Tinkering with anti-spam measures on SEB.

I’ve been flooded with spam user registrations as of late and the WP plugin I had been using to stop them is apparently no longer being updated. So I replaced it with the Stop Spammers plugin from Bryan Hadaway and, hoo boy, does it have a lot of features to it. That means there could be some issues with legit registration attempts by real people.

So, this is just a quick post to say that if you’re a real person who isn’t trying to register an account or leave a comment for spammy purposes and you find that you can’t then drop me an email (over in the sidebar) and let me know and I’ll poke the system with a stick to see if I can’t figure out what needs to be tweaked.

My goal isn’t to stop people from signing up or leaving comments — I’d just turn off registrations and comments if that were the case — but to slow down the bots that are constantly bombarding my site. I’m not even sure what they are registering accounts for because there’s nothing in them to point to someplace else and they never try to leave comments with them and they don’t ever seem to login to those accounts beyond the one time. It seems like a stupid and pointless exercise. They’re not stopping, though, so I’m left with no choice put to put systems in place to cut down on how many get through.

Couple of things I’ve been working on…

techsupportcatSo this past weekend I thought it was high time I take another crack at designing my own WordPress theme. I figured I’d keep it simple and just adapt the one I used to use on ExpressionEngine over. It’s ugly, but it’s me.

As you can tell by looking at it, I ended up just switching to someone else’s premade theme. It didn’t occur to me that it’s been almost 4 years since we made the move to WordPress (November 7th, 2009) and a lot has changed in that time. Not only do I still not have a good clue how to make a WordPress theme, but all of the tools I used to use to create my crappy HTML have dried up gone away.

I used to use a specialized HTML editor called Homesite which was originally produced by a company named Bradbury Software which was bought by Allaire that was acquired by Macromedia which itself was eventually bought by Adobe. Adobe decided to stop selling Homesite in, as it turns out, May of 2009. I’ve yet to find a replacement editor I like as much and I’ve never mastered WYSIWYG systems. I’d use my old copy of Homesite, but when I bought it it was a digital download and have long since misplaced my copy and its activation key.

The other major tool I used to use was a image editor called Ulead PhotoImpact. It was a moderate skill editor that could do both raster and vector graphics and I’d been using it since 1996 when I created my first website. It’s arguably the one image editing program I’ve ever really mastered. Ulead was acquired by Corel in 2006 and eventually they discontinued development of PhotoImpact in 2008. I have a copy of the last version produced someplace in my mess of CDs, but I haven’t been able to locate it. Fortunately Corel still sells PhotoImpact even if they’re no longer developing it so I can at least pick it up again at some point.

Not having spare cash at the moment, I spent a good chunk of the weekend playing with various free/open source HTML and image editors to see if there was anything that felt close to what I was used to. I’ve been using Paint.NET for awhile and it’s not bad, but it doesn’t open Ulead image files which I ended up using for a lot of SEB’s graphics back in the day. I’ve tried to learn Gimp, but I think it’s way beyond my skill level as it Photoshop (which I could never afford anyway). There’s a couple of OS WYSIWYG HTML editors out there and I haven’t a clue where to begin to figure them out. Most of the text based editors seem to have HTML as a secondary consideration or go so way beyond HTML that they’re full of stuff I don’t need. So I ended up giving up and playing Black Ops II instead. I may take another stab at it in the coming week as I’d really like to bring back the old Halloween layouts, but I’ve not even started on figuring out how to plug the WordPress codes in I’d need to make a template work. The way things are going I wouldn’t hold my breath if you were anticipating my craptastic HTML coding skills to be put to use anytime soon.

bearhookersSo the other thing I’m working on involves trying to offer my tech support skills to a wider audience. Google just started a new service calls Helpouts which makes use of their Hangouts service to allow folks to provide services for free or for a charge. I was invited to be a service provider and I thought I might offer it to help folks dealing with viruses or other technical issues where their PC is still operational enough to handle a Hangouts session. In addition to support video and audio it’ll be possible to grant me access to remotely control your machine to make changes. I’ve not set up a listing yet as I’m still trying to decide what things I could help with or what kind of tutoring I could offer and how much to charge and what hours I’ll be available and so on. A few regulars have asked me for help from time to time over the years and this seemed like a good way to facilitate making it happen more often. It would require folks to have a Google+ account so some might not want to go that route, but for those who don’t mind it’s a flexible option.

I’d love to hear your suggestions on what services you’d think you’d like me to offer and what rates you think would be reasonable. That is assuming there’s still enough folks hanging around with an interest in having my assistance from time to time. I could even help with getting up and running with blogging, though creating custom WordPress themes is obviously out of the question at the moment. Let me know what you think.

SEB site notes.

Just a quick blurb to mention that I appear to have finally gotten rid of the malware that was randomly inserting Viagra spam into the entries. It took removing every single plugin except for Akismet along with every theme, turning off user registration, and reinstalling WordPress, but I’ve not seen the files show back up since so it appears to have worked.

Now I’m slowly adding plugins back in and watching to see if the spam returns. The podcasts should be playable once more as I put the Blueberry PowerPress plugin back in yesterday, but user registration is still turned off until I test the plugin that helps to cut down on bots making accounts. I had quite a few plugins installed so this will probably take some time and I’ll be evaluating alternatives to many of them while I’m at it.

In the meantime, if the spam starts showing up again be sure to let me know.

Once again I stand on the precipice of a decision.

SEB’s domain name expires on September 9th and I’m debating on whether or not I should renew it. There are a number of factors contributing to this not the least of which is how infrequently I blog these days. It seems my days of writing lengthy posts pontificating on whatever happened to catch my attention are very few and far between compared to the early days of SEB. I don’t know if that’s an indication of having said all I have to say or a growing sense of apathy about the things I used to be passionate about. Most of my entries are throwaways that are barely worth dropping by the site to see. I haven’t even followed through in a decision I made awhile back to practice writing short stories on the blog to develop that skill further.

Further adding to the sense of malaise is the recent escalation of the civil war going on in the Atheist community. For the past year, since at least the events of ElevatorGate, there’s been a raging shitstorm that has come to a head with one faction deciding it’s time to become proto-religious with a new movement they’re calling Atheism+ and they’re demanding people choose which side they’re going to be on lest they decide for them. I’ve seen people I respect in both camps stoop to new lows in the ongoing debate battle over the atheism “movement” and who’s going to control it and, frankly, I’m sick of the whole thing. I’ve deleted all atheism specific blogs from my blogroll (along with many I’m just not reading anymore or that are defunct) and will follow my own fucking path. This isn’t to say that I won’t talk about atheism and religion if I should continue on with SEB, but for the moment I’m too disgusted with the so-called movement to pay them any attention.

The third and final issue that’s prompting this possible abandonment of blogging is the ongoing malware issue SEB has been suffering from. I realize, now, that it was a mistake to move from ExpressionEngine to WordPress. This system is so full of holes and the community is so unhelpful (I had to figure out the WordPress XML import format on my own just to make the transition) that it’s been way more of a hassle than it’s been worth. The templating system is a nightmare, I’ve had to install way more plugins than should be necessary to get it to do what I want, and it seems once the malware gets its hooks into your site getting rid of it is extremely difficult. As you can see, I’ve had to drop to the default template and remove every plugin in my latest attempt to fix things. Things like the SEB Podcasts are now unplayable, most of the anti-comment spam systems are gone (I have reinstalled akismet) which means the moderation queue is filling up fast, and general usability enhancements like being able to edit your comments or the formatting toolbar are gone. All of that and there’s still no guarantee the malware won’t be back. Clearly I’m too much of an idiot for WordPress.

I’ve been at this for ten and a half years now. When I started blogging there were only a few blogs talking about the stuff I cared about. Now there are tons of them and many of them do a much better job of it than I ever have(and are way more popular to boot). I’ve come close to quitting before and I always found a reason to continue on. Now I’m at that point again and I’m doing some major self-reflection to see which decision I should go with.

I suppose I have till September 9th to figure it out.

SEB is now running on WordPress 3.3.

Most of the changes are on the back end so it should be largely transparent, but if you notice anything wonky or not working properly then drop me an email and let me know.

SEB is now running on WordPress 3.1.

Pic of the WordPress logo.WordPress 3.1 was officially released today and, being the foolhardy fool that I am, I’ve upgraded SEB to it without so much as backing up my database. Mainly because my database is too big for most of the backup options in WP to work. That and the fact that I first tested it on a test installation I have just to be sure it wouldn’t eat the site outright. That said, this is a new version and may have a few quirks and/or bugs. So if you see anything that doesn’t appear to be working properly be sure to let me know.

The one new feature you will probably notice right away, if you are a registered user and are logged into your account, is the new admin bar across the top of the site. I’m not entirely sure what you’ll see as a non-admin, but I believe you’ll have access to your profile, the dashboard, and the ability to quickly submit a new post for possible publication on SEB. Plus it also displays your current Gravatar, if you have one set up (Note: You don’t have to register an account on SEB to make use of a Gravatar).

Beyond that most of the new features/changes are behind the scenes and aren’t immediately obvious even to me. Supposedly there’s a new an easier way to link to pages and posts inside SEB and there’s support for Posts Formats which I’ll probably never understand or make use of.

Puttering around with SEB.

You may have noticed that I’ve removed the ability to edit comments for the moment. The Ajax based plugin I was using wasn’t working for everyone and it’s since gone commercial. I’ve yet to find an alternative solution that is both 1) updated relatively recently and 2) easy to install. The one prospect I did find requires adding code directly to the template files and this template is complex enough that doing that is no small undertaking. So, for the moment, make use of the Preview function before hitting submit.

Other things I’m toying around with is trying to work in some alternative methods of allowing sign-ins when commenting. There are plugins that allow you to validate via your Facebook/Twitter/OpenID/Google FriendConnect accounts. Alas, the ones that seem to support everything tend to be commercial options requiring me to sign up with an external service which I’m trying to avoid. The other option is to use several different plugins for each platform I’d like to support which also is unappealing. So I’m poking around a number of other sites to see what they’re using these days.

Which all brings me back to one of my issues with WordPress. There’s a ton of plugins out there most of which are so far behind the current version of WP that it’s questionable whether or not they’ll even work. Even if they are compatible with the current version they may or may not work properly with the theme you’re using. And even if they do work with the theme you’re using there’s no guarantee they won’t conflict with each other. Sometimes it’s possible to have too much choice.

Still, that’s what makes being a blogger a challenge I suppose. The hours spent reading through plugin descriptions. Testing them out. Google searches to see what others are using. Etc. I’ve found a pretty decent Facebook Connect plugin that I’ll probably try sometime soon. Not only will it allow you to login using your FB credentials, but it’ll put your FB avatar in the comment and allow you to post it back to your statues updates if you wish.

Oh, almost forgot to mention that the About tab actually has content in it now. I found that I had written an About SEB entry back in 2007 so I moved the content up there where it won’t be so lonely. It’s horribly out of date, but at least it’s more than one sentence now.

Testing out a new Comment Toolbar thingy.

Pic of the WordPress logo.After ***Dave asked me which plugin I was using for the HTML toolbar above the comments (it was Comment Form Quicktags) I was reminded that the WP Admin side of that plugin has never worked for me. So I checked to see if there was a newer version and it’s not been updated in a very long time.

Which brings up a sore point I have with WordPress in general: For as wildly popular as it is it seems there are an amazing number of plugins that are updated a handful of times and then abandoned forever. Having a little toolbar above the text area to make it easy for folks to add emphasis to their comments seems like one of those things that every blogging package shouldn’t be without. The folks behind ExpressionEngine considered it important enough that they put out their own plugin for their platform and made sure it was updated as necessary for each new release. There are alternatives available from other folks if you want them, but the basic functionality was made available by the folks putting out the software so you didn’t have to worry if it was going to work with the latest release.

The folks at WordPress don’t have an official plugin for this purpose so you’re left to search their plugin database to find one. This can be a lesson in futility as the search function built into WordPress is stunningly limited in what it searches compared to every other blogging package I’ve used. I tried half a dozen different search terms and got entirely different results each time most of which haven’t been updated in over a year and were several releases behind the current version of WordPress. I eventually gave up and resorted to doing a Google Search instead. Once you find a plugin that might fit the bill you have to see if it’ll work with your version of WordPress and whatever Theme you’re using on your site. SEB hasn’t had a Comment Preview function for a long time simply because none of the preview plugins I found worked with any of the themes I’ve used. Again, that’s a feature you’d expect would be part of the core package but it’s not.

Let me be clear that I understand a lot of these plugins are being written and maintained for free by people who probably have better things to do with their time which gives a certain advantage to platforms, like ExpressionEngine, where folks often charge for their plugins in exchange for them being continually updated. After all you get what you pay for, but that said both of the functions I mentioned should have been part of the core package eons ago in WP’s development along with things such as Subscribing to Comments. Given the large number of developers doing WP plugins you’d think there’d be at least one example of each of these that’s continually updated, but if there is I’ve been unable to find it.

All of which is a long-winded rant to say that I have managed to stumble across a plugin that handles both the comment toolbar and a comment preview function in one package that has actually been updated within the last year (back in May). It’s called jQuery Comment Preview and I’ve installed it on SEB where it appears to work just fine both on the front end and in the admin section. So test it out and let me know what you think or if it gives you any problems. With any luck this one will continue to be updated and once I’m back on my feet job-wise I’ll send off a donation to try and ensure it continues to be updated.

We’re running on WordPress 3.0 now.

Just a quick note to let you guys know we’re running on the latest release of WordPress. I haven’t had a chance to look over what’s new in this version, though I understand it now supports multiple blogs from just one installation of the script is one of the biggies. I already have all the blogs I’m hosting for friends and family set up as individual installs, though, so I doubt I’ll bother trying to merge them into one Huge Mega Install.

Anyway, it’s a new version and so there may be some issues with plugins or bugs here and there so let me know if you see anything funky.

SEB’s spam filter is being overly aggressive at the moment.

Not sure why, but for the past couple of days several comments left by SEB regulars have ended up in the Akismet spam queue. This happened for a couple days a few months back and then it settled down so I’m hoping it will do the same this time around.

In the meantime if you leave a comment and it gets moderated or tagged as potential spam don’t worry too much about it. I check in on the site throughout the day and I’ll get it approved before too long.