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Mailbag: December 12, 2010

In this week's mailbag: An update on the SuperSite CMS update, whether Kindle offers decent eBook library organization, what it means to reset a Windows Phone, my recommended Call of Duty: Black Ops load-out for new gamers, how IE 9 should implement Do Not Track, and whether you can make podcast playlists with Zune/Windows Phone.

Have a question? I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll try. Drop me a note! (And let me know if you'd prefer not to have your name published.)

About the site update

I've received several hundred emails about the recent site makeover, which involved moving the SuperSite--with over 12 years' worth of articles--to a new, DotNetNuke-based content management system (CMS). As promised, it was a lot of work, and there's still a lot to be done, with some articles not properly making the transition, with missing graphics and so. Please do let me know whenever you see something that's not right, and I'll try and fix things as I can. And I'm sorry for not being able to respond to all the mail I received; it was overwhelming on top of the transition work itself. Again, it will get there.

Much of the mail I've gotten regards the site layout and look and feel. If I had to list the top three (unresolved) issues with the site at this time, they would likely be ....

1. The width of the center text column, which many see as too thin.

2. The header, which many don't like compared to the previous design, in particular the washed out "anime Paul" graphic.

3. The general layout, including the number and placement of ads.

I'd add a fourth issue that I have, which is that the content from the SuperSite Blog is now hidden under the "Blogs" menu item with the actual posts not (yet) being surfaced on the front page of the main site with the other articles. This will be rectified in a future CMS update, but it can't happen soon enough in my opinion.

In any event, I'd like to at least address those top three concerns now.

1. Center column width. While I'm personally OK with the current layout--I feel that the design more closely mimics a columnar, newspaper-type layout, and I'd remind people that thinner text columns are easier to read--many obvious are not. One thing that can't change, really, is that third, right-most column, because it has to accommodate box-type ads and thus must be a certain width. So the possibilities here are to remove the first column (which would make the middle text column wider), increase the overall width of the content to some other fixed value (which isn't a good idea based on what we know about the screen resolutions of people visiting the site), or to allow the site to fill to the width of the screen, which would make the middle column a dynamic width; I'm not sure that's a good idea either based on the fact that those with very high screen resolutions would be left with a largely unreadable presentation.

The two column idea is interesting, and it doesn't have to even occur on every screen. Perhaps the article pages only could be two column; this would also allow for larger in-article screenshots and images. Let me know what you think about this. I'm open to playing with this (or any other changes). I guess the possibilities are two columns everywhere on the site (including the home page and one-stop pages) or two columns just on the articles themselves.

2. I don't like the header design either. I'm just going to find out what it will take to change it. This doesn't bear much discussion beyond the fact that Penton/Windows IT Pro seems interested in promoting me (via my name and imagery) and I'm a lot less enthused about that, though I understand it, I guess. I kind of liked the last design. And I kind of like the picture where I'm somewhat hidden behind the coffee mug. Anyway. I'll do something about this. (Well. I will ask what can be done about it and then hopefully see that it gets done over time. I don't believe I have the ability to just change this myself.)

3. Obviously, the site is a bit busy with ads. I used to be a lot less philosophical about this, but after last year's financial disaster--I hate to use the term "I lost money doing this," but that's pretty close to reality--I had to make some changes and did so. This year has been a lot better financially, and closer to what things were like before the financial recession, but now that I've been bitten, I'm less inclined to accommodate people who are offended by the fact that this isn't a philanthropic endeavor and that I do need to make money doing this, or it's not sustainable.

That said, I agree some balance is in order, and that the site is a bit busy. So I'll see what I can do here. Perhaps the previous suggestion about a two-column layout will solve this issue somewhat, too.

Look, this is going to be a many-months procedure, and I'll be tweaking the site until it's the way I want it--and, as important, until it's the way you want it too. When I look to the future, and at all the stuff I do, this site is at the center of it all and the one thing I plan on doing until I can't do so anymore. It's important to me that we get this right, and that is something that others care about as a result. Please don't stop sending complaints, comments, and suggestions. It really does matter to me.

Here's to the next 12 years.

Kindle and eBook library management

Irene F. asks:

I have over 400 ebooks, have been buying them since 1999, and have changed formats three times. I started with the Rocket eBook reader, which was cheaper than a laptop at the time, but they went under. Then I moved to Microsoft Reader, but had DRM issues with books I had purchased legally, and it wasn't displaying in full screen on my laptop. Now I use Mobi on my laptop. I tried a Nook: Reading was fine, but it offers only an alphabetical listing of authors. I gave it to someone who loves it though. Both you and Leo recommend the Kindle highly. Can you organize the online library, rate stuff, and so on? I'm tired of re-downloading stuff when I have to change formats.

On the Kindle device, you can view the list of on-device books, or your entire library (in the cloud) in slightly different ways. On-device books (and other publications) appear on the home screen in the order read, with the most recently read book at the top. However, you can change the default view to title, author, or "collections," which you can configure as folders or sorts of books.

If you navigate to "Archived Items," which is Kindle's term for your library, the books/publications are sorted by author by default. But you can change the view to "By Title."

Various Kindle clients have the same view options, like the one on my wife's Android phone, and the PC client adds a "By Size" option too.

On the web, you can look at the collection in different ways, too, and deliver books to various clients, but it's actually not all that great looking.

Still, I think overall, you'll be happy with what's available on the Kindle, organizationally speaking.

Resetting Windows Phone

Dan F. asks:

If I buy the stock 8 GB Samsung Focus right now and use it as-is until an approved 32-gig SD card is available, will I find the whole factory-reset business to be a major pain in the neck a few months from now?  Will I actually lose any data (music, photos, videos, podcasts, email archives), or will it just be a question of re-syncing these items?

In case you're not aware of the issue here, Microsoft does allow its Windows Phone hardware partners to ship devices with SD memory card expansion. However, Windows Phone does not support on-the-fly storage "expansion," but rather gives the wireless carriers the ability to ship phones with SD memory cards preinstalled and pre-certified. If you're curious about the ugly details, I've been blogging about this topic a lot on my Windows Phone Secrets blog.

Anyway, to the question of resetting the phone:

When you reset the phone, you'll be able to re-sync everything, but you'll want to make sure that some on-phone content (photos taken with the phone, for example) is synced to the PC first. But you'll then need to re-sync the phone as if it were a new device, so you'll have to re-establish whatever content syncing you had from scratch; it won't just pick it all up again and see it as the same device.

The point here is that a reset is a reset, and that you will need to do some work after the fact to get it back to the way it was.

One tidbit that will make this easier: If you purchase and/or download apps from the Zune PC software and not from the phone (over the air), all of those apps will be automatically re-synced back to the phone when you reset it. This is a nicety that Microsoft does not document in any way, shape, or form, and it could save a lot of work for those people who will need to reset their devices later.

Recommended Call of Duty: Black Ops load-out

Robert D. asks:

I'm on to Black Ops now and went straight for the multiplayer. Of course, I'm sucking more than at Modern Warfare 2, but I'm hoping that's only because I don't know the maps yet and I'm using a poor choice of weapons for my load-out. Do you have any advice on weapon and equipment combos? I tend to hang back and let the kids run into the mix. But then again caution gets thrown to the wind and I'll go hunting as well.

This is the single greatest question I've ever been asked. Finally, something I can write authoritatively about. :)

Primary weapon: I'd stick with automatic Assault rifles personally. Go with the grenade launcher extension, though you'll get some guff from some people for using the noob tube; it's worth it though, and it evens the odds against better players. The FMJ attachment from previous COD games is no longer available, but most guns now shoot through walls regardless.

Secondary weapon: In previous CODs games, I always had a rocket of some kind as a secondary weapon because the in-air stuff was so devastating. This is less of an issue with Black Ops, so I usually just go with a pistol and iron sights upgrade. But one nice thing you can do now is copy a class. So make a second copy of one you like and change the secondary to something that can shoot down a helicopter. Every once in a while you'll get some guy who gets a truly dangerous gunship, and he's mowing down your whole team. So you want to be able to take that out.

Perks: I go with Hardline, Hardened and Ninja.

Killstreaks: The remote control car, napalm, and attack helicopter; avoid anything that requires a package to be dropped from the sky, as you'll just be a target, especially on small maps.

Equipment: You want a regular frag grenade, a flash/stun grenade, and I happen to be a fan of the Claymore.

Between the grenades and claymore, you're looking at some nice cheap kills right there, and that will you get you going. Ignore the children who complain. (And they will; one guy accused me of cheating and using "mods" this week. Hilarious.)

Look into the contracts too. I try to have three going at once, but start with some of the smaller/simpler ones; they're a good way to rack up some additional points, which you can use to "buy" more gear as you level up.

There are probably better/faster ways to make points, but I stick with simple Team Deathmatch personally. My son likes the more complicated games, and probably scores faster than I do.

How Internet Explorer 9 should implement Do Not Track

After reading my article which, in part, complained that Microsoft's decision to implement "Do Not Track" functionality put the onus on the user, Chris P. asked:

Exactly how should Microsoft or Google simply decide which companies can or can’t track activity online?

I think it could be done similarly to the old SpyNet community (part of GIANT Company's AntiSpyware package, which Microsoft purchased and evolved into Windows Defender and then Microsoft Security Essentials). This would be user-driven but would require just a single "list". Most important, it would be hosted by Microsoft, the company we can all trust.

The concern here would be that Microsoft or Google could use (or be accused of using) their power to harm competitors. I tend to think of it from the opposite perspective; that it is Microsoft's responsibility to protect consumers and that the user-driven nature of such a list would protect Microsoft from reprisals. More important, I think that if Microsoft doesn't protect users from this sort of electronic eavesdropping, someone else will. And that would lead to the further erosion of IE usage over time.

It's not a simple thing to resolve, of course, and I don't mean to suggest that I have magically come up with a solution. I just don't believe that making users do the work is a solution of any kind at all. My father (like many other typical PC users) can't even open up a new PC and get it configured properly by himself. How is he going to find, or even know about, the right Do Not Track list for IE 9? He isn't.

Put another way, this IE 9 Do Not Track feature is what happens when technical people who have too much legal oversight tackle a problem. That is, a good idea, but the wrong implementation.

How Do You Make Podcasts Playlists with Zune?

Gary asks:

How do I make playlists out of podcasts in the Zune software? I have tried and I cant find a way to do it. This makes no sense to me because audio podcasts are mp3 files the same as my music but there is no option to make them into playlists, like I can do on my iPod.

Currently, there's no support for podcasts-based playlists in Zune, sorry. This is true on the devices (Zune, Zune HD, and Windows Phone) and the PC software.

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