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Backend

You’d be surprised how much time one might devote to the tweaking of one’s backend… particularly when it doesn’t make a scrap of difference to the end user. Pages are now 98% static, and don’t rely on mod_rewrite to turn a jumble of PHP includes into an actual website. Dropping most of the PHP means Unicode characters can actually be used now, and dropping mod_rewrite means I can finally use trackbacks. Remarkable, the workflow that binds our expression.

In the transition, I replaced all the numeric entities in my archives with their proper Unicode counterparts. The results are… interesting. Wait, no. The other one. Tedious.

Seven hundred ellipses. Four thousand apostrophes. My god. The fact that the number of opening and closing double–quotes doesn’t match is a little disturbing. Did I just forget that I’d started to put something in quotes? Maybe they were just half–hearted air–quotes. We’ll never know.

A quick checkup on the lonely ‘ö’ in the list tells use that Sascha Höhne has changed RAD.E8’s logo back to the good one, and has converted his previously–100%–flash portfolio into a crisp, clean, valid XHTML/CSS website. I couldn’t be more pleased.

And now back to the backend.


Uh oh

Zeldman just redesigned; fixed width, drop shadows, images used in place of raw text. Expect complaints from the peanut gallery.

I think it looks a treat.


Oz

Everybody stateside, having seen six seasons already, would know all about HBO’s Oz. I saw it for the first time tonight, during its first screening on free–to–air television in Australia, and I liked what I saw.

As I recall, there’s a word for this kind of drama. Compelling. Fearsome. Brilliant.

Plus, Harold Perrineau Junior is the narrator… and we know how I feel about him. Now quite possibly the only excuse I have for owning a television.


MacAndBack

MacAndBack, as the tagline would suggest, is Evan DiBiase’s new blogging adventure; experiencing the Windows world through the eyes of a Mac user. After switching to Mac OS X in 2001 after a lifetime on PCs, he’s sold his fully–loaded 15" PowerBook on eBay and done the unthinkable: he’s bought a Dell and switched back. Lured by the promise of cheap, powerful hardware, broad application support, and the hope that, this time, [he] might find the experience enjoyable, I’m tempted to label him a crackpot.

In any event, train wrecks are most amusing when you don’t ride trains; and Evan is as sure to inspire as any martyr does. You kinda have to wish him luck, don’t you?


Automatic for the people

Dan B has redesigned Automatic Labs, and it looks great. There are now three sites on the web that make good use of Safari’s text-shadow support (where “good” is the opposite of “spurious” and “ill–conceived”): Automatic, Bryan Bell’s aptly–named bryanbell.com and Les Orchard’s 0xDECAFBAD.

Now, I like drop shadows as much as the next guy —you can tell that just by looking at my site— but since Safari 1.1’s release there has begun a horrible trend of dropping shadows from whatever text in whatever situation you please, for no other reason than the cool factor.

Quite frankly, it’s growing tiresome.

Traditionally (y’know… in that media we had before the web), drop shadows have been used as an accent, a subtle effect to give headline text a little punch, which is precisely what Dan and Les have done in their designs. In other situations, such as the icon labels on the OS X desktop, drop shadows have been used to increase the readability of text on an unpredictable background, or to bump up the contrast between body text and background color (as is the case on Bryan’s site). Only since the release of Safari 1.1 have drop shadows actually been used to stifle readability… which is nothing but a damn shame. Such are the perils of putting powerful tools in the hands of excitable kids.

If you’re reading this in a text-shadow–capable browser, you’ll see what I mean. So remember, designers of tomorrow: when your grey–text–on–a–white–background is magically haloed in a grey fuzz, it’s like wearing somebody else’s glasses. And I don’t even wear glasses. Don’t use the text-shadow property in situations where it’ll decrease the contrast of text people actually want to read; it’s just… crap.

Update

Better take that count to four sites. Raelity Bytes does a nice job with the ol’ text shadow, but that’s hardly surprising: it’s a Bryan Bell design. An ever–so–subtle effect making a dramatic difference. Pull raelity.org up side–by–side in Safari and Mozilla. Fun for the whole family.


Learning disability

God damn I wish I’d thought of that. It’s becoming harder and harder to be everybody’s tech support as I become less and less familiar with the ins and outs of Windows. Virii? Spyware? I don’t even know what they do these days, let alone how to deal with them.

Thank god I switched my parents to the Mac.


Look familiar?

A few months back I took a photo of a fairly unique license plate I saw near my house, and subsequently posted it here. Nikita later linkpooled it and (for reasons still unknown) it took a lot of traffic. Now, three months down the track, the newspaper has picked it up.

The infamous OSAMA 1 license plate

It turns out the car belongs to a Mr. Osama Farid, local businessman and (given his response to the whole affair) total media recluse. A photo (no, not my photo) graces the front cover of Thursday’s West Australian, and a short piece occupies space on page two’s Inside Cover feature. A sample:

The owner of the car is a perfectly honourable real estate agent known as Sam Farid but Osama is his full name. It’s a name he had long before the other Osama decided to wage a war of indiscriminate terror against America and any of its allies.

IC has discovered that Mr Farid’s first application for OSAMA 1 to the Department of Planning and Infrastructure was opposed.

“He applied for the personalized registration some time in the latter stage of 2001 at a time when Osama bin Laden was certainly an individual of high profile globally,” a spokesman said. “We initially declined the application for number plate OSAMA 1 on the basis of having concerns that the vehicle’s plates might become a target for vandalism or other criminal activity”

“The applicant appealed that rejection and we subsequently did permit the number plate to be issued on the basis that it is indeed the gentleman’s name.”

Must’ve been a slow news day.


Salt

There’s a perverse relationship between the software developer and the soapbox jerk software reviewer that needs little explanation. Developer wants publicity, thus he seeds his software amongst reviewers/bloggers/journalists and waits for the links to roll in. Developer gets free marketing, reviewer gets free software, audience gets free advice, everybody wins.

Except when they don’t.

I’m usually loathe to review software I’ve received for free because it seems to me to be, well… dirty. Unethical. They’ve solicited the review and are, in effect, paying for it. It’s cash for comment. Giving a thumbs–up might be construed as “being in one’s pocket”, and a thumbs–down could be interpreted as “being an asshole”, so it’s best to avoid the trap altogether and come out “the guy that nobody can be upset with”… even if the asshole comment is closer to the truth. When you’re discussing Apple’s latest iApp or Microsoft’s latest update to Office X, it’s easy to be critical —corporations have thick skins— but when you’re dealing with small or independent developers it’s really quite different. There’s no way you can say “CampbellCan 5.0, by Randy Warhol, is a hunk of shit… no offense to Randy” without coming off as a total jerk.

But some days I am a jerk. I get incredibly antsy about every little detail, about how things should be done, and how they’re not. I like to question peoples’ sanity, their motives, their logic, and their ability. I foam at the mouth over interface nuances; and believe all–too–strongly that an application with a great interface and a lackluster feature set is inherently superior to the reverse. Most of all, I get incredibly pissed off when an application has abysmal keyboard support. I’m a full–time laptop user now —I hate trackpads and refuse to carry a mouse with me on the road— so if your application doesn’t play nice from the keyboard you aren’t just disadvantaging people with motor disabilities, you’re bugging the hell out of me.

More often that not I’ll suggest alternative methods to the parts of an app that annoy me the most, and I’m yet to decide whether this falls under the banner of “constructive criticism” or “I can do this better than you” preachiness. Probably the latter, though my intentions are to the former.

In the end it all boils down to the simple fact that I’m a spoiled Mac brat with UI opinions out the wazoo. One day when the shoe is on the other foot, we’ll see how I handle things. Until then, take my crap with a grain of salt.


Pulped

The latest contender for NetNewsWire’s throne, PulpFiction, is a mere three days from launch; and if you weren’t able to tell by the lengthy diatribe of yesterday’s post, or by the discussion over at Erik’s place, I’ve been sent an advance copy. It’s still in beta, and in places it shows, but the bulk of it is there and ready for the taking. So, while the pre–release rush and bug–squash festival keep everybody busy over at Freshly Squeezed Software, we’ll take our grains of salt and dive right into it.

PulpFiction’s icon, quite possibly the best feed–reader icon I’ve seen to date, actually makes use of the “reading” metaphor. Who’d’ve thought?

The first thing you’ll notice about PulpFiction is its interface — it’s just like Mail. In almost every conceivable way, this application mimics Mail’s UI, and in many ways this is for the best. List columns are configurable and sortable; there’s a drawer with an inbox, trash, and room for user–defined folders; there’s an activity viewer; and you can even double–click the main window’s separator chrome to hide the preview pane… it’s just like mail. Dozens of keyboard commands make a direct transition and, just like Mail, you can flag, filter, and live–search your entire permanently–stored article archive. If you know how to use Mail, you already know how to use PulpFiction.

But you already knew that.

Those features, along with labels, custom stylesheets, custom refresh intervals, a built–in browser, and AppleScript support, are the headline features. They’re what every company wants you to see in their product launch —the great stuff— and having me harp on about all the great stuff in PulpFiction doesn’t really help anyone; you can get a feature report anywhere, so we’re gonna get right to the part that I like… the part where I say everything sucks and make suggestions as to how this insanity can be overcome. It’s a grand tradition, indeed.

Speed and stability

Stability is the kind of thing you just have to say “beta release” to and it vanishes; you can’t expect it to be stable when there are still bugs lurking, so I won’t really go into it here. Using the application, however, is mad slow.

Searching articles, filtering them, or even just reading them, is like wading through molasses; and this isn’t really something I expect from my three–month–old PowerBook. It’s the most debilitating when feeds are being downloaded, since the app has a tendency to hang (read: pinwheel) during refreshes, but the overall responsiveness is, well… not very.

But… if you move all your articles to the Trash, the speed problem disappears! Bring ‘em back out and you’re back to square one. This suggests that the persistent–storage database is the key; and though I’m told this problem has already been fixed internally, I’ll be interested to see just how fast the final release is. Speed is paramount in the great crapfiltration race, after all.

Built–in browser

Generally speaking, I don’t care much for the idea of built–in browsers on the best of days, but FSS have done a pretty decent job of theirs. It allows you to view the full article in all its regalia without leaving PulpFiction, which I’m sure is a boon for those who detest command–tab, but it has one serious downside: browser windows launch in front of the main PulpFiction window.

Even if your preference is set to “Use default web browser”, new windows are launched in front… which is massively distracting when the task at hand is “skimming through feeds, finding interesting stuff to read later”. I’m the last to suggest more preferences in any application, but the launch in front/launch behind argument has been settled already; in an ideal world, there is either a preference for it, or there is a modifier key, or both. Me? I prefer behind.

Filterizenationing

Filterization describes the process of creating a new folder in the drawer, naming it after the selected feed, and adding a new filter rule that will filter incoming articles from that feed into the folder; and it’s all done by clicking a button in the Subscription Manager window labeled “Filterize”. Simple, right?

Initially, my contention here was that “Filterize” was too difficult a word to use as a button label. It’s not a real verb (though the morphology would suggest that it’s a possible English verb), making it impossible to guess what the button actually does. Thinking about it, I’ve convinced myself that it’s actually the function behind “Filterize” that shouldn’t be there. Besides the fact that it’s already more than possible to do the same thing using filters manually, there’s one simple method that does away with toolbar icons and naming difficulties altogether: drag–n–drop.

Drop a subscription from the Subscription Manager window to the drawer, and the aforementioned folder/filter combo is set up. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Better yet, forget creating a folder and a filter… just put “the feed” (complete with favicon) into the drawer. Filters are for filtering content, they’re for distributing articles amongst folders; they’re not for throwing all the articles of a single feed into a folder.

Repurposing filters this way is like setting up a Smart Playlist for all songs from the album “the White Album” from the artist “the Beatles” instead of just setting up a static playlist— it doesn’t make sense. Is there anything simpler than direct manipulation?

Keyboard accessibility

Now, I’ve been told I’m overly biased towards accessible applications (it’s my hobby horse, apparently), and I’ve been told I’m a hypocrite for acting as though accessibility (for the disabled) matters to me personally (because I’m not disabled, and I’m also selfish), so I’m gonna go right ahead and write this part from the perspective of a man who doesn’t care at all about accessibility, but is a fresh arrival from the shores of NetNewsWire. Here goes:

As I’ve said, PulpFiction carries a full complement of keyboard shortcuts that often translate directly from Mail; flagging is Command–Shift–L, ”Mark All as Read” is Command–Option–U, checking for new articles is Command–Shift–N, and that’s all cool: it means even less of a learning curve. But there’s just one problem: super–quick–keybash–article–skim.

In NetNewsWire, when you want to skim through a bunch of new headlines you just keep hitting the space bar until you’ve seen them all. Hitting space (or clicking “Next Unread”, in you’re inclined) will always take you to the next unread item, no matter what the case. In PulpFiction, this just isn’t possible.

Command–] is the PulpFiction shortcut for “Next Unread” (fair enough), and you can hit that key combo as much as you like, but once you’ve read all the unread items in the current folder, give up. If there’s an unread item in another folder (perhaps one of your filters put it there), all the Command–]–ing in the world won’t take you to it. There just isn’t a keybash method for skimming through hundreds of headlines in separate PulpFiction folders.

The solution (doy) is to just not use folders, and not use filters, so everything stays in your inbox where you can Command–] your way through the lot of them. Simple, but not very smart.

In fact, there’s no way to access another folder from the keyboard at all. It doesn’t exist. You can’t do it in Mail (discounting Command–1 to Command–6, which access the predefined Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Sent, Trash, and Junk folders, respectively), so you can’t do it in PulpFiction, because Freshly Squeezed Software’s motto for this project was do it like mail.

I’ve discussed this with Andrew Ruess, part of the FSS team, and he says it will probably get added, whilst commenting that nobody else thought of that. Nobody else thought of that. My God. Maybe I am a keyboard–interface wonk.

Naw.

Custom stylesheets

Let’s begin this frankly: custom stylesheets rock. More than that, custom stylesheets with custom templates rock harder. But I do have to correct an oversight I made earlier. Customization is not per–feed; I was mistaken and I was, perhaps, projecting just a little. Nobody will be putting links on their website to CSS files with the text “customize my feed in PulpFiction”. And now I’m crying.

Keyboard accessibility²

Now that the “I don’t care about keyboard interface” NNW user has had his say, I’ll move back into my own skin for just one more piece of keyboard fun: Shift–Space

Open up Mail and move to a folder with a few emails in it that are fairly long; long enough for scrollbars to get involved. Now, hit space bar… quite a few times. You’ll notice that with each email, Mail will scroll down the length of the email and, once it has reached the end of that message, move on to the next message. Convenient. PulpFiction does the same thing.

Now, imagine that you accidentally scrolled past something you wanted to look at, and since your hands are already all over the keyboard from all that space bar keybashing, you’d like to keep them there. There is a way. Hold down Shift this time, and hit the space bar. Mail scrolls up now. And, like before, once it reaches the scrolling–limit of the message (this time the limit is at the top, rather than the bottom) it moves up the message list into the next message. Space performs a function… Shift modifies that function. It’s a modifier key.

In PulpFiction, this Shift–Space behavior doesn’t work as expected. Instead of scrolling up in the current message, it simply selects the previous message, in a behavior that is unlike any other application I’ve seen. To FSS’ defence, NNW doesn’t respect the Shift modifier at all; if you hit Shift–Space in NNW you’ll just keep moving down… not so cool. And further to their defence, this bug is on their radar… albeit low priority.

All in all, I have to give the guys at Freshly Squeezed a high mark for effort — they’ve been busy bees, even if there are a few things that still need to be put under the microscope. The problem in posting this writeup is, of course, the fact that I’m using a beta copy of PulpFiction. In three days I could be proven wrong, which would please me greatly, but three days is an awfully short amount of time to squish all the bugs on their radar and pay attention to a curmudgeon like me.

I’ve long been a supporter of a release philosophy I believe belongs to BareBones Software: don’t work to a deadline — squish all the bugs and commence two–week beta trial. If new bugs are discovered, squish them and restart the trial. Better may be the enemy of done, but I like to see a rock–solid product ship; because frankly, nobody likes to see a 1.0.1 release just a few days after the 1.0.

So now we wait for the official release…

Update

Erik has responded appropriately, and I’m glad to see that the majority of my actual “concerns” (things I regard as bugs) have been addressed. Speed, launch–browser–window–behind (with modifier key), and shift–space behavior… they’ve all been fixed.

I understand his reluctance to implement per–feed (user–defined! not author defined!) custom stylesheets, particularly given that it doesn’t really “fit” their interface model, but it’s still on my ultimate feed–reader wishlist.

Inter–folder keyboard navigation isn’t mentioned, which may be a little problematic for me… but not for most people. I still use Mail, after all, but the volume of mail I receive tends to be a lot less than the volume of news headlines I download. Once Smart Folders are implemented (rumored for 1.1), it’ll be a cinch to set up an “unread items” folder, whilst also managing feeds hierarchically through filters.

And finally, while I must concede defeat on the topic of Filterization (it’s hard to argue with anyone once their minds are made up. Remember the draconian/liberal feed parsing polemic?), I’ll still cast a stone and say that the drag–n–drop behavior of the Subscriptions Manager window is broken. Well… nonexistant. If you could highlight a bunch of feeds, drop them into the drawer, and have a filter/folder set up to accommodate the grouping; I’d consider it done.

After all, we have a toolbar icon for “Delete”, don’t we? People aren’t expected to drag–n–drop items into the Trash… but between toolbars and direct manipulation, we cover all the bases.


Note

Depending on the mix of spices used, mulled wine tastes inexplicably of raisin toast. Which is probably a good thing. Particularly on a cold night.


dot MD

The .md TLD just became available for general consumption; and yes, doogiehowser.md is still available!

Then again, at $150 a pop, such frivolity isn’t as cheap as usual. Worth it, though.


In love

A momentary instance of being almost as interested in someone else as in oneself.

Cynicism is the new black. I love it.


Things that are annoying me right now

  1. Scoring two seasons’ worth of Scrubs just a few weeks before exams. I can’t help but watch them all before I do anything else… which means I can’t study… which means I need to watch them all soon before I really need to start studying.
  2. Typing in low light conditions on a laptop when you keep hitting the wrong key over and over and over again like a moron. Unless Apple bumps up the cool factor on the next generation of 12" Powerbooks, I’m gonna have to upgrade to at least a 15" to get some backlightin’ love. Y’know… when I upgrade. Which could be years… or months… or whatever.
  3. 1024×768. Yeah, it was great in 1997; but nowadays it really isn’t. To be perfectly honest, it’s tough to complain about this kind of thing when I’m stoked at how wicked–small my laptop is… and screen resolutions are obviously tied to screen size. But sometimes I miss having space to arrange my windows. Another reason to be looking to the 15" department for my next laptasm.
  4. The word laptasm.
  5. If you hadn’t noticed the quiet around here lately, it’s because my little theory about consumption and production on the web is completely true… only the rule isn’t limited to the web. It would probably better be stated “Your media output is inversely proportional to your media input”, where “you” are a writer, or a director, or a coder, or something. The rule applies to people who produce nothing, too. Peachy.
  6. Lately when I flip open my laptop’s lid, the login screen seems to be taking a really long time to pop up. Staring at a locked, black screen with a pinwheel cursor gets boring after the first two seconds.
  7. It took two days and many more emails to get my useless, two–bit travel agent to tell me the name of my hotel in Thailand; since his initial response of “the Chaweng Beach Resort Hotel” doesn’t actually exist. There are some eleventy–seven–thousand hotels on Chaweng Beach with the words “Chaweng Beach” in them, and none of them are called “the Chaweng Beach Resort Hotel”. It turns out that his use of the word “hotel” was completely redundant (pick up a thesaurus some time), and I’m actually staying at the Chaweng Beach Resort. Good to see he earns his money.
  8. My credit card. See previous point.
  9. The fact that the words “buy some batteries!” never pop into my head when I’m anywhere batteries could be bought. Using a corded mouse bites.
  10. The fact that these new–fangled laptops’ USB ports are on the left; something I’d call a blunder given how short the standard–issue Apple Pro Mouse’ cord is, and that most people use their mouse on the right… even left–handers like myself. See previous point.
  11. The word revolution
  12. Che Guevara’s pouty little face on the chests and banners of whiny activists on every university campus I’ve ever set foot on.
  13. Maintaining an Amazon wishlist where all the DVDs are marked “Don’t buy this for me” because of the region codes that make it difficult and annoying to live in a region without its own Amazon warehouse.

If you hadn’t gathered from point 7, I’m going to Koh Samui in about five weeks with Scotty… which, aside from the travel–agent–related fun, is something that couldn’t fall on the above list if it tried. Between the sun, the sand, the snorkeling, the massages, and the full moon party, it looks to be a great holiday. I just have to get through a mountain of assignments and exams, first.

Which, come to think of it, really should be on the list.