Archive for November, 2009

The Mess

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

It lives with me. I live with it, begrudgingly, against my will, unable to bring myself to fix it once and for all.

I shape it. It shapes me.

It obeys the laws of physics. Unless supported by a horizontal surface, it descends to the floor. I have never lived in a room that had quite enough horizontal surfaces.

I try to contain it. This never happens. I make plans to clean it up properly. This also never happens.

Every now and then, an assignment or a project causes me to concentrate specific parts of the mess in one area. I pretend this helps me focus. It works, kind of. After the project, the collected mess is immediately released back into the global mess pool. It might be swapped out for another mess concentration for use on the next project.

It defines me. And I define it.

My vision of heaven is a room lined with wide, horizontal shelves, with lots of wide, long tables.

Open Mouse, Closed Mind

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

This post has been updated; see bottom of the page for corrections.


The OpenOfficeMouse was announced today. I’m pretty sure it’s fake, but whether it’s real is actually far less interesting than how easily people became convinced it is real.

Engadget fell for it, as did the vast majority of their commenters. John Gruber fell for it, not that anyone was expecting anything else; John Gruber would fall for a press release announcing the bankruptcy of Microsoft Corporation on April 1. A PC World blog fell for it, quoting much of the page verbatim. Thankfully, preserving our collective sanity, Slashdot seemed pretty reserved, and the commenters actually had something resembling an interesting discussion.

Let’s be serious. I own and use several ThinkPads, my phone is BlackBerry, I use Opera. I’m pretty geeky and I generally enjoy things that don’t put form over function and that might look a little ugly but work. It took me about two minutes to figure out this had to be a joke, evidently a pretty elaborate joke, but a joke nevertheless. It doesn’t matter who perpetrated the joke, or whether the mouse shown in the press release is an actual working device. Francesco Poderico and T Beale, of United Kingdom and Switzerland respectively, may well have registered for a large conference, promising to present a revolutionary multi-button application mouse during a 45 minute presentation.

But I’m pretty sure the official affiliation with OpenOffice.org ends there.

No group actually capable of shipping an office suite is insane enough to believe an 18 button mouse that looks like that is a good idea. Not even experts from the OpenOffice.org User Experience project think it is a good idea for the general public or even the average OpenOffice.org user. No one seems to have taken the time to check out one of only two names given in the press release, “mouse designer Theodore Beale”. Otherwise, they may have paused over the fact Theodore Beale is a WorldNetDaily writer and author of The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens who is on the record as saying calling a feminist a feminazi is an insult to National Socialism. He is also a musician, a game designer, and an entrepreneur, but mouse design, or residence in Switzerland, seems to be lacking from his résumé.

Even if the OpenOfficeMouse does turn out to be real down the line, the willingness of so many to believe an announcement of this mouse, with this press release, and those quotes is pretty interesting in and of itself. It’s an OpenOffice.org related product – so the worse it seems, the more real it appears. Cue the open source sucks, design by committee, and a good metaphor for Linux and OSS comments.

To be sure, the OpenOffice.org interface is not the greatest. It is also nowhere near as bad as most people think it to be. It can’t, considering it is as close of a copy of pre-2007 Microsoft Office as anyone can get without being sued.

People believe the OpenOffice.org interface is bad, so it is bad. This is the same problem Microsoft was facing with Windows Vista; it wasn’t so bad, really, but nearly everyone thought it was bad. How do you fight against that? You can’t run ads saying we are, in fact, reasonably awesome, because everyone is convinced you suck so much, what you think is awesome by definition isn’t. You can’t run ads saying we aren’t as bad as you think, because that’s just pathetic. You can’t keep on doing what you are doing – at least outwardly – because everyone thinks, knows it sucks.

Microsoft got around it by fixing up a few (admittedly well-chosen) things in Vista and pushing a “new” release out the door. How will OpenOffice.org? Radical overhaul of the UI is one way, but copying Office 2007’s ribbon will inevitably cause the “like Microsoft Office, only worse” label to stay firmly on. Anything new would probably be evaluated with extreme prejudice, as it came from the same open-source hippies people that brought us such a terrible interface in the old OpenOffice.org.

So, how to fix this? I’m not sure. I think a simplifying redesign coupled with a name change might stand a chance. Really, “OpenOffice.org” is not doing itself any favours appearing non-complicated. I don’t know what the name might be; the good ones, “Office” and “Works” are taken by the incumbent, although one of them might be freeing up. Apple’s taken the next obvious ones, “iWork” with “Pages” and “Numbers”.

One of the reasons the success of Firefox is so remarkable is that it came from a decidedly hippie open-source environment – Mozilla, of all of them – with a name that didn’t actually describe what the program does (cf. “Internet Explorer”, or even “Netscape Navigator”). Will OpenOffice.org be able to pull off something similar?


Updates: The mouse is apparently real, and the designer really is Theodore Beale a/k/a Vox Day. OpenOffice.org claims they’ve never given permission to use the name; Beale says they have, but they’ll change the name to “OOMouse” anyway. The status of John McCreesh quote in the press release was not expanded upon. I’d assume it’s a real quote, though I’d question how much of it is real. [Working] closely with experts from the OpenOffice.org User Experience project might in reality end up just using their data.

A October 15 mailing list message from Elizabeth Matthis, member of the User Experience team for OpenOffice.org, called a proposal for the mouse [v]ery exciting stuff and said Thank you for this innovative addition to OOo, though how much this was anything than generic praise to keep people motivated and interested in working with an open source project, I do not know. (I heavily suspect not very much.)

In the end, I was wrong in calling this an elaborate joke. Perhaps there is a new internet law modeled after Poe’s law waiting to be formulated here: without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of open source culture that someone won’t mistake for the real thing… and vice versa.

I’d like to think the willingness to believe that press release, the lack of research into the mouse’s author and not bothering to confirm with OpenOffice.org still form a pretty decent basis for my claims in the latter part of the post. But even I can see the ground got significantly shakier. Live and learn.

#grtfail

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Today is the third time this term I’ve walked from the University of Waterloo to Fischer-Hallman Rd and Keats Way.

The Grand River Transit, in their infinite wisdom, has scheduled evening buses headed from a large university to an area heavily populated by students at one every half an hour. This term, that has been proving grossly inappropriate. The load level on the buses I’ve taken ranged from high, through very common instances of crush load, onto downright dangerous.

Beyond the obvious problem of lack of comfort, this also slows the system down and makes buses late as they sit at the stop for two or three minutes trying to squeeze people on. “Passengers must remain behind white line” and the driver’s visibility to their right and through the right mirror turn into cruel jokes.

I cannot blame the drivers for this. Most I’ve encountered were beyond nice in trying to fit as many students as humanly possible. But still people get left behind.

This will only get worse as the weather gets increasingly seasonal and more people opt to try and take the bus rather than walk or bike. As term goes on, more people will also study until late and try to take one of the evening buses.

There is an obvious solution, and that is to run more buses. The conventional way is clearly to schedule every 15 minutes from 9 to 11 PM or midnight as required by load. If necessary, make these the already established short run from King St to Highland Hills. Hope there will be some people will show up early as possible and be rewarded with a less crowded ride, and then the “main”, previously scheduled run will no longer be critically packed.

To avoid the bureaucracy associated with officially creating new runs, GRT could just run double for buses that pack in reliably. For simplicity, run the extra bus on a King-to-Highland routing, just make sure the short turning bus arrives at UW ahead of the one doing the whole route. GRT is familiar with the concept, and they’ve been doing it along Keats Way in the mornings after the load got truly ridiculous, though still haven’t quite nailed it. They also obviously have buses necessary, as 9 PM is far away from any peak. The only reason I can think of as to why they haven’t done anything is because they don’t know of the problem, but I find it hard to believe the drivers wouldn’t report it.

Alternatively, listen to my tongue-in-cheek advice and buy a couple of Ikarus 280s from Moscow or Warsaw. Not the highest tech, but they do fit a lot.

GRT is in an interesting situation here. In winter 2007, UW undergraduate students voted in favour of a negotiated bus pass agreement. The deal was at pretty cheap ~$45 a term (four months) for a pass mandatory for all students. Previously, an opt-in pass was $140 a term or so. At an average well over 10,000 undergrads per term, this is pretty serious commitment for GRT, and they’ve delivered some improvements.

Nevertheless, at least with the services I am familiar with (along Keats), they are toeing the capacity line during mornings and evenings, not the least because of some interesting decisions. In the morning rush, they’ve moved up a route 29 run that used to go through a few minutes before the route 12 and relieve the load a little. Now the 29 is relatively underused while a pair of 12s pack in like sardines. Why? So that the 29 could cutely interline with the newly established route 31.

Further service improvements might be hard to justify since due to the mandatory pass, they would result in very few or none extra income, but here’s an extra snag:

“Do you support a Universal Bus Pass (U-Pass) at a cost of $41.08, plus an administration cost of not more than $9.50, subject to increases due to inflation and student demand, to be paid by each full-time undergraduate student per academic term, scheduled for implementation in September 2007, and which will be reviewed in three years?”

The term shall commence on or before September 1, 2007, and continue in effect for a period of three (3) years (the “Initial Term”). Extension of the Initial Term shall be conditional upon written agreement of all parties by March 1, 2010.

Both quotes are from the Feds’ Universal Bus Pass at the University of Waterloo report (PDF, 261 kB). The referendum question used the rather unspecific “reviewed”, but in my mind it is entirely possible that there will be a student-wide referendum, if not out of Feds’ initiative then forced by petition. The timing required indicates this would probably be during the winter term.

I don’t care about having to walk occasionally; I can do it, in fact I probably should do it more often, and so far I’ve yet to suffer the fate in truly inclement weather. Others might disagree, by choice or by necessity; safety issues with walking home alone on late evenings come to mind. When heading to class, a packed bus skipping your stop might be an annoyance; to a test, a problem; to an exam, a disaster. Excessively bad service, especially in winter, might end up causing the university and GRT to find themselves apart once more, and that would be most unfortunate.