Older blog entries for AlanHorkan (starting at number 210)

6 May 2005 (updated 12 May 2005 at 18:16 UTC) »
Gnomes are invading Trinity
Calum Benson "a top usability expert at Sun Microsystems" gave a talk on Open Source usability, as guest of the Trinity Internet Society (Netsoc). Coincidentally the talk was held in the Swift lecture theatre, exactly the same place as Calum gave his usability presentation at GUADEC 4. Even though the place was the same the talk was different, it even featured the recently created South Park incarnation of Calum but more importantly the substance of the talk was about the application of usability methods in commercial and open source environments. The talk was not as Gnome specific as I think people would have expected and with the impending exams the attendance was unfortunately quite low, maybe only twenty people.
Calum gave a formal definition of Usability as "The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which a specified set of users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment" which helped to avoid any of the usual confusion and vague about user experience or utility. Some of the ideas were not new to me but it was useful to hear them expressed in a different way. It was good to hear a more formal description and learn the usability jargon to better describe the ideas I had already seen in practice. Competitive Analysis is a much more professional and eloquent way to describe the concept at looking at what existing popular applications are doing and borrowing the best of their ideas (embrace and extend). Contextual Enquiry is a fantastically scientific way of describing watching and learning from your users. The other notable piece of terminology was Heuristic Evaluation which describes the kind of superficial screen-by-screen usability evaluation almost any user or developer can learn to do having read the Gnome Guidelines (or a good checklist) and awareness of a few essential usability principles.
Calum mentioned the concept of Personas, the idea of describing who you think the Archetypal user of your software would be. This concept is something the Sourcegear developers who originally started Abiword made great use of in a simple informal way by identifying a Church Secretary as the archetypal Abiword user which has always helped to keep things in perspective. You could say Abiword has another very significant archetypal user in the form of the University Academic. Not only has Martin Sevior done amazing work improving Abiword to meet his own needs but he has done so with an implicit awareness of the class of user he and his colleagues represent. The idea of personas for Gnome was discussed but I don't recall anything ever being formalised. I imagine it would be a lot harder to come up with a shortlist of clear but relevant archetypes for the whole Gnome Desktop. Scenarios were also mentioned, I won't go into detail about it but I hope to try applying the concept in the future.
There was some laughs when Calum showed some of the mistakes that had been made by Microsoft and Apple. Calum was able to show us a short recording of work done in the Sun Microsystems Usability Labs, and I wish I could have seen more. The user in question was asked to create a Shortcut and struggled to discover she needed to use the item confusingly labelled "Launcher" to create a Shortcut. I couldn't help laughing when the user visibly reeled in horror when confronted by the Advanced Tab of the Launcher dialog, having recently had a similar reaction myself. (There is a longstanding bug report looking at revising the Launcher dialog.)
One notable point Calum made was about the difficulty of getting quality feedback from users and a timely reminder that any user who goes to the trouble of providing feedback is exceptional. He came out with statistic from the Mozilla Foundation claiming less than less than 10% of users ever provide any feedback. The beauty of the Gnome Guidelines has been how they empower users like me to give developers useful feedback in a way more likely to be understood and accepted.
The talk covered a wide range of other ideas and ended with the obligatory Questions and Answers session. The Q&A ended quite quickly but I got a chance to talk to Calum for quite a while later on. In Trinity you have a better chance of having a conversation about the intricacies of Constitutional Law or the History of 19th Century Irish politics than finding people who are interested to talk about Gnome so I hope Calum can understand, my slightly rabid enthusiasm and forgive the barrage of questions.
When in the presence of an expert (or simply an expert speaker) I thoroughly recommend getting them to geek out and talk in detail about their area of expertise for a while. So long as you can find an aspects you can relate to, guide the conversation a little, and know when to stop them, it is very often compelling to hear people talk about a topic they are deeply interested in. Even if it is not necessarily an interest you share you can often marvel at their enthusiasm, but maybe it is just me that enjoys seeing the obsessive aspect of my own personality reflected in others. This journal does allow me to geek out and ramble on to my hearts content about subjects of limited interest to other people like I would never get the chance to do in normal conversation and allow others to quickly read it and filter out anything that might be of interest. At least that is part of the plan.
Update: Calum has posted his usability presentation and quickly mentioned it in Calum's Wee Blog.

Got Style?
For better or worse my website finally uses Stylesheets. It's not much but it's a start. The aspect I am most pleased by is that users of Opera or Mozilla can choose Use Style and change switch to a red and black themed alternate stylesheet, unfortunately the stylesheet doesn't really look all that good yet. (Firefox doesn't even seem to be able to do a decent job of copying Opera but the Page Style feature has been belatedly restored in version 1.0.3.). The picture of Tweek from South Park is not an attempt to jump on the current bandwagon and has in fact been there for years.

Gnomes are invading Trinity: Comments

3 May 2005 (updated 7 May 2005 at 12:50 UTC) »
Paint me blue and call me a baboon!
Paint is the key word you should notice from the title and baboon is just fun to say. This is my effort to occasionally write about computer graphics topics and justify my continued presence on Planet Openclipart. Even if you are interested in Open Source software you might not have noticed the beta release of KOffice 1.4. What makes this release particularly interesting is that after many many years it includes the first public release Krita. If you are as konfused by silly gnaming konventions as I am you might not know that Krita is the application formerly known as Krayon, formerly known as Kimageshop. At least by some small mercy it never known as KIMP but the name is still awful.
Now looks like a good time to try out KDE again and the developers have made it especially easy by providing a KDE Office Live CD. Personally I'd recommend Konstruct -- the KDE answer to Garnome -- if the idea of a Live CD seems too easy for you. Recently I tried it myself but got entangled in problems while building ImageMagick. Kexi has support for importing Adobe Photoshop Documents (.psd) and the Berkeley eXperimental Format (.xcf). (XCF is better known as the default file format of the GNU Image Manipulation Program.) No prizes for guessing which tool gives Kexi that functionality. The integrated nature of KOffice could make things very interesting, especially with their embracing of the OpenOffice.org file formats and the support for SVG in the Karbon 14 vector graphics application. The dream of a Free Desktop Graphics Suite looks closer than ever, although not in the way we might have predicted.


Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind. Great movie. If you liked Being John Malcovich give this a try. (Link is to a draft review that needs rewriting.)
2 May 2005 (updated 9 May 2005 at 16:35 UTC) »
Forty Two
Despite what others have said I thouroughly enjoyed Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. (I may be a nerd but I'm not going to call it H2G2.) The books - all five of the trilogy - were all over the place and didn't follow on one from the other. I certain didn't expect a straight-forward plotline that necessarily made sense. Hitchhikers changes with each version and the books were a little contradicatory but it is something you just have to get used to and if more people we could just let go and accept that remakes have always happened long before cinema came along the better we will be able to enjoy the show. The first half banged along at a fair pace with lots of gags and I chuckled most of the way through. The infinite improbabilty drive was funny every time, especially the woollen dolls. Things slowed down later on and it was all over the place and I can understand why many people were dissappointed with the gags, the humour needed did need a little something extra for the modern audience. I realy wasn't expecting too much but I was just glad they didn't ruin the whole series. I had fun trying to spot things like the original Marvin the paranoid android and the Douglas Adams planet.
The casting of Mos Def was a little surprising at first and Ford Prefect didn't seem quite alien enough, and Zaphod Beeblebrox had a strange Yosemite Sam quality to his performance. Trillian has always been a horribly underwritten character as women in science fiction so often are but this was at least an improvement on previous versions and Zoe Dechanel was beautiful. I may be among the rare few who didn't watch more than a few minutes of the Office but the cringe inducing humour was to disturbingly close to reality for my liking. I had no preconceptions about the actor but I like this version of Arthur Dent well enough. (I have always thought Jack Davenport looked disturbingly like the Arthur Dent from the tv series, who also made a cameo as the recorded message for Magarathea.) It seemed a bit strange that Slartibartfast didn't have a beard this time round but if you casting Bill Nighy for name recognition then maybe showing his face makes sense from that point of view. Tim Fry eloquently provided the voice of the Guide but the visuals of the guide were less impressive. I actually liked the teletext like video graphics used for the guide in the tv series but it seems the film makers went out of their way to be different but in this case they ended up with what looks like Flash animations which will probably looked dated even before the DVD is released.
What you get in this film is a lot like a condensed version of the Hitchhikers tv series. Unfortunately it is heavy on the exposition and does rather leave you waiting for the next episode. If more of the series get made and I really hope they do I think people will be more forgiving of this outing when it forms part of a proper set. Adequate, good but not the spectacular some had been hoping for but if you haven't seen it yet I hope you can have fun and enjoy it for what it is.
One review suggested Terry Gilliam would have been the ideal director for this, now that would have been amazing can you even begin to imagine it?

P.S. Unless I'm in a mad hurry I almost always stay until the end in case there is something interesting in the credits (Ferris Beulers Day Off is the earliest example I can remember) and so I forgot to mention that you should stay until the end to see the extra scene from the Guide

The state of this!!!
XXX2: The State of the Union or the Next Level as it was partronisingly retitled for European audiences, but this rose by another name still smells like manure. I have not seen the first in this series but Vin Deisel must not be as stupid as Ice Cube looks. When I first saw the trailer for this I groaned and it is every bit as bad as you think it is. This movie is dumb, dumb, dumb. Not dumb in a fun way but dumb in a gansta, hip-hop, cliche laden, limp action movie way. Rapper Xzibit makes an appearance and yes he does pimp some rides. Does this count as blaxsploitation?
In Die Hard Bruce Willis became a wise cracking action hero for the ordinary working man and it was refreshing change from muscle bound action heros like Arnie and remains a memorable action movie classic. (This movie is so bad I some bad puns are appropriate.) Ice Cube is the least convincing action hero I can think of and a pudgy action hero doesn't cut any ice. Ice Cube is not cool, not funny, and not very clever. Maybe Ice Cube is clever enough to play dumb and take home a big fat paycheck because clearly that is what Samuel L. Jackson is doing again but he really comes across as a great big dumbass.
This was really awful, do not waste money renting this on video, only watch it on television if you have absolutely nothing better to do than watch a lame action movie. Zzz...

Update: Inconveniently late at night at the weekend on the ITV channel there is programme called Entertainment Now which reviews movies but pulls no punches. They generally takes the piss out of celebrities, mocking the banal tripe they spout while promoting their latest endevour and general make them look stupid. They have a fun gimmick the called the cliche alarm which honks loudly as they describe really bad movies like XXX2. Their review describes how deeply awful XXX2 was far better than I could, here is the gist of it:

formerly fat, former rapper Ice Cube ...
former Green Goblin William Dafoe [as the villian]...
Samuel L. Jackson phones in his performance...
... cost $118 million but some critics suggest the writer was paid by the cliche
Critics call it Triple Excrement and say you could find more convincing special effects in Donkey Kong.
One critic recommends that instead of watching this film you jab a stick in your eye or watch something more interesting like dirt ... or mildew.
Watching William Dafoe play the over the top villian I couldn't help think of the Incredibles where speech Sam Jackson gave about villians monologging ad nauseam. Brutal is an Irish turn of phrase to succintly describe how horrendously bad XXX is. XXX2 State of the Union is worse than Resident Evil 2 and Blade 3, yes it really is that bad.

Horribly formatted and impossible to remember link to Entertainment Now. For a group that makes such good use of the medium of television they have a lot to learn about the medium of the web.

27 Apr 2005 (updated 9 May 2005 at 17:10 UTC) »
Sin City.
Simultaneous worldwide releases. Three words the movie industry need to learn and adapt to instead of adding artificial constraints and ignoring the predictable consequences of supply and demand. The entertainment industry is only hurting itself and creating a demand for bootleggers by delaying releases. Sin City was released at the start of April but will not be officialy released in Europe until June. To anyone who has been on a modern aeroplane and watched films on displays not much bigger than a postage stamp, it should come as no surprise that people are willing to put up with very poor quality video if is convenient. Despite it not being released yet I have already watched Sin City, well most of it. As a result of the low quality I do not have much to say on the details but it beats waiting until right in the middle of my exams for the official release.
The reviews did nothing to reduce my anticipation, in fact this extremely critical review of Sin City had exactly the opposite effect. Even when I read that Roberto Rodrigeuz broke every rule in the book I was optimistic, but worried, particularly because narration is so often badly used in movies to compensate for poor writing. Soliloquy is nearly a better description than narration, even if in most cases the actors lips are not moving they are speaking their thoughts directly to the audience and adding extra depth rather than some disembodied narrator filling in the plot holes. The dialog in Sin City is not great and characters speak in such a similar way it can be monotonous at times but given this is both a comic book and intentionally done in the style of an old film-noir you might be willing to forgive the over the top delivery.
The violence is extereme and would be far more disturbing if the film were in full colour, rather than splashes of colour against the stylised inky black and sharp white background. Sin City marks a new stage of maturity for the comic book movie. This film is most certainly not family friendly feelgood entertainment.
The film was refreshingly different and really brought the comic book aesthetic to the screen. I enjoyed it enough that I am likely to go see it again when it is eventually released in Europe.
24 Apr 2005 (updated 23 May 2005 at 13:35 UTC) »
Doctor Who
Anyone else who saw Doctor Who on Saturday might be interested to check out the UNIT website. Password? ;)
I'm so looking forward to the return of the Daleks, which was today mentioned on Slashdot.

The Conspiracy Theory website Who is Doctor Who may also be of interest.
Geocomtex the company founded by Mr Henry Van Statten also has a highly informative website. The company is described as follows

We make the best computers in the world and provide the best internet access. Our computers never break down, our internet access is swift. We never crash, lose an important document, or go "bing" 98% through downloading an important file.

The funny thing is it is immediately followed by the disclaimer Obviously we are completely fictional. Microsoft has domintated for so long people can hardly imagine computer that works properly anymore, how could that possibly be realistic.

Gthumb: Infrequently Asked Question
When I read that gThumb was based on GQView I didn't believe it. Aside from it being a pretty poor description of gThumb I had never heard of this alleged connection before. The two programs have always looked distinctly different and had different behaviours. Only when Paolo Bacchilega himself informed me that he had started with GQView as a base for gThumband gradually rewritten it did I start to believe it and I was still a little surprised.
If gThumb was cross platform (including Windows) I think it would make an excellent addition to any Free Desktop or Gnome Graphics Suite

Glade for Windows
Although I did notice the initial announcements of Glade being ported to windows I didn't think to go looking for updates on a seperate site and was pleased to see that there was a windows version of Glade 2. It may not be intentional but the GIMP, Glade, and Dia all give the impression that their windows port is like some sort of unwanted bastard child, relegating them to seperate sites rather than presenting a united front and encouring people to move away from proprietary software. (Dia is already looking for someone to help update and maintain their website which should provides a good opportuntity to improve the situation if I can find the time to help. The TODO file for Glade 3 includes Windows port in their plans so it seems likely that it will be better presented if there is ever a release of Glade3.)
To me cross platform software is a good indication of the vitality of a project. It takes a significant user and developer base for it to be worth porting a program to another platform and maintaining it. Open source is not enough. I know I am never going to have the time and expertise to maintain half of the software I would like to use of the vendor stops supporting it, but the availability of source code does at least increase the chances of someone else continuing the development.
Some might ask, why would I want Glade for windows anyway? Even if I have a limited choice of Operating System I appreciate still being able to choose Open Source software. Cutting and pasting screenshots works up to a point but Glade provides a relatively convenient way to create mockups of graphical user interfaces. In many cases I want to recreate a layout similar to something I have seen in a Windows program and running Glade on windows makes it easy to to create a mockup while at the same time running the application I am trying to recreate.
Now if only Glade provided a way to automatically batch generate sets of screenshots from glade files I'd be sorted!

Films so bad you'd only watch 'em on Telly Vision
Watched some of "American Psycho 2: All American Girl" featuring Mila Kunis from That 70s Show. Frankly it was awful, although I was amused to see William Shatner doing something other than Captain Kirk. Mila Kunis should stick to comedy. I would have been more forgiving if they had gone with a different title instead of trying shamelessly to cash in on far superior American Psycho. This film abjectly fails to recreate the atmosphere and malevolence of American Psycho.

Tool of Globalisation
While researchng for background information on what tools Sun Microsystems use for Globalisation work and looking for scraps of information I read through a few employee online journals and a comment about the mutilation of words reminded me of my previous comments on bad writing. As for the Globalisation tools I was interested to learn about XLIFF when I look at XLIFF I cannot help thinking of the XML Strings format Abiword has been using for years.

20 Apr 2005 (updated 9 May 2005 at 17:36 UTC) »
I almost gave in to temptation and resubscribed myself to various Gnome mailing lists but I resisted the temptation and my incoming mail has slowed to just a trickle. I do not claim to be an expert (although anyone who claims to be is asking for trouble) and I would like to believe I provide some worthwhile insight but I know there are many capable people who will express similar opinions and provide their own insight. Hopefully I can avoid other distractions and motivate myself to study for my exams. I mean what is the worst that could possibly happen to Gnome in just a few months while I'm not watching?!

Helper Monkey
Monkey, Monkey, Monkey. Helper Monkey is a great name for a band and my friend Kevin Moroney is in a band by that name and I'm off to see them play. When they were getting started they didn't have a drummer and only had a drum machine which inspired the name Helper Monkey. The band was pretty good as far as I can tell (and I know I'm more than a little biased) but I'd be surprised if they won the overall competition. The competition consisted of roughly eight bands competing to be the opening act for the Trinity Ball, a hugh private concert held in Trinity College Dublin most years.

Meme: Old Sayings, with twist
Many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth.
Optimist: Every cloud has a silver lining. Pessimist: Every silver lining has a cloud.
Winners never quit and quitters never win and losers don't know when to quit.
Beauty is only skin deep but ugly is to the bone.
The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

18 Apr 2005 (updated 28 Apr 2005 at 03:55 UTC) »
Adobe and Macromedia
As if Adobe didn't already dominate the Graphic Design field now they are going take over Macromedia their biggest competitor. Even though this new Adobe will be a powerhouse the threat from Microsoft remains. I am still wondering what will happen with Microsoft Expression and this merger might prompt the 100lb Gorilla to flex its muscles and make a move.
This will very likely spell the end of Macromedia Freehand and Fireworks as Adobe already has Illustrator for vector graphics and Photoshop for raster graphics respectively. Unless Adobe surprises everyone and finds a sneaky way to maintain both product lines and maintain the illusion of choice and crowd out any other competitors (Where are you Corel and what are you doing with Paint Shop Pro?). From what I've read Fireworks is much more web oriented and probably best compared to Adobe Image Ready. Incidentally the Fireworks file format uses an extended version of PNG if anyone is interested in reverse engineering it and providing compatibility for open source applications. Inkscape would do well to learn from Freehand and be ready to attract new users if Adobe fails to satisfy their needs. This consolidation goes to show the importance of an integrated product line and I hope it will be one more factor to spur on the developement of a Free Desktop Graphics Suite.

The Register on the Adobe Macromedia take over and the implications of the "bad news".
Slashdot on Adobe Buys Macromedia
And finally, a more humourous take on the Macromedia merger

16 Apr 2005 (updated 22 Jul 2005 at 16:08 UTC) »

Movies: Sahara
The reviewers weren't just being lazy when they called it a poor mans Indiana Jones. The characters were pretty shallow, adventurer, side-kick and doctor/love interest. Indiana Jones never needed a smart alec side kick and when you have Nazis as villians you can get away without needing to explain too much. Penelope Cruz looks beautiful in her remarkably ordinary way (I know that sounds like a contradiction but I think it makes sense) and if Matthew McConaughey was even half as cool as he thinks he is he might have been able to carry it off and this might have been a much better movie. I mean "Dirk Pitt" are you serious? The title Sahara is seriously over the top and doesn't really suit the film. For an adaptation of a book (of the same name) I had hoped it might have more depth, I suppose the relationship between the McConaughey and his sidekick Steve Zahn was fairly solid and convincing (and isn't Zahn the German word for cream? What's that all about?). Villians are often more interesting than the heros and I quite liked how one of the baddies wanted to believe he wasn't a bad guy and it was not really his fault despite his wilfull neglect and trampling over other in his search of profit. I say one of the baddies because their are quite a few of them, an industrialist, a general and hooded assassin who appears briefly but is never explained.
Now that I've done might best to puncture any expectations you might have you might be able to enjoy this film for what it is. If you are looking for a middle of the road inoffensive action movie this might be for you. It would certainly be worth watching on television but unless you a fan of McCaunaughey or Cruz you might feel a bit cheated if you laid down your hard earned cash to see this.

Abiword: Gnome Office
Talk of OpenOffice.org versus Gnome Office makes me feel queasy. I do not think it is productive to consider the situation in terms of one against the other. It is worthwhile to think where exactly Gnome Office fits in and how can we encourage distributions to include Gnome Office applications. Even without getting into component APIs like Bonobo or UNO the work done with GtkMathView will give people all kinds of ideas when the next major release of Abiword happens.
Competing head to head with OpenOffice.org doesn't make sense. I think most of people will want to install OpenOffice.org for the occassional PowerPoint presentations they receive (the PDF export and the OpenOffice.org Draw program and the masses of features in OpenOffice.org don't hurt either). Rather than competing directly it is more productive to fill a niche and give users a reason to install Abiword as well as OpenOffice.org. I have mentioned before the idea expanding in other directions like using Abiword for quick text editing and using Abiword on Handheld devices making a version of Abiword more suitable for Handheld devices as well as I often do using Gedit. Although the original notions of a full Abi Suite is never going to happen there are a few things that could be done to bring the idea of AbiShow closer to reality. Abiword has been used successfully to put on Presentations, by using the right size of page, full screen mode and Ctrl+Page Down to move a whole page at a time the abiword developers have been able to use about to give presentations about Abiword. The improvements to support for Text Frames will certainly help but there are a more things that could be improved for those who want to use Abiword for presentations. Being able to roundtrip SVG and a good example Template would probably help. A Viewer or Presentation mode that skips to the next page on click or keypress wouldn't hurt either but a specially tweaked version of the XHTML exporter could probably be just as effective.
Oh, and don't forget that Abiword can be embedded in Evolution. I would have thought the ability to preview Microsoft Word Documents inline in the Evolution email cleint would nearly be enough to keep abiword in most distributions but it goes to show the effectiveness of bundling applications together as suite. Microsoft proved this long before OpenOffice.org came to dominate the mindshare of Open Source. The sheer intertia of an Application Suite is so massive that individual applications like Abiword and Gnumeric need to work exteremly hard to carve out a niche for themselves. Developement continues...

Other comments: Nicu Buculei comments on the Office Suite dilemma.

Putting the Action in Satisfaction
File Roller accepted my patch and now it makes better use of GTK_STOCK which should make things a little easier for translators (along with my similar patch to gcalctool) and it feels good. Most work leaves with little more than a sense of relief when it is over. This small but important task was satisfying because I made the extra effort to figure out how to fix the problem (with thanks to Jody Goldberg) and put in the work to produce and test the code and get it accepted. To an experienced developer the act of creating a patch and it being accepted may not seem like much but it has taken a long time to reach the point where I had all the dominos lined up so that I could knock them all down in one smooth almost seemless action.

Truth is stranger than fiction
A Wholpin, part whale, part dolphin, and a Liger, part lion, part tiger (damn, misplaced the link with a good picture that I wanted this one from gawker will have to do). Hope it isn't a hoax, sounds resonably plausible. Wikipedia has an entry about the Liger too.
I also saw a robot walking down Grafton Street today, it was really convincing looking. It looked a lot like the ABC Warrior Robots out of Judge Dredd only shiney and metallic grey. I guess there must be some magician or putting on a big performance in town.

Here's one I made earlier
Doctor Who continues to entertain and amuse, but the latest was a two part episode and left me hanging. The preview at the end of last weeks episode showed an Alien spaceship crash landing in London but they managed not to spoil it by giving too much away. Hopefully the show will continue to get it right and keep it fresh and interesting. So far so good.
I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who enjoys the new doctor who.

(Whoops, lopped off half this post while making a small update but managed to recover it before it was too late.)

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