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Gatekeeper 1.5 RC2

Thanks to the good offices of Server Logistics (providers of the Complete MySQL package) and Jonas Luster (who gave me the database import command I actually needed) I brought my local copy of WordPress back up to speed last night and was able to test the Gatekeeper update script.  Thus, WP-Gatekeeper RC2 makes its debut.

Here’s what changed:

  • Added “reset to default” links for the challenges and the markup template on the management page.  Remember that if you say “OK” to the pop-up dialog box, the data will be reset to install default and there’s no going back.
  • Fixed a bug where logged-in users still had to answer the Gatekeeper challenge.  Now there should be no challenge for logged-in users.  This assumes that your install allows people to register and log in, of course.  (Thanks, ColdForged!)
  • Tweaked the scanning routines to be more cross-platform friendly, the form scanning to be kinder to 1.5 themes that were ported from 1.2 installs, and fixed (I think) a slash-insertion bug that could affect the markup template.  (Thanks, Scott!)
  • Added theme-root support.  (Thanks, Terrence!)
  • Changed the gatekeeper_default_template option to be called gatekeeper_markup instead.

That last change was the original motivation to create the update script, since the plugin would break without updating the option name.  While I was at it, I decided to throw in routines to let users of the 1.0b1 version migrate their challenges over to version 1.5 and then delete the old tables.

So if you’ve run any previous version of WP-Gatekeeper, you’ll need to download and run the update script.  It’s called wp-gk-rc2-update.php.  To run it, uncompress the archive and drop the PHP file into your main WordPress directory, then load it up in a Web browser.  From there, the script should walk you through the update procedure.  If you’ve only ever used  GK 1.5 RC1, then it will be two steps and painless.  If you were running 1.0b1, then it’ll be three or so steps and still painless.  (Unless of course I have bugs, in which case there may be pain.)

Basically, you’ll need to run the updater either immediately before you install the RC2 plugin, or immediately after.  In the interval between the two, there will be trouble.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know of a way toclose that window.  My recommendation is to run the update script and then drop the plugin into your plugins directory as soon as the updater finishes.  However many seconds passes between the two will be the window of possible breakage.

So there you have it.  Assuming no problems are encountered, the plugin will reach 1.5 final within the next week.  Let me know if you hit any roadblocks or see ways in which the code can be improved.

Update: problems have been encountered.  The automatic-placement routines seem to have failed, so no challenge will appear unless you use the gatekeeper_pose_challenge() call in your comment form template.  This means nobody will be able to post unless they’re logged in (and maybe not even then).  I’ll post an update as soon as I figure out what’s failing and how to fix it.  Sorry for any inconvenience!

Stuck

I have two coding projects going, and both are for the moment stalled.  Maybe you can help.

The more recent of the two is WP-Gatekeeper, which is almost ready to go from RC1 to RC2 except for one tiny little problem: I upgraded my local copy of MySQL, and it blew away my WordPress database.  So I mysqldumped the database from meyerweb.com, copied it down to my hard drive, and tried to mysqlimport it.  And tried, and tried, and tried, until eventually my eyes started bleeding.  No dice.  Therefore, no possible chance of my testing the update script, which is necessary because it actually deletes tables from the 1.0b1 version of Gatekeeper.  I don’t want to put it out into the wild without making sure that it deletes the right tables, and no others.

Obviously, without a successful import of the dump file, I can’t test the script.  I’ve read the MySQL documentation, and done everything it says to do.  It fails.  I tried logical variants, in case there was something the documentation was leaving out.  No dice.  Then I tried illogical variants, including some SQL statements that included words I wouldn’t ordinarily type, let alone say out loud.  The error message is basically always the same, and it never helps.  It goes something like this:

~/mw > mysqlimport -u root meyerweb meyerweb20050309.sql.dump 
mysqlimport: Error: Table 'meyerweb.meyerweb20050309' doesn't exist,
 when using table: meyerweb20050309

Well, no kidding, geniuses; there is no table called that, because it’s the name of the dump file, not anything in the database.  And yes, when I dumped the DB from meyerweb, I did it so that it contained the CREATE and USE directives at the top of the dump file.  They don’t seem to make any difference at all.

Plus all that was after I reinstalled MySQL about seventeen times because it refused to start up even though the installation was supposed to be point-and-click.  Eventually I switched to a different, third-party install package, and it went like a charm.  Serves me right, I suppose, for assuming that the MySQL.com folks could put together an install package that actually works.  At this point, as far as I’m concerned, MySQL is the rotted corpses of the maggots that once infested the corn inside a pile of moose droppings.

Not that I’m bitter that this wasted four hours of my life or anything.

The other project is, of course, S5.  It’s currently stuck at 1.1b5, because there’s this problem in Firefox for Windows that I simply cannot figure out.  I commented on it a little over a month ago; the basic problem is that when viewing the testbed slide show in Firefox for Windows, it seems to “jiggle”, apparently from constant re-scaling of the fonts.  I can’t figure out how to stop it.

So any ideas, anyone?  At this stage, that’s pretty much the last major problem before going final.  Safari still blocks use of Page Up and Page Down when in the outline view, but that’s something I can live with.  The nervous-twitch display in Firefox for Windows isn’t acceptable in a non-beta version.

I’ll still be using S5 1.1b5 for my SXSW presentations, but that’s okay because I’ll be using Firefox for Macintosh, which doesn’t appear to suffer from the same problem.  If it does start having problems, I’ll just switch to Safari.  No big deal.

Anyway, that’s where things stand on those two projects.  Hopefully I’ll get over the roadblocks soon, and be able to get them moving again.

Gatekeeper 1.5 RC1

Now playing: WP-Gatekeeper 1.5 RC1, a complete overhaul of the Gatekeeper plugin.  This version is compatible with WordPress 1.5, and is basically plug-and-play.  Why “basically”?  Because like Windows, there are situations where the plug doesn’t lead straight to play—but more on those in a bit.

First, if you’re using the default WordPress template or a template that uses the same markup, then literally all you have to do is install and activate the plugin.  The challenge will be placed into the comment form using the same markup patterns used for the other inputs (name, email, and so on).  In fact, this will happen for any theme that uses the same markup as the WP 1.5 default.  In cases where the plugin can’t find the appropriate markup pattern, it will insert the challenge just after after the textarea element in the comment form.

So suppose that you’ve completely altered your comment form markup, and what’s more, you don’t want the challenge appearing after the textarea element.  No problem: insert a call to gatekeeper_pose_challenge at whatever point in the form you want the challenge to appear, surround it with whatever markup is needed, and you’ll be good to go.  That’s the kind of situation where you have to do a little more work than simple plug-and-play.  Otherwise, the installation should be quick and painless.

There is a potential exception: non-UNIX servers.  I think I have things set up so it shouldn’t matter, but I may well be wrong, not having other servers on which to test.  So if you run into trouble, disable the plugin and everything should go back to normal (unless you added gatekeeper_pose_challenge to your comment forms, in which case you’ll have to remove those too).  Let me know if you hit trouble, and we’ll see about getting it fixed before going final.

I’m running GK 1.5 on meyerweb now, and everything seems to be proceeding without incident.  My upgrade problems earlier today were due to forgetting to pull out the hooks I’d hacked into wp-comments-post.php and other files for the old version of Gatekeeper.  Those hooks are no longer needed in GK 1.5, and leaving them in place broke commenting.

If you were thinking about using Gatekeeper but were put off by the long DIY instructions in the old version, then now’s the time to try it out.  It’s easy to install, and even easier to back out if you run into trouble.

I’d like to thank Scott Sauyet for helping me with a number of the new routines and features in GK 1.5, including the use of the built-in options table instead of having to set up a separate table for Gatekeeper, the form-scanning routines, and more.

Comments Are Back

Thanks to some version skew problems with WP-Gatekeeper, I managed to break commenting last night.  I believe I have things fixed now, but if not, leave me a comment.  I kid!  Speaking of WP-Gatekeeper, the new 1.5 version is almost ready to go, so if you’re interested, stay tuned.

Taking The “A” Train

So I upgraded to WordPress 1.5 over the weekend.  Unfortunately, the “famous 5-minute installation” was, for me, about two orders of magnitude longer.  This is not really the fault of WordPress or its crafters: my site is a fairly unusual case.  I had pretty heavily modified the templates in WordPress 1.2 by changing the markup, rearranging PHP, that sort of thing, so I had to make sure the upgrade wouldn’t wreck the site.  I was also using a number of plugins, many of which I’d written, and I wanted to be sure none of them would get broken.

At first I was planning to modify the WP 1.5 files directly, but then I realized that with the new Themes feature in WordPress, I could convert my markup into a new, separate theme.  That took me a while, as I was learning the new structure of WP and figuring out what pieces of my markup needed to go where.  Had I never messed around with the original WP markup, I could’ve skipped this step entirely, and saved myself a few hours of work.  But then I wouldn’t understand the WP internals as well as I do now.

This thematic conversion was, it is to be expected, a one-time investment.  From here on out, I can twiddle with stuff in the theme files, and not touch the WP core.  This is a vast improvement over 1.2, and illustrates why themes are a huge win for power users as well as novices.  Whether you want to just install and start blogging, or you feel like completely redoing the markup to suit your own twisted ends, WP’s themes will make your life much easier.  It will also make it a lot easier to upgrade in the future.  I used to fear upgrades because of all the hacking I’d done.  Not any more.

Once I’d upgraded the core WP files, it was time to find out what it would take to upgrade my plugins.  Basically, very little.  I had some magic-quotes routines that had become redundant and needed to be stripped out.  That was pretty much all that needed to be done.

However, thanks to new features in WP 1.5, it’s possible to greatly improve the way plugins operate and to very easily extend WP’s feature set entirely from a plugin (once you fix a bug discovered last week).  Take WP-Gatekeeper, for example.  In WP 1.2, installing Gatekeeper meant installing a plugin file and activating it, adding a file to the wp-admin directory, and modifying two WP core files as well as the comment template(s).  Not exactly plug-n-play, which has probably limited its appeal to many WP users.

In WP 1.5, though, it’s possible to add administration pages dynamically—no files have to be edited—and to attach actions to comment form processing.  So even at this stage of its overhaul, my development copy of Gatekeeper requires only the installation/activation of a plugin and editing of the comment template.  By the time I’m done, it should require only installing and activating the plugin, with no need to edit any files.

Awesome.

All in all, despite the fact that it took so me long to line up all the pieces, I’m really glad to have upgraded to 1.5.  I suspect I’ve only scratched the surface of what it has to offer, but what I’ve seen so far has been impressive.  The combination of theme organization and plugin power makes this a much more modular, extensible, robust system.  In 1.2, I felt like I was bending and rearranging a basic system to meet my specific needs; in 1.5, I feel like I’m working within an environment that has everything I need to do anything I want.

That’s why I’ve changed the site footer, which used to say I was using a copy of WP that I’d “hacked like it was attacking my family”.  That’s no longer the case.  Sure, I’ve added a number of home-brewed plugins (most of which are freely available) to enhance various things, and yes, I’ve created my own templates.  But that stuff is all out of the core files and into separate packages, as it should be, while the core of WP is basically untouched.

Of course, I have a few quibbles here and there, as I do with just about any system I use (I’m a relentless customizer).  The Dashboard doesn’t really do a whole lot for me as it stands, and I have some things I’d like to change in both the advanced post-editing interface and the plugin management page.  This time around, though, I’m going to offer my changes as contributions to the WP code base, to be accepted or rejected as the developers see fit.

I doff my cap and bow in gratitude toward the WordPress team, and all the members of the WordPress community who have helped it grow and improve.  A good tool is now a great tool, and I can only imagine where it will go from here.

Gatekeeper In Perspective

So when I said on Monday:

Got feedback?  Let’s hear it?

…what I actually meant was:

Got feedback about the code or how the package works once it’s installed in WordPress?  Let’s hear it.

I should have realized that otherwise, the comments would turn into an argument about comment spam, fighting it, ways the general idea could be defeated, and more.  Which they did.

Look, folks, despite what some people might tell you, I’m not so arrogant as to think that I could single-handedly solve the comment spamming problem for all time.  Even if I were, I very much doubt I’d be so clueless as to think that WP-Gatekeeper was that solution.  And if both those things were the case, I’m pretty darned near certain I would have very explicitly made the claim of having beaten the spammers.  Likely in big, boldfaced, red, capitalized, blinking letters, plus a background MIDI of “We Are The Champions”.

WP-Gatekeeper is not going to stop every possible comment spam attack, human or automated, for the rest of time.  Neither is any other defense you can name, without exception.  There may be measures that currently have 100% resistance to scripted attacks.  They will one day fail—I can pretty much guarantee it.  Even today, they are defeatable by actual humans sitting at computers and posting comment spam on every site they find.  That kind of spamming is very, very rare, but it happens.  I had such an incident within the last month.  If I hadn’t been keeping a close eye on new comments just then, I’d likely have missed it completely.

I’m fully aware that there are ways a spambot could defeat WP-Gatekeeper.  At the moment, none of them can.  That will one day change, of course, assuming challenges become at all popular.  Comment spam and the fighting thereof is a dance, a tennis match, an arms race.  Neither side will ever win.  As one side adopts a new tactic, the other side will move to counter it.  The countermeasure will itself be countered.  And so it goes.  Eventually, either spambots or spam defenses (or the two in combination) will become so advanced that they’ll gain self-awareness, and then we’ll all be royally hosed.

I know this.  You know this.  Let’s move on from there, okay?

In the end, the goal is to add another arrow to the quiver at the disposal of spam fighters.  Think this approach is wrongheaded, annoying, or otherwise pointless?  Fine.  Don’t use it.  For those who want to add this kind of capability—and since I instituted it on meyerweb, I’ve had not a single piece of spam make it onto the site or hit the moderation queue, whereas in my pre-defense days, I’d get at least twenty every day—then the package is there.  You can combine it with other defenses, if you like, for even more coverage.  I may upgrade it in the future, depending how far I get in learning PHP, mySQL, and form handling, and what feedback I get from people who know PHP better than I do.  I may not, in which case the system as it stands is effective, and probably will be for a while.  Even if I do one day abandon further development, the code is out there for someone else to improve if they so choose.

In the meantime, if there’s anyone who is using WP-Gatekeeper or has looked at the code, and has feedback on the coding or the way it works for the administrator of a WP blog, please feel free to share.  Also, if anyone can point me to an example of PHP code for collecting all of the HTTP_VARS that are returned by an XHTML form and then looking through them, even when the variable names aren’t necessarily known ahead of time, I’d really like to see it.  Thanks.

WP-Gatekeeper

In my post on rel="nofollow", I mentioned the use of easily human-comprehensible challenge questions like “What is Eric’s first name?” as a way to defeat spambots.  There were two points made in the comments that I had considered but hadn’t brought up, given that they were tangential to the point of the post.  They were:

  1. Spammers could set up a database of questions and answers used on sites.  They might or might not share it with each other, but the point is that if I set up “What is Eric’s first name?” as the sole challenge, the human running the spambot could build the ability to answer the question into the spambot, thus defeating it.  Quite true.
  2. In order to make it more difficult to do this, there could be a set of challenges from which one is picked randomly.  So I might have three challenges asking for the first names of myself, Kat, and Carolyn.  Every time a comment form is delivered to a browser, one of the three challenges, picked at random, is included.  This would make it more difficult for a human spammer, since he (or she) would have to find all of the challenge questions. work out the responses, and build them all into a database, keyed to each site’s domain.

So over the weekend, I built as a proof of concept (and also as an exercise in learning more about how PHP, mySQL, and WordPress work) a WordPress package to do what described in the second point above.  It’s called WP-Gatekeeper, available from my WordPress Tools page, and if you’re brave you can give it a try.  Why brave?  Because the installation involves hacking a few WP files and adding a new entry to the admin menu, not to mention firing up a plugin.  And if you do it in the wrong order, you can break commenting for a short period.  There are DIY installation instructions on the WP-Gatekeeper page, for those who still want to proceed.  You also need to be brave because if you install it, you’re running code written—well, actually, adapted—by someone with only beginner-to-intermediate PHP skills.  I’ve been testing it locally and everything seems fine, but this is even more “use at your own risk” software than usual.  Got it?  Good.

Accordingly, WP-Gatekeeper is currently considered beta software.  I’m making it available now in the hopes that people more experienced than I with PHP and WordPress can take a look, hack on the code, and make it more efficient and the whole package easier to install.  I’m already aware that in WP 1.5, adding the admin page is much easier and doesn’t require hacking files, but I wrote WP-Gatekeeper in 1.2 and want it to work there, since that’s the latest public version.  Thus, any optimizations should work in 1.2.  When 1.5 (or whatever the next version number is) comes out, then I’ll worry about it.

Of course, there’s still nothing that prevents a spammer from registering questions and answers into a database, but the admin page makes it easy for a blogger to add, remove, modify, and re-key the challenges.  That will make tracking them more difficult, so long as a blogger puts effort into maintaining the list of challenges.  It gets back, in the end, to maintaining your blog.  The more maintenance you put into something, the better its shape will stay.

I’m also interested in suggestions for how the overall system could be made harder to bypass with a bot, and easier for a WP admin to run.  One feature I plan to add before going final is the ability to have the keys replaced on a regular basis, with the interval (daily/weekly/monthly/etc.) set by the admin.  The  other driving consideration here is that the system should be fully capable of working even if JavaScript is disabled.  It’s an accessibility thing; just go with me on this.  (Accessibility is the main reason I did this rather than install an image CAPTCHA solution, as it happens.)

Got feedback?  Let’s hear it.

When Blog Software Attacks!

Heard several times in 2002 and 2003: “Hey, Eric, how come you don’t use a blogging package for your site instead of that goofy XML/XSLT thing you cooked up?  It would make your archive URLs easier to remember, you could let people search, and comments would be possible.”

Oh, I don’t know… maybe because once I pour everything into a system, I’m subject to its quirks and whims, whereas if I roll my own system, it’s subject to my quirks and whims—and is thus tuned to my personal expectations, built to account for what I might choose to do even if I don’t realize it?

Despite this totally sensible attitude, I eventually did migrate to a system (WordPress).  That decision just bit me, thanks to its handling of markup in a post title.  Had the markup just been stripped out, that would be one thing—annoying, but totally understandable.  But to only sort-of strip it in the post slug and drop the markup raw into the title element, thus breaking any hope of validation?  Instead of, oh, I don’t know, maybe stripping the markup from both the title element and the post slug, but otherwise leaving it alone, so that the post title could remain marked up in the document itself?

<sigh type="frustrated" />

For the record, this is not evidence that WordPress sucks.  All packages suck in some way, and each one sucks in unique ways.  Eventually, you’re going to trip over something undesirable.  Today it was my turn to take that trip.

Now the post slug of emreallyem-undoing-htmlcss is enshrined forever, because you don’t change permalinks if you can possibly avoid it.  I can avoid it here by gritting my teeth, sucking it up, and wishing I had the programming moxie (not to mention spare time) to implement my own full-featured system.

September 2014
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