable seat is very comfortable, the plan leaves and arrives on time without a single problem, the in-flight meal is wonderful. You try to tell customers of the other airlines about the great trip, but all they can say is, “You had to do WHAT with the seat?”
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Fresh ISO’s, just like Mom used to Burn!

Here is a link that is also resource filled. LinuxISO.org, “a place to learn about, download, and discuss Linux.”

This is the site you visit when you want to find the ISO distribution of your favorite brand of Linux — or want to experiment with different flavors of Linux until you find one you like.

For example, I wanted to see what worked better on my wife’s Sparc 5, Red-Hat or Debian. So I downloaded both distributions. Burnt install CD’s on my PC then handed them over to my wife. The same can be done for PC distributions, as I did for both Mandrake and Lycoris.

The benefit is that it only costs you in bandwidth, temporary disk space and a set of blank CD’s. The biggest trick was learning how to burn ISO cds. Still, its worth it if you’re going to distribute and/or use Linux to support your church’s back office and/or web site.

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What does it mean to Color Reduce?

Chances are, I’m going to use a technical phrase or speak some other form of geek that may not translate well into your common vernacular. In those cases, contact me as IreneQ did when I used the phrase “color reduce” in a recent post. Here is the comment she left:

Sorry… but what does it mean to “color reduce” images? (I feel a bit stupid asking this, but I think it’s probably a good thing to learn… and more within my current capabilities than XML or API, whatever those are πŸ˜€ )

Irene, first off, I should be the one apologizing, not you. Thanks for pointing out my geek speak and as a result, giving me a topic that need discussion. Let me see if I can break it down for you, and if not, you know how to reach me.

When I say “color reduce” you should think “compression.” Most of us who have worked on the Internet, and before that, with various dial-up services have dealt with compression in some form or another. For example, Stuffit for Mac, gzip for *NIX/Linux or pkZip for the PC are all file formats that take big files and make smaller versions of them that transmit between computers faster.

Now if that is too technical, here’s another analogy that might work. When you go camping, especially if you’re going to do any sort of hiking, you only take essentials — and only one of each (no redundancies). You then make sure that those items you take are tightly folded or rolled and stuffed into your backpack using as little space possible so you can get more essentials in your bag, and not carry as much weight on your back.

Think if it another way. Whenever you watch Olympic sprinters, you’ll notice they wear a bare minimum of clothing. Less weight on their bodies, and less material to catch the air and work like a parachute against them, makes these runners as fast as possible.

Color reduction is similar to such processes so images on my web server get to your web browser as fast as they possibly can while still conveying the essence of the image.

Avoiding as much long-winded mathematical analysis as I can, I’m going to give you a quick idea on how the various image formats work, along with when you should use them.

GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. It is employs a “lossless” method of compression. Basically what it does is look for common sequences of information, then substitutes these sequences with a number. This is similar to how PKZip compresses a text document. PKZip looks for common words such as “the” and “because” and represents them with a number like 1 or 50. The only difference is that the .GIF file looks for “word-like’ patterns in the picture.

The number of word-like patterns in a .GIF file can be reduced when you restrict the number of color combinations within image. In other words, rather than have ten shades of blue, you have one. By reducing the color palette, you increase the number of common, word-like patterns. This means you increase the number of patterns that can be indexed. This means your image file gets smaller.

JPEG is an acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group. JPG is a nice 3 letter version of the same. This file format employs a “lossy” compression format. What this means is that what you get on your browser is a close approximation of the original. This is done through Discrete Cosine Transformation which essentially cuts up your image into squares, then represents the data in those squares as a set of curves — essentially “re-mapping” the image. So as you increase the compression ratio for .JPG files, what you’re doing is increasing the size the “squares” that are transformed to curves — which is why highly optimized .JPGs look like some sort of impressionist rendering of the original.

Again, like GIF, reducing the number of colors in the color palette of your JPG file means that there is less data within each square that needs to be transformed into a curve.

So which to use and when? JPG is better suited towards photographs and other complex images in part because what is lost isn’t as noticeable to the naked eye, and because the brain does quite a bit of good work to guestimate what’s missing. GIF on the other hand is good for line art, such as graphics that contain text such as rollover buttons or simple logos.

PNG – Portable Network Graphics. The only problem with both JPG and GIF formats is that various companies own the patents to the technologies employed. Hence, there is a third format you need to consider, PNG, which is also a “lossless” format (similar to GIF), but also offers a variety of other benefits as described in the following article over at A List Apart entitled “Cross-Browser Variable Opacity with PNG“. Read it.

There are two tools I use to render all three image types. PhotoImact and Fireworks MX. There are also a wide variety of free or shareware products out there that can help you get the job done. Of course, no amount of color reduction is going to help you if you don’t also first physically reduce the size of your image. In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that ‘resizing‘ the image with the height and width attributes of the <img> tag will make your images load faster. They won’t. They’ll only force your browser to try and compress my huge image as it comes from my server. So in a nutshell, when dealing with graphics on your web site:

  • always color reduce, and physically reduce the size your images
  • for text-based graphics and line art, use a .PNG file over .GIF, and a .GIF over a .JPG
  • for photographs, I still prefer .JPG over .PNG and .PNG over .GIF
  • remember that the height and width arguments of the <img> tag
    only make the image appear smaller on screen, it does NOT change the
    physical size of the image (meaning it takes just as long to load but
    looks crappier).

Bottom-line? If you don’t understand anything of the above, at least understand this: download and use IrfanView to put your images on a diet. It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s not just a good suggestion, it’s the law!

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Go ahead, Mock my Site

One of the important techniques I learned from Vincent Flanders’ original book was that you should first use a graphics application to mock-up what you want your site to look like. Of course, this should be done ONLY after you have:

  1. defined the personality and purpose of your church
  2. clearly identified your target users, and
  3. established a content hierarchy/outline.

Click Here to see full-sized Sub/Section Page Layout

As I continue to work on the Redland Baptist redesign, and having engaged the three above steps, I’m now hashing out the look-n-feel with a mock-up which at arbitrary stopping-points, I post up on the church web site server. I then email a URL to the church staff and others involved to solicit their comments, ideas, thoughts and feelings.

One of the few problems that arise from this approach is that they’re looking at a static graphic, so those viewing it cannot envision what I see with regards to various technical aspects. So along with a ‘clean’ graphic, I also provide them with an annotated mock-layout. This then gives those viewing the mock-up some technical context as to what I’m proposing.

And just to show you I’m no Matthew 23 type pharisee I’ve posted my annotated layout for my sub/section pages here for your inspection. See what you think (careful, the full-sized version is about 42kb).

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A conversation at Dean

Jeffrey Miller over at the The xagronaut Chronicle is having a conversation with me — online.

Referring to my recent recognition over at Christianity Today, Jeffrey poses the following statement:

With recent recognition, how will you use the spotlight? Any particular causes that you would like to pursue/promote? With the recent clamour over the need for Christian web services, the season is right to start talking about other uses.

Let me just address the questions portion first. Heal Your Church Web Site came out of my work with Vincent Flanders on his book Son of Web Pages That Suck. From there, blogs4God came to life. Combined, the two allowed me to bark and complain with a slightly louder voice than most — until someone finally noticed.

Now I don’t say this to brag, nor to get all huffy about Jeffrey’s questions. They are legit, especially in light of Matthew 25:14-30. Rather I say this to address a suggestion Jeffery makes later in his message. That is a call to collaborate to create a variety of web services for various ministries. I’m all for that, but I’m already involved with a church so I’ve got enough of the 20/80 rule working forcing me to put in overtime during my spare time.

Here is what I suggest, that before we call collaborate, we all get busy making something useful and then bring it to the table. Sort of like an audition. This way we know we’re dealing with committed people who will all pull their weight. We also get an idea at who’s good at what. Finally, we bring with us some serious negotiation power, as well as the ability to solicit resources when such need occur.

That aside, I do like Jeffrey’s ideas for a prayer network, which the needs of one are immediately met by another who’s hooked into the same syndication channels. Technically, that to me is not the hard part. The hard part is keeping such a system from being abused. So the real trick would be to set up an XML-RPC server which takes client requests from authorized submitters, such as priests, pastors, missionaries, etc … and then posts them to the system. The rest is just bits and bytes.

Anyway, those are my thoughts — though I’d probably think a whole lot better over some coffee. Though I suggest not visiting until the snow melts.

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