Sunday 03 February 2002

I miss Bolo!

This Wired story about a new game by The Sims creator, Will Wright, set me thinking about Stewart Cheshire’s Bolo:

Imagine a simple 2-D tank game based on an island made up of grass, swamp, and water. This island is completely surrounded by deep sea that can only be accessed with a boat. There are bases to refuel on. Drop mines and create craters. Pillboxes shoot at unfriendly tanks. Farm trees to build roads or walls which take damage when shot and eventually turn into rubble.

Bolo battlefield

When I worked at FirmwareDesign, we frequently played Bolo: during lunchtimes and after work on a Friday afternoon. I was never a great player—Herman Coomans used to allow me a handicap of two Brain allies—so I’d usually get soundly trounced but I’ve never enjoyed playing a computer game more.

Although there is a WinBolo, not surprisingly—as you can see from the screenshot—the aesthetics are all wrong. If I ever win the lottery, I might invest as much money as it takes to create a proper Windows port. On the other hand, I could resurrect my old Macintosh or buy a new one.

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Sunday 14 April 2002

The Google API?

Burningbird “just can’t see any usefulness of the Google API for weblogging.”

Dave Winer “ran a survey on Scripting News asking if the Google API is useful. The number one answer was ‘Yes, there are lots of possibilities.’ The second most popular choice was ‘The lightning bolt hasn’t hit me yet.’”

Mark Pilgrim has written PyGoogle, a “Python wrapper for the Google web API. Allows you to do Google searches, retrieve pages from the Google cache, and ask Google for spelling suggestions.”

I have no idea whether the Google API is useful; perhaps the lightning bolt will strike me, perhaps not. But I agree absolutely with Burningbird when she writes:

I keep hearing from you all that you’re really only concerned about attracting readers who come to the weblog to read what you say. Yet we’re inundated, drowned, overwhelmed, and suffocated by all of the technological gimmicks that we absolutely must have at our weblogs or perish!

In the nearly twenty years I spent as a photographer, I learned one significant truth: the less reliance I placed on technological gimmicks, the better my pictures became. One film, one developer, one paper, one camera, two lenses (one slightly longer than normal, the other slightly wider than normal—if I’d been an absolute purist I would have settled for just the normal lens, but I hated Cartier-Bresson with a passion).

When I taught photography, I suggested this minimalist approach to my students. Most of them rejected it out of hand, protesting that it restricted their creativity. When I repeated the Japanese aesthetic maxim—the further you travel along a narrow path, the wider it becomes—they looked blankly at me, as though I’d spoken to them in a foreign language.

I can’t see weblogging gimmicks as being any different — though, if someone can explain how the Google API will make me a better writer, I’m willing to listen. But I suspect the New York photographer Ed Feingersh’s late 40s aphorism applies equally to weblogging:

The cameras get better and better, but the pictures stay just the same.

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Wednesday 15 May 2002

Long live the Macintosh

Doc Searls’ blogging the Xserve announcement set me thinking about Apple. Whatever serious Mac cred I may have accrued by starting to use the Macintosh in 1985 evaporated when I switched to Windows in 1996. In all that time only Eastgate’s Tinderbox application has made me consider buying a Mac, but I decided to hang out for the Windows version instead. And though I miss the simplicity and elegance of the Macintosh Japanese Language Kit, Windows 2000 provides adequate Japanese support.

I still retain an emotional connection with the Mac—I visited Macintouch regularly until early last year—and I continue to be entertained by Doc Searl’s love-hate relationship with the platform. (Though I’m aware that he may not see it that way, I can’t think how else to describe a bond based on equal parts of fondness and frustration.)

I was astonished to feel myself slipping away from Apple eight years ago, thinking at the time: “If they can’t hold me, they can’t hold anyone.” Happily, I was wrong. Everyone’s looking for a messiah and, as it happens, Steve Jobs turned out to be Apple’s. Even though I’m not really a geek, there’s a geeky part of my temperament that loves the idea of UNIX wrapped in a pretty GUI. Now I’m wondering what on earth could compel me to undergo the torment of switching back.

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Compromising on font sizes

Professor Salo handed off the font-size problem to Zeldman and Todd Fahrner. For a long time I’ve followed Zeldman’s maxim—give me pixels or give me death—by specifying my body text as Verdana 12px, even though this means that IE users cannot alter the font size (Opera 6 and Netscape 6 have a zoom control that overcomes this limitation).

In a comment on my post about not supporting Netscape 4, Steven Vore wrote that “a properly-designed site will allow you to change font sizes all you’d like - CSS or not.”

Why have I committed this sin against accessibility? In order to enhance legibility by having a fixed line length. The Australian Government Style Manual cautions against long lines:

Long lines are tiring to read in large blocks; they are also difficult to read without missing a line occasionally or reading the same line twice (called “doubling”).

Every piece of research I’ve encountered concurs with this advice, usually recommending a line length of 50 to 70 characters or 10-12 words per line. It’s for that reason that I prefer not to use a fluid layout, where the line length changes with the display resolution, although I accept that a fluid layout often looks more elegant.

When I was redesigning the templates and style sheets for this MT-based blog, I asked Allan Moult to check the test site on his Macintosh. It looks fine in IE5 and NN6.2, he told me, adding: “Set your main text narrower.” I thought it was already narrow, but he was right.

Then this morning I read the Todd Fahrner article, Size Matters: Making Font Size Keywords Work. Though Dorothea describes Fahrner’s system as “more verbose, less beginner- and maintainer-friendly,” I think it might be just what I’ve been looking for. Or, alternatively, merely a different compromise.

It would never have occurred to me that you could use Tantek Çelik’s Box Model Hack to fix the keywords bug in IEWin4/5. But I already use the Çelik technique to ensure that the CSS boxes on this site display consistently in IE 5/6, Opera 6, Netscape 6.2, and Mozilla RC1. So why not try it out on the font-size problem? Although it means abandoning my fixed line length rule and risking the ire of Allan Moult. (But he’s all the way down in Tasmania and doesn’t pose too great a threat.)

Most of the sites I visit that allow the visitor control over the font-size look best with the text in IE set to Smaller or Medium. I guess I’ll have to experiment to see which of the font size keywords I should specify in my style sheet. Or I might wait to see if Prof. Salo runs into strife with relative sizing using ex and em units and is forced to figure out font size keywords. That way she gets to do all the work.

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Sunday 09 June 2002

A useful Flash site!!!!!

In October 2000, Jakob Nielsen thought that Flash was bad:

About 99% of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease. Although there are rare occurrences of good Flash design (it even adds value on occasion), the use of Flash typically lowers usability. In most cases, we would be better off if these multimedia objects were removed.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (Flash) World Cup Game Tracker

I’ve been teaching Flash for years and, until now, I’ve agreed with Nielsen. Macromedia’s Site of the Day—the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s World Cup Game Tracker—is the first well-designed, useful Flash site I’ve encountered. (It will be interesting to see if the Nielsen Norman Group’s recent strategic partnership with Macromedia results in a quantifiable increase in the number of useful/usable Flash sites.)

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Another great Flash site

Commenting on my useful Flash site post, Patrick Breitenbach drew attention to “another example that predates it:” the Broadmoor Online Reservations in oneScreen™.

Broadmoor Online Reservations in oneScreen (Flash)Patrick is absolutely correct. This one is a humdinger. As it says at the top of the screen:

The entire reservation process is contained in this screen. You may start anywhere and order does not matter.

Pick your check-in and check-out dates, select the type of room, enter your name, address, and credit card details, press the Finish Reservation button. And it all takes place in a secure session.

I realize that this is also what attracted me to the CBC World Cup Game Tracker: one (Flash) screen has replaced a cumbersome navigation system and more than a dozen separate ESPN SoccerNet pages (that load slowly even via my broadband connection). To be fair, the SoccerNet site has game reports and other features that the Game Tracker lacks. But for fast, easy access to schedules and statistics, the Flash application is unbeatable in terms of usefulness and usability.

But I’m curious as to whether either of these sites is accessible, given that Flash MX (which has greatly improved accessibility features) has been available for some time now.

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Thursday 20 June 2002

Do vampires have anuses?

Thanks to Michael O’Connor Clarke (via David Weinberger), I’ve spent nearly an hour exploring QDB, a database of chat quotes. My favorite so far? #5598:

<Kazz> Do vampires have anuses? Cause that’s why I wouldn’t let this kid invade a vampire’s anus in this RPG, right, I was GMing, and his character was an Anus Shade, with the power to possess and control the anuses of people and animals.. and I figured that vampires don’t have anuses.
<Zaratustra> a vampire’s anus is present, but non-working.
<Zaratustra> like a network card without the appropriate driver.
<Kazz> Wow. You’re the biggest dork on Earth.
<Sharkey> And you’re DMing an rpg with Anus Shades.

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Tuesday 02 July 2002

A matter of emphasis

Since Professor Salo is now taking questions about markup, here’s one that’s been bothering me for a while: what are the appropriate uses of the bold/strong and italic/emphasis elements?

The O’Reilly HTML Reference that comes installed in Dreamweaver says:

The STRONG element is one of a large group of elements that the HTML 4.0 recommendation calls phrase elements. Such elements assign structural meaning to a designated portion of the document. A STRONG element is one that contains text that indicates a stronger emphasis than the EM element. Whereas an EM element is typically rendered as italic text, a STRONG element is generally rendered as boldface text.

Dreamweaver’s preference setting to “Use <strong> and <em> in place of <b> and <i>” circumvents the fact that these elements clearly have different purposes—as the manual of the Dreamweaver course I occasionally teach suggests:

  • Use Emphasis and Strong when you want to add emphasis to text.
  • Reserve bolding and italics for typographic conventions that call for them.

My style manual suggests that among the “well-established conventions for the use of italics” are titles (books, movies, etc), ship names, scientific names of plants and animals, technical terms and terms being defined, citations, and foreign words not yet absorbed into English. But it also recommends italics for “words used in special senses or to which a particular tone or emphasis is being applied.” The <em> tag seems specifically designed for this latter use.

So, here’s an example sentence:

Traditionally, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji has been regarded as the purest expression of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, which Ivan Morris says “roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things.” However I did not realize until recently that the term mono no aware was invented by the 18th century critic Motoori Norinaga to describe what he regarded as a “pure, emotional [uniquely Japanese] response to the beauty of nature, the impermanence of life, and the sorrow of death” (Brian Hoffert).

In this sentence I have used the <i> tag for The Tale of Genji (book title), mono no aware (Japanese phrase), and lacrimae rerum (Latin phrase). I’ve used the <em> tag for invented and uniquely Japanese (emphasized word and phrase).

I look forward to reading Professor Salo’s opinion on the correct usage of these elements. I’m hoping she might also explain whether the stronger emphasis offered by the <strong> tag is <edited>best reserved for expressions of passion, fire, and other intense emotions or whether (to quote the style manual):

…bold or colored type is generally the first thing to be noticed on a page or screen and so can be read out of context. Careful thought should therefore be given to precisely what is treated in this way.

I suspect that what they might be saying here, in their cautious way, is Don’t get carried away by your emotions.</edited>

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Thursday 04 July 2002

Questions asked, and answered

Marcus Campbell (check out his unbelievable expandable weblog) cut through the acronym v abbreviation argument by quoting the Cambridge Dictionary:

acronym: an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a word

Mark Pilgrim followed up with a reference to the Web Design Group definition:

Unlike other kinds of abbreviations, acronyms are pronounceable words.

As Marcus said, no-one pronounces WWW as wuhwuhwuh so it must be an abbreviation, not an acronym. RADAR, on the other hand, is definitely an acronym. That’s all I was after: a rule. Now I have one, I’m happy.

Then, as I’d anticipated, Professor Salo responded in her customary erudite and comprehensive fashion to my question about bold/strong and italic/emphasis elements. Her solution surprised and delighted me: use the <span> tag for titles and foreign language words and the <em> tag for emphasis.

Burningbird, despairing that “markup folks are going to be the weblogging death of me yet” articulated her dilemma:

Sigh. At this point, I am faced with two choices: I can spend all my time fretting on these issues; or I can work on ThreadNeedle, accept the fact that I’m a hopeless web page slob who will never have an elegant weblog page, and hope that folks like Dorothea and Jonathon will specifically let me know when I’m doing something that makes my material inaccessible, or makes it break within a browser.

In the comments, a multitude of Blogarians rushed to soothe Bb’s fevered brow, including Prof Salo with a offer of remedial work on the Burningbird tempate. There’s a simple answer to Bb’s predicament: devote your time and energy to whatever yields the greatest benefit. So Burningbird should focus on the ThreadNeedle project and I’ll allow my anal retentive side out to play for a little while longer—ensuring that my weblog is accessible, fussing with markup and CSS, worrying about the <i> and <em> tags, and discussing the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation. But, in my heart, I know that the time is rapidly approaching when I’ll say goodbye to 2002 and return to where I belong: Japan in March 1945.

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Sunday 18 August 2002

In search of lost time

(With apologies to Dorothea Salo.)

Time spent wondering whether I should attempt to install Linux on my ancient ThinkPad 600E notebook computer: 1 week

Time spent figuring out which Linux distribution to install : 1 hour

Time spent moving documents from notebook to desktop PC to free up 1.5GB of space on (6GB) notebook hard drive: 1 hour

Time spent running Norton Disk Doctor on notebook hard drive: 10 minutes

Time spent optimizing notebook hard drive: 1 hour

Time spent running chkdsk on notebook hard drive: 15 minutes (including restart)

Time spent changing default OS language from Japanese to English so that the Partition Magic installer would work (including restart): 5 minutes

Time spent installing Partition Magic on notebook (including restart): 10 minutes

Time spent shrinking Windows partition to make room for Linux: 20 minutes

Time spent installing Red Hat Linux (up to arriving at the Disk Partioning Setup screen): 15 minutes

Time spent realizing that the 1.5GB of free space specified by the Linux installation guide did not include 435MB for the swap file (because my notebook has 288MB of RAM): 1 minute

Time spent freeing up another 1GB of space on the notebook hard drive: 1 hour

Time spent running Norton Disk Doctor, optimizing, and running chkdsk on notebook hard drive: 2 hours

Time spent shrinking the Windows partition to make even more room for Linux: 20 minutes

Time spent (custom) installing Red Hat Linux: 1.5 hours

Time spent wondering why the LILO boot menu didn’t appear, no matter how many times I restarted: 20 minutes

Time spent rereading The Red Hat Linux Survival Guide before I discovered that I had to edit the /etc/lilo.conf file so that I could boot to either Windows 2000 or Linux: 5 minutes

Time spent editing the /etc/lilo.conf file: 5 minutes

Time spent wondering why the LILO boot menu didn’t appear, even though I’d edited the /etc/lilo.conf file: 10 minutes

Time spent running /sbin/lilo to ensure that LILO liked the configuration file: 30 seconds

Time spent congratulating myself that I’d installed Linux entirely by myself: 5 minutes

Time spent realizing that my weblog looks shitty in Mozilla on Linux: 15 seconds

Time spent playing with new cat: 45 minutes

And yes, before anyone reminds me, I know I said last month:

I know nothing about Linux but I know this much… wizards or no wizards, I won’t be installing it any time soon.

To which I’d reply: never believe me when I say I’ll never do something. (At least I did the wizardless custom install. And now I know slightly more than nothing about Linux)

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Saturday 24 August 2002

Finally, a decent browser

Strange that I made Mozilla my primary browser on the day Dorothea Salo wrote:

This is the new, not-improved-enough-yet Caveat Lector. Not guaranteed to look right on anything but Mozilla yet; more testing this evening.

Browser usage for weblog.delacour.net on 24 Aug 2000I stuck with IE6 because I thought it was important to see my site as a majority of web users do. (As the stats reveal, so do lots of my visitors: just over 74% for IE versions 5 and 6.). But yesterday morning I finally got sick of IE6’s starting a separate 10-20MB process for every window I opened. How is it possible for an application to be such a memory hog? Time to switch. I briefly considered Opera but thought I’d give Mozilla a spin first. I’m glad I did. What a marvellous browser! (Or is it just that I haven’t yet discovered Mozilla’s dark side?)

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Mozilla? I had it on both my desktop and notebook computers, but only to test that my weblog rendered properly. It wasn’t until I’d installed Linux and started using Mozilla that I thought about trying it on Windows.

What do I like? Tabbed browsing. Cookie management (although I have AdSubtract too). Tabbed browsing. Bookmarks. Built-in Google search. Tabbed browsing. Text zoom. And boy doesn’t it load pages fast! IE is a joke by comparison.

Speaking of which, AKMA’s new CSS-based design loads about a zillion times faster now. Looks clean and elegant too. Congratulations to AKMA for diving into CSS (and to Dorothea on her great job). Should we call this one a Salover?

I’m sure there must be lots of other great Mozilla features I haven’t yet discovered. Hopefully you’ll let me know what I’ve missed. (I assume that the 20% figure for Netscape 5 represents mainly Mozilla users.)

Oh, I just discovered that I can’t add a last minute URL from the Movable Type Edit Entry screen (those widgets only work in IE). Hardly the end of the world.

Update. While implementing the suggestions left in the comments (blocking ad images, stopping animations from looping, and stopping popups, popunders, window resizing & moving), I discovered that a window of tabs can be saved as a group bookmark. How cool is that? Now I can open Mozilla, click on the bookmark, and have eight sites open, each in their own tab.

One other question: is Mozilla immune to the security problems that plague IE? Or are the people who write these exploits less inclined to target browsers like Mozilla because of their smaller market share?

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Sunday 25 August 2002

Mac zealotry alive & well

Something of a shock to find dozens of links about Jaguar at diveintomark this morning. If this is the response to a 0.5 release (10.1.5 to 10.2), what’s going to happen when Mac OS 11 (XI?) ships? The response to Jaguar is something I haven’t seen since System 7 shipped.

One Friday in May 1991, about a week before the official release date, a friend with close connections at Apple called and asked if I’d like a copy of System 7. “Sure,” I replied.

“Send a courier over this afternoon to pick up the Zip disk,” he told me.

I mentioned to Sean, a young systems support guy in the company where I was working, that we’d probably have a copy of System 7 later that day. A couple of minutes later I heard him on the phone, explaining that there’d been an emergency at work and he’d have to work until very late.

“Wow, Sean,” I said when he’d put down the phone. “You cancelled your date so you could install a new operating system? After raving all week about this hot new babe?”

“You bet” he said fervently. “System 7 is more important than any girl.”

One assumes he’s rearranged his priorities in the intervening years. But, then again, perhaps not.

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Thursday 12 September 2002

Hit me with your ***rhythm stick

This morning, when I realized that tomorrow is Friday the 13th of September, I remembered how I’d spent a Friday the 13th about twenty-five years ago.

I’d not long split up with a girlfriend who believed in all kinds of occult stuff: astrology, the tarot, numerology, rune stones, and… biorhythms. She’d given me an electronic Biorhythm Calculator for my birthday so, when I realized that the following Friday would fall on the 13th, I retrieved it from a box of stuff I was about to throw out and used it to calculate my biorhythm for that day. Disaster! It was a Triple Low day: my physical, emotional, and intellectual cycles would all hit their lowest point on Friday the 13th.

Unwilling to take any chances, I stocked up on food and alcohol on the Thursday, and spent Friday the 13th alone at home reading John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It actually turned out to a pleasurable day. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t have a computer so I wasn’t tempted to go online (actually there wasn’t any “online” in those days, outside of universities). I ate when I was hungry, read my book, and napped occasionally. I guess it would have been nice to have shared the day with someone but I’d only just broken up with Ms Occult. In any case, I would have been too anxious about fooling around in my weakened physical and emotional state. And I had no desire to tempt fate, for even though Sean Cunningham’s eponymous movie had yet to be made, I’d seen plenty of Italian horror films in which young lovers were chopped up by an axe murderer.

Tonight, out of curiosity, I checked my chart for tomorrow at DailyBiorhythm.com. Unfortunately, it’s almost a Triple Low day too. My emotional and intellectual cycles are near rock bottom and—at -87%—I’m not in great physical shape either.

My Biorhythm chart for Friday, September 13, 2002

Believe it or not, I’ve felt kind of listless all week, so perhaps there’s something to it after all.

It might best, then, to schedule the transition to Movable Type 2.21 and MySQL at my new web hosting service for a week when my intellectual and emotional capacities are at a peak. I’ll discuss this with Allan Moult since we’re about to embark on a series called A Beginner’s Guide to MT, MySQL, and PHP. If it turns out that Allan believes in biorhythms, then I think we may be in trouble—it’s unlikely we’d be able to get both our cycles in synch until some time next year.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to think I really take it seriously. After all, I don’t intend to stay in all day tomorrow reading a spy novel. Though if I don’t post to the weblog tomorrow night or on Saturday, you’ll know something’s happened.

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Monday 28 October 2002

OpenOffice rocks

In response to my question about a reasonably-priced, reliable tool for converting RTF files to XML, Dorothea Salo suggested OpenOffice. Why didn’t I think of that? Because I wasn’t aware that OpenOffice had an XML-based file format. Nick Richards, a member of the OpenOffice team, left a comment explaining that “in the stable 1.0 version it’s ZIP compressed but in the new developer builds there’s an option to save as ‘flat’ XML if you have plenty of space or a special need for it.”

So I downloaded the Windows version, verified the integrity of the download using an MD5 checksum (that was fun!), and installed OpenOffice. There were only a couple of minor glitches:

  • the attempt to import my addresses from Outlook failed because the installer assumed Outlook was my email client (I use Outlook’s calendar and contacts but rely on Eudora for mail); and
  • when I tried to open Mozilla after the installation, I couldn’t use my default profile (somehow the OpenOffice Quickstarter had taken over—uninstalling then reinstalling the Quickstarter fixed the problem).

OpenOffice is impressive: each application is fully-featured and works smoothly. I was able to open Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in OpenOffice without any problems (though I don’t understand why the default font in Writer (word processor) and Impress (presentations) is Thorndale and that in Calc (spreadsheet) is Albany—neither of which is installed on my Windows 2000 system. (It turns out that they are part of a Windows compatible TrueType font set from AGFA Monotype.)

I have to admit to a slight degree of disappointment. I was hoping that—as well as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications—OpenOffice would include an alternative to Microsoft’s execrable Outlook. But, to balance that omission, OpenOffice has first-rate Asian language support (enabled by clicking on a checkbox in the Language Settings dialog). I was entering Japanese text within a few minutes of opening the word processor (though I still can’t figure out how to enter vertical text—a Help page (rather unhelpfully) says Here you can define the vertical direction of the text without explaining where “here” actually is).

But I’m nitpicking. I’ve already started to make (XML) backups of my important Word and Excel documents. OpenOffice is definitely a viable alternative to Microsoft Office and for the price (nothing), it’s absolutely amazing. (There’s also a Macintosh OS X beta available.)

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Monday 04 November 2002

MacDream

My mother is heading off to Morocco at the end of the month and I spent a few hours on Saturday helping her with some errands. As we were eating lunch at a Délifrance in Chatswood, I noticed an Apple store across the street. Leaving my mother to finish her iced coffee, I zipped over to have a look at the Macintosh I have no intention of buying.

Which model? Not an iMac (the swivel-mounted screen looks as though it’s about to topple off). So either an eMac or an iBook. I can’t make up my mind which one not to purchase.

With a spare battery and AC adapter plus an extra 128MB of RAM, the iBook (with a 20GB hard drive and a Combo Drive) will cost AU$4014 (US$2250). A similarly configured eMac (though with a 40GB hard drive and a G4 chip) costs AU$2460 (US$1380). Portability costs.

The sales assistant couldn’t show me how to switch on Japanese text entry but she did tell me that if I ordered a Macintosh before January 7th, 2003 I could purchase Microsoft Office at half the normal cost. I told her I’d pass on that offer, figuring that by then OpenOffice for Mac OS X might be shipping. But I was happy to see that I could replace the atrocious Apple mouse with a Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer. Not that I’ll be buying anything, anytime soon.

Later. I returned from my afternoon swim to find a letter from the computer rental company offering me a FREE $200 shopping voucher if I rent over $2000 worth of new business equipment before November 30th…

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Saturday 09 November 2002

Gasp… iBook prices plummeted!

Commenting on my plan not to buy an iBook or an eMac, Dave Rogers alerted me to the rumors that Apple was about to announce “new iBooks with a minor uptick in the processor speeds and a price reduction” of US$200 (AU$354). It’s a long time since I’ve had a Macintosh but my residual cynicism about Apple Australia led me to believe that the price cut wouldn’t be anything like AU$354 by the time the computers landed down under.

I was right about the price cut but wrong about Apple Australia. The iBook model that would have cost me AU$4014 a week ago (with a spare battery and another AC adapter plus an extra 128MB of RAM) now costs AU$3359. That’s AU$655 cheaper! And the latest model has a faster chip (800MHz instead of 700MHz), bigger hard drive (30MB rather than 20MB), and twice as much VRAM (32MB). What a pity I don’t need a new iBook.

I am curious about one thing though… would I be better off not buying an extra 128MB of RAM, or should I splurge and not buy an extra 256MB? I like RAM (and so does Windows 2000) so I have 288MB in my ThinkPad and 768MB in my desktop PC. My instinct tells me that, even though it’s UNIX under the hood, Mac OS X needs a shitload of RAM to run well. How much should one have in a hypothetical iBook?

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Thursday 21 November 2002

The Lord of the Email

Hey, Dorothea, I figured it out.

[I can send and receive email from everyone in the known universe, except Dorothea Salo.]

Dorothea thinks “it’s the Internet’s fault” that her replies to my messages hardly ever reach me. I now know better.

The real reason is this: there’s some kind of hex on me because I haven’t yet seen The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dorothea’s husband, David, did the Elvish for the three movies.)

Aside. Although you might think that I’ve italicized the movie title, I actually used the <cite> tag, as recommended by Joe Clark in Building Accessible Websites (I just used it again, for the book title):

<cite></cite> for “citations,” meaning titles (of books, films, plays, television programs, court cases, possibly even ships) and words and phrases quoted for themselves. It must be reiterated that citations are not interchangeable with <em></em> for general emphasis.

And, although I (correctly) indented the previous paragraph with the <blockquote> tag (because I’m quoting a passage from Joe’s book), I’m now aware that I’ve used the <blockquote> tag incorrectly on hundreds of occasions to indent text, such as computer code. As in:

<cite>The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring</cite>

Instead of what I should have been doing all along, which is this:

<cite>The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring</cite>

“But they look exactly the same,” you say. Indeed, but the (correct) second version uses a class style—.indent-left {margin-left: 40px;}—to indent the text.

“Have you gone completely crazy?” you ask. No, I’ve just fallen totally under Joe Clark’s spell. (I hope I don’t get into trouble from Joe, or Mark Pilgrim, or someone, for using pixels instead of ems.)

Where was I?

Right. Dorothea’s and my email problem. I think there may be a solution. The Greater Union Hoyts Village Complex on George Street—where there used to be three multiplexes, owned by three different distributors, now there is a single megaplex—is currently showing The Fellowship of the Ring, partly as a community service to the 0.0000001 per cent of the population who haven’t yet seen it, mostly as a lead-in to the release in Australia on December 18 of The Two Towers.

I’ll go see The Fellowship of the Ring on Saturday afternoon and send Dorothea an email that evening. If that doesn’t work it might simply mean that I need to see the The Two Towers too, which might have to wait until late December. Failing that, the switch to Cornerhost might do the trick (Dorothea’s site is hosted there too). If, after all that, I still don’t receive Dorothea’s emails, it’ll definitely be “the Internet’s fault.”

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Tuesday 14 January 2003

Mark Pilgrim s**** the d****

I’m probably more entitled to be disillusioned at Mark Pilgrim’s rejection of Web standards than almost anyone. Mark offered me the first taste of CSS Koolaid on 12 February last year, a month after I’d started blogging, and before it became truly fashionable in Blogaria. Admittedly, I spat instead of swallowing, but a day or so later—with Mark’s advice and assistance—I’d swallowed, switching to a pure CSS layout. Next stop (on 29 April) was XHTML (1.0 Transitional). And I never looked back. Although I’ve been involved in Web development since 1994, I learned more in the past year than in the previous seven. And I’m hardly alone in having learned much of it from Mark.

So if ever a weblog post was destined to reach the #1 spot on Daypop and still be climbing it was Mark’s Semantic obsolescence.

Mark Pilgrim's Semantic Obsolescence post at the top of Daypop

One of the most passionate advocates of Web standards decides that he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore:

I bought into every argument the W3C made that keeping up with their standards, validating with their tools, and using their semantic markup would somehow “future-proof” my site and provide some mystical “forward compatibility”. How about some fucking payoff now? How about some fucking compatibility?

Standards are bullshit. XHTML is a crock. The W3C is irrelevant.

I’m migrating I’ve migrated to HTML 4.

In Australia, we call this “spitting the dummy.”

As in:“Crikey, Mark Pilgrim really spat the dummy over the W3C’s XHTML 2.0 working drafts of 5 August 2002 and 11 December 2002.”

Dummy (pacifier)The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s list of Australian words defines spit the dummy as:

To indulge in a sudden display of anger or frustration; to lose one’s temper. The phrase is usually used of an adult, and the implication is that the outburst is childish, like a baby spitting out its dummy in a tantrum and refusing to be pacified.

(You’ve probably guessed by now that what Americans call a “pacifier,” Australians call a “dummy.”)

Although I’d hardly characterize it as childish—I suspect that, in Mark’s situation, I’d feel just as angry and frustrated—his abandoning bleeding edge XHTML 1.1 for the sleepy backwater of HTML 4.01 Strict does have many of the hallmarks of a classic dummy spit:

  • although it seemed to come out of the blue, there have been signs of the pressure building over the past few months;
  • a swear word index in excess of 1% in a technology-related post (one bullshit and four fuckings in 459 words);
  • a threat to take drastic action (subsequently acted upon) regardless of whether or not the cause of the complaint is addressed or the drastic action is truly in the dummy-spitter’s best interests.

I guess that’s what surprised me. Going back to XHTML 1.0 Strict (or even Transitional) I can understand. But all the way back to HTML 4.01?

Disillusioned? Not in the slightest. I’ve had a ball. Will I switch back to HTML 4? I doubt it, though I’ll keep a weather eye on Mark’s experiences with it. I’ll be interested to learn about the payoff.

I perused the Further Reading on Mark’s post—there were so many posts that reading even a small fraction was impossible. But one stood out, defrang.com:

Mark got really upset about the W3C and he’s right. For fuck’s sake, W3C folks please listen to the developers who have to implement and deal with your recommandations. I remember being at a W3C conference in Brussels recently and It’s obvious that all those guys never had to make a real-life website. Authoring web pages, is different than the usual Amaya-generated personnal homepage hosted on the w3.org server, they should know that…

I laughed when I read the word “Brussels,” with its rich connotations of petty-minded European Union bureaucrats determining “the ‘expected and required’ ingredients of a sausage or the allowable degree of curvature in a cucumber.” You know that they’ve never actually made a sausage or grown a cucumber, just as the W3C folks have “never had to make a real-life website.”

And the previous week Xavier Defrang wrote:

Here we go for the first round of Safari bugs… Web developers will “thank” Apple for relying on yet another HTML rendering engine instead of betting on Gecko…

weblog.delacour.net links DIV  in Safari browserThat caught my eye because I’d just received feedback from AKMA on how my site fared in Safari:

A quick message to say that Safari renders your left-hand column such that the section headings overlap with the first subject under the heading.

That’s got me really pissed off. Not the fact that Safari screws with my CSS, that’s the nature of web development. Rather that—just at the point where the Gecko-based browsers are starting to give Internet Explorer some real competition—Apple goes with another rendering engine. How stupid is that? Could someone explain the Byzantine politics that went into the decision? Do you really find it inexplicable that I can’t quite bring myself to buy a Macintosh? Despite all the effort that’s gone into establishing a realistic alternative browser, Apple goes off on yet another ego trip. As someone I know would say:

How about some fucking payoff now? How about some fucking compatibility?

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Saturday 18 January 2003

72ppi or 96ppi—am I missing something?

Since a number of visitors to my site have complained that the Georgia font is difficult to read at small sizes on the Macintosh, I’m redesigning my stylesheets along the lines that Zeldman suggests (except that my default will be resizable Georgia and the alternate will be fixed Verdana).

Zeldman’s explanation of why he’s switched back to pixels is instructive (and I’ll quote it when I announce the font changes). But something he wrote about the recently released Safari browser caught my eye:

Matt Haughey notes that Safari defaults to the old Mac 72 ppi display instead of the 96 ppi standard used by most other modern browsers regardless of platform. This means that text set with relative sizes, as the W3C and accessibility experts recommend, may be too small in Safari. (Zeldman.com and Happy Cog use relative sizes.)

This switch back to 72 ppi is particularly puzzling since, in OS X, Apple has abandoned the pixel as a unit of measurement. When you set type preferences in OS X, you’re asked to do so in terms of point sizes—even though points are a unit of print, not screen, measurement.

I’ve been building websites long enough to know the difference between the Macintosh display resolution of 72ppi and the Windows display resolution of 96ppi. But I was unaware that there had been an agreement amongst browser vendors to standardize on 96ppi.

If that’s the case, I wondered to myself, why are we all still making GIFs and JPEGs at 72ppi? So I did a quick experiment, making JPEGs of the same image at both 72ppi and 96ppi.

Araki book on chair, 72 pixels per inchAraki book on chair, 96 pixels per inch

Needless to say, they look identical since both images have the same dimensions (240 x 180 pixels). The file sizes are the same too, since file size—at the same JPEG compression settings—is largely a function of the number of pixels in the image. And, apart from the gamma difference, they’re the same size on both my (1024 x 768) Macintosh and Windows monitors—as you’d expect, given that a pixel is a pixel.

So, what am I missing here? Is the 72ppi/96ppi issue only relevant for text specified in relative sizes? And inconsequential for images? (My test images print identically too.) Am I missing something here?

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Tuesday 21 January 2003

To s**t or not to s**t

Weary of my pussyfooting around over whether to buy a Macintosh or not, Burningbird finally snapped:

Okay, enough is enough. Jonathon Delacour has been flirting with the idea of getting a Mac, teasing us, coyly, with this will he or won’t he like a 16 year old on a hot date.

Time for this man to buy a Mac.

As I lay here on my bed, lightweight PowerBook on my lap, I decided to start a list of reasons why Jonathon should either s**t or get off the pot and buy that PBook.

Shit or get off the pot. I haven’t heard that expression since I lived with a psychotherapist, J, many years ago. In Australia the corresponding expression is “put up or shut up.” I’m sure she picked up its more graphic equivalent from reading Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, transcripts of three workshop/demonstrations that Fritz Perls gave at the Esalen Institute in 1968. Perls would say this to clients who, once in the hot seat, were reluctant to dive into the malestrom maelstrom of their neurosis. I don’t recall J telling me to “shit or get off the pot”—like Perls, she reserved that expression for recalcitrant clients—but she did encourage me to tell lies. “Stop being so rigid,” she’d tell me. “The truth is malleable. You could be a really accomplished liar if you put your mind to it.” I wonder if that’s not why, many years after we’d separated, I abandoned the “literal truth” of photography in order to chase a dream of telling stories.

Anyway, enough reminiscing. I admit that I’ve been prevaricating over the PowerBook, possibly even more than “a 16 year old on a hot date.” And Burningbird offers a variety of reasons for buying a Macintosh—some compelling, others less so. Let’s run through them quickly:

  • Weight. I don’t need to be sold on weight. For nearly four years I’ve had an IBM ThinkPad 600E, which is the best piece of computer hardware I’ve ever owned: light, rugged, and reliable. But the 12-inch PowerBook is even lighter and Apple’s hardware is usually pretty good. Score 1 point to the PowerBook.
  • Ease of use. Though Burningbird likes her TiBook’s keyboard and touchpad, the ThinkPad’s keyboard is excellent and I hate touchpads with a passion. Score 1 point to the ThinkPad.
  • Monitor. The ThinkPad is also great for “watching DVD movies in bed.” Call it a draw.
  • Neat Apple stuff. “There isn’t fun stuff for Windows.” Maybe not, but there’s a ton of functional stuff. More about that later. The [Macintosh] software actually installs without tweaking. Amazing.” Amazing indeed. But another draw.
  • OS Support. Burningbird runs three operating systems simultaneously: Mac OS 10.2, BSD Unix, and Win2K (under virtual PC). Plus X Windows on top of the Aqua Interface. I’m currently running Win2K and Red Hat Linux on my ThinkPad. Score 1 point to the PowerBook.
  • Portability. With a wireless router and WiFi, Burningbird can carry her Macintosh everywhere. I’ve run an Ethernet cable from my router to an old Toshiba laptop in the living room so I can check email, if necessary. Burningbird also paints a picture of me in the kitchen, plying the Dishmatique while the Mac plays music, a movie, or soccer clips. A compelling vision, no doubt, but there’s a clear line of sight from my kitchen to the living room, where the TV and stereo are. A draw.
  • Cats. According to Burningbird, “cats prefer PowerBooks 2 to 1 over comparable PC-based laptops. No, really.” Hmm. I checked this out with Reimi-chan.
    “Aunt Shelley says that cats prefer PowerBooks 2 to 1 over comparable PC-based laptops,” I told her.
    “Not cats who belong to photographers,” she replied. “Rob Galbraith’s tests show that the PC is about twice as fast as a comparable Macintosh for a range of digital photography tasks.”
    Score 1 point for the ThinkPad. (I may no longer be “a photographer” but I do have a couple of digital cameras.)
  • Compatibility: Burningbird notes that I’m unable to test my website design against the OS and machines that many of my readers use. Point taken. Although I still own an ancient PowerPC 8100 (running System 8.6), I don’t have a clue what my site looks like on a modern Macintosh. Score 1 point to the PowerBook.
  • Coolness. PowerBooks are cooler than PC laptops. Agreed. But I prefer to think that I’m the kind of guy who is innately cool, rather than one who relies on external possessions to telegraph his coolness. But there’s a strong chance I may be deluding myself, so let’s give that 1 point to the PowerBook.
  • Sex. TiBooks are sexy, PC laptops aren’t. Well, I have to disagree. ThinkPads are made of titanium too. It’s just that IBM paints them black. So that other people won’t think ThinkPad owners are wankers. “Tell me, which would you rather be? Sexy? Or functional?” asks Burningbird. Where I come from, functional is sexy, if you’re functioning properly. Score another draw.

Burningbird offers as “the final and best reason of all — PowerBooks are the official laptop of Alpha Males.” I’m actually well-versed in Alpha Male Theory and this sounds suspiciously like the cat statistic, which Reimi shot down in flames. I’ll let it pass. For now.

So, how’s the scoreboard? PowerBook 4, ThinkPad 2. Admittedly, I’m due for another notebook computer, which is why—despite my loyalty to the ThinkPad series—I’ve been nurturing my Macintosh fantasy, first an iBook, now the tiny PowerBook.

My main problem is this: I don’t really need another computer. In fact, I was thinking to myself that I can probably eke another year’s use out of my current ThinkPad, when I followed up a ping from gord at poeticgeek who’s been lusting after an Apple notebook too:

I will definitely have to look a little more seriously into getting one. I really have wanted one for ages now. Then again, money is a bit tight. But, you really can never treat yourself enough. I’ll consider it a productivity enhancer; even though it will more likely be a productivity detractor.

He’s voicing my own thoughts, exactly. Money is a bit tight. But it’s nice to treat oneself occasionally. Then he articulates my greatest fear: another operating system will just be a productivity detractor. I was a Macintosh user from 1985 to 1996. It was a real wrench to pull myself away to the PC, which had a bunch of software I wanted to use that was unavailable on the Mac. So I have a huge investment in PC software. I know what it takes to become truly proficient with an OS. And I’m already a Grand Master at Using Computers To Avoid Doing Any Real Work.

There is, however, one compelling reason that Burningbird failed to mention: Apple’s first-rate Japanese language support. That warrants serious consideration, which can wait for another day.

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Thursday 23 January 2003

I couldn’t believe how easy it was

Took the scenic route on the way home from the pool this afternoon to drop by the nearest Apple store. At first the saleswoman told me I couldn’t try out the Japanese language support in OS X because it would mean reinstalling the operating system. I’d anticipated this response but I gently persisted and, within a matter of minutes, we’d checked Japanese in the International control panel (are they still called control panels?), logged out and logged back in, figured out how to switch on the Input Method, and I was typing Japanese in Microsoft Word. By then she was so enthusiastic that I only had to say “Unicode Character Palette” and she’d found it in a trice.

Smart, curious people are a pleasure to be with, aren’t they? Her initial reluctance didn’t trouble me at all, since it was so obviously based on a perceptive and accurate intuition that I was just another tire kicker with no real intention of buying a Macintosh. What had a greater impact was the ease with which her resistance gave way to a strong desire to find the answer to my question. Although I didn’t mention this to her, I had already decided that, in the unlikely event I do buy a 12-inch PowerBook, I would buy it from the first salesperson who took the trouble to show me how to activate Japanese language support in OS X. So at least that’s one less decision I have to make.

<update>Kevin Marks graciously offered to make screenshots of the OS X Japanese fonts. So I fired up my Japanese email client, Becky, and sent him my test Kanji string (the Macintosh mail application is fully multilingual). Included with OS X are four Japanese fonts: Hiragino Kaku Gothic Pro, Hiragino Kaku Gothic Std, Hiragino Maru Gothic Pro, and Hiragino Mincho Pro, plus Osaka (the Japanese system font used for menus and dialog boxes). In addition to identifying each font, the complete screenshot shows Apple’s secret weapon in the font wars.

Macintosh TrueType Japanese fonts

I didn’t mention how gorgeous Japanese text looks on the Macintosh, compared with Windows. Kevin alluded to that when he wrote in his email:

By the way, I turned off the LCD-specific anti-aliasing for that screenshot- it actually looks better than that on my iBook because of the extra res it gets from the LCD sub-pixels.

Although the WinXP display is almost certainly superior to what I get with Win2K, compared to their Macintosh equivalents the actual Windows Japanese fonts are mediocre—or, to put it a different way, adequate but hardly inspiring (like much of what comes from Microsoft).</update>

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Friday 07 February 2003

Meaningless Archiving meets Numerology

Without actually mentioning my rant about weekly archives, gord from Poetic Geek takes me to task in the nicest possible way over the form of my individual archives:

Let’s take Jonathon Delacour for example, he’s both an excellent writer and seems to care about semantics. His most recent post is archived at http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000833.html. What does this URL tell you about the piece it points to? Almost nothing, only that it is stored in the archives and there are 832 previous pieces. Imagine the URL looked like this: http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/2003/02/05/can_I cite_you_on_that.html. What does this tell us about the post: It was posted on February 5th, 2003 and is entitled “can I cite you on that”. This is much more informative. It would also allow people to construct URL’s based on information they have on the date the post was made. This cannot be accomplished with the previous method.

Burningbird commented:

Good points. Unfortunately, if we’ve had the weblogs for a while and have been linked to, it makes it difficult to change. That can be a lot of redirects to manage.

That would have been my response too. When I switched to Movable Type, I think I decided on the simple numbered archive format because:

  • The dated folder structure seemed unnecessarily complex (Radio UserLand does it that way too).
  • I thought the file name based on the entry title looked ugly.
  • And therefore I ignored my usual MarkUp Mentor, Mark Pilgrim, and followed the example of Burningbird and Phil Ringnalda instead (not that I’m blaming Bb or Phil—I liked the numbered format).

But if I’d read gord’s post first, I would almost certainly have followed his advice—and not because he ends it with:

Whichever method you use, it will most certainly be more helpful than the padded entry ID. Jonathon is by no means the only person doing this, he’s just by far the cutest.

In any case, it’s clearly not too late, since I could follow gord’s suggestion to:

leave your current pages as they are so that no one’s links are broken and then just have it generate all new pages that way.

That’s yet another of the nice things about MT—it just leaves the old archive pages in place. So, unless someone offers a compelling argument that I should leave things as they are, I may well implement gord’s archive system. Although there is one important issue: given that numbers have great significance for me, at which post number do I switch from one system to the other? (For example, I’ve just realized that this entry will be #835, which is a good number because 8=3+5. But I’ll want to post some other entries while I’m waiting for counter-opinions. So the turnover point might have to be #844. We’ll see.)

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Saturday 08 February 2003

LANG? Enough already!

A couple of posts (lang=”ja” and the attribute selector and Can I CITE you on that?) and lots of comments later, we’re still no closer to resolving how to properly mark up Japanese words written in Romaji (Japanese transliterated using Roman characters).

I started marking up Japanese words—pretty much the only foreign words I include with any regularity—while implementing Mark Pilgrim’s Dive Into Accessibility tips:

Day 7: Identifying your language

You know what language you’re writing in, so tell your readers… and their software.

Who benefits?

  1. Jackie benefits. Her screen reader software (JAWS) needs to know what language your pages are written in, so it can pronounce your words properly when it reads them aloud. If you don’t identify your language, JAWS will try to guess what language you’re using, and it can guess incorrectly, especially if you quote source code or include other non-language content in your pages.
  2. Google benefits, even if you are writing in English, but especially if you are writing in some other language. According to the Google Zeitgeist, 50% of Google users search in languages other than English, and many of these users specify in their Google preferences to only search for pages in specific languages. Google’s language auto-detection algorithms are better than most, but why make Google’s job more difficult?

Except that, as the JAWS information page explains:

JAWS installs with an enhanced, multi-lingual software speech synthesizer, “Eloquence for JAWS”. Languages include: American English, British English, Castilian Spanish, Latin American Spanish, French, French Canadian, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Finnish.

No Japanese. Similarly, my copy of IBM Home Page Reader supports the following languages: German, Spanish, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Suomi (Finnish), British English, and American English but not Japanese.

Even if Japanese were included, it’s doubtful how useful the “correct” pronunciation would be since Japanese is frequently transliterated without the macrons that indicate long vowel sounds i.e. taiheiyo senso instead of taiheiyō sensō (or as taiheiyou sensou, which is even worse).

If I set my Google preferences to search only for pages written in Japanese and do a search for “taiheiyo senso”, then apart from pages in which the phrase appears as a file or directory name, the result list only includes pages with taiheiyo senso written in Romaji.

But if I search for Japanese script for taiheiyo senso (Pacific War), the result list only includes pages in which taiheiyō sensō is written in Japanese script.

Thus, since anyone searching for a Romanized Japanese word will almost certainly want to see results in any language other than Japanese, it’s difficult to see how Google benefits from the inclusion of either lang="ja" or xml:lang="ja".

Bertil Wennergren provided further confirmation by taking the matter to “the high court” (comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html) but, as he noted in his comment, “no solution to the actual problem emerged.” Jukka Korpela summed it up:

This is depressing, but thanks for pointing this out. I think many of have not met this problem yet, either because we have Japanese support installed or because we haven’t visited pages where Romanized Japanese has language markup. The observation reminds us that we should not write language markup in too much detail, until the definitions and implementations have matured. (For an entire document, or for a block quotation, and for a book title, for example, language markup is surely recommendable, and not much work. But even for them, maybe it’s better to suppress the lang markup, if the text is transliterated or transcribed.)

So that’s it for me. From now on I’ll wrap Romanized Japanese words in a span tag, use CSS to italicize them, and—where the meaning isn’t immediately clear from the context—add a title tag to provide it. As in, taiheiyō sensō:

<span class="romaji" title="Pacific War">taiheiy&#333; sens&#333;</span>

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Sunday 09 February 2003

Only a matter of time

I’d pretty much resolved to retool my individual archives using the anders/gord dirified file naming system when Michael from i·me·michael tossed a spanner into the works (in the form of a first-rate piece of expository writing masquerading as a comment:

While I think gord has an interesting point, and one with merit, I don’t believe it has any more merit than the current system of archiving. The analogy of the generic filing system, where memos are indexed with a seemingly meaningless number, fails to acknowledge the more realistic scenario where “Joanne” probably has a indexing key which unlocks the numerical meaning attached to the memos. Any good filing/archiving system has a method for filing, and a method of retrieval. The default method of sequential numbering is neither better nor worse than a system where archived pages have names that are in some way tied to the content contained within.

Back to square one, I thought to myself, just before I clicked on the email notification of Phil Ringnalda’s comment (since I read most of the comments on my posts in SpamKiller, I’d read Michael’s ahead of Phil’s).

I’m not going to push my approach either, even if it bears fruit, having already twice inspired you to do things that I’d rather not be doing myself (entry ids and .php), but I will note that a .htaccess file using mod_rewrite on my 499 entries doesn’t seem to cause any major server stress. That I’ve noticed. In light testing.

Phil shouldn’t feel defensive since I’ve already made it clear that I was perfectly happy with entry_id archiving until gord pointed out its shortcomings and, following Burningbird’s advice, I’m only using PHP on my index page—all my archives are .html pages (though I may introduce other PHP pages for special purposes).

Then Bill Humphries responded to John’s LazyWeb request with a hybrid mod_rewrite/PHP solution:

What if you have several hundred, or several thousand entries?

You don’t want to use mod_rewrite. This is because in the case of .htaccess, Apache has to read that file for every request. And even if you put the rules in httpd.conf, that becomes a large ruleset that uses memory and processor. The set of mod_rewrite rules should be small.

An intermediate step would be to write a PHP script that handles the redirection for us.

But wait, there’s more! Jay Allen “just recently made the switch to smarter URLs away from the numerical form.” He explains how in a comment on Burningbird’s post, Don’t Touch That Button (in which she explained how to make the switch by creating a hashed database of redirects stored directly in the file system).

I don’t know how or when it will happen (I can’t use Alex’s method because my host doesn’t allow me to play with httpd.conf and I am drawn to Burningbird’s method because I like the idea of a “hashed database”), but I’m pretty sure I will make the switch to smarter URLs, despite Michael’s conclusion:

As I said in the beginning, gord’s point has merit, and it is neither better nor worse than the archiving schemes already in use, but I don’t personally see the value in switching to it.

Why switch in the face of a logical, persuasive argument? In some strange way, discovering that Phil is using dirified individual archive names may well be the clincher, in much the same way that I’m now holding off buying a Macintosh until Phil buys one. Even though he appears to be reluctant, Phil posts Mac-related entries often enough to suggest that he, like me, is teetering on the brink. (Assuming Phil does succumb, I’ll have to ask him to immediately email me the exact time and date he placed his order so that I can place mine 3.14159 days after.)

Because ultimately decisions like this are best made by balancing logic with emotion, intuition, and superstition.

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Monday 10 February 2003

Comment cookie cockup

It appears that my comments are not working properly. In a P-to-P email, Michael from i·me·michael wrote:

Your comments pages required setting one cookie for my info, and since your individual archive pages don’t seem to recognize this cookie, I had to fill out the same info and have another cookie set my info when commenting from an individual page. Seems a little redundant, and there may just be something set improperly. One cookie should cover the whole thing. You might want to look into it.

Indeed I might. Allan Moult alerted me to this problem a while ago and I found that I also had to fill in my info on the individual archive pages even though it appeared properly in the popup comment window. But when I upgraded to Movable Type 2.51 and installed the latest templates, everything worked properly for me so I assumed that the changes had fixed whatever was going wrong. (I can’t recall whether or not I made a comment from both the popup window and an individual archive page.)

This thread on the Movable Type Support forum describes the opposite problem (cookie info being remembered on the archive pages but not in the popup window) but the person in question was running two different blogs with different subdomain names and was storing his individual archive pages in category-based directories.

My copy of Mozilla is storing two sets of cookies.

  • domain: .weblog.delacour.net, path: /cgi-bin/
  • domain: .weblog.delacour.net, path: /archives/

The cookie code in the individual archive entry template is identical to that in the comment listing template.

I’m curious as to whether anyone else has struck this problem when leaving a comment from an individual archive page. Naturally I’d like to fix it and would be grateful for any suggestions. If it is happening to other commenters, I’ll at least have some “evidence” to take to the MT Support Forum.

Update

Scott Hanson suggested in a comment that I should modify the cookie setting and deleting functions so that the cookies are written to the root directory i.e. change

setCookie('mtcmtauth', f.author.value, now, '', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmtmail', f.email.value, now, '', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmthome', f.url.value, now, '', HOST, '');

to

setCookie('mtcmtauth', f.author.value, now, '/', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmtmail', f.email.value, now, '/', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmthome', f.url.value, now, '/', HOST, '');

That did the trick! And it worked for Michael Hanscom too. Sincere thanks to Scott.

Given the fact that I’m running a bog-standard MT installation, I’m now wondering why Scott’s “fix” isn’t the default.

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Tuesday 11 February 2003

HindenBook revisited?

Uh, oh! This is not a good omen for someone about to dip his toes back into the River Macintosh. Eric Snowdeal’s iBook is chronically unreliable:

the ibook is back in the shop. again.

congratulations, apple. you now have the dubious distinction of producing the most unreliable piece of hardware i’ve ever owned. ever. you should be proud. this is not meant to be an unfounded flame. it’s an objective fact.

i’ve owned loads and loads of hardware and yours is the worst. and i will note for the record that two friends have also returned and replaced their ibooks due to a variety of problems, so it’s not like i’m a freakish anomaly.

Eric’s iBook reminds me of the PowerBook 5300 (the HindenBook) that has the dubious distinction of being the most unreliable piece of hardware I’ve ever tried to use. Luckily I didn’t own it—within a three month period the LCD screen, motherboard, keyboard, and a serial port all had to be replaced (though, to be fair, my battery didn’t burst into flames).

Suddenly the Fujitsu LifeBook that Dan Lyke recommended is starting to look attractive again.

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Thursday 27 February 2003

Apple Sautee

An email from Norm Jenson alerted me to the fact that Chris Locke bought a new PowerBook:

Everyone is doing it
http://www.rageboy.com/2003_02_01_blogger-archive.html#90375510
Your turn.

“Wow,” I thought, “if Chris Locke has switched, maybe it is my turn.” Then I read the fine print in the Rage Boy’s post:

The only real problems I’m having with the Powerbook so far is that, due the incredible temperatures generated by its awesome processing power, it’s slow-cooking my hands as they rest on its sleek anodized aluminum shell. Sort of like sauteing your palms in an elegant and hugely expensive frying pan.

Maybe the new PowerBooks should come bundled with a couple of pork chops, sachets of herbs, spices, and Apple sauce, plus a recipe card (since the sauteeing time will depend on the CPU).

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Tuesday 30 September 2003

Mojikyo fixes a bug (in me)

Reading the opening chapters of Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s a couple of weeks ago prompted me to start work on an entry about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and why it so greatly vexed me. But the writing hasn’t gone smoothly and, in dire need of distraction, I hit the jackpot: xiaolongnu, a Chinese language specialist who regularly comments at Languagehat (and occasionally here) had alerted Languagehat to the existence of the Mojikyō Institute, a Japanese organization that produces the Konjaku-Mojikyo, a dictionary of mainly Chinese Characters, with a free font set of about 110,000 characters plus an input program.

The Konjaku-Mojikyo includes about 20,000 Chinese characters defined by Unicode (ISO 10646), and about 50,000 Chinese characters collected in the Professor Morohashi’s 13-volume Daikanwajiten (Great Kanji Japanese Dictionary), “the most comprehensive and authoritative reference work on the subject of Chinese characters”. The Mojikyo contains a wealth of other characters including Oracle Bone inscriptions, Siddham (Sanskrit) characters, Japanese Kana , Chu Nom (the original characters used in medieval Vietnam) , Shui Script (characters used by that Chinese ethnic minority) , and Tangut (Xixia) Script.

The Mojikyō Character Map, to which xiaolongnu originally referred, is a freeware application developed from the profits of the commercial Konjaku-Mojikyo software published on CD-ROM by the Kinokuniya Bookstore (the commercial version allows more convenient searching and finding information about the characters).

Languagehat set the bait, confident that several of his readers would be interested “in all this great stuff”. As he later admitted, I was at the top of his list. Happily, I didn’t disappoint him—as I explained in my comment on his post, I could put the Mojikyo Character Map to immediate use:

Something that’s bugged me for ages is that Nagai Kafū’s Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) uses an obsolete kanji for the boku character. Amazon lists the book as “墨東綺譚” but the first character is a much simplified version of the original that appears on the cover and title page of Kafū’s novel. Now it looks like I might be able to find the correct boku character.

Late last night, needing a break from Bush’s aviation exploits, I convinced myself that I should download the 34 files (totalling 52MB) needed for the installation. We’ll call that the thin edge of the wedge. This morning I decided it wouldn’t hurt to install the Mojikyo Character Map and quickly see if I could find Kafū’s boku character.

Although extracting the 34 files was a little tedious, Jack Wiedrick’s instructions made the actual installation a snap. I use Extensis Suitcase to manage my Japanese fonts so I simply activated the Mojikyo fonts with Suitcase and double-clicked on the Mojikyo Character Map application. I was in business:

Mojikyo Character Map application

These days, on the rare occasion that someone asks me why I continue to study Japanese, I answer: “So I can read Nagai Kafū’s A Strange Tale from East of the River in the original Japanese, rather than a translation.”

Cover of Nagai Kafū's Bokuto Kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River)Kafū’s Strange Tale is, in the words of his English translator Edward Seidensticker, “in many ways scarcely a novel at all”. Its nominal subject is an aging writer (Oe Tadasu) who, while researching a novel he is writing, wanders “east of the (Sumida) river” from Asakusa to the lower-class Tamanoi district.

Trapped by a sudden storm, he meets a prostitute, Oyuki, who invites herself under his umbrella and then him into her house. Oe embarks on an affair with Oyuki, spending the hot summer evenings with her in Tamanoi; when the cold weather returns he ends the affair.

The Strange Tale contains another story—the one Oe is struggling to write—about a retired teacher (Taneda Jumpei) who elopes with Osumi, a bar-girl who was once his maidservant. Part of the novella’s appeal lies in the skill with which Kafū plays one story off against the other—in Keiko I. McDonald’s words, “expand[ing] his ‘discourse time’ by telling two stories that interact and complement each other”.

I also admire Strange Tale because, as Seidensticker explains, “it belongs to the uniquely Japanese genre to which [Kafū’s] Quiet Rain also belongs, the leisurely, discursive ‘essay-novel’, its forebears the discursive essay and ‘poem story’ (utamonogatari) of the Heian Period, and the linked verse of the Muromachi Period and after”.

Japanese characters for Bokuto kidan (correct kanji  for boku)Put it down to my anal-retentive temperament, but it’s always irritated me that I couldn’t write Bokutō kidan correctly in Japanese because the Microsoft Japanese IME doesn’t support the first (boku) character. Worse still, I have three kanji dictionaries— Halpern’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, Spahn & Hadamitzky’s The Kanji Dictionary, and Haig & Nelson’s New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary—and Kafū’s boku isn’t in any of them.

Why did Kafū use such an “obscure” character? Well, for one thing, such kanji were more commonly used in the first half of the 20th century, when Kafū was writing. Also because of his upbringing: his father and maternal-grandfather were trained in the Chinese classics and Kafū himself entered the Chinese department of the School of Foreign Studies in 1897 though, as Seidensticker explains, “he scarcely went near the place and failed to graduate”. That particular character may have evoked a specific feeling or impression in his readers or he may even have used it because in Kafū’s time the use of uncommon Chinese characters in one’s writing was a sign of erudition (an attitude that persists amongst some contemporary Japanese).

Japanese characters for Bokuto kidan (simplified kanji  for boku)Not being able to represent the character correctly is not just a problem for me—as I explained before, Amazon in Japan uses a simplified version in its listing for the book.

[The primary meanings of the four characters in the Amazon title are, in order, “india ink”, “east”, “figured cloth; beautiful”, and “talk”. In his entry for the boku character that Amazon uses, Halpern includes a Chinese variant (mò), which looks like Kafū’s character minus the three-stroke radical on the left.]

But I found the correct character with the Mojikyo Character Map on my second attempt. Although Halpern’s dictionary uses a different method (SKIP, based on geometrical patterns), most kanji dictionaries require you to identify the radical (the primitive by which it is indexed), count the total number of strokes in the character (or the number of strokes less those in the radical), and finally locate the particular character within a list of characters with that radical and stroke count. It sounds more difficult than it actually is. Unless the dictionary doesn’t contain the character you’re looking for.

Kafū’s boku character has the three-stroke radical sanzui (#85) on the left—and a total of 18 strokes. My first match (Mojikyo 050021; below, left) was close but, as I realized almost immediately, not quite correct. And it only contains 17 strokes. Interestingly, this one is kind of “half-way” between the correct character and the simplified version that Amazon uses and that (not surprisingly) the Microsoft IME supports. I scanned through the grid of characters until I reached the 18-stroke section and there it was (Mojikyo 079131; below, right). Success!

Mojikyo characters 050021 (left) and 079131 (right)

But my elation rapidly turned to disappointment when I realized that I couldn’t represent the correct character (Mojikyo 079131) via Unicode.

Mojikyo contextual Copy menuThe Mojikyo Character Map provides a contextual menu that allows you to copy a character in a number of formats for pasting into other applications. Copying the Unicode tag for Mojikyo 079131 produces the Unicode (Decimal) tag &#28665;, which is also the Unicode tag for my first (incorrect) match, Mojikyo 050021. And &#28665; yields .

At first I thought that this might be because Kafū’s boku character (Mojikyo 079131) is included in Morohashi’s Daikanwajiten but is not part of the current Unicode standard. But Jack Wiedrick’s documentation indicates that:

  • Gold characters are included in the JIS standard;
  • Cyan characters are included in the ISO10646 (=Unicode) specification; and
  • White characters are not included in either standard.

And Kafū’s boku character—perhaps xiaolongnu can suggest an alternative name—is rendered in cyan, which means it is part of the Unicode standard. So perhaps, on my first use of the Mojikyo Character Map, I’ve discovered a bug. I’ve emailed the Mojikyo Institute and am waiting on their reply. But at least, in finding the character Kafū used, I’ve fixed what was bugging me.

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Sunday 05 October 2003

Not a bug in Mojikyo, but rather a feature of Unicode

It wasn’t a bug in Mojikyo, nor the fact that Windows is a sorry excuse for an operating system—rather it turned out to be the inherent design of Unicode that limits my ability to display (on a Web page) both variants of the Chinese character mentioned in my previous post.

Variants of the boku character used in the title of Kafu's Bokuto kidanA comprehensive explanation came via email from Mr Tanimoto of the Mojikyo Institute, confirming what Brian Hunziker and gaemon had suggested in their comments: that the two variants of the character “boku” (shown at the left) have the same Unicode number (or, in Unicode-speak, “share a single codepoint”). In his comment, Brian linked to a screenshot of the Macintosh Character Palette showing how Mac OS X allows one to choose between the two variants; in response to an email request, he graciously made new screenshots and gave me permission to reproduce them. In the illustration below, the green triangles to the right of certain characters indicate that alternatives exist to the character being currently displayed. At the bottom of the Character Palette, a button provides access to the character variants which share the same codepoint.

Macintosh Japanese character palette
(Scaled down screenshot— click to see full size image)

In a BYTE article titled Unicode Evolves, Ken Fowles explains how codepoints work:

The Unicode/ISO10646 standard provides one uniform 16-bit encoding that can store information from all the world’s commonly used scripts. The key word here is “standard.” Unicode itself is a standard, not a technology. Where technology gets involved is how the software makes use of the standard.

The Unicode concept of parking characters into a 64-KB space sounds simple enough — until you realize there are three or four times that many characters in the world’s written languages. So a key part of Unicode’s design is to handle that 64-KB space as valuable real estate since it has to support a large number of scripts in one consistent encoding.

Several parts of Unicode’s design help it maximize this use of what’s called a codepoint , the permanent Unicode address of each character. For example, diacritic marks in most other character sets are not stored as unique characters, but in Unicode each diacritic can be separately tracked and shared among several characters. Codepoints are conserved through Han Unification, sort of like a highway carpool lane where two or three characters with similar appearance share the same space. To Unicode, small differences in appearance should be handled as a font issue, not by inventing another character encoding. Also, Unicode does not guarantee a particular sort order, since software should handle that separately.

Thus, the two variants of “Kafū’s boku character” share a single codepoint (&#28665;). The crucial concept—the one that led me to to wonder if a bug in Mojikyo caused it to produce the same Unicode character entity for each variant—is that, as Mr Tanimoto explained in his email, Unicode does not differentiate between design differences within the same character—each character is assigned a codepoint and “the judgement of which design is adopted is left to the font maker”.

The Mojikyo system, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach by separately registering all the different designs of a particular character and assigning to each variant a separate Mojikyo number. Mr Tanimoto illustrated the relationship between Unicode and Mojikyo—as it applies to the boku character—with an ASCII diagram in his email, which I’ve recreated here:

Relationship between Mojikyo and Unicode numbers for boku character

As Brian Hunziker’s screenshot shows, the Hiragino Mincho Pro font includes both variants:

Detail of Macintosh Character Palette showing font variant selection

Unfortunately, as one might expect, the IME Pad (the Windows XP “equivalent” of the Macintosh Character Palette) and MS Mincho font combo leave a lot to be desired:

Windows XP IME pad

I wrapped the word “equivalent” in quotation marks because there is really no way that the butt-ugly Windows IME Pad can compete with the design, functionality, and appearance of the Macintosh Character Palette. Nor do any of the Windows Japanese fonts (MS Mincho, MS Gothic, and Arial Unicode MS) include the range of character variants included in Apple’s beautiful Hiragino Mincho Pro font.

“I hope I’ll not derail this into a Mac vs. PC discussion as that certainly is not my intention”, wrote Brian Hunziker in his comment. That’s OK, I’m sufficiently irritated to derail it myself:

<rant>The relentless mediocrity of Japanese support under Windows absolutely typifies Microsoft’s “near enough is good enough” approach to functionality and interface design. In fact, Windows Japanese support seems about as good as that offered by the Japanese Language Kit I was using on the Macintosh in the late eighties.

I get so tired of hearing about all the super-smart people who work for Microsoft when it’s abundantly clear that either they don’t have a clue about how to do things properly or else they don’t give a rat’s arse about anything but gouging money out of users and causing us grief.

Using the Windows operating system—as distinct from using Windows applications, many of which are superb—is like having to take photographs with a Soviet Zorki or Kiev camera when you could be using a Leica or a Hasselblad. Sure, you can take great pictures with a shitty camera but, since you’re constantly fighting the deficiencies in the equipment, there’s hardly any joy in the process. Elegance is one word that’s conspicuously absent from the Microsoft vocabulary.</rant>

Why don’t I switch? Primarily because I have thousands of dollars invested in Windows applications. Though, as I said to Brian Hunziker in an email, his screenshots “may have gently nudged me onto the slippery slope towards buying a Macintosh.”

Until then, I’ll rely on the Mojikyo Character Map to make up for the deficiencies in Windows, using Mojikyo’s RTF output to copy the character variant I need to Photoshop via Word (for some reason, the RTF output won’t paste directly into Photoshop for Windows). I only have access to all the character variants, of course, because I’ve installed the Mojikyo fonts. And, regardless of which operating system one uses, the chances are you’ll see Mojikyo font 050021 instead of Mojikyo font 079131 when I include the &#28665; Unicode entity—like this: .

That’s the reason that I’m using images to illustrate the characters—and to do that I’m taking advantage of another service offered by the Mojikyo Institute: links to 24x24 and 96x96 pixel GIF images of all the characters included in the Mojikyo character set. I’ve linked to the 24x24 pixel GIFs (in the previous paragraph), using these IMG tags:

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif/050/050021.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 050021" name="mojikyo_font_050021" width="24" height="24" />

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif/079/079131.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 079131" name="mojikyo_font_079131" width="24" height="24" />

The 96x96 pixel versions look like this:

Mojikyo font 050021    Mojikyo font 079131

and require the following links:

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif96/050/050021.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 050021" name="mojikyo_font_050021" width="96" height="96" />

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif96/079/079131.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 079131" name="mojikyo_font_079131" width="96" height="96" />

This means you can embed any of the Mojikyo characters in a Web page, without requiring that visitors have the Mojikyo fonts installed. (Note that the user license does not allow the GIF images to be downloaded, redistributed, or loaded onto another server.)

And, if you discover a Chinese character that is not currently contained in the Mojikyo character set, you can ask the Institute to create a new character (providing you tell them where you discovered the character).

So, to sum up, I couldn’t access the boku character that Kafū used because none of the default Windows Japanese fonts includes that particular variant. And I couldn’t display Kafū’s boku in a weblog entry because Unicode needs to preserve codepoints so that they don’t run out of permanent addresses. And I was able to find Kafū’s boku on my Windows PC with the aid of the Mojikyo Character Map because the Mojikyo Institute regards Chinese characters as “a very important cultural asset of the human race” and—like Apple—is committed to making that wonderful variety of characters widely available. The fly in the ointment is, as one might expect, Microsoft. (I’m sure Dave Rogers would agree—I was amused (though hardly suprised) when I followed his pointer to these Dan Bricklin photographs of the BloggerCon audience.)

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Saturday 11 October 2003

There ain’t no such thing as plain text

I wish Joel Spolsky had published his excellent introduction to Unicode and character encoding a week earlier, because then I wouldn’t have wasted a couple of hours trying to write a snippet of PHP code to convert Japanese characters to Unicode character entities. In the fourth paragraph of The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) Joel Spolsky reveals what what finally provoked him into writing his essay:

When I discovered that the popular web development tool PHP has almost complete ignorance of character encoding issues, blithely using 8 bits for characters, making it darn near impossible to develop good international web applications, I thought, enough is enough.

That statement knocked me for a six. Historically—as Joel Spolsky infers—American programmers have been indifferent to dealing with languages other than English. But PHP started out in 1995 as a series of Perl scripts written by Rasmus Lerdorf who was born in Greenland, lived in Denmark for much of his childhood, then spent a number of years in Canada before moving to the United States. In 1997, Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans—both Israelis, who between them speak Hebrew, English, and German—completely rewrote the core PHP code, turning it into what became known as the Zend engine. If anyone would be sensitive to language and character set issues, you’d surely expect it to be these guys and their colleagues.

Yet a Google search on “unicode support in php” turned up an interesting, and ultimately dispiriting, series of threads. Firstly, this reply by Andi Gutmans to an October 2001 question on the PHP Internationalization Mailing List about “the current status of multi-byte character handling in PHP, and also some kind of forecast of when it is expected to work in a stable manner”:

No one seems to be working seriously on full Unicode support except for the mainly Japanese work Rui [Hirokawa] has done. I thought that the Email from Carl Brown was quite promising but adding good i18n support to PHP will require much more interest and volunteers. It seemed that not many people were very interested.

More recently, l0t3k replied to an August 2003 question about Unicode support:

i certainly am not an official voice of PHP, but some movement is happening (albeit slow and scattered) to provide some form of Unicode support. the Japanese i18N group have recently created a path to allow the engine to process scripts in various encodings, Unicode included [1].

[1] refers to another thread in which Masaki Fujimoto reported on progress with the i18n (internationalization) features of the Zend Engine 2, adding:

yes, I know most of you (== non-multibyte encoding users) do not care about this kind of i18n features (and somehow feel ‘more than enough’) as the comments in http://bugs.php.net/bug.php?id=22108 shows, so I paid close attention not to do any harm with original codes: everything is done in #ifdef ZEND_MULTIBYTE.

What’s really dispiriting is the conversation at PHP Bugs to which Masaki Fujimoto refers, where the issues of Unicode and internationalization are met with either indifference, hostility, or—as in this question—both:

And why on earth would you save PHP files in any other format than ascii?

Color me flabbergasted. If you tried to imagine the target audience for Joel Spolsky’s essay, this guy is standing right on the bullseye. As Joel explains:

If you completely forget everything I just explained, please remember one extremely important fact. It does not make sense to have a string without knowing what encoding it uses. You can no longer stick your head in the sand and pretend that “plain” text is ASCII.

There Ain’t No Such Thing As Plain Text.

If you have a string, in memory, in a file, or in an email message, you have to know what encoding it is in or you cannot interpret it or display it to users correctly.

But why did I want to use PHP to convert Japanese characters to Unicode entities anyway? Procrastination mainly (anything to avoid my essay about the George W Bush aircraft carrier stunt). Curiosity too. While working on another essay, about Ozu Yasujiro, I wanted to make a table listing his films: their Japanese titles, translations of those titles, the actual English titles, and the year of release.

Since I have a PC exclusively devoted to Japanese (so that I can use some native Japanese applications), I wound up creating the table in Word 2000 and save the document as HTML. When I examined the HTML in Dreamweaver on my main (English) PC, I noticed that Word had transformed the Japanese characters into the equivalent Unicode entities. When I type Japanese into Dreamweaver, on the other hand, the Japanese characters simply appear within the HTML.

As an example, the next two lines of text both read Ochazuke no aji (The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, the title of one of Ozu’s films) and, if you have Japanese support enabled, should look the same:

お茶漬けの味

お茶漬けの味

But, if you check the source code in your browser, you’ll see Japanese characters in the first line and Unicode entities in the second, like this:

Japanese and Unicode characters for ochazuke no aji

I might be utterly mistaken, but I can’t help thinking that using the Unicode entities might be preferable (ie more reliable) than using the actual Japanese characters. Though, as long as the character encoding is set to utf-8, it may not make any difference. I’d be interested in what anyone else thinks about this. Since I thought it would be useful to get some advice from the experts, I’ve emailed Joel Spolsky and Masaki Fujimoto. (I didn’t think there was any point in bothering Mr ASCII.)

Update

Masaki Fujimoto and Joel Spolsky graciously replied to my email, basically confirming the points that Michael Glaesemann made in his comment. Joel Spolsky wrote that he has been using UTF-8 for all the translations of Joel on Software (currently translated into 28 languages) and “has not had a single person complain about not being able to read it”.

Whilst favoring the use of characters rather than Unicode entities, Masaki Fujimoto pointed out that entities offer two additional advantages:

  • avoiding implicit encoding translation (some software—including PHP can implicitly convert one encoding to another and using entites allows you to skip this);
  • avoiding any null-bytes problems (UTF-16 and UTF-32 can contain null-bytes, which can cause various kind of problems with unicode-unaware software.

Fujimoto-san also explained that the Japanese think of Uncode entities as a “kind of work around for the japanese-unavailable-environment” and so would never normally use entity references. He also noted out that it is not really all that difficult to make PHP completely Unicode-aware, with the main roadblocks being that:

  • because PHP does not distinguish binary data from strings it is not possible to change “string type” to “unicode-aware string type” without breaking any binary contents;
  • most of the core PHP developers live in Europe, so they are not so interested in the Unicode issue.

I have a feeling that the second roadblock will be easier to dismantle than the first, that the interest of European PHP developers in Unicode will increase proportionately with the economic influence of China.

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Sunday 12 October 2003

I’m not giving up my day job (to become a PHP programmer)

Having colored myself “flabbergasted”, I now need to color myself “embarrassed” since Scott Reynen has comprehensively demonstrated that PHP does have limited Unicode support, which he uses to create his Daily Japanese Lessons. Even more impressively, Scott followed up by doing what I couldn’t manage—writing a snippet of PHP code to convert japanese characters to unicode character entities. As I admitted in Scott’s comments, “I should leave PHP coding to those who actually know what they’re doing”.

Regarding the issue of which is better—CJK characters or Unicode entities—Michael Glaesemann’s comment has convinced me beyond any doubt that it’s best to stick with the characters.

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Friday 21 November 2003

Which border fits best?

The other reason for my recent lull in activity is that, having started to give my house a belated spring cleaning, I then decided to give my weblog a minor makeover. I still like the overall design so I didn’t want to fuss with it too much. But a few months ago I switched to a 19-inch CRT monitor and the additional pixels meant a lot more empty white space on the right. Given that the increasing popularity of LCD displays—a standard 17-inch model has a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels—means more pixels for more people, I decided to replace the left-aligned page design with a centered design.

I modified my Movable Type templates and stylesheets and came up with a design that enclosed both the links and the content regions with a red border. I’ll call this the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design (shown below, on the left).

New site design with border on sidebar plus contentNew site design with border on sidebar only
Click on either graphic to see the actual web page

However, it worried me that this design was a little too rigidly geometrical. I’m not sure that the right-hand border is appropriate for text with a right-ragged margin. (Justifying the text might solve this problem but it creates another: I think justified web text looks terrible because HTML/CSS lacks support for the hypenation and justification controls that page layout programs use to eliminate the rivers of white space in justified but unhyphenated text.)

Something else that troubles me about the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design is that the empty gray sidebar extends to the bottom of the red box and, on a long page, this looks odd. (Only write short weblog entries, you might say, but if I had to do that I’d probably give up blogging.)

So I came up with an alternative that I’ll call the “Border on Sidebar Only” design (shown above, on the right), which addresses the problems I perceived in the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design.

Now, since I’m too close to it all, I’ve decided to follow Mark Pilgrim’s example by asking for feedback on the two designs (I’m not interested in suggestions for alternate designs since I have neither the time nor the inclination to do any more work on the templates and stylesheets).

If you’re willing to check out the two designs—make sure you scroll to the bottom of each page—perhaps you’ll leave a comment stating why you prefer one design over the other.

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Sunday 18 July 2004

Wiki epiphany

Until yesterday morning the word “wiki” made me feel nauseous.

I’ve been thinking lately that our “freedom” to have and express opinions is based on an illusion: that we are, more often than not, prisoners of the ideas and emotions we derive such pleasure from articulating. So I’ve started to see strongly held convictions more as calcified thoughts and feelings, multiple layers, one formed upon another, created from our upbringing and experiences, that constrain our ability to experience the world in all its richness and complexity.

In this particular case—The Case of the Wiki—my antipathy towards most kinds of collective activity meant that I was totally unsympathetic to a writing environment in which “there is no prior review before modifications are accepted, [with] most wikis [being] open to the general public—or at least anyone who has access to the wiki server”.

I’m not sure when or why I became distrustful of groups. Like Stavros, the act of “imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life”.

All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right.

Thus I rarely see “communities” as benevolent. Instead, I’ve always regarded the main purpose of communities as offering a readymade structure for those who, in Brecht’s words, “want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people”.

Perhaps a brief, unhappy period as a member of the Sydney Filmmakers’ Cooperative laid down the first calcified layer of my belief that community is also the enemy of art. All I remember is endless meetings about what film(s) to make and no film ever being made. Filmmaking is a cooperative activity, to be sure, but I adhere to director Richard Brooks’ definition of a team as “a group of talented, dedicated professionals, all doing exactly what I tell them”.

My hostility to wikis, therefore, sprang from a mistrust of communities and what I’ll call “collective creativity”. A mistrust that is oddly inconsistent, given that I’m such a fan of open source software:

  • I still recall the satisfaction I experienced in moving my weblog from a Windows IIS server to a Linux/Apache/PHP/MySQL environment;
  • Firefox is my default browser (I only use IE when forced to by idiot web designers);
  • I’ve used Thunderbird for my Japanese email for six months and am starting to think about abandoning Eudora, which I’ve used on the Macintosh and the PC for as long as I can remember; and
  • If I decide that Movable Type 3.0 isn’t for me, I’ll almost certainly switch to WordPress.

It also seemed to me that a collective writing environment such as a wiki must be based on an optimistic view of human nature, a view that ignores “the moral limitations of people in general, and their egocentricity in particular” whereas I tend to see human beings in the terms Thomas Sowell defines: as “tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects”. Wiki enthusiasts assume that everyone will “do the right thing” whereas I assume that at least a few will do their best to screw it up. (Little did I know that wikis have a variety of contrivances to contain selfish and dangerous impulses.)

An even less excusable reason for my aversion towards wikis is that I confused the term “wiki” (derived from the Hawaiian “wiki wiki” or “quick” shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport) with “wicca” (the Neopagan religion), thus conflating wiki users with a stereotypical—and fallacious—perception of wiccans as eccentric believers in witchcraft and magick who prance around naked in the forest at full moon.

Dave Rogers has described how difficult it can be to transcend one’s beliefs:

There are some beliefs that are cherished. These are things we believe that make us feel good about ourselves, the future, or a particular object. When we listen to discussion and reasoning that calls upon our cherished beliefs in a way that is consistent with them, then we share a good feeling with and toward the person making the argument. Feeling “good” seldom invokes the cognitive process that critically, if imperfectly, examines the arguments and assertions being made. This is a very high barrier to overcome to get people to think critically about something for which they hold cherished beliefs. It’s mostly impossible, short of getting kind of ugly. And it almost always gets ugly if those beliefs are genuinely flawed.

Or genuinely irrational.

Extending Dave’s argument, my belief that “wikis are bad” offers a mechanism for making myself feel good (about being an outsider, an Exile, an individual). I think though, that under certain circumstances, it is possible to overcome the very high barrier to getting one to think critically about a cherished belief. You need some help though, and that’s what happened to me yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I was talking to Marius Coomans on the phone about a Web-related project when he suddenly asked me: “What do you think about wikis?”

My Pavlovian response? “Just the idea of semi-literate fools modifying my scintillating insights and/or my carefully crafted prose makes me feel sick.”

Marius knows me well enough not to be deterred.

“Have you ever used the Wikipedia?”

“Actually, I use it quite a lot. In fact one of my default Firefox pages at the moment is a Wikipedia entry about The Mind-body problem.”

(One of my thousands of unfinished weblog entries deals with Subjective idealism.)

“Well, the Wikipedia is a wiki,” said Marius.

“But the Wikipedia is different”, I replied. “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to go in and modify an entry. It’s moderated.”

As I was making this uninformed assertion, I switched to my Wikipedia tab in Firefox and clicked on the edit link next to the “Philosophical Perspectives” heading. (I hadn’t yet noticed the “edit this page” tab at the top of the page).

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives with edit and edit this page links highlighted

I fully expected a dialog box to appear, asking me to supply a username and password. Instead the entry appeared in an inline text area, ready for editing. I nearly fell off my chair.

Wikipedia entry for Philosophical Perspectives in edit mode, with text selected and cursor visible

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. Marius chuckled.

“What’s to stop people adding incorrect information?”

“The fact that someone will come along and correct it.”

“Have you edited entries”, I asked him.

“Of course”, he replied. “I’ve added a bunch of books to the Glenn Gould entry. You should check the Wikipedia entry for something you know a lot about and see if there’s anything you want to add or fix. Someone as anal-retentive as you will feel right at home.”

I realized then that I’d only ever used the Wikipedia to research subjects I knew little or nothing about—the possibility of changing anything had never occured to me. So, as soon as Marius and I had finished chatting, I found the Wikipedia entry on Ozu. (I’ve been watching lots of Ozu DVDs lately.) The following sentence caught my eye:

During WW II he served in China.

“Bullshit!” I said to myself. Ozu had returned from China before World War II started. During World War II he served in Singapore (if you define watching confiscated American movies as “serving”). You could say “During the Pacific War he served in China” but the problem there is that people frequently confuse the Pacific War (1937-1945) with the Pacific Theater of World War II. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

The Pacific War, which took place mostly in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in Asia, both preceded World War II and also included some of its major campaigns and events.

Marius had explained that, although you can edit Wikipedia pages without becoming a registered user, your changes will be identified by an IP address rather than by name. To hell with that, I told him, authorship is crucial!

I registered as a user and replaced the “offending” sentence with a paragraph about Ozu’s army service in China and Singapore. In retrospect, I rather wish I hadn’t entered in the Edit Summary field:

Modified the incorrect statement “During WW II he served in China” with details of Ozu’s actual military service.

Now everyone will know that I’m an arrogant pedant. “Clarified details of Ozu’s military service” would have been sufficiently accurate, and far more polite.

I’m not sure why it was so easy for Marius to transform my disdain for wikis to enthusiasm. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, I worked fulltime for him for three years and have done many other freelance projects for him as well. Perhaps he caught me at exactly the right moment. Maybe he cunningly laid a trap that I walked straight into.

Because this morning I had another wiki epiphany. For a while I’ve wanted to wake up earlier and get an hour or two’s writing done before breakfast. This morning, at 6:15am I was already at the computer. On a Sunday! An email arrived from Marius about 6:45 and we traded messages back and forth for an hour or so. Suddenly it hit me that email is an incredibly inefficient way of exchanging information about a project: a wiki would work so much better.

Alternatively, as Farhad Manjoo points out in this fascinating Salon article about managing email, Gmail offers something similarly useful:

Gmail features one of the first truly novel innovations in an e-mail interface to come along in a long while, “conversation view.” The system presents a conversation thread — a group of back-and-forth e-mail messages between you and your boss, say, or a 65-message set from a particularly boisterous mailing list — into a single visual pane, allowing you to read every e-mail in its proper context. Actions can be performed on entire conversations instead of on single messages — so you can delete or archive those 65 mailing list messages with a single click.

(Which reminds me, if anyone would like a Gmail account, I have some spare invitations. Just send an email to firstname@lastname.net, substituting the appropriate names—mine, not yours!)

But there’s something about the wiki way of tracking a conversation that I find more appealing: it feels more natural to store the conversation in one location (rather than having identical copies in each participants Gmail account); and, now that I’m converted, the ability to edit the entries (and roll back to previous versions) seems essential.

So there you have it. Although I remain unenthusiastic about the counter-cultural associations of the name, I’ve gone from wiki antagonist to wiki evangelist in the space of 24 hours. Next thing I’ll be adding a Creative Commons license to my weblog. (Just kidding! The day I turn into a CC evangelist will be the day I ask Language Hat if he has an old beret I can chew on.)

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Saturday 24 July 2004

My kingdom for a web editing tool

In a post titled Authoring Pain, Tim Bray points to the dearth of good writing tools for the Web:

The state of Web authoring tools is kind of like the state of what we used to call “Word Processing” twenty years ago when I was getting into this business. If everyone’s going to write for the Web (and it looks a lot of people are going to) we need the Web equivalents of Word Perfect and Wordstar and Xywrite and Microsoft Word, and we need them right now. The Atom protocol will give them a standardized way to push the content online, and the fact that it’s all open formats will make it real hard for a monopolist to scoop out the market. So, who’s building them?

My previous wiki entry, as it happens, was partly prompted by an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with Marius Coomans about Web editors. He had noted the rudimentary nature of the inline editor that is integrated with TypePad (I have a vague recollection that Movable Type has a similar editor that only works with IE). Marius suggested I try BlogJet. Which I did, for five minutes. That’s all it took to install and launch the application, connect to my Movable Type blog, create a draft post with some formatted text, examine the HTML, exit, and uninstall. This is the underlying HTML for a test paragraph that included font face, color, and size formatting and another containing a Japanese text string:

<p>Test post with <font face="Courier New">font</font>, <font color="#ff0000">color</font>, and <font size="1">size</font> formatting.</p>
<p>?????????</p>

I wasn’t surprised that BlogJet isn’t Unicode compliant; it did connect to my MT weblog with undeniable ease and simplicity; and, to be fair, I’m not the target audience for the product. But the f#&*ing <font> element!? Are these people stupid, or wilfully ignorant, or have they been asleep for nearly five years? (The <font> element was deprecated in HTML 4.01 on 24 December 1999.)

None of the above, as it happens. As we’ll see later, the BlogJet developers rely on others to fix their mistakes.

Curious, I did a Google search on “browser based editor” and tried Editlet, which boasts “100% pure XHTML output with HTML source editing”:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?><!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"><html><head><link type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" href="http://www.editlet.com/testdrive/dhtml/editor/css/sample.css" /></head><body><font size="3">Test post with <span style="font-family: arial;">font</span>, <span style="color: rgb(255, 0, 0);">color</span>, and <font size="1">size </font>formatting.</font></body></html>

If this is XHTML Strict, I’m Murasaki Shikibu (or the XHTML spec has been recenty relaxed to allow the <font> element). I suggested to Marius that most of the currently available web editors probably produce garbage like this.

Unabashed, he then pointed me to Blogger’s inline editor. I remembered I’d set up a Blogger account when I first started to think about weblogging in December 2001 and, much to my surprise, the username and password still worked.

Blogger had received the draft post I sent from BlogJet so I set the character encoding to UTF-8, replaced the “?????????” paragraph with the Japanese string, and saved the post. Blogger’s underlying HTML looks like this:

<p>Test post with <span style="font-family:Courier New;">font</span>, <span style="color: rgb(255, 0, 0);">color</span>, and <span style="font-size:78%;">size</span> formatting.</p> <p>
日本語のテキスト。
</p>

Amazing! Blogger’s editor has replaced BlogJet’s crappy <font> element with <span> elements and inline CSS declarations. Not elegant—in that inline CSS is almost as difficult to maintain as the <font> element—but at least the page should validate.

What I want though—and perhaps I’m in a minority, though Tim Bray’s post would suggest not—is a web-based editor that, in addition to being Unicode-compliant, will recognize my external stylesheet and give me access, via a menu, to the custom (class) styles I use to format the text in many of my entries. Ektron’s eWebEditPro does this and it produces valid, Unicode-compliant XHTML. But it’s only available in a ten user license for US$359 and it doesn’t understand any of the weblog APIs.

Google engineer Massless, in a post titled A note on the usefulness of WYSIWYG editing in the browser, effortlessly skates around the need for proper Web authoring tools:

For content creators who require more advanced styling controls and content information including positioning, page counts, floating elements, templates, varied encodings, and block-level margins and padding there are many tools available that they prefer using to a browser. We know for sure because we’ve asked and asked and asked and, to date, advanced content creators find the convenience and ubiquity of browser-use less useful than using a feature-rich client. Additionally, many advanced content creators (hint: if you’re reading this, I’m very likely talking about you :) know enough HTML and CSS that hand-coding style attributes and class selectors enables you to create content faster than when using WYSIWYG components for the same tasks…

So, it became evident during testing trials at Google of WYSIWYG editing that a large set of people have learned a minor set of HTML for basic expression needs, and have grown so accustomed to using them that a WYSIWYG mode which didn’t easily allow these people to compose using that markup presented large and sometimes unacceptable interruptions to their content creation task. Furthermore, having a place for them to enter a “source mode” only frustrated them further as they wondered where the styling went. You see, some of us know some HTML but not all, and with broader expression available to them, these new-to-them tags presented challenges that were, at times, more annoying to them than if WYSIWYG didn’t exist.

These two paragraphs can be paraphrased as:

We decided to take the Microsoft approach by dumbing the application down to the level of the lowest-common-denominator user.

Unfortunately, they didn’t fully understand the Microsoft approach, which is to dumb the application down by hiding the advanced features—not by eliminating them altogether. Admittedly, this is a formidable user interface challenge but, given that the Blogger makeover is so impressive, it shouldn’t be beyond their formidable abilities. (After all, Ektron have already figured it out with eWebEditPro.)

I’m an advanced content creator who, like Tim Bray, wants the convenience and ubiquity of browser-use together with the advantages of a feature-rich client.

I have feature rich clients coming out of my ears: Microsoft Word, Dreamweaver, TopStyle Pro, CSE HTML Validator. My current workflow is:

  • Write the entry in Microsoft Word (the outliner is passable, the spell check is useful, I love Document View, and it’s easy to add hypertext links).
  • Copy and paste the text into Dreamweaver, where I do the more complex formatting.
  • Validate Dreamweaver’s XHTML with CSE HTML Validator.
  • Paste the validated XHTML into Movable Type’s blog entry text area.

This is, frankly, bullshit. And, I’m beginning to think, part of the reason that lately I haven’t been posting more frequently—writing an entry of even moderate length is unnecessarily painful.

Why can’t Tim and I have a decent WYSIWYG browser-based editor? Or, speaking for myself, even a standalone application with the features I’ve listed? (And, before anyone says “ecto”, I don’t have a Macintosh, I don’t have the ready cash to buy one, and I have no intention of ever installing the .Net Framework, which the Windows version of ecto requires.)

Am I alone in this? Are the rest of you quickly and easily creating validated, Unicode-compliant XHTML weblog entries without the slightest fuss or bother? If so, please leave a comment and put my out of my misery…

P.S. Don’t mention Textile, either. I tried it and I didn’t like it.

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Tuesday 03 August 2004

The possibilities of (Firefox) search

To become aware of the possiblity of the search is to be onto something.

Walker Percy

I first heard about Mozilla Phoenix/Firebird/Firefox in a September 2002 Phil Ringalda a post titled My Next Browser?:

Posting from Phoenix 0.1, a re-casting of Mozilla as a browser rather than a bloated suite. No mail client. No IM client. No Composer. No spreadsheet. A browser. It’s already pretty quick, and they’ve just started throwing away the cruft that has built up in Mozilla. Another milestone or two, a few prefs added back in, and I could use this.

A couple of weeks later, Phil wrote about Flipping the Switch:

Yep, I can use this. The textareas are lame, things are still in flux (once 0.3 comes out, that’ll be Phoenix -> Tools -> Phoenix Preferences -> Set as default browser), lots of sites are designed without ever looking at how bad they appear in Mozilla, but things like tabbed browsing and bookmark this group of tabs overrule any problems.

In December 2002, when Phil referred to his “brand spanking new copy of Phoenix 0.5” in a post titled Blogger, You Ignorant Slut, I flipped the switch myself.

Today, Phil mentioned the community marketing campaign for Firefox, prompting me to get off my bum, rave about Firefox, and add a button to my site.

Tabbed browsing and bookmark this group of tabs sucked me in too — it was a snap to set up a tabbed group of a dozen sites which loaded as soon as one launched the browser. Next came popup blocking and total cookie control. Then I got rid of advertising images with floppymoose’s userContent.css technique.

Last week, in a comment on my post about web editing tools, Mark the Mystery Man pointed to the Web Developer Extension, which adds a menu and toolbar to the browser with an astonishing range of handy web developer tools. After all these years I think I’m pretty hard to impress but this blew me away, particularly being able to open the stylesheet for any page in a sidebar, modify the CSS, and see the changes in real time. It will also display the CLASS and ID of every element on the page, the image dimensions, access keys, and a bunch of other useful information.

List of search plugins in Mozilla FirefoxBut what I liked best was having Google search built into the toolbar. Which they’ve extended by enabling you to install plugins for other search engines.

I soon installed the plugins for Google.co.jp, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.jp, Google Images, the Internet Movie Database, Dictionary.com, the King James Version of the Bible, Bookfinder (by Author & Title), DHL & UPS parcel tracking, and—after my Wiki Epiphany—Wikipedia.

I reworked a few of the icons — for example, the same icon Standard Google icon is provided for a whole range of localized Google searches so I gave the Google.com icon a blue border Google icon with blue border and the Google.co.jp icon a red one Google icon with red border (and added a similar red border to the Amazon.co.jp icon Amazon icon with red border). Since I didn’t like the IMDb icon Illegible IMDb icon, I made my own Legible IMDb icon.

Recently, Language Hat pointed to the Japanese-English Dictionary Server and Mike Gillis provided a Firefox Search Plugin for it. I had a look at the code for Mike’s plugin and was inspired to write one of my own, for the Japanese Movie Database.

Mozdev.org provides comprehensive documentation but the Quick Start guide was easy enough to understand. The only thing it didn’t mention explicitly was encoding but a comment on the documentation pointed to explanations of the queryEncoding and queryCharset. I checked Mike Gillis’ plugin to see how he’d handled it, tried ISO-2022-JP and Shift-JIS without success, looked at the source code on the Japan Movie Database site and saw that they were using EUC-JP encoding. That did the trick, which was lucky because it was my only remaining choice.

If you’d like to try my JMDb plugin, you can download it. Naturally any feedback will be greatly appreciated.

The only downside of having so many search choices is that if you forget to set the appropriate plugin the search will yield odd or no results. For example, when I accidentally searched BibleGateway.com for “CPAN”, I got the following response :

Search words “CPAN” Sorry, we found no verses matching your specifications. Try a different search type, or a different Bible version.

Other than that, browsing and searching with Firefox is a delight. If you’re not using Firefox, why not give it a spin?

Get Firefox

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Tuesday 21 December 2004

Ticket to Macland

A week ago I ordered a Macintosh. After eight years of using Windows—95, 98, 2000, and XP—I just can’t stand it any longer.

I admit that I’ve been threatening to do this for way too long a time. Finally, last January, in a post titled S**t or get off the pot, Burningbird let fly:

Okay, enough is enough. Jonathon Delacour has been flirting with the idea of getting a Mac, teasing us, coyly, with this will he or won’t he like a 16 year old on a hot date.

Time for this man to buy a Mac.

A couple of days later, when I mentioned “how gorgeous Japanese text looks on the Macintosh, compared with Windows”, Ralph Brandi made a prediction:

Ah, the seduction is well underway.

It’s only a matter of time at this point…

Just under a year, as it turns out, assuming that my Macintosh will be delivered in the next couple of weeks (Chris, the sales guy at the Apple store, told me that the 6-8 day Estimated Build Time on Apple Australia’s website was wildly optimistic).

After Shelley’s demand that I “s**t or get off the pot”, I put the “get a new Macintosh” project on the back burner—though I did smile when I read Loren Webster’s response to Jeff Ward’s announcement that he’d bought a PowerBook:

Nice to see you’ve come over from the dark side, Jeff.

Now if you could just convince Jonathon.

Then in July, lamenting the lack of decent weblog editing tools, I wrote:

Why can’t Tim and I have a decent WYSIWYG browser-based editor? Or, speaking for myself, even a standalone application with the features I’ve listed? (And, before anyone says “ecto”, I don’t have a Macintosh, I don’t have the ready cash to buy one, and I have no intention of ever installing the .Net Framework, which the Windows version of ecto requires.)

In a post on his weblog (no longer online), Alex Hung, the developer of the Windows version of ecto, wondered why people might be reluctant to install the .Net Framework.

Is it because it’s from Microsoft and therefore bad by default?

I replied in a comment:

No, not bad, but mediocre by default. The highest praise I’ve ever been able to offer any Microsoft software that I’ve used extensively is that it is “merely adequate.” (Whereas many third-party Windows applications I use are superb.)

I switched to Windows from the Macintosh in 1996. In eight years, not once have I felt—whilst using a Microsoft product—the pleasure that comes from employing a tool that is elegantly and artfully designed.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I realize now that the edge of the slippery slope was already in plain view.

I was referring to four versions of the Windows OS, plus Word, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook. My guess is that Excel might be an fine product—friends and colleagues whose judgement I trust tell me it’s excellent—but I haven’t used Excel extensively enough to make an informed judgement. Marius Coomans swears by OneNote 2003 but, although this is exactly the kind of application I need, there are plenty of alternatives for Mac OS X.

In October, Kerim Friedman wrote a post titled Mac vs. Windows in which he quoted the reply Brent Simmons, developer of NetNewsWire, gave in an online forum on RSS to the question Why, relative to its marketshare, does Mac OS X have a disproportionately rich variety of RSS aggregators for users to choose from?

It’s mostly because Mac users like to try cool, new, interesting things—especially things that help them get more done in less time.

Windows users, it seems to me, have endless patience. They reboot their systems, run virus scanners, go nuts fixing weird conflicts. With that kind of patience, surfing in your browser from site to site isn’t that bad. But Mac users want things to work, and they want their software to help them get things done, and they like trying new and different things.

Kerim observed that “most Windows users actually seem somewhat afraid of their computer, worried that trying something new might cause it to blow up.”

Although I’m not sure about most Windows users being afraid of their computers, I suspect that Kerim’s observation is close to the truth. For instance, here’s Halley Suitt on upgrading to version 9 of Windows Media Player in order to have her music CDs play properly (the post is titled Upgrade = Downgrade Per Usual):

Everytime I upgrade, something completely screws up and that new problem proves nearly impossible to fix and results in either a completely NON-working computer, or some totally screwed up application. In my mind there is absolutely NO correlation between the words “upgrade” and “positive” — it’s always a negative result…

Well, at least it’s nice to know you can count on some things in this world— NEVER EVER EVER BOTHER TO UPGRADE. The word “upgrade” is an illusion.

Upgrade actually means downgrade.

The final step of my upgrade process involves removing the CD from the computer, walking across the room and putting it in the Sony CD Player. Voila! It works!

And Scott Hanson on updating the route planning software on his wife’s Windows XP notebook (MDAC Insanity):

Finally, after a couple hours of Googling, I find a FAQ at Microsoft that covers rolling back MDAC to the original version installed with Windows (“dasetup.exe /u”). Never mind that it doesn’t cover XP or the version of MDAC that we have. I’m desperate, and I try it.

It works. Both setup programs no longer complain that MDAC is missing, and both programs are now installed and run flawlessly. I’m an experienced Sys Admin, and it only took me 6 hours to track down and correct a corrupted MDAC installation. I have no idea how a normal Windows user is supposed to fix something like this. Maybe Scoble can tell me. I know he follows linkbacks…. Scoble?

I’ve had similar experiences but I also wonder if I don’t expect too much. When I bought a Dell desktop machine in 1998, I explained what I wanted to do with Windows to the consultant who was installing a DAT drive:

  • Use all the Microsoft Office applications.
  • Scan photographs and edit them in Photoshop.
  • Run Personal Web Server to do some dynamic web development.
  • Do my accounting with QuickBooks Pro.
  • Run Microsoft’s Japanese IME so I could read and write Japanese.
  • Burn CDs.
  • Install a Firewire card and capture footage from my Sony digital handycam.

“You’d probably be better off splitting those tasks between two separate Windows machines,” he told me.

Perhaps the majority of Windows users don’t place such strong demands on their computers. If Office meets most of your needs and you can surf the Web and edit your digital pictures, then Windows might be perfectly fine.

I added a comment to Kerim’s post:

I’ve finally become so exasperated with Windows that I’m on the brink of returning to the Macintosh (which I used from 1985 to 1996). What’s stopped me so far is not fear—hardly a day goes by without my comparing Windows unfavorably to the Mac—as the cost of buying new applications but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it might be money well spent.

Kerim wrote me a long email in reply pointing out that a lot of applications I might expect to pay for are already installed on the Macintosh while recommending cheap alternatives to anything else I thought I might need.

Dave Rogers and Burningbird sent similarly encouraging answers to my questions about switching to the Macintosh. But I was still undecided.

Then a month ago Steve Gillmor wrote something that resonated (and not just because I remember Mr. Natural):

Simply put, I lost trust in Windows…

You know the drill—the spyware, the Trojan horses, the corporate firedrill that is announced not by IT but by a stream of emails from co-workers you haven’t heard from since the last exploit. It’s been years since I lived in the Northeast, where you learn that tentative way of walking on icy streets with a center of balance that can recover from a slip. Move to California or Charleston and you slowly unlimber and stride more openly—like Mr. Natural for the hippies among us who remember Zap Comics. That’s the feeling I get from Windows now—a vague unease, a tension, a sense that I can’t count on the machine to get out of the way and let me listen and relax.

Robert Scoble zoomed into Steve Gillmor’s comments to assure everyone that Windows machines are actually very secure as long as—like the computers at Hertz Rental Car—“they are administered properly and locked down.” In other words, you’ll be fine as long as you have dedicated IT staff working overtime to properly administer your Windows machines—a condition that the average Windows user who doesn’t work for a medium-sized corporation will find difficult to fulfill.

But I do have a few geek genes and, after eight years of troubleshooting Windows, I’m no longer an average user so out of interest I ran through Robert Scoble’s fourteen layers of security. I wasn’t really surprised to learn I’d already implemented twelve of his suggestions (or thirteen, if not having a wireless network counts as “not allowing anonymous users on your wireless network”). The fourteenth—Don’t run in administrator mode—is simply impracticable, as Scoble himself admits:

Out of all the steps here, this one is the hardest to do, though, because a lot of things don’t work on Windows if you’re not running as administrator.

That’s right. And a lot of things don’t work particularly well even when you are running as administrator.

But it’s not really Microsoft’s laissez-faire approach to security that worries me. Rather it’s the vague unease, the tension that comes from knowing that, as Mark Pilgrim once pointed out, “Windows has a half-life.”

Every installation of Windows naturally degrades along a logarithmic curve until it becomes annoying, then unbearable, then unusable. Each successive revision of Windows has featured a slightly longer half-life. Back in the day, Windows 95 would last me about 3 months, while my copy of Windows XP has lasted me almost 9. I’m not bitter; when you realize that you’re measuring on a logarithmic scale, a factor of 3 improvement is really quite impressive.

My current Windows XP installation (I reinstalled XP eight months ago) is just now entering the unbearable phase: the Show Desktop shortcut no longer works, for a while I couldn’t set the date to Australian day/month/year format, the InCD packet writing software randomly quits, the BSOD frequency is increasing… Norton SystemWorks fixed the date glitch but if it reappears, I’ll know I’ve entered the unusable stage.

So I couldn’t help experiencing a flash of wry amusement when I read Burningbird’s recent paean to Microsoft and Windows:

Now I have a Windows 2000 machine, which sits with a little upgrade wizard in it that checks periodically at Microsoft and lets me know that there is a new fix I should think about installing. My machine works beautifully, even being an old machine using an old operating system. All because Microsoft has learned how to adapt.

My Windows 2000 machine works beautifully too, even though it’s an “old machine using an old operating system”—because I reinstalled Windows 2000 six months ago. But this installation is rotting away slowly too—as is Burningbird’s—and there’s nothing either of us can do about it, other than reinstall when our PCs become unusable.

As Burningbird said at the beginning of the year, “time for this man to buy a Mac.”

I’m not fostering any illusions that life with a Macintosh will be problem-free but I did think to myself, “It should be at least an order of magnitude better than Windows.” Just to be sure, I called my friend G and said, “I’m thinking of going back to the Macintosh. Would you mind if I came over and installed and tested a few applications on your dual processor G5?”

“Would you mind if I had unprotected sex with your wife?” he replied.

I’m no longer married, but I got the message. The next day I called him back and suggested that we install Mac OS X on an external Firewire drive I’ve been using for Windows backups.

“Sounds good,” he said. I prepared the Firewire drive and drove over to G’s house. Installing Mac OS X and updating to version 10.3.6 took about 40 minutes. We set the Firewire drive as the startup disk and rebooted, G explained how to install Mac applications, and—almost before I knew it—I was sliding full-tilt down the slippery slope. The hardest thing to get used to is that the Minimize, Maximize, and Close buttons are on the opposite side of the window.

I spent about a day and a half playing with G’s Dual 1.8GHz PowerPC G5 and then, not wanting to stretch the friendship, another few hours with the Firewire drive attached to my friend Brenda’s 12-inch iBook. Once I have my own Macintosh, I guess I’ll write some posts about the software I’ve settled on.

A couple of years ago I expressed some amusement at the religious fervor with which Mac users were greeting the release of Jaguar (Mac OS v10.2):

If this is the response to a 0.5 release (10.1.5 to 10.2), what’s going to happen when Mac OS 11 (XI?) ships?

Burningbird replied in a comment:

When OS 11 ships, why the planet will slow on its axis, stop, and then slowly begin to rotate in the opposite direction.

Just think, Jonathon — you’ll finally have summer in July.

To which I responded,

Bb, the only way “the planet will slow on its axis, stop, and then slowly begin to rotate in the opposite direction” is if I switch back to the Macintosh.

So, regard this as a preliminary warning. I think we can assume that the reversal of the earth’s rotation will take place at the moment I actually log on to my new Macintosh. I’ll try to give you all a day or two’s notice.

Now, as I prepare to make the switch, I realize that—despite all my discontents regarding Windows—there are two Microsoft products that are well-designed and pleasurable to use: I’m reluctant to abandon the two-button optical mouse and the natural keyboard. Fortunately, the Mac-compatible Wireless Optical Desktop Pro set includes both.

Finally, permit me to ask a question about Macintosh books. If I’m only going to buy one Mac OS X book, which should it be?

Any other suggestions (apart from Maria Langer’s Mac OS X Panther Visual QuickStart Guide) are welcome.

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Wednesday 29 December 2004

Enhancing Windows 2000/XP stability

Responding to my post about abandoning Windows and returning to the Macintosh, Ed Bilodeau wrote:

I’m always interested in hearing stories from people who have made the switch, if only because I still see a Mac somewhere in my future. Jonathon covers all the major reasons I can think of, although the points relating to Windows XP’s instability are, IMHO, off the mark.

I suspect that “off the mark” combined with “IMHO” is how well-mannered people say: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Maybe I was dreaming when, late on Christmas day, I came home from my mother’s house and turned on the Windows XP computer to check my email—only to find myself running at 800x600 resolution. (It was 1152x864 when I shut down the computer that morning). Windows, apparently, had forgotten my NVIDEA GeForce FX 5600 video card and reverted to the generic video settings. I shrugged my shoulders, reinstalled the video driver, rebooted the computer, and everything looked normal again.

The following morning I turned on the same computer but, instead of the login screen, encountered the following error message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:
\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\CONFIG\SYSTEM

You can attempt to repair this file by starting Windows Setup using the original Setup CD-ROM.
Select ‘r’ at the first screen to start repair.

I pressed ‘r” and, in the Recovery Console, used ‘help’ to list the available commands and—because it seemed like a good idea at the time (I wouldn’t want to give the impression I knew what I was doing)—ran the ‘fixboot’ command (although it might have been a better idea to have done a Windows XP Repair Install). The machine booted properly and I copied the few files that had changed since the previous night’s backup to my second internal hard drive.

When I tried to run Norton SystemWorks, the following error message appeared:

The InstallShield Engine (iKernel.exe) could not be launched. The RPC Server is unavailable.

As I’d suspected, my Windows XP installation had gone from annoying through unbearable to unusable in a 24 hour period. It was Ghost time:

  1. I booted from a Ghost recovery floppy and restored the image of the fresh Windows XP install I did in April.
  2. I installed the Windows XP Service Pack 2, updated ZoneAlarm and Norton SystemWorks, then made and verified new Ghost images on the auxiliary hard drive and on DVD.
  3. Where necessary I updated the other applications to the latest versions and created (and verified) another set of Ghost images.

Why am I explaining all this? Because, if you’re stuck with Windows, Ghost vastly reduces the pain of reinstalling the OS and all your applications and utilities.

Over coffee this morning, I asked my friend Karl whether he thinks Windows XP is as stable as Ed Bilodeau implied. “Not at all,” he replied, “but you can make it run reliably.”

“How?” I asked him, although I thought I already knew the answer.

“Restore from a Ghost image regularly,” he said.

“How regularly?”

“I do it about once a month. It only takes a few minutes because I keep all my documents on a separate partition.”

I knew he’d say “restore from a Ghost image” because I turned him on to Ghost and Partition Magic. But I didn’t expect him to do it every month. Perhaps that’s the key to making Windows 2000/XP run reliably: reinstall the OS every month. It certainly eliminates the Windows half-life problem. Karl’s Windows XP machine never gets the chance to become annoying—let alone unbearable or unusable.

Perhaps my problems stem from having a custom-built PC, albeit one constructed from high-quality components. As Ed correctly pointed out:

…since there are many, many, many more Windows users then there are Mac users, and Windows is running on all-sorts-of-only-god-knows-what machines, yeah, I would expect there to be more Windows people overall who have run into big problems. The Mac systems, built on a stack that is, for the most part, closed and proprietary, don’t have that problem.

Then again, perhaps not, since my Dell PC running Windows 2000 wasn’t particularly stable. The most reliable machines I’ve had so far have been notebooks:

  • a Toshiba Tecra 500T running Windows 95 then 98; and

  • an IBM ThinkPad 600E running Windows 2000.

Maybe that’s how you enhance Windows 2000/XP stability—it might even be a viable alternative to the Ghost method—run Windows on what is (effectively) a closed system: a notebook computer.

I’m counting the days until (hopefully) I won’t have to think about this nearly as much.

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Thursday 30 December 2004

Brand power

Ed Bilodeau also wondered whether something else might have encouraged me to switch back to the Macintosh:

One thing that Jonathon doesn’t mention is the influence the Apple brand had on his decision. Although he appears to have been the target of a fair amount of peer pressure, I don’t know to what degree this affected Jonathon’s decision. But when talking about the decision to switch platforms, to ignore the power of Apple’s brand is a mistake. Apple’s brand is incredibly powerful. It connects with people on a deep, emotional level. That had to affect their decision-making process, so that it is no longer a case of making a rational, business-case for buying a Mac. In my case, put me in front of two systems, one PC and one Mac, with approximately the same specs. Right away, I know I can easily live with the PC, but I want the Mac.

Firstly, any “peer pressure” was prompted to a large degree by my own weblog posts about returning to the Mac. I doubt whether anyone who left a “welcome back to the fold” message spent more than a nanosecond in the past two years worrying about the fact that I didn’t have a Macintosh. More importantly, if Windows had run more reliably for me, I would almost certainly have tolerated its other inadequacies—after all, going back to the Macintosh is going to require time and money that might have been more profitably invested elsewhere.

Not that I consider myself immune to the power of a brand. I’m only too aware of the extent to which my decisions are based on emotional, not rational, criteria—an awareness that has increased as I’ve followed (and absorbed) Dave Rogers’ meditations on the subject. For example:

The only power we have is the power to choose. Most of the “choices” we make in the course of our daily lives, are really little more than habituated responses selected for by some interior emotional state. We “feel like” having a cup of coffee, or a beer. We yell at the TV when some talking head says something we don’t like. We get up in the morning and get ready for work. We don’t “think” about any of those things, we just do them. We lack the time and the cognitive resources to think about every single “decision” we make in the course of a day. So nature has provided us with a means of going about most of our daily routine in a routine fashion, requiring the least amount of time and energy to accomplish the things we need to do in order to survive.

Sometimes we are confronted with choices that are somewhat outside the bounds of our ordinary experience. These choices usually call for some cognitive effort, though not as much as we might expect…

Other times, a decision may be outside the bounds of our ordinary experience, yet we do have a significant emotional commitment to the subject of the decision. In those cases, our choices are usually based on how we “feel” about the issue, and our reasoning is constructed to support the “feeling.” In other words, we reason backward from our feelings.

I guess this is what Ed Bilodeau was getting at when he wrote about Apple’s brand connecting with people “on a deep, emotional level… affect[ing] their decision-making process, so that it is no longer a case of making a rational, business-case for buying a Mac.”

But I’m not a “switcher;” I’m a “returner.” The Apple brand used to affect me in exactly the way Ed (and Dave) describe, until I was given one of the legendary PowerBook 5300 models to use: in a three-month period the LCD screen, motherboard, keyboard, and a serial port all had to be replaced. Suddenly Windows began to look attractive. And the Apple brand had lost its luster.

Now, eight years later, the Windows brand connects with me on a deep, emotional level: I hate its (and Microsoft’s) guts.

But Ed Bilodeau’s observations on the power of the Apple brand did make wonder about the emotional component of my decision to return to the Macintosh.

The brands with which I’ve felt the warmest emotional connection over the years are Hasselblad, Leica, Nikon, and Apple. Nowadays, if I were still a photographer, I’d probably include Canon (my friend G’s Canon 1Ds is the first camera I’ve desired for eighteen years).

Other brands with a strong emotional pull? Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Ozu Yasujiro and Jean-Luc Godard. Nagai Kafū and W.G. Sebald. Keith Jarrett and Van Morrison. But I digress…

If the Apple brand no longer tugs at my heart as it once did, what brings me back to the Macintosh (apart from an irrational hatred for Microsoft)?

UNIX.

For the UNIX brand is incredibly powerful too.

As Burningbird wrote about her decision to switch:

I used to say I would never use a Mac, until I saw that slim, lightweight, extremely well designed Titanium PowerBook. What pushed me over the edge is when Apple came out with this operating system that was a fantastic mix of new, hot, albeit proprietary GUI built on top of powerful, bare metal, open source FreeBSD kernel, combining the best of all worlds.

For me, UNIX promises stability and reliability that Windows will never be able to match. The Mac OS X user interface is the frosting on the cake.

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Saturday 01 January 2005

Mac OS X Power Tools

Isn’t it irritating when someone asks you for advice only to ignore the advice you’ve gone to the trouble of offering?

Cover of Mac OS X Power Tools by Dan FrakesAt the end of the post announcing my return to the Macintosh, I asked for suggestions about the best Mac OS X book to buy. The overwhelming recommendation was for David Pogue’s Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Panther Edition, but I promptly went to Kinokuniya (where they offer a flat 20% discount on computer books instead of their normal 10% customer loyalty discount) and bought Dan Frakes’ Mac OS X Power Tools, Second Edition instead.

This was partly because Windows 2000 Pro: The Missing Manual, which I found to be close to useless, had undermined my confidence in the “Missing Manual” brand.

But the main reason was that, after spending an hour in Kinokuniya looking carefully at the Pogue book, the Frakes book, and John Ray & William C Ray’s Mac OS X Panther Unleashed, Third Edition, I decided that the Frakes book appeared to have been written for me personally—since the opening chapters answered all the questions that had occurred to me as I’d been testing Mac OS X and various applications and utilities on my friend G’s PowerMac G5. So far, I’ve read the first four chapters, which cover the following subjects:

  • Chapter 1 — permissions and user accounts.
  • Chapter 2 — system and application preferences.
  • Chapter 3 — boot, startup, and login processes.
  • Chapter 4 — installing Mac OS and Apple & third party software.

Now I feel reasonably confident that I can set up the new Macintosh correctly and install the applications I need in the appropriate locations.

The next four chapters cover working with files and the Finder, customizing the Dock, using and troubleshooting applications & utilities, and using the Classic environment. Then it’s on to network and Internet setup, file sharing, connecting to shares on other computers & servers, and printing. Finally, there are chapters on security, maintenance and administration, and UNIX plus an appendix on working with multiple volumes and partitions (this was the frosting on the cake, since I’m a compulsive disk partitioner).

The book is cleanly designed, Frakes writes in a straightforward, engaging style, and he provides lots of links to useful shareware programs. In the introduction, Frakes positions his book between Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Panther Edition and Mac OS X Panther Unleashed, Third Edition and this seems exactly right to me. If you’re looking—as I was—for something warmer than Pogue but not as hot as Ray & Ray, then Mac OS X Power Tools, Second Edition might be just right.

In addition to the Official Website for the book (with a sample chapter, extra tips, and updates/errata), there’s also an incredibly useful Superb Software page, which lists “every software title mentioned in Mac OS X Power Tools, along with URLs to get more information about each.”

There was another book in Kinokuniya that attracted my attention: David Pogue’s Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual. But I decided that, rather than buying it, I’d be better off subscribing to O’Reilly’s Safari Bookshelf for a month or two and getting access to this book and a bunch of others for a modest monthly fee. Unfortunately, it’s not included in the Safari Mac OS X books, though David Coursey’s Mac OS X for Windows Users: A Switchers’ Guide is. But both Rob Griffiths’ Mac OS X Power Hound and Rael Dornfest & James Duncan Davidson’s Mac OS X Panther Hacks are on the Safari list, so perhaps a subscription might be worth while—it will certainly be a lot less expensive than buying another three or four books.

Anyway, thank you to everyone who offered advice on which book to buy—even though I appeared to ignore your suggestions, you actually helped me to figure out the book I needed to buy. I’ll ask about software applications in a subsequent post.

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Sunday 16 January 2005

Settling In

Although moving from Windows to the Macintosh is nowhere near as stressful as moving house, I now realize that it will take me much longer than I’d anticipated to settle in to my new environment.

Starting up the Mac was easy enough—it automatically found the DHCP address that my router assigned so I had Internet access immediately. Connecting to my Windows PC was just as straightforward. So far the most difficult (actually, time consuming) tasks have been configuring my primary applications:

  • Mail (account information from Eudora)
  • SpamSieve (whitelist from MailWasher)
  • Firefox (bookmarks and search engine extensions)
  • NetNewsWire (subscriptions from FeedDemon)
  • Address Book (contact information from Outlook).

A week later, I feel as though I’ve moved to a new house in another country, whilst leaving a lot of my belongings behind in the old house. I know I’ll eventually get everything shipped across but I didn’t have any idea how much stuff there would be to deal with. (One way to address this might be to use it as an opportunity to throw a bunch of stuff away.)

Another thing I didn’t understand—given the overwhelmingly negative response to Jeremy Zawodny’s announcement that he was switching back to Windows—is that I appear to have bought myself a one-way ticket. That’s OK, since I like Macland a lot. The citizens are friendly (unless you turn out to be a traitor), the language is relatively easy to learn, the landscape is pleasing to the eye, the architecture is well-engineered, the utilities and public transport are reliable… all-in-all it’s a pretty nice place to live.

In fact, I rather wish I’d done this a year ago, a few months after Panther was released. (I’m not an early adopter—I’m happy for more adventurous souls to blaze hardware and software trails on my behalf.)

I suppose it makes sense that my first priority was to get mail, RSS feeds, and a web browser working properly—since I rarely watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio, the Net has become my primary means of keeping abreast of what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Regarding the primary applications I’ve installed, Apple’s Mail together with SpamSieve seems—so far—to be superior to the Eudora/MailWasher combo I was using on the PC—even though I’ve already struck the Disappearing Links To Replied Email bug that Michael Bream reported to Macintouch:

I am running Mail.app v.1.3.9 (v619). When I reply to an email in my “inbox” and then file the email in a folder, it loses the link to the reply. In other words, after I reply to an email, I can’t change the location of the original or it will lose the correspondence thread. Is there a work around for this, or an upgrade that I’m not aware of?

As a general rule for myself, all email in the “inbox” needs to be replied to, and once I reply, I file it to stay organized. I thought this is how most people do it, but I lose my correspondence links…

I thought this was how most people did it too (though that might just be because it’s how I do it). My (hardly satisfactory) workaround is to file the email before I reply.

Anyway, after only a week’s training, SpamSieve is doing a demonstrably better job of identifying spam than MailWasher could manage after nearly two years of use.

Making the switch from FeedDemon to NetNewsWire was just as easy, particularly since Lisa, the Digital Medievalist, generously gave me a NetNewsWire license as a housewarming gift. (Lisa had purchased a number of licenses as a way of supporting Brent Simmons and Ranchero after NNW had been unfairly criticized by an inexperienced and unreasonable user.)

Although FeedDemon was one of my favorite Windows applications, I’m delighted with NetNewsWire (and looking forward to the release version, which will allow me to sync with Bloglines).

Getting my contact information from Outlook to Address Book looked like being the most difficult task since Address Book can import a batch of VCards but Outlook only exports them one at a time. But a little Googling turned up a product called You Perform, a set of Outlook add-ons from the people who do You Control for Mac OS X. You Perform includes a VCard Converter that allows you to convert all your contacts to VCards in a single operation.

Once I had these basic applications running, I turned my attention to the next item on my list: a text editor. But how I found the right one can be the subject of another post.

My overwhelming impression is exactly what I’d hoped for—visual elegance together with rock-solid stability (both of which are in short supply in the Windows environment).

What don’t I like, so far?

  • The standard Apple mouse and keyboard, which I immediately replaced with a Microsoft Natural Keyboard and IntelliMouse Explorer. How anyone can be productive with a one-button mouse is beyond my comprehension.
  • The Finder. I never imagined I’d miss Windows Explorer so much. Not being able to copy a file by right-clicking and dragging it to another folder, not being able to send a file to the trash by selecting it and pressing the delete key are real (albeit minor) annoyances. Macintosh Explorer didn’t feel quite right but I suspect that either Path Finder or Default Folder X (or both) might solve the problem.
  • The Firefox bug that doesn’t allow me to middle-click to open another browser tab.
  • That this (relatively high-end) Macintosh doesn’t feel as snappy as I’d expected.

While the general response to Jeremy Zawodny’s departure was “Don’t Let the Door Hit Your Arse on the Way Out,” I suspect this is what he meant when he wrote that his “Mac felt slow and awkward for daily ‘office’ use” while on Windows he feels like he’s “getting more out of the hardware.” I don’t feel my Macintosh is “slow and awkward” but I do keep wondering whether there’s a preference dialog that would allow me to turn off some of the eye candy.

Zawodny’s main criticism of the Macintosh—“the tab key being useless in most dialogs, the lack of hotkeys in most apps”—was ill-founded, he hadn’t turned on Full Keyboard Access (which allows you to use the tab key, arrow key, and other keys to select buttons, lists, and other items on the screen).

If Zawodny had read Dan Frakes’ Mac OS X Power Tools and installed Quicksilver, he might still be using a Macintosh.

In fact, applications like Quicksilver make the Macintosh so pleasurable to use and me so happy that I came back. (Liz Lawley has recently written an excellent introduction to Quicksilver, with some practical examples of how she uses the software. And Merlin Mann provides a constant stream of Quicksilver tips and tricks: check out his Quicksilver category at 43 Folders.)

Now I can think about doing some real work.

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Sunday 03 April 2005

Bitstream Vera? Not for me, thanks!

Commenting on Burningbird’s recent switch to Georgia for her main content font, Aristotle Pagaltzis wrote:

As far as sans-serif fonts go, choices are unfortunately limited on the web. Arial rather sucks. You could do the typical thing and use Verdana like the other 348,893,474,681 websites out there. If more individuality is what you’re after, you can try Lucida Sans for Windows people and Lucida Grande for MacOS X folk.

I wish the Bitstream Vera (download) family would spread beyond the Linux crowd; not hard, considering it’s free in both senses. These fonts are great: the Serif is very similar to Georgia, and is decent; the Sans is great, Verdana-ish but warmer, more elegant, more readable; and the Sans Mono is just drop dead gorgeous.

I’d downloaded the Bitstream Vera family a while ago (from the Gnome site) but hadn’t got around to installing the fonts. Aristotle’s comment encouraged me to try them—mainly because I’ve been unhappy with how Firefox (for both Windows and Macintosh) renders macron characters in Georgia, such as the lower case macron characters that I use a lot when transliterating long “o” and “u” vowels in Japanese. For example, in the title of Miike Takashi’s film, Chūgoku no chōjin (The Bird People in China).

So I could see the differences more easily, I prepared a comparison chart (using inline CSS to apply the different fonts, with the font size set to 1em). Of course, what you see next will depend on your OS and installed fonts.

Macron Font Comparison

Times New Roman / Times
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Georgia
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Palatino Linotype / Palatino
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Bitstream Vera Serif
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Bitstream Vera Sans
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Verdana
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Trebuchet MS
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Lucida Grande / Lucida Sans
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Lucida Sans Unicode
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Arial
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

Helvetica
中国の鳥人 (Chūgoku no chōjin, The Bird People in China)

However, since the results weren’t anything like I’d expected, I made some screen captures for Firefox on Macintosh and Windows, Internet Explorer 6 on Windows, and Safari on the Macintosh.

Here’s the executive summary:

  • Safari on the Macintosh does the best job of rendering the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters (though they look ugly in Georgia in Safari too).
  • Firefox for Windows does a much better job than Firefox for the Macintosh (on the Macintosh the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters frequently look as though they come from a totally different font).
  • Bitstream Vera Serif produces ugly macron characters in all four browsers.
  • Internet Explorer 6 for Windows does not display the o-with-macron and u-with-macron characters at all when the font is either Bitstream Vera Serif, Bitstream Vera Sans, or Lucida Sans (although the macron characters appear properly in Lucida Sans Unicode).

So—despite Aristotle’s enthusiasm and my own desire to do something for the Linux crowd—poor (or non-existent) macron character rendering makes it unlikely that I’ll be adding any of the Bitstream Vera faces to my font-family declarations. Unless someone can point out a flaw in my test methodology, or suggest a reason for Firefox’s lousy performance and IE’s refusal to display the characters at all.

Macron comparison in Macintosh Safari

Macron comparison in Macintosh Firefox

Macron comparison in Windows Firefox

Macron comparison in Windows Internet Explorer 6

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour