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August 28, 2003

Editor and Publisher Touts RSS Over Email

In the latest Stop the Presses! column at editorandpublisher.com, Steve Outing says that email is becoming an unreliable way for publishers to reach their audiences. This article is written to reach an audience of newspaper and magazine executives, but applies equally to the managers of companies who publish email newsletters.

Who'd have thought that things could get this bad? E-mail -- long touted as the "killer app" of the Internet and the best online channel for publishers -- is rapidly being decimated by spammers and virus writers. Yes, "decimated" is an accurate word. The evidence is quickly mounting that e-mail is no longer an efficient means for ethical publishers to reach subscribers....

Information design consultant Michael Fraase in a column last week wrote, "The spammers won. E-mail, for anything other than communicating with individuals you know already, is useless. ... Online publishers are struggling with the loss of the spam war, because e-mail was one of the best publishing tools the non-corporate media has ever seen."

Alternatively, Outing suggests summarizing information posted to a website by using RSS, the XML-based headline syndication standard. He says:

RSS allows potential readers of a Web site to view part of its content -- typically headlines and short blurbs -- without having to visit the content directly (unless they want to click through to it). Viewing is done with a piece of software separate from the Web browser, the RSS aggregator, which the consumer uses to subscribe to "feeds" produced by favorite Internet publishers. The feeds are constantly updated as the publishers add new content.

Of course, the easiest way to produce RSS feeds that summarize the content of a website is to use a weblog publishing tool to create the website's content in the first place. Tools such as MovableType, TypePad, Slash, and Manila are good choices, although their features and target audiences vary widely.

If you work for a company that produces an email newsletter, and you find that newsletter is generating less business recently, CTDATA can help. Contact us and we will be happy to discuss ways that you can migrate your message to a weblog-driven website.

August 25, 2003

Dave Aiello Finishes "2003 Lighter Than Air Duathlon"

Dave Aiello wrote, "A few of my friends and most of my relatives already know that I competed yesterday in the 2003 Lighter Than Air Duathlon at Lakehurst Naval Air Station along the Jersey Shore. This was a multi-sport race ('multi' in this case means two): a 3 mile run, followed by a 20 mile bike ride, followed by a 2 mile run."

"I finished in 1:55:20, good for 216th place out of 262 finishers. I think this is a good result. This was my first duathlon in 3 years, and I was riding a mountain bike against competitors who were riding 'road' or 'triathlon' bikes. (Those bikes can be ridden much faster than a mountain bike.)"

"The race was conducted under nearly ideal conditions. The weather was 10 to 15 degrees F cooler than normal with clear skies. The course was mostly flat. The worst parts of the whole event were the vehicle inspections (required by the Navy because this is war time) and the wind during the bike portion of the race."

August 22, 2003

Happy 14th Birthday, CTDATA

Dave Aiello wrote, "On August 22, 1989, Chatham Township Data Corporation was officially incorporated. The 14th year of CTDATA's history was notable because it was slightly worse than last year. We had hoped for better results than we got. On the other hand, we put a floor under the company by developing unique applications for Amazon Web Services that generated money, and when necessary we sold a used book or two."

"Earlier this week, my wife Kathleen said that CTDATA was 'in transition' from what it was to what it will be in the future. Some of us remember the days of long term consulting projects for New York-based financial services companies with a sense of nostalgia. Those were the days when men were men and people spent money out of a fear of being left in the dust by their competitors."

"Many of the projects that CTDATA was involved in prior to 9/11 were win-win projects for everyone involved. But, in hindsight, the projects often began as ill-defined efforts to put up a website that attracted an audience on the Internet or a corporate intranet."

"You may laugh at this assessment of some of our old projects, but these efforts were no more exploratory or tentative then the early attempts at commercial radio programming were in a different period of American history; Nobody knew what would work, so initially, just about anything was tried. Remember the old CTDATA saying:"

You can always tell who the pioneers are, because they're the ones with the arrows in their backs.

"Now, the business is much more about making a few dollars here and there as often as possible each day by helping Amazon.com make more money or connecting Amazon's customers with books that Amazon itself doesn't stock. It's also about teaching people better ways to connect with their customers via the web, and in the process, relegating brochureware to the scrap heap of history."

"The big question that (hopefully) will be answered in CTDATA's 15th year is: what mix of these techniques and what other processes, revisited or yet to be found, will help CTDATA back on to the growth path? We shall see."

August 19, 2003

Long-Awaited "Amazon Hacks" Book Now Shipping at Amazon

Dave Aiello wrote, "One of the hottest book concepts that O'Reilly and Associates has developed recently is their so-called Hacks Series. Far and away the most interesting of these books, in my opinion, is
Amazon Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips and Tools
which is now shipping at Amazon.com."

"Anil Dash pointed out that the Amazon Hacks web site has also gone live over at hacks.oreilly.com. This site is useful because it outlines the hacks that are published in the book and gives the reader community an opportunity to talk about each of them. Some of the hacks are published on that site, as sample chapters of the book."

"It's great to see that more than half of the book is devoted to money making opportunities in conjunction with using Amazon.com. This is one of CTDATA's favorite recent pastimes. Hacks 49-58 are about Selling Through Amazon. The Amazon Associates Program is explored in Hacks 59-75. And, Hacks 76-100 are practical uses of Amazon Web Services in PHP, Perl, Python, VBscript, and VB.NET."

"The Amazon Web Services hacks look like they will change the game for AWS developers. At some point, a few of these hacks are going to take money out of low-level practitioners hands. Look for services like ScoutPal to have to upgrade their feature sets in order to continue to charge used book sellers meaningful fees."

August 15, 2003

The Problems We Experience Because We are Running Obsolete Server Software

Dave Aiello wrote, "For the past 24 hours, I have been struggling with the short-comings and idiosyncracies of Netscape Enterprise Server version 3.63 on Windows NT Server 4.0. Netscape Enterprise Server is an obsolete web server that we are running on one of our production servers connected to the Internet."

"We are still running Netscape Enterprise Server on one of our servers because its performance has never been a significant enough issue to justify the substantial effort to migrate the web sites that are still running on it."

"The key factor in getting us to begin the migration is that we want to change weblogging platforms. This would be easy were it not for the fact that few weblogging platforms support the database present on this server and, more importantly, the weblog tools generate different URLs for archival content."

"I began the migration by attempting to write a custom error response handler that would redirect visitors from the URLs generated by our old weblog software to the URLs generated by the new software. As I said in my latest article about URL naming, writing this CGI program was more challenging that I expected."

"There are significant holes in the documentation available for obsolete versions of Netscape Enterprise Server. Although AOL Messaging Solutions is still maintaining documentation for Netscape Enterprise Solutions, that documentation is for AOL's fork of the Netscape commercial code base. It doesn't have the same features as the version with which I am working."

"I finally figured out how to solve the problem with writing a custom error response handler. But, it I was only able to accomplish this by trial and error."

"These difficulties brought home to me the urgency of getting this last server on to a machine where all of the services are currently patched and well documented. For us, this means a LAMP-based server."

"For CTDATA, the greatest cost so far has been opportunity cost. We should be out selling instead of migrating services as I am today. If your company is running legacy servers for part of its Internet presence, please take my advice: upgrade before it costs you money."

Writing a Custom Error Response Handler for Netscape Enterprise Server for Windows

CTDATA has experienced a problem getting a CGI-based custom error response handler to work properly on Netscape Enterprise Server version 3.63 running on Windows NT 4. We are attempting to implement this error handler as a part of a multi-stage migration off of this platform to a LAMP-based server that is patched to current standards.

Read on for more details:





At CTDATA, we are trying to migrate some of our web sites from a server that runs Netscape Enterprise Server version 3.63 on Windows NT 4. Our ultimate goal is to move these web sites to a
LAMP platform within the next two months.

In order to do this, we have to migrate from a proprietary content management system based on the Slash Open Source Project to a content management tool that is LAMP-compatible. We have chosen MovableType because of its simplicity and platform neutrality.

In order to preserve links to the valuable permanent content on our web sites, we had to develop a migration strategy that allows us to redirect visitors from the old URLs generated by the Slash system to the new URLs generated by the MovableType system. This is why we decided to write a custom error response handler.


We got the idea for writing the custom response handler from the document called Trapping CGI Script Abuse. This article does not solve the problem that we are trying to solve, but it shows how to write a custom error response handler for both Apache and iPlanet / Netscape Enterprise Server.

While "Trapping CGI Script Abuse" explains how to configure the iPlanet / Netscape Enterprise Server, the configuration it suggests does not work on the Windows version of Netscape Enterprise Server. In order to detemine this, we did the following:

  1. Wrote a simple Perl script that runs properly from the server's Windows command line.
  2. Logged into the server's iPlanet / Netscape Administration Server, chose the proper Enterprise Server instance, selected the "Server Preference" tab, then the "Error Responses" from the sub-menu.
  3. Found the Error code: Not Found entry in the Error Responses form, and entered the full Windows path to the CGI program.
  4. Checked the "CGI" checkbox below the filename that we just entered.
  5. Saved and applied the changes.
  6. Entered a URL that did not point to a valid page on our server into a web browser window.
When we did this, we expected the CGI program to execute properly. Instead we got an uncustomized 404 error:
Not found

The requested object does not exist on the server. The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it.

In addition, we found that the web server's error log said:

failure: (process number) : cgi_send:cgi_start_exec {full windows path to CGI program} failed

This was followed by hours of Google searches, hoping to uncover a document that would provide some insight into why the approach suggested by Advosys did not work on Windows.


As is the case with many perplexing problems, the answer came to us after entirely stopping work on it for several hours, and temporarily focusing on other problems.

One of the recurring themes of working with CGI programs on Netscape Enterprise Server for Windows is that there are differences between the way regular CGI and so-called shell CGI programs are handled. Shell CGI programs depend upon Windows file system associations between file types and programs that execute them. For example, the Perl executable is associated with files ending in .pl.

However, we recognized that the Error Response form in Netscape Enterprise Server provided a "CGI", not a "Shell CGI" designation. So, we tried wrapping the Perl program in a Windows batch file. We created a program called redirect.bat with the following content:

@echo off
C:\Perl\bin\perl.exe {full path to the redirect.pl program}

{Note that C:\Perl\bin\perl.exe is the full path to the Perl executable on the server.}

When we repeated the test of requesting a URL that pointed to nothing, we got a response from the custom error response handler.

We are pleased to have solved this problem. But, the difficulty we had in figuring out the solution points out the major problem of using obsolete software products: documentation and technical support information often disappears from the Web.

We realize that one of the reasons enterprise software companies put server products into end-of-life status is to allow them to stop supporting very old versions. But, we would have hoped that help with solutions to this problem would not have been so elusive.

Although this is probably nearly a worst-case scenario, it increases our resolve to get off the Netscape Enterprise Server platform as soon as possible.

Article Provides Great Roundup of Best Practices for Weblog URL Naming

Dave Aiello wrote, "Previously on CTDATA, I have discussed the problems that can occur when a weblog is migrated from one weblog management system to another. The biggest problem that I have identified so far is that the URLs for content pages often change when the new weblog software regenerates these pages."

"Last week, Brainstorms & Raves published an excellent roundup of information on this subject called Friendly, Lasting URLs. This article includes pointers to the information sources that we highlighted in our article Changing Weblogging Tools Can Be a Royal Pain, plus a number of new resources."

"I spent several frustrating hours yesterday trying to write a CGI program to redirect visitors to our sites from the old URLs to the new URLs, once the new weblog tool is up and running. It should not be as hard to write this program as it has been for me, particularly because I have made extensive modifications to our existing Slash-based content management system which is far more complicated than the redirector."

"Here on CTDATA, I will provide updates on my progress toward completing a URL redirector. If you are interested in the issues I am dealing with, feel free to contact me at dave_aiello at ctdata.com."

Power Failure Leaves Much of Northeastern U.S. in the Dark

We note the massive failure of the electric power grids that serve much of the Northeastern United States. It began yesterday at 4:11pm EDT. At that time, there was a brown out at our office in East Windsor, NJ, that lasted about 30 seconds. After that, the power came back to normal and stayed there.

People in places like New York City were not so fortunate. Those of us who were lucky enough to have access to a TV watched people walk across the New York City bridges for hours after the lights went out. You could understand why people who were in Manhattan momentarily feared another terror attack.

Already there is a rush to find the entity that is ultimately responsible for this event. News reports have suggested that this event is a virtual repeat of the power failure that occurred in the autumn of 1965. We suggest waiting until the lights come back on for everyone before beginning the investigations.

August 13, 2003

In Memory of Peter A. Frank

Dave Aiello wrote, "Last Thursday, Peter Andreas Frank died as a result of a brain tumor. I have known Peter for 15 years, and he is one of my best friends. We went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute together."

"Peter was in the Krankenhaus Nordwest in Frankfurt, Germany for the last two and one-half months of his life. He was often visited there by his family and friends that live in the Frankfurt region."

"Peter's original brain tumor was discovered back in 1993. He outlived everyone's expectations, including the expectations of all of the doctors that consulted on his case. I went to visit him for the last time in May when he was still living in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife, Ramona Morel. At that time, most people familiar with his case thought he would die in late May or early June."

"The way Peter and his family dealt with the last stages of his illness was courageous and amazing. Over the past few weeks, it was clear to me that Peter's wife and his father were reaching a point of emotional exhaustion. Yet, they bravely hung on to the end."

"For the past month or so, it has been been painful for me to think about Peter's quality of life. I found myself torn between hoping for his quick and merciful death, and hoping for some sort of miraculous recovery that would allow him to be himself again."

"When Ramona called me to say that he had died, I was more than a little surprised. None of the difficulties that had happened to him had managed to kill him before. After 10 years of struggle, it seemed like he could live on through almost anything."

"Each summer for the last three years, I have read (or listened to) Lance Armstong's book,
It's Not About the Bike
. The first time I did this, I was primarily interested in Armstrong's book in connection with cycling. But recently, I have read the book with more interest in what it says about fighting cancer. When I read this passage, I thought of Peter:"

Good, strong people get cancer, and they do all the right things to beat it, and they still die. That is the essential truth you learn. People die. And after you learn it, all other matters seem irrelevant. They just seem small.

"Peter's death has definitely made my daily work seem insignificant. But, he would be the first person to tell me to pull myself together and do something constructive. So, I'll do my best."

August 5, 2003

TypePad Goes Live with its Preview Release

Yesterday SixApart started started accepting signups for the Preview Release of TypePad. TypePad is a new hosted personal publishing service based on SixApart's widely used system called MovableType. TypePad adds several new features, however, including integrated site statistics, photo albums, and wireless updating (moblogging).

One site that has already been implemented on TypePad is PVRBlog, a weblog about personal video recorders such as TiVo.

A lot of bloggers have been watching the development of TypePad closely. It will be interesting to see how quickly the service builds a client base.