Thursday, April 02, 2009

Technophobia 2:An iPod for the Queen

What better shows paleocon fear of information technology than the blogflogging of President Barack Obama's gift of the latest video ipod to the queen?

The silly faux outrage could be mocked on mere factual rounds:
  • The gifting also included a vintage book autographed by the queen's favorite american composer
  • The queen's reciprocal gift was equally prosaic: a picture of herself and her husband
  • We men just aren't that good at shopping; anyway, the president has one or two other things to think about right now, like wars and recessions and stuff.
But dwelling on the mere facts is playing defensive ball; iPodGate is really about reichwing fear of ipods and indeed all modern means of freely sharing information.

You see, any information sharing device, be it ipod, blackberry, laptop or 3×5 card, has no value on its own. The value is the information, and the ease with which the device makes it available. When information can be controlled by central authority, that authority can be subverted and We The People kept under control. But when information can be shared freely and easily, it makes people smarter, faster, stronger ... and THAT bothers reichwingers.

They feared Gutenberg's movable type, and they were right to do so, for it enabled the Reformation by freeing information from the tyranny of church scribes.

They fear the teleprompter, and they are right to do so. It lets obama deliver crisp remarks from notes without bobbing his head to look at 3x5 cards or ... as their leader Rush prefers ... simply to add words and whole phrases to our constitution when it suits his purpose.

They fear the ipod, and they are right to do so, for handheld information system empower people to assemble and share information without relying on centraled authority. President Barack Obama's gift ipod included selections personnalized for the queen, such as video of her recent visit to America. In the hands of ordinary citizens, handheld information devices can share almost unlimited amounts of information, much of it embarassing to central authority.

In its information quantity, the video iPod is larger than the gutenberg bible. In its impact on information freedom, and therefore on freedom itself, it embodies something larger than movable type.
Reichwing technophobes are right to fear this.

But let us encourage them to flaunt their technophobia. Our upcoming generation gets it.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

D20 Protestors Rampage In London!

A small number of D20 gamers protested corporate domination of entertainment at a central London food court after rolling for initiative and making their evasion check.
Hundreds of shoppers looked on stunned as the protesters deployed gaming equipment including lovingly-detailed figurines and hundreds of dice. Riot police wielding batons managed to force the geeked-out crowds back, as the gamers ran a homebrewed adventuring module.

The gamers' simulated rampage will raise questions about the effectiveness of Chaotic Evil as a viable ideology for world domination. The dungeon was known to be a target of Good-Aligned forces in advance of the gaming sessions, but the efforts of defenders had concentrated on stabbing each other in the back and making sacrifices to chancey deities of uncertain humour. Twenty-three non-player characters were dispatched as party clashed with orcs and an evil high priest bent on world domination.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hawk Spotting in Belltown

You never know who you'll see lounging around the funkier parts of Seattle, fashionably dressed in all-natural materials with VID (Visual IDentification) bands on their legs.

Lately, a Cooper's Hawk has visiting a patio at the Centennial Court, probably looking for a little feathered lunch. When I mentioned this to our friend Jeanelle, she pointed us to a Jack Bettesworth, with the Washington Ornithological Society and he put us on to is a citizens science initiative to study how hawks adapt to city living. WOW - what fun!
If you see a hawk:
  • Take a quick photo! A cellphone camera isn't great, but it's something, and it records date & time for you.
  • Try to note which leg has the blue band. Right leg blue = boys, left leg blue = girls
  • If you have REALLY good eyesight (or preverably, binoculars or a spotting schope) get the number on the leg band, e.g. "3 Q". This consists on a number about a letter. Each is repeated 3 times around the band so improve the change you can see one
  • Email it with address, date & time to Jack Bettesworth at jgbett@comcast.net
Technical details from http://www.wos.org/SpecRpts.htm:
Winter site fidelity study
  • Cooper's Hawks: Blue VID bands (Note right or left leg and engraved number and letter on VID band)
  • Sharp-shinned Hawks: either one or two color (only) bands on the same leg (Note right or left leg and top/bottom color if two bands)
  • Other leg has standard aluminum band
  • Note date, time and location
  • Report to Jack Bettesworth, 206-285-5276, jgbett@comcast.net

Monday, March 30, 2009

Top 5 Reasons www.wsba.org Sucks

It's so easy to do a website right; why does the website of the Washington State Bar Assocation (www.wsba.org) stubbornly insist on sucking?

Broken Search Engine

The most unusual single feature of wsba.org is a centrally placed graphic inviting you to telephone them if you have trouble using the website. It is difficult to find anything on the web that is unique, but this graphic's frank admission that this website is hard to use is pretty rare. However, its implication is forthright and correct: it can be difficult to find things on www.wsba.org because the search engine is broken.

Enter a term into the tiny "Search" box (16 characters wide; longer search terms sidescroll adequately, but the box is limited due to being preceding by the word "seach" and followed by "go". Clicking on "seach" does nothing (a web standards violation) but when you click "go" (meaning "search") you get patently broken results.

Compare and Contrast

The search results we all know and love, whether from google, yahoo or msn live seach have a very similar look, and for good reason: it works!
  • Page title: This is a hotlink to the page itself, and its status as a hotlink is emphsized by distinctive fonting and underlining
  • Snippets: typically the first few words on the page, or in the case of documents, a description from the document metadata
  • URL
  • Misc.
Typically the seach results show at least five, and usually more, results without scrolling.

WSBA.org's search results are different. Each item in the search result consists of the following:
  • One meaningless word: In the case of web pages, this appears to be the file name, e.g. 1998proposal.htm. In the case of documents, it appears to be a word from the document metatext, e.g. "draft". This word is hotlinked to the page or document itself, but you can't tell that because it's neither in a distintive font nor underlined.
  • Red dots: These rank the results relevance, which is worthless since the ranking is apparent from the display order (that is, the most relevant results show first.) The red dots DO use up valuable page real estate because the rest of the search results won't appear under them.
  • The word "Abstract": This appears in every search result. It has no function except (A) to use the same font as "One Word" above, thus confusing the user as to what to click on, and (B) to emphasize the worthlessness of the next item: "Random Text"
  • Random Text: five or six lines of it! It appears that the site intends this to be snippetry, but it's not. In the case of webpages, these appear to be the navigational text from the web page. Let me restate this: every search result that is a web page includes as its snippet five or six lines of the freaking navigational text from the web page!: "About. Committees. Documents. Contact. Links. FIND LEGAL ASSISTANCE. PRO BONO COMMITTEE. LEGAL COMMUNITY CALENDAR. FAQ." Now, to be fair, in the case of documents, the snippet appears to be actual metatext from the document, which could actually be useful, although prolix; two lines suffice.
  • URL: Appropriately hotlinked.
  • Misc: Document size and last update
The search results fits about 3 results without scrolling, and usually more, results without scrolling. This is largely because of the five or six lines of meaningless words, but also due to the Wasted Width described below.

Non-ADA-compliance

Complaince with Americans With Disabilties Act is a proxy for easily used navigation. Like curb cuts and wheelchair ramps, the features that make a website usable by persons with disabilities also make it easier to use by everyone.
WSBA.org fails in many respects. In particular, tabbed navigation is extremely difficult.

Wasted Width

The website pages have width fixed at about 8 inches, and of that, half is used up in navigational features (on the left) and in advertising for internal site features on the right.. Thus the actual content, when view on a normal 10- or 15-inch monitor, is restricted to about 25% of the screen. This results in excessive scrolling. On small devices, e.g. Blackberries, the situation isn't much better due to the excessive use of side columns.
While WSBA is far from the only website to use fixed width (i.e. http://www.osbar.org/ ) its restriction of usable content to 25% of the web page is unusal among website that don't use the rest of the space to create revenue, typically by external advertising.

WSBA.org Blue!

Subsets of the site have an entirely different layout. When you click on "Lawyer Directory" or "MCLE Website", a new window opens (another standards violation) and you are presented with a website that has an entirely different navigational system, color scheme, and so forth. This is unusual; most organization try to maintain consistent look-and-feel across its website.

This "WSBA Blue" website has lookups of different databases. The public most likely uses the WSBA member information, called the "Lawyer Directory" on WSBA.org; to access it from the WSBA Blue site, you click on the "Public" tab. (The WSBA Blue "Public" tab is completely different in content from the WSBA.org "For the Public" tab.)

This Lawyer Directory has several pecularities evident when your search result has more than one entry.

You can have many reasons for getting more than one entry as the result of your seach. For example, you might be looking for a particular lawyer but all you remember is his name is "Johnson", first name starts with "H". Or perhaps you want a divorce laywer in Seattle. So you get to WSBA Blue and enter "Johnson" and click search. Or you enter "Seattle" in "City", pick "Family Law" from the "Practice Area" scroll box, and click Seach.

The first thing you notice is that the couple of hundred lawyers listed are sorted by bar number. This is a remarkably stupid, since if you already know the member's bar number, you'd simply search on bar number. It might as well be completely unsorted

But, if your search results go for more than 1 page, you've got bigger problems.

While the search result will cheerfully tell you that you have found 295 lawyers, it won't tell you how many it is showing per page or how many pages in all you have. In fact, there's no indication at all that you've got a multiple pages, until you scroll all the way down to the bottom, where there's a text "next page". In contrast, standard practice is to have: number of items, number on current page, number of pages in all, and a means of jumping to any later page.

Let's say you scroll through every page, and click to every next page. When you reach the last page of the search results, you don't necessarily know it; the "next page" link is still present, not even grayed out. It's no longer a hyperlink but it's the same color and font as its companion "prior page" link so you can spend time trying to figure out why it doesn't work.

You can try to save a little time by by clicking on a column header, thereby sorting the results by that column. This can convert your useless bar-number sequence into more useful sequence. For instance, you can sort your Seattle lawyers by last name, or your "Johnson" lawyers by first name.

Unfortunately, this breaks when you go to the 2nd page of results. Even though the sorted 1st page contains items from, potentially, every page in the query, when you click "next page" you're back to bar-number sequence again. Think about the implications of that for a moment.

This is the End

I've posted on this subject, because I've been involved with the WSBA for more than a decade and don't like my member dues going to support something that is unnecessarily ineffectual. I have drawn the attention of that organization to these issues on several occasions; nothing has been done except on the rare occasion when I got a pack of Washington attorneys to contact the WSBA and asking for a fix. I hope that presenting this publicly will result in some mild inquiries by the Washington lawyers who pay good money to support that site.

Or maybe it won't. One delightful thing about the maturation of the internet is that centralized data stores may become less relevant. The WSBA's leadership may simply fade away as other, more effective groups develop.

What can ya do?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

xtraNormal : fast, easy webcartoonvideos!

The following web cartoon video took about five minutes to set up each of these (...and then I tinkered with them endlessly, to get the comic timing right) using http://www.xtranormal.com

I've said it before, but it is truer than even: technology is changing our means of discourse and even our means of reasoning.

Try it: http://www.xtranormal.com