Define “Sense of Humour”

There are signs that are funny, and there are signs that are funny but puzzling as to if they should be, or whether the owner really means it.

‘Nuff said.

YouTube Has Everything

We interrupt our regular broadcasts to bring you your Cuteness-From-YouTube fix for the day. Five-year old? Check. Ukelele? Check. Popular song? Check. Combination? Win!

The sad thing is that this cover may well be better than the original.

Dichotomy Of A Real-Life Maker Online

I love the maker movement. The wide spread community of people who love building and modifying things for fun & profit, practical and just-because, resonates with my natural inclinations. If it breaks, fix it. If you need something, build it. Modify stuff until it works for you and makes your life better in some way.

This is the great thing about the internet – we can now all share the myriad of things we’ve built, hacked, or dreamed of, and be inspired to create things of usefulness & beauty. The only bugger is that I get so busy being inspired that I don’t get anything done. I could (and have, may times) spent hours reading hackaday or Instructables or the Make: blog. It’s awesome. And colossally time-sucking. In which lies the rub; for in my quest of the cool and useful inspiration I find myself with increasingly little time to actually build the things already on my list.

The principle holds for most of the internet, really. It’s an incredible resource, a wealth of knowledge on almost any subject imaginable and then some that aren’t. The magnitude of information at the fingertips is both exciting and mind-boggling, because I love information. I love knowing and learning about things, I love being able to search the world for opinion, experience, and data at a moments notice.

At the same time, I have trouble managing large amounts information. If I’m not careful, the ever-branching search for whatever bit I was looking for (or just happened across) inflates exponentially. That is when I find myself, two hours later, with thirty more browser tabs and enough reading material for another week of evenings – and still with my list of projects I’d like to actually, physically do. Never mind the stack of books and last month’s Popular Mechanics waiting patiently on the end table.

Ah, dichotomy. A Maker doesn’t just consume, a maker creates, taking ideas and raw stuff and turning it into something better, something useful. How can I create when my I leave no space for it? All the thinking, reading and book-larnin’ doesn’t cause completed things to magically appear. I have to actually get out and do something. So if you see less of me around the internet, it’s because I’m living more in real life. And building stuff, too.

I Finally Beat GStreamer

I’ve been haggling with the somewhat common "Could not initialize GStreamer: Error re-scanning registry , child terminated by signal" errors after upgrading Ubuntu to 9.10 (Karmic) a couple months ago. A lot of things broke, notably xfce4-mixer, the XFCE volume control panel applet, and Brasero.

The solution that finally worked was to purge most all of the core GStreamer packages and reinstall them and the software that depends upon them. You can do this with apt-get purge <packages>, but I found it easier to use Synaptic –  search for “gstreamer” and select “Mark for complete removal” everything that has gstreamer in the actual package name and doesn’t also remove things that look system-critical. (Very scientific, I know.)

I had tried reinstalling packages a while ago, but that was either ineffective or I didn’t get the right one. So far XFCE’s mixer-related issues are resolved and Brasero is running again, so I’m happy.

Now onward to Google, thou post, and be useful to others!

Edit: Narrowed it down to something in gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad. Still not sure exactly what or why…

Change Of Face(book)

Over past Facebook changes I have largely, roundly, and imaginatively derided complainers. I have a very long, somewhat impolite, and happily unpublished blog post to that end somewhere, regarding the last facebook restructuring, and I still have very little patience with people who whine, cry, and generally carry on obnoxiously about every single thing Facebook changes. No good reasons, no quantitative analysis, or in depth discussion – mostly just a pity-party of complainers.

I know, most people may not be good at analyzing and comparing things, and/or don’t have the time – but they still find the time to complain without a second thought. The least they could do is be respectful about it, and (*gasp*) say something about why they don’t like it. Face it: posting things like “it STINKS!!! i hate facebook now it sucks and its different and what were you smoking?” does not inspire any respect at all and is mostly un-helpful.

So in the interest of my own opinions on whiners, I will not whine about the changes. I will attempt to compare the current UI iteration thoughtfully to past versions and provide insight into why most of you hate facebook so much right now, or at least did last week. And I apologize for the length of this post, but it seems I can’t do things like this by halves. To my knowledge, this is the most thorough analysis of Facebook’s interface changes ever published.

Anyway, here’s my nut-shelled opinion: I think the layout took a couple steps forward and a whole bunch of baby steps backward. The changes have been made in the name of simplicity and ease of use. It is definitely more simple. However, it is visually less structured (i.e., more cluttered), does not always work the way I want or expect it too, and does not provide me with as much control or value. If it does not do what I want it too, ease of use tanks as well. This is a case where simpler is not necessarily better.


Filtering based on friend lists
This is really nice – it’s the one major feature I wanted in the old facebook that wasn’t there.

The layout *is* simpler. For the most part, the underlying concept of the new facebook is pretty good, with exceptions noted below.

In the Operational Unintuitions Category
(Or, assumptions about user behavior which might not be quite right)

The post box operation is nebulous
It looks the same everywhere, but can behave very differently depending what page it’s on. It is completely unclear that posting on your own wall is different than posting on someone else’s, which has been very aptly demonstrated by my newly-facebookified mother, who replied to multiple wall posts by setting her status. The concept of a “status” is completely hidden unless you already know how it works.

  • This could be easily remedied – for starters, change the post button text to say “Set Status” when on your own profile page, unless posting a special type of content.

(See also the note on post format – either change the format so it works better, or split statuses back out to a separate entity. And the “What’s on your mind?” line is a bit hokey, but I can’t think of anything better than “Post stuff” or “What do you want to share today?”)

The Recent activity thing is confusing
Labeling activity on the wall as “recent” serves no useful purpose for two reasons:
1) I can figure out if yesterday is recent on my own, thank you, based on the post’s timestamp
2) The “Recent Activity” boxes are all through the wall, even if the activity is no longer recent. This makes the term “Recent” totally useless.

This is/was done (I think) because it is easier to filter programmatically and visually groups wall posts and informational stuff separately. However, it would still be better to use the “Today”, “Yesterday”, “Some other day” headings, grouping the posts and other activity underneath. The smart date headings were great because they are very simple, require no interpretation, and (most important!) give the user control over what they think is “recent” enough to be interesting. I honestly don’t care if it’s recent, I just care if it’s interesting to me and generally when it happened.

The single “delete” button is not intuitive
When I click it, I do not expect a particular friend to stop showing up on my news feed, I expect to just get rid of (or de-rate) that particular post or post type. The friend-based behavior is redundant – news feed supposedly already rates somewhat based on friend activity/interaction. This is an example where simplification is completely irrelevant – it’s simpler, sure, but it a) isn’t very useful and b) doesn’t work the way users expect.

Wall post filtering is not designed from a user’s perspective
This one is sticky. The wall has been restructured for ease of use by everyone but the person who owns the profile. The defaults should be to show user+friends, with option to show only friends or only user. The current settings emphasize broadcasting the activity of the user, rather than letting the user choose how they want their wall to work and be used.

Wall posts no longer have a “Reply” link
This is a UI dilemma – it’s a duplicate feature. Yes, you can just as easily post on a friends wall by clicking their name or on the “Wall-to-Wall” link, but if I’m replying, I look for a “reply” link. It’s not intuitive to click one of the other links. It would be amazingly intuitive to click “reply” and have a post box drop down (or pop up), like a comment, only it would post directly to the friend’s wall instead of commenting. This would be a killer feature.

The new feed is a lot of information in a huge, daunting list
It’s very hard to get useful information out of so much data. The old feed algorithm provided a much better balance and control over what showed up – now I have almost no useful control. See also the note above about wall post activity/date headings.

I no longer have control of post types in the News Feed
Before, there were preferences with sliders to customize the type of content that came across my feed. Now the only way to do that is manually, with application filters. Not good.

And now in the Visual Miscues section…

Post format is visually muddled
Previously, the name of the poster was in a sort of header and the message was separate. The current run-on format is harder to read because it is not visually well-defined. It works great for statuses, but nobody writes wall posts like statuses. Heck, most people don’t write statuses like statuses. For wall posts, a better balance between space and readability would be good – even just putting a break between the name and post.

The new feed is harder to read – no visual formatting!
The old news feed formatting was much easier to read – the “Today” “Yesterday” etc. headings broke down the news feed into smaller, more easily parsable chunks. (The abbreviated & more compact format helped, too.) Coupled with the more mashed post formatting, it’s much harder to read the news feed.

Miscellaneous UI quirks

  • The rounded images look icky and ill-defined. Keep the sharp, square, refined look.
  • Can we please put pokes with other notifications or something? Burying them in the middle of the right-hand sidebar has always bugged me, it makes no sense.
  • Group invites & friend requests should go back over on the right hand side with events, pokes, etc. They get lost visually at the top, even if it makes sense grammatically.
  • Highlights are pretty useless. It looks messy and is distracting. I want the relevant stuff I like to show up in my feed, not over there. Reformatting them could help, or put some sort of visual break between the news feed and highlights.
  • People You May Know should be hideable. It’s useless to me – I want the option of not seeing it, like I had in a couple versions ago with apps on the profile page.

My Big Solution:
Put all invites, events, pokes, and notifications on the right-hand sidebar. Group as necessary for ease of use. Limit the amount of space notifications can take up, or make it say “You have 23 notifications” and the link unzips it.

So there’s my take. Hope it’s useful.

On Backing Into Snowbanks

There is a peculiar danger, one which does not immediately present itself, in backing one’s automobile into a well-established snowbank. One naturally thinks of the calamitous: dents, dangling bumpers, inability to remove automobile from said snowbank. However, it is also prudent to be aware of the more innocuous difficulties.

Such difficulties are presented by strange noises. A small but pleasant whistling, not unlike that of a turbo (which my car indeed lacks) presented itself from the rear of the car, along with an intermittent noise of a rattly, puffing, hissing sort, beneath the floorboards, but only when I put the engine under load. These made for an uneventful but nonetheless interesting trip from Freeport to Falmouth, where examination could commence.

I suspected something to do with the small existing exhaust leak just forward of the catalytic converter. Brief examination confirmed the continued existence of such, and that more sound was produced from it than previously, but precisely why it should suddenly sound like an air compressor at higher engine speeds rather baffled my understanding of exhaust problems. (Which, admittedly, are primarily limited to “things falling apart”.) However, curiosity regarding the turbo-whistle revealed a very mundane plug of icy snow lodged firmly in the tailpipe. This, thanks to my existing exhaust leak, had not rendered the services historically served by the potato, and merely required a bit more huffing and puffing of the engine.

After picking a hole in the ice chunk with a bungee-cord, it was observed by experiment that normal operation had recommenced and that revving the engine produced an impressive spray of melted snow. Much fun was had by all.

Reformation Day Record

Today is the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg. Normally I wouldn’t post something like this, but I find it very fascinating that upon this momentous date I also hit my current record of Ninety-Five (concurrent) Firefox Tabs.

Trivial and pointless, I know, but oddly coincidental. And look, ma, no swap! I haven’t even maxed out my RAM yet… (And technically it’s 96 since I just looked up that Wikipedia link.)

The Nemesis, Conquered

I have won. For the past week, a mosquito has been annoying me, flying around – just enough to be audible – about twenty minutes after I go to bed and shut the light off. Abominably an elusive chap, he naturally was not there when I turned the light back on to look.

To spite me and tempt fate (apparently), he decided to prowl while I was still up last night (though how a mosquito can prowl seriously, I surely don’t know), but I’d have to be a magician to have caught him. Or at least have had my glasses on. Every few minutes he’d fly close enough to be heard or caught sight of, but promptly disappear again, thereby postponing my bedtime, cumulatively, by more than is necessary to mention.

But Sir Mosquito was finally undone. When I woke up this morning he was placidly set upon the window, up high, as I lay down below. He was too slow; I promptly dispatched him to the realms of that which is past and shall return no more. I have won. I have beaten the mosquito.

The Pod Is Cast

I’ve discovered podcasting. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, that one subscribes to what are, effectively, (mini) radio shows and listens when one pleases. I don’t quite know why it fascinates me so. Perhaps it’s the fact that, really, I’m an audio/radio geek at heart and if I have the choice of watching, listening, or reading, I will listen while I work on something else.

Whatever the reason, really, it’s fascinating. Also internet radio. I still listen to Thistle & Shamrock, but it’s also very nice to be able to listen to other celtic music or British folk any time, 24/7. And while I’m on this internet audio kick, I should also tell you that I’ve been listening to Three Men in a Boat during my otherwise quiet, music, or NPR saturated driving time. Excellent book, by the way. Timeless British hilarity cannot be had much better. All this to say that I downloaded it from Librivox, which aims to record, through volunteer vocal chords, any and every book in the public domain. Tall order, but good results so far. There is the occasional quality issue – some people, well meaning and talented as they may be, do need some coaching to make their reading aloud palatable – but the enjoyment has largely outweighed that particular chapter.

I should also note that the iPod shuffle excels at audiobooks, as long as you don’t do the shuffle part. It’s a book-on-a-stick that remembers where you left off!

If I had a decent mic and less cumbersome recording setup, I’d consider doing a State of the Stickman podcast to top my extended family’s penchant for weekly/monthly/otherwise periodic email narratives of goings-on.

Of Windchimes, Foghorns, And The Wonders Of Science

It’s been a bit windy around here the last few days, which led us, over supper last night, to ponder the age-old question: could the wind be harnessed not just for the pleasant tinklings of windchimes, but also to produce the mellifluous hoot of the glass bottle? Blowing across the bottle undoubtedly works for mere humans, so it seems it could also be possible to use nature’s breath to do the same thing, there being a lot more of it.

However, there still remain a few questions to be answered by prototyping:

  • What airspeed is required to produce sound?
  • Is it necessary to funnel/control the airflow in order to produce sound?
  • Can we sound up to a three-note chord, with each note denoting a higher windspeed?
  • What will the neighbors think?
  • And, most importantly, will it keep Mom awake at night?

We may or may not have too much time on our hands this summer… so the prototype may or may not get built.