Archive for April 2011


That’s how I scroll

Muscle memory is an odd term. Unlike our real muscles which need to be exercised regularly if we are to build them up, muscle memory is gained through the repetitive motion of minimal effort.

We computer slaves lazily build up our muscle memory, getting our minds ripped without even noticing, building up muscles on top of muscles, muscles in places where most users don’t even have places… Keyboard shortcuts, gestures on trackpads and even physically opening the lid of your laptop. We have no need of steroids and maxi-muscle whey supplements, mere time is the catalyst to getting our minds buffed.

I realised today that I could open the lid of my Macbook Air, enter my username and password, then quickly jump into Mission Control in almost a single motion, and without any conscious effort. I don’t need to think about how much pressure to use with the lid in order to open it without lifting the base off the desk at the same time, or look at the keys to see what I am typing, or think about how many fingers I am using to make the appropriate gesture etc. It just happens. I’ve spent enough time with my computer to build up the muscle memory to impressive proportions.

This sounds like a good thing, experience and time alone help to speed up the everyday things we do, meaning we expend less effort, both physically and mentally, which presumably frees you up to expend that elsewhere, on the new stuff, on the things that you actually need to concentrate on in order to do them. But, like all good things there is a downside, one that allows the 6 stone weakling users who still have to methodically and consciously direct their thoughts at normal thinking speed to kick sand in the faces of us, we the Charles Atlases of computing, and that is this: Unlike real muscle, failing to use muscle memory does not make it less effective over time.

But surely this is a good thing? It can be, if your usage for those muscles never changes, but when it does, when you need to learn something different, rather than something new, it causes mayhem with our suddenly puny minds.

I first noticed this when switching to use Firefox on my work laptop. Having shunned I.E. for anything that wasn’t work related I had used Opera for many years. It did the job, and I never had an issue with it. At home, I would use Safari on my Mac, and likewise be happy enough. Then, for whatever reason, I had to swap Opera out for Firefox, and a battle has begun with my own mind that I am in no way close to ever winning.

You see, in both Opera and Safari, when right clicking on a link within a webpage the first option would be ‘Open in new Window’, followed by ‘Open in New Tab’. I couldn’t tell you which order they were in until I checked a few seconds ago, but get me surfing around and throwing a few links into background tabs and I just do it, I know what to press, I never read the words on the context sensitive menu that pops up immediately after right clicking, I just do what I have learned to do after years of repetitive motion. Enter Firefox. The menu items are the other way around.

Now, I know they are the other way around, I know approximately a tenth of a second after I finish clicking that I have just done it wrong, but in no way can I stop myself from opening those links in windows instead of tabs. I cannot do it. The actions takes place, the realisation that I have just done it wrong AGAIN occurs, and I immediately close the new window that has arrived to mock me and do it again, this time reading the menu. It drives me mad. I have been using Firefox for almost 3 months now, and I am not sure I will ever manage to train myself out of this ridiculous dance. I think it’s because it’s not so much a change, but a deviance from the norm. If Safari changed to match, I would probably get it in the end.

Which brings me to Mac OS X 10.7. The roar of the mighty lion is insignificant to that heard when I scroll backwards in a document by accident. However, this time I have a fix. Like the relative order of the menu items across my browser software, the problem isn’t so much one of change, but one of deviance from the memory. Whilst my work PC scrolls one way, and my Mac now scrolls the other I seem doomed to frustration. The simple fix is to switch off the so called ‘natural’ scrolling on the Mac. A more complex fix might be to do the opposite, and hack Windows to swap the direction.

But I had a better idea. One that would leave me free to leave them both different, but still retain that muscle memory in such a way that would allow me to use both systems frustration free.

I binned my mouse.

That is to say, I took my mouse to work, replaced the slightly erratic and elderly work supplied one with it, and refuse to use one any more at home. on Windows, I scroll with a mouse. On my Mac I have graduated solely to a trackpad, both on the Macbook and with an external Magic Trackpad for the iMac. It’s genius. My iPhone has trained me to touch scroll that way without ever even realising it was different to using the scroll wheel on a mouse. I never get it wrong, on either machine.

And that, is how I scroll.

iBooks Irritations, Notations on Rotation

Just a quick one with regards to the iBooks app on iOS devices. Many people have previously noted the moving “store” icon which trades position depending on if you are using a large or small screen device, but today I found something else which is inconsistent between versions, and that is rotating.

I can understand it when an app is locked to a particular orientation, that’s perfectly fine most of the time (unless there is no reason why it simply can’t work in both) but I have found with iBooks that when used on an iPhone turning the phone upside down doesn’t flip the screen. It does on the iPad version, and it is after all a universal binary, so what gives?

You might be wondering how I found out, or more pertinently why I care – well, I only ever charge my iPad at night using a cable that lives behind the bedstead on a little shelf. It needs charging so irregularly that I just leave the phone charger there to charge whatever needs it at the time. It might be twice as slow as the iPad charger, but they can both share the same cable and I don’t care how long it takes when I know I am going to leave it on all night. This does result in occasionally having a flat iPad before going to bed, so when I fire it up for my nightly dose of Epic Fantasy I need to read with the cable plugged in.

Anyone who reads reclined will know the trick to turning the thing upside down so you can rest the iPad down without it balancing on your charging cable. Just seems a little odd that the iPhone doesn’t support it, because it can be just as irritating.

Anyone else got any daft rotation behaviour, particularly in first party apps?

Back to the cyber-future

The Web has come a long way since I first started using it in around 1993. Almost all of the many and various advancements over the years have been welcome evolutionary advancements, with the odd revolution thrown in for good measure. Taken year by year, surfing the Web has been easier, faster and more enjoyable with the passing of time. It would seem churlish, foolish even to complain about the riches the modern Web provides. But as with many things that change gradually, it’s only when you take the long view back that you realise that whilst the journey was great, you’ve ended up at the wrong destination.

So it is with how I feel about the Web. This isn’t about specific technologies, companies or standards, it’s about how something comes to be defined by the huge amorphous mass of humanity that started to use the Web, and to bend it to their will without an overarching design plan. The Web, is a mess. Surfing it has become an exercise in frustration rather than a source of pleasure. What would have simply amazed us 10, or even 5 years ago, now irritates us. There is no wonder people are going App crazy, the Web is bloated, ungainly, and ugly and is increasingly seen as something to bypass wherever possible. Luckily the great unwashed have seemingly seen fit to spare us the ongoing horror of sites like MySpace but even the staid and predictable site of the victor in that particular sphere is fast becoming a den of Web iniquity. Facebook website? No thanks, I’ll use the Mobile App, spare me from your distracting sprawl!

My Eyes! It Burns!

I’ll take one of my favourite tech sites (which I shan’t name, but you may recognise) as an example of what I mean. It’s got a nice logo, it’s got clever navigation, a good colour scheme, a professional look and feel in general, and distinct sections inviting me to do all sorts of clicking around. Sounds good, and to be honest in the grand scheme of things it IS good, but when you start to cast a critical eye over proceedings you start to realise how much of what you have just been presented with actually distracts you from the what you went there for, the whole point of using the site which is to see the stories they have carefully researched and written for your reading pleasure.

So, I manage to ignore the cruft, and select an article to read. It loads in a snap and I am presented with what should be the content I am interested in reading. What I get is a web page that has 12 distinct areas, of which only one is the article in question. There’s the site logo, the traditional navigation bar for the site as a whole, a large logo and headline for the section of the site that it is in, a “Top Stories” section with repeated navigational links and headlines for the various sections, still further a section with seemingly random other articles imploring me to “Read more”, job ads, an advert, tools for adjusting site options like font sizing etc, Facebook links with MORE site article links, social networking options asking me to like/tweet/dig and so on and so forth, a picture and link for a featured article and finally ANOTHER LINKS SECTION for non-article content related pages for the site (“About Us” and so on).

60 hyperlinks for various aspects of site navigation including a full duplicate set, once via text, once via icons 20 hyperlinks to other articles (2 of which are linking to the very page I am on) 14 social hyperlinks 4 links to job adverts Over 50 further links for various actions such as printing, viewing comments for the article in question or links to other sites etc (admittedly some of these are in a drop down menu or three) 13 pictures total, of which only 2 are a part of the article Dozens of icons variously preceding links and sections, often repeating the same generic tiny picture over, and over again.

Squeezed in on 3 sides by all these 150 plus links and assorted gubbins is the article I wanted to read.

And let me me fair here, I am not pointing this site out as a worst offender, far from it, in fact I consider this to be a good site, on the basis that there is only 1 Ad (it’s static, not at the top and not overly large, in fact compared with the sites own link flotsam and jetsam it’s almost too subtle to be noticed) and the article is presented as a single page without being needlessly chopped into tiny fragments in order to bait us into loading more ads (if there is one phrase I would wish to rid the world of it is “Read more, after the jump”…).

Can you say information overload?

Let’s step back and take a long hard look at our websites. It’s not a pretty picture is it? Imagine a time before the web when newspapers and magazines were our go-to for reading content. Now imagine every single page of your rag of choice, your weekly TV guide (remember those?), your monthly periodical were each and every one of them surrounded by an identical frame of this sort of crap. It’s like having the contents page on EVERY page, like each and every article being simultaneously given the front page treatment with red top logos and the page 2 treatment with subscription and publication information etc with the inside pages double ad spread to boot all at the same time. It would be in short, virtually unreadable.

So far so bad, but what can we do about it? Well, luckily for us one of the more recent trends in the Web is the ability to commit acts of cyber vandalism on the sites of our choice. Safari extensions exist to remove all traces of Facebook from webpages, or to hide comments sections and so on (of course on the flip side are the ones that are there to ADD comments to such sites as have deliberately avoided them to spare us from the banal thoughts of people such as myself). Various plugins and such for browsers far and wide enable us to customise these carefully constructed mazes of information and bend their contents to our own will. Remove this, add that, move the other.

This, of course, it to be welcomed in the manner of welcoming all such evolutionary changes. But it’s not a real solution, requiring as it does for us to manually be in control of amending those sites that offend us most, with no guarantee that it will work when the site tweaks it’s design at some future point, or even that such a workaround is even available for your favourite awful website. It’s as though we don’t see the problem for what it is, just the opportunity to make things better. I don’t want to be messing around like this. I just want to read the words behind the headline that brought me here without my eyes being and brain being bombarded with unwanted and unnecessary stimulus.

Calling all APIs

One of the revolutions of recent years has been Apps. Surfing the Web was such a powerful metaphor that it became ingrained into our way of doing things. You see a Web, you surf it. You see what’s there, you take it for what it is and you move on, and on. But Apps have turned this way of getting our content on it heads over the past couple of years. OK, we still visit sites manually, whether through force of habit, or via tools like Safari Top Sites, and Opera Speed-dial etc, we click links in emails and Twitter and we go to the full fat websites often. But increasingly we are using Apps and APIs to bypass the “surfing” aspect of using the modern Web.

I think I have only visited the Twitter website a half dozen times. At least 9 out of 10 times I check into Facebook for a quick browse around, I’m using the iPhone app instead of the website. Many websites have specific apps that are duplicating the content we would find through a browser, without duplicating the structure and the navigation. Mobile versions of websites are cleaning up our interfaces without giving us sub-par experiences. All of these modern methods help the content to spring free of the bounds of the website, but it’s still a fragmented approach. An app per website? We’re going to look back and cringe over this one. No-one wants to fill their mobile devices with this type of thing, and we’d all be mad to move our browsing to mobile devices just to clean up our websites. Talk about fixing your headache via amputation. It’s overkill, we need a simpler way, a way of reducing the complexities of our websites, and at the same time converging our desktop and mobile surfing habits.

The same content, looking consistently acceptable regardless of how you access it.

This is the promise of a raft of (relatively) new products and services such as Readability and Instapaper. Via the power of a couple of bookmarklets in your browser, or a sharing option via a hyperlink or even from your RSS reader, you can send any web article to be divested of it’s oily rags, scrubbed up and presented to you in a smart respectable shirt. Better still, you can queue up your content to be read offline at a later date, like some sort of personalised internet that only has one website and no adverts. It’s like having the old internet back, but without the nasty typography and inconsistent page rendering. Or Compuserve… One method, the whole internet.

In Part 2 of this article I intend to discuss this new form of using the Web, via Apps and API calls, and to take an in-depth look at 4 competing (and occasionally complementary) methods for achieving it. I’ll have a ponder on everything from website ad revenue, to getting your Dad to actually enjoy using the Web.

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope to not keep you waiting too long for Part 2.