March 26, 2004

The Morbid Fascination of a Train Wreck

...that must be it. This must be the reason I am so completely engrossed, these past few days, with the daily transcripts of the White House Briefings. I have been grossly negligent in following the subtle nuances of what is going on around me over the past few months, but thank God for Mr. Clarke and a return to insanity.

As far as I can decipher the spin from the 24th, Scott McClellan seems to be trying to explain to a bevy of remarkably skeptical reporters that Mr. Clarke's credibility as an independent analyst, speaking for himself in his recent book and in testimony, is in doubt. Why? Because he, in a conference call to media in 2002 made in his role as White House counter-terrorism lead, provided information to the reporters on that call that contradicts his recent testimony and book. Moreover (and here's the good part) McClellan manfully tries to explain to these obviously dense reporters that this prior testimony was not, in fact, Clarke briefing the media on the Bush White House's current party line, but was really Clarke briefing the media on his own opinions.

Of course, in that call, Clarke (who was, by the way, not identified during the call save as a White House expert) introduces his speech by saying he has "some talking points." He then goes on to describe some vaguely positive perspectives on the Bush White House's actions concerning terrorism. McClellan, after denying that the White House 'dissembles' or otherwise 'plans spin' on their daily briefings (!) says the following in his briefing:

"This goes to his credibility, and I think that those are questions that Mr. Clarke needs to answer...You cannot square Dick Clarke's new assertions with his past words. That's very clear."
(note: the phrase "This goes to his credibility" appears at least thrice in McClellan's briefing this day with regards to Clarke).

Um. Let me get this straight. You are telling me that Clarke is of dubious credibility because, in 2002, as a Bush White House employee assigned to give a briefing to the press, his statements do not match those made recently, months after leaving Government employ, and accusing the Bush White House of not handling the counterterrorism task properly? Well, um, I should *hope* that the words don't match, because otherwise he's not telling us anything we need to hear. Furthermore, those first words - the ones McClellan is trying to deceive us into believing are the ones that make Clarke less credible - are the ones that the Bush White House wrote for him, into "seven talking points." Unless, as McClellan states ("These are his own words") we are to believe that the Bush White House placed someone on a conference call with reporters, introduced them as the White House staffer on record, and then happily allowed them to make up what they were saying on the go, or to mouth off their personal beliefs without so much as a vetting.

I'm sorry, this is just getting pathetic. So Clarke is not credible, and has an ax to grind, and is a disaffected Liberal? Well, no; he's a Reagan appointee who in addition to working for both Clinton administrations worked for Bush's dad, and is a fairly severe hawk.

What I've just written is nothing new. Various web commentators, at least, have been writing more eloquent versions of this since McClellan's briefing. I am not writing it to convince, just to place on record so that later, when I recall the level of my disbelief as a past fact, I have some indication of the depth of the feeling.

We need to bring these fuckers down.

One day, sometime soon, we'll hear from the grand jury impaneled in the Valerie Plame affair. If we're lucky, they'll tackle Karl Rove and bury him for five-to-ten in a large moldy cell in that wonderful state of Texas, and let him have all the booze he wants - just no new liver.

Posted by jbz at 3:32 AM | Comments (0)

March 23, 2004

Objects, Navigation, Long Noses

Long noses because I plan on indulging in my longtime hobby of sticking mine into places it has no qualifications for nor business being, but about which I have an opinion nonetheless. First things first: This post is about a discussion which happened some time ago amongst the worthy folk whose effort brings us the Nautilus file browser on Linux. Late last year, the project maintainer decided to announce that Nautilus would be pursuing a new direction, of sorts - that of presenting an object metaphor for the navigation of files and directories. Here's the thread.

The thread offers some excellent views on why this is a good or bad idea (or both). I happen to work with a couple of the folks on that list, and reading the thread for the first time recently I was inspired to rethink my own user interface preferences and philosophy.

To make one thing perfectly clear, I was a long-time old-style Macintosh OS user. This interface is mentioned in the thread as embodying the 'object' or (as Ars Technica calls it) the 'spatial' model. In it, each discernable screen object (icon, window, etc.) does more than just represent something on the computer - it behaves more as if it was that thing. For example, an icon doesn't just represent a file - it is a file. Double-clicking it opens the file. If it is a folder icon, double-clicking it opens a window which shows us the contents of the folder. Not only that, however, but there can only be one window open on the screen showing us that particular folder's contents at any one time. This strengthens the tie between that picture of a folder on the screen and the notion that manipulating that picture is manipulating that folder.

There are many other characteristics of an object system. My favorite? That position matters (this is why it is also called a spatial system). If you put something in a folder, and close the folder and then open it again, that object is painted at the same place you dropped it, relative to other objects in the folder. When you open an object and get a window, that window will always open on the screen to the same spot it was in when it was last closed. All this and the many more things that make up an object system are there to do a specific thing - they are there to allow (and encourage) us to take advantage of the human mind's ability to organize objects spatially when using the computer. The mind has been conditioned since birth (in sighted individuals, at least) to use spatial recollection and placement to impart meaning. Important stuff? Closer. Center. Less important? Fringe. Far. Ordering? How about top to bottom, or left to right, or bottom left far to top right near. Whatever we've decided on the spur of the second is easiest or most effective for us. This is why it can be such a powerful organizing tool, and is the reason so many otherwise-low-tech Mac users would reach for hatchets whenever anyone talked about taking away their Macs (for more on why Windows never did this right, see the thread).

There are, of course, limitations and disadvantages. It's difficult to perform the magic that the computer, a mechanism for abstraction, lets you, when you're miring yourself in a physical-representation interface. It's very difficult to handle scripting, and complex selection, and searching - for the very reason that there are no physical representation for those tasks. For these tasks, some argue, a navigator metaphor - a viewer representation that shows you what is available, as in the Windows file explorer or the Nautilus navigator window - is better, because since it is more abstract, it is easier to abstract out past its visual limitations. The current maximum abstraction is the command line; maximal learning curve, minimal representative binding, but maximal power to perform actions with minimal user physical effort.

I know, I know. This is all in the thread. What the hell are you saying, J.B.?

I suppose I was intending to weigh in with this notion. The limitations of the physical representative interface are not necessarily inherent limitations of the approach. In many cases, they are in fact limitations of the technology (both software and hardware) and resources (ditto) available to the user. It is easy to say that one simply can't represent a search action on an object interface, but this may not be true - rather, it may just be that there aren't any available standard methods for doing so, and not enough horsepower to do it convincingly.

If this is the case, if in fact the limitations are limitations of the present rather than of the logic, then don't bind us to an interface (the navigator) simply because it can be made more powerful with today's technology. Of course, offer it as an option for the technically astute. However, given technology's curve, it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim that the 'average user' doesn't have the horsepower in CPU or GPU to represent a fully object interface in complete Virtual Reality, even - the limitation is that there is no standard mechanism for handling VR available to the coder.

Always, always make the 'reach for the sky' solution a possibility, even if you have to cover your bets with the currently possible. Open source is one of the few places in the world right now where this approach is possible, much less lauded - but here's a perfect example. When these VR methodologies, and interfaces, and systems, are invented, coded and built - let's not have them shot down because people have convinced themselves that 'the Navigator metaphor is more powerful than they are.' Sure, it might be, initially. It might always be, because it will always be easier to increase capabilities via increasing abstraction than by building the elegant machine to take The Rest Of Us (thank you Apple) there. But someday, that elegant machine will come - and an Object metaphor implemented now will give all of us an easier step and path to it when it arrives.

Oh yeah, there's another reason. Heh heh.

As it stands, our current user interfaces are all attempts to some degree or other to produce a working object model (thank you, Xerox PARC). The Navigator model came about in order to cover technology deficits in implementing an actual object model. However, we still have 'desktops' and 'windows' and files are still icons that look like pieces of paper, or like pictures, or what-have-you. Simply put - don't let these interfaces remain half-assed. So much of the confusion in current computer interfaces is at that point where the object model craps out and the navigator model intrudes; at that meniscus of interpretation where understanding curves, like light going from water to air, and we lose track of what we're doing.

Let's push that point outwards by building on the object. Push it away from us. Work for consistency in the presentation. This isn't to say abolish the navigator - just try to build, for us dunces, a consistent world option. There's no way to make a navigator model 'consistent and complete' really, because the first thing it asks you to do is give up some of your understanding of reality in favor of its own. The object model, in contrast, asks you to retain your understanding of reality and then endeavors to provide as few rude shocks as possible. The second approach is closer to the seamless experience we want, especially as newbies; indeed, once we are of a technical mind to use the navigator, we're mostly to the CLI since so many navigators, these days, rely on typing arbitrary stuff into search boxes and address widgets.

Posted by jbz at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

Ahhh, Office 2004...FOR ME TO POOP ON!!!

It’s just not that fucking hard, really. I mean, let’s be clear here. Microsoft wants me to buy their new attempt at productivity suite monopoly - I acknowledge this. I already use the present version. There is one small problem with the present version that I have been waiting to hear that they have fixed. See, they have this email app called Entourage, which is actually a fairly functional app, save for this one, small, HIDEOUSLY STUPID lack of functionality.

It does most of what an email app/PIM is supposed to - handle multiple email accounts, of various types, using folders, yada, yada. However, (and here’s the killer) it does not interface with the OS X built-in address book or calendar. Nope. Apple goes and adds an LDAP-compatible address book system to OS X, provides us with iCal (which is good, because Entourage has so/so calendaring) …and Entourage DOESN‘T TALK TO THEM.

This is hideously stupid.

So now we have Office 2K4, in which the previews are all gushing “multiple additional functionality areas have been added!!” But do they tell me if it does that one, simple, no-brainer thing? Nope. Which leads me to believe that it doesn’t. This is why Microsoft needs to die. In order to use Entourage, see, I now need to give up on using any other application on OS X which needs/uses address information, because those apps (sensibly) use the OS-level services for such info. But Entourage doesn’t. So never the twain shall speak. This, by the way, is the reason I don’t use Entourage, but force myself to utilize OS X’s Mail.App - strictly for OS level Address book compatibility. See, if I use that, I can have my address book backed up automatically by Backup. I can have my Palm sync directly to the OS Address Book and not have to worry about it. I can use other, small apps and applets that tweak that datastore, and know that it will all be OK. I can iSync my address book information up to Apple’s servers, or between my computers, without thought.

Not if I use Entourage, though. And from the looks of it so far, despite having an entire major rev cycle to fix this stupid design issue, Microsoft hasn’t done it. I hope I’m wrong, and that the dumbshit here is merely one of a marketing nature - i.e. that Entourage has been fixed but that they don’t consider it important enough to trumpet in the ‘preview’ snippets they’ve been handing out. I don’t know. But I’m not holding my breath ‘till I turn blue.

Posted by jbz at 11:43 AM | Comments (0)

March 7, 2004

Fr3sh pr0n v~i~a~g~r~a 4 maKe m0nee f4st!

Now, I really can't say I support banning porn sites from the internet. After all, I'd be lying if I said I'd never fired up a browser in search of some quick free pictures of attractive women 'round the age of, say, 25 or so, disrobed and playing about. Nope nope. However, I am baffled by this crew of completely venal losers who have unleashed upon us the vile spew of guestbook/blog comment spam. I just don't get it.

I mean, while it's one thing (that I don't agree with, but will admit it's a separate issue) to send me a private email offering me unsolicited services, it's a whole other step to start dropping links to child porn sites onto my public presence on the web. That's just beyond the pale. Even harder to understand? The comments that show up, with innocuous text ("Hmm...nice sitez...") with links to porn sites in their sites that don't even bloody exist. I mean, what the fuck? At that point, you can't even tell me you're getting paid to do this, it's just, I don't know, random? For fun maybe?

Sigh. Well, at least a few of them have sites that have registered owners. Which means, of course, someone who can be gotten to. Heh heh. In so many entertaining ways. And now that they've been kind enough to leave their names invitingly on my website, well...

Posted by jbz at 6:48 PM | Comments (0)