Soapbox 1

Hi, everybody. Welcome to “The Soapbox”, also known as the “Site News” link in the Suggestion Box on the homepage. Think of this posting as a permanent “letter to the editor” page, the watercooler we can all gather around from time to time and just chat. This the place to come to get the latest updates, news and gossip about what rickyjames (that’s me) is up to now in making ongoing changes to this site. When I add new general site info to this posting as an update I’ll change the date in the homepage Suggestion Box, so keep an eye out for that. This “Soapbox” posting is also to give you a place you can leave me or anybody else a piece of your mind if you feel like it. If I get enough pieces of everybody else’s mind, maybe I can put them all together into a whole one. E Pluribus Unum.

The Soapbox: May 2003

The Soapbox: June – Dec 2003

The Soapbox: Jan – Apr 2004

The Soapbox: Apr – Jul 2004

The Soapbox: Jul – Oct 2004

74 thoughts on “Soapbox 1”

  1. There used to be a box on the lefthand side of the front page, entitled “New Section Stories” or something like that, which had a list of the latest section-only stories so you could see from the front page what was new in the sections. That box went missing when you started the revamp, I guess, but if you could recover it I think it is very useful. I’d rather be able to see everything from the front page and not have to hit the sections.

    Um, as a matter of fact, I’m not sure how to hit the sections any more. The “everything, news, stories, reviews (etc, I’ve forgotten what other sections there are)” links are also gone. Are you doing away with the sections? I can tell that the front page is not “everything” because this story (Soapbox) isn’t showing up on the front page. I realize you are in the middle of revamps so maybe this is just a transitional thing, but I thought I’d mention it. :-)

  2. Yeah, Sweetwind, I’m juggling boxes right and left in the right and left columns right now. Or something like that. When Drog handed this site over to me two weeks ago I had exactly ZERO experience in manipulating the machinery of a Scoop site behind the scenes, and I feel EXACTLY like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Lots of fire and thunder from a well-meaning bumbler. I’m learning, tho – the key for me was to take the plunge and print out every single block, template and box drog had so laboriously put together and index ’em all in a notebook. That really clarified the layout for me a lot. The other key was to heed Drog’s advice about trying stuff out on test pages first. Currently my biggest embarrassment is that I’ve apparently broken the perl code in the “Who’s Online” box trying to modify it and I haven’t gotten it repaired yet. That’s today’s project, so look for THAT box to come back soon, cause I want it!!!

    Obviously I have tried to consolidate the nav links as one main navigation string located in the grey bar. I’m pretty happy with this now, I think it’s good looking and provides the major functions needed to get around the site. If you think something needs to be added or deleted here, please let me know. For the record, the previous navigation lines were as follows. The white one in the blue field was “submit story / help / FAQ / contact / search / topics / awards / store / stats” and the one in the grey bar linked to the various sections as “Everything / News / Reviews / Commentary / Interviews / Ask SFT / Short Stories / Diaries”. Here’s my thinking on each of these.

    White bar first. Submit is obviously on the new navbar. The next three all go to the same page; the first two always did, and I’ve added a line with my email address at the top of the FAQ page for contacts, deleting the previous separate contact page which had drog’s address. Obviously the FAQ pages need a scrubbing and I’ll get to that eventually. Search and topics also are on the current navbar. The awards link went to a page that talked about the Nobels, the Hugos, etc and actually I think that page should hold awards that Sci-Fi Today / Sciscoop has won because we are so great. Since there ARE no awards like that yet (not even a Webby, sniff) I’ve deleted the link for now and plan to clear out that page until we DO get a major award like USA Today Hot Link, Forbes Best of Web, etc. Eventually I’ll start lobbying for such things with some strategic emails, and when we get one or more, the awards link will return. The store link is in the current navbar – Drog, man, you put SO much work into that thing it seems a shame to drop it, so I’m not. I have no idea right now where the money from any sales there comes in or flows, but as far as I’m concerned, it can go straight into Drog’s pocket from now on as a reward for a job well done setting this site up in the first place. The stats used to not work because the XLAN guys had them turned off; now they do work again, and I think that letting everybody see the truth about our readership level and hopeful growth is in our best interest, so there it is on the current navbar. Ditto for the ongoing webratings from Alexa. I may put these two in a “frame” so when you click on them, you still get the page header with logo and navbar, but that’s a future project.

    The previous second line of links were all “sort stories by section” links. The “everything” link was effectively a “home” link, so I’ve explicitly labeled it that way. In my opinion, the lack of a clearly located home link was the single biggest shortcoming facing all of the tens of thousands of people that came directly into one of our stories from somewhere else – it wasn’t crystal clear where to go after that. Hopefully now it is. The rest of the old grey bar links went to sections I frankly don’t think have gotten a lot of action and so aren’t deserving of precious top-of-front-page space. My plan is to put them at the bottom of the topic page, separated from the current topics by a horizontal bar and with new appropriate photo icons so you can still call up the “interviews” or “short stories” etc. that way if you so desire – although some of them like “Ask SFT” and “Diaries” are practically dead at this time. Anyway, I think moving these from their previous grey-bar position to the topics page preserves the functionality of the original grey bar links in a logical place to go look for them, I think. I actually have “lifted” a few icons from a few “rival” sites for this purpose – is this a good idea? Just where do these little icons come from, anyway?

    To be honest, I also made a snap decision that since the “new by section” box entries hardly ever changed, that nobody would miss it – I certainly don’t. If you do, no problem – I’ll put it back within the next few days and make it a box that can be hidden in user preferences. That means you will see it and I won’t and we’ll both be happy. Scoop is pretty cool the way it allows customization like that. I’m really impressed with it.

    I’m dead serious about listening to and incorporating suggestions in this site, and the boxes that run on the left and right columns are a big part of what we can tweak and agree on. Drog pointed out to me there’s a whole bunch of pre-coded Scoop boxes here – check em out, see something you like? Let me know. Got an idea for a great box? I sure do, stay tuned. If you do too, speak up!

    What that leaves undiscussed so far is the “links” link, and I’ve got something to say about that in the main body of “Soapbox” – but that’s after lunch. I’m hungry, and today somebody else is buying. So long for now…

  3. Hey Ricky,

    The Everything link is actually different than Home. There was originally a Home link, which goes to I removed it because clicking on the logo also brought you home, and K5 and Slashdot did the same. No harm in having the Home back in though, because now it’s more obvious how to get there. But Everything brought up a page that has all the front page stories AND the section stories. There used to be a “Front Page” title on the home page, just like in K5, which changed to “All Stories” when you clicked on Everything. When I removed that title, I guess things became a little less obvious.

    I think your idea to remove the section stories for now is good, since currently, SFT/Sciscoop submissions either go to the frontpage or get rejected. Once the site gets more traffic, however, and gets more submissions, Section Stories would make a lot of sense, just as in K5. Of course, the bad thing about not having it now is that in the moderation queue, people can still vote a story to the sections page, which they currently cannot access anymore…

    As for the Store, hey, don’t keep it on my account. It was a failed experiment. The problem was that it required all manual updates, and I quickly got tired of that! A store/affiliates page is a nice idea in that you can provide a way for users to help the site out financially without it costing them any money and they’re not bothered by ads. But it’s gotta be automated, or at the very least, have just one affiliate like Amazon, not the tons that I originally joined up with.

    The site’s looking good, Ricky. Nice work!

  4. I was just wondering if there is any way for the author of a story to edit it after it’s been posted. I’ve noticed on the stories I’ve posted so far, someone seems to be going in and inserting typos after I submit them. :-) (Like changing “Neptune” to “Neptune’s” or moving the word “reliably” then adding a space between it and the comma that follows.)

    Not that I mind the stories being edited (it’s very nice to have someone looking them over and fixing mistakes) but it kind of bugs me to see little errors like that pop up when they weren’t there originally, and then to have no way to fix them. :-) It’s really just the “not being able to fix them” bit that bugs me. As I’m not familiar with Scoop (this is my first exposure to it), I don’t know whether this ability is simply not inherently present, or if I’m just not seeing how to do it (some kind of “Edit” link that I’ve missed).

  5. Yesterday I noticed it was possible, through the “prefs” link to set a timezone, so I set it to CDT (my timezone).

    However, I believe there may be something wrong with the system’s clock, since the story I just submitted at 7:57 AM CDT shows it was submitted at 06:04 AM CDT.  That seems a bit off.  Does everyone else see this same thing?  I am pressing “Post” on this comment at exactly 8:03 AM CDT, so we’ll see what happens.

  6. That’s bizarre.  The clock for comments is precisely two hours slow, but the clock for stories is apparently slightly different, since by comparing the timestamps, it suggests that I submitted the story after my comment about the time on the story being off. Perhaps there is a built-in lag for stories, however, which would explain that difference, and then the master time zone for Scoop is simply set incorrectly, if it has such a setting, explaining the two hour difference.

  7. …but I’ve never paid much attention to it. It hereby goes on the list of things to do. I suspect it’s some kind of hardware or hardware / software interaction issue, which means the XLan guys who run the server in Seattle will have to get into the act. It’s about time for me to get back in touch with them about several important things, like changing the URL to Sciscoop (important to me) and arranging to take over monthly payments for service (important to them).

    BTW, Bob, let me just say I am glad you’re here. Your stories have been excellent both in content and variety and your continued input will be very much appreciated and valued!!! I promise not to get complacent and stop writing stories myself, but I can see where Drog’s coming from about the time demands of this site. I’ve got all these great dreams of site improvements but good fresh daily content has GOT to come first in order to Build The Community, and by the time I get that out of the way in the morning, there’s been precious little time left over to tinker with the site programming. Your taking up some of the slack in the past few days and hopefully in the days to come are very much appreciated!

    It’s probably for the best you did the Mad Cow story today. You have a very appropriate, conservative news presence in your writing, and I tend to the sensationalistic. I was gonna do this story in my best “Autonomous Killer Robots To Prowl Texas Countryside” schtick, (as a friendly dig at Drog, who’s Canadian) with a headline like “Canadian Crazy Cows Quarantined to Contain Killer Contagion”.

  8. Every story I have ever posted has a timestamp that’s wrong. I set my prefs up to be EST, and the server is on the west coast, but my timestamps seem to be in west coast time still. As near as I can tell, it must be a bug in the Scoop engine, which I never did get around to tracking down. But the site has no such problem, so it may be an issue with the server setup.

  9. The two examples you mentioned (except for the space between “reliably” and the comma)are grammatical errors, according to the textbooks I’ve been using for 30 years. A distinguishing characteristic of English grammar is its state of flux. Even the Chief of Grammar Police, Mr. James Kilpatrick, says in his
    syndicated column “On Writing” that once in a while we should go for the sake of clarity/flow rather than the strict rule. Otherwise, rules work best in published print.

    1) “To reliably grow” is a split infinitive. One cannot split an infinitive in most other languages; therefore, standard English grammar calls for refraining from doing so in our language. Yes, we see it sometimes in print. The split infinitive is still grammatically incorrect.
    2) “Neptune having” is part of a gerund phrase. The subject of a gerund phrase should be possessive. I suspect that you would write, “His diligence in the lab proved fruitful,” and not
    “He diligence in the lab proved fruitful,” or “Him diligence in the lab proved fruitful.”
    When a NOUN appears as the subject of a gerund, it, too, should be possessive.

    Typos flourish in this arena, but readers know when they see “htis” rather than “this” that the fault lies with the typist’s fingers, not his brain. Your two examples are grammatical errors. Now please continue to write these wonderful articles. Your topics and writing style are engaging, and I look forward to pleasurably reading them. :-)

  10. ……there’s things you can do besides edit a story. The most significant of these is the ability to post stories out of the submission queue any time you want without waiting for it to get the magic number of votes required to autopost. The way you do this is go to the submissions queue, click on edit for a story, look on the middle pop-down menu just below the line “set timestamp to now”, and set that menu selection to “always display”. When you then hit either “update” or “save” button, bang, the story is on the front page. Took me a while to realize that…

    WARNING: When you hit the “delete” button, it does NOT delete any edits you made – it deletes the entire story from the face of the Earth with no second chances. Be careful. I don’t think it’s possible to turn the delete button off for editors…

    Now that you can post your own story without waiting for voting, there’s another consideration. This site has always been starved for stories (in my opinion) and so if a story showed up, it got immediately posted. Because of this, we haven’t built up a sense in the membership that stories need to be voted on. My own opinion is if we’ve gotten a couple of new stories posted in the morning to appease the New Content God, it’s probably a good idea to leave a story or two in the queue to get voted on just to start getting the idea of moderation instilled back in everybody’s mind. Ah, growing pains….

    Which leads to the concept of box management. Ideally, we’d like members to see their member box at the very top of the left column so they’ll always see the first line, moderate submissions, with the little numbers that show there’s something there to moderate. However, we’re low on members and high on casual visitors. Therefore, I’ve put the Slashdot/K5 and the “In The Past 30 Days” boxes at the top of the upper left column to give these casual visitors some sense they should “invest” in this site because there’s something worth visiting on a regular basis. When they become members, these two boxes are STILL at the top of the left column and their new membership box is lower, possibly requiring a scroll down to get to it. Thus the visibility of “moderate submissions” is currently below what are effectively “membership ads”, and this is deliberate and reflects my sense of priorities. Comments? Suggestions?

    Maybe I’m focusing too much on what casual visitors see the first time without scrolling, but I think that initially viewed screen space is so precious, it’s got to be used to snare the visitors into members, I think…

  11. Thank you for your praise of my stories; it’s funny how one can never have enough of that. :-)

    The English language is so much fun. :-) It’s great to discuss such things, it’s been a long time since I’ve corresponded with someone who knew the word “gerund.”

    The fragment in question was “with Neptune having an orbital period of 165 years.” In that context, “having” is not a verbal noun (gerund) but is a present progressive verb, for it is not “Neptune’s having” that is the subject of some other verb, but rather Neptune (the subject) which has (the verb) such-and-such a period. No gerund, thus the nominative Neptune–not possessive. I believe the confusion came from the preposition “with” forcing the verb “to have” into present progressive tense (“having”) rather than letting it rest more naturally in the present tense (“has”). With this in mind, probably a great stylistic improvement would be to rewrite “with Neptune having an orbital period of 165 years” as “since (or because) Neptune has an orbital period of 165 years.”

    Now, on infinitives…. I have no problem with the rewritten sentence; I think it reads better. Although I certainly don’t try to intentionally split infinitives (except right there, where I couldn’t resist ;-), in all my years of writing I’ve actually never found a satisfactory explanation for this so-called “rule.” True, Latin infinitives are one word, but our language is English, not Latin. Our infinitives are two words, and we have our own rules: the plural of virus is viruses. :-) As long as it doesn’t create awkwardness or ambiguity, I tend to believe that the choice to split or not to split should be more a matter of flow and meaning, considering things like alliteration, phrasing, desired tone, and readability. For example, see Bill Bryson’s excellent book The Mother Tongue, where he points out (pages 143-144) that nearly all leading authorities on the English language, such as Theodore Bernstein, Henry W. Fowler, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Gowers, agree that this “rule,” so passionately expounded by a very vocal minority, has no solid basis and one need not give infinitives a higher priority than adverbs. (Following the links on any one of those names will lead you to searches by those authors, where you will find many instantly recognizable volumes, many of which are probably on your bookshelf.)

    By the way, it’s great to know there’s someone else here with a firm grasp of the intricacies of the English language, who can fix up my stories if I post them a little too hastily. It means I can relax a bit and not worry so much about catching every last mistake. :-)

  12. OK, I’ve removed the link to the store on the main navbar link and if I don’t hear anything more I’ll probably delete a bunch of those pages in a week or two when I finally do housecleaning after getting everything else set up.

    In its place I have added a link to this “soapbox”, which is probably an appropriate thing to have as a main link. I’ve modified the main post a little to make it more generic and time-independent. I do plan to add to the main post repeatedly with breaking site news and when I do I’ll change the date in the Suggestion Box. I want to write about the first blob of links I’m about to put on the links page, but wouldn’t you know it, my life keeps getting in the way. Sometime soon….

    Also, drog, there’s a lot of pages/blocks about ad submission and payment – is this canned from the original scoop installation or is this another revenue raising effort like the store you set up yourself? If the latter, I may delete these too after a while in housekeeping, but no time soon…

  13. All that stuff about ad submissions and payment comes with the scoop engine. I originally thought that I might set it up, but never did.

  14. I agree, posting a couple of stories to get some fresh content on in the morning, then leaving the rest in the submission moderation queue to let people vote is a good idea.

    I actually tried that this morning; after I realized my mad cow story was getting comments but wasn’t yet on the front page, I looked at the difference between it and my knockout rat story and was able to edit the correct boxes to bump the mad cow story to the front page.  I left the Einstein story in the hopper since I figured it wasn’t as time-sensitive.

    I agree that snagging new members is critically important, and having the proper organization and content lets that happen. In fact, it was your bold comments staying “Welcome visitors” (or whatever the exact wording was) that made me take a serious look at the site and join as a member. That’s certainly something that should be added to any story that gets picked up by Google News. I found the site when searching Google, in general, for some particular science topic the other day; unfortunately I can’t remember what, and stayed because of those. I do recall thinking there perhaps were too many of them, however, it also made me feel a bit sympathetic; here is somebody writing all these tremendous stories, and it looked like perhaps no one was reading them and he was desperately trying to attract visitors.

  15. Is it possible with Scoop to have the layout appear differently for people who are logged-in versus guests who are browsing anonymously? That could easily solve the problem–anonymous guests get a different layout than normal users. For guests, the site is in “attract mode.”
  16. >someone seems to be going in and inserting
    >typos after I submit them. :-)

    Heh, at first I thought you were being facetious, as when I complained to my husband last week that someone had broken into our closet and tightened the waistbands on all my pants. (Couldn’t possibly be all those Hershey Kisses I’ve been eating. Curse that woman at work with the bottomless candy jar! BTW has anyone else tried the Special Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Kisses? Yum yum!)

  17. Beautiful. :-) In my original draft of that comment I didn’t have the examples afterwards, and I came this –><– close to leaving it like that for the pure humor. But then I realized that the only two reasonable interpretations were that I was kidding, or that I was some kind of paranoid lunatic–and I wasn’t quite sure which one this audience would tend to go with…. ;-)

  18. Public admission here. My good friend Gypsysoul was looking for a hobby to keep her out of trouble when she’s not busy being an English teacher (seriously) and jumped at the chance to clean up my prose. Slob that I am, I don’t mind having a language maid (in all positive senses of the word) clean up behind me…I’m a typical man, I admit it. So she signed up on the site here and I gave her editor status with a 007 license to redline – she’d rather have that than (ha ha ha) a license to kill. In my own burst of Caligula-like madness as new czar of the site I told her (over her mild doubts and objections) to go ahead, edit any story for grammar you can get your hands on, have fun.

    Well, now more writers are coming into the fold here and I see I have been somewhat callous in this instance regarding the rights of others. Obviously I need to rethink my earlier wild abandon on the subject of editing and come up with a Policy. Post something on the submission page that a secret elf may come behind and do minor editing unless I’m emailed to the contrary by the author? Forget the whole idea of grammar elves? Keep Gypsysoul as my own private word wench <grin>? Open discussion invited…

    On a somewhat related note, there is the question of just what criteria needs to be met before somebody is given editor status. So far Drog gave it to me and I’ve conferred it on Sweetwind, Gypsysoul and Bob. My inclination is that’s enough of a group for now…the cabal is hereby established. (Alan and AP, you guys are honorary cabal members). Seriously, tho, giving out editor status is a risky thing, a berserk editor could wreak havoc on the story database….criteria for membership is worth thinking about.

  19. …abound. I will do special limited edition things for Special Limited Edition Dark Chocolate. And the waistband fairy has been in my closet, too.

  20. Is there any way to back up the Scoop database? It seems to me with the archive as big as it is, this is something that should be done now, and then every so often in the future (nightly, preferably, if it can be automated). Even without rogue editors, even a minor software or hardware glitch could easily mean the loss of a lot of content.

    I’ll get back to you on the other issues, I need to carefully weigh all the pros and cons, it’s an interesting question.

  21. I agree with you completely on the infinitive issue. To split or to not split should probably be more a matter of personal style. The most recently published grammar texts are beginning to allow flexiblity in the matter of to + the verb.
    Since the area of science appears to reflect more areas of black and white rather than all the variances of literary gray, I made a judgment call in favor of the rule, antiquated though it may be. I somehow thought exactness would be a priority on a science site.

    However, in the phrase “with Neptune having an orbital period…,” the word HAVING is INDEED a gerund, not a progressive verb. A progressive verb requires a form of the verb “to be” as an auxiliary, i.e., “Neptune IS having” or Neptune HAS BEEN having.” A gerund, an -ING verbal used as a noun, can function in any capacity in which a noun functions in a sentence– subject, predicate nominative, direct object, indirect object, or object of the preposition. In your original sentence, “with **** having an orbital period” is a prepositional phrase. “**** having an orbital period” or even “**** having an orbital period of 165 years”– that entire group of words– is the OBJECT of the preposition WITH. NEPTUNE is the SUBJECT of the GERUND “having,” therefore requiring the ‘s. I have seen the dropping of this ‘s before gerunds in published print recently, but grammatically, its rightful place is attached to the subject of the gerund. Again, I opted for the letter of the law.

    Your writing is quite good. Like Ricky’s, it possesses a readability level that is comprehensible and enlightening for those of us
    who lack the scientific background but possess curiosity over a broad range of scientific topics.
    To be on the safe side (not to overstep anyone else’s bounds), I will hereafter confine my duties to sweeping up after Ricky. If my over-zealous attempts at rule-sticking caused you concern, I apologize.

  22. OK, I’m not dyslexic, I promise – I said left column and I meant right in my earlier discussion. No excuse, just feeblemindedness. To drive this topic right into the ground, there’s two ways to accommodate different right column boxes for members vs. casual viewers. First, the site czar has the ability to allow boxes to be turned on and off by users from their display preferences, so they can take care of it themsleves if they want to – altho they may not realize at first they have that ability. I’m pretty sure these boxes can be made invisible by the user, but I will check and make sure. Second, the site czar could add perl code to check whether or not the page being built up is to a member or not and shuffle the boxes accordingly. Maybe I’ll take that approach if I get the gumption to do so.

    Considering the left vs. right column, I’d like to get to a point where all these new headlines and story ideas are in the left column, some of the best of these get written up in the center column, and the right column is about past stats and older stories. To me that’s logical flow, left to right. But hey, I’m not a real webpage designer, I only play one on your monitor screen…

  23. …I think I’ll just stick to giggling to myself when I type out “gonna” and “ain’t”…

    Seriously, I can see now that the word for “turning one person loose on another’s words without prior warning” is “dumb”. I take full responsibility for setting everybody for a fall on this one and I’ll try to put the lesson I’ve learned to good use. Sorry about any bruises. Gypsysoul, you can always be my word wench and I’m sure I can make enough errors here to warm your heart. Bob, you are a man of many talents and I hope you have a long and fruitful time of blessing us with them here. Sweetwind, if you’re following all of this gerund talk, then I’ve gone three for three in picking people who deserve to be an editor. Deep breaths, smiles, onward.

  24. I used to backup the database and FTP it home manually, but it was only when I remembered to do so. It could easily be setup as a nightly cron job, though, which Scoop can handle (although FTP-ing it to another machine would have to be manually done). I know that the Xlan server admins intend to setup more rigourous nightly backups soon, but I do not think it’s in place yet.

  25. I actually have a machine co-located in CA with multiple OC12 connectivity to both MAE-West and PAIX; I could easily set up a cron job to have it download a file by HTTP or FTP from the SFT server every night at a certain time. So if you could get the SFT server to back up to a particular location that’s accessible by HTTP (for example, store the backup file at; it could be password protected if you wanted) at a fixed time, such as midnight PST, I could have it download automatically at 12:15 AM PST (and then you could have the file be deleted at 12:30 AM PST, to free up space). And I’d have no problem storing a few hunded megabytes (or more) of backups, so you could later revert to a previous state if need be (if it was determined that the database became corrupt 3 days ago, for example).

    I did a bit of reading yesterday, and apparently mysqlhotcopy is the preferred script for backing up a Scoop database.

  26. Whats with the microsoft fastcounter up at the top? Is this temporary? Why do you need a visible counter in the first place? And why use an external counter service when you can have one running on scifitoday with whatever features you need?]

    Thanks for clearing this oddity up :)

  27. … a coupla things. First, you may have noticed we were “off the net” for pretty close to 24 hours Thurs afternoon and Fri morning. This happened a little while (1 – 2 hours?) after I got two stories picked up on Google Sci/Tech News (red dwarf star – we were primary source on the sci/tech page, and photo from Mars – we were the first alternate source on the Google News front page) According to the stats (which I saw first time Fri afternoon), we got around 25,000 visitors between the time Google picked us up and the time we went down. Who knows how many we’d have gotten if we’d stayed up. So far I haven’t heard from the XLan server guys if the flow of hits caused us to go down or something else. I’ll let you know when I hear. As I’ve mentioned before elsewhere, occasionally scanning Google and trying to get picked up as a source on a new, fast breaking story is a MAJOR traffic boost and almost certainly has a big role to play, I think, in Growing This Site.

    None of which has anything to do with the counter, which I put in the Scoop code right after we came back up Fri, so the counter has nothing to do with our going down at all, just so everybody knows. I put it in so we could tell how many total hits we’ve gotten, because I’m interested in that and would like others to be, also. Somehow I’d like to get this turned into a community site where people post as well as a news site where they just come for news, and it’s a chicken and egg thing. Almost 20,000 people saw the Mars photo story and not one of them left a comment and very few if any joined as a member. D’Oh, who knows why? Part of the reason, I suspect, is nobody realizes just how many people are coming thru looking at our stories (at least some of our stories). If somebody knew their comment was gonna be seen by 10-15,000 people in the next few hours, they might be more motivated to leave a comment. So, I put a counter where it’s where everybody can see it and hopefully they’ll say, wow, lots of people come here – which is the first step in this becoming a community site. To a lesser extent this is also why I’ve posted links to the “stats” and “webrank” listings which are fairly unobtrusive, and the “In the Past 30 Days” Box, which is less so. All of this stuff in this area is meant to be membership advertising – “hey, we’re worth joining” kind of stuff.

    Now, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I’m not a web guru, I just play one on your monitor screen. I used the Microsoft counter because I saw it on another site and thought it would fit in pretty well with the “minimalist” graphics design of this site. Yep, the XLan/Scoop engine machinery accumulates this data too – but I don’t know how to tap it yet, and even if I did, I’d have to write the perl code etc. Slapping the Microsoft one on there was easier and faster. Now, I have no idea if that’s considered spyware or drains everybodys resources or whatever, and I’m certainly willing to be educated about the cons of it being there. Speak right up.

    So – is it temporary? Does it go to the bottom of the page, or get dropped all together? It does/will if people convince me it’s a bad / lukewarm / irrelevant idea, which has two components – (1) does “seeing the numbers” improve people’s sense of community to this site and (2) is there a better / easier / preferable alternative to the M$ counter I’ve put in there?

    Let the discussion about desirability of a counter begin…

  28. I will say that since there are a couple of places now where people see they can click and read older stories by topic, there’s been a MAJOR upswing in looking at older stories. Used to be maybe one or two people looking at maybe ten stores total per day – now tens of people are looking at tens of old stories per day. So what is put up does influence people sticking around…

  29. Almost 20,000 people saw the Mars photo story and not one of them left a comment and very few if any joined as a member. D’Oh, who knows why?

    Although the site slowing down obviously would have been a contributing factor, I wonder if part of the reason that so few people post is that most of them believe that they just don’t have anything, or can’t think of anything, to contribute.

    On a site like slashdot that discusses mostly technology news, most members work in or with technology. Science may be different; it can seem more “intellectual.” Most of us don’t work in the fields discussed here. People can be afraid to comment on things that they don’t fully know about or understand, especially if they would be the ones starting the discussion. For the photograph of Earth, what is really to be said? “Nice photo!” “Hey, isn’t that speck in the corner the Mars Observer?” “I think you can see Donald Trump’s head!” “I wonder what aperature the camera was set at?” It’s tricky.

    I think we may need to approach this from two fronts.

    One, continue to make sure that the stories are written in open, plain language so people don’t feel intimidated. You are doing very well on this, and I have been trying to make sure I do this, as well. Also, it maybe be useful to raise other points in the stories, or even directly ask a few questions, that would stimulate discussion. Even if such writing might not be true objective journalism, and may even require false naïveté, it might fit well into this format of story + comments. (“The Mars Global Surveyor mission so far has cost about the same as making The Matrix Reloaded.” … “The quality of the photos remind me of ones my dad and I took with our telescope in the backyard when I was growing up.” … “It makes one wonder why this hasn’t been seriously done before, with all the space probes we’ve launched with cameras–surely there would have been many more opportunities for great photos of Earth from a distance.”) Things that people can relate to and discuss, because they might have been thinking the same thing. Raising issues in the stories show potential posters that they aren’t the only one with questions or comments.

    And, two, recruit a key group of people to, for a while, simply be responsible for starting discussions and conversations, which others would then feel more welcome to join in, and then eventually learn by example how to start discussions on their own. At the same time, take steps to ensure it doesn’t appear cliquey. Encourage new posters by writing responses to their comments, and rating their comments high even if they don’t have a lot to say.

    Just some ideas. Comments, improvements, and suggestions welcome.

  30. I think you’re pretty much on the money with your summing up of why so few people leave comments. As I long ago abandonded my own burgeoning scientific career at a point at which it could hardly have been said to have started, I can certainly relate to your observation that sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a story. I’m not sure however that your idea of rating a comment from a new user higher than it perhaps deserves is a good one (at what point should one start rating them more appropriately?) . The highest rated comments are shuffled to the top of the pile under the story they are posted on, which means that a visitor to the site may glance quickly at the first comment and be put off without reading the rest. That said, I’ll confess that I have been guilty of this myself, a practice I dropped because it seemed unfair to the ‘old-hands’. You’re producing good work here BTW, and I have enjoyed reading your stories and comments (particularly your debate with gypsysoul on gerunds <mischievous grin>, remind me not to cross either of you on a point of grammar), and I look forward to reading the fruits of your next labours.

  31. Woohoo, here we go again. Remember I said on Thurs afternoon that Google News picked up two of our stories and we proceeded to get 25,000 hits in the couple of hours before we crashed? Well, in an incredible stroke of luck, the SFT/SciScoop (we’re changin’ over pretty soon, folks) writeup on the MIT Soldier Nanotech Lab got picked up by Google as the lead source on that story as of about 11PM Central time and in 20 minutes we’ve gotten over 100 hits. Because it’s so late there doesn’t seem to be a big surge like yesterday so maybe we’ll have a nice steady flow of hits. What’s cool is that I didn’t write the story TRYING to follow something Google had already started on (OK, I admit it, that was what I did on the HP robot story) but instead wrote it up because I read the USA Today story over breakfast and just thought it would be a neat story for us. Within 30 minutes of my posting it tonight, Google went from no mention on the subject to us beaing lead source out of about 25 versions from other media outlets. Saturday is usually a slow turnover day on the Google Sci/Tech page, check here to see how long we stay listed this weekend. I hope it’s a long time. Google News is so cool…

  32. OK, now it’s 5 AM Central time, six hours later. Over on Google News the Soldier Nanotech story has moved to second source, second story, front page – still a very juicy position, even tho we got demoted from “prime source” by a Wired News soldier story posted about a half hour ago. Our own Sci-Fi Today stats page, which ran its update who knows exactly when over the past six hours because of the “timing bug”, says that the Soldier Nanotech story has been accessed 1982 times as of the stat file running. However, our new Microsoft counter was around 1000 when Google picked up the story and is at 1850 now, implying that only around 850 max people have seen Soldier Nanotech.

    I’m confused….

  33. I just had an additional realization–it may not be at all obvious to a first-time visitor, who is reading a story that has no comments yet, and does not start at the front page, that “Post A Comment” even means “post a comment that will be viewed by future visitors of this page in an ongoing discussion.” Once a story actually gets a couple of comments, it becomes considerably more obvious what the format of this web site really is, but until then it may just look like a news story with a tiny little link at the bottom, easily missed, that says “Post A Comment.” All the more reason, I think, to get that elusive First Comment.

  34. Yes, you’re right, new users shouldn’t automatically get high ratings for their comments just because they are new users.

    I propose a simple criteria: Amount of apparent effort. If it looks like someone spent a lot of time and put some thought into their comment, rank it high, even if it may not necessarily be the best comment. Do this especially if they are new. It will encourage them to continue to put time into their comments. It would be strong motivation for a new user to leave this site for a comment they spent a lot of time on got a rating of “2,” for example.

    Also, if it’s a comment in reply to a comment, we can actually afford to rate it higher still, because very rarely is there more than one reply to any given comment anyway (plus, we can always change our ratings later, if we want to push a different comment up).

    One thing that is not at all apparent to new users is that the comment ratings determine the comments’ order of display (I didn’t notice this for a few days), or that they even have any effect at all. (Especially true when there are so few comments.) They may instead view the ratings simply as a rating of the relative “worth” of their comment, and by extension, of their own worth to this community. We’d want to avoid that…somehow…at least while SFT/SciScoop is still at this early stage.

  35. That sounds like a better way to go, although quality control is a part of the comment rating process. I think that the original criteria Drog outlined when he set up the FAQ page has a lot to be said for it. Aside from the effort that went into preparing the comment, he asked that the following be considered:
    “Class. Does the comment exhibit class, not intentionally insulting or denigrating others?
    Informative. Is it factually correct, to the best of your knowledge? Does it provide new information, of which you were not previously aware? Does it back up its facts with references?
    Convincing. Does the author present his/her argument or opinion in a logical and convincing manner?
    Relevance. Is the comment relevant to either the original story or the parent-comment? Or has the author gone off on a bewildering tangent?
    Humour. Is it funny? That’s always worth something.
    Credentials. Is the author distinguished and well-respected in the field that is currently being discussed? This would lend great weight to the author’s arguments, even if the comment is quickly written.
    Fame. Is the author a well-known celebrity–a scientist, novelist, director, actor, etc? Their comments may be deemed interesting by many readers by sheer virtue of their fame.”

    That all seems fair enough to me (although my own comments usually fall foul of more than one criterion), but you have proposed an interesting idea in reference to replies. There is one danger inherent in marking too highly though – it can allow the power of ‘Zero-rating’ to fall into hands that may not have truly demonstrated that they can use it wisely. (God, I’m turning into my father) Still, you’re right that we need to cut people a little slack in order to encourage them to post comments; perhaps combining a reply with a ‘soft-ish’ rating would be an acceptable compromise. As to new users misinterpreting the system, maybe Ricky needs to change the name of the FAQ link to ‘How the site works’, or ‘How To’. A lot of people arriving here will assume they know how a lot of things work from their experiences of other sites and may not check out the FAQ’s, thus remaining unaware of subtle differences in the way the game is played here. The real challenge of course will be to get more people to stick around long enough to submit a story.

  36. Your idea about renaming the FAQ “How This Site Works” or “How To Use This Site” is a good one.

    Actually, I just noticed there are two separate FAQ answers about rating comments, each written slightly differently:

    I wonder which one is authoritative.  ;-)

    Your comment about abusing the ability to give “0” ratings is also something to be considered. Hopefully no one will do that; if it does become a problem, then I suppose we’d need to be more careful and/or strict in rating comments.

  37. that it is unlikely that anyone would abuse the system. It’s just that a facet of my cynical nature compels me to consider the ‘rogue element’. Frankly I think that such an abuse would be quickly spotted and rectified anyway, so the pros outweigh the cons. Embarrassingly, I think I have read both of the answers regarding comments at separate times without noticing they weren’t the same (demoted to Dr Watson’s understudy again, dammit!). As to which is authoritative, I think that it can safely be left to an individuals conscience to choose between them until the word comes down from on high. How about it Rickyjames; are you high?:}

  38. As an experiment I am about to rate your comment asking this question with a 0, which I will then go back and change to a 5 after I see if it shows up in the “Review Hidden Comments” link.  :-)

  39. When I rated your comment as zero, and then clicked on that link, I got:

    Found 1 results.

    1) just out of curiosity [0.00 / 1] Replies: 1
    posted by Alan Von Fan on 05/24/2003 06:04:42 AM CDT
    attached to The Soapbox

    :-)  BTW, the rating should be back at “5” now.

  40. OK, it took me a while to figure this one out, I was terribly confused too. Then it hit me, and it was so simple I felt like an idiot. I had forgotten that this is a Canadian website, but the counters are in the US. You are simply forgetting to take into account the exhange rate. :)

  41. …you’ve hit on something crazy enough to be true. I still haven’t heard from the XLan guys about the outage but I wrote them a long letter of wanna-dos so that’s probably understandable. BTW, it’s now 11:30 AM Central Sat as I write this and the header counter is 2767, implying approx 1800 max have seen the Googolized soldier story, which has been relegated on the Google front page to a link that lists the Sci-Fi Today site but not the article title. That’s still better than being lumped in with the “and 25 related” group, of course…

  42. I figured that is why you used fastcouter. I can’t think of anything particularly bad about having a fastcouter up there. It does look a little out of place, a better integrated counter would be nicer. I can code one up for you that fits in with the theme and doesn’t require the user to download images from bcentral. But if you can get scoop’s stats to appear somewhere, that would be cool too.

    It is pretty neat seeing how many hits there are now that they have hit the thousands. I will try to post more to encourage other’s to do more posting.

  43. The faq_comments page is the correct one, the comments page is obsolete. Unfortunately, once a special page is created, there’s no way to delete it short of directly modifying the database. But I didn’t think it was linked anywhere so nobody would find the old one… guess I was wrong. :)

  44. Look at the “In The Past 30 Days” box, which now has a bunch of links in it to make it a navigation tool as well as a statistics box. Click on the one that says “7 section categories”. Is this OK? This is the true representation of ALL that has made it into the various sections, most recent first. The new section stories box you refer to had some problems given our current posting level, I think. It lists things that go directly to section INSTEAD OF front page, and so missed a lot of section material that was SIMULTANEOUSLY on the front page – as is the vast majority of our stuff right now. I think the utility of the new section box comes when there really is moderation competition for front page space. When we get to that lovely time, I’ll bring it back.

  45. Google News has just now picked up on the Einstein Story even though it is a couple of days old. By reposting it, it goes out on our RDF headline feed and will get picked up as a new article by Google in the next ten minutes. Hopefully their computer program will add it to the two Australian articles it has listed as sources and bump the whole package higher on its science page. You will get mucho hits. Watch here and keep your fingers crossed.

  46. I thought perhaps it was something like that, which is why I asked the question in the Soapbox rather than as a comment in the story itself. :)

    Funny it’s taking Google News so long to notice the story. Actually, I set up a script early yesterday morning to archive the Google News main page, Sci/Tech page, and Health page every twenty minutes, to analyze later and look for patterns (and to save for posterity’s sake if something I wrote really did make it on there). :)

  47. I first read the Einstein story on Google News the day that Slashdot ran the story. I almost wrote a story on it but didn’t have the time, and then Bob wrote it a day or two later. I guess more newspapers have picked up the story, causing Google to display it again.

  48. Unfortunately for SFT/SciScoop (and fortunately for me), I’ll be leaving early Tuesday morning and will be gone until June 3 on vacation, so my story on the solar eclipse and my comment on What makes a theory scientific will probably be my last major contributions here for the next week or so. I’m sorry this means pushing Ricky back into the inenviable position of having to write all of the stories while also trying to retool and relaunch the site, but hopefully someone else will be able to help out a bit while I’m gone, and post a couple of stories.

    Anyway, I wanted to post this comment so that you would not be worried that I have left the site permanently and won’t be back, after being here for just two weeks. Rest assured that I have every intention of picking up where I left off when I return. :)

  49. For the record, here it is Monday morning approx 7:45AM Central, the Microsoft header counter says 6194 and the Report Magic stat file that ran sometime in the past eight hours says Soldier Nanotech alone has gotten 7107 hits since it was posted, not counting the literally hundreds if not thoudands of additional hits since Fri we’ve gotten on other stories – lookes like 1500 minimum on Mars photo alone. Obviously a major malfunction, exceeding even the Canadian exchange rate theory. On my to do list.

  50. I stuck a link to the Sections area back in the Navbar. Certainly it’s important enough to deserve its own link. I’ve tightened the wording of the other nav links up a little to compensate and keep the whole thing as a single line on a 800X600 screen.

    BTW, for the record, I added perl code to make the Slashdot / K5 box and the “Join us” part of the “In the past 30 days” box appear only if you are not logged on as a member. Log out of your user name and they reappear. Woohoo!

  51. I’ll fix that. Drog also discovered that the reason for no new members lately was that I had screwed something up, now repaired. Double Oops.

  52. Not that I want to whine or anything :-), but just to let rickyjames know that I am subscribed to the Daily Digest (you know, “Receive Email Story Digest:” on the User Preferences page is set to “Daily”) and the last one I received was the 22nd. I miss them!

  53. Today’s digest just showed up (timestamped “5/27/2003 2:38 PM”, it’s currently 2:19 here in Pacific time, my email host is in Eastern so perhaps it means about two and a half hours ago). I presume you went in and twiddled something?

  54. I’m sure it was the same issue that caused the new user signup to stop working for awhile, so fixing one fixed the other.

  55. …I was just gonna let her think I’d fixed it special for her so I’d be a hero in her eyes!

  56. For the record, we were pretty much down from about 10:30 AM Central to 12:45 PM Central Wed because once again we got Main Source Top Story Front Page on Google News (Atlantic Asteroid Splashdown) and the server choked after 750 – 1000 quick hits. Same thing sorta happened last Thurs with the Mars Orbit Photo story. We WILL get these growing pains behind us and we WILL go on to be the Fox News of Science. Except, of course, we WILL be Fair and Balanced….

  57. OK, folks, we’re really gonna do this SciScoop changeover for better or worse Real Soon Now. Drog has made a BEAUTIFUL logo, wait til you see it. I’ve scrubbed and updated the FAQ pages, so you can check those out and let me know if you find anything else that needs tweaking. The only major thing left that I want to do is finish up a long list of a LOT more links I’ve been working on to beef up the RDF science headline feed box…

    Last but not least, a few hundred links (seriously) are now up on the links page, along with some text about the next thing I’m gonna do to hopefully improve SciScoop, once I get the logo changed and we become a Serious Journalism Site (ha ha ha).

    Actually, we really ARE getting pretty good at getting picked up by Google News as a significant news source. We got 20,000+ hits on our Mars Photo story, 8000+ on our Asteroid Impact story (and both would have been who knows how high if the server hadn’t choked, a problem we hopefully have fixed) and literally thousands of hits on several of our other stories this week. What science journalist WOULDN’T want to write a story or two every now and then for SciScoop with readership potential like that each and every 24 hours? Hopefully our best submissions are still ahead. Stay tuned.

  58. OK, typo at, “Sopabox” should be “Soapbox” Also under “How do I see older front page stories?” there is the word “one” where it should be “on”.

    Under the Hotlist discussion you might note that one must have an account and be logged in to see the +Hotlist option.

    I have more questions about Polls than are answered in the “How do I respond to a poll?” section. You don’t need to be logged in to respond to a poll, which is nice, but does that mean anyone can vote as many times as they like?

    Oh and here’s a question for the page, under “Should I log out?” I share computers at work and we have Windows 2000 workstations. Everyone has their own account and password and I guess we have our own set of preferences and cookies and such… for example all the bookmarks in the browsers are ones that I put in myself, and when I log out and someone else logs in they only see their own bookmarks in the browser. So does that mean that if the person after me goes to SFT (oops I mean SciScoop<g>) they won’t be able to use my account, even if I didn’t log out on that computer?

    Do you have any plans to flush out the older Soapbox comments as time goes on, or will it just continue to grow? There’ll be 66 comments when I post this which is probably the site record!

  59. I’ll take care of your FAQ comments. Good questions about polls and cookies – I guess I’ll have to create a few new user accounts and run some experiments.

    As far as Soapbox, I’m happy with how it seems to have become a true rallying point so it stays. What I think I’ll do is when the comments get too long I’ll rename the title and start a new posting with the title “The Soapbox” containing link(s) to the previous comments. The only problem with this is when I do the switch, the number in the “in the past 30 days” box won’t track right; currently the number besides “Soapbox posts” is really the number for the comment with the most posts, which for now IS Soapbox but won’t be when I crank up the new revision of it. More perl coding to do. I’ll have to change where the Soapbox links point to as well. I’m writing this as much as a reminder to myself while I’m thinking about it as anything…

    What do you think of the links? Got any suggestions for other broad categories about what should go on our links page?

  60. >currently the number besides “Soapbox posts”
    >is really the number for the comment with
    >the most posts, which for now IS Soapbox
    >but won’t be when I crank up the new
    >revision of it.

    A-ha, a kludge! :-)

    OK I went through the rest of the FAQ and here are the remainder of my comments. In the Moderating Submissions page, for the “I Don’t Care (0)” choice description, I’d add “or ambivalent” to the phrase “You are completely apathetic”. I’ve voted 0 a time or two when it wasn’t that I felt nothing (apathy) but that I felt both good and bad and couldn’t resolve the two (ambivalence). Although I suppose another way to go with that would be to vote -1 and to post a comment saying what I think is bad & suggesting they edit and resubmit. (but that is much more work! :-P)

    Also you do need to go through the internal links on the FAQ pages and make sure they all point to filenames that start “faq_”, because some of them don’t (like Bob pointed out) and those are obsolete. I found at least one that doesn’t but I’ve just gotten lost&confused and can’t point it out to you :-) Sorry! I’m not sure it makes a difference for the one I found, the page it pointed to seemed to be the same as the current one, but it’s something that needs to be cleaned up or it will trip us up in the future as the FAQs continue to evolve.

    >What do you think of the links? Got
    >any suggestions for other broad categories
    >about what should go on our links page?

    James Oberg would be a good name for the list of names, I don’t know if he’s in any of those listed organizations.

  61. Friday afternoon 5/30, tabulating some of our stats, pretty interesting stuff, thought I’d share. We Are Growing. First four were on Google. Next three are military oriented that got passed around at West Point via email (I think, I got some nice emails). The rest are just good solid hits in the past two weeks on our most recent stories. I can remember March/April when half our stories had under 50 hits and only a quarter were over 100 hits. Of course, I/we are consistently using the split page now forcing front page readers to click to get the full story too, so now everybody is getting counted and not just RDF headline readers like before. This is definitely helping our click per visit statistic over on Alexa, as are literally thousands of total additional hits not counted here going into various comment levels now that we’re getting comments. We are blasting off, I think…

    22048 hits beginning 5/22 on Mars Photo
    09073 hits beginning 5/28 on Asteroid Splash
    07831 hits beginning 5/23 on Nanosoldier
    07153 hits beginning 5/22 on Red Dwarf

    04211 hits beginning 5/26 on First Av Accident
    04180 hits beginning 5/26 on San Fran Nuke
    03075 hits beginning 5/21 on HSS Sound Gun

    02541 hits beginning 5/26 on Solar Eclipse
    02502 hits beginning 5/19 on Soapbox
    01840 hits beginning 5/21 on Extinct Lang
    01822 hits beginning 5/27 on Chimps As Humans
    01632 hits beginning 5/18 on Quant Entang
    01461 hits beginning 5/24 on SARS
    01139 hits beginning 5/20 on Dog Steriliz
    01134 hits beginning 5/25 on Phasers
    01113 hits beginning 5/27 on Playstations
    00959 hits beginning 5/29 on CIA / WMD
    00900 hits beginning 5/25 on Etruscan Book
    00818 hits beginning 5/20 on Cancer Noses
    00805 hits beginning 5/25 on Einstein
    00511 hits beginning 5/28 on Android Extacy
    00511 hits beginning 5/23 on HP Telerobots
    00428 hits beginning 5/21 on Mad Cow
    00432 hits beginning 5/18 on San Jose Space
    00403 hits beginning 5/28 on Geisha Review
    00294 hits beginning 5/18 on Neptune
    00273 hits beginning 5/20 on Knockout Rats

  62. looks like you must be doing something right, I’m glad to that all the hard work you, and of course Drog, hav done is finally beginning to pay off :)

  63. I tried to palm interview duties off on Gypsysoul, who claimed to be too busy (and is). I then brought it up with Drog in an offline email, who made favorable sounding noises about getting that ball rolling again. So as far as I’m concerned, that ball’s in Drog’s court, and I suspect he’ll be picking it up again soon. Drog is still a superuser on this site and can do and post and add whatever he wants whenever he wants, so I’ll be as surprised and pleased as everybody else when the next interview shows up one fine day.

  64. You missed “Android Night” last Wednesday! It was funny, I had been working on the Geisha review for a few weeks (yeah, I’m a slow writer) and finally sat down to post it when… “wow, a submission to moderate!” and there was the “Android in Digital Extasy” story from a first time submitter. Syncronicity or something :-)

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