Firefox at the State Department

In what sounds like the worst meeting ever, the US State Department’s Town Hall Meeting to Announce the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) (that’s really what it’s called), a State Department staff member asked this question:

Can you please let the staff use an alternative web browser called Firefox? I just – (applause) – I just moved to the State Department from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and was surprised that State doesn’t use this browser. It was approved for the entire intelligence community, so I don’t understand why State can’t use it. It’s a much safer program. Thank you. (Applause.)

Senator Clinton responded “Well, apparently, there’s a lot of support for this suggestion. (Laughter.) I don’t know the answer.” and passed the question on to under secretary Patrick F. Kennedy.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: The answer is at the moment, it’s an expense question. We can —

QUESTION: It’s free. (Laughter.)

The discussion went on to cover how it’s not actually free to switch a major application in a large organization, which is fair enough.

 

Fashion Advice for Nerds

As an occasional nerd, I’ve learned a fashion tip over the years that would have served me well had I learned it earlier in life.

Wear clothes that fit.

It may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me. When something is too small, it’s obvious – it’s tight, uncomfortable, or you can’t even fit into it. Too big, though, is something else all together. Technology conference t-shirts tend to come in two sizes, Extra-Large and Whatever-Is-Left.

In high school, my pants were too big and my t-shirts hung over my frail frame like bed sheets (as was the custom at the time).

It turns out that if you take a few minutes to find the size that fits you comfortably, you will feel better and look better. Try this: find the smallest size that you can fit into and then get one size larger.

While this advice is primarily for nerds, it also applies to most geeks and some dorks.

 

The Creepy Canyon

John Gruber suggests that the common Linux desktop interfaces of Gnome and KDE fall into the uncanny valley – similar enough to Windows for you to expect similar behaviour, but different enough to be problematic:

By establishing a conceptual framework that mimicks Windows, they can never really be that much different than Windows, and if they’re not that much different, they can never be that much better.

A fair criticism. In my house, we refer to the uncanny valley as the “creepy canyon”, because we’re all about alliteration.

 

United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar, so he wrote a song and filmed a video about it called United Breaks Guitars.

 

Technology Freedom in Metaphor

Twitter
If Twitter were a phone company, you could only call people who used the same phone company as you.
iPhone
If the iPhone were a desktop computer, you could only install applications approved by Microsoft (or Apple).
DVD
If DVDs were books, you couldn’t read a book from Europe while in North America (oh, and you also need secret decoder glasses).

See identi.ca for an open alternative to Twitter.

 

Garrity’s Law of Icon Metaphors

A rule of thumb I try to use when looking for visual metaphors for actions or elements in an interface:

If an element does not have an obvious visual metaphor, then it should not have an icon.

I’m also working on a law that governs how to name laws after oneself, but I don’t have a good name for it yet.

 

Firefox 3.5

Firefox 3.5 icon

As with every major release of Firefox since 1.0, I’ve had the privilege of working with Mozilla on their website updates for the new Firefox 3.5 release.

If you care about web browsers, you already know why it’s awesome, and if you don’t care about web browsers, all you need to know is that it’s better.

Even though there are loads of significant new features (audio/video, downloadable fonts, big performance improvements), my favourite feature so far is stupidly simple. When you View Source on a page, you can now click on the links to CSS and JavaScript files to view them right in the source viewer. This had made my life 0.000.1% better, which isn’t bad for a web browser.

 

Boring But Delightful Standards

I’ve written before about the boring but delightful benefits of standards. Another such standard is emerging in Europe this month. Most major mobile phone manufacturers have signed on to support a standard phone charger for mobile phones in the European Union. Such a grand display of common-sense is unusual and is to be applauded.

The Mini-USB charging port on my mobile phone is just about the only thing I like about it (other than it having lasted for three years so far). When travelling, one USB cable can power my phone and transfer photos from my camera to my laptop.

 

Captcha’s Used Against Us With Comic Results

Nasty Spam Captcha image

I’ve always been bothered by the idea behind captchas (those weird looking things you have to type in to create an account on some sites). I resent that they make us, the good guys, prove that we’re good guys (or that we’re human, in this case). I feel the same way about having to lock my car, but after being repeatedly robbed, I have given up on that ideal. I’ve even had to use captchas on a few systems I’ve worked with myself (and I’m particularly proud of the catchpa on WebTwenny.com).

The reasons captchas are bad have been well explained by people smarter than myself. I’m no fan of spam, but I find myself oddly delighted to see spammers using the very technology developed to limit spam, to actually defeat spam-prevention systems. Recent spam emails have been including captcha-like images that are presumably intended to confuse spam-detection systems.

Oh, and the images are cartoon penises. Hold your mouse over (or click on) the grey image to see the delightfully horrifying image I received in my inbox.

Note: I’ve obscured the image by default not because of prudish sensibilities, but because I just couldn’t have those little guys staring at me from my own weblog.

 

Chronic Belonging

When I was in grade school, I was in a Church youth group. The group was interesting and fun, and I was able to really feel a part of it. I took comfort in belonging to such a group. My response was to jump in with both feet. If there was a related event, activity, or group, I was always a part of it.

This was the first of what would become a string of attachments to groups that would span much of my life.

A sense of belonging to something, anything, seems to be a basic human need. Even when the thing to which we belong is negative, the belonging itself can feel like a positive. While the need to belong is not necessarily a bad thing, I have found myself to have suffered from a chronic need to belong, often to the exclusion of anything else.

As I entered university, my new fix for belonging came from a band. There were only three of us, but I would have practiced every night if it were up to me. Of course, the music was a draw and it was a fun to create something, but what always pushed me was the need to belong.

Later in life, I came to belong to a new type of group. This time it was a legal entity; a corporation. Of course, it was much more than that; it was a group of peers building something together. Again, I wanted to belong, and as always, I wanted to belong as much as I could.

This worked well for quite a while, as the founding partners were all at a similar stage in life were such a venture really could be their primary focus. When your need to belong to something is this strong, though, it can be troubling when another member finds something else more important than the group. When some of the partners chose to focus on travel or education, even though it was almost always beneficial, this struck at my basic need to belong to the group. How could someone not want to be completely focused on this?

Ed Robertson of the group the Barenaked Ladies spoke in an interview about how deeply he was affected by the departure of one of their founding members during the midst of their early success. I can’t find the quote (it was a TV interview), but Robertson spoke of how it shook his view of what was important to see a member of this thing that was so important to him just walk away from it.

I write about this now because I can understand it in hindsight. That is to say, it’s behind me. I’m still a member of the company we founded almost ten years ago. It is still an important part of my life. However, it is no longer the most important thing in my life, nor do I feel the need to immerse myself completely in it. No longer do the choices of fellow company founders shake my faith in the value of the group.

It’s also easy to understand the origins of this need to belong once you are able to step outside of it. From this vantage point, it’s clear that the need comes, at least in part, from the comfort of sharing values and goals with others. As long as you’re not the only one living your life in a particular way, you can find security in knowing others have made the same choice. Even if it turns out to be a mistake, at least it’s a mistake you’ll make in good company, rather than alone.

Moving beyond this chronic need to belong seems to require a sense of self-confidence. You need to know that you can make good choices even when others make different, or even contrary, choices. It also helps to know that there are some groups to which you will always belong. Having a family of my own now seems to have given me much more security in this regard. I will always be, by definition, a member of my own family.

I finally find myself able to be a part of something, without having to immerse myself completely in it.