The One with the Thoughts of Frans

Archive for February, 2010

The Prettiness Disease

The following post on the MyOpera forum spurred me to complain about something I call the prettiness disease. By this I mean adding features that either don’t help usability or actually impair it just because it looks good (according to some). A prime example is most of the features added to Mac OS X as compared to preceding incarnations, but Microsoft and the open-source community have also bought into it.

[…] the thing that most annoys me about [combine always, hide labels] is the fact that it removes the ability to simply click the taskbar icon to minimize/maximize. […] This is the case only, when taskbar buttons are not set to the default ‘combine always, hide labels’. Then it needs CTRL-click to directly switch to the last visible window of a ‘grouped’ application. This is standard Win7 behaviour also with IE8. So, if you disklike the current behaviour disable grouping of taskbar buttons for now. Perhaps there might be an option within Opera later on…

I don’t care for the “combine always, hide labels” setting in Windows 7. I think it’s a failed copy of Apple’s crappy dock, where looking pretty is the only thing that counts while losing out on usability.

Oh wow, look how clean this looks, with all the pretty icons. No text. Whoopie. Now try to identify your windows when there’s 10 different ones. What’s that, thumbnails? Oh how useful, now I can really spot the difference between my 10 directories filled with files, my 10 web pages on the same forum, my 10 text documents in my word processing application, and so on and so forth. There’s a reason I give my directories names, you know. The same applies to just about any other application. The icon only identifies the application, the text-based title identifies what the heck it actually is. Thumbnails would only work the way Microsoft seems to think they should work in Windows 7 if all I ever opened was pictures.

It’s easy enough to combine a text-based title with thumbnails (for those who like thumbnails) and flashy effects (OK, I admit that as long as they’re shorter than a second I don’t completely dislike effects like burning or fading windows, things that light up, etc), but writing your own Compiz plugin is near-impossible without completely reverse-engineering the code (documentation? comments? what’s that?), and for Windows that situation isn’t very different, at least for me.


SimplePie-based Feed Mashup

This tool is now named Tubes and is hosted on Bitbucket.

As I wrote a few months ago, Yahoo Pipes is a nice tool. Nonetheless, it has a few shortcomings which annoyed me because I could neither fix nor work around them. Therefore, I decided to write my own mashup tool. For the impatient, you can download the file right now before reading anything else.

Since SimplePie seems to be the feed aggregation library of choice for many projects, I decided to go with it. I ran into a few minor issues, but nothing I couldn’t handle easily. The code I wrote is based on the multifeeds.php demo file and SimplePie 1.1.3, because in 1.2 it didn’t work (the multifeeds demo, that is — by extension I suppose this file won’t either). It’s a little rough around the edges, and SimplePie is clearly meant for HTML output rather than XML (although its HTML isn’t quite decent either, even if the input feed is), so I decided to fix the whole thing up with Tidy, which takes care of low quality input material as well. Hopefully that makes this whole thing more robust than it would otherwise be. The code is based around bringing various Opera feeds I read together in one big feed, but this can very easily be changed.

So now that I’ve got the basics of output into a feed taken care of, I can easily duplicate other functionality of Yahoo Pipes if I want. Much better.


How to Add Keyboard Shortcuts to Ubuntu/Gnome

Someone asked me how to find a shortcut key to call something like Task Manager to terminate a program.

In Ubuntu 9.04 and 9.10, the following applies:

  1. The easiest option in this particular instance:

    Alt + F2, gnome-system-monitor, Enter

  2. The slightly more complicated (though still easy), always applicable option:

    System > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts

    Click Add

    Type whatever you like in name. “System Monitor”, “Task Manager” or anything you like. It doesn’t really matter, just so you can identify it yourself.

    Type gnome-system-monitor in Command.

    Click Apply.

    Scroll down to the bottom (Custom Shortcuts)

    Click on where it says “Disabled”

    Press Ctrl + Alt + Del (by default this keybinding gives you the logout/shutdown screen, so you’ll probably get a warning about reassigning this particular combination).

For more information on keybindings in Ubuntu, I’d advise you to read the community documentation. If you’re interested, you can also check out the original context of what I wrote in this post.


Erf: Usually With Sidewalks

I do agree with Joe Clark’s recent blog entry protesting shared streets without sidewalks, but I feel that the Netherlands was mistreated by the Toronto Star and to a lesser extent Joe Clark himself. For starters, the sidewalk-free erf as apparently exists in Cologne (assuming that’s what Koln is supposed to mean — if you don’t know how to type Köln, type Koeln or just use the English name) is something that, in the Netherlands, usually only exists where there is no place for sidewalks, and all erven are culs-de-sac.

I’d say a typical erf does have sidewalks. Its distinguishing features are that cars have to drive really slowly (no precise speed is specified, but in practice it definitely doesn’t mean anything over about 10 kmph) because everybody except cars can utilize the street however they like, and that traffic can’t pass through: it’s a cul-de-sac after all. Most important it means a place where it’s safe for kids to play on the entire street and where everybody can utilize the street however they like. By no means does it mean that there aren’t supposed to be any sidewalks, and to claim that it does is a misunderstanding at best. Sadly some misguided people have managed to introduce erven without sidewalks in some places where there is enough space for them, but I’m glad to say that this is far from the norm.

In conclusion, the Toronto Star must have projected its own vision of “better” street conditions on what is actually going on in countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium. An erf does not mean a lack of sidewalks, its application is only in carefully selected areas, and it is always meant to be a cul-de-sac. If you want to copy erven, at least do it right. Don’t claim they’re things they’re not.