The Squirrels Are Watching

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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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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Proposal: Version Control – The Operating System

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on December 22, 2009

There are two classes I wish I took back in college: Dinosaurs & Their Relatives and Operating Systems. The latter especially bugs me, because every time I see something about a browser-based operating system, I want to scream, “No, no, I don’t want that!” and then curl up in a corner for three months making something I do want.

I don’t have the know-how to do the latter, but I do have a blog, so I can do some virtual screaming.

My beef with a browser-based OS is simple: I LIKE DOWNLOADING THINGS. My WiFi connection throws a hissy fit every 10 minutes (can’t tell whether I should blame Netgear, Comcast, or tiny gremlins). Or sometimes I’m on the road or on a plane or in some place where I want to do something on a netbook and I don’t have net access. I bet I’m not alone. I’ve heard this plenty of times: “I want a netbook. All I do is browse the net anyway. Oh, and I want Microsoft Word. And I need to be able to sync my MP3 player with it. And I want to watch some movies I’ve ripped. And I want to play World of Warcraft. And if it’d scratch my back, that’d be nice too.”

As in, people basically want a tiny full-featured laptop for $300. Sure, you can do all the above stuff with your fancy Gears / HTML5 / Extensions / etc., but you’re spending so much time reinventing the wheel. Hey look everyone, I can drag and drop in my browser! Whee! I’ve only been able to do that in my operating system since at least Windows 3.1!

This isn’t exactly a new experience for the industry either. When the iPhone launched, Apple was all, “You don’t need apps! You have web apps!” Then they launched the App Store and pretended they never said that.

So what’s the best way to merge the “cloud” with a netbook’s operating system? IMHO, the solution has been around for a while. And no, it’s not the iPhone, it’s version control.

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Copyright Assert Truthy

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on December 19, 2009

I was poking around in the newly open-sourced Etherpad code, and came across this tidbit.

/**
 * Copyright 2009 Google Inc.
 *
 * Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (the "License");
 * you may not use this file except in compliance with the License.
 * You may obtain a copy of the License at
 *
 *      http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0
 *
 * Unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing, software
 * distributed under the License is distributed on an "AS-IS" BASIS,
 * WITHOUT WARRANTIES OR CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, either express or implied.
 * See the License for the specific language governing permissions and
 * limitations under the License.
 */

function assertTruthy(x) {
  if (!x) {
    throw new Error("assertTruthy failure: "+x);
  }
}

That’s trunk/etherpad/src/etherpad/testing/testutils.js by the way. So anyhow, as much as I appreciate that is licensed under the Apache License, is “assertTruthy” really creative enough to be worthy of a copyright?

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FlasCar: A Ghetto Flash Card Program

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on November 29, 2009

I really didn’t want to pay for flash card software to help with studying, so I spent a few hours cobbling together FlasCar — my ghetto flash card program. It’s a Python script that parses a data file and generates an HTML / Javascript (jQuery) page that you can use.

Click here to try out the demo.

If you’re interested, you can download the Python script and make your own Javascript-powered flash cards. The details are in the README file. If you’re running Windows, you’ll need to install Python first. I think OS X and most Linux distros already have it, but if they don’t, go to the previous link  and get it.

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Facebook Redirect Phishing

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on October 25, 2009

Two of my friends inadvertently gave away their passwords to a Facebook password phishing site yesterday. If you don’t know what phishing is, see the Wikipedia article.

Hypothesis: The way Facebook formats its links in e-mails actually makes it easier for phishing sites to trick some users into giving their info.

Phishing websites work by creating mirror images of other websites and tricking you into logging in to them with your account info from the other site. So let’s pretend I owned notfacebook.com. I could trick people into giving me their Facebook password by sending them to http://notfacebook.com/login.php, a page that looks exactly like the actual Facebook login page, except when you entered in your password, you would be sending it not to Facebook, but to me.

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Some helpful reminders re. Damn Small Linux

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on September 26, 2009

Damn Small Linux (DSL) is a distro that’s less than 50MB. It’s great for booting off a USB stick (directions here). The problem (or feature) is that by default things don’t persist on DSL. To get that working, you’ll want to periodically back stuff up somewhere– in my case, I wanted to plop it back on the original drive I booted from.

To do that, just right click somewhere on the desktop and go to system > backup/restore. You’ll need to enter in the device that represents your USB stick (probably sda1). This will write a gzipped tar file to the drive. To restore, you just need to supply a “cheat code” of “dsl restore=sda1”. Note that this won’t remove any of the default files already in the home directory (e.g. events.cal) on the restore; it only restores stuff you’ve added or changed.

Also, the USB drive is mounted under /cdrom, so you can manually fish out any additional data you’ve stuck there as well.

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