When Bad Institutional Websites Happen to Good People

November 10, 2010

In Vancouver the public transit is operated by Translink. There are lots of good things to say about Translink. The buses are clean and fairly punctual and the drivers are generally friendly and helpful, sometimes exceptionally so. The routes are well-planned and the service frequent. The SkyTrains are a marvel of efficiency and comfort. The train service to the airport, launched during this year’s Vancouver Winter Olympics works brilliantly. It takes you to the airport in record time and the price is a bargain.

Translink’s website sucks.

Of course “sucks” is relative. It doesn’t suck as bad as many other public transportation websites. And it does some things well. But it sucks in two important categories:

1. Passwords.

Unlike nearly every other website in the universe, your password for Translink must include not just letters, not just letters and numbers, but “must contain a minimum of 8 characters, at least 1 non alpha numeric character, and at least 1 numeric character.”

Then you must enter a Google reCAPTCHA. I’ve written about these sometimes-nifty check-if-you’re-human utilities before. More recently I’ve been collecting some crazy samples of inscrutable reCAPTCHAs. Here are a few from my collection, blended into a single image:


My reCAPTCHA Collection

An outcome of Translink’s registration process is that it took me about 20 minutes last week to register, and so I was 20 minutes late for the launch of Daniel Francis’s new book. Yes, if I’d just read the fine print I’d have registered more quickly. But, like you, I’ve now registered for hundreds of sites, I no longer read the fine print, and by default register with an alpha-numeric password, which nearly always works. I was left wondering why a bus schedule website would insist on such draconian security, and posed that question in a comment form on site.

2. Typing your address to find the next bus.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many of the streets in Vancouver are numbered: the major east-west thoroughfares number from First Ave. to 73rd Ave. But don’t try typing those numbers as words, and don’t forget whether the address is east or west. The form on the site tries to make an informed guess. In my experience it usually just gets baffled, or guesses wrong.

Say What?

Say What?

Then when you finally do enter the right address the system looks for every possible combination of bus routes that can bring you near your destination, with the default sort being total travel time in a moving vehicle.

And the best choice is?

And the best choice is?

So, nobody’s perfect, and few websites are. But can’t these problems be fixed?

To Translink’s credit, a genuine human telephoned me yesterday to respond to my criticism about the password. I was told that the reason for the complex password is that two years from now the site will link to payment information, at which point the extra security will prove valuable. I did not ask why Translink does not follow S.O.P. and ask customers to change their passwords if and when it becomes necessary to do so.

I did take advantage of the human to ask about the buggy address recognition system. I was told that the original programming for the site was very expensive, and would now be prohibitively expensive to fix. Many aspects of the site work well, so why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Hmm. Interesting rhetoric. It’s possibly a plausible argument to make to folks who complain about how tough life can be living in Western countries. “Well, try living in Africa,” some respond.

I don’t think the rhetoric applies to websites. If a core function doesn’t function the programmer should be asked to fix it. Someone at Translink signed off on this project perhaps without fully testing it first.

And if all else fails, there’s always tactic #2 for those who complain about the usability of your site. “Well, it works fine for me,” I was told yesterday. “I don’t know why you’re having a problem.”

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Flash vs. HTML 5: The Early Years

October 14, 2010

The future of Adobe’s Flash format is murky. I first glanced at Flash technology’s murk when Steve Jobs launched an attack last April. Jobs stated that “Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice…. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.”

Jobs pointed to HTML5, a W3C proposed standard, as the preferred alternative. The W3C released a new working draft of HTML5 on October 12. The development work is continuing at a near-feverish pace (by W3C standards of developing standards).

HTML5 is hot. In a May blog entry I covered Scribd’s dramatic commitment to HTML5 in lieu of Flash.

In September Computerworld offered:

The W3C is investigating the possibility of incorporating voice recognition and speech synthesis interfaces within Web pages. A new incubator group will file a report a year from now summarizing the feasibility of adding voice and speech features into HTML, the W3C’s standard for rendering Web pages. AT&T, Google, Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation, among others, all have engineers participating in this effort.

html5-affect-seoSource: Varologic SEO Blog

But not all the news is positive. ZDNet reported this week that Facebook found that Flash still outperforms HTML5 for video on mobile devices (albeit modestly), “a zinger of sorts” in the Flash war.

And InfoWorld found a W3C official who stated that despite the hype, the HTML5 specification isn’t yet ready due to interoperability issues.

I guess I’m just the show-me tech guy. Here’s all I know about the technical limitations of Flash:



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Illustration, Comix & the Future of Publishing

August 6, 2010

Let’s start with the fun stuff. Then the dry commentary. Check out two visual cornua copiae (or, as you might have it [and as I had it until I looked it up], “cornucopias“):

1. http://christophniemann.com/   (take some time in his galleries…A LOL experience guaranteed, or your time cheerfully refunded.)

Source: Christoph Niemann

Source: Christoph Niemann

 2. http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=579
(That’s just one example of a softer world’s comix. More to choose from in the archive.)

now are you going to take your shirt off or not?I put it to you that Christopher Niemann’s delightful and brilliant illustrations are unique to the digital age, in style, content and often in form. A Softer World meanwhile represents a new format for comics for the digital age, combining photography, illustration, and an edgy contemporary wit.

Amidst all of the debate about rethinking books, newspapers and magazines for the web here are two related media that have quietly reinvented themselves while everyone stared blankly into their repsective screens.

Wikipedia won’t define “comix” per se. The editors insist that there are three different kinds of comic(x)s:

  1. Comics: i.e. “mainstream comics”
  2. Underground Comix: “depict content forbidden to mainstream publications by the Comics Code Authority, including explicit drug use, sexuality and violence”
  3. Alternative Comics: “a range of American comics that have appeared since the 1980s, following the underground comix movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s”

The wiki differentiates between “underground comix” and “alternative comics” (with a “c”, with a “c”!) strictly by method of distribution: “The distribution of underground comix changed through the emergence of specialty stores,” i.e. once comiX found commercial acceptance they were no longer underground. Now they were “Alternative” and had their “X” replaced with a “C”.

Can you think of another publishing example where the product had to be reclassified when only the distribution method changed (while the content remained the same)?

A banner headline above the alternative comics’ article notes:  “This article does not cite any references or sources.” Well I guess we can rely on it then. (Please see the New York Times: “a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge”.)


By coincidence I heard today that Digital Book World will be offering a free webinar next Tuesday that’s right on topic: Digital Strategies, Learning from Comics Publishers. More info and registration link here.

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Apple vs. Adobe, Round 3

May 1, 2010

Please read my previous post to catch up on the story thus far. Last Thursday Steve Jobs lobbed the big grenade with a major public attack on Adobe’s Flash. On Friday Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan replied via a 15-minute video interview with Alan Murray at the Wall Street Journal. Shantanu is gracious and assured, even going so far as to compliment the iPad as a good first-generation device. You can hear (or read — it’s subtitled) the interchange for yourself, but his key point is that the Flash issue is a smokescreen designed to conceal Apple’s desire for proprietary lock-in versus Adobe’s open “multi-screen,” “multi-device” business model. Ultimately, Narayan concludes, Adobe will let consumers decide.

There are lots of others voicing opinions in the last two days. The plot thickens. Supporting Narayan’s statement (although written before the interview appeared), Computerworld‘s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka “Cyber Cynic,” blogs:

It’s this, not whether Flash itself is allowed on Apple devices that’s the real crux of the disagreement between Apple, Adobe and many other ISV (independent software vendors). Jobs, and all the other analysts, who have tried to turn this into a debate about whether Flash is, or isn’t good, enough for the future of mobile video are misleading us. That’s a red-herring. The real issue is who controls access to the platform. And, behind all the rhetoric, Apple wants absolute control.

He then quotes Charlie Stross, a science-fiction author and technology blogger. Stross wrote:

The App Store and the iTunes Store have taught Steve Jobs that ownership of the sales channel is vital. Even if he’s reduced to giving the machines away, as long as he can charge rent for access to data (or apps) he’s got a business model. He can also maintain quality (whatever that is), exclude malware, and beat off rivals.

Simeon Simeonov, founder and CEO of startup advisory FastIgnite, offers another insightful look at the battle on the VentureBeat site. Simenov writes:

Apple is taking advantage of what essentially amounts to a cross-subsidy: using the economic and market momentum of its combined hardware/OS platform to do two things:

1. Force developers to heavily, perhaps irreversibly, invest in Apple’s platform and in the process avoid alternative tool, services and runtime platforms, an area where Apple has traditionally had no expertise and where Adobe and others have a substantial advantage.

2. Provide some breathing room for the fledgling Apple advertising business, which the company obtained through the acquisition of Quattro Wireless for $275M, soon after Google signaled that mobile advertising is going to the big leagues by buying AdMob for $750M.

A paragraph later he looks further at the advertising angle:

Flash is a favored format for delivering interactive and video advertising — dozens of companies offer measurement, analytics, ad selection, targeting and delivery solutions based on Flash. Adobe also recently acquired analytics powerhouse Omniture for $1.8B. By blocking access to Flash, Apple is blocking a big portion of the advertising ecosystem from its platform, giving itself a substantial short-term advantage. Emily Steel reports in the Wall Street Journal that Apple is planning on milking that advantage.

Meanwhile, the great unwashed masses are raising their hands also. A new Facebook group called “I’m with Adobe” as of tonight has over 11,000 members. There are five different “I’m with Apple” groups, with a combined membership of 25.


The Wall Street Journal polled readers as part of its coverage. The result is essentially a tie vote:


Mashable ran a similar poll. I took screen shots of the results about four hours apart, and someone is stuffing the ballot box! 


Isn’t that illegal?

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Color of the Year for 2010: Turquoise!

December 13, 2009

I’ve been traveling the last 8 days or so and have not been blogging. I wanted to weigh in with SOMETHING, anything, to reassure those few who are concerned that I’ve not abandoned the battle. I’ve actually got a slew of topics to cover in the days ahead, but thought I’d start light.

For years Pantone, makers of the infamous “very-difficult-to-reproduce-with-CMYK-inks” color palettes, have issued their December prediction for the color of the following year. We wait with baited breath each December. Well the word is out. Next year it’s going to be turquoise, aka “PANTONE® 15-5519 Turquoise,” noted to be “an inviting, luminous hue….Combining the serene qualities of blue and the invigorating aspects of green, Turquoise evokes thoughts of soothing, tropical waters and a languorous, effective escape from the everyday troubles of the world, while at the same time restoring our sense of wellbeing.”

Check it out:


Phew! That was tense. Feeling better yet?

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