Archive for the 'Net' Category

Web comics authors: Please stop using HTML image attributes

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I like XKCD. Everyone that I know who’s heard of XKCD likes it as well. But there’s one little annoying thing its author, Randall Munroe, does that I wish he would stop: putting additional commentary about the strip into HTML meta attributes on the image of the comic. Specifically, I’m referring to the title attribute, which is often incorrectly said to be the alt attribute (the name of the strip is actually what goes into the alt attribute). The contents of the title attribute is displayed when you hover your mouse above the image. The worst annoyance with the title attribute, that it wouldn’t be displayed in full in Firefox 2 unless you right-clicked on the image and opened up the Image Properties dialog, has been fixed in Firefox 3, but there are still many other problems with the customary use of the image’s title attribute for displaying additional text commentary.

The main problem with the use of the image title attribute to inject additional humor is that it is not obvious from a user interface standpoint. I read the entire backlog of 200 or so XKCD strips when I first found out about the comic, only to then discover that I had completely missed out on the “hidden” joke on each one. And since it was such a big backlog, I never even bothered going back to check out the jokes. Simply placing them as text beneath the comics, as a sort of caption postscript, would have worked much better.

More recently, when I found out about the excellent web comic Daisy Owl, I again read the entire backlog without realizing there was additional content on each comic in the form of a title attribute. The use of the image title attribute is spreading like a malevolent virus! Now, it’s gotten to the point that I hover my mouse cursor over every web comic image for fear of missing anything, even though the vast majority thankfully don’t use this feature. Now that’s just a waste of my time.

Also, using the image title attribute for these purposes simply isn’t good according to web accessibility standards. The title attribute is specifically intended to label the link that the image points to, while the alt attribute is used to describe the image itself. The title attribute is thus meaningless in the context of web comic images, which typically don’t link to anything, and relies on a browser quirk to display the contents of the title attribute even in the absence of a link. It doesn’t make sense to use the image attribute against its intended purposes simply because most web browsers happen to display it in a pop-up text box on an image mouse-over event. Needless to say, the use of image attributes in “creative” ways confuses screen reader programs used by the blind, which rely on the image attributes actually being what they say they are.

So Randall, I love your strip, but please just put the additional commentary as plain text somewhere on the page below the image. The trick with the title attribute was cute at first, but is now just annoying, and I’m afraid it’s spreading across the blagosphere, with new web comics authors feeling compelled to put something in their image title attributes as well.

Tab overload

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

It’s not uncommon for me to find out that Firefox is using a gigabyte of RAM at any one time. Sure, that may seem like a lot, but I have a full 4 GB of RAM to work with, and Firefox is the most intensive thing I regularly use this computer for, so it works out just fine.

What’s that? You’re wondering how Firefox is the most resource-intensive program on my computer? Well, I have 98 tabs open at the moment. I just counted them. That says it all, really. Each tab is something I’ve come across in my web browsing that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to yet. Yes, several dozen of the tabs are Wikipedia articles on a large variety of topics. Thanks to Firefox’s feature of saving all of the open tabs when you exit — or even when it crashes — some of these tabs are pages I’ve been meaning to read for literally weeks.

If you have fewer tabs open than I do at the moment, just be thankful that you haven’t dug yourself into such a deep web browsing hole. It would take days of nonstop reading to work this backlog off. Wikipedia is a fiend like that: each article generally links to several other articles that I also end up reading, and after not too long at that rate, you end up with a number of tabs in the triple digits. I once read most of the military technologies of World War II articles in the course of some many-hour browsing sessions across several days — and that was started by looking up a single, completely unrelated article.

I also cannot remember how I ever possibly browsed the web before the era of tabbed browsing. Those must’ve been dark ages so painful my mind has completely blotted them from memory.

Teen runaway McKenzie Church gets a bit more than she bargained for

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

You know the typical teen runaway story: parents try to discipline their kid over a poorly thought-out relationship, who then thinks they’re the worst people in the world and decides to run away with their lover. Usually it only lasts a couple of days until the kids realize they’re completely not prepared to strike out in the world, and sulk home in shame. Usually it’s only the immediate friends and family who ever know about it, because teens running away is relatively common enough that the larger world doesn’t notice it. Usually.

Not in the case of one McKenzie Church, however. Her worried parents are Internet savvy, and are using the full power of Twitter, blogs, and now Digg to track her down, even though her situation may not merit such a level of public involvement. Even the police are classifying her as not being in danger, and aren’t devoting any resources to looking for her. For no compelling reason, McKenzie Church’s parents are quickly propelling her down the road of becoming “Internet Famous” — the consequences of which will stick with her much longer than the consequences of running away ever will. Just ask Allison Stokke about her experiences with becoming Internet Famous.

The situation with McKenzie Church started with the online posting of a simple Missing poster by her parents. Then they put it on Twitter. Fanned by missing cute white girl syndrome (and her three-years-older boyfriend, to be fair, kind of looking like a douchebag), it’s currently being retweeted at a rate of greater than once a second. The story made the top-rated section on Digg, where Internet culture nerds have taken it upon themselves to stalk the ever-loving-hell out of the private Catholic school girl with the flimsy pretense of trying to help locate her. They’ve dredged up her profile on Facebook, as well as that of her boyfriend. Commenters have offered up suggestions to look through every one of her listed friends on the online site and contact them one by one in an effort to track her down.

This is quickly ballooning out of control. Long after McKenzie Church returns home, she’s going to have to deal with the fallout of becoming Internet Famous in the process. A lot of her personal information is going to get out there, a lot of which she’d probably rather have remain private. It’s not that long before we start seeing photos from her online networking sites hitting the web — a.k.a. “the full Amanda Wenk”. And you can bet that every Internet culture nerd out there is praying to Jehovah that those photos will turn out to be very juicy.

Kenzie is most definitely going to regret ever having run away, but her parents are going to regret even more the hell they’re putting her through by searching for her in this fashion. The Internet is a triple-edged sword.

I think Verizon hates me

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I think Verizon hates me. Here’s proof hate isn’t too strong of a word:

Ever since we got Verizon FIOS, I’ve been using it to the maximum because, why not?, we’re paying for it. BitTorrent is definitely the best way to fully utilize a connection. In the screenshot above, note the total of 293.41 GB uploaded in 35 hours. That’s an average of 2.38 MB/s, or almost exactly the 2.50 MB/s (20 Mbps) that we’re paying for. Nice. The figure of 3.464 TB is a sum total for the past three months, a period in which I wasn’t even running BitTorrent most of the time, otherwise it’d be far higher. But averaging over a TB per month isn’t too shabby.

Oh, and my housemates have both been known to run BitTorrent on occasion. So yeah, I think Verizon hates us.

Web nostalgia

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

If this does not bring back nostalgic memories, then you, sir, have not been on the interweb nearly long enough.

This is what a maxed out Verizon FIOS connection can do

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Having moved into my current residence less than a week ago, the next logical thing to do was to test out our new blazingly fast 20 Mbps downstream/20 Mbps upstream Verizon FIOS connection to see if we were really getting what we paid for. A simple online speed test reported numbers of 20.5 Mbps and downstream 18.5 Mbps upstream, which is very good considering I’ve never actually seen results that close to what was promised. But that was only a measure of momentary bandwidth. Next, I wanted to test our connection over sustained periods, to see if Verizon was going to automatically throttle us at some point.

So I opened up my BitTorrent client and let it seed from everything I’ve downloaded in recent memory. Then I kind of forgot about it and just left it running for 24 hours while I attended to all of the other tasks involved in moving into a new place. I think I may have accidentally left an upload cap in place, so I’m in the process of running the test again. But the results were still impressive nonetheless: When I checked on BitTorrent 24 hours later, I had uploaded 150 Gigabytes. That’s 150 GB in a single day, for an average sustained upstream bandwidth of 14.2 Mbps. That is really nice, and it makes me think I’m never going to have problems downloading torrents quickly ever again (as the download speed is largely limited by the upload speed thanks to the BitTorrent protocol).

So far I’m very impressed with Verizon FIOS. It’s definitely worth the $70 a month, split three ways, that we’re paying. This house having FIOS availability was actually an important part of choosing to rent it, as ADSL is way too slow and the only cable provider in the area, Comcast, is notorious for bandwidth throttling, traffic shaping, and pretty much doing everything else in their power to prevent having to give you what you paid for.

Improvements in broadband service are proceeding at an agonizingly slow rate here in the United States, with most providers like Comcast focusing more on limiting what their customers can do with their service than building out the critical infrastructure that is so desperately needed. This tactic can only work in the short term, and it will begin to fail spectacularly as the average American begins watching more streaming video on the web and starts buying products via digital download (up until now, Comcast has gotten away with cracking down on people who use lots of bandwidth because most of them are file sharers, i.e. involved in illicit activities).

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a company like Verizon who isn’t taking the low road and is making a serious effort to deploy fiber to the home to provide the bandwidth that will continue fueling our digital revolution. As the New York Times pointed out recently, Americans now spend almost as much on bandwidth (in all forms — Internet, digital TV, mobile Internet, mobile phones, etc.) as they do on energy. Bandwidth is a vital input to our economy, and Verizon’s approach of actually giving us a lot more bandwidth is infinitely superior to Comcast’s approach. I highly recommend Verizon FIOS.

This Mozilla/Ogg thing could end up being really important

Monday, August 4th, 2008

It’s just starting to sink in for me how important the recent inclusion of the Free Software Ogg codecs in Mozilla Firefox 3.1 will turn out to be, especially concerning the Ogg Theora video codec. This will be the first chance for a non-proprietary video codec to really break into the mainstream. Combine Firefox’s now-native support for it (with its >20% market share) and Wikipedia, which only accepts video uploads in Ogg Theora format, and we have a powerhouse for advancing the adoption of non-proprietary codecs. This is big news. Hell, I was interviewed by LinuxInsider on the topic and all I’m really responsible for is increasing public knowledge of this recent event.

As I said in that article, we’re close to reaching the point where video will be natively supported by all browsers on all platforms just as smoothly as images are today. This will have an amazing effect on the usability of the web, and by extension, what humanity is capable of doing with it. It will certainly give many companies (especially smaller start-ups with less funding) a better chance to establish a video foothold on the web, with no more licensing of finicky Flash players or H.264 codecs required. Naturally, it will do wonders for the ease of including video content on personal sites as well.

But don’t think the war is won just yet. There are many hard battles yet to fight in the war for adoption of non-proprietary multimedia codecs. We already lost one of the battles, when Apple and Nokia argued vociferously (and successfully) to remove the Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora wording from the HTML 5 draft spec. But the Mozilla Foundation has now successfully managed to ensure that Ogg codec compliance can no longer be ignored. And surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t even the enemy here. As I pointed out in the article, Microsoft isn’t averse to using non-proprietary codecs — they used Ogg Vorbis to handle music in the PC release of Halo, for instance. No, the real enemies here are Nokia and Apple, two members of the MPEG-LA patent pool who are currently making millions of undeserved dollars off of questionable cartel-held software patents that stifle innovation in the multimedia web space and hinder adoption of web video.

The big patent-holders like Apple and Nokia are arguing so tenaciously because they know that once non-proprietary codecs have gained a foothold in any niche, the proprietary codecs lose it permanently. Free (as in free speech) codecs have such clear advantages over non-free codecs, not least of which is that multimedia device manufacturers don’t have to pay licensing fees, that once a free codec becomes viable, no non-free codec will ever be able to reclaim that niche again. So the patent holders will fight tooth-and-nail against losing their cash cows, but inevitably that is what will happen. It’s only a matter of time. We’ve already seen it with the image and document formats — now audio and video are next.

Firefox gets Ogg

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Great news, Free Software fans! As of last night, out-of-the-box support for the Ogg Theora (video) and Ogg Vorbis (audio) open format codecs was enabled on the mainline Firefox development branch. Here’s the exact diff. These two codecs work in conjunction with the new <video> and <audio> tags, which will be supported in the next major release of Firefox, 3.1. If you’re feeling impatient, you can download the nightly 3.1 release which already includes the brand new Ogg codec support.

But what is the advantage of native browser support for the new tags, you may be wondering? The HTML 5 spec has lots of details, but what it boils down to is no longer having to rely on kludgy proprietary plugins like Flash or Quicktime (which often don’t work well cross-platform, I might add) to display multimedia content. The new tags work just like the current <img> tag does: feed them the URL to the appropriate media resource and they display it, just as simply as one might include a JPG image in a webpage. It’s such an obvious improvement over the previous state of affairs of dealing with online video that it really makes you wonder why it took so long. We’re several years into the online video revolution now (led by such giants as YouTube), so it’s only fair that we finally get native browser support for videos.

It’s important to point out that not only are the Ogg codecs free (as in both speech and beer) and unencumbered by patents, but that Ogg Theora’s performance has recently been significantly improved. It’s not quite as good as H.264, but it is better than many of the previous generation’s proprietary codecs, and it’s currently the best video codec around that is compatible with the Free Software philosophy. That’s why the Mozilla Foundation chose it to provide out-of-the-box video support in Firefox — all of the alternatives currently widely used for web video, such as flv, H.264, or DivX, are copyright and patent-encumbered, and thus could not be included in Firefox. It’s worth pointing out that Ogg Theora is also the only video codec allowed on all Wikimedia Foundation projects, including Wikipedia.

Not too long from now, after Firefox 3.1 is released, a significant double digit percentage of the web will have Ogg-enabled browsers. That will be a huge achievement for the Xiph.Org Foundation. Expect to see a lot more online video in the Free Software world, and hopefully a migration away from Flash video players, which I still can’t for the life of me get to work reliably in GNU/Linux. Once the <video> tag does start cropping up in a large number of places, will the competing browsers like Internet Explorer and Safari have any choice but to support it as well? Since all of the Ogg codecs are released under BSD-style — not GPL-style — licenses, there’s nothing stopping them!

WordPress continues delivers cutting edge features

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

I know I’ve been critical of WordPress in the past, but the new release of WordPress 2.6 allows me to pause and give thanks for all the amazing features that WordPress offers. Earlier tonight I was helping a friend with her Blogger.com blog, and the difference between that and WordPress is night and day.

For instance, Blogger doesn’t even offer out-of-the-box support for below-the-fold text, and the official work-around they suggest is an ugly display:none; CSS hack. Yeah, that’s right, the full text of every post is always included on the main page — there’s just a CSS directive to the browser to hide it! Talk about inefficient! WordPress does it the correct way. And the stylesheet support Blogger has is just hideous. The full text of the stylesheet is included inline with the HTML header on every page. If you don’t believe me, just view the HTML source of this random Blogger blog. They’re all like that.

So compared to Blogger, WordPress is incontrovertibly amazing (and although my friend isn’t likely to want to get server space and administrate her own blog, I would at least recommend moving her blog over to WordPress.com). But the new version of WordPress, 2.6, adds a killer feature that I’ve long wanted in my blog software but haven’t seen anywhere: an integrated revision control system. If you’ve ever read Wikipedia and viewed the history tab, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Revision control is useful for single author blogs, where you might wipe out a passage only to later wish you had it back. It also helps a lot when there’s some tricky formatting you want to get just right. Without a revision control system, there’s no way to revert to a known good version without first copying the post source into Notepad. But it really shines for multi-author blogs. I remember how, when I was writing for Supreme Commander Talk with Grokmoo, we would edit each others’ posts, and then have to explicitly have a chat about what things in each other’s work needed editing so that the mistakes might not be repeated again. With proper revision control, just execute a diff and what’s changed is plain as day! It always slightly irked me that other people might be editing my words and I would never be able to know. With WordPress 2.6, that’s no longer possible.

So I’ll count my blessings with WordPress. Despite its security vulnerabilities (most of which seem to be passed now) it really is a great piece of software, and the developers continue to add amazing new must-have features to it. Now that I’ve had some experience with another blogging platform, I can unequivocally say that I heartily endorse WordPress. Everyone’s blogging experience should be this smooth.

The biggest threat to the Internet since EMPs

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

I’m angrier than a bull in a Communist china shop over a recent trend amongst ISPs towards metered payment schemes (use BugMeNot for access). I wouldn’t mind so much if they were charging market rates, which would be between 5 and 10 cents a gigabyte, but instead they’re going for outright extortion and charging one dollar per gigabyte. So instead of using their current revenue and building out their infrastructure to handle expected increases in traffic in the future, which is what they should be doing, they’re hoping to cut utilization by charging more, and thus ramp up profits while slowly choking our Internet to death.

This stupid pricing scheme has the potential to deal long-term damage to the Internet. There’s so much potential for over-the-net distribution of content (including high-def video and video games) that hasn’t quite materialized yet, and won’t ever if customers are charged so much for Internet access. The cost of “renting” a DVD-quality movie over the Internet doubles at $1/GB pricing levels. It’s obscene. The United States was the world leader in Internet adoption for so long, but now we are falling hopelessly behind. ISPs in many nations (including Finland and South Korea) now offer connections that absolutely put ours to shame, like 50 Mbps symmetric for less than what 8/1.5 Mbps costs here. And we only have our money-grubbing, monopolistic communications companies to blame.

If you find yourself stuck with metered Internet access that charges unrealistic bandwidth rates, don’t put up with it. Complain. Loudly. Change your service to anything else that’s available in your area. And if you’re a big torrent user like I am, you may find it cheaper to buy a business-level unlimited connection than to pay $1/GB. To bring the costs down a good bit, share it with your neighbors over WiFi. Just don’t let them pillage the future of the Internet for the sake of making a quick buck.