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?

Song of experience

Odd, how you sometimes have to add “gutenberg” or “wikipedia” to your search string to find the real deal. One would expect Google to cough those up first.

Especially Wikipedia articles are an enigma: Google will often link to sites that use Wikipedia content, with the original article nowhere to be found.

I was looking for this:

When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
(From: William Blake’s Songs of Experience)

(cp: Yma Sumac, Mambo!)

More Mac

True Wankership can be truthfully claimed only if you put your hands on, er, things. Er, I mean, I tried out the new Mac.

As I mentioned in the comments of my earlier post, organizing files appeared to be a bit cumbersome.

Then I discovered that you can organize files the same way as in the GIMP: by dragging favourite folders to the bar on the left.

Screen shot of the Mac Finder Explorer File thingy
(Imagine there’s a mouse pointer arrow in there somewhere too.)

Wordpress importer for web-log.nl back-ups

Update January 8, 2007: note how this importer is now almost 2 years old. I have no idea if it still works with either web-log.nl or a recent version of WordPress. Use at your own peril!

Original entry: I recently moved this blog from the web-log.nl servers to my own. Although the service at web-log.nl was absolutely fine and I wouldn’t recommend against it (except that it is now owned by Ilse, which is always a bad omen) , I figured that getting them to make the changes I wanted would be more work than adapting a FOSS weblog myself. Since WordPress supported a lot of the things I wanted out of the box, and had a good name, I went with that one.

Moving blogs means losing entries, unless you are willing to copy them by hand or unless you can find a converter. There was no converter for web-log.nl to WordPress, but adapting an existing one for my own purposes proved trivial. Although web-log.nl won’t export the entire database, it will export a “back-up” of all your entries in XML format. You won’t get the comments with that, so if you have a lot of comments, this won’t be a solution for other ‘movers’.

You can find the import script here. i) Rename to exclude the “.txt” extension, ii) make a change in the first lines as indicated, then iii) place it in your wp-admin directory. iv) Run the script from your webbrowser–the rest should be self-explanatory.

Keep in mind that this does not convert all the web-log.nl tags, only the ones I used in my own blog entries (which is a smallish subset of what web-log.nl offered). You will probably have to revisit all your entries once imported and make some adjustments. You will also need to re-categorise your entries, as category information is not (yet) exported.

One further warning: I wrote it, I ran it, it worked. For me. It may not work for you. It may eat your computer. It may eat your children’s first-born children to the tenth generation. If you want to feel a little safer, there are three things you can do: 1) read the plain text in the script (or the code, if you can) to see what it does. 2) In a copy of the script, change the lines that are responsible for writing to the database to lines that will output to the webbrowser (if you know how to). If something goes wrong, you will see it there. 3) Only run this script on a fresh WordPress installation, so that if you corrupt the database, you won’t lose existing entries.

This script is licensed under the GNU GPL and may be freely copied and distributed as long as you stick to the terms of the license.

GIMP and usability

The other day I installed GIMP 2.2 on a PC and was delighted to notice a couple of improvements to help ease image editing. The most noticeable of these was the improved file dialog. The GIMP now allows you to “remember” favourite directories by dragging them to a special area in the dialog window. If you keep all your photographs in D:\data\images\photos, you’ll get there in one click. Also, if you are working on a project, you can give yourself easy access to the project. Once the project is over, you remove the directory from the list.

Cut-out of GIMP Save As file dialog
The GIMP file dialog has a list of favourite directories to the left. Copyright 2004 The GIMP Documentation Team.

This is in fact an old feature from the Commodore Amiga. There, you could use the MOUNT command to create special drives anywhere on the file system. So hd0:data/images/photos would become the PHOTO: drive. The GIMP approach is even an improvement to this method, as it allows you to store favourite directories at the application level. On the Amiga, you could end up with dozens of “drives” system-wide, because there was no way to attach a mount to a specific application.

I congratulate the GIMP developers with this improvement, and hope that they’ll get more and more used to the idea that not everything has to be solved at the system or window manager level.

GIMP 2 got the large version number for all the internal improvements that its main architects wanted recognition for. However, GIMP 2.2 seems to have all the improvements that users will immediately notice. If you thought 2.0 was a bit of a let-down, and haven’t looked at 2.2 yet for exactly that reason, I would like to encourage you to download 2.2 after all. It still hasn’t got all the really important stuff, like 16 bit per pixel per channel colours and better management of indexed images, but it has a truck load of small usability improvements that you will enjoy, such as improved guides management, previews for most of the filters, a shortcut editor to manage your dynamic shortcuts, a toggle for Advanced options in dialogs, and much more.

HTML e-mail tips

I know, I know … HTML e-mail is evil, and personally I would never subscribe to an HTML newsletter, no matter how interesting the contents. However, if you are going to use HTML e-mail for your newsletters, you might as well do it right (or as least wrong as possible). Mailchimp has got a handy guide on HTML e-mail (PDF, at the bottom under “HTML Email Design Guide”).

Digital Durability

My part-time boss asked me to look into archival solutions. Quite soon I stumbled upon a Dutch government plan to make sure all its branches posses the knowledge of how to archive digital documents.

The people behind the plan have even set up a website, called Digitale Duurzaamheid (“Digital Durability”), which has all kinds of links to handy digital documents about durability.

Being in a bit of a hurry, I decided to click the link to “best practices”, and follow further links to digital documents about best practices of several departments. Unfortunately, those links all ended with 404s.

Fly away, little blog entries, fly away!

The volatile nature of blog entries makes me cringe. I am someone who gets physically ill if he has to throw stuff out. “But it is still useful!”, I cry, while friends pry useless crap from my hands.

Because most bloggers live for the day, their archives (one wonders why they even have such things) are marvels of bad usability. And not just their archives. Seriously, I have seen web usability experts wander into blogs with a lamp on their helmet, and supplies worth two weeks of food and water, only never again to come out.

Still, the mere existence of blog archives (and the fact that some blogs allow for categorizing, which is only really handy if you want to look for older entries and limit your search) would seem to suggest that I am not the only one who has trouble to let go.

(Yes, I know the software behind the page that you are currently reading is crap too; there is little I can do about it do, as I am using a free blog hosting service.)

Update (7-1-2006): when I refer to “this blog”, I refer to my old web-log.nl blog. In the meantime I have moved to a self-hosted WordPress blog, which naturally has its own set of usability problems, different from web-log.nl’s.