More beta stuff and site accessibility

This was a frustrating weekend.

Inexplicably, still, some people are unable to access the site. The servers are online as usual. The DNS entries for the site are configured correctly. So why some Comcast, then Earthlink and now MSN users are unable to access the site? I don’t know, and can’t figure it out yet. Most of the problem areas were cleared yesterday about 1 pm – as evidenced by a sustained usage spike on the site; and for a period I thought the problems were cleared. However, today, when I got to work and checked my email, there were several messages still complaining about the inability to reach the site.

To help with this problem, I’ve added two links on the left of this blog. For a long time now, since 2002, I’ve owned the domain storiesonline.xxx, but since.xxx is not supported by the ICANN, normal DNS servers don’t lead you to the site if you simply typed ‘http://storiesonline.xxx’ into your browser’s address bar. The company selling those domains, New.net has instructions on how to access their DNS servers. But, since it requires the installation of a plugin for Windows users, I never made it public (Mac users can just type ‘new.net’ into the search field of the network control panel and gain access to the whole new.net network, including storiesonline.xxx).

However, on the weekend, it was brought to my attention (thanks cmsix) that anybody can use http://storiesonline.xxx.new.net to access the site without any need for plug-ins.

The second link is the direct link to the site’s main IP address. Accessing the site at this URL bypasses any DNS servers. However, if the site were to move to a different IP address, that URL won’t be valid anymore, so don’t bookmark it.

The two links are now permanently linked at the left, so if you bookmark this blog, you’ll always have alternative ways to access the site, if the need arises.

A side effect of the problem is that the site should be slower for everybody. To accommodate the new links I’ve temporarily redirected the stylesheet links (.css) to the main server, instead of the offload server at storiesonline.org. So the stylesheets would be served from the same server as the other pages and it should work for any URL that you use. But that puts a great strain on the site’s main line (an extra 100k hits per hour) slowing access for everybody. 24 hours after I stop getting complaint about the inability to access the site, I will redirect the .css links to the bandwidth offload server at storiesonline.org.

By the way, for those who experienced the inability to connect to the site, before you try the new links, flush your browser’s cache before trying one of the new links. Sometime browsers cache the error pages and keep displaying them even when it can connect to the site with no problems.


Another topic is the ongoing beta.

So far, response to the new layout has been positive in general. So as soon as some of the new features are tested extensively, the beta period will be officially finished and the new layout will replace the old one permanently.

Some of the new features added and changes made yesterday:

– The ability to center the stories’ text in the window — with purple bars on both sides instead of just on the right. By the way, this is one feature that few have noticed. The Story Style Page allows you to almost completely customize the look of the stories’ display for your eyes’ comfort — font size, background color, text body width; all can be customized.

– The ability for premier members/authors to bypass the confirmation of deletion from the library and bypass the extended info form for the addition of bookmarks to the library. The default is like before: to confirm everything. To set the new preferences go to the library’s preference page.

– Renamed the ‘Read’ link to ‘Home’. I received the most complaints about the lack of ‘Home’ link.


<geek>

Privacy

A topic that is near and dear for everybody that I know is personal privacy. A while back, I found a new tool that helps personal privacy greatly. It’s called ‘tor’ from EFF.org (Electronic Frontier Foundation). It’s a proxy server that needs to be installed on your system, and once it is, it can reroute all the internet traffic that you initiate from the computer you’re using through a maze of anonymizing proxy servers. So no one watching your traffic can tell where you’re going and sites can’t tell where you’re coming from.

I’ve added the link to tor in the blog’s links on the left.

It’s a good tool. Although, it’s bad for services offered by your ISP like usenet access. Most ISP-run NNTP server for usenet rely on the IP address to allow you in or deny you access, so if you use tor to access your ISP’s news server, chances are that you will be denied access.</geek>

The site’s new layout

I’ve been receiving quite a bit of comments and reports about the site’s new layout currently available in the beta area of the site. Some favourable, some not.

The most common negative common so far is that there is nothing wrong with the current layout, so no need to change, and don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Maybe from a reader’s point of view, who’s been using the site for a while and used to the current layout, nothing is broken. However, from my side, it is broken, and broken badly enough for me to put a big effort into fixing it.

Each day, at least once, somebody contacts me and ask how they go about posting their stories on the site. And as often, somebody requests a feature that is already available on the site.

The first issue is the most frustrating. The links to post stories are on the front page of the site, however, currently, they are low enough to require people to scroll down and look to the left of the site’s home page.

It seems that no one scrolls down to see what’s there. Most simply come to the site, look at the links on top (in the navigation bar) and use those; as though scrolling takes such an effort.

What makes this worse, is that I would like to add new stuff to the site and if I do like I’ve done before, and add new links below the other links, then nobody would see them.

So, the site’s new design makes maximum use of the prime real estate on the home page (the top 400 pixels). It makes it look a bit busy, but at least most people won’t have to scroll down anymore.

Another change is the existence of two distinct areas on the site. One for the readers and one for the authors/editors. The reason for this is that many authors don’t read much on the site; they spend their time in pages dedicated to them. So, to minimize the effort for them to reach those places, I moved them to their own area and brought them forward to minimize the clicks that the authors need to reach them.

Having two distinct areas requires two main pages. So the new home pages (I hate that term), make that ‘Main Pages’ are titled ‘Read’ for readers and ‘Write/Contribute’ for authors and editors. Both pages are bookmarkable (as are all the pages on the site by the way), so authors can bookmark the ‘Write/Contribute’ page and readers can bookmark the other.

The other issue that needs fixing is the fact that a large number of features on the site seem to go unnoticed/unused and I get requests for them. It seems that most people don’t go exploring on the site, they don’t try various links to see what they do and what the pages offer. Many people don’t even know that they can change their own passwords, or update their email address, or change the font size in the listings or stories.

The way that I can try to fix this is by posting using tips on the front page. Those tips will go in the ‘News’ section on the main page. And since people don’t like to scroll down, the news section needed to be brought up closer to the navigation bar. For the free area users, that has been the case all along, but for premier members who actually need most of those tips, the news section was always hidden below, pushed down by the random story suggestion mechanism. The new three-column design brings the news section up right below the navigation bar.
 
PS: for those asking that I post more often on this blog: I’m a man of few words, so if I don’t have anything significant to say, I don’t say anything, so there would be nothing for me to post.