Rant on the use and misuse of Stickies and Announcements

If you have never used a web forum, you probably don’t know much about them, so here is a quick introduction. A web forum is a website or part of a website where people interested in its topic can start written discussions. Each discussion takes place in a topical forum, and each discussion is called a thread. Somebody starts a new thread, and if it is interesting enough, others will respond within the space of that new thread.

A forum is displayed as a webpage that contains a list of clickable thread titles. The list is sorted such that the thread that was most recently responded to is at the top, whereas less popular threads are further to the bottom, or even on a different page.

There is a way for thread authors to break this sort-order, by designating threads either as Sticky or as an Announcement. Even if two minutes ago you did not know yet what web forums are, you will probably already see what is wrong with Stickies and Announcements. I repeat: they are a way to break the sort-order of threads.

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Jimmac has some useful tips for creating wallpapers (you know, those things on your computer desktop?).

Google more relevant than ever

[Cropped screenshot of Google's search results for 'Inkscape']

Searching for the term “Inkscape” on Google, I got the results as shown in the screenshot above. Not only does Google return a link to the homepage of the Inkscape project, it also includes links to the Download, Screenshots, Documentation and Galleries pages. Has this feature been around for long?

How does it do that? Answers in the Comments, please.

Oh goody, I’ll dance to that

Miro, the company that started the Mambo content management system seems to have angered a lot of the core developers, who have now set up shop elsewhere. After requests by developers to start a foundation that would ensure the independence of Mambo to Miro, the latter did indeed set up a foundation, but one that seemed to move in quite the opposite direction. Four of the five board members being Miro folk (with one token “independent” vote), huge member ship fees and lies about the founding process have made the developers leave.

In the meantime, I have installed Mambo at customers’ and am now wondering if this is the sort of event I should tell them about, and where I am going to get new flavours and updates in the future. The beehive of the Mambo forums and the confusing multitude of Mambo dedicated website has always suggested to me that this is an immensely popular project, of which I have only witnessed the tip, so I am not too worried. There will be a brief hiatus, in which the two forks can prove themselves, and then… business as usual.

So if anything comes from this, it’s that I will have been wading through hours and hours of forum postings on this issue on both the old and the new site, just to get some idea of what on earth is going on.

As for who’s right and who’s wrong (if there are a clearly identifiable right and wrong in this matter), I have yet to decide. What is ominous is that some of the forking core developers seem to have been censored and silenced in the official, “old” forums.

Invention #2: the multi-alarm alarm clock

Abstract: an electric alarm clock with several alarm pre-sets instead of just the one.

I have different sleep-wake patterns. When I have to go to my part-time job or to a customer, I need to wake up before 8. When I can stay at home to work, I usually wake up an hour later. During the weekends, I generally do not need to wake up, but often I don’t want to sleep in too late.

My travel alarm clock is one of the old fashioned kind: with dials. It is easy to operate, because you just turn the knob until the red hand points at the time you want to wake up.

But my electric alarm clock is different; first you have to press the hour button, and watch the hours crawl by. This can get so tedious, that sometimes I even forget to release the button and have to go another 24 hrs. Then you go through the same routine with the minutes button.

With a mixed, but repeating wake-sleep pattern, it would be handy if this alarm clock had three or four buttons that I could assign each its own wake-up time. That way, I need to set these times only once.

Scratch that: I am fixing bad interface design with more interface. It would be better if the time setting interface of my electric alarm clock would be as good and simple as that of my travel alarm clock. Or better yet, it would be better if I could try out the interface before I buy, so that I won’t keep buying the same crap just because it looks nice. Which is not going to happen. Where is the real friction in the whole waking-me-up-on-time pattern?

#2.2.2, I got an answer machine that can talk to you

IIRC, I wanted to go camping this Summer in Boxtel, but the mayor says I am not allowed to (based on art. 2.2.2. of the APV). This appears to have created some brouhaha.

Unfortunately, the What the Hack’s website sucks big time as always. Public participation is about as unwanted as camping in Boxtel. So I am posting this here.

The local ordinance the mayor leans on can be downloaded at some horrible dynamic URL (PDF). If that doesn’t work, go to boxtel.nl, click on Kalender, click on Verordeningen Actueel, click on Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening 2004.

Chapter 2 is about Public Order, section 2.2 about Supervision of Events, article 2.2.2. (page ) about Events.

Article 2.2.1. defines events as any publicly accessible form of entertainment (follows a long list of exceptions, some of which a hacker with a sense of humour might use).

Article 2.2.2. states that you need a permit from the mayor to hold an event; permits can be refused on the basis of (or with the goal of)

  • public order
  • to prevent or limit public nuisance
  • traffic safety or the safety of persons or goods
  • morality or health

Unsettling noises from a disgruntled GIMP user

A while ago I reported on several usability improvements in GIMP 2.2., and comic strip artist Reinder Dijkhuis quoted me on that. Reinder has been using the GIMP for simply aeons, and as a true professional he does not limit himself to just one tool.

Since he took me up on my word, he has been emitting unhappy noises [1] [2] [3]. If any GIMP developers stumble upon this, they might do well to investigate.

Why computers need a long start-up time

I had to look something up on the interwebs this morning, but did not really feel like firing up the old PC. That’s really what it feels like: waiting until the information service at my finger tips deigns to service me. Even the fact that Firefox takes seven to ten seconds to start up doesn’t bother me, because that is peanuts compared to the time the computer needs to get ready.

Google itself? Less than two seconds. Not instantaneous, but good enough.

I doubt a long start-up time is necessary. There have been experiments years ago with keeping part of the on-state on, so that the PC only needs to load a couple of things while starting up. And of course, lots of people nowadays just let their PCs sleep, and never switch them off. I would too, but the noise from sleeping Macs does nothing to convince me that these things are hardly using up energy, and my sleeping PC (quiet as a mouse) has a tendency not to wake up.

In his excellent Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug describes one of many problems that besiege a homepage; everybody wants a piece of it. This is literally what used to be happening to the homepage of the city of Amsterdam; the many departments all wanted to have a story on the homepage that led to their department’s website. If the webmaster had given in to this, the homepage of www.amsterdam.nl would have been unusable.

My guess is that this is what is happening with a computer’s start-up sequence: every stake-holder wants a part of that pie. Even if the producers of the OSes I use could get their start-up sequences to under a second (they can, but they won’t), programs I install would still be able to ruin it by claiming part of the start-up sequence.

Only devices that aren’t viewed as computers have a chance of having a limited start-up sequence, because their users wouldn’t stand anything else. Can you imagine having to wait thirty seconds before being able to answer a call on your mobile phone? The caller would have hung up by then, or your answering service would have kicked in.

(So why do we accept this situation with PCs? As Steve Krug says in the sample chapter I linked to, “we muddle through”. Start-up time would be an interesting thing to have fixed, but in the absence of a fix we accept the lesser solution.)

Beat but the beaten path

Tanya Rabourn draws an interesting analogy between landscape architecture and web design: “Rather than discourage people from making their own way, landscape architects can opt to design walkways to accommodate the natural patterns formed after a period of use. […] So, you might have the situation where the grandest building on say a college campus, might be the administration’s preference for a large, imposing walkway, but the usage patterns dictate that another building is the more popular. The result is the familiar negotiation between what the stakeholders want to project and what the users need.

(Through Zeldman)

Pains of progress

Last year I wrote: “wikis, blogs, forums and community software [seem to] have all the potential to supplant CMSes, at least in the non-commercial space [and] by doing so, they bring the possibility to the websurfer to edit the pages he visits, thereby fulfilling the last unfulfilled promise of the web.”

Well, I don’t know about that, but they sure are useful! Reusability of code is a great thing. Lately I have been running into the other side of the medal.

For instance, I read that the software running this here blog is made by Evil folks. The more painful since I have been sitting on a number of bug reports and suggestions for improvement (that I was going to follow up with patches hopefully); now I don’t know what to do with them. And recommending WordPress to other people (which I have done in the past) is now out of the question too. Which is a pity, because there is nothing wrong with the software itself.

A forum that I have installed on at least four sites has been bugged by virusses that use Google to find their victims. I have had to update twice, on each of the sites. Installing phpBB is so trivial that it takes less than five minutes, and my customers have been charged accordingly. However, updating the often modified forums takes a lot more. It’s not just a matter of uploading the files that were changed, but I need to make sure I did not change these files myself: those changes may be lost if I overwrite them with the security update’s changes.

I have also started selling the service of installing, configuring and customising Mambo CMS, and I cannot begin to imagine the sort of headaches that is going to give me.

Of course, this is all the logical consequence of doing business; I changed my business model, and it was a good and smart change, but I did not foresee all the consequences.

As a practical matter I need to start thinking about how I am going to deal with these contingencies in the future. How am I going to make sure I need not overwrite my own customizations with security updates? How am I going to deal with dealers who turned out to be untrustworthy?