Tag Archives: computers

In the bank

Some of you will know that my mother died not so long ago. This brings with it a variety of admin tasks, which you go through as best you can. These can be tiring, but also, it turns out, often bring you into contact with surprisingly friendly and supportive people.

And one effect of bereavement seems to be that you find yourself wanting to talk a lot. Someone asks how you are and next thing, you’ve told them some memories of the person who’s died, or how the death came about, or that no really you’re managing fine because the way you’re feeling is nothing like you imagined it would be beforehand . . . Or at least, that’s how it’s been for me. It’s a different experience for every bereaved person, I think.

Anyway that’s not really what I’m wanting to write about. It’s background. I’m writing about the assumptions that are often made about “old” people and computers.

I had to inform my mother’s bank of the death. This entailed taking a death certificate in and filling in a straightforward form, and I’d made an appointment to do this. The bank had an open area with seats and tables, where people could do banking stuff in an informal atmosphere, and a separate mini-office which could be used if more privacy was wanted. I wanted more privacy, but was waiting in the open area for my appointment.

Also waiting was an oldish lady with a walking stick. I was in a talkative mood, we got talking and I mentioned what I was there for. She said “Oh, I am sorry. How old was your mum?” “89,” I said. “But it wasn’t unexpected. She’d been ill a long time, and . . . ”

“Oh.” she answered. “Well I’m 89!” so I hurriedly reassured her that she was in far better health than my mother had been and that I was sure she’d got years and years ahead of her . . .

At this point I was rescued from digging myself into any deeper hole by the arrival of one of the bank staff. I sat myself further away so as to let their conversation be private. But I couldn’t help hearing most of it anyway. So much for privacy in open-plan banks.

The man from the bank asked how he could help her. “Well,” she said, “I’ve accidentally locked myself out of my online banking. I entered my Face Time password by mistake instead of the banking one, and now it won’t let me in . . . ” From the subsequent conversation it was clear that she used online banking all the time, and that she was perfectly comfortable with it except for the minor issue of it being difficult to remember a different password for everything without occasionally getting one wrong.

Contrast that with the stereotype of someone her age: confused, terrified of computers, totally hopeless when put in front of one, needing to be led by the hand through the simplest of operations . . .

In fact there’s even a similar stereotype about over-50s. Well I’m one of those. In fact, if the calendar is to be believed, I’m 57. (Very odd. I still think I’m 33. Possibly a little older, but definitely no more than 36.) We’re supposed to be unable to use a computer or understand the simplest of jargon . . .

Well. By the time I left university in 1984, I had programmed in Fortran, Algol, Basic, and 6502 assembler. (The 6502 was one of the early microprocessors.) The first computer I had of my own was an Amstrad PCW8256, but I upgraded the memory to a whopping 512 kB. Half a megabyte!

You could use one of these with the software it came with, if you just wanted to use it as a word processor. But I wanted to do more with it. And if you wanted to use your “home computer” for anything more interesting, you had to program it yourself. None of this ridiculous searching around for apps that don’t do quite what you want: write something yourself that did exactly what you wanted, or possibly read computer magazines and laboriously type out somebody else’s program then correct all the typos that were stopping it running and giving you error messages . . .

I wrote BASIC programs for a while, but I knew that was inefficient. BASIC was an interpreter: that is, the computer had to translate the instructions as it went, turning instructions like IF N>10 THEN GOTO 320 into sequences of hexadecimal digits (or really, sequences of 1’s and 0’s, read in blocks of 8 and effectively fed straight into the electronics) which the computer’s processor could execute.

I didn’t like being limited to BASIC. I wanted to program in machine code (the 1’s and 0’s). This is usually done using a program called an assembler: this lets you write short instructions meaning things like “increase the value of register A by 1” or “load the value stored at the following memory location into register B”, which it then translates into the 1’s and 0’s for you. The program you then run is the translated version.

For some reason presumably known to Amstrad, the assembler that came with the computer didn’t have any documentation and I couldn’t get it to work. (It was also, I later found out, written for the wrong processor: it was for the 8080 processor, whereas the computer contained the more advanced Z80.)

So, what did I do? Give up because our generation didn’t understand computers? No, I wrote my own assembler. First in BASIC, but then—once it was working—in machine code. I used the BASIC version to assemble the first machine code version, and thereafter, each machine code version to assemble the next. And you know what? The machine code program ran at 130 times the speed of the BASIC one! I was stunned. It suddenly did in about two seconds what had previously taken it well over four minutes.

What I find sad is that since then, computers have got faster too quickly: rather than run more and more efficient and reliable software, they run more and more unwieldy and bug-ridden software which grinds to a halt on all but the most up-to-date machines. They get away with it simply because processors have got ridiculously fast and storage has got ridiculously big.

I also find it sad that at some point, schools switched from teaching children coding (albeit in BASIC because it was simple), with the excitement of making their own programs do their own things, to teaching them the tedious “skill” of understanding what all the badly-named menu options in some piece of commercial software are for. To my mind that’s not understanding computers—it’s understanding office work. And it’s all in the manual anyway, if the manual’s any good.

So there you go. I think “my generation” understood computers rather well, and I think the 89-year-old in the bank understood hers well enough for all the things she wanted to do on it. She just found remembering which password was for what a bit tricky. And who hasn’t had that problem?

Don’t make assumptions based on age!

Anticonfiguratoriabilitizationism

Yesterday on Twitter I followed the link in this tweet:

I don’t use Facebook so I’m not 100% sure what the like button does other than add some sort of counter to a page (which in this case of this page did indeed say that 38,327 people liked it), but what caught my eye was the sentence

To get started, just use the configurator below to get code to add to your site.

Is configurator a word? Well it’s clearly being used, so I suppose by definition it must be, regardless of whether it should be . . . though by rights it should be derived from the verb configurate, whatever that is. Otherwise it would surely just be a configurer.

But most words don’t just exist all on their own: they belong to families. And small differences like configure/configurate usually carry some distinction of meaning. All of which got me thinking about what family configurator might belong to.

I therefore offer you

configurate
to subject something to the actions of a configurator.
configurator
a program designed to screw up your settings automatically rather than manually, so you’ve no hope of putting them right again.
configurability
the extent to which something may be configured.
configuratoriability
the extent to which something may be configurated with a configurator.
configuratoriabilitization
the process of adding configuratoriability to something.
anticonfiguratoriabilitizationism
the position adopted by an anticonfiguratoriabilitizationist, who (i) prefers to make settings manually where possible, and (ii) deplores the proliferation of configurators and of programs which, when installed, misconfigurate everything in sight. (And, it should be added, out of sight—which can be much worse.)

I’m an anticonfiguratoriabilitizationist.

Dabr: making Twitter accessible

Twitter

In case you don’t already know, Twitter is a service which lets you send short messages or “tweets” to whoever chooses to read them. You decide who you want to “follow”, i.e. whose messages you want to see.

It’s described (mostly by Twitter) as “microblogging”, since the tweets do behave a bit like a blog, in that once posted they remain there for anyone to come along and see, but really it’s nothing like a blog: it’s experienced more like a cross between a speeded-up newsgroup and a slowed-down chatroom, but one where you get to choose who’s in it. (Though depending on the settings you’ve chosen, you may also see one-sided conversations between people who are in the room and ones outside who you can’t see.)

An important feature of Twitter (which the media so far don’t seem to have picked up on) is that there are many ways to access it. The official website, http://twitter.com, is one, but there are also a number of phone and computer applications able to send and receive tweets and to view them in various ways. In some countries you can “tweet” by SMS. There are websites too (both desktop and mobile). They’ve sprung up partly because of certain deficiencies in the site, and partly because of the wide variety of ways in which people use Twitter. For example, you might have several groups of people: core ones you want to keep up to date with all the time, others whose tweets you find interesting but don’t mind missing things, and several extremely talkative (“tweetative”?) ones who are best read individually rather than mixed in with everyone else. The website won’t let you set up such groups, but there are third-party applications which will. (So far I’ve not used one which does that, but I could do with one since I now follow too many people to keep up easily with them all.)

Twitter also lets you send direct messages, which go privately into someone’s inbox, and mark tweets as favourites so they appear in a special folder for future reference.

The day Twitter stopped working

Unfortunately, one thing Twitter seems prone to is the introduction of changes without any visible consultation with users (none has been visible to me, anyway), and these can sometimes be far-reaching. In my recent post grumbling about websites “improving for the worse”, I mentioned waking up one day to find that Twitter no longer worked in Opera Mini, which had been my main access to it. The changes were drastic, and included these:

  • The button for sending a tweet no longer worked, so I could no longer post (though I eventually discovered a backdoor way to tweet).
  • I could no longer send direct messages.
  • I could no longer mark a tweet as a “favourite”.

So, basically, Twitter was now just a service for letting me see what other people were saying, not for actually communicating with anyone. I’d been reduced to the status of an observer.

Twitter does have a mobile site, but its functionality is very limited: for example, one can’t even view direct messages, let alone send them.

I reported the problem six months ago at GetSatisfaction, and did receive a reply from someone at Twitter saying they’d filed a bug and would fix it as soon as possible, but at the time of writing, there has been no change.

Dabr

So, in order to remain a Twitter user, and stay in touch with my friends, I had to rapidly investigate other ways of accessing Twitter. The two or three Java apps which I tried were truly horrible and I won’t mention their names. There was a website which went some of the way towards what I needed, but still had important things missing (and also had a colour scheme apparently designed to lead the eye away from the text of any tweets, making it quite annoying to read). I was tweeting about this when the following tweet appeared on my Replies page, from someone called @Dabr:

@timtfj You want favourites available from a mobile Twitter site? Dabr doesn’t do that yet, but it could.

The tweet was from David Carrington, the developer of Dabr, which is a website at http://dabr.co.uk/. He had created the site for his own use, because the Twitter sites that were already available didn’t meet his needs. I replied along the lines that yes, I did want that, and went off to look at the site.

At that point, it was quite rudimentary; it was however operational enough to be usable and useful. Very soon afterwards—it may have been an hour or so, but I don’t remember—favourites appeared as a menu option.

Since then, many features have been added and I now prefer dabr.co.uk to twitter.com even when I’m on a PC rather than a mobile phone.

Dabr as I typically use it

Dabr as I typically view it. Text size is set to
smallest and the window is resizeable.
Tweets are copyright
of the tweeters.

I think the key is the way in which it was developed. What I described above is typical of the way David interacts with Dabr users. The web application is open-source; every feature has been added in close consultation with users; most, I think, have been added as the result of someone saying “I really wish it could . . .” or of somebody’s annoyance with the way one of the other apps does things. The users, after all, are the ones who know what they want to be able to do.

I don’t want to say too much about David’s excellent customer service, in case it results in his receiving a deluge of tweets to deal with, so I’ll just say that it involves the same level of interaction as the development of the site has done.

If you do have a look at http://dabr.co.uk/ and think it looks rather basic, don’t be deceived: there’s plenty of functionality there, but unlike many other websites and applications the functions aren’t accompanied by lots of unnecessary screen clutter. It’s designed to work well and display on small screens, not to look flashy. Once you start clicking things you’ll find out . . .

Here, for Twitter users, is a list of some of the things Dabr does which twitter.com currently does not:

  • Picture previews: if a tweet contains a twitpic.com or flickr.com URL, a preview of the picture is displayed in the tweet.
  • Picture uploads: pictures can be sent to twitpic.com direct from Dabr. (NB: this currently causes a bug in Opera Mini 4.2.)
  • Correct display of @replies: “In reply to” is only displayed for tweets which reply to a specific tweet, not merely ones with “@yourname” at the beginning, so following the link always takes you to the correct tweet.
  • Highlighting of replies: Replies to you, and tweets mentioning your name, are displayed against a darker background. (Though for some reason the highloghting colours seem to work better on my phone than my PC.)
  • Retweets: clicking the quotes icon next to a tweet copies it into a new one, with “RT @username” at the start. This is essential on phones like mine which can’t copy-and-paste.
  • Hashtags: Dabr recognises these, and clicking one takes you to the search results for that tag. If you tweet from that page you remain there, creating a “conference view” for people who are attending an event and posting tweets labelled with a particular tag.
  • Accessibility: It works in Opera Mini.

So it seems to me we have two opposite models of what these days is called “user experience”: one is to decide what users want, and give it to them without prior warning, with very little interaction; the other is to listen to users at every stage and involve them in the actual process of developing the site. I know which I prefer as a user.

Easier access, more posts?

You probably know that so far, I’ve mostly not been able to post easily to the blog. My web access at home has been restricted to what can be done in Opera Mini on a Sony Ericsson k750i phone. (In case you’re wondering, that’s still quite a lot, but there are restrictions; see my post about mobile access.)

Well, now I’m trying out (maybe temporarily) access via a PAYG mobile broadband dongle. So far I’m liking it, but having to keep an eye on the data usage. £10 for 1GB lasting 30 days: that comes to just over 34 MB per day. The antivirus software used up most of today’s “average allowance” simply by updating itself, and some people put a lot of graphics on their blogs, and a lot of graphics-filled posts per page too, so I’ve got to be a bit careful.

Hopefully though, I’ll now find it easier to post short things I want to share as they occur to me, and might update the blog more regularly rather than making special trips to the library to post things I’ve written at home.

One interesting realisation though: now that I’ve got easy access from the PC, there are still Web things I find much more comfortable to do on my little phone screen in Opera Mini. One is reading mainly-text blogs: I don’t need to sit at the PC, or sit the PC on me, but can relax and read on the phone. It’s easier on the eyes, to: shorter lines of text which take less concentration to stay focused on, and only a square inch or so of screen shining in my eyes.

And that’s helpful, because it means I can use my unlimited web access on the phone for those things, instead of using up my Dongle Allowance.

The good news is that posting here seems not to use up too much data.

Let’s see what happens.

By the way, I once read somewhere that a recommended line length for readability in a given font is 1½ times the length of the alphabet. That’s about

abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklmn

and I’m expecting that these lines will turn out to be a bit on the long side . . .

Edit: I’m confused now—was it 1½ times the length of the alphabet, or double? I’ve got a nasty feeling I’ll want to look it up now, because not being able to remember properly will niggle me.

A paradox: improving for the worse

Two things seem to be happening simultaneously on the Web.

  • More and more people are accessing the Web from mobile devices (phones, etc.)
  • Websites are becoming less and less accessible to mobile devices.

Take the example of Opera Mini. This is a brilliant web browser for mobile phones. In fact, because I don’t have broadband access at home, and my PC with a dialup connection is too old and decrepit for today’s websites, Opera Mini on a k750i phone is my main web access.

When you’re using Opera Mini, it feels like running a browser on your phone. It lets you display the desktop versions of websites, rather than the usually extremely cut-down mobile versions, beautifully converted for your particular phone screen. You browse pretty much as you would on a PC.

But really, it’s a remote-controlled browser on the Opera Mini server. You send instructions to it from the 206kB Java application on your phone, and it sends back converted pages for viewing.

This means that virtually all HTML pages can be viewed, subject to a few restrictions. The main one is that any change to what’s on the screen involves receiving a new page from the server: animations like Flash aren’t possible, and neither are interactive effects like menus which pop up when the mouse hovers over them.

Websites seem to be becoming more and more fond of these effects (often, I think, for no good reason at all, but merely to have fun with Flash or dynamic HTML, or to impress the person paying for the design), and thereby becoming less and less accessible. This is rarely announced: one simply visits a favourite website one day and discovers that it doesn’t work any more, or that a crucial function has disappeared.

The worst example I’ve experience was when I woke up one morning to discover that Twitter, which I’d been using for months to communicate with friends, (http://twitter.com) no longer worked. Well not if I wanted to actually send anything. But I’ve also become unable to bid on eBay items. A week or so ago, the lists of menu options in the left-hand column of my WordPress dashboard was replaced by a column of rather cryptic icons with popup menus; I don’t have access to those menu options any more unless I’m in the library.

Previously, apart from length limitations, I could use virtually all WordPress features from my phone.

This really puzzles me, since mobile access is surely becoming more important, not less important…! Surely improving websites would involve making them more accessible to more people, not more restricted in how they can be used? Is it not possible to simply use the most inclusive technology that will do the job for each task?

Edit (March 28th): OK, it turns out that I wasn’t quite right about WordPress. I’ve just discovered, by chance, that clicking the separators in the menu sidebar collapsed or expands the menus. When collapsed, they’re no longer accessible to Opera Mini’s Mobile View. But in Desktop View, which is like looking through a tiny hole at the PC screen, I can click the separators and get the menus back. Which I have just done 🙂

So it wasn’t a WordPress change, just a rather nasty feature of its interaction with Opera Mini.