Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

Where’s Google Photos in this drop-down menu?

If you use FeedBurner (which has been part of Google for a good number of years now), you probably know about the Photo Splicer feature, which allows you to merge your photo feed from services like Flickr, BuzzNet or Webshots into your site feed, providing extra content for your readers. It’s a great little option and I hope Google keeps it turned on for years to come.

My question for Googlers reading this is simple: where’s Google Photos (PicasaWeb) in that drop-down menu? Isn’t it about time for it to show up there?

How to avoid nightmares when upgrading your Drupal install

I had some real “fun” today (about a full day’s worth) after upgrading one of my Drupal installs from 7.7 to 7.8. The whole site went awry: the template no longer showed, I was only getting text, I kept getting either 404 or 500 errors when clicking on links, and nothing I did seemed to make it better. Even restoring from a backup yielded the same garbled pages. It’s fixed now and working perfectly (well, not perfectly, because some modules are still in beta and there will always be some errors, but it’s working as expected, let’s put it that way).

If you’re only here because your site is garbled after an upgrade, let me save you some time. There are two reasons (I know of ) for it:

  1. You have Clean URLs enabled and your .htaccess file got replaced. That means the RewriteBase rule is now commented out. Don’t bother to turn off Clean URLs, there’s no need to do that. Uncomment it, refresh your site and links should be working properly.
  2. If your theme is now messed up and you only see text, plus you can’t navigate around your site, you have your site cache and compression turned on, don’t you? Yeah you do, and now the new version of Drupal doesn’t know how to read the cache files, because it didn’t write them. So do yourself a favor and turn the cache files off. You’ll have to use the “dirty” URLs if you can’t navigate to the admin panel, so instead of example.com/admin you’ll need to type example.com/?q=admin, and so on and so forth. Disable the compression and the cache, and delete all the cache files. Presto-change-o, your site now looks normal again!

So, what can you do to avoid having the same crappy day I did? Let’s take it by the numbers, shall we?

1. Put your site in maintenance mode.

2. Always, always back up your site and your database before doing a core upgrade.

I would recommend doing a backup even before upgrading modules. Don’t rely on backup modules. Do the backups manually, and just so you won’t panic when something goes wrong, test your backup method by restoring from it to a separate install, to make sure you’re doing the right things. This is especially important for database backups, where it’s REALLY important for you to be able to restore from a downloaded SQL file.

Before doing the core upgrade, do a full backup of the entire site, not just the sites folder. And just to make it easier for you to restore the sites folder afterward, do a separate backup of that folder, and of the .htaccess file at the root level of your drupal install. And back up the database, that’s really important! If you do this right, you’ll only need to use the database backup.

3. Turn off all site caching and compression and clear the site cache. This is really important! If you don’t do this, it’s quite likely that your site will be just as garbled as mine after the core upgrade.

4. Create a new site folder on your server, because you’re going to do a brand new install of Drupal (whatever the latest version is). Inside that folder, wget the latest drupal tar.gz file and untar it.

Okay, now comes the fun part.

5. Delete the sites folder in the new Drupal install and copy over your old sites folder.

6. Make sure any changes done to your .htaccess and robots.txt file are reflected in their counterparts in the new Drupal install. Or, it’s quite likely that the old thing that you need to change in the .htaccess file is to uncomment the Rewrite Base line. Find it and uncomment it.

If you don’t uncomment this line and you have Clean URLs enabled, your site will either give you 404 or 500 errors when you try to access the admin interface or alias URLs, so this is quite an important step!

7. Restore your database from the SQL backup. That is, create a new database on your server and through the web interface or through SSH, restore your database backup to it, to get an exact copy of your live Drupal database.

8. Now run the database update script. Browse over to your Drupal install + /update.php and run it to make sure the database upgrade is also completed.

9. Now you have some choices to make. Once you do this, you have two working installs of Drupal: the old, reliable install, which you’ve been using, and the new install, which should be working, but who knows what bugs there might be in the code, that you’ll only discover as you begin working with it.

So now you have two choices: you can either map your domain to the new directory or rename the old directory then rename the new directory to match the old. In other words, you’ll want your domain to point to the new Drupal install. Or, you have the luxury of saying “Forget this new version for now!” and keep using your old Drupal install, until they work out all the bugs (that’ll be the day…)

That’s it! Pat yourself on the back. This should have taken about 15 minutes or less, not a whole day…

I hope this has been helpful!

New site design

A new site design went live yesterday. If you haven’t checked my site in a while, click through to see it, it’s worth it.

The new header image is a panoramic photograph taken atop the Parang Mountains, on the Transalpina Road, which I just wrote about. The header also celebrates the 10-year anniversary of my website and indicates my presence on various social networking sites.

There’s also a surprise re-design for my iPad readers. I’ll let you see it for yourselves.

Google+ gets social networking right

On June 28 at 10:17 PM UTC, I got an invite to Google+ from Brian Rose (a Googler). I was in for a treat! 🙂

Here’s what the home screen looks like:

After multiple previous tries, I think Google’s finally got it with Google+. I’ve used both Wave and Buzz, and while they were interesting and innovative in their own ways, I just wasn’t drawn to them to the point where I wanted to use them multiple times a day, like I do with Facebook.

With Google+, I’m naturally drawn to the platform, because of its capabilities, and because of its design. I think Google finally bested Facebook.

Selective sharing and contact grouping

The feature I consider most important is Circles. The equivalent feature on Facebook is Lists, but there, it’s almost impossible to manage and use. On Google+, the platform was designed from the ground up around Circles, and this offers me the capabilities I’ve always wanted on a social networking platform:

  1. To share stuff selectively and privately, if I so desire, and do it effortlessly and safely. Facebook doesn’t do this. When you post an update, it goes out to everyone, and by that I mean all your contacts on that service.
  2. To easily group my contacts into categories. Again, Facebook doesn’t do this. There, you’re forced to Friend someone regardless of their relationship with you (online contact/person you barely know/acquaintance/actual friend/vip/business contact, etc.).

Here are a couple of screenshots from Google+ that demonstrate this.

I can’t emphasize enough how important selective sharing truly is on the web, and how refreshing it is to see it working so beautifully on Google+. The service even includes safeguards against accidental re-sharing of posts outside their intended group, with a feature that disables resharing. (I know you can still copy and paste or take a screenshot, but with this feature, you can indicate clearly to your contacts that you want that post to stay private. What they choose to do with it depends on their respect for you and your wishes.)

Gorgeous design

I’m floored by Google+’ gorgeous design. I love the whitespace, the clean color scheme, the layout and the button styles. I love that this same design now extends to my Google Profile, and to the photos posted to my PicasaWeb account. (Incidentally, isn’t it about time to change the name of PicasaWeb to Google Photos?)

All this design beauty makes me wonder where Google will stick the ads that will pay for Google+? I do hope they’ll use the same design philosophy for the ad boxes.

Instant video chat and topic-based web filtering

The other two important features of Google+ are Hangout and Sparks. Hangout is a super-easy group video chat, and Sparks gives you the chance to subscribe to topics of your choice, which then Google uses to filter the web and to present you with articles for your perusal.

Hangout is another fantastic (and sticky) feature for Google+. It builds on the power of Google Voice and Video Chat, which has been a feature of Gmail for years, and expands it to the point where you can chat with up to 10 people, live. This is going to be incredibly useful for families and (perhaps more importantly) for businesses. They’ll be able to hold web meetings instantly and easily now.

Sparks is a neat feature, but it still needs a bit of work. I’m not sure how the articles it presents are curated. And I get that you simply type in the topic you want, then click Add, but some (or most) people won’t get that. Perhaps a directory-like interface, where more choice and sub-choices are presented to people, will make it easier for them to use Sparks.

Areas of improvement

Right now, when I upload a video to Google+, it gets stored in a new album named after that day, in PicasaWeb. Same deal for new photos uploaded to the service.

This is the same approach used for Blogger. It’s a headache-free approach to handling media storage, but for those of us who have YouTube accounts, I’d rather have a choice of storing the video at YouTube instead of PicasaWeb. I want to manage all of my videos in one place instead of mixing them with my photos, particularly since I’m a YouTube Partner.

I’d also like to have the choice of storing uploaded photos in a gallery of my own choosing, or in a new gallery that I name myself. I think Google engineers will readily see the advantages of this without further explanation.

Where’s the integration with Google Docs? It’d be great if Google+ allowed easy sharing of documents from that service.

I like that you can’t auto-publish feeds to Google+, because it makes it harder for spammers to pollute the service. All of the input is manual, which means you have to physically be there and type it in. It does mean a bit of extra work after you’re written a blog post and want to share it. Perhaps some middle ground will be reached in the future, where blog posts, photos and videos will be automatically brought in.

That’s it for now. If I have further feedback, I’ll write another post. If you’d like to add me on Google+, here’s my profile.

Thank you Google, for the service and for the early invite! 

Save the data!

Some of the most important technology programs that keep Washington accountable are in danger of being eliminated. Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are facing a massive budget cut, despite only being a tiny fraction of the national budget.

Help save the data and make sure that Congress doesn’t leave the American people in the dark.

YouTube and WordPress update oEmbed player to include CC button

This is big news for those of us providing captions or subtitles for the videos published on YouTube. I noticed today that the oEmbed video player for YouTube videos, the one used for all WordPress blogs, has been updated to include the CC button. It didn’t have it the last time I checked, which was yesterday. My site subscribers would always ask me where the CC button was, and how to see the subtitles, and I had to tell them to go see the video directly on YouTube if they wanted subtitles, which was a bit of a chore, and it certainly didn’t make things obvious and easy for folks who were using that feature for the first time.

Well, I’m glad to announce that from now on, you’ll be able to turn video subtitles on or off right here, on my website, and for those videos of mine where I’m providing two separate subtitles tracks, you’ll be able to switch between them as well.

I can’t tell you enough how pleased I am about this. For someone like me, who produces video shows for international audiences, YouTube’s CC feature is key, and the ability to control subtitles from within the oEmbed player used on my websites is key as well. So I’d like to thank both WordPress and YouTube for updating the video player and for making my life easier!