Monday, December 23, 2013

Stop Writing Press Releases

A number of our clients ask us to publish Press Releases. In the past, we've quietly questioned the value of this activity while proceeding with the task. Going forward, we're telling clients: Don't publish Press Releases.

You should stop too.

The Press Release originates in a 1906 train wreck - no joke. The Pennsylvania Railroad knew they had a PR disaster on their hands, so they wrote their own happier version of what happened. They brought in journalists and photographers to a cleaned-up scene to try to beat legitimate reporting about the event to the punch. It worked. It expanded in the 1930s, when the first Political Consultants published a book detailing how to run a political campaign. This evangelized their campaigning services, including press release publishing. They saw that most news organizations were small, underfunded and desperate for stories, and knew that by taking payment from their clients, they could write stories and hand them directly to papers for free. The papers, desperate to fill their paper with something on slow news days, would often take the bait.

Now let's fast forward to today's internet, where confused Press Releases continue to be published by the thousands. What were the factors that made Press Releases successful in the 1930s, and how does today relate?

Limited Supply of Stories
This is a major difference between today's internet and 1930s print. Old papers had to actually go and get their news by real reporting, or by rewording another paper's story. But today we have the AP and Reuters, who any news organization can cheaply pay to backfill when their reporters have nothing to turn in. They can even run no news of their own and just run a slanted cherry-picked series of news items from these same sources that suit their narrative (as Fox News and Huffington Post do). They don't need your Press Release.

Fixed Length of Publication
Older newspapers had to be roughly the same length each day to meet ad buy requirements and customer expectations. Companies still need revenue, but they can get that revenue in many ways today besides picking up a free story to run. For one, they can get paid to run a paid-for article that masquerades as a legitimate one, a more modern (and more pricey) version of a Press Release. Web publications don't need to be the same length on big and slow news days, and can backfill missing revenue without adding your unpaid press release.

Many niche news outlets are focused on their own small market niche audience, topic, or narrative - like cherry-picking the news for "the government is out to ruin your day." It's fairly unlikely many niche news outlets suit a single press release. That said, it is possible you could submit a normal story, rewritten to match the narrative bent of each of several small niche outlets. This however is fairly distant from a lazy Press Release written once and sent out for free to see what sticks to the wall, and has less reach at greater expense.

Less Direct Publishing
The 1900s included much less direct publishing, which meant that when a story was published, it was much harder for a small minority of informed readers to point out its inaccuracies (for the blunt: lies). This made exaggerating your successes and understating your failures more effective, with less blowback. There are now many famous cases where the exact opposite has happened online - a company or politician is caught in a bold-faced lie and an online campaign mounts to penalize that entity far worse than what the lie would have gained them. Given their original purpose was to whitewash a tragic event or overstate an accomplishment, the benefit of a press release is more limited online than it was in the 1930s.

Direct Lobbying of Publishers
Many companies today will simply put a press release online and say, "I've just published it worldwide." Well yes, the internet is worldwide; but there's so much published to it, if you don't actively push your message in front of users, graffiti on the sidewalk will get more readership than something you tossed up onto your website. The days of "This is one of the few things online, so it will get free press" are over. The original strategy of a Press Release came with direct, active lobbying of news organizations, so simply publishing a Press Release to your website and calling it a day not only makes little sense by today's standards - it doesn't even make sense by 1906 standards. In addition, pay-for content now has many more explicit (including some illegal but prominent) channels - and news organizations are more universally desperate for cash than content.

A Shift in Legitimacy
In the 1900s it was common to choose names that sounded like an official bureau, perhaps of the government, like "General Motors," "General Mills," "Standard Oil" - a bit like the names today's SuperPACs use. The 1930s political consulting press release company was named the "California Feature Service." They'd use that official-sounding name to submit to newspapers and get those stories in. The name generated an implicit trust in American culture then. These kinds of dry names bring less trust and authority today than they did back then, for many reasons like a decrease in trust in government, an increase in direct publishing as mentioned above, an increase in "friendly" brands that tweet back to you on social media rather than acting as stoic authorities, and others. An increase in skepticism reduces the potential benefit of a press release.

So, my conclusion: Do not publish Press Releases. The idea is a hundred years old, for a news industry that has seen massive change. They make your brand look old and out of touch. Who is picking up this Adobe press release and excitedly sharing it with others? A Press Release is craven in the best light, corrupt in the worst light, and whether craven behavior is something your company will entertain or not, it can hurt your brand. At best it can have no impact. At worst a misleading statement in it will result in a grassroots online campaign against you, backed by a damning screenshot of the statement on your own company website. If you find yourself writing something that begins "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE," your next step should be to click Delete.

Stop publishing Press Releases. The world has changed a lot since 1906. So should your company.

Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Revert Chrome's New Tab Page

How to Solve It

If you just want to solve this, here you go. If you don't know what the problem is, jump down to Chrome's Bad New Tab Page Update below.


Visit chrome://flags

Ctrl+F for "Instant"

Set both "Instant..." settings to Disabled

Chrome asks you to Relaunch it. Do so.

Chrome's Bad New Tab Page Update

Chrome used to have a great New Tab page: the top 8 sites you visit appeared every time you'd open a new window or tab, with nice big buttons scaled to whatever size screen you were on. For those of us who used it, rather than having as our homepage - Google appears to have decided we must be mistaken, and has turned the New Tab page into the homepage. The top 8 sites are now stuffed into a tiny area below - on small screens they end up below the fold, and on large screens they're miniscule compared to their former selves.

There's also no undo/disable/revert clearly visible. But it turns out there is a way to fix it buried in Chrome.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Getting Formulas to Stick in Google Spreadsheets

I admit I overuse Google Spreadsheets - I use it for all my estimates, tracking tasks, many things I should use much better task-specific tools for.

With that admission out of the way, my overuse leads me to frequently setting up a spreadsheet like this, where some number of columns are being summed into row 2. The obvious way to sum something like that is:


Then hope you never hit 1000 rows. Smart spreadsheeters will note you can do better than hope with a bit of a weirdo syntax:


Which sums everything from B3 down, infinitely. But that still doesn't solve the problem I run into: Someone, sometimes me, adds a row to the top of the spreadsheet, right at row 3, and Google Spreadsheets unhelpfully, silently, "fixes" my formula for me:


My sum is now off by just a little, and if it's a big spreadsheet I am not going to notice. Terrible things have come of this. Strangely Google Spreadsheets even screws up attempts to prevent this, like =sum(B$3:B) - it still "fixes" the range when you add a row, breaking the range. So, to solve it, you basically have to trick Google Spreadsheets into not trying to be smart, with an indirect function:


By stuffing the cell range into a string and then using indirect to pass that to sum, you can add rows to the top all you like, and the B3:B range holds. Take that Spreadsheets.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Windows 8 Review

I have Windows 8 (a forced decision due to a tragic red wine incident). If others are on the fence about getting it, here's my summary:

Windows 8 is like someone sat down to add functionality like touch to Windows 7, then half-way through they just got up and left, and never came back.

This concludes my review of Windows 8.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

.Net's Built-In JPEG Encoder: Convenient and Terrible

Those coding in .Net may not have discovered the System.Drawing namespace, which lets you load up an image in any popular web format (gif, jpg, png) without writing any extra code, manipulate it in as elaborate a way as you'd like, and save it back out to any of those web formats.

If you have discovered this you may also have noticed that the jpg codec is just terrible. For my task I was loading up a picture and drawing something geometric on it - the picture being the motivation to save it out as a jpeg. But for these examples I'll just use a blue background and a yellow box. I realize something that plain and geometric is terrible on jpeg (png would be preferred), but if it were a picture in the background png would be a poor choice, and the jpeg results from this bad codec would be no better.

This is a development blog so if you're wondering how to draw a yellow rectangle on a blue background, here's the code:

using System.Drawing;
using System.Drawing.Imaging;


var image = new Bitmap(400, 400);
var g = Graphics.FromImage(image);
g.FillRectangle(new SolidBrush(Color.FromArgb(0xa2, 0xbf, 0xdf)), 0, 0, 400, 400);
g.DrawRectangle(new Pen(Color.FromArgb(0xf2, 0x9a, 0x02), 19), 40, 40, 100, 100);

var jpegCodec = ImageCodecInfo.GetImageEncoders().First(enc => enc.FormatID == ImageFormat.Jpeg.Guid);
var jpegParams = new EncoderParameters(1);
jpegParams.Param = new[] { new EncoderParameter(Encoder.Quality, 100L) };
image.Save(App.AppRoot + @"\test.jpg", jpegCodec, jpegParams);

App.AppRoot is a class I include in all my apps - how you decide where to write files is up to you, but you can determine the project root here.

Note: Blogger isn't a very good blogging platform, and amongst its flaws is the fact it reencodes images and adds an annoying white border to them, as you'll see in the images below. Each will also be linked to the actual output file, which I've uploaded separately outside of Blogger. You can also see a lossless PNG with all 6 here.

.Net 4.5 Windows, JPEG 60% quality

Terrible, so let's get rid of all the compression artifacts by turning quality up to 100%.

.Net 4.5 Windows, JPEG 100% quality

Still pretty bad, and really not acceptable for "100% quality" given that's the max you can possibly ask for. You can easily see the edges of the box are still blurry, and there are still noticeable artifacts inside the box itself. Were we using a photo background instead, artifacts might be less noticeable in the photo - but the photo would likely worsen the artifacts in the box itself. This would be fine if this were the 60% or 80% setting, but 100% should sacrifice file size to get you as close to the original image as possible.

But perhaps the problem is the JPEG format itself. Here's Photoshop:

Photoshop CS5 60%

Photoshop CS5 100%

So clearly the JPEG standard is not the issue - you can render a standard JPEG that's nearly identical to the original. It's also worth noting that Photoshop's 100% comes out at 6.3k, while .Net's comes out at 7.3k, despite the quality disparity.

But that's closed source and it's clear Adobe's invested heavily in their JPEG encoder. How about an open source JPEG encoder with a rag tag bunch of open source coders working on it?

Gimp 2.8 60%

Gimp 2.8 100%

.Net's default JPEG encoder is so bad that Gimp's 60% effort is about equivalent to the top quality level .Net can deliver. If Microsoft were to just use Gimp's codec as-is (available cross-platform including on Windows), that would be a major step up in quality.

I experimented with other encoder implementations; ArpanJpegEncoder is an OK reference project, but as quality goes it's barely better than the built-in .Net encoder. LibJpeg, one of the most popular encoders on the Linux side, has been partially converted to pure C# and is available for free at BitMiracle. Its output is substantially better, and closer to the Gimp output above. Unsurprising given Gimp appears to use the C++ version of LibJpeg. However, BitMiracle's high-level API forces using LowDetail Chroma Subsampling. I forked the code to add support for HighDetail at the top JpegImage level.

By far the best implementation I've been able to get working is unfortunately not C# at all - Magick.Net. You can install it via NuGet pretty easily - you want the AnyCPU q8 version if you feel unsure. And, it requires not just one but 2 special installs on any server you use it on, both from the Visual Studio SDKs - see the docs. Because it's just a wrapper around the famous ImageMagick C++ project you likely won't be making many improvements yourself, but it is able to deliver relatively high-quality, low-filesize images (Photoshop still beats it though, more for some images than others for some reason).

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Getting Started with Google Closure on Windows - 2013

Google Closure Library, Buried Away

Google has a library of highly tested, highly performant code called Closure that's been open source for several years now. I don't see a lot of examples of people using it, and I think that's in part because the documentation is pretty lacking, and it's all done in its own Google-internal sort of way that makes it pretty hard to get started with or blend with other builds. Here's a walkthrough for getting started with it on Windows.

In this example I'm going to get a build of the WYSIWYG editor compiled out, but it should be easy enough to follow the same steps for any major feature of the Closure library. I want to take that minified script I compile rarely (maybe just the once), pull it into a .Net project and use it with jQuery and other more common tools. This might sound like overkill - afterall a big foundational library like jQuery is going to overlap a lot of functionality with the sprawling Google Closure library. But one nicety of Google's Closure approach is that it does dead code removal - that is, if you properly tell it exactly what parts you intend to use, it eliminates everything else in the minification process leaving you just the narrow slice of the library you wanted, even if that's made up of bits across 100s of files.

"If you properly tell it" turns out to be a tall order though, as we'll see below. Let's start with getting a basic build.


You'll need Java installed (the basic JRE download on the homepage is fine - you aren't writing any Java yourself so the JDK isn't necessary, though it won't hurt), and Python 2.x - not Python 3.x or above. As of this writing, I cannot find anywhere in the documentation that specifies this, but Python 3.x will fail with obscure UTF8 Decode errors when you attempt to build. And yes, you do need Python to get a Closure build going. I'll also recommend that you put them someplace that ignores Windows/Java issues with spaces that's convenient to type - for example I put mine at C:\System\Java\jre\1.6 and C:\System\Python\27.

(Side note: One alternative you might find is to use the Google Page Speed tool which minifies scripts on a page for you. This alternative doesn't really do the same thing - it makes many individual minified files for you instead of one minified package.)

If you don't have Git installed, you'll need to install it - for example TortoiseGit.

Next you'll want to make a folder where you want to put this all together, and check out the closure lib to a subfolder - I called mine goog. The remote origin should point to:

So at this point you've got a workspace folder with just one subfolder, goog, that has the entire Closure library in it including some of the build tools.

Next you'll need a build of the compiler itself, which I happened to put in a subfolder named compiler.

You now have all the tools you need.

Tell It What You Want To Use

The next step is to tell the compiler what parts you want to use, so it knows what to minify and what to leave out as dead code. You'll probably also want to be able to test this works both minified and not, so we'll cover building a simple test page.

In your workspace folder, make 3 files: index.html, script.js, and externs.js. None of these will end up in your final build so don't worry about the stupid names.

In script.js, your goal is to declare the parts of the library you need. You may want to start by just messing around in index.html to test and see what methods you need to call to get your work done. Here's the source I ended up with for index.html and script.js, which I'll walk you through:


<!DOCTYPE html>
<title>Basic Editor</title>
body {
font: 10pt Verdana;

#editor {
padding: 5px;
border: 1px solid #000;

<p>Edit below.</p>

<div id=editor>Some sample text here.</div>

<p>Edit above.</p>

<script src="goog/closure/goog/base.js"></script>
<script src="script.js"></script>
<!--<script src="editor.min.js"></script>-->
(new Editor('editor')).makeEditable();




window['Editor'] = goog.editor.SeamlessField;
goog.editor.SeamlessField.prototype['makeEditable'] = goog.editor.SeamlessField.prototype.makeEditable;

So let's walk through what's going on. In the HTML file, I start by including base.js - you need to include this to get all the goog.whatever calls to work. I then open a script tag and call goog.require on the one class I intend to use on this page. That call implicitly calls a lot of document.write() calls for all the dependencies that script has, and finally a document.write() call for the SeamlessField file itself. All these calls to document.write() are why the calls to goog.require() must go in their own script tag, with calls depending on those scripts places in a separate, following script tag. Don't worry about all this inefficient lazy loading - it won't be part of your final build.

I then include script.js, and finally, I run some test code that mimics in a very basic way how I intend to use the minified results. Make sure to call all the Closure methods you'll be using on your actual site to verify they export correctly.

So now script.js, the file that's technically going to be minified by our build. In this example it's a pretty spartan file that's just telling the compiler what to do, but you can write actual code here as well and it will work fine (and be minified).

The call to goog.provide() is a requirement of the compiler - you have to provide at least one class. In this case we're renaming goog.editor.SeamlessField to Editor to get rid of the namespace for easier minification - if you don't you'll have to jump through further hoops to export the entire namespace, which I don't recommend doing.

The call to goog.require() you may notice is redundant - it's called both on the page and in script.js. This is harmless when debugging - the second call is smart enough to just return after taking no action. In the minified script this is necessary for the compiler to know what dependency tree to search during minification.

If you had multiple things to provide or require, you would just call them again - always provide calls first, then require calls.

The following 2 lines are called exports in Closure terminology. You're basically abusing the fact that window['Editor'] is for all intents and purposes the same thing as window.Editor, or simply, Editor, in Javascript - window['Editor'] minifies out as simply Editor and guarantees that function by that exact name is available to external code.

Likewise the second line is abusing the fact that goog.editor.SeamlessField.prototype['makeEditable'] is the same thing as goog.editor.SeamlessField.prototype.makeEditable, and causes the compiler to guarantee that the method won't be renamed so you can reliably call it from outside code (or, it may be renamed then exported by assigning it to a method of the same name at the end, if that's more efficient).

Note that you can't use this shorter declaration to export a method:

Editor.prototype['makeEditable'] = Editor.prototype.makeEditable;

Nor this:

window['Editor'].prototype['makeEditable'] = window['Editor'].prototype.makeEditable;

The first will fail to minify correctly (the method is lost), and the second will minify inefficiently - it will work but use up more bytes than necessary.

Make It Work With JQuery

Before moving on to compiling, there's one last detail to sort out - the compiler is going to use whatever single-character names JS allows to rename everything in the local and global namespace. One of those is $ sign, which if you intend to use this with jQuery is a problem - since you very likely already have a lot of code that assumes $ refers to jQuery. You can prevent the minifier from using symbols like this via externs.


function $(selector, context) {};

Simple as that - you're not actually building jQuery here, just telling Closure there's an outside function with that name, so exclude it from the eligible list that global variables can be renamed to. It technically doesn't even need to be this much - you could even just do this:

$ = {};

But there are scenarios where you actually call these externs from your code, at which point you may want the compiler to help you verify you're calling it correctly - thus the function and arguments.


The compile command is not going to be short, so I recommend you actually work with it in a .bat file to keep your life simple. That way as you rework it you have a lot less to retype each time.


python goog\closure\bin\build\ -c compiler\compiler.jar --root=.\ --namespace="Editor" -o compiled -f "--externs=externs.js" -f "--compilation_level=ADVANCED_OPTIMIZATIONS" --output_file=editor.min.js

So here it is all coming together. This calls the closurebuilder script via Python, which searches all the --root arguments you specify for dependencies. Only the js files in these folders are considered (HTML and CSS files are fine for testing but are ignored so far as the compilation is concerned - this isn't full-page minification). The namespace argument tells the script which of these files provides something you actually want to keep - the code in all other files is considered eligible for dead code removal. The -f arguments are flags you want to pass directly to the compiler - the most important being ADVANCED_OPTIMIZATIONS to ensure you get the dead code removal benefit. This Python script builds the dependencies tree then calls the compiler in Java with the (lengthy) arguments necessary to get exactly what you wanted.

It may help to know that if you Shift + right-click a folder, "Open command window here" is one of the options - you can then run build.bat easily from that window.

Here's a link to the minified version I ended up with.


To verify the minified result is what you want, just comment out all the scripts in the HTML page and uncomment the minified one:

<!--<script src="goog/closure/goog/base.js"></script>
<script src="script.js"></script>-->
<script src="editor.min.js"></script>
(new Editor('editor')).makeEditable();

Run it and there you go, a minified slice of Google's Closure Library you can take and use in other projects with other libraries and even other minifiers.

My minified results were just 11k, as opposed to the 17.4mb the entire library adds up to unminified.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Load select Dropdowns with Data, Read It With jQuery

I create a lot of little background admin sections to the sites I build, and often times these little admin pages are quick one-off pages I never planned on having, but they're a convenience. The longer they take to build, the less convenient they become.

Often actions taken on these admin pages involve picking something from a list before taking an action, like a list of users. Often these start out simple like:

<select id=users></select>​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

    var $.map(rfunction(u{
        return '<option>' '</option>';

So basically, go get a list of users, throw the usernames into a bunch of option tags, dump that HTML into a select tag somewhere on the page - done. jQuery has a built-in way to get the value out of the selected option tag, so I can easily get the username out to react to a button click to delete the user for example:

var username $('#users').val();

Simple. Until this page gets a little more complicated and I want some metadata about these users, like their companyId, or their role. But you can still throw this data into your select box and get it back out simply enough, as it turns out, without abandoning simplicity. Here's an example that uses custom attributes on the option tags to include the username, company, and companyId, and how to get those out:

    var [];
        h.push('<option value="'uc.Username,
               '" companyId="'uc.CompanyId,
               '" company="'uc.Company,

var username $('#users').val();
var companyId $('#users option:selected').attr('companyId');

Keeping it simple - or at least, no more complicated than a simple page like this absolutely has to be.

Technical Notes

It's worth noticing that the option:selected selector does get the currently selected option in the dropdown, not the one that had the selected attribute set on it at load time, if any.

One possible source for bugs here is the use of the .attr() call. If you were to change the data in these option tags via Javascript for some reason, you'll have to be careful to be aware of the difference between .attr() and .prop() in jQuery - generally, .attr() gets you what the tag said when it was created, and .prop() gets you what was set by Javascript since then. Setting by tag.PropName = '' or .prop() won't be picked up by .attr().