Tag Archives: computers

Anticonfiguratoriabilitizationism

Yesterday on Twitter I followed the link in this tweet:

I don’t use Facebook so I’m not 100% sure what the like button does other than add some sort of counter to a page (which in this case of this page did indeed say that 38,327 people liked it), but what caught my eye was the sentence

To get started, just use the configurator below to get code to add to your site.

Is configurator a word? Well it’s clearly being used, so I suppose by definition it must be, regardless of whether it should be . . . though by rights it should be derived from the verb configurate, whatever that is. Otherwise it would surely just be a configurer.

But most words don’t just exist all on their own: they belong to families. And small differences like configure/configurate usually carry some distinction of meaning. All of which got me thinking about what family configurator might belong to.

I therefore offer you

configurate
to subject something to the actions of a configurator.
configurator
a program designed to screw up your settings automatically rather than manually, so you’ve no hope of putting them right again.
configurability
the extent to which something may be configured.
configuratoriability
the extent to which something may be configurated with a configurator.
configuratoriabilitization
the process of adding configuratoriability to something.
anticonfiguratoriabilitizationism
the position adopted by an anticonfiguratoriabilitizationist, who (i) prefers to make settings manually where possible, and (ii) deplores the proliferation of configurators and of programs which, when installed, misconfigurate everything in sight. (And, it should be added, out of sight—which can be much worse.)

I’m an anticonfiguratoriabilitizationist.

Dabr: making Twitter accessible

Twitter

In case you don’t already know, Twitter is a service which lets you send short messages or “tweets” to whoever chooses to read them. You decide who you want to “follow”, i.e. whose messages you want to see.

It’s described (mostly by Twitter) as “microblogging”, since the tweets do behave a bit like a blog, in that once posted they remain there for anyone to come along and see, but really it’s nothing like a blog: it’s experienced more like a cross between a speeded-up newsgroup and a slowed-down chatroom, but one where you get to choose who’s in it. (Though depending on the settings you’ve chosen, you may also see one-sided conversations between people who are in the room and ones outside who you can’t see.)

An important feature of Twitter (which the media so far don’t seem to have picked up on) is that there are many ways to access it. The official website, http://twitter.com, is one, but there are also a number of phone and computer applications able to send and receive tweets and to view them in various ways. In some countries you can “tweet” by SMS. There are websites too (both desktop and mobile). They’ve sprung up partly because of certain deficiencies in the site, and partly because of the wide variety of ways in which people use Twitter. For example, you might have several groups of people: core ones you want to keep up to date with all the time, others whose tweets you find interesting but don’t mind missing things, and several extremely talkative (“tweetative”?) ones who are best read individually rather than mixed in with everyone else. The website won’t let you set up such groups, but there are third-party applications which will. (So far I’ve not used one which does that, but I could do with one since I now follow too many people to keep up easily with them all.)

Twitter also lets you send direct messages, which go privately into someone’s inbox, and mark tweets as favourites so they appear in a special folder for future reference.

The day Twitter stopped working

Unfortunately, one thing Twitter seems prone to is the introduction of changes without any visible consultation with users (none has been visible to me, anyway), and these can sometimes be far-reaching. In my recent post grumbling about websites “improving for the worse”, I mentioned waking up one day to find that Twitter no longer worked in Opera Mini, which had been my main access to it. The changes were drastic, and included these:

  • The button for sending a tweet no longer worked, so I could no longer post (though I eventually discovered a backdoor way to tweet).
  • I could no longer send direct messages.
  • I could no longer mark a tweet as a “favourite”.

So, basically, Twitter was now just a service for letting me see what other people were saying, not for actually communicating with anyone. I’d been reduced to the status of an observer.

Twitter does have a mobile site, but its functionality is very limited: for example, one can’t even view direct messages, let alone send them.

I reported the problem six months ago at GetSatisfaction, and did receive a reply from someone at Twitter saying they’d filed a bug and would fix it as soon as possible, but at the time of writing, there has been no change.

Dabr

So, in order to remain a Twitter user, and stay in touch with my friends, I had to rapidly investigate other ways of accessing Twitter. The two or three Java apps which I tried were truly horrible and I won’t mention their names. There was a website which went some of the way towards what I needed, but still had important things missing (and also had a colour scheme apparently designed to lead the eye away from the text of any tweets, making it quite annoying to read). I was tweeting about this when the following tweet appeared on my Replies page, from someone called @Dabr:

@timtfj You want favourites available from a mobile Twitter site? Dabr doesn’t do that yet, but it could.

The tweet was from David Carrington, the developer of Dabr, which is a website at http://dabr.co.uk/. He had created the site for his own use, because the Twitter sites that were already available didn’t meet his needs. I replied along the lines that yes, I did want that, and went off to look at the site.

At that point, it was quite rudimentary; it was however operational enough to be usable and useful. Very soon afterwards—it may have been an hour or so, but I don’t remember—favourites appeared as a menu option.

Since then, many features have been added and I now prefer dabr.co.uk to twitter.com even when I’m on a PC rather than a mobile phone.

Dabr as I typically use it

Dabr as I typically view it. Text size is set to
smallest and the window is resizeable.
Tweets are copyright
of the tweeters.

I think the key is the way in which it was developed. What I described above is typical of the way David interacts with Dabr users. The web application is open-source; every feature has been added in close consultation with users; most, I think, have been added as the result of someone saying “I really wish it could . . .” or of somebody’s annoyance with the way one of the other apps does things. The users, after all, are the ones who know what they want to be able to do.

I don’t want to say too much about David’s excellent customer service, in case it results in his receiving a deluge of tweets to deal with, so I’ll just say that it involves the same level of interaction as the development of the site has done.

If you do have a look at http://dabr.co.uk/ and think it looks rather basic, don’t be deceived: there’s plenty of functionality there, but unlike many other websites and applications the functions aren’t accompanied by lots of unnecessary screen clutter. It’s designed to work well and display on small screens, not to look flashy. Once you start clicking things you’ll find out . . .

Here, for Twitter users, is a list of some of the things Dabr does which twitter.com currently does not:

  • Picture previews: if a tweet contains a twitpic.com or flickr.com URL, a preview of the picture is displayed in the tweet.
  • Picture uploads: pictures can be sent to twitpic.com direct from Dabr. (NB: this currently causes a bug in Opera Mini 4.2.)
  • Correct display of @replies: “In reply to” is only displayed for tweets which reply to a specific tweet, not merely ones with “@yourname” at the beginning, so following the link always takes you to the correct tweet.
  • Highlighting of replies: Replies to you, and tweets mentioning your name, are displayed against a darker background. (Though for some reason the highloghting colours seem to work better on my phone than my PC.)
  • Retweets: clicking the quotes icon next to a tweet copies it into a new one, with “RT @username” at the start. This is essential on phones like mine which can’t copy-and-paste.
  • Hashtags: Dabr recognises these, and clicking one takes you to the search results for that tag. If you tweet from that page you remain there, creating a “conference view” for people who are attending an event and posting tweets labelled with a particular tag.
  • Accessibility: It works in Opera Mini.

So it seems to me we have two opposite models of what these days is called “user experience”: one is to decide what users want, and give it to them without prior warning, with very little interaction; the other is to listen to users at every stage and involve them in the actual process of developing the site. I know which I prefer as a user.

Easier access, more posts?

You probably know that so far, I’ve mostly not been able to post easily to the blog. My web access at home has been restricted to what can be done in Opera Mini on a Sony Ericsson k750i phone. (In case you’re wondering, that’s still quite a lot, but there are restrictions; see my post about mobile access.)

Well, now I’m trying out (maybe temporarily) access via a PAYG mobile broadband dongle. So far I’m liking it, but having to keep an eye on the data usage. £10 for 1GB lasting 30 days: that comes to just over 34 MB per day. The antivirus software used up most of today’s “average allowance” simply by updating itself, and some people put a lot of graphics on their blogs, and a lot of graphics-filled posts per page too, so I’ve got to be a bit careful.

Hopefully though, I’ll now find it easier to post short things I want to share as they occur to me, and might update the blog more regularly rather than making special trips to the library to post things I’ve written at home.

One interesting realisation though: now that I’ve got easy access from the PC, there are still Web things I find much more comfortable to do on my little phone screen in Opera Mini. One is reading mainly-text blogs: I don’t need to sit at the PC, or sit the PC on me, but can relax and read on the phone. It’s easier on the eyes, to: shorter lines of text which take less concentration to stay focused on, and only a square inch or so of screen shining in my eyes.

And that’s helpful, because it means I can use my unlimited web access on the phone for those things, instead of using up my Dongle Allowance.

The good news is that posting here seems not to use up too much data.

Let’s see what happens.

By the way, I once read somewhere that a recommended line length for readability in a given font is 1½ times the length of the alphabet. That’s about

abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklmn

and I’m expecting that these lines will turn out to be a bit on the long side . . .

Edit: I’m confused now—was it 1½ times the length of the alphabet, or double? I’ve got a nasty feeling I’ll want to look it up now, because not being able to remember properly will niggle me.

A paradox: improving for the worse

Two things seem to be happening simultaneously on the Web.

  • More and more people are accessing the Web from mobile devices (phones, etc.)
  • Websites are becoming less and less accessible to mobile devices.

Take the example of Opera Mini. This is a brilliant web browser for mobile phones. In fact, because I don’t have broadband access at home, and my PC with a dialup connection is too old and decrepit for today’s websites, Opera Mini on a k750i phone is my main web access.

When you’re using Opera Mini, it feels like running a browser on your phone. It lets you display the desktop versions of websites, rather than the usually extremely cut-down mobile versions, beautifully converted for your particular phone screen. You browse pretty much as you would on a PC.

But really, it’s a remote-controlled browser on the Opera Mini server. You send instructions to it from the 206kB Java application on your phone, and it sends back converted pages for viewing.

This means that virtually all HTML pages can be viewed, subject to a few restrictions. The main one is that any change to what’s on the screen involves receiving a new page from the server: animations like Flash aren’t possible, and neither are interactive effects like menus which pop up when the mouse hovers over them.

Websites seem to be becoming more and more fond of these effects (often, I think, for no good reason at all, but merely to have fun with Flash or dynamic HTML, or to impress the person paying for the design), and thereby becoming less and less accessible. This is rarely announced: one simply visits a favourite website one day and discovers that it doesn’t work any more, or that a crucial function has disappeared.

The worst example I’ve experience was when I woke up one morning to discover that Twitter, which I’d been using for months to communicate with friends, (http://twitter.com) no longer worked. Well not if I wanted to actually send anything. But I’ve also become unable to bid on eBay items. A week or so ago, the lists of menu options in the left-hand column of my WordPress dashboard was replaced by a column of rather cryptic icons with popup menus; I don’t have access to those menu options any more unless I’m in the library.

Previously, apart from length limitations, I could use virtually all WordPress features from my phone.

This really puzzles me, since mobile access is surely becoming more important, not less important…! Surely improving websites would involve making them more accessible to more people, not more restricted in how they can be used? Is it not possible to simply use the most inclusive technology that will do the job for each task?

Edit (March 28th): OK, it turns out that I wasn’t quite right about WordPress. I’ve just discovered, by chance, that clicking the separators in the menu sidebar collapsed or expands the menus. When collapsed, they’re no longer accessible to Opera Mini’s Mobile View. But in Desktop View, which is like looking through a tiny hole at the PC screen, I can click the separators and get the menus back. Which I have just done 🙂

So it wasn’t a WordPress change, just a rather nasty feature of its interaction with Opera Mini.

Missing an old wordprocessor

Every so often, writing on my decrepit laptop at home or on the fast up-to-date PCs in the library, I find myself wondering when modern word processors like Word will catch up with the old one which I used from about 1989…

I’m talking about the Amstrad PCW8256, running a wordprocessing package called Locoscript 2. (Later, I upgraded to Locoscript 3!) The computer had 256 kB of memory (yes kilobytes not megabytes), though I eventually upgraded mine to 512 kB. It had no hard drive. Starting up the wordprocessor involved inserting a 360 kB disc, waiting until the grunting noises from the disc drive stopped, then taking it out to insert whatever disc my documents were on.

The computer had a specially designed keyboard, with extra keys which are absent from the standard PC one: in particular the [CUT], [COPY] and [PASTE] keys. Also unlike a standard PC keyboard, it had all the characters on it which you would have expected any decent typewriter to have. (Yes, I remember typewriters too…) And they were a comfortable distance apart–less stretching of the fingers was involved than on most PC keyboards.

As I recall–unless I had to upgrade the memory before I could use that version–Locoscript 2 fitted on one side of its 360k disc; the other side was used for extra fonts and things. Yet it could happily do useful things which in modern wordprocessors are either absent or very difficult. Features I particularly miss are:

  • Multiple clipboards for copying and pasting. I found this incredibly useful if I had a set of notes in a more or less random order and was trying to collect them into something organised. There were effectively 36 clipboards, labelled A-Z and 0-9. So if I wanted to collect the material together for a particular section of my document, I would simply go through the notes, and copy/cut each relevant one to one of the clipboards. Then when I’d got them all, [B][PASTE] A [PASTE] B [PASTE] C [PASTE] D[/B] etc. would plonk the contents of clipboards A, B, C, D… all down into the new location, nicely collected together in the desired order. You’ve no idea how clumsy and inefficient having just one clipboard seems after being used to working like that.

  • Search and replace for formatting codes, not just text. By formatting codes I mean the ones for bold type, italics etc. Suppose you decide that a particular word–say a name of a pub or something–should always appear in quotation marks. Then you change your mind and want it in italics, without the quotation marks. Simple: you search for all instances of “word in quotes”, and have them automatically replaces with word in italics.
  • Add any accent to any character. I think I’m right in saying that with current PCs running Windows, if you want a particular accent on a particular character then you’ve got to have a font installed that includes that particular accented character. Some are more difficult to come by than others. For example, I’ve searched and searched unsuccessfully for a c with a hacek on it (needed, for example, if I want to spell the composer Janacek properly, or even if I want to spell hacek properly), and I occasionally want to type Welsh words which have a circumflex accent on a w or a y: both very common in the Welsh language but completely lacking in the standard fonts. This was easy in Locoscript: accents are like separate characters, so you just type the accent, type the character, and get what you’re after.
  • No need to use 0.5 when you mean a half. How many times have you seen people type, say, 1.5 hours simply because it’s so hard to get at a half sign? (I mean, since when did we divide hours up into tenths? Units of six minutes? It’s crazy!) It leaps out as WRONG. No problem on the PCW: it was properly thought-out and you simply pressed the half key, located somewhere to the right of the spacebar. I still remember my shocked disbelief the first time I used a standard PC keyboard, was merrily typing away, then needed to type something-and-a-half. How could anything so utterly basic be missing?!
  • Add user-designed characters to a font. No font can cover absolutely everything that might be needed. In my case, I wanted to make notes on harmony, and I needed symbols which are used for that, such as a 6 above a 4, or a 9 above a 7 with a flat sign after the 9. Obviously those didn’t come with the font. But it was easy enough to create them, and add them as special characters.

The question is: if a wordprocessor which fitted on one small disc and ran on a computer with only 512k of memory could do all this, why can’t the memory-eating modern ones like Word do it? In particular, the multiple clipboards and the half sign seem to me like essentials in anything calling itself a wordprocessor, and ther absence makes present-day wordprocessors feel clumsy and amateurish in comparison–almost as if they’d accidentally missed out a letter of the alphabet or something.

And don’t get me started on the amateurishness of the DTP-like features of certain wordprocessors… Well not unless you want to. Let’s just say that some of the default settings are designed to make any document leap out as being amateurish and the first thing you have to do for any piece of serious work is to override them all…

There. That feels better! 🙂