Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Web Standards, Browsers and Users

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

One issue that is guaranteed to get me frustrated and annoyed is problems with web sites that don’t work either because they have been designed to work with specific browsers, or assume a certain screen size, or fail to take account of users that may have visual disabilities.  This is becoming a more pressing issue as in the UK (and presumably many other countries), more and more of one’s every day tasks have to be conducted on line.

I recently had an appeal for help from a friend who has been applying for jobs, but many employers only allow online applications and she was having problems because the form would not submit from her computer or would produce errors that were unhelpful and puzzling to her.  I’ve had similar problems in the past with sites that refuse to work with anything other than Internet Explorer (which is useless for anyone using a Mac, a Linux system or any tablet), or sites that have been designed in a way where I’ve been unable to get to certain items on drop down lists because there is no way of scrolling the list on my screen.  While in some ways things have got better over the past few years because of the existence of devices like the iPad, a move to standards, and the greater prevalence of Mac computers, problems still arise.   Given the push for many government services to be delivered online, the very people who often need to access those services are often the least likely to have a computer, or have to use a computer at a library where there may be a fairly restrictive firewall, or have only a very old computer running an old operating system and browser.

Another problem that can often arise is that many people now only use web based e-mail and have never set up a mail client (or use a machine in a library where there will not be a mail client set up), but links on web sites for e-mail will try to load a mail client and then the user gets confused.

All of this is even more complicated for those people with vision problems who may be using a screen reader (that is absolutely not going to cope with a complex layout) and even those of us who are partially colour blind can often be at a complete loss on some sites where the colour either makes the screen unreadable or where the instructions are to press a particular coloured button but which we can’t identify.

I remember a news item from a few years ago where even accessing a bank system via a screen reader was enough to set off security alarms.

There is a lot that needs to be done for accessibility and much more care needs to be taken by governments and corporations in their web site development, particularly thinking about how their site is going to work when used by those who are not comfortable with computers, or with disabilities or who are using old software or assistive technologies.

Apple World Wide Developers Conference

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I think yesterday’s announcements from the Apple WWDC covered much of the material that had been trailed or been wanted.

The announcements on OS X Lion had already been widely previewed by Apple.  I think the main revelation is that it will be coming in July (rather than later in the year) and will be under $30 rather than much more expensive.  The other surprise is that there is apparently going to be no DVD — it will be a download from the Mac App Store.   I feel from time to time that Apple doesn’t always appreciate that in many countries (including the US and Western Europe), broadband is not always as pervasive as  it is on the Apple campus.  A 4GB download (which I think is what is being described as its size) is a significant part of bandwidth allowance for many people in the UK (even on ADSL connections, 5GB, 10GB and 20GB caps are pretty common) and even “unlimited” may not mean much more, or may only apply to bandwidth used overnight.  There is also the problem of download speed — many people only get 2Mb/s or less (in fact when I’m in South Wales I get a lot less than 1Mb/s and would probably have to expect a download time of 9 or 10 hours).  Worse still, there are people who still are only able to get dial-up access.   I think this may also be a factor with iCloud as well.  I use DropBox and MobileMe syncing in many of the applications that I use, largely because I use multiple Mac computers (and used to use them from multiple locations), but I wouldn’t choose to keep all my music and media in the cloud because of the problems with accessing it.  OS X Lion will require a minimum Intel Core 2 Duo processor which cuts off those of us with older machines from the early days of the change from PowerPC to Intel that are only Intel Core Duo.   My MacBook should be able to run Lion but not my iMac, nor my MacMIni that can only run Leopard rather than Snow Leopard (although I should be able to run the latter if / when I crack open the case and upgrade the RAM).  Perhaps it is time for a new machine or two.

The updates in iOS 5 that are due out in the autumn look fairly compelling and include many of the things that folks have been asking for.  The new notifications system is overdue (and I suspect will lead to notifications being used a lot more).  The removal of the need for  a USB wired connection to a computer will mean that iDevices can become standalone devices and make it possible for some folks to just have an iPad rather than a computer.  Obviously this does rely on iCloud and decent bandwidth — although I note that they are going to move to delta updates which should improve things.  I’m not sure how successful the iMessaging service will be, particularly in countries where it would appear everyone just uses SMS.  iOS5 will apparently support the same iDevices as iOS4, so at least there isn’t another step of obsolescence there.

After the various attempts at cloud computing I hope that Apple have learnt enough to get things right this time.  I’ve had no particular problems with MobileMe (although explaining how the syncing works between iDevices and computers and MobileMe in calendars and the like has not been easy — although it is clearer with the new MobileMe calendar which was obviously a start of the transition).   It certainly is not a quick service (particularly here in Europe) — mail sometimes takes ages to load and the iDisk can also take several minutes to access.   I would feel happier if Apple had multiple data centres around the world as reliability has fallen short from time to time.  Subject to my concerns about bandwidth, I really hope that this effort succeeds.   The Music Matching (which allows material not bought from iTunes but imported in to one’s iTunes library to be matched with the corresponding iTunes media in the iCloud without uploading) could be a significant boon and advantage over other competing services, although I notice that although the Music Matching is available straightaway in the US, there is no date for the roll out elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see how the transition to the iCloud operates.   Those of us already with MobileMe get an automatic MobileMe extension to June 30th, 2012.  I noted that iCLoud will be free for Lion and iOS5 users which raises the question of what happens to folks who cannot upgrade to Lion or iOS5 or who have a mixture of devices some of which cannot be upgraded.   Do they effectively have to buy new hardware before June next year?

Overall, I think there are going to be some fun times ahead with Lion next month and then iOS5 after the summer (and possibly new hardware as well).

E-book typesetting

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

I’ve had an amateur interest in typesetting for most of my working life and certainly from when I stumbled upon TeX and LaTeX.  Unfortunately, when you’ve become exposed to good typography, whether as a result of these systems, or from reading well printed books, one starts to find things that annoy one when standards are not kept.  (I am conscious that this blog suffers from some layout and typographical problems; hopefully I will fix them in the future.)

On John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, a couple of items have attracted my attention.  This piece from Paul Luna starts from an advertisement for the Amazon Kindle printed in one of the UK newspapers where the example shown on the screen in the advertisement is itself badly typeset, and then these pieces from Joe Clark on typography standards in e-books and these poor examples.  What makes some of these examples so bad is that they are not only bad presentation, but make the text either difficult to read or even give the text a different meaning.

I find more generally that if one has been exposed to the high quality typesetting of TeX (particularly with regard to its line-breaking which is optimised over a whole paragraph), every other word processor/ type setting system seems really bad.   As someone who has to use Word a great deal at work for generating documents which, frankly, Word is not up to, it is very frustrating that many of the problems that Word (and other systems) leave unsolved or badly solved were well addressed by Donald Knuth many years ago.

More on UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

As a follow up to an item I posted about two weeks ago, the UK has deferred the requirement for websites to comply with new European inspired rules on internet tracking for a year.  Apparently only two countries (as of yesterday) have implemented the rules: Estonia and Denmark.  (Denmark is currently getting a rough press in the UK for its disapproval of Marmite.)

The UK view seems to be that it would like to put the onus more on to the browser makers and using “do-not-track” type capabilities rather than enforcing websites to jump through all sorts of hoops.   I am of two minds on this.  As someone who maintains websites I am glad that I haven’t got to make significant changes in a hurry.  On the other hand, having recently installed Ghostery, I’ve become very aware of how much tracking is actually going on.

Interestingly the UK Information Commissioner’s Office website now has a rather ugly banner drawing attention to its use of cookies and requesting approval.  Not a particularly pleasant solution.  Two more interesting pieces on this are here and here.


Apple, Patents and Developers

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

I am not a lawyer, neither am I currently a developer, but the whole issue of patents is beginning to get me concerned and fed-up.   I have no issue with the fact that patents should exist to provide an opportunity for people and companies to be able to exploit their novel ideas and make money from them.   On the one hand we have a patent system which frequently means that inventors have to spend years and enormous amounts of money to defend their ideas as happened to James Dyson.  On the other hand we have patent trolls that vacuum up vast numbers of patents and then sue everyone who might possible be using them.  We also have the problem of the granting of patents for what appear to be almost trivial ideas, particular with regard to software, where the US Patent Office appears to grant patents fairly freely by comparison with the European patent offices.  An example might be the Amazon 1-click patent.

I was disturbed when hearing that Apple Developers were being sent notice for infringement of patent when using the facilities of the App Store for in-app purchase.   It seemed unbelievable that a developer could be sued for using a library API in the way that was documented by the provider of the library.  However, Apple has now stepped in to this battle and hopefully developers will be able to sleep more easily.  While Lodsys seem only to have gone for App Store developers at the moment, there would seem to be little distinction with going after anyone providing an upgrade or update facility within their code for the App Store or for the Android Market Place or even for updating from their own website.   I’m sure this will be watched with interest by many.

Chain e-mails

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Recently an e-mail was forwarded to me with all sorts of claims about Feng Shui and dates in July.  It started as follows:

Money bags

This year, July has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens
once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So, forward this to
your friends and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese
Feng Shui. The one who does not forward…..will be without money.

Well this is nonsense.


Any July that has the 1st on a Friday will have 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  This occurs far more often than once in 823 years.  It is not exactly one out of seven because of the way leap years distort the calendar, but from 1970 to 2999 (1030 years) it occurs 149 times (14.4660%).

Incidentally in the period 1970 to 2999, the first of July is slightly more likely to be a Sunday (150 out of 1030) which means that the 13th is slightly more likely to be a Friday.

The fully table is:

1st on a Monday: 146
…Tuesday 147
…Wednesday 149
…Thursday 145
…Friday 149
…Saturday 144
…Sunday 150

Examples of years with 1st July starting on a Friday are: 1977, 1983, 1988, 1994, 2005, 2011, 2016, 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044, 2050, 2061, 2067, 2072, 2078, 2089, 2095.

It continues with:

This year we’re going to experience four unusual dates.

1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, 11/11/11 and that’s not all…

Well this rapidly gets into a discussions of what are interesting or unusual dates (or indeed numbers). One can argue that all numbers are interesting.

It continues:

Take the last two digits of the year in which you were born — now add
The age you will be this year,

The results will be 111 for everyone in whole world. This is the year of
The Money!!!

The proverb goes that if you send this to eight good friends money will
Appear in next four days as it is explained in Chinese FENGSHUI.

Its a mystery, but its worth a try. Good luck.

Again this is not true for anyone born since 2000 (or for anyone who is over 111). Similar “identities” exist for every year e.g. in 2000 take your age and 2 digit date of birth and it adds to 100 (unless you were born in the 19th century).

There is nothing mysterious about this other than the originator got stuff wrong.

How much of our stuff will be preserved?

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

A number of thoughts have been swimming around my brain as a result of two articles I’ve read.  The first was an article from the BBC website yesterday which questioned whether humans have created a new geological age and which was a topic at a major conference held at the Geological Society in London on Wednesday.  The thesis is that man has changed the planet in a fundamental way that merits a new geological age “the Anthropocene”.  There is some debate over the right date for the start of this:

  • thousands of years ago with the rise of agriculture
  • around 1800 when the human population hit one billion and carbon dioxide started to significantly rise because of the Industrial Revolution
  • 1945 — the dawn of the nuclear age — which has merits as a date as sediments worldwide show tell-tale radioactive signatures from the first atom bomb tests

Today there was an article again from the  BBC News — Domesday Project reborn online after 25 years.  This was a project some 25 years ago to create a 20th century version of the 900-year-old Domesday Book, but instead of recording land rights and livestock, it would record life in 1980s Britain based on photographs and written accounts submitted by ordinary people.

Unfortunately, while the project was successful, with more than a million contributions, the distribution was something of a dead-end.  The modern Domesday was released on two Laserdiscs and a BBC Master computer with special software was required to access the interface.  Thus after only a few years most of this was inaccessible to all but a few enthusiasts.  The data has now been reorganised and is presented as a website

This got me thinking — on the one hand, humans have made a lasting impact on the planet earth.   At the same time our “modern technologies” are becoming ever more ephermeral.  Archaeologists discover remarkable information from past civilisations because those civilisations recorded on stone, slate, vellum, or even paper that has survived remarkable lengths of time.  By contrast it can be a challenge to access information from 25 years ago except when it is on paper.

Many of us have shoeboxes full of old photographs that survive remarkably well in poor conditions, but our JPEGs can disappear in a puff when a hard drive expires or a web-server is pulled.  Even at work today, I was looking at computer files I’ve kept over 10 years only to discover that some are unreadable as I no longer have the application that created them.   For that matter, I have samples of both 5 and 8 hole paper tape, punched cards and 8 inch floppy discs that you’d be hard pushed to read now.

I know that librarians and archivists have written about this problem many times, but I think it is one that all of us have to face — the lifetime of much of our electronic media is often less than our lifetimes and maintaining it for longer requires significant work in transferring it regularly to new (backed-up media), choosing wisely about formats, and converting if necessary, and making sure that other people know where it is.

Since going from chemical film to digital photography I’ve realised how vulnerable much of modern media is and I feel that I’m not really keeping up with preserving things that I might want to keep for the rest of my life and pass to my successors.

It is wonderful that the modern Domesday has been “reloaded”, but it hasn’t the permanence of the original Domesday or the Rosetta Stone, or many of the Roman and Greek artefacts.

UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Updated at 17:35 BST to mention third-party cookies.  Updates are in italics.

The UK is planning to implement various European privacy rules and one of the difficult topics has been the use of data gathered by websites.  Superficially this would seem to be targeted primarily at advertisers and other large companies but in practice could catch almost every website that is not completely static.  One aspect is that the UK rules will require explicit approval for most cookies to be stored on users computers.

The BBC has reported this here and The Register has a story here.  Both organisations have been running various stories over the past few months on this topic.  Part of the problem has been lack of clarity as to what is required, and the problems of technically implementing solutions that satisfy the rules.

Much of what has been written on this topic concentrates on third-party cookies, and I am sure that the original EU Directive may have been intended to target tracking by third-party cookies, that are typically used for advertising.  However, the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance is framed to cover just about every use of cookies other than those deemed “strictly necessary”.  Clearly anyone using advertising on a site that is provided by a third party is going to need to do something.  Some of the advertising organisations are claiming that by putting a clickable badge on the advertising that this satisfies the regulations, although that is not at all obvious to me.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance says

… you will need a user’s consent if you want to store a cookie on their device. The ICO recognises that cookies perform a number of legitimate functions. We also recognise that gaining consent will, in many cases, be a challenge.

There is an exception, but it is very narrow:

The only exception to this rule is if what you are doing is ‘strictly necessary’ for a service requested by the user. This exception is a narrow one but might apply, for example, to a cookie you use to ensure that when a user of your site has chosen the goods they wish to buy and clicks the ‘add to basket’ or ‘proceed to checkout’ button, your site ‘remembers’ what they chose on a previous page. You would not need to get consent for this type of activity.


After a little more detail it makes explicit that merely remembering preferences is not an exception:

The exception would not apply, for example, just because you have decided that your website is more attractive if you remember users’ preferences or if you decide to use a cookie to collect statistical information about the use of your website.

The full text from the ICO is here.

A lot of smaller organisations will, I think, find complying with the rules rather onerous.  Cookies are often used within packages that webmasters install, but those packages often don’t explain how cookies are used and probably don’t include pages to get the visitor’s consent to the cookies.  Indeed one could argue that getting this consent is itself almost a privacy issue.  Anyone using advertising is clearly likely to be caught with these rules although it is unclear to me whether the responsibility is for the website owner or the third party advertiser.

I did a quick check of the WordPress documentation and there is a page about cookies here, although the page does indicate that it is “in progress”.  As far as I can see, cookies are used by WordPress for Users and for Commenters.  I think therefore it would be necessary to get approval from users when they register.  For Commenters, the WordPress documentation notes that it is “purely a convenience” and therefore in my understanding is definitely not an exception under the ICO’s guidance, and again the code would need modification to explicitly seek approval.

If this is all implemented there will have to be changes to a lot of the standard packages used by hosting sites.  Most photo gallery software will use cookies to store viewing preferences (e.g. number of thumbnails in a row, background colour, etc) and these cookies will need approval.  I can see pop-ups appearing all over the places; and we probably all block those!

Interestingly, the ICO site itself uses Google Analytics and places cookies on visitor’s devices, so I think they need to update their site.  I wonder what they will do?  I’m sure many government sites use cookies.

iPad 2

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

I thought I would write some opinions on yesterday’s iPad 2 announcement.  These are my personal opinions and may not have any great value.

I think in terms of the hardware, much of what was announced was expected.  It seems that cameras were pretty much guaranteed given the desire to get FaceTime on as many devices as possible.  From what I’ve seen, it is not exactly clear what the resolution of the rear facing camera is, but given that I don’t think one would want to take photographs with an iPad, the main driver would be the ability to do FaceTime where you show your surroundings as video.  We have become very used to Apple producing thinner and lighter devices, but I suspect that rather like when the iPod Touch came out, it will feel “impossibly thin”.  Again the improvements to the processor and the graphics are somewhat expected, although it would appear that the graphics is significantly enhanced (which may be a precursor to a future enhancement to a screen with increased resolution).

In terms of my experience with the iPad, the addition of the cameras and Face Time would have changed my use in the past.   Until recently I had been working away from home and every evening would bring up iChat on my MacBook for when my partner might contact me.   Consequently I would eat my evening meal with the MacBook on the table in front of me while usually watching a video podcast or streaming a television programme recorded via my Elgato EyeTV USB stick on my MacMini.  The only reason for not using the iPad was iChat.  If I were in the similar situation with an iPad 2, the MacBook would stay in the study and it would be the iPad that would be carried around with me in the evening, except when wanting to do more serious computing work.

In many ways, I think the software enhancements are as important as the hardware upgrades.   The extension of “Home Sharing” to the iPad so that it can stream media from iTunes libraries (just like the Apple TV 2) will certainly be useful to me, particularly with video podcasts.  I’m now typically watching these through my Apple TV streamed from my MacBook, but I also have them synced to my iPad.  However, as I only sync my iPad about once a week, one loses track of what has been watched rather easily.   Simply not syncing but streaming from a single iTunes library will be far more consistent.   Indeed, I can see that in the future if one only uses an iPad at home, then syncing will only really be necessary for software upgrades.  In my case I often travel with the iPad, but the only time to sync will be before and after travelling.

The improvements to AirPlay are also significant though not unexpected.  This gives much more flexibility to push stuff on to the television via Apple TV or video through an Airport Express (which I use a lot).

The inclusion of the new iMovie application for the iPad was inevitable given its existence on the iPhone 4 and the presence of the cameras on the iPad.  Garageband signals that Apple definitely doesn’t think of the iPad as just a device for consumption, but then many other application developers clearly see the ability of the iPad to be a useful creative device, as is evidenced by the many musical instrument applications and other creative tools.

I shall not be in the market for an iPad 2 — it is less than a year since I bought my iPad when it came out in the UK, and I shall probably be looking forward to the iPad 3, but the software enhancements will benefit me and all the other iPad owners.

The one sad aspect is that according to the Apple website, the new version of iOS is not available for the iPod Touch second generation.  This means that in my household with an iPad, and a first and second generation iPod Touch, I shall be running three different versions of iOS.  Perhaps fragmentation isn’t only an Android problem!

Belated Greetings for the Holiday Season and best wishes for the New Year

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

It has been a while since writing a post on this blog.  My excuse is that I’ve been very busy having finished my current assignment and so changing from a life of living in two countries to just being in one, at home.

When I’d moved to my apartment in The Netherlands, I had simply carried a suitcase with clothes and things on the first few journeys from the UK.  It was a furnished apartment and I only really needed my clothes.  Having lived this itinerant existence for four years I’d accumulated quite a bit of stuff so that the movers returned 6 boxes plus a bicycle back to the UK.  I’d acquired quite a bit of computer stuff — a MacMini, printer, scanner, and no less than 9 hard drives, which just shows my obsession with back ups.

I was really surprised how long it took me to sort through everything, packing away electronics and cables and the like.   Tasks that I thought would take a couple of hours seemed to take a weekend.  I found myself with many late nights sorting through stuff.  I really admire people who move regularly — although I suppose it acts as an incentive not to accumulate so much stuff.

Of course I’m now doing the reverse at this end.  Unpacking boxes and trying to find space for everything.  Some things are easy — I’ve just replaced one old printer with my newer printer that I bought back with me.  However, I need to make space for the flat bed scanner which means there is no space for all of the audio CDs, and so it goes on.

However, this might provide some good source of topics for future blog posts. Amongst the things that have to be done are: rationalising iTunes libraries, combining iPhoto libraries, ripping most of my audio CDs so they can be stored away and make space for other things that need to be on the desk, not to mention sorting out all of these hard drive backups!

I wish a happy New Year to anyone reading this.