Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: December 2007 (page 1 of 4)

Unusual UI design considerations

Here’s a UI design consideration I hadn’t previously encountered, from a discussion of the on board trip computer in the Buick Enclave:

The display has a perfect location in the gauge cluster, right where the driver can see it. But the controls are located just below the radio. I guess I could get used to it, but I still have to hunt around to select one of four same-sized buttons. This mid-cabin location has another disadvantage that GM engineers might not have thought of: I’m using it so often (every couple of minutes) that my wife started asking me things like “Why are always playing with those buttons?” and “What are you doing?” and “Would you just stop already?” If the buttons were on a stalk (more on that later) I could press them to my heart’s content without having to undergo the Spanish Inquisition.

Football history

I just watched New England become the first team in NFL history go 16-0 in the regular season, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to finish the regular season undefeated in NFL history. Is there any sports fan in America who wouldn’t want someone like Bob Kraft to own their favorite team? He’s been a Patriots season ticket holder for 35 years and bought the team to save it from being relocated to St. Louis. Since he took over, they have been the most successful franchise in professional sports. This off season the Patriots added enough talent to become the best team anyone can remember watching.

I’m not a fan of the Patriots, but it’s impossible not to respect what they’ve achieved.

In the meantime, my favorite football team just lost its eighth bowl game in a row, a streak going back to 1980. Such is life.

Dumbest Bush adminstration legal arguments of 2007

Dahlia Lithwick has compiled a top ten list of the Bush administration’s dumbest legal arguments of the year. I’d forgotten some of these wonders of spurious logic. For example, number 5 is a classic:

  1. Everyone who has ever spoken to the president about anything is barred from congressional testimony by executive privilege.

This little gem of an argument was cooked up by the White House last July when the Senate judiciary committee sought the testimony of former White House political director Sara Taylor, as well as that of former White House counsel Harriet Miers, in connection with the firing of nine U.S. attorneys for partisan ideological reasons. Taylor was subpoenaed in June and, according to her lawyers, she wanted to testify but was barred by White House counsel Fred Fielding’s judgment that the president could compel her to assert executive privilege and forbid her testimony. As Bruce Fein argued in Slate, that dramatic over-reading of the privilege would both preclude congressional oversight of any sort and muzzle anyone who’d ever communicated with the president, regardless of their wish to talk.

Assessing the candidates’ digital policy

Freedom to Tinker is reviewing the Presidental candidates positions on all things digital, starting with Barack Obama.

Registration for commenters enabled

I think I’ve finally gotten registration and authentication working for the old blog here, so now you should be able to register for a local account if you like or sign in using OpenID, Vox, and so forth. There are also plugins available for AOL and WordPress, I’ll probably set those up as well. Hopefully this will make life a bit easier for the regulars and for people with their own blogs who want to associate comments with their OpenID.

Update: I also fixed a lot of other random breakage left over from upgrading to Movable Type 4 (which sadly happened quite a while ago now). I’ve also got Movable Type working with memcached, and the next item on my list is to figure out if I can make the search feature perform better.

Happy blog birthday!

Garret at Dangerousmeta points out that December 22 was the eigth birthday of his blog, and the blogs of all of the people who started when Dave Winer launched editthispage.com.

For what it’s worth, I posted my first bloglike entry back on December 15, 1998. So it’s nine years plus for me, now. I need to get the pre-CMS archives online again sometime.

Search forms should use the GET method

Search forms that use the POST HTTP method are a shabby Web development practice that I run into every day. Here’s the number one reason why using POST on search forms is a bad idea:


That’s what users see when they hit the back button to return to search results that were produced using a POST request. When the back button is going to take you to a page that was requested using the POST method, this warning appears in order to prevent you from sending duplicate information to the Web server. This is important if the form you submitted charged your credit card for $100 or posted a new entry to your blog. It is never, ever useful if you’re just searching for information.

This bad practice is made worse by the fact that people are most likely to use the back button when they are navigating search results. They click on one item, find that it’s not what they need, and then click on the back button to get back to the results.

A second problem with POST is that you can’t bookmark the results of a POST request. Sometimes it’s useful to bookmark search results, and the only way to facilitate that as a developer is to use GET.

I think the problem is that many programmers don’t really know the difference between GET and POST, or they know just enough to be dangerous. There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of GET, with good reason. You should never use GET (and remember, regular old a href links are GET requests) for any operations that will change data on the server. “Cancel my account,” “delete this entry,” and “place my order” should all use POST. Unfortunately, some developers have taken this to mean that one should never use GET with a form.

GET and POST both have their place, and if you’re a Web developer you should understand the pros and cons of each of them. Or if you’re too lazy to do that, just remember that search forms should use GET. Your users will appreciate it.

Going to the movies

I don’t go to the movies much any more, but this weekend I managed to make it to two different ones. I went to the local art house to see No Country for Old Men, and I went to the megaplex to see Sweeney Todd. The quality of the movies aside, I was disappointed in the quality of the experience overall.

The art house is what it is. The theater is old, and the seats are uncomfortable. The place is not without its charms, but I still had to walk around a bit after the movie to work the kinks out. The megaplex was no fun at all. The place has nice comfortable seats, but they want nine bucks for a small popcorn and Coke (I passed), and for some reason they didn’t turn out the overhead lights during the movie, which was completely incomprehensible. They showed ads before the movie and fifteen minutes of previews after the scheduled movie start time.

I hear the movie business made a financial comeback this year, but I don’t see how it’s going to last. The advantages of letting Netflix ship movies to my house and then watching them in my comfy chair on my nice big TV is pretty compelling. Oh, and my monthly membership to Netflix costs the same as the matinee price for two tickets at the megaplex.

The economics of Kayak

Kayak is my first stop whenever I need to book a flight or hotel room. I still generally handle the transaction through Orbitz, but I find Kayak to be the better choice for finding flights and tracking fare changes. I’ve always wondered how the site works as a business. They do run ads, but I wondered if they also collected some kind of transactional fees for travel booked through their search results.

The New York Times Bits blog posts today on how Kayak works, on the occasion of the site landing $196 million in venture funding. It turns out that Kayak does collect fees from 90% of the airlines and all of the major hotel companies.

Minute fingerprints

Bruce Schneier has a fascinating essay on how easy it is to discern someone’s identity from anonymous data. Researchers at the University of Texas discovered that by comparing moving ratings in the data set for the Netflix challenge to movie ratings from IMDB users, you can figure out who rated the movies in the anonymous Netflix data. And as it turns out, you don’t need all that many ratings to do it:

With only eight movie ratings (of which two may be completely wrong), and dates that may be up to two weeks in error, they can uniquely identify 99 percent of the records in the dataset. After that, all they need is a little bit of identifiable data: from the IMDb, from your blog, from anywhere. The moral is that it takes only a small named database for someone to pry the anonymity off a much larger anonymous database.

What interests me about this is how little data uniquely identifies a person. He provides a number of other examples in this vein as well. I imagine you could do the same thing with records of a person’s doctor visits or even dental visits, and I expect that you could pretty easily identify me among all Amazon.com customers based only on the purchases I made in 2007. We really do live in the age of data mining.

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