Tag Archives: books

Why I hate infinite scrolling

Note: if you already know you hate infinite scrolling are looking for instructions on turning it off, details are here.

Nasty surprise

A few weeks ago, something unpleasant happened to my blog. The top of the page looked OK, but if I scrolled down more than a small distance, a semi-transparent box would slide up at the bottom of the screen, obscuring the last few lines of text.

blog title on translucent background, floating on top of one of my posts

The first sign that something was wrong.

I dislike unsolicited popups on web pages anyway; I particularly dislike ones which can’t be got rid of but follow you down the page as you try to scroll past them. For me they have same distracting effect as, say, a moth landing on something I’m reading and walking around on it, or someone plonking things down on a book while I read. So I really didn’t want things I hadn’t even put there messing with the behaviour of my blog in this way.

I’ve known about this blemish for a while; yesterday I finally got round to trying to cure it.

It looked like some kind of CSS trick, so I expected I’d need to change the custom CSS I’ve paid WordPress a small annual fee to let me use.

First step: find out what needs modifying. My browser, Opera, is pretty useful for this sort of thing. In particular, the View menu lets you display various features of the code for the page. So I got it to show the Class and ID attributes which label blocks of text and so on for CSS purposes. I expected one would have a label like “floating-footer”, and I’d then write a CSS rule to make anything with that label invisible.

The actual labels I saw were more worrying:

The floating box, showing attributes called "infinite-footer" and "infinity-blog-tit[le], together with my comment "Oh bugger!"

I don’t like the look of those ID names . .

What were infinite and infinity doing there? I’d set the display format ages ago to five posts per comfortably-sized page—or comfortable for me, at least. I’d experimented with different page lengths, and that seemed the one that worked best. Five posts loaded acceptably quickly, even over my mobile broadband connection, and resulted in comfortable scrolling via the scrollbar. Please, no . . . !

I experimentally scrolled down to what was meant to be the bottom of the page. Then two posts further, to the actual bottom of the page. Sure enough, the ubiquitous and annoying “Sorry, you’ve got to wait while this goes round and and round and your browser goes all sluggish while we readjust your scrollbars” symbol appeared, jerkily rotating as my connection erratically downloaded things I hadn’t asked for. It was followed eventually by the next page of posts. On the same page. Or rather, posts 8 to 14. I’d now effectively got nearly three pages of posts filling up the browser with one idiotically long page.

So I hurriedly went to the blog settings, found the one responsible for infinite scrolling, and turned it off. I was relieved to see on my return that there was now no annoying floating popup. Phew.

OK, let’s scroll to the bottom again. Everything will be OK now. The Older Posts link will have come back, there won’t be any horrible stretchy page, I’ll be able to click the link for page 2, and . . .

screenshot showing "Load more posts" button at the end of the page

Sorry. We’ve taken the link away.

Oh. No. No! No no no no noooooooo! That’s just the same thing, but with a button! I don’t want to create an ultra-long page. I’ve just turned it off, for goodness’ sake! I simply want to go to the next page, where the next five posts will be. What are you doing to me?!

So, back to the settings page. (I must have missed the setting that give me normal pages . . .  Oh. No sign of it. Off to the user forum, then . . . What, discrete pages is currently not an option?! Good grief  . . . ! ) . . . And, finally, to an enthusiastic announcement from WordPress about how wonderful infinite scrolling is and how pleased they’re sure we’ll all be to have it.

That’s why I can’t find the setting, then. They’ve got rid of it. There’s a glimmer of hope in the word currently. But at least for now, I seem to be stuck with one long page which will contain all 103 of my posts if anyone’s determined enough to scroll all the way down. I can choose between having it load automatically when it feels like it, and on request when I click a button. But it’ll be the same unwieldy, user-hostile, browser-hogging, single page.

What’s so bad about it?

Um . . . Everything?

For a start, consider the experience of scrolling through the page. Now, I know that many people are using a scrollwheel. Maybe others like to use the arrow keys. For myself, I’m mainly browsing with a netbook that has a trackpad. Since the screen is quite small, I like to have fine control over the positioning of the page. This is often important if something is nearly the height of the screen. So I navigate using the vertical scrollbar.

Because the trackpad is so familiar and scrolling with it so instinctive, I mostly scroll without needing to look at the scrollbar. I know where it is, and that the pointer is already on it; my finger hovers over the trackpad as I read, ready to make a small, automatic movement when it’s time to scroll down a little. I do look occasionally, mainly to check the pointer hasn’t drifted off to one side, but mostly I’m just looking at the page content. Occasionally I’ll check the scrollbar to see how far through the page I am. It’s a pleasant, relaxed way of reading.

Now, suppose the page has infinite scrolling.

As I approach the “bottom” of the  page, the next section starts to load. I don’t really notice, since I’m engrossed in reading someone’s wonderful blog post. If I did notice, it would be a distraction from reading.

The browser, however, does notice. The page is now longer; the scrollbar adjusts itself accordingly, moving upwards the appropriate distance. But I don’t know this, since I’m still busy reading.

I scroll down to read the next line, or to move the page by half a line or so to get an image positioned where I can see it properly . . .  and then all hell breaks loose. Instead of the small adjustment I’m expecting, the page starts hurtling upwards. When I thought I was dragging the scrollbar down, I was actually clicking just below it. Or rather, holding my finger down and sending a stream of auto-repeat clicks. They’re still happening since my reflexes haven’t yet taken my finger off the trackpad.

So the browser is now frantically trying to load the next 5, 6, 10, 20, God-knows-how-many pages. Once my reflexes catch up enough for me to look to the right,  the rapidly shrinking scrollbar is whizzing up the screen, several inches above the pointer. I chase after it. Not only is it running away from me, but it’s doing so erratically and jerkily since the browser and the internet connection can’t keep up.

I manage to catch the scrollbar and can finally start repairing the damage. Now, where was I on the page?

Well obviously I haven’t a clue where I was, have I? Not in relation to where I am now. Before the browser went insane I was three quarters of the way down, but that’s irrelevant now.  The scrollbar is up near the top and I obviously need to be somewhere above that, but how far? No idea.

So I start scrolling back up, trying to find my place. And because the page is now so long, I have to use very very very tiny movements if I’m to move the page at a speed where I can actually see it.

It’s the equivalent of happily reading a book only have it suddenly and unexpectedly snatched out of your hands by someone who then deliberately loses your place, mangles the pages so they won’t turn properly, then throws it back at you. Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible.

And seriously, what sort of web designer is unable to anticipate that this will happen? They must have used a web browser. With scrollbars. And they must know that people use scrollbars for scrolling with, surely?

Of course, the wilfully autonomous scrollbars are only one of the problems, even if they’re the worst. Here are some of the others.

  • Pages never finish loading. The browser is forever connecting to the server to fetch the next bit of the page.
    Maybe with a wonderfully fast computer and internet connection this is fine. For me it’s not fine: whenever something is loading, scrolling is erratic, jerky and sluggish. This applies especially when I have a lot of tabs open, which I normally do.
    Scrolling becomes comfortable once the page has finished loading; infinite scrolling ensures that it never becomes comfortable.
  • Navigation. With discrete pages, you always know how far down a page you are, so you’ve an idea how much there is left to read.
    You also know which page you’re on. Maybe you’ve decided to browse your way through a few pages of posts, skimming through for anything that looks interesting. Remembering that you wanted to look at something a couple of pages back, you click the Back button twice and there it is.
    Maybe you want to close the browser for now and and continue  later from where you were: you bookmark page 16 and come back to page 16. Even if the blogger adds a new post in the meantime, you’ll be in more or less the right place.
    Infinite scrolling makes all of that impossible.
  • The ever-lengthening page. As you scroll down, the page gets longer. As mentioned above, this means smaller and smaller movements of the scrollbar are needed. Eventually they’re so tiny that trying to go any further is just too irritating to be worth it. Anything further down might as well not be there since reading it is too much hassle.
  • Sequential-only access. To get to page 50 via infinite scrolling, you have to scroll all the way from page 1. You can’t just type ?page=50 or whatever into the page URL. And you don’t know where page 50 is anyway; you have to guess its position on a page whose length is continually changing. Imagine a book where the only way to get to page 50 is by opening every single page on the way to it!
    . . . Well of course there was a time when books were like that. You navigated them by scrolling because they were scrolls and nobody had yet come up with anything better. Then, around 2000 years ago, books with pages were invented, and nobody in their right mind uses scrolls any more. Quite why web designers suddenly want to revert to an unwieldy system that’s 2000 years out of date is beyond me.

Yes, I know that a properly organised site will have archive links and so on for navigation. Scrolling won’t be the only way to get to things. But navigation links aren’t actually the same as, say, jumping forward a few pages to see what you find. They only work when they happen to coincide with what you’re looking for. Links and post titles won’t tell you there’s a hilarious cartoon on page 17. (They can’t; you don’t know it’s hilarious until you see it.) With infinite scrolling you can’t do the equivalent of flicking through the pages of a book until you find something interesting then making a note of the page; all pages are page 1.

Also, sites like Twitter don’t have archive links; you can’t really have thousands of 140-character links to individual 140-character tweets.

I think programmers who inflict infinite scrolling on us should be forced to use a programming language in which all access to memory, databases and arrays is sequential. And to use programming manuals written on scrolls. Let’s see how they like that.

I don’t like infinite scrolling.

Diagram Prize update

A few posts ago, I wrote about the Diagram Prize, awarded for “the book carrying the oddest title of the year”. There was a shortlist of six titles, and members of the public were invited to vote on which should win.

Book cover showing a crocheted hyperbolic plane

Winner of the 2009 Diagram Prize

The 2009 winner has now been announced on The Bookseller‘s website, and is Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Dr Daina Taimina.

If you read the article, be sure to scroll down to the comments—the first is from Dr Taimina herself and gives her response to winning.

Another crocheted hyperbolic plane

If you want to know more about the the book and its author, visit her blog at http://hyperbolic-crochet.blogspot.com/.

Further update: When I wrote that, Daina Taimina had only just started her blog. Now that it’s been going a little longer, it’s showing signs of becoming a fascinating blog about art and mathematics, with a strong personal slant too. I do urge you to visit it.

Images © Daina Taimina and used with permission.

Your vote is needed!

A while ago I subscribed to emails from The Bookseller, the trade magazine for publishing in the UK. I did this for the worthy reason that it’s a good place to look for opportunities for freelance proofreading and copy-editing.

Today they sent me a very nice change from the usual email full of publishing jobs. It invited me to “Vote on the world’s most prestigious literary prize”. The Diagram Prize, to be precise. I confess that I’d never heard of it, however prestigious it may be.

I read on:

The Diagram Prize is an annual award bestowed upon the book carrying the oddest title of the year . . .

Run by The Bookseller magazine, the prize was first awarded in 1978 – to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice – and was conceived to alleviate boredom during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Ah. So  prestigious is being  used somewhat loosely, to mean entertaining. Rather as an IgNobel Prize is the world’s most prestigious science prizes.

There was a list of book titles, and finally an invitation to forward the email to “any odd friends that like books or friends that like odd books”. But blogging about it seemed more fun, so I’ve done that instead.

The books in this year’s shortlist are:

  • Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich, by James A Yannes
  • Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter, by D W T Crompton
  • Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, by Ronald C Arkin
  • The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, by Ellen Scherl and Marla Dubinsky
  • Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina
  • What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua?, by Tara Jansen-Meyer

Titles from the “very longlist” which sadly didn’t make it to the shortlist include How YOU™ Are Like Shampoo and Map-based Comparative Genomics in Legumes. Last year’s winner was The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60 mg Containers of Fromage Frais by Prof. Philip M Parker.

Clearly this is an important award. I didn’t see any mention of what the winner receives—a 60 mg container of fromage frais, maybe?—but the stakes are high.

Winners are announced on March 26th. You can vote by visiting http://www.thebookseller.com/ and scrolling down to just below Blogs in the left-hand column. You can read more about the shortlisting  in Spoons, Chihuahuas, and Autonomous Robots make Odd Title shortlist, and more about the prize in general by using this search on their website.

I voted for the spoons.

Update

The winner has now been announced. It is Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina, and you can read about it here. Scroll to the comments section to see the author’s response to winning.

Some John Cage anecdotes

The avant-garde composer John Cage is, of course, best known for his “silent piece”, 4’33”. This involves collecting together some musicians and an audience, and requiring them to sit in “silence”, hearing nothing but ambient sounds, for four time periods (“movements”) totalling four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

A performance at the Barbican, part of which I saw on TV, made it clear that this is more than just some kind of stunt. The audience was large; one does not usually have the experience of being with such a  large number of people in such focused silence for so long. The silence was intense, even experienced second hand through the broadcast. And it’s more than twice as long, for example, as the two minute silence we observe on Remembrance Day.

I’m not concerned about whether 4’33” is music or not: the important thing is the experience, not what label we give it. Maybe really it’s theatre. Maybe it’s something else.

It seems everyone has heard of  4’33’.

But maybe less people are aware of John Cage’s writings. Like his music, they too are idiosyncratic. They include a Lecture on Nothing which is really a kind of meditation leading into periods of extended silence. The one I want to give a sample of here, though, is called Indeterminacy. In it, he took up a friend’s suggestion of giving a lecture consisting entirely of stories. He gave the lecture at least twice: a 30 minute version and (with different stories) a 60 minute version.

The catch was that in delivery, each story had to last exactly one minute. But they were of quite wiidely varying lengths, so he had to speak very slowly in telling some of them, and very quickly for others.

But—and here’s the point—many of the stories are very entertaining and well told. And having written ninety anecdotes for the two versions of the lecture, John Cage didn’t stop there. He continued writing them as he thought of them. In his collection of writings Silence, stories that aren’t included in the printed version of the lecture are as he says “scattered through the book, playing the same function that odd bits of information play at the end of columns in a small-town newspaper”, so every so often you’ll find an anecdote instead of blank section of a page.

Here are several of my favourites. The first concerns Xenia, who was his wife for about ten years:

Xenia never wanted a party to end. Once, in Seattle, when the party we were at was folding, she invited those who were still awake, some of whom we’d only met that evening, to come over to our house. Thus it was that about 3:00 A.M. an Irish tenor was singing loudly in our living room. Morris Graves, who had a suite down the hall, entered ours without knocking, wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt and carrying an elaborately made wooden birdcage, the bottom of which had been removed. Making straight for the tenor, Graves placed the birdcage over his head, said nothing, and left the room. The effect was that of snuffing out a candle. Shortly, Xenia and I were alone.

An unintended consequence of his interest in wild fungi:

When Vera Williams first noticed that I was interested in wild mushrooms, she told her children not to touch any of them because they were all deadly poisonous. A few days later she bought a steak at Martino’s and decided to serve it smothered with mushrooms. When she started to cook the mushrooms, the children all stopped whatever they were doing and watched her attentively. When she served dinner, they all burst into tears.

Hearing a lecture without absorbing it:

I went to hear Krishnamurti speak. He was lecturing on how to hear a lecture. He said, “You must pay full attention to what is being said and you can’t do that if you take notes.” The lady on my right was taking notes. The man on her right nudged her and said, “Don’t you hear what he’s saying? You’re not supposed to take notes.” She then read what she had written and said, “That’s right. I have it written down right here in my notes.”

These can be found on pages 271, 95 and 269 respectively of John Cage, Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978 (reprinted several times since).

Addendum

In this clip you can hear part of Indeterminacy, as delivered by John Cage. Many thanks to Nanette Nielsen for the link. (Note that this features a different set of anecdotes from the ones above—and they’re every bit as worth hearing.)

From Ursula le Guin

Half an hour or so ago I read a tweet on Twitter from someone wondering why he, in Britain, was receiving emails about events in an American university. “Don’t they realise that I live on a different continent?”

One possiblility, I suppose, is that someone got confused about what .uk at the end of an email address stands for. Believe it or not, I heard a while back of people who genuinely thought that it meant University of Kentucky. It stands, of course, for United Kingdom. It’s quite startling to hear your country confused with a university.

Whatever the reason for the emails, it set off a train of thought about the insularity that seems to be springing up as a reaction to the “recession”, “economic downturn”, “credit crunch” or whatever term or euphemism you care to use for it.

And that reminded me of this section of Ursula le Guin’s story “The Royals of Hegn” in Changing Planes. It describes a society where virtually the entire population is a member of the royal family. Their knowledge of the outside world is somewhat limited.

There are 817 kings in Hegn. Each has title to certain lands, or palaces; but actual rule or dominion over a region isn’t what makes a king a king. What matters is having the crown and wearing it on certain occasions, such as the coronation of another king, and having one’s lineage recorded unquestionably in the Book of the Blood, and edging the sod at the annual Blessing of the Fish, and knowing that one’s wife is the queen and one’s eldest son is the crown prince and one’s brother is the prince royal and one’s sister is the princess royal and all one’s relations and all their children are of the blood royal. [ . . . ]

Such questions are not of interest to everyone, and the placid fanaticism with which the Hegnish pursue them bores or offends many visitors to their plane. The fact that the Hegnish have absolutely no interest in any people except themselves can also cause offense, or even rage. Foreigners exist. That is all the Hegnish know about them, and all they care to know. They are too polite to say that it is a pity that foreigners exist, but if they had to think about it, they would think so.

They do not, however, have to think about foreigners. That is taken care of for them.

The worrying thing is, I think there might be a little bit of the Hegnish in all of us . . .