musings, tech

URLs and searching

URL hiding

A while ago, I read a piece called “Improving the URL Bar” (turns out it’s almost a year old, but never mind). I made both mental and Pinboard-based notes of it, because my response to it was, “That’s not improving the URL bar, it’s destroying it.”

Reading it again now, I don’t feel quite so strongly; I partly agree with what the author was getting at. But I feel we lose something important as we make URLs less visible. They show something of the hierarchy of a site, its structure — or at least that’s the origin of the path part.

The argument against that of course is that the path part is an implentation detail that doesn’t need to be seen by users, and perhaps more importantly, the whole thing is meaningless at best, confusing at worst to most users.

Well, maybe so. But to those of us who do understand them, hiding them can be confusing, even annoying.Of course you can click in the URL bar, or press Cmd-L or Ctrl-L, to see the whole thing. More usefully, In Safari, which I’m currently using, there’s a preference called “Show full website address”, which overrides the behaviour. So you can have your choice.

Searching

But then there’s this whole thing that we have now, of browsers doing a search when you type something in URL bar; especially (though not exclusively) when it’s not obviously a URL that you’ve typed or pasted.

I don’t like it.

Or I didn’t. I’ve been using Safari since I wiped and reinstalled this Mac because it was getting really slow (successfully, I might add). I decided to keep things as stock as possible (within reason — I wasn’t going to switch back from Lightroom to iPhoto, for example, or from MailMate to Mail.app). And Firefox can sometimes be a bit of a resource hog.

But I spent quite some time trying to find out how to give Safari a separate search bar like FF has (or can have — it may be a plugin, but if so it’s one that I install without thinking). I had muscle memory that went Cmd-T, Cmd-K (or Ctrl-T, Ctrl-T when I’m on Windows) when I want a new tab I’m going to search in. Still have it, actually, because I still use FF on Windows on my work machine.

It turns out that you can’t have that on Safari. You just have to search from the URL bar. So I just got into the habit of doing that. And now I find I do it even on Firefox (you have both options there).

I don’t know; I still feel that the URL bar should be for URLs, and searching should be something else. but it doesn’t offend me like it used to.

Still, the effect is to further blur the distinction between searching for a site and going to a specific site. I see people — even experienced, technically knowledgable people — going to Google’s home page and typing “facebook.com” into the search box. I mean, what?

Oh, and of course if you search from Google’s home page in Chrome, your cursor jumps to the URL bar! Or it did the last time I used Chrome. Which blurs the distinction between site and browser, as well as between site and search.

In the end it doesn’t matter that much — people mostly get where they mean to go — but by making it less than clear what is going on when we navigate around the web, we make it harder for people to understand how it’s all put together, and I think we lose something important in doing so.

musings, politics, tv

An elective monarchy, again

I was reminded of my recent post when I watched Thursday night’s The Big Bang Theory. It was the episode where they try to recreate a high-school prom — at their originals of which, all of them but Penny had bad experiences, of course.

Sheldon refers to the possibility of him being “elected Prom King,” and goes on to say that he’ll point out that kings aren’t elected.

He’s smart, but not that smart. Prom Kings and Queens, by definition, are elected, and in that context, that’s what the words mean.1

And words mean what we make them mean, and meanings change all the time.


  1. People often say that parliamentary elections “shouldn’t become a popularity contest.” But that, of course, is exactly what prom ones are. []
musings

Suzi Q, where are you?

I got a card in the post the other day, from my friends Di and Johnny. Regular readers will know Di as one of the most frequent commenters here (ie, she has commented). We disagreed over The Great Gatsby.

Anyway, the card had a post-it stuck inside, with some writing on it that I couldn’t quite make out. Di wrote, “Been trying to get this for you for ages… can you guess who it is?”

I was slow to realise that the “who” referred to the writing on the post-it. But she also said there was a clue on the back of the card.

On the back she’d written “devilgate.org”.

The post-it looks like this:

SuziQuatroAutograph

And I read it to say, “To Martin. Suzi Quatro.”

I mean, if it says that it makes sense considering my origin story; otherwise, not so much.

Thanks Di and Johnny. It’s a lovely thought.

music, musings, tech

Aye, (Head)Phones

I’m not in the market for a new pair of headphones. My venerable Sennheiser HD450s are still doing fine for over-the-head use, and the same brand have provided me with a series of earbuds for mobile use. But I tried a pair of Beats by Dre phones in an HMV the other day, just to see what all the fuss was about.

They looked pretty good, felt comfortable, and sounded great. But the price!

Apparently Apple bought Beats more for the streaming service than the phones. That makes sense: if they’d wanted a headphone company they’d have gone for Sennheiser, obviously (and if they cared about earphones in general they wouldn’t have made horrible ones for years).

But you’d think that if they wanted a streaming service, they’d have gone for Spotify, which is surely more established.

So I suspect the truth may include a combination of the two, plus a degree of cool cachet, in what is perhaps a demographic that they don’t currently reach.

Either way, if the next iPhone or Mac comes with a cool pair of phones (unlikely thought that may be) I won’t be unhappy.

musings

Why Devilgate?

I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive’; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere — Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

music, musings

Some People Left for Heaven Without Warning…

Too many people died in 2013. So many, it seems, that when Philip Chevron of The Pogues died, I didn’t get round to finishing my post. Here’s what I wrote in October:

… Except there ain’t no fucking heaven, and too damn many people have left for it this year. I hate 2013.

If there’s one slightly positive thing about Philip Chevron dying two days ago for me, it’s that I was reminded that the box set Just Look Them Straight In The Eye And Say… Pogue Mahone! exists; and also that it is now available in an inexpensive format for about £14. I ordered it on Tuesday night, and it arrived today.

I’ve been listening to it all afternoon. It’s a combination of outtakes, demos, live tracks and radio sessions, and it’s very good.

One thing that stands out at the moment, though, is that their music is steeped in the imagery of death. “Some people left for heaven without warning” is a line from “Sally Maclennane”, of course.

musings

Weirdest Customer Request?

This is one of those unpublished posts I told you about. I don’t know why it wasn’t published (well, except that I hadn’t written the last couple of sentences).

A while back I heard the strangest ever request from a customer.

As you might know, I work for a software house.1 We write financial software for banks. As a thing to talk about it tends to be boring, but it can have interesting challenges.

Anyway, one of our product’s problems, as a web-based app, is that it was written to specifically target the Internet Explorer browser.

I know that seems at best charmingly retro, and at worst appallingly non-standards-compliant, but there are a couple of good-ish reasons. Principally the fact that the original version of the web app was written by contractors who both only knew IE, and were told that our clients only cared about IE. The latter was probably true at the time, and as for the former, well: let’s just say that sometimes people in companies make some stupid decisions, and leave it at that.

Inevitably, and especially as the browser landscape has matured and Apple and Google have come to rule the world, there have been calls to fix things. But there have always been higher-priorities. Getting new features done takes priority over making things work better, sadly.

One of these years we’ll fix it — personally I don’t think it’ll be as difficult as people always think (that fear is another reason why we have resisted doing it).

But what it would really take to force us to sort it out would be if a client demanded it.

If it were going to make or break a sale, we’d be all hands on deck.

So it’s interesting that we got a query a while back wherein a client was concerned about the fact that the app doesn’t work properly in Firefox. This was causing some of their users distress, as FF is their chosen browser. Was this it? Was this the opportunity, at last, driven by customer demand, to bring our app into the late twentieth century?

No.

No, the client had a better idea. They wanted us to to change our app such that it would detect that the user was running something other than IE…

… and prompt them to use IE instead.

Oh dear.

(We didn’t agree to their request.)


  1. Incidentally, why “house”, I wonder? By association with “publishing house”, obviously, but why are those “houses”? I’m reminded of a discussion I had on a software mailing list in the nineties regarding the American tendency (then, if not now) for referring to a “shop”, meaning a programming entity, including an old-school IT department within a company. []
Asides, musings, writing

This “short story” that I was going to knock out before getting back to my novel is growing into a behemoth. At 12000 words it’s thoroughly a novelette, and heading squarely for novella-land.

music, musings

Understanding a Misunderstanding

Spotify has always behaved weirdly regarding how you queue tracks up. Today I think I realised why.

They think “Queue this track up” means “Cue this track up”. They’re thinking like DJs, but they are confused by homophones.

I’m thinking like a programmer, I admit: queues are first-in-first-out; but more importantly, like an ordinary person: you join a queue at the end, not just behind the person at the front.

See this discussion on their suggestions board which explains the weirdness, and is where (as I was adding a comment) I suddenly understood their thinking. Also definition 2 of “cue” is the appropriate one.

Edited: Queues are of course first-in-first-out, not last-in-first-out, as I wrote. That would be a stack, in programming terms. Whoops!

links, musings, tech

Google is Buying Sparrow, but not Updating the Apps

Google buys Sparrow, current apps will not get any new features | The Verge.

This is annoying. The only thing that was stopping me from making Sparrow my default mail client on my iPhone was the fact that it doesn’t do rotation to landscape mode yet. Now it looks like it never will.

It’s rarely good in the long run when big software companies hoover up small ones, it seems to me.