Rants and raves

Actually, I’ve only one rant and the rest are raves. First, I’d like to gush about a few nifty programs I’ve been using for a while now and have come to adore.

I believe I’ve mentioned Bloglines in passing before, but it really deserves a full explication here. This free, Web-based application has just about changed the way I use the Internet. As more and more Web sites offer syndicated feeds (see, for example, Yahoo! News) an aggregator like Bloglines becomes an essential tool for managing the Internet. Now, instead of having to check to see whether a favorite Web site has been updated, I’m alerted automatically whenever I check in on my Bloglines account.

Bloglines will show me the first 50 words or even a whole article so that I never even need to visit the originating Web site. And it’s easy to save articles I want for later reference or recommend them to friends via e-mail. There are many other aggregators out there, but what’s great about Bloglines is that you don’t need any software besides your Web browser. And since you’re not downloading anything to your hard disk, it doesn’t matter where you read it. The things you read at home won’t show up again at work, and the things you save at work will be visible to you at home or any other computer you use.

On top of all this, Bloglines allows you to create an unlimited number of e-mail addresses so that you can even sign up for e-mail newsletters using your account. So instead of having that stuff clog up your inbox you can view it in your Web browser. Nothing to delete, either. Once you’re done reading and click on something else, the e-mail disappears. You can also use this feature to create e-mail addresses for commercial transactions and to control spam.

This is a great tool. It’s free, easy to use and truly revolutionary.

Wow. Answers.com is a truly amazing, free resource. It used to be a pay service called GuruNet whose selling point was that you could alt-click on any word or phrase on the screen and receive an immediate, definitive answer about the subject. Rather than searching the Web, GuruNet would search its database of licensed resources such as Merriam Webster, Houghton Mifflin, etc. I did a free trial once and loved it, but wasn’t willing to fork over the $40 subscription fee.

So now it’s free and supported by unobtrusive Google advertising. And it still provides definitive answers from more than 100 different sources at the click of a button, including the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia. Here’s a directory of different subject areas it covers. The nifty application you download can also be viewed as a little tab on the side of your screen. Whenever you hit windows key and 1 (or whatever key combo you select) it slides out and you can type in your search query. It automatically opens a new browser window. I begin at least two-thirds of my searches using Answers.com. Why? As the site says:

The Old Way
1. Open Your Browser
2. Go to a search engine
3. Type in search terms
4. Hit ‘Go’
5. Read the list
6. Choose a link, click on it
7. Were you lucky? You’re done!
8. Otherwise, click Back and repeat from step 5

The 1-Click Answers Way
1. Alt-Click on word(s)
2. Read your answer

Perhaps most ingenious, if Answers.com doesn’t have anything good for you, it automatically presents you with the Google search results for your query. So there’s not much reason not to at least give Answers.com first crack at it.

Here’s the Answers.com page on Bob Dylan, for example. Well, yeah, so what? Of course they’re going to have a lot of biographical information about the most important popular songwriter of the second half of the 20th century. Try this page on something I might look up for my job, physician-assisted suicide, aka euthanasia. Whether it’s for serious research or just to scratch that brain itch, what’s not to love?

I love using the Web for just about everything, but it seems that to do just about anything — read a newspaper online, make a purchase, or check your bank balance — you need to fill out a form. You’ve to remember dozens of usernames, passwords and then there’s the endless typing and form-filling.

(Don’t you just love selecting your state of residence from the drop-down menu? Oh, it’s so exciting. There you are, Illinois — right in between Idaho and Indiana. How ya doin’, buddy? Long time, no drop-down.)

Not only is this all very annoying, but it’s a security risk too. Many Web sites offer to remember you from visit to visit, which can be convenient, but what if it’s someone else using your computer to visit Amazon.com next time? In order to remember their passwords, many people using Internet Explorer accept the browser’s offer to automatically fill forms. The problem there is that is totally unprotected. Anyone using your browser has those forms filled out too. Another popular method is to write the information down on a sticky note and append it to your monitor. Yeah, that’s real secure.

To top it all off, those methods are stationary. If you use a computer at home, one at work, a laptop and maybe a relative’s computer that’s four different browsers you need to teach all of your passwords to, four sets of sticky notes.

This is where RoboForm comes in. I think my extended description of the problem is necessary because this program you most likely will have to pay for. RoboForm attaches to your browser and automatically detects when you’re entering a username/password combo at a Web site and offers to save it as a “passcard.”

The next time you visit that site the passcard automatically appears at the top (or bottom, your pick) of your browser next to a gold star. You click and it enters the information and even hits the submit button for you. If you click on the passcard first instead of just typing in the URL, it will go the Web site and do everything for you.

You can also set up “identities” using RoboForm, where once and for all you type in all the information a site might ever ask you for, such as your name, address, e-mail, Web site, credit card info, etc. This is all password-protected and stored on your hard drive, not on a third-party server. You only need to remember one password, and RoboForm even features a password generator to help you buff up security.

Once your identities are set up, any time there’s a form to be completed you click the identity you want (work or personal, for example) to extract the data from and the program fills the form. It does this flawlessly every single time.

There are plenty of other functions, such as safe notes, which are essentially password-protected sticky notes. You could use these to, for example, note your insurance ID number or gym club membership number — all the sorts of crap our brains weren’t designed to remember. Here’s an overview of RoboForm features.

If you store 10 passcards or more, you’ve got to pay the piper: $29.95. If you’re familiar with using a USB disk, it’s a snap to make all of your RoboForm data completely portable to any computer you plug into for only $10 more.

And now for the rant …

NetIdentity, formerly MailBank, was the home to kevin.oreilly.net since 2001. And, for the most part, it was a happy home. I leased my e-mail address (kevin@oreilly.net) and URL from the firm for about $60 a year.

The first sign of trouble was when I had to pay about $10 a year extra for more hard disk space, even though this site is pretty small. Then I experimented with the Blogware service NetIdentity was re-selling. I was billed for the service but when I canceled it using the Web site it didn’t show up as canceled and my money ($30) wasn’t refunded. An e-mail to tech support went unanswered.

Then I decided that I’d stop using the kevin@oreilly.net address because Netidentity’s Webmail interface stinks — especially compared to Gmail, which is free. I’m paying $40 a month for cable Internet, so why should I pay another $25 for a lousy e-mail address? So I went to the Netidentity site and attempted to cancel my e-mail address. Nope, can’t do that. If I wanted to cancel the e-mail address I’d have to cancel the whole account, including kevin.oreilly.net.

Of course, there was no prominent indication that this was the company’s policy. It would have been nice to know before I went through the hassle of notifying folks of my new e-mail address and changing about 50 different e-mail listings around the Internets.

I wrote to customer service saying that I didn’t want the e-mail service and that unless the company allowed me to cancel it as a line item I’d just take my entire account elsewhere. There was no response until today, after I had already moved to kboreilly.com via GoDaddy.com¬†(which is $45 a year) for a domain name registered to me and about 10 times the space, bandwidth, etc.

Canceling my account turned out to be the hardest part. Remember how NetIdentity’s site told me I had to cancel the whole account if I wanted to drop my e-mail address? Well, I went back to that same part of the site and checked the box next to each service I was signed up for and clicked cancel.

“We’re sorry,” said the message, “but you’ll have to cancel your account if you no longer want these services.”

Uh-huh. That’s what I’m trying to do, but there’s no option anywhere to cancel the account, just individual services. A Google site search for “cancel” yields two mentions but no links in the terms and conditions. “If the customer requests an account cancellation,” the terms read. How is that supposed to happen — by telepathy?

Notice I’ve not mentioned calling customer service, which I’d have been happy to do earlier, but no phone number was listed anywhere on the site. Searching Reno, Nev. — the headquarters listed on the site — for NetIdentity had yielded nothing and I was stumped. A WhoIs yielded a phone number, but when I called all I got was the screeching of a fax tone.

Only later did I remember the company used to be called MailBank. That finally landed me a phone number and a customer service person who canceled my account (Blogware was refunded; no pro-rated refund on the other stuff). One last annoyance, however. In order to confirm my identity, he asked for my home address. I gave him my current address. Not listed. I gave him my address since 2002. Not listed. I gave him the address where I’d lived as long ago as 1998 — not listed, even though I’ve only used the service since 2001.

Sigh. NetIdentity stinks.