Archive for November, 2008

Schematic: Microsoft’s problem

I GIMPed this up over the weekend, and forgot to post it:

As you can see, the Linuxian forces, commanded by Generals Tux the Red, ubTuxtu, and Chief Sitting Penguin have split into three groups and have flanked Microsoft, which has spread it’s forces too thin trying to deal with the triple threat of netbook, desktop and server operating systems.

Don’t like comics? Read this: (the inspiration for this, actually…)


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Web Design Woes

I’ll tell you right off the bat–this is not an “article”, just a post. Now that we’re clear:

I take back a lot of what I said about HTML, CSS and the W3C. It’s all a good idea, and I now realize that. That said, I’m still a bit touchy about the Validator. Want proof? This page was validated in 2008, but running it through the Validator again brings up four errors and two warnings. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I still feel that my anger is justified.

All of that said, I’ve been redoing my website to:

  • Use HTML for page logic.
  • Use CSS for page looks (a challenge, considering that as of this morning I didn’t know CSS at ALL.)
  • Make the little navbar thingy towards the top a lot easier to maintain.
  • Pass the Validator (OK, OK, maybe Tidy HTML can help a bit.)

I also took advantage of the shuffle to rewrite the content a bit.

So far, I’ve finished one page, which was based on this one, but will now double as my index too.

A few notes:

  • All the CSS on it was whatever I could hack in a few hours using Google, part of this, scientific experiments with simple pages and Tidy HTML and logic. I have no idea how ‘nice’ it is (in terms of coding style) but it appeases my eyes, the Validator, and the end product, so I’m not complaining. I do not recommend this method of learning for the faint of heart. (Yes, I am going to do a proper tutorial this summer, I just wanted results NOW.)
  • I hacked together some Javascript for my navbar. This was accomplished by: Looking at sample code, and writing like a Pythoneer while using the Java syntax I’m learning in school.
  • So far, the Validator is happy!

Some of you might be wondering what happened to my colors. Answer: I’m colorblind, and as such have absolutely no sense for what looks good on a page. I began to think that all the blue might be a bit overwhelming, so I’m going old-school with the black-on-white. If you have any opinion on this, please relate it in the comments. I would really appreciate it.

I’m a bit miffed that this means absolutely nothing to people looking at my site with polite browsers, but I guess this is what they would call a Black Triangle. It makes me feel really proud of myself though, which is one of the reasons I love coding.

Goal: Finish the rest of the pages by the end of this weekend, and move everything from my ‘experimental’* subdomain to the real deal.

*That thing is great for organization.


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Themes for GMail: An Ecstatic “Darnit!”

GMail has a dashing new feature: Themes. And it’s not even the experimental Lab kinda thing–it’s fully supported.


I really like GMail’s appearance, but switching it up every now and then is a very nice change. And I suppose some people really don’t like the original color scheme, and are really happy they don’t have to use Better GMail or a Greasemonkey script to mess with it.

And ninjas are cool:

However, I have two main problems:

  1. What’s up with chat? In the screenshot you can see some problems. And before, I was using a different theme, and the same person’s status (but not name–it was whited out) appeared a good 10-15 times. Eh? I’m sure a bug fix is coming, but I wish they’d taken a few more days to polish the product before releasing it. Better yet, they could’ve submitted it as a Labs feature, and then just had it graduate soon. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small point. Edit: See end of post.
  2. GMail is still refusing to be nice and open about things. I feel like it would be a simple process to push out some documentation on how to create a theme, create a website which hosted a slew of third-party themes, and next to each one have a little check box titled “Have as an option in GMail”. This would exponentially increase the amount of themes out there, make them easy to obtain, and avoid bloat on the settings page. Some people would play it safe and just use official themes, others would gladly welcome the diversity. Questions about the feasability of the idea? Look at Firefox.

You might be thinking that I’m a little bit too excited about free-as-in-speech software and open standards, but the only thing Google has to lose on this is the pain of producing documentation, the annoyance of making the repository website, and the hassle of incorporating it into the GMail settings. I think they can handle it, and I think it’ll improve the quality of the product. There is no “oh, but the programmers need the money you pay them” or “if they open their standards they’ll lose customers to other pieces of software” arguments, just software improvement.

Am I happy they have themes? Definitely.

Could they do it better? Sure.


Edit: After further investigation, it seems to only be a Firefox-on-Windows problem. Firefox on Ubuntu does fine, and Chrome on Windows does fine, but Firefox on Windows throws up that bug. Weird, but not nearly as infuriating as being a global error.


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Chrome, Chrome, Chrome….

I’ve been making an honest effort to use Google Chrome.

Really, I have.

It seems like such a better idea–one process per tab, faster Javascript, easy interface, incognito mode, integrated search from address bar–it’s positively beautiful on paper.

But I just can’t accept it as a ‘serious’ browser.

To help you understand this, let me walk you through a typical weekend Firefox session:

Open Firefox, all the tabs I was looking at last time are up. Finish reading/digesting them, and close them as I finish. Check my mail, Twitter and Facebook, writing when necessary. Check the stats for this blog, as well as my ad performance. Read everything new on Google Reader, and if I want to read some more, do a bit of Stumbling. If a new term comes up in Reader or SU, look it up on Wikipedia. Write a post for this blog or my other one, if I have the time, and maybe check the Programming section of the Ubuntu Forums–either I learn something or I can help someone out. If I still want something to do, then I open up either my C or wxPython tutorial, and start learning.

Now let’s consider Chrome:

  • Open up the tabs from last time: Check.
  • GMail/Twitter/Facebook: Check.
  • Blog info: Check.
  • Reader: Check.
  • StumbleUpon: Fail.
  • Wikipedia: Fail (this will be explained.)
  • Blogging: Check.
  • Ubuntu Forums: Check.
  • Programming tutorials: Err…I program in Ubuntu, and use Chrome in Windows, so Fail.

Besides StumbleUpon (and Wikipedia(?)), everything looks fine. So what’s the problem?

Ease of use.

But Timmy, Chrome is ridiculously easy to use–Google has long been famed for its superior design, interface and usability!

So I present my humble list of Five Usability Fails on Google Chrome:

  1. The Omnibar. I think Google’s trying to one-up Firefox 3′s Awesome Bar with this. I think they failed. Firefox does a superior job of searching ALL parts of a URL and putting the MOST relevant one on top. I have mastered the <Down><Enter> hand flick. Chrome tries, but it seems to weigh the first part of the URL a LOT more. Take this blog–I access it frequently, and in Firefox always used “Ran…” to do so (it found Rannsaich mo Inntinn) Even though I acces it a lot in Chrome, Google puts Rand McNally ( as the first result. I haven’t even been there! This is just Google outsmarting itself.
  2. The search box. Chrome doesn’t have one. Fail.
  3. Number two cheated. If I want to search Google in Firefox, I hit <Ctrl><K>. If my cursor is in the location bar, I hit <Tab>. If I want to search Wikipedia, Ninjawords, or BibleGateway, I use <Ctrl><Arrow Keys>. This is exceedingly easy and fast. What’s more, if I’m Feeling Lucky (say I want the Wikipedia page on Agile Programming), I just type “wiki agile programming” into the location bar, hit enter, and BAM! there it is. This has about a 97% success rate. Good enough for me. Chrome, on the other hand, only lets you use ONE search engine, and you can NEVER feel lucky. What’s more, to access ‘real’ webpages (see #1) you have to scroll through the search entries in the drop-down list.
  4. Chrome. As in, the decoration around the browser, not the browser. I feel like Firefox provides a lot of power with its UI–navigation, bookmarks, tabs, extra third-party toolbars, menus, etc. If I feel cramped for screen space, guess what? I hit <F11> and it all goes bye-bye. Chrome is stuck in this middle ground of having less power than FF’s complete chrome, and less screen space than FF’s fullscreen. Why can’t Chrome have a fullscreen too? I have no idea. Feature request!!!
  5. Tab layout. Call this minor, but it really bugs me. I have grown fully accustomed to new tabs being opened at the far right. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works, but I’d much rather see things chronologically instead of topically. I’m probably crazy, but the fact that Chrome opens links in adjacent tabs drives me cuckoo. They could at least make it optional….

I know that I could learn to live with a lot of these, but why? Firefox works fine for me, and I see no reason to change.


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Browser Startups

I’ve finally gotten the dual-boot part of my dual-boot system working (Ubuntu 8.10, Windows XP) and this means that I finally got to try out Google Chrome. That’s a different story in itself–I’m developing rather an opinion on it. But it also means that I have the Big Three installed–Firefox 3, Internet Explorer 7, and Chrome.

I decided to do some startup tests–just timing how long they took to start up.

A few notes on the procedure:

I opened all three of them without timing them, and then closed them all. Then I did:

  • Open A
  • Close A
  • Open B
  • Close B
  • Open C
  • Close C
  • Repeat a few times
  • Disregard page load time–just measure actual startup.
  • Use stopwatch on wrist–KMandla’s “Timex Method” (I’ll also give him credit for planting the seed of this post in my head a few months ago.)

And the results were:

Chrome: Consistently ~1.5 seconds. The fastest of the bunch.

Internet Explorer: About 3.5 seconds.

Firefox: Surprisingly lame–it was just under 4 the first time, 6 the second time, and repeated tests showed it levelling in the 3.5-3.9 range. I really thought it would beat IE….guess not. To it’s defense, it had to deal with the SU toolbar as well. If I keep getting bothered by this, I might repeat the experiment without.

So congratulations, Chrome!


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Another Open Letter to Microsoft

Dear Microsoft,

I just wrote to you, and I know you haven’t had a chance to ponder everything I said. However, something else has recently come to my attention, which I think you should know about.

About two months ago, the Windows XP installation on my beautiful dual-boot system got corrupted. Even though Ubuntu is very good at playing the scapegoat for Windows’ errors, Ubuntu was actually not at fault: “Microsoft Windows XP” was available in my GRUB menu, and loaded enough to show me a DLL error. My Windows Recovery Disk was in the wrong continent, and frantic ransacking of your official website and Google proved fruitless. I drew a deep breath, and started using Ubuntu full-time.

Recently however, I came across an ingenious workaround: using a product called BartPE to launch winnt32.exe from my otherwise-dead C drive. This enabled me to reinstall Windows. I now present my humbly constructive criticism of the process, with examples of how the GNU/Linux world does it better.

*The disk itself. Now lookie here–I am a legal Windows owner. I have a product key and everything. Mistakes happen, and I find it unreasonable to expect that every single Windows owner is going to keep their disk in good condition (and easily accessible.) You should have an option to download the .iso from your website, and only make it worth anything with the product key and activation. No, I would not like to pay the OEM to send me another one. Now that I think about it, I don’t even want to waste time/money having it  come through the mail–a simple burn is all I need. Take GNU/Linux: Lost the CD? No problem, it’s easily burnable, and you don’t even need a product key (though I understand it’s necessary to prevent piracy)(which Linux vendors don’t have to deal with.)

*Setup. When I installed Ubuntu, I started Setup, selected a few options: time zone, keyboard layout, language, partition and username/password. Then I hit a button, and everything was done at once. I could go have a cup of coffee while it worked, and come back to a beautifully installed system. Whilst installing Windows, it was something like this: Select, wait, select, wait, reboot, select, wait, select, wait, reboot. This is not efficient. I won’t even get into the sheer ugliness of the text-based installer, when you could load a pretty graphical one. And I have yet to figure out why you don’t use (or clone) gparted for partitioning–it’s very convenient to see how your parititions are laid out, not just take an educated guess based on seemingly arbitrary numbers displayed on the screen.

*Drivers: The first thing I noticed was that my beautiful widescreen had been compressed to something the size of my fist–something I would like to use against whoever made the driver decisions at Redmond (the fist, not the beautiful widescreen.) However, I took a deep breath and said, “No problem, I’ll just download it from Sony’s website.” That’s when I discovered that neither wireless nor wired networking was working. And I can’t install the appropriate drivers because they control the internet, and I need the internet to get them, and you see where I’m going. Great. Luckily, I had a backup of the previous, driver-full XP install, and Windows was gracious enough to recognize my external hard drive. I forget if I used the Device Manager or the Add New Hardware wizard to install the WLAN driver–I just remember being frustrated by both, and having Windows search through the “Drivers” directory more than a few times before it found the appropriate file. Once the internet was working, I fired up Internet Explorer 6. I immediately wished I hadn’t, but I realize that most of my complaints have been realized in IE7, so I won’t vocalize them. Whilst navigating to and through Sony’s website, I realized that the right side of my touchpad didn’t scroll. Frustration. And I especially needed to scroll since the screen resolution was so shrunken. I finally got and installed (a time-consuming process in itself) all the appropriate drivers. Let’s compare this to Ubuntu, where the only thing that didn’t work out of the box (er, burned CD) was my sound, an issue easily rectified through a simple graphical utility, appropriately labelled “Sound Preferences.” I’m still not sure what I would’ve done if I didn’t have the backup of my old (driver-full) install. I’ll give you a hint as to what probably would’ve happened–there’d be one less NTFS partition on my hard drive.

*Updates. I understand that XP is on SP3. My installation was slipstreamed with SP1. I had to update once for security reasons. Reboot. I had to update a second time to get SP2. Reboot. I had to upgrade again for security reasons and IE7. Reboot. I haven’t gotten to SP3 yet, because I ran out of free time to reboot in. I also was getting kind of crotchety about the repetitiveness of the whole thing. The only ‘booting I would like to do at this moment is that which involves my foot connecting with something squishy and stress-relieving. Meanwhile, Ubuntu lets you select one of three options:

  1. Show a small, noticeable-but-unintrusive icon when updates are available, and let the user download and install them in one click. Only reboot if the kernel itself is upgraded. If rebooting is necessary, allow it to be postponed in one click, and not pop up every ten minutes with a countdown timer.
  2. Show a small, noticeable-but-unintrusive icon when updates have been downloaded, and are ready to be installed in one click. Only reboot if the kernel itself is upgraded. If rebooting is necessary, allow it to be postponed in one click, and not pop up every ten minutes with a countdown timer.
  3. Download and install updates in the background. Only reboot if the kernel itself is upgraded. If rebooting is necessary, allow it to be postponed in one click, and not pop up every ten minutes with a countdown timer.

As you can see, only one action is required to make a dinosaur system fully updated.

As I told you before, I’m sure I can find many more grievances, but I think these are the most important ones.

Have a nice day, and best of luck,

Timmy Macdonald
(Feed readers: Like the post? Digg it from the main blog site!)


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Odds and Ends

I’ve been trying to do better about “social media integration.” A few of my better posts are on Digg, but now I’m going to have a Digg button here (you can see one in action on the Open Letter to Hob–I mean, Microsoft) and I changed the button that appears at the bottom of all posts such that it’s a Javascript hover effect, and doesn’t open a new page.

Finally, Technorati requires that I post this: Technorati Profile. So here it is.

That’s all. Not exciting, I’m sorry.


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An Open Letter to Hob–I mean, Microsoft

Dear Microsoft,

First of all, I’d really like to thank you. MS Office is, in my opinion, the best office suite on the market. Windows has made many contributions to home computing–first and foremost instilling the concept that computers are for everyone–not just socially deprived nerds. Though Windows remains a fairly effective way of getting things done, I decided to switch to GNU/Linux this summer for reasons of my own. I really like the view from there. That said, I’d like to ask after some basic features implemented in Windows that are standard (as free, open-source software no less) in GNU/Linux.

*Updating. Updating Windows is a painful process–the OS itself tends to pop up unexpectedly, chew up needed bandwidth, and restart at inopportune moments. What’s more, individual pieces of software must all be updated individually. This is, quite frankly, a pain in the neck. It can’t be difficult to integrate ONE, all-inclusive, non-intrusive updating utility. Yes, it might be an extra step for application developers. No, I do not sympathize with them. Please do this.

*Workspaces. Workspaces aren’t a very big deal…but they’re darn handy. Yes, I know I can download them for Windows from your “PowerToys” section, but there is no good reason they’re not included on a vanilla install. And I can’t really think of a reason it doesn’t include transition effects when you move between them.

*Themes. I believe there are 3 legal themes for Microsoft Windows XP. This has got to stop. Yes, I like blue. No, I don’t like it that much.

*Sensible administration privileges. I really like the concept GNU/Linux has which is that programs run on the lowest permission level they can. This is instrumental in stopping spyware. I feel unsafe when I’m logged in as a Windows administrator. Is that the attitude you want?

*Filesystem. Ext* (especially Ext3) is better than NTFS. No defragmenting, more reliable, please switch. There is no shame in this.

*Open document formats. Both releasing all of your own document formats, and adapting MS Office to include Open Document files. Natively.

*System resources: Why is it that my Ubuntu installation runs faster than a friend’s Vista installation…with 8 times the RAM, and ~double the processor? And functionality is debatably the same, to boot.

*Internet rendering: I know you can convince IE to pass the Acid3. It’s OK to shamelessly copy & paste Firefox/Chrome’s source code, that’s what it’s there for.

Please take these suggestions (and I’m sure there are more that I have yet to think of) into consideration. For the good of your product. For the good of your company. For the good of your millions of users. Please.

With warm regards,

Timmy Macdonald


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Ubuntu Forums down?

It would seem that at approximately 5:30 PM GMT on November 9, 2008 the Ubuntu Forums went down with a database error.


It would also seem that a few minutes later they were back up.



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Yeah, Ubuntu!

I was reading ESR’s (that’s Eric S. Raymond to you) excellent article “How to Become a Hacker” (if that alarms you, please Google “hacking vs. cracking”.)

Programming insights aside, how’s this for a line?

During the first ten years of this HOWTO’s life, I reported that from a new user’s point of view, all Linux distributions are almost equivalent. But in 2006-2007, an actual best choice emerged: Ubuntu. While other distros have their own areas of strength, Ubuntu is far and away the most accessible to Linux newbies.

Yeah, Ubuntu!


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