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Friday, 31 October 2008

Happy Halloween! (Athens, Ohio)

swing votes!
Swing Votes.
end of article


After finishing the major work for a new web page, I discovered the page wasn’t properly rendering on Internet Explorer. I expected some discrepancies because the page layout used some moderately advanced CSS. What I didn’t expect was that the page would be comlpetely unreadable because IE rendered the 89% opaque div framing my content completely transparent.

When one of Pam’s Presidio colleagues/classmates, explained that the "tesellated" background made the text difficult to read, I assumed IE was rendering the background more transparent than Safari or Firefox. I had no idea Pam’s colleague was being diplomatic given the atrocity which presented itself to him in his browser.

The next morning, I had a chance to see the screenshot he had sent, and Pam and I made an emergency trip to Alden library. I was fairly upset at having to spend time debugging for a web browser whose limitations seem part of a (partially abandoned) strategy to maintain browser market share. I decided to redirect IE browsers to a page with a different CSS stylesheet, one that rendered the underlying div completely white, and I placed a notice at the top of the page stating

You have been redirected to this page from [WEB PAGE], which requires a higher level of CSS compliance than the browser you are using.

Mozilla-based browsers including FireFox render the page as it was originally designed.

Thank you for visiting.

in a salmon-colored font at 180% normal size.

I asked Pam what she thought, and she said it was unnecessarily confrontational. I argued that such confrontation was necessary.

I was unhappy that I’d spent so much time making the page fancy—slightly reducing the opacity, debugging the layout of the content divs, choosing aesthetically-pleasing colors, and getting insufficient sleep for five days—that the idea of debugging for a browser developed by a company known to undermine the adoption of open standards placed me beside myself. Using confrontational digital print, I wanted to bully visitors into using a standards-compatible browser.

Pam calmly suggested that doing so might alienate visitors and that waging this battle so visibly might offend my intended audience. I’ve been fighting this battle for years and, through the smoke of open standards weapons fire, the possibility of damaging my relationship with the less-technically advanced members of my audience seemed necessary collateral damage. I compromised by reducing the font size, muting the color, and demphasizing the contrast between the announcement and the main text.

In the between and following a full night’s sleep, I decided that I needed to be able to run Internet Explorer from a computer which I controlled and so began the process of installing Parallels and Windows XP on nitwit (my MacBook Air). The 2-day process involved a 3-hour round trip to the Apple Store in Easton, Ohio (fake malll city), and buying licenses through my university from third-party software vendors such as Microsoft and Parallels.

The setup process was relatively easy, especially when I forwent customizing the virtual machine and selected the recommended “typical” setup. I set up Keyboard Maestro to open a virtual machine with an installation of Windows XP and in the last dozen hours or so, I updated that machine with Internet Explorer 7 (XP SP 2 comes with IE 6 which contains an unfortunate bug due to the reegineering of how IE 6 handles ActiveX requests in response to Microsoft’s settling Eolas’s suit) and updated XP so that it would properly handle DST.

Now, I am able to test against IE 7, which is as good as it gets in terms of CSS support for mainstream users of Windows XP and is the apparent default for academic institutions.

Following my installing Parallels on nitwit, I re-compared the page to the IE-redirected page and it took a fraction of one second for my less sleep-deprived eyes to see how much cleaner the fully opaque version was compared to the fancier 89%-opaque version I had built for bleeding edge CSS-compatible browsers. The styling I’d implemented using advanced CSS code produced an inferior product, a less readable page.

Surely, part of the problem is I’m not such a great a sucky designer, but another part of the problem is that usability is founded upon simplicity and it’s easy to forget such a fundamental point when working with information technology.

But most importantly, everyone should have access to so thoughtful and skillful a consultant as I do. Thanks, Pam, for the great advice. end of article

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

RSS Plainly Explained

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and for those of us struggling to keep up with all the information available on the web, here is my (for now) definitive contribution to the genre of “Why you should use an RSS feed reader, even if you have no idea what RSS is.”

The screencast is broken up into three parts.1 If you're the type that gets off on lists, here is the list of advantage I enumerate (mostly in Part 3, though some are scattered throughout) about what RSS feed readers help you do:

  • Scan vast amounts of information quickly.
  • Read websites according to a custom schedule.
  • Visit many sites in a single application.
  • Stay current with frequently updated sites.
  • Stay current with rarely updated sites.
  • The preceding, put another way: never forget another site again!
  • Save articles for future reference.

There are many other advantages RSS readers provide, so why not get started by playing the videos which follow?

You'll be glad you did. end of article

Note: The videos below can also be viewed using YouTube, simply click the YouTube badge button for the video you want to watch.

Part 1: Why use an RSS Feed Reader? (5 mins 10 secs)
View on YouTube badge

NB: At 2:44, when I demonstrate scanning newly updated items, 752 new articles is not typical. That number is the effect of adding all 46 items for the first time.

Clicking downloads a 33.4 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”
Part 2: Setting Things Up (5 mins 9 secs)
View on YouTube badge

In this video, I detail how to set up a new NetNewsWire installation, activating a few features I find useful.

Clicking downloads a 34.7 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”
Part 3: Putting it all Together (7 mins 23 secs)
View on YouTube badge

This screencast focuses on organizing your RSS feeds and customizing their arrangement.

Clicking downloads a 49.6 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

A shout-out to Paul and Ayesha. I hope you find this helpful.

1 I had conceived of the screencast as one piece, but when the duration ran to seventeen minutes, I thought it best to break it up into three pieces that each treat slightly different aspects of using an RSS Reader.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Empirical Evidence

An astute observer of human motivation and desires, Sigmund Freud noted

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. And thus the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite possible to accomplish. (69)

Unreal as McCain's facial expressions were during the course of and, especially, after the third and final presidential debate, they are all too legible as evidence of a psychological disposition incapable of managing self-presentation.1 Not that we don't all make odd facial expressions, but for a Presidential candidate to do so in a national venue with an international audience does not inspire confidence. Most importantly, McCain's facial expressions speak volumes about his feelings regarding his role in US politics. I leave it to the reader to decide what these facial expressions mean given that Senator McCain made them in the full knowledge that voters were watching him in order to determine his fitness to be Commander in Chief and the head of the US Executive.2

end of article
potentially Presidential
mocking tear drop
false grin
study in contrasts
photographic misfortune

Images from Presidential Debate hosted at Hofstra University, 15 October 2008.3

1While Senator McCain is a melanoma survivor whose treatment has impaired the left side of his face such that he occasionally juts his tongue to clear saliva from his mouth, the expressions documented in the photos above are not instances of this tongue-jutting behavior, as evidenced by this video.
2 While unbelievable, the last image is genuine and, apparently, explicable if unfortunate.
3 These pictures are part of a slideshow featured on Huffingtonpost.
Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York, NY: Collier, 1963.

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