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What’s wrong with this picture?

You can always recognize a web development team that works exclusively on Windows.

“This site is not optimised for Netscape 6. We recommend you use Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 6.0 or Netscape 4.77 or 4.78.”

Oddly enough, the site works just fine in Safari.


Things that have been put off for too long

Well, I finally got around to doing a few of those things people tend to put off; like tidying my bedroom, where papers and clippings and flyers typically come to rest on the floor, and installing a bedside table to hold a reading lamp and my book(s) of the week.

S’funny… I once read somewhere that males tend to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the door, as if it were some kind of inbuilt “defend the female” mechanism in case of nighttime attack, and to this day I’ve found it to hold true. I, at the very least, instinctively move to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom door no matter what the room (and I’ve lived in a lot of houses, so it has been tested in a few different configurations), and I do it without thought or explanation… though it’s impossible to tell whether I do it because of the article I read all those years ago, or if I would’ve come to do it anyway.

The charge doesn’t stick when applied to my father who, in the last two houses my parents have owned, has not occupied that doorside position —so it’s not a learned behavior— and I don’t spend enough time spying on my friends’ intimate relations to find out where they stand on the matter… so I’m utterly baffled as to whether the claim is a simple (though clearly not universal) truth, or whether it’s a total sham. It may be a dominance thing, where the dominant partner sleeps closest to the door (I’m sure my father will be thrilled to read my assessment that he doesn’t wear the pants in his relationship), but I’m very interested to hear what all of you have to say on the issue; the gay men in the crowd in particular. Do write in.

I also started importing those few remaining CDs in my collection that I didn’t rip when I bought my first Mac and fell in love with iTunes. The story goes that Amazon didn’t have cover art for them (most of them being local bands, singles, or the more obscure) and I didn’t want to have any part of my collection incomplete, so I refused to rip them. A year or two later, and with a perfectly good scanner at my disposal, I’ve finally got around to it. Hello oddball compilations and local punk rockers! It’s been so long I almost forgot about you… except for Waste of Space, since some of your band members dine semiregularly at my pub.

Standing on the platform awaiting the instruction to jump

And finally, I finally (finally finally) got around to jumping off of a huge tower with an elastic rope tied around my ankles. They call it bungee jumping… you might’ve heard of it. A most enjoyable experience, given my great affection for flying, and I do plan to repeat it — though preferably in New Zealand, or somewhere they have much longer drops than Bungee West. A wonderful, brilliant sensation for the first 4 seconds (since you just keep bobbing up and down for a minute or two after that), and while hitting the pool at the bottom was a mild refresher, that first dive is just the tits.

Honestly, if I were to commit suicide, jumping from a high–rise building would have to be the way to go. Not only would the death itself be quite exhilarating, but the resultant mess would assure you a spot in the evening news. Amongst all the shootings and car crashes that have become so terribly passé, a good human pancake story could really liven up the show. I’ll have to put that on my to–do list.


I just keep thinking… the fingers do the rest

First and foremost, how is it that there have been so many covers of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah recorded? If the file sharing networks are to be believed, the most popular of the bunch is Jeff Buckley’s — though Hollywood’s preference is clearly with John Cale, whose recording has appeared in Basquiat, Shrek, Scrubs, and god–knows–how–many–other movies and TV shows. Then, of course, is the Rufus Wainwright version (appearing on the Shrek sountrack… though the movie itself features Cale’s), and the sixty–or–seventy other cover artists I’m omitting for the sake of brevity. It’s the kind of song that just occasionally pops out of the clear blue to rock your small, self–centered universe… like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (Finding Forrester, 50 First Dates, amongst others). Outstanding.

Second of all, what’s the deal with the rash of stock icon sites that have popped up on the web? I’ll admit ignorance for a moment and reveal that before the IconFactory’s own StockIcons.com was born I’d never even heard of stock–iconography, but since that time I’ve been keeping tabs on the icon houses about the place… and there’s something weird about the lot of them.

While their prices and licensing terms vary wildly, the icons themselves are all–but–identical. Somehow those five different–colored balls in the collection (aqua–riffic balls, to be sure, but ultimately useless spherical orbs nonetheless) are considered five unique icons, with dittoes on all those arrows pointing in different directions; flags of different colors; otherwise–identical discs badged with symbols like play, pause, and plus; chat bubbles that variably say nothing, “hello”, or “!”; and a panoply of other duplicates dressed up as “unique” icons. Honestly, the fact that your icon collection contains some seventy–something icons really doesn’t mean that much when half of them could be re–created with a little Hue/Saturation adjustment in Photoshop… I’d sooner have you tell me that your set contains six icons —each in eight colors and four orientations— and feel less like I was being deceived.

Also of note is that there is still no consensus on what a ‘Save’ icon should look like. A floppy disk? A hard drive? A folder? How about a piggy bank? To be fair, it’s good to see that they’re trying (except for those diskette guys… Macs haven’t even had floppy drives since 1997), but it seems like wasted energy. How many applications occupy their toolbar space with a Save icon anyway? I was led to believe Save was a dead concept nowadays; like it would be better titled “give this document I’m working on a filename, I’m sick of seeing ‘Untitled Document 4’ up there in the title bar… and you’d better be saving it every two minutes automatically for me because I’ll be super pissed if anything goes wrong”. I dare say saving is something of an afterthought for most people — you’re closing a document window when it drops down a sheet and reminds you you haven’t saved it, what do you ask yourself? Did I actually want to keep that? Or was I just dicking around in TextEdit and really wanted to close that window full of brain fart?

You don’t save the changes you’ve made in the Finder, you don’t save the changes you’ve made in iTunes, you don’t save the changes you’ve made in iPhoto, you don’t save the changes you’ve made in iCal, and you don’t save the changes you’ve made in iChat. It would seem that saving is now the exclusive domain of text editors, desperately holding on to it like a weary grampa who yearns for simpler times. Garrett is on the bandwagon… where the hell is everyone else? Even Apple Mail’s “Save as Draft” button makes more sense than just plain ol’ “Save”… after all, Mail is quietly saving your draft in the background the whole time just in case your shit gets ruined: Save as Draft is a simple courtesy for those people who start emails and then figure it was a bad idea before they hit Send, like all those angry emails you wrote your Republican brother–in–law after Bush got reelected.


Delicious indeed

So Delicious Library launched today, an app I’d discussed privately amongst my dork buddies as “a really, really, really cool idea… but useful only to obsessive–compulsives and, well, librarians”, and it turns out I’m basically right.

Here’s the premise: catalogue everything you own, shop for similar or related items from the comfort of your desktop, keep track of whom has borrowed what and when —for all those times you loan your friends a CD and never see it again— and, well, dick around the place looking at pictures of all the stuff you own. Like I said, obsessive compulsives and librarians, but a market nonetheless.

Library’s tri–panel interface splits between media categorization and playlist–like “shelves”, the contents of said shelves, and details pertaining to the selected item

There’s a lot to be impressed by; from the iSight barcode scanning (perhaps the best use my iSight has seen to date), to the brown–paper placeholders for items whose photos can’t be grabbed from Amazon (god bless that Amazon API), to automatically adding family members to my ‘borrowers’ list (the one false positive being everyone’s favorite Canadian queen Joe Clark, but a nice touch nonetheless). It all seems to work just the way it should… which is good. And despite the fact that I have absolutely no need for an application of this nature, I’m almost compelled to drop the forty bucks required for registration; it’s that cool.

It’s also very funny, trying to evaluate a piece of software like this is like trying to evaluate a box of tampons — I don’t have a particular need or desire to use tampons, and even if I did, I don’t have the plumbing with which to really give them a run for their money. But I do suppose, in a pinch, I could give a star–rating to feminine hygiene products by performing a series of scientific experiments involving blue liquids, which is all I can suppose to do here today with Delicious Library.

Simply put: it’s the nicest application I’d never use.

The preferences are curiously spare, and you won’t find a single contextual menu in the place (simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing, for different reasons), while the interface is the pure, unadulterated eye candy we’ve come to expect from Mike Matas: ex–Omni employee, master of aqua iconography, and graphic artist extraordinaire. Despite the wood grain (again, I ask, why wood?) it’s a pleasure to use.

Address Book, Mail, and iCal integration is a godsend. Something that deserves a paragraph all of its own.

To date, the only problems I’ve experienced with the program is the fact that I live in Australia; meaning those bastard record and movie executives can add another notch to their “I’m a fucking asswad” belt because our CDs and DVDs are produced regionally — the barcodes on most of my CDs and all my DVDs don’t match up to anything in Amazon’s database. While that’s not strictly Delicious Monster’s problem, it makes Library almost useless to all the Australian OCDs in the crowd, though books thankfully don’t suffer such indignities; even one of my books by Australian poet Les Murray came up peachy.

Objectively, I give Library two thumbs up for coolness, innovation, and using all the available technology at hand. The perfect Christmas gift for your anal roommate (that is, your roommate with the ‘anal retentive’ personality type… he doesn’t room with you in an anus). Delicious Monster gets a gold star.


Sort of

Track sorting in iTunes was one of the first things I noticed about Apple’s software engineering: they actually thought about it. Sorting by song name (obviously) sorts the songs alphabetically. Sorting by artist name (obviously) sorts the artists alphabetically.

But it’s the secondary and tertiary sorts that are important.

Sort by artist name and you aren’t sorting it by alphabetical artist and by alphabetical song… you’re sorting it by artist, then by album, then by track number. Albums are indeed supposed to be in order —track order, nor alphabetical order— and it’s that kind of thinking that makes me happy to own a Mac.

But they missed something.

Sorting by album only, the secondary and tertiary sorts should be by artist then by track number. Having the tracks of Crowded House’s Afterglow intertwined with Sarah McLachlan’s Afterglow has taught me this cruel lesson… and it’s no coin toss: it needs fixing.

Update

Tamara Crowe writes to point out that sorting by album and then by artist would break compilation discs, split discs, and several other cases. There are plenty of ways around this, like checking the “is a compilation” bit, checking for different dates, different album lengths, et cetera.

I don’t much care how it’s fixed. I just care that it is.

Update deux

iTunes 7 fixes this problem in a roundabout way. It requires human intervention, sadly, but it works.


Amazon and the Monster

I’ve played a little more with Delicious Library over the last day or so, read some reviews on other blogs (Michael, Erik, Sven) and on Ars, and came away with the conclusion that maybe I just wasn’t hard enough on Delicious Monster… maybe their software really did suck and I didn’t notice because (I’ll say it again) it’s just not my kind of app. No matter how well it’s done, it’s hard to be picky about something you view as fairly trivial; faults in a FreeCell clone are more likely to draw criticism from me than faults in a library manager (and have) simply because I require a decent game of FreeCell from time to time and don’t want to have to fire up the PC.

Delicious Library’s icon

But again, after tooling around scanning in an assortment of CDs, books, and games I still can’t see that much wrong with it — a lack of secondary sort criteria won’t kill me (even if it does kill me in iTunes), the diminutive size of peoples’ mug shots in the Borrowers list doesn’t really yank my chain. But I’m not here to defend Delicious Monster —everybody’s complaints are warranted in a bizarre and thankless way— I’m here to discuss one of the biggest barbs aimed at Library: the Amazon butt–boy claim.

The application ties into amazon too heavily for my taste. And that’s the friendly way of making my point. Frankly, some menus look like amazon should give us the app for free.

Sven’s comment above isn’t the only example, and I am by no means picking on the man, but the general gist of the complaint is that Delicious Library is too integrated with Amazon… and that if we’re going to get this many ads and links to Amazon products, maybe we shouldn’t be paying so much to organize our CD collection.

It’s true, Delicious Library relies almost entirely (and when I say “almost entirely” it should perhaps be read “entirely entirely”) on Amazon’s web services API to function. Without that API, Library would be that much less fun —and all the more effort— to use. The problem appears to be four–sided:

  1. There are too many links back to Amazon
  2. The cover art is oftentimes absent
  3. The cover art is sometimes screwy
  4. Amazon’s selection isn’t as impressive as you thought

Yup, there are a lot of links to Amazon, but those links are a by–product of the web services API agreement. There’s a fine balance of give and take that Amazon oversees, and they’ll pull the plug on your developer account if you don’t send enough referrer sales their way. It happened to Wincent Colaiuta with Synergy, it’d happen to Delicious Monster if they weren’t careful. Sure, it’s a bitch, but if you want access to the world’s biggest source of product metadata you just have to grin and bear it.

As for the cover art issues, Library can only deal with the art it receives. Though I will express bewilderment at why Delicious chooses to skip over some art (my screenshot in yesterday’s post shows missing art for Mad CaddiesDuck & Cover and Lynne TrussEats, Shoots and Leaves… both of which are perfectly artful at Amazon.com), screwy art and wholly–absent art is something of a problem on Amazon’s side and nothing of Delicious’ concern. I really don’t think Google Image Search is a good answer to the question —it’s too unfocussed— like using Googlism for a product description.

And as for the selection, the World’s Biggest Selection™ does lack a lot of rare, out–of–print stuff… duh. Amazon is a store, not a library — it only stocks items that are in supply and in demand, which is exactly its downfall in the kind of application whose purpose is to identify all those things you already own. Again, not really Delicious’ problem, but in using any service except Amazon (say… eBay, or Google) the signal–to–noise ratio is much too low, and it’s hardly worth the risk. We need accurate, structured data that doesn’t require fuzzy parsing or screen scraping. We obviously need something with a decent API, but where do we get it?

This is the part where I put forth a solution to everyone’s problems, not taking into account the legality of my proposal, nor the difficulty and cost. It’s the part where I explicitly deal with what’s wrong with Amazon from Delicious Library’s perspective, what’s wrong with the CDDB from iTunes’ perspective, and what’s wrong with all of them from the developer’s perspective of any number of future apps that deal with everyday media: I want an international product information wiki.

Displace Amazon as the leading source of product metadata and cover art. Displace the CDDB as the programmer’s first choice for CD track listings. Build a new database as expansive and as ambitious as Wikipedia, where people the world over can contribute accurate information and keep it up to date; so those stupid mixups you get with track names and artist names on compilation CDs don’t happen, and you can actually get accurate metadata on that out–of–print edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Do it so iTunes can fetch all the info it takes to fill up its ID3 tags, including the cover art, and so Delicious Library can operate without a billion links to Amazon. Do it for the betterment of the online consumer community. Who’s with me?

Screw it, I’m bored already. Let’s go make a Homestar Runner wiki instead.


Pearls of Wisdom #22

If everything needed a precedent, nothing would get done.


Damn it to hell

Yesterday I finished the last exam of this, my first year at UWA, to muffled exam–hall–side celebrations involving beer and cigars. The beer and cigars weren’t to celebrate my long–overdue completion of one whole year of tertiary education (though they could’ve been… I’m as surprised as anybody), they were for Dave: a great friend of mine since way back in the fifth grade who has just finished his last year of university. He’s a certified mechanical engineer now, with honors, and after finishing a thesis the size of his he probably deserves some brews and tobaccy. This really isn’t the cause for the pseudoblasphemy titling this post, though.

In precisely two weeks I’ll be taking to the skies for the land of the free: putting the land down under aside for a few months to savor the sights of North America and, later, Europe. I don’t like to use the word “backpacking” to describe these travels because, well, Bilal would chastise me for doing any kind of packing involving my back; it’s neocolonialism. But the truth of the matter is that I’ll be hauling a big–ass pack around for three months containing all of life’s essentials — clothing, sleeping bag, PowerBook, iPod, toothbrush — and traveling many, many miles by train, plane, and automobile just to tick a few more countries off of the “I’ve been there” list I keep in my head. I’ll be staying in cheap hostels and eating ramen for nigh on ninety days; touring the US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and Singapore with three of my best friends in what I’m guessing could only be described “the trip of a lifetime”.

Christmas Day skiing at Whistler, New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, Inauguration Day in Washington DC (I’ll be the one on the hill with the rifle, keep an eye out), and every day between in every town between.

The “damn it to hell” titling this post still isn’t adequately explained by this, I know, since it’s clearly something I’m looking forward to and plan to enjoy. It has to do with the fact that MacWorld San Francisco opens on January 10 and IDG has just announced that Steve Jobs will be delivering one of his patented keynote speeches on January 11… and I’ll be in Miami. The closest I’ve ever been to a live reality–distortion–field event, or a Mac expo of any kind, and it just ain’t close enough. Don’t get me started.

At least the webcast won’t be at two in the morning like it is when I watch it here.

Update

Put Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play 2004 Charity Dinner and Auction in the same category as above. Being in all the right places at all the wrong times stings, yo.


A call for help

Me and CatherineBreathing mistScotty and MikeTittyI know I don’t ask you guys for much around here, which is why I feel our relationship works — I don’t throw advertisements or charity drives around the place and you don’t have to put up with shit or buy any mouse pads — but as a sidenote to my earlier post I’d like to send out a beg signal:

If you live in or around any of the cities listed below and have the room, the inclination, and the desire to accommodate four (totally awesome) young Australian guys for a day or two, email me right now. You would earn my utmost respect, my undying gratitude, and uh… a back rub. If you wish to inspect the merchandise beforehand, there are plenty of photos in the photolog for your perusal… and attached are four depicting myself and my travelmates Dave, Mike, and Titty (also know perhaps more mundanely as ‘Matt’) in various states of intoxication.

Major stops are planned at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler, Las Vegas, Miami, Washington DC, New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Bern, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome.

The dates and venues are, of course, subject to change (which is why I haven’t posted dates yet)… and there are some stops between each of the major cities above that just haven’t been contemplated at this time. But as a bonus to those living in Los Angeles, if you can’t accommodate four but would like to see two, Mike and I are in town a whole four days before the others arrive (December 2nd to 6th)… so there’s a four day window of gratitude available with only half the manweight.

You got a floor? We gots the men. We’ll warm your apartment and your heart, and we’ll even cook you some ramen. Email now.


Popup blockers… foiled

Watching a little of the ol’ Strong Bad Email today I noticed something a little wacky… a popup. Nothing particularly insidious, mind, just a popup. Hey, aren’t we supposed to have popup blockers these days?

Homestar’s cheerful visage taunts me from his popup window

Well yeah, we do; in most browsers, too. Even the mostly–prehistoric Internet Explorer 6 for Windows has gained popup blocking as of XP Service Pack 2, but this was different; this popup wasn’t spawned by any of the conventional methods we’ve learned to detect and block, this was born of Flash. The ActionScript embedded in the Flash movie, innocent as it was, had absolutely no trouble bypassing the blockers because —guess what— unlike all those handy dandy JavaScript popups infesting the web, the browser can’t read the ActionScript. It’s all neatly packaged in an almost entirely opaque file format!

And while it’s true that it’s not impossible to reverse engineer a swf file, muck about for a potentially offensive piece of ActionScript, then block the script, I think everyone can agree that it’s hardly worth the browser developers’ time and effort to chase a moving target like that… yet. I also think you can tell what we’re dealing with here, and why I’m so concerned.

If the asshats of the web (you know, those people that employ pop–up and pop–under advertising as a means to really shove their marketing message in your face… the “legitimate spammers”) figure out that Macromedia Flash has a market–saturating 98% browser penetration and (with very, very little effort) gives them back their precious popups whilst stripping their on–page code from a multi–kilobyte chunk of JavaScript to this:

<object type="application/x-shockwave-flash" data="popit.swf" width="1" height="1">
<param name="popit" value="popit.swf" />
</object>

We could be in some serious shit.


Not as hot and steamy as you’d hoped

A warm, dry iron is about as ill–suited to its purpose as any contraption I can imagine. I know what I’m trying to do with it, and the label confirms that I am indeed supposed to be ironing this item of clothing with a warm, dry iron; but it really does appear to have zero effect. I’m not trying to iron a stick of butter here, people, it’s a shirt! It’s like hammering a nail with a three–pound block of cheese! Sure, the cheese is heavy — it’s even hard to the touch — but it’s Just Plain Wrong™ for the task.

If I weren’t so afraid that my shirts would shrink or melt horribly should I turn up the heat, I’d be steaming the shit out of them right now. Damned warning labels.