Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Very happy holidays :) Over 3,000 collectors on Colnect

As 2009 is looming, Colnect has happily announced that its community now has over 3,000 members. Colnect's community growth rate has been on the increase, especially since the new Colnect V2 site has been launched during the midst of October. Since now Colnect caters to stamps and coins collectors, it has found a new crowd of people interesting in managing their personal collection easily and connect with other collectors from around the world.

Colnect's development relies on the assistance of its ~70 contributors who volunteer to translate Colnect, update its database with new collectibles and help with various tasks.

Though this blog has recently been quiet, a lot has happened on Colnect recently. The lack of a PR department in Colnect takes its toll and certainly Colnect would have bloomed much sooner with such. New features and fixes are added daily to the site and the contributors help update the catalogs on a regular basis. Colnect's collectors forums provide more detailed information about recent updates to the site.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

iGoogle Collectibles Gadgets

Colnect has just released 3 iGoogle gadgets that you can see right here on the side of this blog. Read all about these cool collectibles gadgets.

Here's the description:
A cool gadget for collectors! See a new random collectible item. Click the picture to see complete information about the item: which memebers of Colnect Collectors Community have it on their collection, swap or wish list. You can easily manage your personal collection on Colnect and find swap buddies from all around the world. The huge catalogs on Colnect are created by collectors for collectors. Join Colnect now. It's fun, it's quick and it's free! Happy Collecting :)

Some personal thought about the current crisis

The economy fluctuates. It's actually a part of the bigger truth saying "the only constant thing is change". As with every change coming, you can either fight it or embrace it. Since fighting many times does no good, IMO one should embrace change and see how to get accustomed to new situations as they arise.

Colnect is embracing the change in the economy. So far it has maintained a positive cash flow and will continue to do so in the future. Now is probably not the time for big spendings or risk takings. Now is the time to spend less but do more with the resources available.

An interesting campaign I've came across made me even more aware of how some companies (as well as some people) do not try to prepare for a gloomier future although the writings are clearly on the wall. The campaign was for mobuzz.tv, which I haven't known before. Apparently, they're burning 50 grands a month in producing 5 daily shows a day and now they're vying for donations because they've ran out of money. They expect to raise Euro 120K in one week with donations of 5 Euro. Yes, they really expect 24,000 people to donate them 5 Euro each in a week. They just need it for 3 months and then they'll get the funding they need.

Pardon me cynicism, but I'm not even sure that FaceBook, with its huge worldwide users community, would have been able to raise 24,000 donations in a week. There are probably much sadder things happening in the world today to which one would donate. Skinning living dogs & cats is one of them.

The truth is that although I have no idea about mobuzz's business, it seems (at least on the surface of it) that someone there has not done a brilliant job planning the business side of the company. How do you get to run out of money in a week? Can't you tell when you have only 6 more months to live and then do your best to raise capital alongside with cutting expenses sharp? How can you be sure to get funding in 3 month? In a happy market you can't be sure about it, so now?

The technical side might have flows as well since there was no link to their shows to see what it is we're supposed to help with. Also, the video took very long to load.

My guess is that mobuzz isn't the only company that's about to close its doors soon due to problematic financial planning. As times get rough, survival of the fittest prevails once more. Heed the warnings out there and be ready for the future. Every storm eventually ends. Good luck to everyone.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Who hacked the network on Google Developers Day 2008 in Israel?

Though the event seemed to be organized quite well, there were network problems occurring which were the reason for me leaving the gathering earlier. At some stage I've got a warning on my browser about invalid certificates for Google.com and naturally didn't decide to accept the invalid certificates. I've told others around me that someone has probably been hacking the network but seemed most people were reluctant to believe it.

Turns out I was right, here's the email sent form "The Google Developer Day Team":


Developer Day
3 de noviembre de 2008 11:02
PLEASE READ: Unauthorized network activity at Google Developer Day

Dear attendee,

First of all thanks for attending Google Developer Day yesterday, we hope you found it useful. Unfortunately, we need to let you know about an incident which took place during the conference which you may need to take precautionary action on.

We identified unauthorised activity on the public wired Ethernet network which was provided by the convention centre for conference attendees to access the Internet. This may have affected a limited number of attendees accessing websites and online applications through the wired Ethernet connection. We have no evidence so far to suggest that the wireless network also provided at the event, and which was used by most attendees, was affected.

Due to the unauthorised activity, there is a chance that if you used the wired network, any user name and password entered to access a website may have been put at risk. When trying to access a secure website (a website using https), you may have received an alert indicating that the page had an invalid security certificate. In any case, we advise users as a precaution to change the passwords for any websites or services they accessed through the wired connection during the conference.

We're really sorry that this has happened but we believe that the vast majority of attendees won't have been affected by this incident. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you at future events very soon.

The Google Developer Day Team

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Google Developers Day 2008 in Israel

Google's Developers Day 2008 tour has landed in Israel today. Google is looking for developer love and is doing their best to attract it. The main message coming from Google is "Let's work together to make the Internet a better place. The better it is, the better we're all off". Not forgetting that we're talking about a commercial company, not a charity foundation, their approach is, at least on the surface, quite amiable.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the day, in regard to Colnect, were related to OpenSocial. From their website: "OpenSocial defines a common API for social applications across multiple websites. Built from standard JavaScript and HTML, developers can create apps with OpenSocial that access a social network's friends and update feeds. By using a common API, developers can extend the reach of their applications more quickly, yielding more functionality for users."

What does it really mean? As I see it, FaceBook has taken too big a share of the social networks world than Google (and others) think they deserve. One of the main reasons for the success of FaceBook is the FaceBook applications written by developers and extending FaceBook's functionality in many different directions. The problem is that developers are mostly unable to devote many efforts to writing their social applications to all social networks out there and would thus focus on the biggest ones. Orkut (Google's social network) is surely not the biggest and so the way to convince developers that they should write Orkut-complaint applications, we now have OpenSocial.

OpenSocial supports other networks as well which altogether (according to their figures) serve nearly 500 million users worldwide. Though I'm skeptical of how someone knows my Linked In and Orkut accounts are of the same person (they probably don't share email addresses around), it's still quite a big figure which should be a motivation enough for a developer to focus on it instead (or in addition to) FaceBook.

Colnect is about to release some social applications to the social networks world to assist collectors integrate their collectibles hobby with their other activities and help spread the word about Colnect to fellow collectors. OpenSearch seems an appealing choice since it involves many networks which cater to different crowds which altogether might coincide better with Colnect's target crowd than FaceBook.

Last but not least, there's the issue of Chrome, Google's new browser. While promoting it as simply a means to make your surfing better, it would still have been a bit more amiable and transparent to say "we've made our own browser so that we can make Google search the default search engine and not allow you to block AdWords ads with some addon". If Google really would have cared just for the web users community, it would have simply put more efforts into the existing open source browsers. In my experience, Chrome is still much inferior to FireFox.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

50% increase in Colnect's growth rate - welcoming stamps and coins collectors

Less than 2 weeks following the initial release of Colnect V2 and without any commercial advertising of Colnect, there are already ~90 active coins collectors from 35 countries and ~50 active stamps collectors from 25 countries on Colnect. Active refers to a collector who has updated his/her personal collection on Colnect.

The overall amount of newly registered members during the last week shows ~50% increase over the weeks before it. This achievement, enhanced by the facts that the new site experienced some downtime and that registration now requires email address confirmation, should probably be attributed to the collectors who already know Colnect. Some collectors collect more than a single collectible and so many phonecard+coin collectors would know other coin collectors and let them know about how useful Colnect would be for them.

To help motivating collectors the following news item has recently been published on Colnect:

Help Colnect and Win Free Phonecards!

Colnect now has a huge stamps and coins catalog. However, since it's so new, many collectors of stamps and coins have not yet heard about us. Now is your chance to help Colnect and win free phonecards.
How?

Simply tell your collector friends to join Colnect. Once they join and update their collection, they should Contact Us and tell us you told them about Colnect. Every friend that joined Colnect with your help entitles you to 10 points. Each friend your friend bring, gives you 3 more points.
Who will win?

The 3 collectors who has accumulated most points until the 30th of November.
What will you win?

First place: 50 Phonecards
Second place: 40 Phonecards
Third place: 30 Phonecards
BONUS: A Colnect T-Shirt.
Questions?

Visit the forum for answers.


What about commercial advertising


Though so far Colnect did not rely on any commercial advertising but rather 'word of mouth' and friendly reviews and backlinks, it may be a good idea to advertise it some more with AdSense or a similar program. For the time being, I prefer to see a steady growth while I'm fine tuning the system and perfecting it rather than a flood which will make Colnect buzzing and later endangered.

150 OpenSearch plugins for Colnect

"OpenSearch is a collection of simple formats for the sharing of search results" the official website says. OpenSearch makes interfacing a website in which you use a lot of search much easier since you don't have to navigate through the site's pages to see the results. You skip waiting for a new page and save yourself some time.

Colnect supports OpenSearch for the benefit of the collectors on the site who often search the huge catalogs for the items they're interested in.

In Firefox:

and IE7:


Yesterday I've tried to publish the plugins on Mycroft Project so collectors could easily install from there as well. It's probably the web's most notable directory for OpenSearch plugins. The problem is that Mycroft has no auto-submission feature to be found and so I couldn't add all the plugins.

"How many plugins have you made?" you might ask and the answer is quite simple. There's one plugin to search for a collectible item by name and another to search for a collector by username. Later I may add searching by catalog code. So what's the problem submitting 2 plugins manually? Well... that 2 turned into 150 since currently there are 3 collectible types on Colnect (coins, stamps and phonecards) and the site is supported in 25 languages. 2 times 3 times 25 gets to 150 and that's not so much fun to do manually anymore... I hope they'll come up with a solution. The best would be to use simply submit the site's URLs and let MyCroft use the auto-discovery link tags like the browsers use to allow you to add the plugin.

Happy OpenSearching...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colnect V2 is now LIVE! :)






Following a long period of hard work, Colnect V2 is now up and running. It is a completely new version of the familiar Colnect. Its huge catalogs, from which any collector can easily manage his/her personal collection, currently include nearly 12,000 coins and over 120,000 collectible phone cards. As the catalog information is contributed by collectors, the catalog is expected to grow very quickly in the coming months.

Colnect V2 is available in 25 languages accommodating for the needs of collectors from all around the globe.

Go check out the site and register if you haven't so far. We're on the way to revolutionize the collectibles world.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Performance: MySQL, APC, memcached.

A highly important issue of any notable website is performance. You may have created the best website in the world but if it dies under load, you're gonna lose customers. User experience is very important today and having a slow website doesn't help at all.

Optimization is, however, not a trivial issue and requires expertise in different fields. There are so many different places where you can optimize that it's not always that easy to know what to focus on. Though this post will adhere to its title I'll still list here where optimization can occur in a website.

* Correct usage of HTTP headers to make client browsers request less information.
* Smaller responses (gZIP / more CSS - less HTML / use of Ajax to return instead of reloading complete pages).
* Optimization of your server machine(s) hardware AKA "I need more CPU, I need more memory and 'how much is another 1U?".
* Server software optimizations: Webserver (such as Apache) / Scripting engine (such as PHP) / DBMS (such as MySQL) / cache engines (such as memcached, APC) could and should be tweaked heavily. Failing to define an appropriate index in your DBMS or making some wrong choices on where and when the webserver saves user sessions, for example, could carry a heavy toll.
* Network optimizations: anyone said CDNs?

The fun part is that all these parts are well entangled.

I've read an interesting post about prefering MySQL cache over the popular memcached in some situations. Though it was pretty much one-sided (ignoring the overhead of a database connection), it rose some interesting points and is well worth reading.

An advantage towards the DBMS that I consider relevant is greater flexibility. For example: you allow outdated information to persist (such as statistics). Say you want it updated about every 5 minutes. If you cache it for 5 minutes it'll expire and then you may face a situation in which a few threads query the database again to get this information. If you use a Memory table for this information you can read it and, if expired, set some writing lock that'll cause other thread to keep reading the expired information until it's well updated.

Another interesting older post about performance showed some interesting benchmarks. The biggest problem of relying on others' benchmarks is there can always be one single parameter different on your system that would mean the results for you would be totally different. For example:
* A new version of a product has just changed everything about it.
* A configuration option made a product completely flunk its benchmark tests.
* Your queries may not be similar at all to what is tested (though you may think it is).

So these were my 2c about performance for now. The bottom line is simple: there's always a part of your system that's not properly optimized. The best is to check the painful spots and remedy them while maintaining an overall look of what your system has to provide.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Colnect V2 alpha site is up for the Prague Fair

During 12-14/9/2008 a big international collectors fair is being held in Prague. To allow collectors to preview the new version of Colnect, which includes a vast database of stamps, the alpha site has been opened and is available here.

At the moment it is NOT yet considered stable and is meant only for the taste of how Colnect would be. Hopefully, it'll be ready by the end of the month and the current Colnect will be replaced by the new improved one.

There are many new things in Colnect V2 but perhaps the most important ones for current Colnect members are the addition of versatile filters to the system which allow collectors to easily find the items they're looking for and match them with collections of other collectors.

Updates to follow...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The "Language Icon" initiative

Colnect is currently available is 25 languages and so there should be an easy way to let users choose their preferred language. To facilitate this, there's currently a big part of the welcome screen that shows the names of the different languages. The reason is that it's highly important that a user would see their language available when first visiting the site since for many people using their native tongue greatly improves usability.

Having a big box with all language names is something I can get away with on the main page but not on every page of Colnect. The problem is not when registered members (who will have their preferred language loaded as they log in) but with new visitors. For this reason there's currently a selection box on the top and side menu which allows to change a language quickly for every page.

A small issue remains: what do you write in this selection box? Currently, the English word 'Language' appears there. The word itself could have been translated to every language but seeing this word in a language you probably don't understand (if you understand it, why would you change your language?) won't be very helpful. This is not ideal but I have to assume every Internet users knows at lit a tiny bit of English (sorry all, but English is the web's most international language).

I've considered the option of using flags but have ruled it out because:
1 - Flags represent countries, not languages. Consider English which is widely spoken in the US, UK and Canada. On the other hand, consider Canada which has both English and French as official languages.
2 - Adding 25 flag icons for every page is an extra communication load with no good justification.

A solution?

An interesting project I've came across is the 'Language Icon'. They've decided to create an international icon to mean the word "language". Here it is: Classic Icon 32 x 32
It's supposed to look like a tongue though personally I don't find it resembling a tongue. If it'll catch on, however, it could be of great use to websites / application around the world. Kudos for the idea!

I've already added this icon to Colnect V2, about to be released to the public soon, where you can find it on the side menu on internal pages.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How traffic changed from PR0 to PR4

More than a month ago, Colnect's PageRank has changed to PR4. Now's the time for some statistics taken directly from Google Analytics deployed on Colnect.

Comparing the last 2 weeks with the 2 weeks before the change show 25% more traffic from Google. But what's more interesting is that there's 68% more traffic from Live and 58% more from Yahoo. So the PageRank probably did make a difference but is Yahoo and Live taking their information from Google? Perhaps it was vice versa and I just never stumbled upon tools to test my ranking with these search engines due to the lesser amount of traffic they bring.

Doctrine v1.0 is finally out

Colnect V2 (including stamps and more collectibles) is now almost ready to be shown in alpha and that's why it's such good news that Doctrine v1.0 has been released.

Doctrine is a PHP ORM that is nicely integrated with Symfony. It allows defining your database schema easily with YAML files. The database and PHP classes can then be automatically generated to provide you will all the needed functionality of database interaction.

Although IMO some edges have not yet been met in Doctrine (most importantly the i18n support), I hope it'll be able to work properly on the new Colnect. Developing with an ORM is surely much easier to maintain than using raw SQL. I expect Doctrine to keep growing stronger and more stable in the near future as the ideas behind it are very useful and needed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Adjusting CSS to RTL languages

Writing the new version of Colnect from scratch, I've decided to start using more CSS and less HTML table tags where possible. Truth is I'm still not sure that this decision will hold as CSS still seems immature to me. Yes, it's been around for years and it has many proponents but the truth is that sometimes you really have to work hard to do something which could have been easily explained to any design language. One such issue is RTL (right-to-left) languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic.

HTML supports the dir tag to allow one to easily change from left-oriented design to right-oriented one. In CSS, however, it seems the matter has not been taken into serious consideration. When you have a CSS float, for example, you can choose if it floats left or right but there's no way for you to say something simple like left and left-fixed. IMHO, left should have changed to right on RTL languages while left-fixed would have always kept left. The same goes to specifying the 4 dimensions like in 'padding: 1px 2px 3px 4px;'. They should be switched unless the directive fixed is added.

But since CSS doesn't do that well, a developer from Google has created a python script called CSSJanus which tries to address many issues relevant for converting a CSS from a left-oriented one to a right-oriented one. It's code is available here.

Since Colnect is built using PHP, I've decided to only use a few ideas from the CSSJanus code and integrate them into the JS/CSS combinator already in use. The idea is quite simple, the application asks for a different CSS file when it's right-to-left (RTL) oriented by prefixing some directive to the CSS requested which lets the combinator understand it should add the conversion.

You can start with the combinator script code here.

These two lines at the top of the script will add RTL directive:
$bRTL = (substr($_GET['files'], 0, 4) == 'rtl_');
if ($bRTL) $_GET['files'] = substr($_GET['files'], 4);


Now the cache hash should be different so there's a slight modification here:
$hash = $lastmodified . '-' . md5($_GET['files'].($bRTL ? 'RTL' : ''));


And the last thing to do is to create the left-to-right conversion function and place it just after stripping the CSS comments. Add this:
if ($bRTL) $contents = CssSwitchLeftToRight($contents);


And here's my simple conversion function (that does NOT cover many cases covered by CSSJanus):
/**
* Switch left to right and vice versa for a few of the cases relevant for css
*
* @param string $str
* return string
*/
function CssSwitchLeftToRight($str) {
$arConversionSeq = array(
'/-left/' => 'TOK1',
'/-right/' => '-left',
'/TOK1/' => '-right',
'/float\s*:\s*left/i' => 'TOK2',
'/float\s*:\s*right/i' => 'float:left',
'/TOK2/' => 'float:right',
);
foreach ($arConversionSeq as $pattern => $replacement) {
$str = /*"doing{} $pattern => $replacement ".*/preg_replace($pattern, $replacement, $str);
}
return $str;
}


I have not posted the entire script here since it has site-specific modifications on my site. You're welcomed to comment here if further clarifications are needed.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

How many collectible phone cards are there?

I'm sorry but this blog post is not going to answer that question.

When I took over Colnect (previously known as Islands Phonecards Database) we've had ~30,000 collectible phone cards in our database. Less than a month ago I've written that "Collectible phone cards catalog has passed 100,000 items" but as of today I'm happy to announce that Colnect's catalog has just passed the 110,000 mark.

It seems that not only is the database growing, but that its growth rate is on the rise. So when will it stop? Obviously it'll start slowing down when most of the collectible phone cards in the world will already be listed on Colnect. Just how many are there? As I know we're still missing some tens of thousands of Brazilian and Chinese cards, my assumption ranges somewhere between 200,000 and 1,000,000 different collectible phone cards. The variation is great due to the unexpected nature of variants. A card may be listed once but then an expert collectors note that there were small variations between the different prints and one card becomes 20 different variants, all with different collectible value.

So when will this race stop? Let's wait and see...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

PR4 or The Google Gods Smile at Colnect

Some time ago, I've posted about Colnect's rank of PR0. Yesterday Colnect still had the embarrassing PR0 but as of today, Colnect got it's PageRank updated to 4!

So this is good news but some questions are left pending:
* What was the initial reason for PR0? What was my sin?
* What has now changed that Colnect deserves PageRank4?
and most importantly:
* Will PageRank4 bring extra search engine traffic? Let's wait and see.

Donations and T-Shirt

A few hours ago I've decided to allow members of Colnect donate money to the community. Very quickly 3 donations were received and I hope that collectors will keep showing their support. All the donations were big enough to get the promised T-Shirt and perhaps it provided a good enough extra motivation for donations.
I strongly believe that the community that has formed on Colnect is a very strong one. The amount of support I'm offered now, as I'm working on the next version, is overwhelming. Since the next version will include stamps, many collectors have already contacted me and offered their help.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Following the Doctrine for Colnect Philately

Colnect Philately is now under rapid development and is planned to have a limited release in September. Colnect is written completely from scratch, using bleeding edge tools which provide really cool features but come with a price. Once such tool is Doctrine.
Doctrine is a PHP ORM that is nicely integrated with Symfony. It allows defining your database schema easily with YAML files. The database and PHP classes can then be automatically generated to provide you will all the needed functionality of database interaction.
Doctrine is not yet a completely mature project and that becomes when using it for some time. However, it's going in the right direction and yesterday's announcement that "Doctrine gets its first employee" is an important step for an open source project.
So yes, using bleeding edge tools is a bet but being an entrepreneur is about believing, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Collectible phone cards catalog has passed 100,000 items

Colnect has the world's most extensive collectible phone cards catalog. Just now the milestone of 100,000 listed collectible phone cards has been passed.
A big thanks goes to all contributors who are helping in making Colnect the best resource for phone card information. Colnect is a huge community endeavor that helps in creating a catalog with user assistance. This wiki-style catalog is changing constantly and thus offers collectors the most up-to-date information.

Yesterday another smaller milestone has been passed: over 2,000 collectors are now members of Colnect.

Colnect philately is now under construction and will hopefully revolutionize the philately world as much as it has done in the fusilately world.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pages load faster when using CSS instead of IMG tag

This is a small technical tip to speeding the loading of your web pages. There are many tips you should consider but I haven't seen this one well documented out there on the web.

When using the HTML IMG tags with Internet Explorer (tested on IE7), the page is not displayed until the images have been downloaded. Loading images using CSS background-image ensures the page is displayed even before the image is loaded.

See Colnect's countries page which contains many flag images in it using this tip.

With FireFox the page is displayed but this modification will make CSS background images load later than normal IMG images.

How to do it?

Simply replace:
<img src="image.jpg" 
width="100" height="100" />

with
<div style="height: 100px; width: 100px;
background: url(image.jpg) no-repeat center center;">
</div>

Monday, May 26, 2008

colnect's new clothes - slicker design


colnect's design had been too long neglected. It's not that I was unaware of the implications of a better looking website but I've delayed handling it since my skills as a graphic designer are not the ones I'm most proud of.
Since today, the site looks much better than before. Some CSS magic could do wonders on a website. There are still many enhancements to be done but they'll have to wait for the new version's launch.
An annoying issue that has to be dealt with over and over again is browser compatibility. It seems different browsers must interpret the standards differently. Personally, I suffice with testing every page on FireFox and IE. IMHO, FireFox is a much better browser and too many sites support only IE properly. The other browsers don't have such a big crowd yet and their crowd probably doesn't use them without resorting to either FireFox or IE occasionally.
Javascript can help with cool things (like these menus) but browser compatibility becomes an even harsher issue and it seems Javascript is a language that must always be tested per browser to ensure that whatever it is that you wrote actually works.

Link and Search

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