The Squirrels Are Watching

This Blog Has Moved

Posted in Uncategorized by andrewfong on May 30, 2010

As is my wont, this blog is moving! Again! The Squirrels Are Watching is now located at andrewfong.com/blog.

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Buy Tort Bunnies Schwag

Posted in Fact and Law, Scribbles by andrewfong on March 26, 2010

There are now not one but two places where you can buy Tort Bunnies stuff.

T-Shirt: I shock your conscience. I shock it hard.

Zazzle has been around for a while. Selection is pretty good and given that I wanted to make posters and not deal with CafePress’s premium shop nonsense, that didn’t leave very many alternatives. The value t-shirt option is very cheap, but apart from that, things get very expensive, very quick IMHO. You’re welcome to pay more if you want though — I am charging a percentage-based royalty after all.

MySoti is a newer print-on-demand site. The prices for their American Apparel branded shirts are cheaper than the same at Zazzle’s. Also, word on the Internet is that their print quality is better than Zazzle’s, but they have a rather long turn-around time. Their FAQ says not to call them until after 28 days. The selection is a bit more limited too, hence, why I currently only have three shirt designs up here.

Anyhow, I’m going to wait for feedback and some sample merchandise before passing further judgment. For now, you’re welcome to try your luck buying from either supplier.

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Tort Bunnies is Now Accessible to the Blind

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on March 24, 2010

Tort Bunnies is now accessible to the visually impaired and anyone else using a screen reader, or at very least, a little less annoying to navigate than before. For those not in the know, the blind can use software that reads web-content aloud to navigate the web. Naturally, this breaks down with certain graphical elements, like web-comic images. I’ve had transcripts of all the comics hidden on the site for a while now for search engines to index, but they weren’t all that inviting to people using screen readers. Some issues that I’ve fixed:

  • The transcript used to include things like “—–” to separate panels of the comic. Screen-readers, however, read this as “dash dash dash dash dash,” which I imagine gets really annoying over time. That’s been replaced with the phrase “next panel.”
  • The transcripts were not clearly marked, and in order to get there, a screen reader would have to jump past the image, notes, and all sorts of markup before getting to the transcript. There is a now a hidden link near the beginning of the page that allows screen-readers to jump straight to the transcript.
  • The alt text and title text were mixed up. They’re separated now.

There are still minor things here and there that might annoy people using screen-readers of course. For example, I use the « and » symbols in a few places as “arrows” pointing left and right. Some screen readers will not read them as arrows however, but as “left double angle bracket” and “right double angle bracket.” I know that might be annoying, but I’m fan of how they look and given that they’re frequently used (see, e.g., Gmail), I think the burden here should actually be on the makers of screen-readers to come up a better textual description of that symbol.
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Windows Phone 7 Series Apps

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on February 15, 2010

Microsoft just announced the Windows Phone 7 Series. So yeah, they still need to work on naming, but folks seem legitimately excited about this.

Quick thoughts on the app experience: It looks as if it’s going to be way different than the iPhone. The iPhone treats applications as isolated silos. The home-screen is a nice metaphor for this — little self-contained boxes lined up in a grid. With the 7 Series, Microsoft seems to have put an awful lot of time into the home-screen and other “first impression” user experiences. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Microsoft’s goal is to treat apps less as isolated tidbits and things that modify the core user experience. That is, they’re going to be focusing heavily on things like unified inboxes, apps that modify the home-screen, etc.

This line of thought isn’t new. It’s basically what Palm was arguing with Synergy, but more relevantly, it’s what Microsoft used to sell the Xbox 360. 360 games are not just isolated worlds, but things that are integrated deeply with the Xbox 360 “OS”. All 360 games share a uniform gamer profile and Achievement system. They share the same friends list and use the same messaging system. “Virtual goods” are all purchased through the same Xbox Live Marketplace. There’s a level of vertical integration here that would make Apple jealous.

And now, hopefully, they’re bringing that to the phone. There are obviously a lot of risks here. People don’t necessarily think of apps that way post- (and maybe pre-) iPhone. Compared to a grid of apps, a more integrated UI also looks like it could get very confusing, very quickly (I personally find the 360’s dashboard to be somewhat unintuitive at times, even if it is pretty). It could also get messy (see MySpace).

Still, there is hope, and for once, people seem to be rooting for Microsoft.

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I Still Don’t Get the iPad

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on January 27, 2010

So the iPad’s been unveiled. It’s basically a giant iPhone. I don’t get it. If I already have an iPhone and a laptop, why do I need an iPad?

On one hand, it’s much more limited than a computer. You can’t use Flash or multitask. The latter is a real bummer for me. In class, I like being able to quickly hop from taking notes on a word-processor to a PDF of the reading we’re discussing to asking a classmate on chat what I missed while I was busy looking up something on Wikipedia. I see a lot of netbooks in class these days — probably because students don’t want to carry a full-size laptop around to take notes — and a tablet might be perfect for them, but the inability to multitask is a real deal breaker.

On the other hand, it’s much too big for me to stick in my pocket. The nice thing about the iPhone is that I can quickly whip it out to check restaurant reviews on Yelp, update my Facebook status, or locate something on Google Maps — all while walking down the street with a cup of coffee in my hand. I can’t do that as conveniently with an iPad.

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 22, 2010

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission apparently lifted the ban on corporations spending money in support of a candidate. I haven’t read the decision yet, but I have some general thoughts on free speech versus campaign finance reform generally.

On one hand, we don’t limit political speech. It runs contrary to the first amendment. You might say that corporations warrant a special exception, but there’s a lot of “potentially political” speech out there that I think should be protected. The second Star Wars prequel, V for Vendetta, V the TV show, and Avatar all could be construed as not-so-subtle attacks on certain politicians and parties, yet all of these were creative works by corporations worthy of first amendment protection (well, maybe not Attack of the Clones, but the rest are pretty good).

On the other hand, we really don’t want the wealthy being able to buy influence with large contributions. So what do we do?

Traditionally, the way to counter speech you don’t like is to speak up yourself. In the past, it was pretty hard because there was only so much airtime on TV or pages in print media. Today however, it’s really a lot easier. The costs of putting your own 30-second campaign ad on YouTube are trivial. Tools like Digg and Reddit make it easy for people-driven movements to raise awareness or draw attention to your YouTube clip without any of them spending a penny (well, maybe they have to pay for Internet access, but you get the idea).

The reason you can buy influence with money is that speech, the kind that reach large numbers of people, is expensive. As the cost of speech goes down, the influence of wealth does as well.

Yes, today, you’ll probably reach a larger audience with a TV ad than you will with your YouTube clip. That’s likely to change in the next decade or so however. TV (as we know it) will die, and it should die.

So rather than griping about the decision, perhaps activists should spend more time trying to increase broadband access.

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Stop Using Tiananmen Square as a Censorship Test

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 13, 2010

I commented on Robert Scoble’s blog in response to Serkan Toto’s use of search results for “Tiananmen Square” on Google.com vs. “天安门广场” on Google.cn to illustrate that some filtering was still up. He’s right, filtering is still up as of now, but that’s a bad search query to illustrate your point. I complained about this earlier with Nicholas Kristof too, and I think this sort of thing illustrates how our preconceived notions about the People’s Republic of China color our view of events there.

I’ve reposted the relevant bits of my comment on Scoble’s blog below:

[U]sing Tiananmen Square as a test query is misleading. Of course “天安门广场” is going to return images of, you know, the actual square! Here are the search results for “天安门广场” in Google.com, which is US-based and uncensored:

http://bit.ly/7C8EsD

Huh, not much there — but this time you can’t blame censorship for it.

Why? Well, English speakers are very likely to associate Tiananmen with the 1989 crackdown, so Google’s search algorithm associates the term “Tiananmen” with images of the tank guy.

On the other hand, for mainland Chinese, “天安门广场” has a meaning outside of the 1989 crackdown. It’s a place, and one that’s smack dab in the middle of Beijing. When someone in China mentions “天安门广场”, they’re probably using it in the context of “there’s a street vendor near the northwest corner of Tiananmen Square selling kites,” not “never forget the people killed here 21 years ago.” Most people on the Internet use it for boring everyday stuff, not to foment dissent over an event a lot of “netizens” are too young to remember. Google’s algorithm picks up on this kind of thing and organically ranks things related directly to the location itself over things related to the one incident that English speakers associate Tiananmen with.

“天安门广场 1989” and “Tiananmen 1989” are probably much better terms for proving your point.

That said, you’re right that Google.cn hasn’t implemented all or some of the de-censoring yet. You can tell, because on the bottom of the search results on Google.cn, you see “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示。”

That is, “According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”

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Google Thinking Twice About China

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 12, 2010

Technically, Google is simply saying it’ll “reconsider” its operations in China, but this could be huge.

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

What I’m interested in how you even handle this whole cyber-warfare issue. Hackers are trying to screw around with your network. This is normally a criminal problem. Yet what if the hackers are sanctioned, either directly or indirectly, by the Chinese government? Is this now a national security issue? Do certain laws go out the door and other ones come in? Whatever we choose, how do you reconcile your choice with how we handle terrorism?

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Google Groups is (A Little) Evil

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on January 11, 2010

When I create a new Google Group, I can directly add the e-mail addresses of people who don’t have Google Accounts. They’re automatically subscribed and start receiving e-mails from the group right away.

If that person later wants to unsubscribe, there’s no way of doing so without first creating a Google account associated with that e-mail address. You can go to the group’s homepage, but it requires that you log in with a Google account (which you don’t have yet) before you can do anything. You can try e-mailing groupname+unsubscribe@googlegroups.com, but all this does is get a link sent back to you. If you click on the link, surprise surprise, you need to log in with a Google account.

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A Few of My Favorite Things (For Windows)

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on January 6, 2010

I used to have an Apple PowerBook but switched back full-time to a PC over a year ago. My reasoning at the time was basically a preference for some of the PC hardware choices out there (namely, a laptop that wouldn’t burn my lap) plus an understanding I could dual-boot / virtualize Linux whenever I couldn’t stand Windows.

I use Windows 7 full-time now, but this post is not about Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux though (even though I, and every other computer user on the planet, have plenty to say about that).1

Below the fold, a list of some of my five favorite tools on Windows. Most of these are things I downloaded to replicate functionality I missed from OS X or Linux.

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