Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “web”

Firefox is Bloatware

I’ve just reloaded Firefox for the sixth time this morning.

It crashed three times, but each time I restarted it it tried to reload all the stuff that had made it crash in the first place, so I had to close it and restart it again.

I remember when Mozilla’s flagship browser was Netscape. It was what I used when I first started exploring the Web, 21 years ago. But it became bloated and cumbersome, and so they wisely decided to split it — the browser part became Firefox, and the mail and news reader became Thunderbird, and they were lean, mean and fast.

Now, however, Firefox has become as bloated and clunky as the old Netscape.

I first began to notice a serious slowdown when I tried to download a PDF file, and instead of downloading it, Firefox opened and displayed it. I wasted quite a lot of time and bandwidth trying to discover how to download the file in order to have it for future reference. It seems that Firefox had added its own PDF reader, which made its memory footprint bigger, and slowed it down quite a lot.

Then it seems to have added something called “Pocket”, which it tells me is better than bookmarks (how?), and that seems to have slowed it down even more. It’s costing me a lot in coffee.

Why? Because when I’m working on something, and want to check a fact on the web, the date of a monarch, or the spelling of a word, I go to make a cup of coffee while waiting for the page to load.

They say they don’t want to develop Firefox for Windows XP any more, because it’s too much hassle to put all these bells and whistles into it.

Well that’s OK, just go back to a version that had fewer bells and whistles and more pistons and cylinders, and re-release that. Then you can go back to playing around producing bloatware for those who can  afford to keep up with the Joneses by buying a new computer every year with more and more memory.

Medium and Niume — what are they?

For some time now I’ve been hearing about web sites called Medium and Niume, and I’ve been urged to join them. The trouble is, I don’t know what they are, or what they are for.

Today I saw an article that gave at least some information about Medium — ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It – The New York Times:

Medium was supposed to be developing its business around advertising, which would have paid for writers like Ms. Norman and made the site viable. Then it abruptly pivoted in January and laid off a third of the staff, or about 45 people. Advertising was suddenly no longer the solution but the villain.

“Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”

But it doesn’t look good.

I went to the Medium site to find out more, but the main menu was unreadable — designed by web designers who firmly believe that illegibility provides an enhanced “user experience”. Holding a magnifying glass up to the screen enabled me to read enough of the low-contrast text to see that there was no “About” page that would tell you about the site and what its purpose was and how it worked. The NY Times article gives some hints at the thinking behind it, but doesn’t actually tell you what “it” is.

Niume is even worse. You have to join it before you can even see if there is an about page and decide whether you want to join it or not. How’s that for buying a pig in a poke? Whatever advantages it might have, that’s enough to put me off right there.

So my question is: Can anyone who has actually used either or both these sites tell us something about what they are and what they are for, and, if they are blog hosting sites, how they compare with other such sites like WordPress or Blogger?



Twitter, antisocial media, and the zombie apocalypse

Yesterday Twitter said it was going to send me more “relevant” stuff, and said I could go to me “Settings” page and change it, but without much explanation.

I looked at the settings and clicked on “Disable All”, and got warned that I would be seeing less “relevant” tweets and ads. They also claimed that enabling it would give me “more control” over what I saw on Twitter — a bit disingenuous, that, because as far as I can see, it gives me less control, and completes Twitter’s exodus from the social media fold; it has now become an antisocial medium, because enabling those options means that they get to choose what they will show you.

In the old Twitter, you could choose who to follow and who not to follow. If you followed someone, you would see their tweets, and if you unfollowed them you would no longer see their tweets. That’s maximum control in your hands, and that is the essence of social media — interacting with other people.

The new Twitter, however, limits social interaction. You become an isolated individual, and they feed you what they want you to see, based on what web sites you visit, and other things that indicate your preferences. That means that Twitter becomes a kind of narcissistic ego trip, reinforcing your prejudices, isolating you from people who think differently from you, and thus reinforcing the trend for the Internet to lose whatever potential it had for being a global village, and isolating you in a kind of cyber-ghetto where you never have to move out of your comfort zone.

It also makes it rather pointless to post stuff on Twitter, because you can’t assume that your followers will be able to see it. Twitter might not find it “relevant” enough for them. It might be outside their comfort zone. So if you interact on Twitter, you’ll end up talking to yourself. And Twitter will then have completed the transition from a social medium to an antisocial medium, isolating us in little cocoons. You’ve heard of the “nanny state”, welcome to the Nanny Internet..

As it is, when I go to Twitter, I see if there are any notifications. If there are, I read my Twitter feed, but if there are not, I don’t bother, and go to another site, and look for stuff that I find relevant, and not stuff that Twitter has chosen for me. Because if there are no notifications, it means that no one has been reading anything I’ve posted, so why bother?

Now comes the test: if my tweet announcing this post gets at least 10 retweets on Twitter (that’s 0,86% of my Twitter followers), I’ll know that there’s still life on Twitter, and that there’s still some hope for it as a social medium. And if it gets no retweets, then the zombie apocalypse has already overtaken us, because Twitter will have turned us all into zombies.

Grumpy old git recommends The Guardian

When I look at what I have posted on this blog recently, I realise what a grumpy old git I have become.

grumpyHalf the posts seem to  complaining about things that used to work, but don’t (or soon won’t, like Dropbox). Or things that you used to be able to buy in the shops, like peanut butter and gooseberry jam, and apple and quince jelly, but no longer can.

But today I want to say kudos to The Guardian for their web site.

I visited the site today because someone posted a link to a review on Facebook. I thought the review was worth reading so I’ll post the link here too: You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch review – search engines can’t do everything | Books | The Guardian.

And while I was there they asked me to complete their survey on the “user experience”.

Normally the term “user experience” drives me up the wall.

There’s an example right here on the page as I type this in WordPress. It says “There’s now an easier way to create on! Switch to the improved posting experience.”

I tried it for about two sentences and switched back immediately, because the “improved posting experience” translated into English as “increased frustration”, I couldn’t read what I typed. I couldn’t read the menu options. I couldn’t read a damn thing. That, they told me, was an “improved posting experience”.

Nevertheless, after reading the article in The Guardian, I completed the survey, which meant I had to actually look at The Guardian‘s pages, and I realised just how good they are.

For a start, it was legible.

It was in a readable font, and there was enough contrast between text and background to read without holding a magnifying glass up to the screen to find out that that “ll” was actually a “bb” (yes, that happens quite often). Sometimes I just mark/define/select the text as if I’m going to copy it — you know, Ctrl-C + Down Arrow. That usually gives light-coloured text on a dark background, which is much more legible. But why should one have to resort to such things just because some idiot declared that light grey text on a white background was fashionable?

But The Guardian‘s web site isn’t like that. It’s legible right off the screen.

And another thing, the text doesn’t jump around for a minute before you can read it.

That happens a lot on other news sites that I get to by following links from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Someone posts a link to an article that looks as though it might be interesting reading. You read half a sentence, and it jumps up or down off the screen. You try to scroll to find the bit where you were reading, and nothing happens. Firefox is “not responding”. Eventually you try to close the page and Firefox bombs out, and then Windows advises you that plugincontainer.exe had a problem and had to close, and invites you to tell Microsoft about this problem. That’s my “user experience” most of the time these days. I suspect it would be more use telling Mozilla about the problem, but the best thing would be to tell the web page designer who tried to fit 10 litres into a plug-in container that was only designed to hold one litre.

I noticed that The Guardian site didn’t seem to have these problems, or it had them to a much lesser extent than a lot of other news sites.

OK, this post is also a bunch of complaints about a lot of websites from a grumpy old git.

But not The Guardian.

Kudos to The Guardian for creating a site where the web pages are legible, hold still while you are trying to read them, and scroll when you want to read more.

That sort of behaviour is quite exceptional in news web sites these days, and deserves an honourable mention.


Improving your user experience

If there is one thing guaranteed to annoy me on the Internet, it is people offering or promising to “improve your user experience.”

At the top of this page, as I write this, WordPress exhorts me: There’s now an easier way to create on! Switch to the improved posting experience.

I had as look at the “improved posting experience”, and found that it was absolutely dysfunctional. What do these people think “experience” means? And “improved”? Do they regard increasing people’s frustration levels as an “improvement”.

To all web page designers out there, there are two ways of improving my user experience. These two ways are:

  1. make pages more readable, and
  2. make pages more readable

The first way of making pages more readable is to increase the contrast between text and background.

The second way of making pages more readable is to make the text stand still long enough so that one can read it.

Get that?

  1. increase contrast between text and background

  2. stop the text from jumping around when people are trying to read it

The first problem is the main problem with the new WordPress editor. I can’t use it because I can’t read the instructions or even find them on the page.

Fortunately the old functional editor is still available, but in order to make up for the high levels of frustration that are essential to an “improved posting experience” they have hidden it away so it is hard to find.

pushI have two ways of enjoying the enhanced user experience of low contrast between text and background.

One that I use with short pieces of text (a line or two) is to hold a powerful magnifying glass up to the screen and try to work out what is written in that way.

For longer pieces of text, like a full article, and only if I’m really motivated to read it, I mark the text as if I am going to copy it. This usually reverses it, and instead of illegible light grey text on a white background it often gives white text on a blue background, which is usually more readable.

There doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about the jumping text.

uxguideIt usually jumps when pictures are being loaded, and if it hasn’t stopping jumping within 30 seconds, I usually close that screen and give up trying to read it. The only solution is for web designers to design their pages better.

When I first started designing web pages 20 years ago one of the cardinal rules was that one should use graphics sparingly, because too many clutter up the page and take longer to load. Too many graphics is bad taste, and, what’s more, it leads to a bad user experience, but will web designers learn that? No.

And one of the first things to know about “user experience” is to stop talking about it! Just make our pages readable and make your pages readable and move on to something else. And, if you must, read this article

20 things you can do this year to improve your user’s experience:

With all of this emphasis on ‘experience’, don’t lose sight of the fact that most people use technology to get stuff done. Frankly, most people don’t want an ‘experience’ with a car park machine, they just want to buy a parking ticket and move on.

Remember that. Write it out 10000 times: most users don’t want an “experience”, they just want to get stuff done. When I’m writing a blog post in WordPress, I don’t want a posting experience, I want to get my stuff written and posted. I want to accomplish a task not have an experience.

A couple of months ago I got a new cell phone. It took me two weeks to discover how to answer it when it rang. My old phone had a red phone icon and a green phone icon. You pressed the green one to answer when it rang, and the red one to hang up. Simple.

But that didn’t work on the new one. It had green phones and red phones and flashing dots in expanding circles, but no matter which one you pressed it kept on ringing until the caller gave up. A marvellous user experience that — I really have nothing better to do than watch flashing dots while the phone is ringing and I’m wondering how to answer it.

I’ve also encountered user surveys, many of which claim to be trying to provide an “enhanced user experience” — “Help us to learn more about our users so we can provide an enhanced user experience.” But most of them don’t want any kind of user feedback at all. They just want to know how they can sell you stuff. They are not seeking to provide an enhanced user experience, they are wanting to have an improved marketing experience. It’s their experience, not yours, that they are concerned about.

One was from the Daily Maverick which I had thought was one of the least unreliable news sources in South Africa today. It was very disappointing. One question was about what you used the Internet for, and most of the things I use the Internet for were not even among the options, just subsumed under “Other”.

It turned out to be all about online shopping habits, and one question asked you to choose 3 advantages you saw to online shopping. None of the suggested answers seemed to apply, so I clicked on “Other” and moved on. It want back, and said you have to give three. I closed it. If it had been allowed, I would have said “None of the above”, but I was disappointed that the Daily Maverick seems to have joined the ranks of the shameless manipulators. That doesn’t enhance my “user experience” at all, at all.

Here’s How Facebook’s News Feed Actually Works | TIME

facebookLDFacebook is one of the most popular web sites on earth, but most of us have at times felt that we are being manipulated and messed around by Facebook’s algorithms — showing you lots of stuff you have no interest in, and missing out things that are vital.

If you don’t “like” enough things that someone posts, Facebook stops showing that person’s posts to you, so after not seeing anythimng from them for several weeks and wondering if they are ill or have died, you look them up and “like” everything in sight, whether you actually like it or not.

This article suggests that that is about to change.

Facebook is injecting a human element into the way News Feed operates. The company’s growing army of human raters help the social network improve the News Feed experience in ways that can’t easily be measured by “Likes.” A new curation tool launching Thursday, for instance, called “See First” will let any user choose which of their friends they want to see at the top of the feed, rather than having the decision dictated by an algorithm. via Here’s How Facebook’s News Feed Actually Works | TIME.

I have a suggestion for Facebook, to improve this for users.

First, that they should allow one to categorise things that one posts. Categories could include things like:

  • Vital family events – birth, marriage, death, serious illness
  • Other family events – moving/renovating home, graduation, holidays etc
  • Work-related stuff
  • Recreation, hobbies, travel etc
  • Religion, spirituality etc
  • Society – politics, economics etc
  • Art & literature
  • Travel
  • Technology
  • General

And then allow you to say which kind of stuff you would like to see from any particular friend.

That would do a great deal to improve the Facebook “user experience”.


Disabling NoScript

I recently found that I could not edit WordPress posts, but managed to do so when I used Internet Explorer rather than Firefox.

I have now tried again with Firefox, with the NoScript add-on disabled, so it seems that the culprit was NoScript. There must have been something wrong with a recent update. It also seemed to have weird effects on some other sites, with menu options taking one to the wrong place etc.

It’s a pity, because I found NoScript useful when visiting news sites and others with bandwidth-hogging video streaming etc.


Dead phones and the power of Twitter

Our phone is working again after being dead for 12 days.

We reported the fault to Telkom as soon as we noticed that the phone wasn’t working, and when it hadn’t been repaired within a day, I posted a message on Twitter & Facebook (via cellphone) to let people that we had problems, so they would understand that we would not be able to respond immediately to e-mail messages and such things. Something similar had happened about 6 months ago, when the phone line was down for a similar period, and when the service was restored I found lots of messages saying “Did you get my previous message?”

Occasionally the ASDL Internet connection worked, even when the voice line was dead, It worked for an hour or so, perhaps once every 3-4 days, and then would die again.

On the Twitter messge I used the #hashtag #Telkom, and was interested to see that it was picked up by @TelkomBusiness, who asked for the phone number, and then followed up with the technical department, and after we had been without the phone for 10 days asked them to “escalate” our fault. Whther as a result of that or something else, the phone started working again today, and with it the Internet connection. So thanks to @TelkomBusiness for the role they played in that. It just goes to show that someone out there keeps an eye on the hashtags, and picked up the #Telkom one, and followed it up. It also shows the power of Twitter. Thanks to the people at @TelkomBusiness for their readiness to help.

It will take some time to deal with all the accumulated mail: when I downloaded it in the brief windows when the ADSL was working I would sort it into various “To Reply” folders, sometimes with a quick note that I would deal with it when the line was working again, and delete the spam. Apologies for the notes that were perhaps curt and abrupt, or full of typos. I was typing fast to try to get it off before the connection died again.

Gideon Iileka, Steve Hayes, Thomas Ruhozo, at Kamanjab, Namibia, 5 October 1971And here’s a picture that shows the bloke who was sending the notes; that’s me, in the middle.

The picture is over 40 years old, but then some of the people I send e-mail to I haven’t seen for 40 years, and so they will be more likely to remember me looking like that. And the two other blokes in the picture I haven’t seen for 40 years either. But I like the picture, and I’d like to see them again, and perhaps take a follow-up picture.

There’s one other thing to add.

I posted this to let people know that our phone line is working again, and over the next few days I’ll be working to deal with the accumulated mail. But when I tried to write this, I couldn’t. WordPress would not let me.  The WordPress editor simply would not let me type the text. So I thought I’d try to write the message on my Tumblr bloglet, Marginalia, but that wouldn’t let me edit it either. So eventually I tried loading Internet Explorer instead of Firefox, and that seemed to do the trick. So it looks like the current edition of Firefox is broken, and needs an update.


Are Yahoo! planning to pull the plug on Yahoogroups?

If you go to Yahoogroups web pages they tell you:

Welcome to the new Yahoo Groups
We’ve improved your Yahoo Groups experience. Check out what’s new:

Well that’s a lie.

What they’ve done is reduce the functionality of the whole site. Much of the reduced functionality only affects group owners and moderators, but the biggest problem is for users who want to read messages at the web site.

If you go to a particular message, you see it momentarily, and then it disappears. Then there is a button that says “View source”, and if you click that, you can read the message, but with distracting things like the full message headers, which are of little interest to most people.

Then you are shown a button that says “Show message” — and if you click it, it hides the message again.

Real intuitive, huh?

A really improved “Yahoogroups experience”?

Yahoo have never heard of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Their motto is, “If it ain’t broke, break it. ”

You can still read messages OK if you subscribe by e-mail, but it also seems that Yahoo have made it difficult for new subscribers to join. A friend of mine has been trying to subscribe to one of the groups I moderate for months, and hasn’t managed to do so.

I think they’ve decided to get rid of Yahoogroups, as they have with so many other things (Geocities, Webrings, MyBlogLog), but because it has been one of their more popular services, they want to make it unpopular before they pull the plug, so that no one will miss it when they finally do so.




Frustration is an improvement on satisfaction?

We’ve improved your Yahoo Groups experience.

So say Yahoo!

But since they changed the user interface, my experience as a user has been frustration. Things that used to work no longer do so. Things that were easy to do are now much harder and more timeconsuming to do. You can spend hours looking for where they have hidden a function that used to be easy to find, only to find that it has been removed. And wasting time and frustration do not constitute an improvement in my understanding of the word “improve”.

When will people learn the simple adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Yahoo! Mail, which I had used since 1996, has now become completely unusable, because they’ve removed everything that worked and replaced it with a lot of useless stuff. And now they’re busy wrecking their mailing list service too.

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