Out of Reach

This photo of the daughter of a dead US soldier reaching for him in his casket is one of the saddest I’ve ever seen.


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

If Twitter were a phone company, you could only call people who used the same phone company as you.
If the iPhone were a desktop computer, you could only install applications approved by Microsoft (or Apple).
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.