Thumbtack Scam

I replied to a request for proposal on Thumbtack.Com and got this response:

Thank you. I have small scale business which i want to turn into large scale business. The company is based on importing and exporting of Agriculture products such as Kola Nut, Gacillia Nut and Cocoa so i need a best of the best layout design for it. i need you to check out this site but i need something more perfect than this if its possible .… the site would only be informational, so i need you to give me an estimate based on the site i gave you to check out, the estimate should include hosting and i want the same page as the site i gave you to check out and i have a private project consultant, he has the text content and the logos for the site. Note: 1. I want only 12 numbers of pages with the example site i gave you to check excluding videos and blogs. 2. I want only English language 3. I don’t have a domain yet but i want the domain name as 4. you will be updating the site for me. 5. i will be proving the images, logos and content for the site. 6. i want the site up and running before ending of next month. 7. My Budget is $2000 to $4000 Kindly get back to me with: (1) an estimate (2) And will like to know if you are the owner ??

I went to report it but it was already redacted (or deleted). Why was I going to report it, you say? BEcause I’ve sen it before and have been down that path.

These scammers follow the following pattern (for now):

  1. They want you to check out the site and have a domain in mind (that may or may not be taken);
  2. They repeat their budget, $2K-$4K, which is a bit high for such a project;
  3. They want an estimate (after you already gave them one);
  4.  They want to know if you are the owner.

This last one is important, because they want to be sure you can make the decisions necessary to be scammed by them. Once you’ve committed to giving them a proposal (twice), they will insist on paying you $4,000 even if you quoted less. Here’s the catch:

Their “graphic artist” needs to be paid RIGHT AWAY and doesn’t take PayPal and they can’t pay them any other way for some reason. They need YOU to pay them out of the money they give you — a check that clearly won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.

This is not unlike the “you’ve won the lottery” or “you will get paid out of the money we need you to traffic for a Nigerian prince”, where the catch is paying out money before you get paid … and then that never happens.

Well, there it is. If you pay credits on Thumbtack to quote anyone with this MO, report it and request a refund for those credits if the gig isn’t already cancelled.

Managing Monumental Password Lists

I am a web developer. I hold the keys to countless sites on my own system, accounts with vendors, and all the usual ones the average person must deal with — email, banking, Amazon.Com, online payment systems — which by itself is too much for a mere mortal to bear.

On lamenting such tribulation, one friend solved the entire problem for all of us by suggesting we just use the same username and password for everything.

If only.

I find it barely manageable at best, frustrating as hell at worst. I’m not an idiot — my IQ says I’m supposedly at the opposite end of that spectrum — but I sometimes feel like one. So why is it do darn hard?

The requirements for a username vary, and no matter how obscure, sooner or later you’ll want to sign up for something where it’s taken. Some logins use your email address instead — and often won’t even tell you it’s asking for it so you try your usual user names over and over to no avail. And heaven forbid you’ve had more than one email address over the years and can’t remember which one you used for a particular site …

But passwords are the real problem. Some systems won’t let you use certain (or any) special characters; others demand it. The same for capital letters and numbers. And the same for length. In other words, it is practically impossible to only have one password for everything, and you’ll have to remember which one goes with what account.

So why not just remember them all, once and for all? Because some systems, like my bank, make me change it once or twice a year. And it can’t be anything like previously used passwords.

So how do I survive?

A System

Over time, my efforts evolved into a (somewhat) comprehensive system, in part because passwords have become necessarily stronger over the years. Below are the main elements. Mileage may vary based on your needs, but even using a few of these as hints will probably make your life a lot easier in the long run.

  1. I use certain usernames (and email addresses) for business and others for work.
  2. I have three primary passwords of varying complexity — simple ones for casual accounts, moderate ones for most things, and very strong ones for when security is paramount, such as my server and all my client accounts.

This means that for most logins, if I don’t remember at all, a handful of tried combinations will get me in.

I have another system for remembering client passwords — which I generally assign to ensure they are strong enough and I can give it back to them if they need it instead of resetting it. I won’t go into particulars, but I use a root series of letters, numbers, and characters, some of which correspond by telephone keypad number-letter cypher to certain character places in their primary domain name. This makes all of them unique and calculable — but only to me. THERE IS NO RECORD OF THEM, ANYWHERE. If I die, they will have to be reset by my successor if the client doesn’t know.

A Password List

I don’t recommend having a notepad or bunch of sticky notes stuck to your monitor, but I’ve actually seen those in workplaces, visible to anyone who walks by. If you have to have them recorded somewhere, there are phone apps — password protected, of course, but you only have to remember the one.

I avoided this arguably necessary evil, but only in part. Especially for accounts that have odd requirements or make me change the password regularly, I have a PARTIAL note of the password. Currently, for my bank account, it’s “rK0” and for PayPal, it’s “r..7”.

That’s right. I just gave you my passwords hints to my money. In fact, I have it on a Google-indexed page for reference. But you don’t know my username or email address, respectively, or what or how many characters are missing. But I know it’s a variation of a password starting with a certain letter and ending with a certain number. I remember how my passwords evolved and what I added to them to meet requirements over the years, so it’s actually on the easy side to fill in the blanks.

What Works for You

In the end, your passwords should be meaningful to you — so long as they aren’t related to your birthday, last four of your social, or even words in the English language if you can help it. Mix up capitals and add numbers, but do it consistently and it will make remembering a LOT easier.

If you keep them somewhere, be safe. Maybe an app or online isn’t best for you and going old-school with paper and pen makes sense. Maybe it absolutely doesn’t.

But whatever you do, do it purposefully. The alternative is being locked out constantly — rather than just often enough to scream and rant about it.

A Battle Outside the Box

{An article I found in my archives by Tim Chitwood, published back in 2005, but nowhere to be found online.}

The idea’s so outside the box it’s hard to believe anyone thought of it.

But thinking “outside the box” is what the local civic club “Outside The Box” does, and that’s what members did when they thought about this weekend’s re-enactments of the 1865 Battle of Columbus at the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum, online at

“We thought about how meticulous those Civil War re-enactors are about having historically accurate uniforms and equipment,” says OTB President Hugh Lessjo. “Then we thought, ‘Who else
is so obsessive about having the right props and costumes?’ ”

The answer: Star Trek fans.

“We have Star Trek fan clubs in our area, and Sunday’s battle re-enactment already includes a
‘what-if’ scenario featuring a Confederate counterattack,” says Lessjo. “So we started thinking
outside the box, and we thought, ‘Why not have Trekkies join the battle?’ They already have the

OTBs, or “Outside The Boxers,” as they call themselves, are unconventional thinkers who believe
“there are no stupid ideas,” Lessjo says. “We really just wanted to know what would happen if Civil
War soldiers fought the crew from ‘Star Trek.’ You never see that in the movies or TV reruns.”

So the OTBs asked battle organizers: Why not attract a wider audience by staging a second “whatif”
battle sequence in which a starship crew joins the conflict?

Unwilling to openly ridicule the idea, organizers set up a meeting for Lessjo, Confederate reenactors
and a local Star Trek club — the latter two in full regalia.

Then the trouble began.

First the Confederates said they wouldn’t associate with “Trekkies,” and the Star Trek fans said
they preferred “Trekkers.” The Confederates all laughed, and “that right there got things off on the
wrong foot,” Lessjo says.

Other missteps followed.

“One of the Trekkers said Starfleet’s prime directive wouldn’t let the crew introduce superior
technology to a primitive culture,” Lessjo says. “Then a rebel yelled, ‘Don’t call us primitive, geek!’
And the Trekker said Starfleet wouldn’t defend a society based on slavery, either.”

That riled the Confederates, provoking one to shout: “Y’all just go fight for the Yankees then!
You’re all living in a fantasy world anyway!”

“Yeah, like you’re not!” a Trekker retorted.

Both sides abruptly drew their weapons, and Lessjo ducked under a table as the firing commenced,
he says. He did not crawl back out until the smoke cleared, and by then the Trekkers had
withdrawn from the field.

“It turns out replica Civil War guns use real gunpowder, whereas ‘Star Trek’ phasers have only a
battery-powered bulb that lights up,” says Lessjo. “You don’t go up against a guy with a firearm if
all you’ve got is a flashlight.”

So thinking outside the box yielded an unexpected answer to OTB’s hypothetical question: “We
proved Civil War soldiers would win a battle against the crew from ‘Star Trek,’ ” Lessjo says,
chuckling. “You never would have figured that, would you?”


{From an old email, source unknown}

Customer: I’m having some problems, can you help?

Customer Service Rep: Yes, I can help. Can you install

Customer: I can do that. I’m not very technical, but I
think I am ready to install now. What do I
do first?

CS Rep: The first step is to open your HEART. Have you
located your HEART ma’am?

Customer: Yes I have, but there are several programs
running right now. Is it okay to install while
they are running?

CS Rep: What programs are running ma’am?

Customer: Let me see …. I have PASTHURT.EXE,
RESENTMENT.COM running right now.

CS Rep: No problem. LOVE will automatically erase
PASTHURT.EXE from your current operating
system. It may remain in your permanent
memory, but it will no longer disrupt other
programs. LOVE will eventually overwrite
LOWESTEEM.EXE with a module of its own
called HIGHESTEEM.EXE. However, you have
to completely turn off GRUDGE.EXE and
RESENTMENT.COM. Those programs prevent
LOVE from being properly installed. Can you
turn those off ma’am?

Customer: I don’t know how to turn them off. Can
you tell me how?

CS Rep: Sure. Go to your Start menu and invoke
FORGIVENESS.EXE. Do this as many times
as necessary until GRUDGE.EXE and
RESENTMENT.COM have been completely

Customer: Okay, I’m done. LOVE has started installing
itself automatically. Is that normal?

CS Rep: Yes it is. You should receive a message that
says it will reinstall for the life of your HEART.
Do you see that message?

Customer: Yes I do. Is it completely installed?

CS Rep: Yes, but remember that you have only the
base program. You need to begin connecting
to other HEARTS in order to get the upgrades.

Customer: Oh no, I have an error message already.
What should I do?

CS Rep: What does the message say?

Customer: It says “ERROR 412 – PROGRAM HAS NOT
What does that mean?

CS Rep: Don’t worry ma’am, that’s a common problem.
It means that the LOVE program is set up to
run on external HEARTS, but has not yet been
run on your HEART. It is one of those
complicated programming things, but In non
technical terms it means you have to “LOVE”
your own machine before it can “LOVE” others.

Customer: So what should I do?

CS Rep: Can you find the directory called “SELF

Customer: Yes, I have it.

CS Rep: Click on the following files and then copy them
to the “MYHEART” directory:
The system will overwrite any conflicting files
and begin patching any faulty programming.
Also, you need to delete SELFCRITIC.EXE from
all directories, and then empty your recycle bin
afterwards to make sure it is completely gone
and never comes back.

Customer: Got it. Hey! My HEART is filling up with
really neat files.
SMILE.MPG is playing on my monitor right
now and it shows that WARMTH.COM,
copying themselves all over my HEART!

CS Rep: Then LOVE is installed and running. You
should be able to handle it from here. One
more thing before I go…

Customer: Yes?

CS Rep: LOVE is freeware. Be sure to give it and its
various modules to everybody you meet. They
will in turn share it with other people and
they will return some really neat modules back
to you.

Professional Online Networking – A Golden Rule

{Something I found in my archives that I wrote back in 2009}

In today’s business world, networking in an activity expected of any serious professional – in any field – and a pre-requisite for growth and success.  You can’t take a college course in it, but you can drown yourself in a hundred books, many written before the advent of Internet-based networking.  And it is today’s web networking platforms that dictate the speed of business, much like at the advent of overnight delivery and real-time transactions across unlimited geographies.

If you’re not purposely networking, you’re missing a central business practice, or worse yet, not having any control over your relationships (and perceived relationships), which is part of your reputation, professional value, and even brand.  And if you’re networking, but not ONLINE, you’ve just brought a bicycle to a drag race.

If there is a Golden Rule of Networking, this is it: Use common sense to intentionally build professional relationships.

This has always been important, from the Silk Road to the Information Superhighway.  Common sense hasn’t changed.  But few people take the time to realize common sense, and fewer know how to translate it to today’s nearly instant, boundary-less, digital world.

For example, part of networking is word-of-mouth marketing (WOM).  People will talk about you and your business.  The point is to participate in the dialog.  In the “real world” this is best done by belonging to – or at least learning from – such groups as BNI (Business Network International,, where you learn to use relationships to spread your message the way you want it to be spread, instead of leaving referrals and testimonials to chance.  On the Internet, most industries have discussion forums of all kinds where people discuss companies and their products and services, yet some professionals don’t even look at what’s being said, let alone setting the tone for such a virtual town meeting that will go on with or without them.  But back to individual networking itself…

To kill two birds with one stone, let’s look at networking on the Internet in relation to what we do in real life, covering five main points.

(1) Belong to different networks for different reasons.  People don’t belong to the Western New York Paralegals Association for the same reasons they go to the Smith Family Reunion, or do community service through Kiwanis.  Immediate family, church, your bowling league – there are things you would share with some of these people and not others.

The Internet has many different networking sites, each with its own “culture” or flavor.  On one end we have the original social site, MySpace, where kids discovered they could connect with all their friends, showing off their favorite bands, arms-length photos of themselves, and be creative with a nightmarish palate of backgrounds and color combinations, with music blaring uncontrollably for often unsuspecting visitors.  This is primarily for kids … and businesses, clubs, or bands that have a young target audience.

At the other end, we have global communities like LinkedIn.Com and, where people’s profiles focus on their profession, their resume.  Nobody cares about your favorite movies or what high school you attended.  This is where job-seekers go, as well as entrepreneurs, authors, politicians, and literally millions of CEOs, VPs, and the like from government agencies and small businesses to multi-nationals and Fortune 500 companies.

In between, we have sites like and, with Facebook near the middle of the current networking universe.  Here you find teens and grandparents, small business owners and professionals.  And guess what?  Vast numbers of the captains of industry you’ll find on more “serious” sites are here, too.  After all, they’re human like the rest of us, with family and friends.  And they recognize the value of the medium professionally.

And this is why different people use different sites – and usually more than one.  I myself have a MySpace (yuck!) just so I could monitor my daughter’s profile and pics when she was younger.  I have a LinkedIn profile where I was recently appointed an administrator of a discussion group on Global Citizenship, but spend most of the time discussing professional issues or discovering the connections of those around me, even building a few new ones now and then – people around the world I would likely never have met in my lifetime otherwise.  My Facebook puts me back in touch with old classmates, keeps me in touch with long-distance family and friends, and is a general social forum to interact casually.

In “real life”, being in many “networks” (personal and professional social groups) extends your reach and knowledge through others.  If you have to, you can ask your child’s dance teacher if they know an accountant they trust, right?  So realize this is the point of belonging to networks online – they are a representation of your social capital, but more importantly they are the best mechanism today for extending your contact world for all reasons, personal and professional.

(2) Know that anyone could be – and probably is – watching.

Some people might decide to have a few too many at their best friend’s wedding.  But they might not want to play the video for their boss or perspective client.  Being causal in a casual environment like Facebook is alright, but be aware that employers and other business people can and do check such sites to find out who personally they are doing business with.

Facebook (and many other sites) have options for controlling who has access to what content.  You can choose to make a video or photo album – or your whole profile (except your “friend” list) – “friends only” so only those in your network can see you making faces in the mirror on a day off.  Ask yourself if what you show or say would be undesirable for professional contacts to see and act accordingly.

Going back to the first point, use each network differently.  You wouldn’t talk about what Harry Potter character best describes your personality during a board meeting, and wouldn’t discuss multi-cultural considerations of business ethics in the gym locker room.  Well, maybe I would, but that’s my problem.  So just as you would introduce yourself differently in a job interview than at lady’s night, focus your profile and other content on what you are using each network for.  Again, use common sense.

(3) Don’t disappear for too long.

Never in history has it been so easy and such a small time commitment to keep in touch and build relationships with people.  If you can’t be bothered to check your online networks at least a couple times a week, you’re back on that bicycle we talked about.  Many people spend far more time than others to get the same results, simply because they grew up on the bike path – it’s the only thing they know.  Face-to-face, truly personal contact is still ideal.  But the world is too big and waits at airport security too long to put all your eggs in that basket.  From marriages to mergers, people have been developing successful and meaningful relationships across fiber optic strands for years, and it’s more and more integral to modern life.

Without writing another article right here and now, here are some hints for keeping in touch with your network:

  • Comment on other people’s posts and photos now and then. Don’t be contrived, but find something meaningful to say that shows you took the time to check on them.  Remember, nearly everything someone does online is an effort to communicate.  Be on the other end.
  • Inform people what you are doing. You don’t have to use your cell phone to “Tweet” (Twitter.Com) every time you turn on the air conditioning or miss a bus, but give people some sense that you are a real human being with a life that isn’t so monotonous a once-a-year weather report over your house suffices.  Post an interesting thought that occurred to you … or a book that really touched you … but don’t feel you have to entertain.  And when you’re looking for something or someone, it’s a way to put the word out.  For example, anyone in my networks knows I am looking to hire – the days of mass emailing everyone you know are coming (gratefully) to an end.  I can’t even imagine mailing or calling all these people individually, let alone the people I don’t know they know.
  • Check your profile from time to time to make sure basic information is up to date. The last thing you want is your former employer accusing you of still representing them, or your spouse wondering why you are still telling the world you’re single.  Log out and see what the world sees – remember that when you are logged in, you have permission to see everything, which could be very different that what others see.
  • In networks where there are discussions – or Question & Answer sections like on LinkedIn – participate from time to time. Just ask or answer one question, or post a few thoughts on someone else’s rant.  Then follow the responses for a couple days, wait a while, rinse, repeat.
  • Remember it’s not a chore that REQUIRES your time. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you want, and let your profile on a site that doesn’t suit your needs sit unused as long as your information is accurate.  Just remember that the benefit is according to effort, like anything else, especially relationship, which is what it is all about.

(4) Just because you can be friends with everyone, doesn’t mean you should.

This is my pet peeve.  The person with the most people in their network when they die … well … is dead anyway, and how many of those people will even know or care to attend the funeral?

Beware of “open networkers” and at all costs DON’T BECOME ONE.  Just like the business card collectors of yore thought the weight of their rolodex was akin to some sort of business virility, some will boast and swear size matters in the digital medium.

But like all things Internet, the rules haven’t changed.  Like a business card, you must look at a “link” or “friend” in your or someone else’s immediate network and ask what is the quality of the relationship being represented by the card or link.  Is there a relationship at all?  The average person knows many dozens or even a hundred people well enough to do more than put a name, face, and occupation together.  Much more is not possible, except in a superficial sense if one has an extraordinary memory for such things.

Let’s hit this point home hard.  Think about this, but don’t do this at home, folks: Ask someone with over 500 “connections” on a business networking site how many of those people would recognize their name and be able to say something they know about them.  But here’s the scary part … how many people in their network are scam artists?  Axe murderers?  How would they even know?

Why should they – and you – care?  Real or not, your connections represent some sort of relationship, and if it is used to connect other people and things go bad, what does that say about you?  Just being in your network is a sort of recommendation.  You will be judged by the friends you keep, so at least know who they are!

You can’t in good faith recommend someone on the fact you found their card at a chamber mixer – or they randomly asked to be your “friend” online – right?  Online or off, you publicly represent yourself in part by your relationships of trust and confidence.  This isn’t a big deal on casual sites where people won’t assume a close relationship, but in more serious sites, a connection should imply (at least most of the time) an actual, real-life working relationship.

So don’t be intimidated.  If you have 50 connections that represent real relationships of trust and confidence, that is probably a more valuable network that people with over 500, simply because the chances are they will “connect” with anyone at the drop of a hat.  And we all knew one or more people in high school like that … it’s a humorous if uncouth comparison, but not without merit.  You can bet most of their “connections” represent nothing more than chance encounters – and are nearly useless compared to yours.

Remember, you set the rules in your life who you spend time with, share secrets with, want to be in business with, want to become friends with.  With some networks, adding a stranger that doesn’t creep you out isn’t a big deal – it’s just fun and you can drop them if they start telling racist jokes or want to show you their cam with a free trial membership.  But in professional-oriented sites, learn to say no.  Don’t kiss on the first date.  Get to know people before you tell the world they are on your team, and decide for each person and network if you know them well enough.

(5) Have fun.  This isn’t a job.  This is your life.  Sure there may be restrictions in some industries (such as financial planning) what you can and can’t publicly say online.  But with multiple networks you can separate (or combine) your personal and professional life as you wish.  And you can discover, maintain, and grow relationships with less time and effort than ever before.  The era of staying out of touch for years is over.  No excuses.

And online networking is so common that if you don’t have any experience, chances are you know several people that do.  Even strangers online tend to want to help others navigate such sites, so always feel free to ask anyone, anytime.  But you learn to swim by being in the water.  Go to a few sites.  Create a profile.  Fill in the information, being as open or private as you want.  Look for people you already know to join the virtual representation of your social sphere.  Then explore, explore, and keep exploring, meeting new people and discovering the contacts you didn’t know your own contacts had.

The superhighway is there waiting for you.  Grab the brass ring.  And follow the Golden Rule: Use common sense to intentionally build professional relationships.  It’s easier and more rewarding than ever.

You might want to copypasta this for use in Social Media …

n00b on a whiteboard

n00b on a whiteboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[_] Clueless n00b
[_] Lamer
[_] Flamer
[_] Pervert
[_] Sexist
[_] Spammer
[_] Racist
[_] Dumbass
[X] Waste of Life
[_] Other: __________________

You are being flamed because:
[X] You obviously don´t know anything about the topic at hand.
[X] You started a pointless thread.
[_] You bumped a pointless thread.
[_] Your post contained nothing but crap.
[_] You can´t spell more than 3 words right.
[_] Your awful markup made the post unreadable.
[X] You made a useless assumption.
[_] YoU tYpEd SoMeThInG lAmE lIkE tHiS.
[_] You say you´re “1337”.
[_] You posted a topic that´s been posted 50 times already.

As punishment, you must:
[X] Refrain from posting until you have a vague idea of what you´re doing.
[_] Stab yourself in the eye with a pen.
[_] Give up your internet account.
[_] Eat paint chips for the next 6 months.
[X] Make your home page.
[_] Jump into a bathtub with a toaster.

Top 10 Most Embarrassing Website Mistakes

First, I’m being kind in calling these mistakes. You don’t just do these “by mistake” — it requires a willful action to do something that to most people is a blaring faux pas. As the web matures, I see these less and less often, but new, enthusiastic web designers who are primarily technical people aren’t always wired in to what users expect when they visit a site.

So here they are: the top 10 things that will wreck the credibility of your site. Please note I am not ranking them by how ridiculous they are because any of them should get you fired if the website project is paid work, and possibly are in violation of the Geneva Convention.

#1 Visitor Counters

These went on life support at the end of the last century and died with kiddies using MySpace finally becoming adults. Almost anything a counter says is a potential embarrassment: either the number is really low and tells you no one cares about the site; it’s moderate, meaning one or more people keep hitting refresh to jack the number up; or high, meaning you started the counter at an inflated, fake number. Nothing screams liar like being visitor number 10004.

It’s more modern cousin is less puerile, but still awkward — the “click here for stats” link. Sure the data is more interesting — to you, maybe. But unless you are selling ad space, keep it under the hood. It still evokes the question to the average user, “Why is this here”?

#2 “Best Viewed With {Firefox, IE, Chrome, etc.}”

The browser wars are not your concern. Stop telling people what browser you decided they need to use based on your design. Making a site functional and looking reasonably good in all modern browsers is your job.

#3 Monitor Contrast Test

Seriously? The job of your website is for people to make sure their monitor is calibrated? I haven’t seen this one in over a decade for a reason, so enough said.

#4 “Best Viewed in {some WxH screen resolution}”

Really? Okay, this is forgivable, given you live in a TARDIS stuck between 1984 and 2005. From the start, HTML was designed to be flexible enough to accommodate multiple resolutions, and life was good considering monitor sizes were limited and slowly got larger. But in a world where most web viewers are mobile devices of any number of sizes, you can’t target any one slice of the range. The solution is to optimize for a moderate screen size (fixed width being less than average monitor resolution on laptops and tablets), or better yet use responsive design. Whatever. The point is you can’t expect people to put down their phone and find a PC at the local library to look at your site. Which brings us to:

#5 Oversized Web Pages

I can always tell when someone made a website using a monitor that doubles as a screen for a drive-in theater. I’m sure it looks normal to them, and every other page on the Net was obviously made too small. Sorry, no soup for you. If people using the typical screen resolution du jour and have to scroll sideways to see it all, you did something wrong, not them. It could be layout or oversized images, usually both. Fix it and test on your grandmother’s PC.

#6 Huge File Sizes (images)

Like the oversized monitor warning sign, I can tell when people either have a screaming-fast connection or only test the copy of their website on their computer. Today’s almost ubiquitous broadband made download times almost a non-issue, but increasingly insane and uncalled-for camera photo resolutions have brought back the headache. The most important thing that people get wrong is that IMAGE SIZE IS NOT FILE SIZE. What you see on the screen is surprisingly irrelevant to how much space the file takes up on your computer, and more importantly, how long it takes to load.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that you can “resize” how an image is on a webpage without changing the dimensions of the file itself. People who do not understand that a “thumbnail” is a separate, SMALLER VERSION of the original need to learn this pronto. The second is that two photos (or other graphics even) that are the same dimensions in pixels can be different file sized by a scale of 100 timers or more. Seriously. It’s too much to get into here, but file type and compression make all the difference in the world, and done right will show no difference in quality. Usually resizing the (non-thumbnail) image to be no wider than a typical screen and re-saving as a JPEG with even slight compression will do the job.

#7 Background Music

If you are making a site for a movie or band, feel free to push a video or audio clip in the visitor’s face. Better yet, allow them to choose whether or not to play it and not alert their co-workers you’re surfing on company time. Otherwise, don’t think about it. I’ve broken this rule a couple times over the years at the client’s insistence and threatened to take my company name off the credits. And if you use MIDI music, ever, anywhere, I will hunt you down. I will find you. And I will kill you.

#8 Painful Text-Background Color Combinations

Either you are color-blind in this respect or you are not. If someone says “it’s kinda hard to read”, and the font set and size is typical, they’re probably being nice by not requesting you be a ward of the state so someone can dress you at taxpayer expense before you go outside. So listen carefully when people say this. Test trial it out with people you don’t know. Do it. For the children.

#9 Animated GIFs

No one objects to a waving flag once in a while. On a page for a personal hobby or organization not expected to have a budget to do things right, it doesn’t look so dumb. Now add in more waving flags, hands popping in and out of mailboxes, starbursts announcing “NEW!” and “UPDATE!”, flashing horizontal bar separators, and congratulate yourself. You’ve just created an ADHD circus. Which when combined so often with MIDI music, the 1990s truly was the Dark Ages of the Web. That, and the fact that people who made such web sites worked from their parent’s basements. For the love of all that is wholesome, it’s time to get out of the basement.

#10 Excessive Stock Graphics

This is a grey area. First, let’s be clear we’re not talking about official logos, but generic images that either accent or distract from content. Secondly, let’s distinguish between CLIP ART and STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY, the former a definite step below the latter in terms of professionalism. They can be used sparingly — as in one or two images per page. But any more than that and it’s obvious filler, or someone still recovering from changing times not allowing them to use a bombardment of animated GIFs.

Iconic images directly related to the topic can be exceptions to this rule, especially if it’s artwork emblematic of the subject. Again, sparingly. Heck, you can even get away with a line-drawn hot dog if it’s on a post announcing a picnic. Just remember, the website is not a street sale flier. Unless it’s for a street sale, in which case professionalism isn’t expected. But again, less is more, and sometimes none is better than one.

Artisteer vs. TemplateToaster

{Caveat: I am a heavy WordPress user. Artisteer and TemplateToaster are WYSIWIG CMS theme-builders not limited to WordPRess, but I will be dealing from a WordPress point of view, so some of the below may not apply outside of that. And as with any such reviews, be aware of the date. This is about the two CMS theme platforms, Artisteer and Template Toaster (version 4.x), as of the beginning of May 2014. I discuss Artisteer version 4, but most references are to version 3, for reasons explained below.}

There are plenty of ways to develop WordPress site designs, from highly customizable themes and framework plugins, to development tools such as Artisteer and TemplateToaster. These last two have been invaluable to me, as I want to focus directly on design and layout, not code.

How they are (mostly) similar

Both Artisteer and TemplateToaster generate WordPress theme .ZIP files containing all the necessary elements, templates, and CSS files. Simply export from the program(s), then upload the file using the Dashboard, install, and activate. Artisteer also lets you include in the .ZIP file a copy of the project file (Artisteer’s .artx format) that could be a helpful archive if you lose the original file, or simply want a snapshot of that version of your theme.

These are WYSIWYG editors. They both have a ton of settings from general layouts to minute, granular adjustments for very specific text (such as the font size of a visited link in a widget). You may have to dig through the menus a bit to find every little detail you want to change, but it’s worth it. The overall interface is so similar, my guess is TemplateToaster is based heavily on Artisteer, to the point I wouldn’t be surprised if it was started by ex-employees. But there are many distinct differences that, depending on what is important to you, could be a deal-breaker for one or the other.

Both are inexpensive and worth every penny: $129 for Artisteer, and $99 for TemplateToaster.

Framework and Responsive Layout

This is the biggest gap between the two.

TemplateToaster allows for three templates (“index”, “PageTemplate1”, “PageTemplate2”) so that you can have different layouts available (columns, etc.) for use in pages. It is also fully responsive, and you can even preview it based on various devices (portrait and landscape).

Artisteer 4 is responsive at well, but this is by no means a tie, since this latest version of Artisteer is incompatible with still-heavily-used versions of Internet Explorer. The company’s response? Update your browser. Seriously — somehow you as  designer are supposed to have the magical ability to get all your client’s potential client’s across the world to upgrade their browser. This not only reveals a huge gap between the developers of Artisteer and marketplace reality, but an outright apathy toward it. Their users — including myself — have been begging for them to fix this for some time, and it seems more likely the market will change before this happens however long it takes.

This is why I — and so many others — have uninstalled version 4 and restored version 3. The problem there is that is it not responsive, and you must use a plugin to enable a mobile theme (such as WP Touch and Carrington).

This is also why most of the comparisons below are for version 3 of Artisteer, not 4.

Design Suggestions

TemplateToaster has a library of easily choosable themes or you may start “from scratch”. Artisteer has color themes to choose from, but not complete designs. Well, that’s not true. Both will give you a nearly infinite number of design suggestions both to start with and for individual elements, randomly generated but with a sane sense of color combinations. In my opinion, Artisteer’s suggestions are far more vibrant, so much so I often wish I had a project just to use this or that suggestion.

In this respect, if you take the time to sort through suggestions and don’t have pre-established design criteria, you will probably find a LOT less tweaking using Artisteer. In general, Artisteer also bundles settings of fonts and colors far better, whereas you may end up wit ha long list of individual element changes in TemplateToaster.

Visual Design Abilities

With Artisteer, almost everything has a transparency setting; TemplateToaster has very few transparency options. On the other hand, TemplateToaster allows for the use of an image and not merely a texture or color for many elements, such as widget areas and even buttons. It’s a trade-off.

Both have plenty of textures and stock images to choose from, and nice effects to boot. Artisteer seems to have a better library, but TemplateToaster enables adding multiple foreground images (and even has pre-made logos) for the header. In fact, TemplateToaster allows for more text areas in the header, though not as smooth in tweaking header setting as Artisteer.

Artisteer gives Flash effects options for the header, but Template Toaster allows for a header slideshow. Again, a trade-off.

Other Considerations & Conclusion

There are more theme options in the WordPress dashboard once a TemplateToaster theme is activated, but when you switch themes you may have to redo or re-save settings each time, particularly the placement of menus in sidebars. In Artisteer, just make sure any custom menu is still in place for the main navigation.

I must mention one more amazing thing: TemplateToaster has a huge number of customizable widget areas, allowing for some nice framework flexibility. It bogs down the widget page on the dashboard if you don’t use them, but is a heaven-send if you want to insert some content in between spaces in the layout, such as between the main content and the footer, or in the main body above or below the content and/or sidebars.

There are other details too exhaustive to mention here, but if we have to reach a conclusion, it really depends on your needs and preferences as a developer. For me, Artisteer is a faster path to getting design done, but lacks responsive design unless you want to alienate a big segment of web users. TemplateToaster gives more control, but also demands more attention.

A lot of people have migrated to TemplateToaster from Artisteer, though Artisteer seems more “finished” in its user experience, TemplateToaster a touch like it’s still developing. I use both, depending on the project parameters. If I have the time and the client needs a slick mobile version, it’s TemplateToaster. If it’s a simple site not expected to be used on phones often, Artisteer 3 saves me a lot of time. I only wish their project files were compatible or could be imported and exported between them.

How to Direct and Trust Your Web Developer

One of the challenges of web design is that when clients give direction, they really don’t know what they are saying, or why. They may like this or that other site, or a site you make for them more or less, but really don’t know why. They can’t put their finger on it, and expect you to know what they mean. Most of the time it’s the quality of the photos (that they will supply) or lack thereof (that they will not supply). Sometimes it’s the colors, or the font, or the shiny Flash video on the front page. But they don’t know that. All they know is their reaction to what is in front of them, and a vague reason why, usually wrong enough that when you do exactly what they want, they are not happy anyway and can only go back to saying it’s not like {enter site they like here}.

The Challenges

My job is to educate them, or barring that, make guesses what they want somewhere between what their gut will tell them is alright and still looking professional and not embarrassing. Or I have to make it clear what they want (exactly the way they are demanding it) is not in their best interest for a technical reason, or not in their budget, those two going hand in hand more than you’d think. Often it means having to steer them — again, if they are willing — toward something their CLIENTS will like and convince them they they and their family and friends (and sometimes even existing clients) are not their target audience.

The problem is, I care. I don’t see my job as a taxi driver being told what address to arrive at. O, if it were that simple! I am more like a mechanic being told to put the engine in the driver’s seat and the tires on the roof. So when I say something is a bad idea, I don’t mean I want to take them somewhere other than where they want to go — I’ve saving their hide, their brand, and trying to avoid unsatisfactory results I will be blamed for, as well as the potential embarrassment of a sub-par or inappropriately designed site with my name on it. That is why I charge quite a bit more than a basement code jockey, and rarely do business with clients who want to nickel and dime themselves (and me).

I’d rather have more input from them than little or none, and can even tolerate some micromanagement. But at some point there has to be trust, and I mean trusting that my judgment is based on years of professional experience that they simply do not have. I will always defer to a client’s intentions and needs. They must defer — at least in general — to doing the work as it makes sense as a professional hired to help them.

“But you’re a computer wizard. Other people don’t understand how to click things.”

I get this a lot. People wrongly assume I am not in touch with the marketplace, the real world. Actually, I’m not a computer wizard. I’m a marketing professional in the medium of the Internet. It’s my JOB to be in touch with human behavior on the web, more than the client. I don’t see things through the eyes of a programmer when it comes to front-end experience. I know how “real people” use the web. And I know that there’s only so much you can dumb down the usability of the site before it looks dumb or even insulting to the average user. When the client  and some of their friends or users giving them feedback are behind the curve, they are cutting off their own noses by demanding their assumptions about what others will like are the rule and not the exception.

Simple isn’t Simple: Content versus Design

Every site has it’s own purpose and amount of necessary content. It should be straightforward in presentation, and be clear is how to find whatever a target visitor (from one or more target audiences) might want to find. The CONTENT in its presentation and organization should be simple, but not necessarily the DESIGN. If someone says “the site is really simple and easy to use”, they are referring — whether they consciously know it or not — to the organization, not the design. So to keep it simple (in a positive way), that doesn’t mean the site should look by minimalist, or like a stick figure. A simple or complex design can be used with simple or complex content, and is dictated mostly by industry and expectation. A block club’s website shouldn’t look like the Smithsonian’s, and a bank shouldn’t look like a personal blog. In fact, some personal blogs look better than that of some institutions. And it’s embarrassing as hell, making people wonder if they are for real, or if they found the right site. When a company or organization — especially a large or prestigious one — does this, it says “we hired a relative to throw something together for us in exchange for a t-shirt.”

And I hate to bring it up, but there’s also the age issue. Some people old enough to have lived through the early stages of the web —  especially those who don’t use the web as much as the rest of us — actually find comfort in sites that look like they were designed in 1997, no matter how bad they are. Like an oblivious friend wearing bell-bottoms or a really wide tie, you can’t tell them what year it is. Yes, web sites and the expectations of the public have changed drastically over the last 15 years. It’s no different than what we’ve seen with cell phones and computers, except a web site is a lot more public than what’s in your pocket or on your desk. Think of your brand. Think of the children.

More specifically, think of future customers or members. When you cater to the non-native web users or DOSosaurs (old-time technology users not up to speed on the present), you alienate everyone else out there — new generations of consumers and participants. It’s like only advertising in the phone book because your current customers all use it, even though most people toss it in the recycle bin before it reaches the front door.

Avoiding the Circus

A site should be clean, but not naked. But the other extreme is more design than content. If there’s hardly any text or images directly related to it, the more the window dressing, the more obvious they spent more money on image than substance. It cries out misplaced priorities at best, vanity at worst, either on the part of the designer or the company. A visual circus can detract from the information and even make the user feel like they are jumping through mental hoops to find nuggets of any value. So when is a visual circus acceptable? Well, if the web site is literally for a circus. Or a rock band. Or artist. In that case, it is all the more important to organize the content and navigation to be as simple as possible. But you can still end up with a circus in a simple design, with too many diverse things calling your attention on a front page (or even every page). Want to make sure something important can be seen on every page, reminding the viewer without getting in their way or reading the site? That’s what sidebars and footers are for. But too many “NEW!” graphics and promo boxes reduces the impact of everything instead of increasing it. There are a LOT of ways to screw this up on the designer’s end, so please don’t outright ask for it.

How to Choose and Handle a Web Developer

Every web guy is different. Some will do whatever you tell them because they don’t care or know any better. Some WON’T do what you want because they don’t care or know any better. But some of us may give you a hard time to save you from yourself. How do you know the difference?

Determine who they really are. Are they really a geek waiting to be given direction on every detail, or a marketing and communications consultant interested in the real-world result? Is there knowledge based primarily in technology or the process and psychology of the web? Are they focused too much on code or design, or use “form follows function”, focusing on content and functionality based on the purpose of the site? Do they pay any deliberate attention to fonts and colors specifically related to your industry? If they can’t give you advice (and a reasonable explanation) on the direction of your site in such details, it’s up to you to know all that and communicate it to them. More hand-holding will be required, versus them holding your hand, which is preferable in most cases.

What questions are they asking? I don’t mean technical questions you shouldn’t have to know about. I mean questions about that only you can answer: Who is your target audience(s)? What are your functions (products and service areas, etc.) and their priorities? For branding, they should ask to see what you’ve already done and if you continue to go in that direction. We’re talking logos, color schemes, fonts, everything. If they don’t have a plan, someone should create one. If you don’t, they will (or won’t). This is roulette, and you need to be clear if they have expertise in branding or are just “winging it” based on nothing in particular (because that’s what you gave them). If someone has an existing site, I start by replicating the content and may or may not change design based on the “interview” process. Then we have something to compare and contrast, decide what we like and don’t like.

But again, who is your developer? Are you the lead with them as a code horse, or are they an expert guiding you? Ideally, it’s a team process. If your web guy asks for direction on every little thing, or doesn’t ask anything and does what they want, that’s not a good sign. Look for the sweet spot in the middle.

How much is too much? Giving your web guy more information (including photos and files) and feedback is better than less, in my opinion, simple because you don’t have to use everything you have, but a web designer can’t use what you don’t give them. However, there are two pitfalls — Micromanagement and Design by Committee. The more specific you get about details, the more your designer has to work and you can’t expect them to do it for free. Sometimes even the simplest shift of a button is more trouble than you would think because of the nature of the code these days. Sometimes what may seem like a minor change to you means redeveloping the whole site in another format to accommodate some feature. Lastly, you can’t just “copy and paste” from Word documents or other websites, especially whole layouts. If you don’t know why, that’s a topic for another discussion, but you need to take our word for it.

But too many cooks in the kitchen is the worst. When you have disparate goals and expectations, with everyone throwing in their personal “requirements” (versus necessary information and functionality), the site will become a schizophrenic nightmare. It will look like a circus and likely not make anyone happy. Feedback and cooperative input is great, but there such a thing as too much. Someone has to take the responsibility and make the final calls, recognizing that nothing is written in stone.

This is also true of too many cooks one after another. Over time, new people may take the wheel — new designers, new project managers, new management — and add this or that, consistent or not with the branding of the past still visible. You end up with a Frankenstein site that looks equally fractured and unfocused. Sometimes a total redesign makes more sense than an umpteenth addition or partial change to get by.

Personality Matters

In the end, it’s really about getting along. You need to know when and how much to trust your developer, based on what their role is and their competency in and out of just keyboarding. You may need to let go of prejudices and preferences about what a site should look like for your purpose, keeping in mind the people using it may be very different from you in age, web literacy, and taste. You may need to hand-hold, but make sure if you do, it is only when necessary, letting the pro do their job. If you are giving them a lot of money and they are worth it, give them your ear and attention to the project as they request, in exchange for their counsel and an end result you can all be proud of.

Best. OCR. Evar. (And it’s Free)

I probably have OCR somewhere on my computer. It may be bundled with my Lexmark software, something that the very thought of getting to work makes me cringe given the unnecessary complexity of their printer-scanner-copier.

155All I wanted to do was convert an image of a news article into text (pictured here). It was not a particularly high-res image, and had columns. I found all sorts of free online converters for other things so I figured I’d give it a Google.

I tried “Online OCR Service” (garbled), then “Free OCR” (quality of results as catchy as its name).

The third time was a charm: “Free Online OCR

Free Online OCR

This is where I sound like an advertisement. When I went to use it, I uploaded the file and unlike the others, the next step was “preview”. Okay …

It showed me the image with a slide-able region to cordon off the text I wanted. I realized how important this was because like most OCR, the other services (and software I used over the years) adjoined text from columns. Heck, I couldn’t even copy-and-paste from many a PDF using Adobe without the same problem.

But I was wrong about “Free Online OCR”. I didn’t see the checkbox.

Yes, there is actually a checkbox if you want it to discern columns.

The result?

I still had to append the end of lines in Notepad (it preserved the line breaks like any other OCR), but the result was STELLAR. I had to change a period to a comma and add one period.

That’s all.


Two newspaper columns on a 72 dpi JPEG and I found two tiny errors to adjust.

Why would anyone pay money when something like this is free? I can’t imagine any software doing a better job, no matter how much it costs.

Visit. Bookmark. Use. Share on Facebook it’s awesomeness. Repeat.