The slippery slope argument for coffee pads

A while ago, one of my brothers explained that he had not only made the switch from making pots of coffee using the traditional method of Putting the Kettle On to making cups of coffee using a Philips Senseo coffee maker, but that he actually liked the switch for practical reasons. As it turned out, he started making coffee on a need-to-drink basis, and saved a lot of undrunk coffee in the process.

Though I still think the whole Senseo concept is too much marketing and too little coffee, I have been experimenting with cups vs. pots, and I must say this new method seems to be a winner. Sure, coffee is a drug and Philips the enabler, but I find half the time I drink only one cup, and most of the rest of the time only two cups, as opposed to two or more from my pot making days.

I guess there is a practical reason for that; I need that first cup, and will overcome huge transactional costs just to get my fix. But making the second cup is often too much of a bother, and I will only drink it if it is already available (usually in the form of potted coffee). I guess I save on average ten cups of coffee a week using the new method. Still haven’t bought a Senseo, though.

Wikipedia’s authoritative articles

Wikipedia used to have a warning label that said something to the effect that you had to take everything there with a grain of salt; which is sage advice for any encyclopedia.

The idea being that a tertiary source like an encyclopedia can never be as authoritative as a primary or secondary source. (Let’s gloss over the fact that the strength of Wikipedia derives partly from being an excellent primary or secondary source for a lot of subjects.)

Now Wikipedia wants to instill some kind of authority by vetting articles, then locking them. According to an article in the Times: The software to allow such “stable” articles, which will be closed off from further revision, is now in the final stages.

Why write new software when it already exists? An encyclopedia built by volunteers, absorbing Wikipedia articles (or the other way around), which are then vetted by specialists in the field and deemed “finished” already exists. Or perhaps I should say “existed”; Nupedia was an abject failure. The vetting process would take ages, and by the time a rare article had graduated from Wikipedia’s elementary school to Nupedia’s university, the original Wikipedia article would have progressed so far that the Nupedia bit was nothing but a pale shadow of it.

But let’s try and be constructive. How about this?

Wikipedia already has locked pages, namely the older revisions. When you edit a wikipedia article, the former version gets saved somewhere. This helps other contributors to check up on your work, by comparing your version of an article with older versions. It also helps me to link to a version of a Wikipedia article about Nupedia that I just checked for all too clear inaccuracies and signs of vandalism.

How about giving some editors an approval stamp? When they use it on an article, the article gets marked authoritative. Then, when somebody else edits the article, the authoritative versions moves down in the history again, and the current version will no longer be marked authoritative.

If there is an authoritative version of the article, you can display a tab at the top, next to the “Article” tab, that links to the “Authoritative version”.

You could even make it so that if a reader looks up an article, the authoritative version is displayed first, although I think that is a very bad idea, because it sends a message to the good contributors that their work is of less value than that of an authority. To which the good contributors could rightfully disagree–an excellent reason to leave Wikipedia.

Authories will only lend their names to articles if they are sure the articles are correct. An authority who thinks it is OK to rubberstamp any old article, regardless of its actual quality, should not be considered an authority — such folks are probably better off working for the Digital Universe encyclopedia anyway. But every article always contains at least a few flaws, which may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks to correct. Only very few articles would be vetted if the entire article should be OKed. So, the authorities should be able to mark only the parts of an article they trust, then move on.

This has the added advantage that the weak parts of an article stand out, so that the great masses can apply their energy to making the entire article good. Also, it helps make the authority’s voice clearer; he or she need not OK parts that he or she is not entirely certain about; that which the authority OKed, should really be OK. And of course, once you know that, you can better judge the quality of the authoritative voice, and vote it out when necessary.

Finally, an authoritative article should have a box explaining who deemed it authoritative, and what makes him or her so special. After all, an argument of authority is merely a heuristic; what makes somebody authoritative is first and foremost the things a person knows about a subject, and the fact that we know they know these things.

To be honest, Jimmy Wales probably has something like this in mind. Rarely have I seen a man who is misquoted so often and so badly by the traditional press as Wales; he knows what underlies the success of Wikipedia as well as I do, and it’s definitely not locking articles.

Skype

About a year ago, my brother was extolling the virtues of Skype to me. This was strange: I had barely heard about the service myself, and am definitely more in the loop when it comes to geek toys than my brother.

Then a friend started telling me how she uses Skype to talk to all her clients. (Well, perhaps not “all” clients, but in business “some” is always better than “none”.)

In other words, for once I was getting tech buzz instead of spreading it. A curious sensation indeed.

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Branko’s First Law of Web Dynamics

Branko’s First Law of Web Dynamics is: “The less relevant a part of a web page is to the page’s subject, the less prominence it should have on that web page.”

Or, to put it differently: relevancy first!

Odd, that no-one should have formulated this law before. (Well, not that I know of anyway.)

I was thinking about this in the context of advertising on the web. Did you ever notice how the most annoying ads on the web often are the least relevant to what you were looking for? Is this because the ads are so annoying, that any relevance they might have had immediately dissipates? Or is it because the advertisers realize that this particular ad is so irrelevant that it is not going to bag them eyeballs, unless they display them over anything else? Or (my favourite) is it because the sort of advertiser that would place irrelevant ads on a website, is also the sort of advertiser that would use annoying (read: prominence-boosting) techniques? Or (equally likely) is it because annoying ads appear on high-traffic websites, where a tiny percentage of conversion is still better than a large percentage of conversion on a small website?

The oddest thing is of course that there are irrelevant ads in the first place. If I were head of a marketing department, I would be making sure that all my minions spent the bulk of their time ensuring that ads are targeted at readers who are interested in them.

It’s official: civil servants are nuts

The Dutch department for internal affairs has seen fit to publish a style guide for ministerial websites. It is full of sound and meaningful advice, such as:

  • Do not use upper case letters, spaces and special characters in file and path names.
  • Use logical and simple URLs.
  • Use unique URLs that will not change.

This style guide can be found at:
http://www.andereoverheid.nl/NR/rdonlyres/
D295351F-ADF2-41AA-8CE1-03BACE3FD225/
0/Stijlgidsversie09Definitief10januari2006.pdf

For now.

(Spotted in a posting by René Pijlman in nl.internet.www.ontwerp.)

Reporting bugs to FOSS projects

Graphic designer Jimmac, whose work you may be familiar with if you use GNOME or the GIMP (amongst others), juxtaposes two approaches to reporting bugs or feature requests: “This blurb has been inspired by a badly formulated feature request on the GIMP mailing list. Quite a contrast to a recent mail to the Inkscape mailing list which has been promptly implemented.

I am not sure I agree with his conclusion, which seems to be that the reporter needs to do as much work as possible before approaching the poor, overworked developers. For one thing, not every patch gets accepted. For another, sometimes it can be useful to knock an idea about with a couple of like-minded people (not necessarily the developers) before hashing it out.

Unfortunately, the tools with which developers are interacting with users (if I may suggest that a developer/user distinction exists) are often inadequate. The GIMP uses Bugzilla for reporting bugs. Bugzilla is a great tool: I couldn’t imagine life without it. But on the same hand, it has got a far way to go.

Some of the problems with Bugzilla (or at least the version the GIMP used when I last filled out a bug report):

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E-mail usability

There’s a discussion at Slashdot about e-mail usability. Actually, it is an Ask Slashdot thread, with a sysadmin wanting to know how to force users into responsible e-mail management; which to many means saving messages to a place where the client will not get at them automatically, and throwing messages away that you do not think are important enough to keep.

Both methods are so that your .pst file will remain manageably small, which apparently is nice for sysadmins. I know from experience that Outlook tends to have problems with large .pst files, so apparently this sort of management would be beneficial to users too.

There is a school of thought in interface design that says that whatever users come up with themselves is good, and I think this holds true for e-mail.

For instance, my experience is that users typically subdivide their Inbox into several layers of mailboxes, and transfer messages there accordingly. In other words, they manage their Inbox. Also, users use the search function of their e-mail clients. These are good things that do not transfer readily to other methods of managing e-mail. What’s more, throwing messages away, or stashing them in “archives” that the client will not access when the user is searching or browsing e-mail, breaks the user experience of being able to access everything they ever wrote or read using that particular persona.

Of course, from a system administrator’s point of view, e-mail clients could be much and much better. Backing up and restoring e-mail is currently far too error prone. But there is no reason to punish users for using a perfectly usable tool.

Guaranteed downloading

[cropped screenshot]

Linotype promises to replace any fonts that you bought and may have displaced or damaged. I thought this so remarkable, that I’d blog about. The truly remarkable thing is of course that this sort of service should not be remarkable in the first place, but standard practice.

There are other companies that replace the copyrighted works you license from them, but usually at a cost, and not so prominently through their website.

Some other features of the Linotype website that seems to indicate that the company, unlike so many others, think that they can engage with their customers in a friendly manner, rather than through all-out war: the download of the Font Explorer font manager (their iTunes of fonts) does not require you to register for sixty newsletters, and they link to font tools by third parties, meaning they trust outsiders.

These are little things, but it makes them look trustworthy in return.

Firefox to become “spyware” agent?

The Firefox developers have added support for a non-W3 attribute that allows webmasters to “spy” on you. This is already possible using cookies, redirects and JavaScript; the developers added the feature in order to reduce overhead that slows down the web browsing experience.

I have not yet made up my mind as to whether this ping attribute is desirable. It reminds me of giving methadon to heroin addicts (in order to ween them of the latter drug); a method that is debated up to this day. The idea that the developers have is that we, the web surfers, are going to get cheated anyway, so why not make the experience slighty less unpleasant for us?

I wrote the following as a comment at the blog entry that announced the feature:

The reasoning some folks employ here seems to be that if other folks do bad things, they themselves should be able to introduce entirely new bad things. The famous arms manufacturer argument: Firefox doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people. I hope I do not have to explain what’s wrong with that argument. (In case I do: think BLINK.)

If you decide to implement a feature according to spec, one would expect you to implement the entire feature, which includes the GUI. People who click links may keep an eye on the status bar because they have gotten used to getting a raw deal on the web (this should provide you with a hint about the importance of knowing what a click means!), so the status bar seems the logical location for any feedback on the type of link you’re clicking. But the address that typically appears in the status bar is situational knowledge; whereas the fact that a link leads to multiple addresses is functional knowledge, and should probably be part of the rendering of the link text or object itself.

Anyway, it is good to see that you are working on an advanced hypertext experience. Does this mean you are going to implement (or already have implemented) fat links too?

See FDISKC.MSG

Desperately needing to reinstall the entire system, I decided to do a double back-up of all my data, just to make sure nothing vital gets lost. One back-up of important data to CD-ROM, another of most of my data to a second, smaller hard disk.

I have an old pc, and an old old old pc, which had an old old hard disk. The web is full of advice for the case that you wish to put an old old hard disk (what “they” call “new”) into an old old old pc (what “they” call “old”), and aeons ago when I installed the then new Western Digital Caviar 6GB hard drive and disk into my 486DX, that advice came in handy. But now when I wanted to put that drive into my Pentium II, advice came not at all.

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