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Boards of Canada: enlightening or alarming?

Boards of CanadaOne of the more unusual names in contemporary electronic music, not to mention sounds, Boards of Canada derived their identity from the 1970s documentary films of the National Film Board of Canada, and consist of Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin; interestingly enough they hid their sibling relationship from the listening public for over ten years, claiming to be "just childhood friends" until a recent magazine interview. Boards of Canada make music for a genuine love of music; the majority of their releases are without advertising and few interviews. They have only performed a handful of times, and not in public for over 5 years; by way of explanation say they make their music firstly for themselves rather than commercial release. Their albums, each an individual project, separate from what went before and what will happen afterward, are the result of selecting complimentary pieces from a vast arsenal of current work; the 23 tracks that comprise the album Geogaddi (2002) were chosen from 400 song fragments and 64 complete songs; one of them consisted only of silence. Unusually, Geogaddi premiered with performances in six churches around the globe. The Boards of Canada "sound" is reminiscent at times of the warm, slightly scratchy, artificial sounds of 1970's television, and often features samples of children. Stylistically, it would correctly be categorised as ambient, but with a unique, nostalgic yearning for childhood, for happier days. As Michael Sandison describes the group's music: “We've touched upon the theme of lost childhood a few times because it's something personal to me that gives me real inspiration through its sadness. I think sometimes the best way to get inspiration is to face up to the things that make you very sad in your life, and use them.”

Snapped back? Charles Arthur responds

Snap—a sensitive topic?I didn't know what I was letting myself in for when I installed snap.com's SPA (Snap Preview Anywhere, better known as just“Snap”) plugin just over a week ago. I had seen it elsewhere and thought it cool—perhaps naively—although I do make a living amongst other things as a front-end developer, and should know a little about such things. Thus it was one of the first things I configured after getting my hands dirty in the WordPress control panel. I didn't expect to be attracting the ire of the international blogging community (a slight exaggeration in my case, but Snap certainly has), and I certainly didn't expect a reply within the hour from Snap themselves when I reposted an article critical of their technology by Charles Arthur of the Guardian. Well, one does write in order to be read, so I'm not going to bemoan the fact that people have been reading A Sensitivity to Things—including a certain Charles Arthur, who left a comment and further contribution to the Snap debate a little earlier today. I'll let the Guardian Technology supplement editor (thanks Google) take it from here:
You can count me as disinterested - I just try to report what people are saying. Snap has come in for a lot of dislike among bloggers of late. Just to respond to Erik’s points first: “- Is your audience *exclusively* made up of experienced Internet users that read your blog using browsers that support tabbed browsing (essentially IE7, Firefox, Opera or Safari)?” Since IE7 is what Microsoft is making available to all XP owners, it would be surprising if your audience didn’t quickly consist of lots of IE7 users. Whether they’ll use tabbed browsing is debatable. But tabbing isn’t the key here. Lots of people read by following a link, and if they don’t like it, there’s the back button. Snap Preview doesn’t tell you enough to inform the decision, I’d suggest.
Sorry Charles—as this is my blog and I make the rules (cue evil laugh), let me jump in here for a moment... Personally, I hardly ever use the back button (I have memorised the browser keyboard shortcuts as most power users should), and almost always open links in new tabs just to avoid its use. Loading and reloading pages by going back and forth is painfully slow at times—even on today's broadband connections—and in tab-less Explorer 6 I would suggest it is common to have multiple, un-tabbed windows open simultaneously—the Windows dock works almost the same as tabs anyway.
“- Are you *not* interested in attracting and retaining readers that doesn’t fit this narrow user profile?” Unpacking this double negative, we get“do you want to have readers beyond those using tabbed browsers?” Of course you do - but do you need what is in effect a pop-up, which educated and uneducated users alike dislike, or are there effective tools already in browsers?
A bit harsh on poor old Snap? Even removing my Snap-besotted, rose-tinted“cool factor” glasses, I would still argue that it isn't quite a pop-up window; it goes away on mouse-off, and can be easily disabled—as many in this debate have pointed out.
- Are your hyperlinks blue and underlined? If they’re not, then you’re unlike millions or billions of sites, and you’re breaking a fundamental of usability, and you should change your stylesheet at once so that they are.
Cutting in again, personally I prefer css-defined, marker pen style background-colours on the sites I build these days (see an example here), but yes it seems the underline is here to stay, even when 1px thick and dotted.
- Do you consistently follow“proper” markup protocol, defining the target and title of the link within the opening and closing of the anchor tag? Most people don’t - but as they become more experienced at writing links, they learn to use descriptive phrases. Until recently, the Google search on“miserable failure” illustrated how.
Most web developers do use link titles, or at least should do if they're earning their money properly—they're a part of the W3C usability standards and have been for some time. Same with alt tags, and both are essential for search engine optimisation. It's a different story of course for your average Web 2.0 enabled CMS or out-of-a-box blog user. On the same topic, I notice a suspicious lack of link titles on the Guardian Unlimited technology site...
Overall, the case against Snap Preview is that it’s like a pop-up and it tells you little that you couldn’t learn by looking down at the status bar, where on most browsers the“go to” link’s URL will show up. It’s the pop-up part that people find trying. >> …In the UK the Guardian is not exactly top of the list in the readership polls anyway, but knowing what *is* at the top is not terribly comforting either… I don’t know what“polls” you’re referring to (there’s no such thing; there are sales, readership, and website visitors/pageviews). The website is the most-read of the UK newspapers.
Betamax was a superior video technology but lost badly in the popularity stakes. Popularity may not be everything when it comes to assessing the merits of a technology, but it is everything in regards to its uptake and success. I will concede the point however, whatever my own opinion, that it is popularity that will determine the success or otherwise of Snap's high-stakes technology investment. Thanks for adding to the debate Charles—I appreciate the fact that you took the time. Besides, as a free-lance writer available for hire, I do know which side my bread is buttered (hint). Postscript: if you haven't disabled it already, rolling over any of the links in this article will show you where they go—this is Snap in action, the subject the debate. Obviously I still have it installed—my final word on the matter.

Kiteflying can kill?

Kite flyingA story currently in the news about kite-flying (see below) reminded me that I actually used to know some kite-fliers once. I guess that's not so strange—many people fly kites I am sure, and for all I know my neighbours could be enthusiasts—but back in High School it seemed like an unusual thing to do with one's time. Of course I've learnt a little in the intervening years, including not to be so quick to judge people based on appearances—or unusual weekend activities. In high school, which for me means the late 80s/early 90s,“Madchester,” grunge before it was popular and electronic music before anybody played it (that the All Blacks lost the World Cup and the Black Caps were terrible needs no point in time), my extended circle of friends included a number of exchange students—students from overseas on programmes like YFU and AFS—here in New Zealand officially to promote international understanding and learn English, often in reality to have themselves a very good time. There were two approaches to exchange students among the general student body—mostly ignored and annoying, semi-coherent strangers; or interesting novelties from fascinating, foreign cultures. I fell firmly into the second opinion grouping, and can say in hindsight that my life and outlook was genuinely broadened by meeting people from all over the world. Aside from the to be expected difficulties of learning a new language and fitting into a strange culture, a testing area for some exchange students was the host family they were assigned to. On exchange programmes it's most parts a complete lottery where you end up—there is a screening procedure, but how do you screen for the host brother or sister who “hates your guts”—and once you arrive changing families is a difficult procedure—and deliberately so. The topic of host families was a bane of contention for many of the students at our school. One student and their host family stands out in my memory for the sheer absurdity of their co-habitation, although I should repeat that my then teenage viewpoint may have been a little faster to pass judgement than it is now. I never actually met “The Kite-fliers.” They lived in a nice enough suburb, and were probably nice enough people, but the way their Finnish house-guest described them—eyes rolling with disbelief, something close to panicked desperation as we dropped them home after outings—painted a most unusual picture in my imagination. The Kite-fliers was not their actual name—more occupation or hobby (or borderline obsession). They eagerly, enthusiastically introduced this every-weekend activity on the first night of said student's arrival, amateur video highlights and full size kites unfurled in their living room—“We're so looking forward to your company on our weekend adventures to fly kites!” they announced. They weren’t joking. Every weekend the Kite-fliers would pack the family van full of silk and string and journey to all parts of the countryside, joining fellow fliers and enthusiasts for contests or exhibitions, one very unhappy Finnish exchange student in tow. One imagines this student miming along to family sing-alongs (“You're going to sing us some of your native songs soon right?”), or dispatched to the other end of the field to hold the video camera. This is the picture in my mind to this day of kite-flying (yes there is a website), a hokey, no-risk camp-fire sing-along like activity, more in common with crochet or competitive embroidery than death or dismemberment, the subject of the following story about kite-flying from Pakistan:
Pakistan: 11 dead, 100 injured in kite flying festival At least 11 people died and more than 100 people were injured at an annual spring festival in eastern Pakistan celebrated with the flying of thousands of colourful kites, officials said today. The deaths and injuries were caused by stray bullets, sharpened kite-strings, electrocution and people falling off rooftops yesterday at the conclusion of the two-day Basant festival, said Ruqia Bano, spokeswoman for emergency service in the city of Lahore. The festival is regularly marred by casualties caused by sharp kite strings or celebratory gunshots fired into the air. Kite fliers often use strings made of wire or coated with ground glass to try to cross and cut a rival’s string or damage the other kite, often after betting on the outcome. Authorities temporarily lifted a ban on kite flying that was imposed last year following a string of deaths at the festival. Lahore Mayor Mian Amier Mahmood said that the two-day permission to fly kites ended yesterday and the ban has been re-imposed. Police arrested more than 700 people for using sharpened kite strings or firing guns and seized 282 illegally held weapons during this year’s festival, said Aftab Cheema, a senior Lahore police officer.

Life is but a dream…

A circumzenithal arc (upside down rainbow) by Andrew G. Saffas Serendipity: Thanks, Horace Walpole by Sumangali Morhall has left me reaching for superlatives and floundering in imitation. A total of two mentions to this web diary? Flattered beyond due, how could I not be effusive in my praise! On the topic of serendipity, still, I am reminded of a friend from very long ago, an art student and later fellow practitioner of meditation who introduced me to the concept that life itself could be art. My ears picked up at this point; being something of a frustrated artist—one who could and should be doing creative things, had always planned to do them but convinced self that he was not “good” enough to—I knew intuitively as soon as he spoke that here was a better way to live; a chord was struck within. In following this outlook, my friend and his art school acquaintances admittedly went to very unusual extremes. A flatmate of his, a particularly shy, awkward young man, took to roaming the streets in a reflective, silver spacesuit; several years later child-like quirkiness became full-blown strangeness, live art gallery performances and national magazine writeups of the very unusual party trick—sewing his own lips shut. Borderline psychosis of fleeting acquaintances aside, I very much admired my friend’s philosophy of allowing life to surprise him, the way he sought joy in the random, the unusual and completely unplanned. Like leaving small amounts of money “forgetfully” in pockets; in a week or a month when next worn—a pleasant surprise! To one used to planning and practicality but not terribly enamored of the consequences, seeing a person living thus opened my eyes, and ever since I have made a practise of always allowing life to surprise me. Like turning one's eye skywards to glimpse a rainbow, serendipity and chance are there when looked for; accept them upon their own terms, graciously and un-demanded, their workings far more beautiful than explanation. There is belief common to many religions and philosophies that maintains our world is an illusion. A more positive way of stating this, a way which doesn't negate the meaning of our fleeting human experience and reality, is to see life as a game. This is Sri Chinmoy's approach to living, and he describes it as God’s as well—a being whom he often refers to as an eternal child. If you take God to be omnipotent, omniscient and omni-present, and all the major philosophies do, then what could give such a being more joy than the unknown—a game of surprise? It is said that God deliberately limits himself, hides from himself and his full capacity, just to be able to enjoy Himself and his creation more fully. This the real meaning of life; our lives an experience of God-becoming in the midst of limitation, God enjoying himself and his creation here on earth in ever-new ways, through our eyes and our human form. Life, it is said, is the ultimate game of hide and seek...
Hide and Seek Every minute inspires me To attempt. Every hour perfects me To ascend. Every day illumines me To reach. In my attempt, I have come to learn what I can be. In my ascension, I have come to learn who I eternally Am. On my arrival, God and I shall stop playing our age-long Game, Hide-and-Seek. —Sri Chinmoy

Snap make the case for Snap Preview Anywhere

I wasn't expecting a response when I reposted Charles Arthur's review of SPA's Snap website add-on, and certainly not within the hour, but get a response I did, and directly from SPA themselves. A sign of sensitivity? Desperation? Or even astroturfing as one commenter suggested—the top down manufacturing of the appearance of a grassroots movement, just as artifically turfed sports fields are manufactured to appear like grass. There is some truth to these arguments; the Guardian story made the top 10 at reddit.com, equivalent to extraordinarily large exposure, and as a negative opinion piece therefore extremely bad press for SPA; with millions of dollars invested in their product, little wonder that they are responding in this manner, and promptly. As opposed to the practise of “astroturfing” however, they are making the case for their product in-person, responding to critiques or negative reviews one at a time (presumably ‘bot assisted), and as they appear. While I was surprised to attract their attention (here come the ‘bots!) on such a new website (one week and counting), I'm not against it, and it led me to consider the arguments for and against their product—as seen right here on A Sensitivity to Things—more closely. And as you can see, it's still installed... The comment posted by Snap follows:
Tech pundits such as Charles Arthur of the Guardian, who critique SPA on the basis of usefulness, either fail to think outside of their personal frame of reference or they are essentially expressing a lack of interest in the less tech savvy. Snap Preview Anywhere has never claimed to provide *all* the information needed, but rather to provide richer-than-what-is-currently-available cues to what lies ahead. As a publisher you have a responsibility to your audience. If I was to attempt boiling down the science of audience research I would say this comes down to a combination of knowing who they are, what they want and what they need. Ask yourself the following questions: - Is your audience *exclusively* made up of experienced Internet users that read your blog using browsers that support tabbed browsing (essentially IE7, Firefox, Opera or Safari)? - Are you *not* interested in attracting and retaining readers that doesn’t fit this narrow user profile? - Are your hyperlinks blue and underlined? - Do you consistently follow "proper" markup protocol, defining the target and title of the link within the opening and closing of the anchor tag? If so, your audience is likely to find the usefulness of SPA marginal. If so, your audience is trained to pick up on the subtle cues already provided by the browser framework — the browser status bar and anchor link title attribute provide these users with most of what they need to determine where links are pointing — and the cost of occasional erroneous clicks are often mitigated through the use of advanced browser functionality such as tabbed browsing... However, if the user profile or markup principles described above are too narrow for your taste or ambition, I believe that by implementing Snap Preview Anywhere you would in fact offer ALL your readers MORE information to base their decision on which links to click or not to click, REDUCING the number of unwanted outbound clicks mid-read and, in effect, IMPROVE their ability to focus on YOUR content, or the content you link to that they TRULY wanted to visit. For a more in-depth discussion of SPA — both its strengths and weaknesses — you might also visit our blog post The Snap Preview Anywhere Use Case. Cheers. -- Erik Wingren Snap UX Research
I think that about closes the topic of Snap for me at least. Normal posting will resume ASAP—or as soon as I finish creating a 54 row csv-table in ReStructured Text...

Snapped?

From the pages of the Guardian. I'm having second thoughts about Snap now...
Is Snap Preview the most hated Web 2.0 function ever? Charles Arthur Thursday February 22, 2007 We certainly haven't seen anything to match the outpourings of bile that have followed the wannabe search engine's little page previews, which appear on a number of wordpress.com sites and elsewhere.The Snap Preview Anywhere technology (also available as a Firefox plugin!) means that if you hover your mouse over a link, you'll see a little popup window showing the site being linked to, attached to the place where your mouse is. The first time, you think, "Cool!" The second time, you think, "Oh, that." The third time, most people think, "How the hell do I turn this thing off?" (Clue: click on the little "Options" text in the popup box and choose "Disable for ALL sites." Add "Damn you!" if you like.) Part of the revulsion over Snap Preview is in that dangerous word "popup": it's too like an unwanted ad. Plus, who needs to know what the site you might go to looks like? The preview's too small to tell you anything useful, but often obscures text on the page you're still on.Snap has been doing its best to fight off a veritable blog blizzard of disapproval: "Since launch some 700,000 websites and blogs have signed up for the service and some 180m previews have been served," wrote Erik Wingren, its senior researcher, on its blog (blog.snap.com). "The Snap Preview Anywhere service was designed to help users make more informed decisions about what links to click on and thereby help them navigate the internet with greater speed and accuracy." We still can't see it, to be honest. Isn't that what the URL tells you? Meanwhile, Snap's principal ambition - as a new search engine - may be fatally wounded. We'll wait and see ... without pop-ups.

Best goal celebration ever!

Craig Bellamy, striker for English Premier League football side Liverpool, is said to be a person who crystallises opinion. In a League where larger than life is a way of life, everybody either loves our hates the diminutive, fiery former goal-scorer for Blackburn. And just to prove my afore-mentioned maxim: after Bellamy's latest on-field exploits, I think I could become a fan. Bellamy has been in the news in recently for allegedly striking fellow team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club during a training camp in Portugal—perhaps confusing the six-foot red-headed Norwegian for a golf ball. Whatever the truth to the incident (did he shout“fore” first?), I very much admired his gesture in this morning's encounter with Barcelona; after scoring a dramatic, score-tying goal, he turned to the crowd and proceeded to tee-off, striking an imaginary golf-ball to the back of the stand. To do so showed a considerable sense of humour, and no small sense of self-deprecation. One seldom sees celebrities in his position—deservedly or not—deliberately making fun of themselves, and I expect Bellamy disarmed a legion of critics with this single, comic gesture I have some sympathy for the situation famous athletes find themselves in. Not for their astronomical salaries mind you, but their non-existent private lives, the smallest incident seized upon and“beat-up” out of all proportion; they are watched ceaselessly by an army of journalists whose livelihoods depends upon such, whatever the truth. He may have done what he is said to have done, or he may not have; either way it was more than likely a private falling-out between friends, and if they are friends again once more—they both took the field together this morning so it seems likely—what exactly else matters? Because at the end of the day, whose business was it apart from theirs?