Sunday, March 17, 2013

Twitter anti-patterns #2: Where's the beef?

Respect your twitter feed, and even more important, respect the humble link.

Ah Zakynthos, flower of the levant, beautiful isle of the Meditteranean, how I miss thee! How it frustrates me that I only get back to visit thee biennially, and must make do in the interim with websites, and those spectacular 18-month calendars you get in the tourist shops with azure-sky beach photography, to cheer up my drab study at home. How nice it would be follow a Zantean (adjective for Zakynthos) portal site like Go Zakynthos on Twitter and, I don't know, maybe be alerted to the occasional new album of photos or something. Or read a quick précis of some story posted on the site, if it could be made to fit in a tweet, which it usually can.

But sadly, maybe because of cutbacks and austerity measures, most of Go Zakynthos tweets contain nothing except a link. And not a meaningful link either, one you can read, like for example where the nostalgic office-bound IT worker could at least choose to click through based on an expectation of what was about to appear in his browser. Oh no, these links look like this: Why would you click on that link? You could be rickrolled (it's probably 'nickrolled' in Greece, actually) for all you can tell from the URL, right? And I've noticed that plenty of other people do the same in twitter, posting cryptic tweets consisting of a sole meaningless link.

Approaching Shipwreck beach, Zakynthos
"Approaching Shipwreck beach, Zakynthos" taken by me in 2009.

Somewhere in the last few years, it became more important to many people to do things the Twitter way and break the web than do things the correct way. That sort of '' link is almost utterly opaque. I say almost because I'm guessing the 'fb' domain means it's a link to facebook. And indeed it turns out that it is. Huzzah: a crypto-facebook twitter link! Only if that link didn't actually resolve correctly, and was actually a broken link, could this mess be any more knuckle-headed and fucked. You only need to shorten a link if you're going to fall foul of the 140 character limit! Why, if all that's in the tweet is a link, do you need to break the web and make an opaque URL? The final facebook URL (the link actually turns into a link en route. Of course it does.) is nowhere near 140 characters.

Even if you insist on abbreviating and obfuscating the link, which I've heard a friend say he does with to get reporting, you then need - you especially then need - to say something about what the link is about. With a meaningless and link, the tweet becomes the explanation for the link. It doesn't matter how interesting the destination page ultimately is: I have no reason to click through if it makes no sense on its own nor does the person explain to me what the link relates to. So the double-whammy here is that there's a meaningless link AND no accompanying content to at least give the tweet some meaning. Where's the beef?

This isn't about crossposting

In general, I think crossposting is a good thing, as long as it's manual. I'll be crossposting this to Google+ and LinkedIn. Actually I might leave LinkedIn, since semi-coherent rants like this aren't related to my professional alter ego. But I'll certainly be posting it to Twitter, with a brief description of course, since I actually think it's a good idea to give people a reason to click on the links I bring into this world.

I suspect the cause of empty, opaque-link, spammy tweets is auto-crossposting, with some setting in facebook generating this logorrhea. To the extent that the facebook settings section is somewhere most of us would not willingly go, I slightly sympathise. But not much. Nowadays it behoves a chap or chappess to pay attention to one's social media hygiene. Especially with hundreds of followers. LinkedIn actually disabled the auto-crossposting from Twitter to their site using the #in hashtag, and a good thing too. Likewise Google+ has held off from allowing write operations on their API lest that site ends up like Buzz did, a place crossposts go to die.

Oh yeah, let me just hit that follow button.

Or reimagining norms

Neither do I think I'm not getting how twitter is changing the norms of the web, or about how young people 'reimagine' hyperlinks in ways irrelevant people like me don't understand. There was a great moment recently in This Week in Google where Leo (Laporte, the father of the internet) was saying how his daughter and all her friends only use hashtags to label and caption their photographs on Instagram instead of plain ol' words, even when those hashtags mean nothing and an ordinary sentence or phrase would do. Leo saw this is maybe just how 'young people' are using the web. As in, gee, maybe we don't get it. Young person, and budding curmudgeon Gina Trapani was having none of it, explaining to Leo that as far as she was concerned this was no more than a misunderstanding of how hashtags work, or are supposed to work. Her exact words were: "get off my grass". Wonderful. Youngsters shmungsters. Twitter shmitter. A link is a link, and the last time I checked Twitter was a website. Links are supposed to be legible and indicative of what they link to.

I'm tired of Twitter - I hardly use it any more. My Google+ follower count passed my Twitter one a while back, reflecting the increased amount of time I spend on the plus. With the imminent demise of Reader though I may find myself pushed back on Twitter. I don't want to be negative: I'd actually love to follow Go Zakynthos on Twitter - it's a nice, colourful site, and it would be a great way to be casually reminded of what's going on in Zante from the convenience of the twitter client which is on my phone, tablet, heck even my new TV. Same with plenty of other potential followees. But loads of them misuse twitter like this. Don't they check? What do they think it looks like to a user? Do we need to round people up and send them back to web primary school?

Day 1: the link.

Twitter anti-patterns #1: The sound of one hand tweeting

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Windows 8: a touching experience

Boom! I went straight from Windows Vista to Windows 8 with an All-in-One touchscreen to boot! And these are a few initial impressions.

Yes, I leapfrogged over Windows 7 from Vista to Windows 8. Even went full touchscreen. I just went in one morning over Christmas, no research done, nothing, and bought a Toshiba LX830 All-in-One +Windows 8 23" HD LED touchscreen desktop in Harvey Norman. I got home from Garden City with this touchy-screeny-feely thing, and no idea how to use it. A frisson of excitement, such as I hadn't felt since getting my first PC, a Gateway 2000 Windows 95 Pentium 90 in October '95, coursed through my veins. Plus, I was ahead of my work set-up (Windows 7). I don't know about you, but that just plain tickles me. I hate getting home from the office and dropping down a level.

First of all: with an All-in-One - I don't know what to call it; whether there's a generic term - there's no box (as in the actual computer box), no separate speakers, and no webcam: it's all packaged up like Nuget. My life, or at least my desk, has become drastically less cluttered. One thing to consider though if you're a gamer, and aren't we all nowadays, is that with the All-in-One you're not going to be able to upgrade the motherboard or graphics card, which just leaves the RAM. I upgraded the standard 4Gb to 8Gb for an extra $50. Speaking of games, those that are touch-enabled, like Civilization 5, suddenly become a different experience. I fired up that venerable old warhorse, and got a splash screen showing how I can now marshall my troops, move the camera, and generally act out my Napoleonic fantasies using touch, which really brings the game alive.

"Left-hand side: tasks; right-hand side: charms"

Knowing as much about Windows 8 as I did about pigeon fancying, I bought a book. But that's just because I like books. If you really want to know about Windows 8, a good place to start is +Scott Hanselman's "The Missing Windows 8 Instructional Video". Incidentally, Scott uses the "Who moved my cheese?" meme as a metaphor. I wish people would stop with that corny old shtick. Have you actually read the book? (It's not getting a link from me.) It did the rounds at work recently, and having read most of it I can safely say it has all the profundity of a 5-year old who thinks it's great that he can fart out loud. And all the self-regard, sadly. Trust me, right now I'm something of an authority in the matter of proudly flatulent 5-year olds.


Anyway, the video has Scott H's customary suaveness, but doesn't deal with touch. It does however, make the excellent point that rather than download an app for Twitter, etc., as you'd normally expect to in any appy environment like a phone or tablet, you should probably use the 'People' Windows 8 app (you see them described as fullscreen apps as well as Windows 8 apps) which, if you wire it up correctly, becomes a social media aggregator much like the Windows Live Messenger client did (Microsoft have now retired that in favour of Skype).

Incidentally, if you're on Twitter, tweet something - anything - using the hashtag #Windows8 and you'll probably be rewarded with a follow from ^Helen at Windows Australia who's on it. She'll actually help you out, like she did with a question about sharing that I had. And the weird multilingual problem that arose too - more below.

Apps? I don't need no stinkin' apps: this is Windows!

With the new apps, a swipe-up from the bottom (or down from the top) is the same as an old-school right-click, bringing up the context menu. And apps are easy to uninstall, as the uninstall option appears with the swipe-up from the bottom: no need to go to Control Panel -> Programs and Features, or Start/Programs/(find program)/uninstall (if an option). It's like how on a phone you install an app, use it for a week, forget about it, and uninstall it a while later with a minimum of fuss. Apps are transient fellow voyagers on the bus-ride into the future, getting on and sitting beside us for a couple of stops, and then as quickly alighting again. Now available in Windows 8.

Windows 8 makes it très facile to be multilingual: I can't get over how easy it is to change keyboards. The word ¡Z大Ωçé你Ñψ?, which means nothing obviously, took a very short amount of time to write, switching between default English Australian, Español, Français, Ελληνικά, and 中国的. If you're an aficionado of language-learning sites like Duolingo and Memrise like I am, code-switching in Windows 8: c'est formidable.

Now, I´m a big fan of casual multilingualism, of code-switching between English and Spanish, but somehow I got my computer into a weirdly multilingual state at one stage. This is a screenshot of the new "Store" app, which is a huge new change for Windows. But if you notice, mine says "Tienda", because it thinks it's Spanish, and that's the Spanish for shop. In the top-right corner, it's telling me "Actualización (1)" - 1 update available. It's not that that's the default language for my Windows - it isn't, (Australian) English is. So what demonios was going on?

Anyway, the redoubtable ^Helen helped me out here too: turns out that if you have a babbel of languages installed then you want to make sure the top two are English ones (like English-Irish, or English-US) or you'll end up with weird mix-ups like I had.

Picture passwords are wonderful

If one of the effects of touch is to humanise the machine to some degree, then one of my favourite applications of touch so far is the picture password.

Normally, when you lock the screen, the options to unlock it are to type a password or a PIN. Cοnsidering that's my machine, in my house, that's kind of alienating. Obviously, I don't have to enable screen-locking at home, but say it's a work computer: it's a constant reminder that you're in an environment where you're not really trusted. I mean of course you are, but others aren't. And the same goes for you vis-à-vis their machines. With Windows 8 you can make a picture password, which is a charming way to come back to your computer and unlock it. In my example here I can remember it by means of a little story: Eoin (the kid on the right) is...
  1. eyeing up my...
  2. cameraphone because he wants...
  3. 2 take a picture.
You get three gestures, and obviously order matters. Sure, I can imagine it's not the most secure thing in the world, but the hackability of the password on account of the traces your fingers make on the screen surely depends on how much you touch your touchscreen. If unlocking the picture password it's the only thing you ever use touch for, then yes, your finger oil could betray you. But really, you want to use touch for as much as you can - why have you got a touch device in the first place? - and that should make your screen oily and noisy.

I don't really need this, as this whole post relates to my home computer and I happen to mostly trust my wife. A lot of this stuff is simply to learn Windows 8, to give myself a head start for the inevitable upgrade at work, and simply for the pleasure of trying out new things. So I don't need the picture password at all. But it is a rather beautiful application of touchscreen technology.

Alright, where's Defender?

My version of 8 came bundled with annoying Norton Internet Security shrillware which I mostly ignored. Now that my 60 or so days trial period has expired, I have to poo or get off the Norton potty, so I thought I'd take my chances with good old Windows Defender. But despite being part of the operating system it's actually switched off. What? I didn't switch it off. What's it doing on my machine, off? According to PCWorld, that's no accident. "Microsoft tossed its partners a bone by allowing OEMs to deactivate Windows Defender in order to ship boxed PCs with alternative security solutions installed." Well how do you like that? I personally object to having to arrange 3rd-party software to safeguard any version of Windows, and from what I read Defender is adequate unless you have special reason to fear hackers above and beyond the usual hazards of surfing, so I'm going to keep any eye on Defender and see how I go. Hardly a rigorously-argued position to take with something as important as security, but I'm damned if I'm paying for something that seems to already be part of the OS dammit. If this blog goes quiet after this post, you'll know my new Windows 8 was infected and I was wrong about Defender.

Sheesh, that was quick!

Hey! Remember about 10 years ago when DVDs were the future? A very short while ago it seemed like everything was going to be encoded, using MPEG-2, onto a DVD. Well, no more. Online media is now where it's at, apparently, not optical media. If you're old school like me and have plenty of old home videos in MPEG-2 format awaiting editing (they come straight off my camcorder, a 5 or so year old JVC Everio, like that), then you're crap out of luck when it comes to Windows 8. MPEG-2 and DVD support are gone, because of licensing costs and the fact that most people stream their entertainment nowadays, according to Microsoft.

Having no idea that this was the case, I only found it out when I tried to edit some old home videos in Windows Movie Maker. I could hear the sound, but saw nothing. Like I say, these old files are encoded using the MPEG-2 codec, which means they are already compressed and will be further compressed on producing/exporting any movie from Movie Maker, or Premiere, or any video editing software you care to use. Why did I store them in a compressed format? Because uncompressed video takes a huuuge amount of space, and they come like that more-or-less straight out of the camcorder, as I say.

I should point out though that if there is a DVD drive on your machine, as there is on my All-in-One then of course Toshiba (in my case) isn't going to just leave you to the wolves: there's a pretty shmick bundled Toshiba Blu-ray DVD player. So something on my machine knows about DVDs and, more importantly to me, MPEG-2s. Just not Windows Movie Maker. Sad trombone. It was probably naïve to expect too much in-built Windows support for video-editing. But if you get CyberLink PowerDirector, or one of those suites, you'll be able to work with your old MPEG-2s. But who knows with the next release of Windows? They might ban them outright. I'm just saying, maybe with MPEG-2s or anything to do with DVDs, one might do well to start thinking about a migration strategy. Be a shame to lose those videos of the kids.

Other changes

In a couple of rather important spots in Windows 8, the start screen and the store to give two important examples, one is expected to simply start typing to do a search. This is not immediately apparent to one. Typing without being prompted by the familiar iconography of a textbox, preferably accompanied by a label saying "Search", with an optional button saying "Go", is definitely one of the moments when one realises one is not in Kansas anymore. The two people (fellow IT professionals) I've talked about this with either found this aspect weird, like I did, or didn't realise it yet and thanked me for the information. I mean, it feels very fluent and new when you get used to it, but it's a jarring moment when you first realise that all you have to do is start typing to start searching.

Other minor changes include the renaming of Windows Explorer to File Explorer; it now also has a "Scenic Ribbon". Something that might take a while to get used to for previous users of Windows is that items in a folder appear to have checkboxes superimposed on them by default, so for example you can select multiple items without having to CTRL-click them, which I suppose is convenient. You can switch that off in the ribbon though, which you'll probably want to if you're used to standard CTRL-selecting multiple items. And CTRL-F1 minimises the ribbon itself.

Oh, and you can make a God folder, but that would be blasphemous.