Cool Britannia

There was a documentary on Showtime last night about Cool Britannia, the popular culture of the mid-90s in the UK. It was refreshing to catch interviews with the brothers Gallagher (separately, of course), Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn etc., along with Sleeper’s lovely Louise Wener.

The best part was Liam’s assessment of Noel’s visit to Number 10 after Labour won the 1997 election. Asked whether he was invited, Liam replied "No". Asked whether he would have gone, he replied "No. It looks like a bit of a shit house anyway".

The internet archive

I’ve been aware of its existence for some time now, but have never bothered to have a look. Anyway, the internet archive keeps taking back-ups of the internet and storing them so that you can have a look at how a site used to look. It’s not always great with images (a minor annoyance) and struggles big time with stylesheets (a major annoyance), but it’s quite useful nonetheless.

Take a look at Google in 2000 versus Google 2005. A portion of this five hour video will help explain why this is a testament to the success of the user experience group, as opposed to apathy on their part.

Buncefield vs. USA

Volume of petrol consumed in the USA: 320,500,000 gallons per day. Estimated quantity of petrol consumed in Buncefield disaster: 39,000,000 gallons (13 tankers, each containing 3,000,000 gallons).

Time taken for America to use the same amount of fuel as will have been consumed by the Buncefield fire: 2hrs 55mins.

Big snow in New York

Last weekend saw the first snow of the season, with a few inches that have stayed around all week. Upon waking this morning, there was a more significant deluge falling, although with the temperature hovering around freezing, I don’t think it will stay too long.

The most notable feature about this morning’s snow was its size: each snowflake was bigger than any I’ve ever seen before. One such flake landed on my mobile phone while I was writing a text, and half of its facade was instantly wet. Also, together they made the world’s best snowballs.

Title vs. alt

For the last couple of years, I’ve been using Slimbrowser for my web browsing. Generally, it’s been a good friend, although there are minor irritations that have always been there. It was a tabbed browser, which I like, but the graphical framework is a little clunky, it had some stability issues and launched tabs always occupy the full real-estate of the window, even if they’re pop-ups for data entry and the like.

So, this weekend, I made the bold step to move to Mozilla Firefox. I first made this move back in January, and I hated it. Many sites looked bad, and there was a slew of bugs that adversely affected my experience. This time, it’s very different.

On Saturday, I installed version 1.0.7, the default download at the time. It was nice, but there were some performance issues, and a few general annoyances. During Saturday evening’s soccer escapades, Paul advised me to upgrade to 1.5 (which I did Sunday), and it’s beautiful. I’ve overlayed a theme (ifox), and downloaded a much-needed extension (Tabbrowser preferences).

It’s much smoother, slicker and pleasing than Slimbrowser, and is streets ahead of the market leader, Internet Explorer. I like the fact that pop-up windows are launched as mini-windows (à la IE) for the likes of entering my hyperlinks as part of this ‘blog, and I love the fact that you can incorporate RSS feeds to generate dynamic menu items for your bookmarks.

There’s still some ironing out to do. Two bug-bears encountered so far are:

– If you scroll down a page and then refresh, the refreshed page takes you back to the top; on IE and Slimbrowser, it jumps down to where you were previously. Firefox’s behaviour is particularly annoying if you’re monitoring sports scores
– If you’re flicking between tabs, it doesn’t remember the logical sequence of your tabs, in terms of order last visited. If I have three tabs open, visit the left-most one then the right-most one, then close the right-most one, it will take me to the next one to the right (the middle one) as opposed to the previous one visited (the left-most one).

Minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things.

I believe the final frustration is due to the way in which alt text has been abused over the years. I believe the title attribute is designed to provide hover text to images, whereas the alt tag is there for assistive technologies to be able to describe the content of the image to those with visual impairments. IE has always displayed the alt tag on hover, which I think is wrong.

The frustrating part about this is that I quite like hovering over an image to see what it is (particularly when it’s of people who I don’t recognise and there is no caption). Unfortunately, in the purist Firefox, this behaviour doesn’t result in a hover text, as usually images don’t come with a title attribute. (There’s a title attribute on the numbers that appear at the to of this ‘blog, for what it’s worth.)

A final word: if you’ve been thinking about switching, but have been afraid of the jump, jump now! I’m a convert, and I needed some serious convincing based on my original experience. It’s a beautiful piece of kit, and you won’t regret it.

MS Office vs. online government

I mentioned a few days ago my analogy between MS Office and e-Government. Here’s some more detail.

The packages that make up Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook etc. – all do very different things. Word allows you to type letters and reports; Excel allows you to do complex calculations and structure data logically; PowerPoint allows you to create slides for projecting or handing out, etc.

Despite the fundamental differences between the aims of each of the individual pieces of software, their respective interfaces share behaviours and characteristics. If you want to make something bold in most of the packages, there’s a handy B button in the toolbar, or failing that, it can be done via the Format menu item. File functions (New, Open, Save, Save As) can all be accessed through the File menu item, always on the left, and generally a drawing toolbar can be found at the bottom of the application. This commonality cuts across menu items, short-cuts, toolbars, behavioural features to name but a few.

This is how government should be online. The functions of departments are very different from one another, as are the information and services that they offer online. There are departments mainly focused on policy (e.g. the Department of Health) and others that are more focused around interactions with people and businesses (e.g. HM Revenue and Customs). Similarly, there are local sites and central sites, each type serving a different purpose.

Despite the differences in their mandates, there should be common elements that are shared by all sites. Search should operate in the same way across the board, using the same nomenclature. Navigational modules should have certain areas of commonality, the main differences being their contents rather than their behaviour. And accessibility should be delivered in a consistent way as opposed to everyone trying to meet the standards using their own interpretation of the rules and their own method of implementing.

Imagine how frustrating it would be if each of the packages in the MS Office suite in itself served its purpose, but was fundamentally different from its counterparts; if you could successfully save a file in each of the packages, but in Word, you did it from a File menu item on the left, whereas in Excel, it was from the Save menu item on the right. (Even Mozilla Firefox, whose most ardent competitor is Microsoft, knows it makes sense to have File, Edit, View and Tools in its menu bar.)

This is exactly how the UK government has evolved online, only instead of this happening across half a dozen packages, it has happened across 3,500+ websites. Because of this, when a user enters one site, and then enters another, they have to start figuring out how the second site works, and how to find their way through the maze, from first principles. A Word user who uses Excel for the first time has a significant head start; likewise, a BBC News user can easily figure out the BBC Sport site.

Unfortunately, the only way I can see of realistically achieving a good degree of commonality across the board is to mandate it rather than encourage it. Central government needs to define clear standards and get hard on site owners in their implementation of these standards; maybe it’s even a way of decimating the number of sites out there.

Truncated icosahedron

Although I play football almost every Saturday night, and have played it on and off throughout my life, I’ve never put much thought into the make-up of the ball. Many may think this surprising.

Well, I’ve been doing some research, and apparently, the ball is made from a truncated icosahedron, an Archimedean solid consisting of twelve pentagons (generally white) and 20 hexagons (black). Both the Archimedean solid (of which there are 13) and the Platonic solid (of which there are five) are convex polyhedra made up of regular polygons, but the Platonic solid is more pure in that it has the same number of faces meeting at each of its vertices – the cube, the tetrahedron etc. This criterion is waived for Archimedean solids.

It’s quite an interesting field, and I may pop along to MIT OpenCourseWare to see whether there’s anything about it. I recommend this site to anyone who’s interested in learning anything academic, btw.

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