How Well Does Your Site Rank?

I was reading Darin's site the other day and he was talking about a grading tool at WebSiteGrader that would tell us whether our site was great, average or failing from a Search Engine Optimization standpoint.  After a quick little check, I was happily surprised with a nice 75% score, meaning that scores higher than 75% of the sites checked in terms of its marketing effectiveness.

title=" Website SEO Score">alt=" Website SEO Score" height="176" style="width: 254px;height: 176px" />Considering how I've spent very little time actually optimizing this site for SEO, that's not too bad at all.  However, it does make me wonder what some of the other sites look like….

The Website Grader is a great little tool if you're trying to improve Search Engine Optimization targetting of specific keywords, and takes less than a minute in total.  With this tool I learned that I have no meta-keywords used anywhere (which is something I still need to learn about) and there is no page descriptions in the header.  These two things alone would take my site from it's current score to something a little closer to 90%, which could help drive a bit more traffic to these ever-random posts and rants.

Perhaps this can be my weekend project :)

Google's 30-Million Dollar Moon Challenge

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

- President John F. Kennedy

Moon 2.0 PosterI had goosebumps the first time I heard the complete speech given by President John F. Kennedy at Rice Stadium in the 60's.  The speech was given on September 12th, 1962 and remains just as important to me today as it was back then.  Of course, I wasn't alive when the speech was given … my father was only five years old at the time.  But being the geek that I am, this was something I wanted to hear in elementary school soon after becoming enamoured in space science.

What an exciting time it must have been at NASA when the Gemini and Apollo missions were in full swing.  They had huge budgets, impossible tasks, incredible risks and some of the greatest minds the world has ever known working towards a common non-military goal.  There were accidents, and some even payed the ultimate price, but after 8 years of increbile stress and sleepless nights, the men and women at NASA developed the technology to put humans on the moon and return them safely to the Earth.

So why am I talking about "the good ol' days" of space technology research?  Well … because Google's offering upwards of $30-million USD to private organizations that can get us exploring our closest celestial neighbour again.

The competition to send a robot craft to the Moon is being run with the X-Prize Foundation.  To claim the money, any craft reaching the lunar surface must perform a series of tasks such as shoot video and roam for specific distances.  Firms and individuals interested in trying for the prize have until December 31st, 2012 to complete the goals.

In a statement announcing the competition, Google and the X-Prize Foundation said it had been created in an effort to stimulate research into low-cost robotic exploration of space.

The top prize of $20-million will be given to the private firm or organization that soft-lands a rover on the Moon and then completes a series of tasks.  These include roaming the lunar surface for a distance of at least 500 meters, gathering images and video, and other pieces of data.  A prize of $5-million will be awarded to the second firm that reaches the Moon with a rover that can complete the same tasks.

Google went on to say they would give bonuses of $5-million if the rovers complete other objectives, including travelling much further over the lunar surface, taking pictures of Apollo hardware, finding water-ice (which I think would be worth more than $5-million for anyone staying on the moon) and surviving the extreme temperature changes for prolonged periods.

Rovers taking part must be fitted with high-definition video and still cameras.

This contest really excites me, though it's a shame that I do not have the resources or skills necessary to take part in such an endeavour.  But that said, there is still time to learn.

If the prize is not awarded by the end of 2012, a smaller sum of $15-million will be offered until December 31st, 2014.

Sending a rocket to the Moon is a difficult task any day, but including with that rocket must be a robot that can safely land and carry out some specific tasks for an specific amount of time.  Typically such incredible feats are left for nations or international agencies, but with the world's brightest minds working on the problem, there's a good chance that low-cost robotic scouts can be created and sent to the Moon and beyond.

I look forward to the opportunities this competition will bring.

Since I couldn't find a decent version on YouTube, you can download President Kennedy's historic speech at Rice Stadium in .mpg format here (176 MB) or in .asf format here (25 MB).

So Long, Spud

TearsToday is sad day in the blogosphere … Nick (aka Spud Oregon) has decided to pull the plug on Nice4Rice.

Nick started the site six months ago to the day in an effort to promote free backlinks at a time when people were practically offering "favors" in exchange for them.  With his creation of the unique "Give Rice" plugin, Nice4Rice became an overnight sensation.

I first heard about the site through Ms Danielle and have been an avid reader since.  In an odd twist of coincidence, I later learned that Nick was living in the same Japanese city as my fiancee (now wife) and not too far from her home.

On a positive note, this will now give Nick some more time to spend with his family or catching up on sleep when little Rikuto is taking a nap.  He still plans on keeping his personal blog going, though there may be fewer posts going forward.

Thanks for all the great posts, Nick.  I wish you all the best in the future.

The Answer Is No

I'm sure this happens to thousands of bloggers all over the world: a company contacts you asking that you review their site or product, you take a look at what they're offering, then quickly refuse the offer as soon as you see what you would have to promote in a positive fashion.

This recently happened with as I was asked to write a positive review for a company based out of Africa that shall remain nameless.  This particular company sells "Game Tours" where you go around to certain African nations and kill wild animals like a coward just for the bragging rights of nabbing a leopard or tiger.

Congratulations Un-Named Company!  You managed to turn my stomach in less than 10 seconds flat.

I understand that we humans kill millions of creatures everyday.  99% of these kills are done for food.  I can understand and respect this most of the time as long as there is no excessive waste involved.  However, the unnecessary killing of creatures with no regard of the consequences is infuriating.  I don't care whether it's shark finning or bagging a couple of wild African felines from 400 meters with a high-powered rifle.  It's wrong.

If this company offered tours where a person would go to Africa to kill an animal like our ancestors did (with a bow and arrow), then skin the creature to make clothing, then eat the meat for sustenance (after cooking it with a fire you started using some flint and dried wood), then use the bones for tools, I might just write about it.  The life taken would not go to waste, and the person doing it could come home with a greater appreciation for all the creatures on this rare habitable world.

But I refuse to promote any company that helps wealthy individuals travel to distant lands to kill things "for the thrill of it".  If you want to kill and get a thrill, try doing it without a gun.  Stop being such a wimp and hiding behind your fast Jeeps and heavy weaponry.  Once you're on common ground with your prey, perhaps then you'll get that thrill you so desire.

Has anyone else been approached by companies that provided services that went against every moral you held?  Would you consider writing something positive for something you hate if the price was right?

I was offered $75 USD.  But no matter what the price was, I would feel dirty accepting any money from a company that "earned" it through immoral means.

Perhaps the Perfect Gift for Parents

CTA MI-PF15 15″ Digital Picture FramePictures play an important role in our lives.  They remind us of the people we love, and the good times (hopefully) from years gone by.  Before meeting Reiko, I had maybe 1 picture displayed at any given time; and that picture happened to be my desktop background.  I've certainly changed in the last few years and started displaying more pictures around the house, but there is one group of people that always have a large number of pictures on display:  parents.

When visiting some of my family this past spring, I was surprised by the number of photographs that covered the walls.  Almost everywhere you looked there would be another picture of siblings, cousins, distant relatives and those no longer with us.  The same is said with Reiko's parent's home and, if memory serves, every person that has children keeps a large number of pictures on display.  By surrounding ourselves with pictures of our family, houses become homes, and strong bonds are maintained.

But what happens when you have so many display-worthy photographs that you run out of wall space?  How about some digital picture frames?

In the last few years, the cost of digital displays has dropped significantly.  The benefit with this (aside from the larger flat-panel computer monitors and televisions) is the emergence of simple home electronics that make use of the technologies.

With a wedding ceremony less than 230 days away (May 1st is just around the corner) and Christmas even closer, I've been considering gifts for friends and family that are both useful, and can be enjoyed again and again for years.  With this in mind, I started looking for some large screen digital photo frames.  What I like most about these devices is the ability to cycle through several hundred photos.  When people are married, there are literally hundreds of photos taken, but only one or two displayed.  Depending on the family, this could be one of the few times extended members are able to get together and enjoy each other's company while also celebrating the joining of two people.  Why not have a "Ted and Jane's Wedding" frame that cycles through several dozen photos from the big day?  Wouldn't it be great to have a picture frame for each of the children with pictures cycling as they grow up?  I'm sure there are many parents and grandparents out there that would enjoy such a gift.

These displays are incredibly simple to use, and some even play music and video.  In most cases, we only need to put a memory card into the slot and the pictures will be automatically displayed in a slide show or mosaic immediately.  For the moment, 15" displays seem to be the largest models available (for under $300 on, last I checked), but I'm sure there will be larger ones before Christmas.

The only issue I can see with these is the screen life.  How long can these displays be used, and are there problems with burn-on or dead pixels?  It would also be beneficial if we could set the display times.  I don't think it would make much sense to have the picture frames constantly displaying images all night or while we're at work.

That said, I plan on getting at least one of these units before the end of the year.  Reiko and I have taken thousands of photos in the last two years, and there must be at least 50 that are perfect for display.  Hopefully OLED technologies will be refined enough in the next few years to be incorporated into these devices as this would make the digital frames mature enough to start replacing some of the more traditional photographs in our home.

Casting Call for Blogging The Movie

Prija over at CashForComments has been working hard to promote his upcoming documentary; Blogging the Movie.  Since having a review posted by the one and only John Chow, word of this project has spread like wildfire and he's quickly on the way to collecting enough sponsors to be the very first blogger to ever offer a lucky reader a brand new car (in this case, a Scion tC).  But even with the John Chow effect boosting awareness for his project and prizes, he's looking for our input to decide which ten bloggers should be featured in the coming documentary.

If you've watched Prija's sites grow over the last few months, you'll notice a recurring theme with everything he does: democratic community involvement.  This is something that many bloggers try to do, but often fail to correctly promote.  Prija is constantly working with people to build communities and teams to accomplish much larger goals.  Nothing he does online is ever kept secret (unless he's working on something that's  not quite ready to be discussed yet), and he offers tips and encouragement to bloggers everywhere.

So it comes as no surprise that he's started a poll on his site allowing us to vote for who should be in the film.  At the moment, the five options are John Chow, Problogger, Shoemoney, Dosh Dosh and a newbie blogger.  Readers also have a chance at being featured in the movie, and simply have to go over to the Blogger the Movie 1st Blogger page and sign up.  Naturally, if a blogger is voted to be featured and they don't want to be in a documentary, they have the option of kindly declining the offer.

That said, since I'm nowhere near interesting enough to fill a 30 second spot in a documentary (let alone a 10 minute spot -- assuming the movie is 2 hours in length), I'd like to nominate a lesser known blogger to the list.

A few weeks back I had title=" - Rowing Across the Pacific">wrote about Roz Savage and her trek to row across the Pacific Ocean while blogging about it.  She's already successfully rowed across the Atlantic, and I'm sure she can become the first human to ever row around the world (given enough time).  For the moment, her Pacific crossing has come to an unfortunate stop, but I doubt it will last long.  Roz has some incredible spirit and enough determination to see anything through.  Heck, if most of us had half her determination when it comes to doing "the impossible", then the world would be a very different place.

By the time Prija and his camera crew are travelling the globe to film the world's most interesting bloggers, I'm sure Roz will be back at sea in a rejuvenated Brocade.

Finding The Right Web Host

iHubNet Hosting SolutionsWhen our websites start falling offline, most of us start looking for a new provider.  My current host has finally stopped fiddling with settings and servers, which means this site has actually been available for 99.98% of the last 25 days.  Great news!  But it's pretty sad when I look at the last six months and see a total availability of 93.48%.  Suffice to say, I've been looking around for another provider to switch to once my contract finishes, or when my host starts touching their servers again.

Earlier today I found out about the services at iHubNet Hosting Solutions, and they have some pretty decent packages.  Since January, I've been doing quite a bit of work with various CMS's (Content Management Systems) as well as writing in Ruby and my biggest problem has been finding a nice development platform.  iHubNet supports Ruby, Perl, as well as the standard PHP4 and 5 / Apache / MySQL combination.  What really got my attention, though, were the server specs and management tools.

It's quite normal for a hosting company to have dozens of sites on a single server, and while this might not always require the most powerful servers in the world, iHubNet ensures that every one of their dual-core / dual-processor SuperMicro servers has more than enough power and memory available for every site being hosted.  In the event of a hard drive failure, data is protected by a RAID-10 level of mirroring and the drives are all hot swappable.  This would have been nice a few months back when the server hosting this site lost a drive and had to be restored from the previous day's backup.  It was sheer luck that I didn't lose any data of relevance in the crash.

Everything I've said so far has been well and good for people that have worked with this kind of stuff in the past, however, iHubNet also makes things incredibly easy for people starting out for the first time.  Tech support has works hard to guarantee a 30-minute response time for any problems, and they employ highly experienced staff to ensure issues are resolved quickly.  Fantastico De Luxe also makes installation of Content Management Systems, blogs, forums, shopping carts and mailing lists a breeze.

If you're in the market for a new web host, or plan on starting a new site of your own, check out the services at iHubNet.  They have a solution for everyone from beginner to master.

This post was sponsored by iHubNet.

The Incredibly Honest Japanese

Japanese YenI've been amazed by Japanese honesty for years, after hearing that it was normal for a person to return a lost wallet to the rightful owner without taking the money.  A recent example of Japanese honesty includes the hundreds of people that have turned in envelopes of money found dotted around the country to the nearest police station.  However, that's nothing compared to what recently happened in Saitama.

In an article from the Mainichi Daily News, more than 11-million Yen ($120,000 CDN) in cash was found at a garbage disposal.  The worker who found the money immediately turned it into the police, who are now treating the money as a "lost article."  The money consists of 10 wads of 1-million Yen, and 40 10,000 Yen notes.

Quite the find.

This never would have made the news had it happened in Canada … mainly because nobody would report such a find to the police.  Considering how the worker that found this was a minimum-wage person who spends their days sorting trash between burnable and  non-burnable, I'm incredibly surprised they didn't secretly pocket the cash and try to quietly improve their life.  11-million yen would shave a good 10 years off most mortgages, and still leave enough left over to refurnish the house (furniture is incredibly well priced in Japan).

I tip my hat to this honest worker.  Even if this kind of behaviour is normal in this country, it's still an amazing act of conscience and doing what's right.

Long Distance Charges Need Not Apply

Packet8For several years the world has often been referred to as a "Global Villiage", thanks to the incredible technologies created to allow instantaneous communication between any two points on the planet.  As the communication technologies matured and the internet gained popularity, traditional costs started to decrease.  Several years ago we were introduced to video chatting and globe-spanning conference calls, and things have only become better since.

Since moving to Japan I've been wondering what to do about long distance phone charges, as well as face-to-face communication with family back in Canada.  While the costs of placing a call to the opposite side of the planet has dropped significantly over the last decade, it's still $15 an hour to listen to my sister complain about work, men or other sisters.  While there are several Instant Messaging technologies that we can use to communicate, these systems require us both to be sitting at a computer at the same time.  What I really want is a phone service that allows me to place calls to home and cell phones, as well as have some nice perks like video chat and a Canadian phone number (mainly so that my family can call without worrying too much about their phone bill).

Luckily, Packet8 has just what I'm looking for.

Packet8 offers a simple-to-use service using VoIP technologies with a full range of features such as Call ID, voice mail, call waiting and incredibly cheap international rates (and unlimited calling in Canada and the United States).  One feature that I would enjoy in particular is the video calling feature.  I can recall every time I've had a video conversation with family, because it's only happened once.  My parents seem to be intimidated with certain things on the computer, and the camera is one of them.  If we both had a video phone, then we could see how much we've aged over the years.  I'm quite certain that they would enjoy seeing their grandchildren (currently a work-in-progress) in real-time, as well.  12,000 km wouldn't need to feel so distant.

Packet8 DV326 Video PhoneCurrently there are two video phones being offered on their site, and the DV326 would be perfect for my family.  It's simple, sleek and looks like any other phone they've used … aside from the camera and video screen.

Packet8 promises full motion video and clear, delay-free audio over any broadband connection, though I wonder how well this can be accomplished on a global scale.  Whenever Reiko and I would video chat through MSN, there would often be lag, motion gaps, and entire missed blocks of audio.  After a little digging, I found that my MSN traffic was routed from Vancouver, to Toronto, to Atlanta, to New York, to London, to Madrid, to some city I couldn't pronounce in Russia, to Tokyo, then finally to Reiko.  While seven hops isn't too bad for something like email or IRC, it's quite annoying with real-time audio-video streams.  Has Packet8 obtained optimized traffic routes?

In the next while, I'll be looking for a phone service that can keep me in touch with friends and family around the world better than any Instant Messaging system ever could.  From everything I've seen on Packet8's website, they look like a great alternative to other VoIP providers.

Have you used Packet8 or another VoIP telephone service?  What did you think of the audio quality and did a phone call affect the internet speeds significantly on other networked computers?

Behold! The Impulse Engine

BAE PLT EngineThe title is a little misleading, as the impulse engines used for sub-light relativistic speeds in Star Trek have not been created … yet.  Instead, researchers at the Bae Institute in Tustin, California have introduced an advanced photon thruster mechanism that could potentially make inter-solar space travel both incredibly cheap and environmentally friendly.

The Photonic Laser Thruster was first demonstrated in December 2006 and built with off-the-shelf components.  I'd love to know what these components were, though, as strapping a PLT onto a model jet would be incredibly exciting.

The demonstration produced a photon thrust of 35 µN and can be theoretically scalable to achieve a much greater thrust potential.  Applications for this technology include highly precice satellite formation flying configurations (which is important when building large synthetic apertures in space or high-resolution observations), precision spacecraft docking and propulsion of vehicles at speeds in excess of 100 km/second.

To put that velocity into perspective, let's use a distance that can't be humanly quantified in terms of kilometers, but instead speed over years.

Voyager Probes in HeliosheathVoyager 1 was launched on September 5th, 1977 and required several decades and numerous gravity-assisted speed boosts to reach its current velocity of 17.2 km/second (relative to our Sun).  As of August 10th, it's distance was calculated at 15.5 billion kilometers (which is 103.6 times the distance between the Sun and Earth, and almost 3 times farther than Pluto).  As we speak, the interstellar probe has reached escape velocity for our solar system, and has already entered a region of space called the heliosheath (the region between our solar system and interstellar space, which is also the maximum distance where our Sun's influence gives way to interstellar space).  Large words aside, it's taken thirty years for the Voyager probe to go where no man has gone before.  Using the PLT engine, a spacecraft could do the same journey in just 4 years 11 months at 100 km/sec.

This is pretty incredible from both a scientific and marketing standpoint, though I am curious to know how one would go about slowing down.  With no friction in space, I'm assuming the vessel would just swing around and fire the engine in the opposite direction for a while until it could come to a complete stop?

Launch via PLT EngineEither way, it's an exciting technology that could add security to people venturing into the cold depths of space and to the people we send to colonize and map the our planetary neighbours.  At 100 km/second, Mars is less than a week away.  The advantage here is that we wouldn't need to worry so much about building a colony on the Moon first (which would be just two hours away), and the scientists that would undoubtedly go first would not need to sign on for missions of incredible duration.  Instead, a 6-month scientific research mission to Mars would entail 2 weeks of round-trip travel with 5 and a half weeks on the planet itself.  Heck, some scientists need to travel more than this just to research some areas on the Earth!

These engines produce no harmful emissions and are planned to be attached to quickly-reusable platforms.  At first, these platforms will only be able to launch micro-satellites (in the order of a few kilograms), but as the technology matures, it will be possible to strap this propulsion system onto something quite a bit bigger.

I'm really looking forward to watching this technology mature.  Hopefully by the time my children are old enough to make a career choice, they'll have the option to explore exobiology and exogeology in person.