Cheap Shots

Aspiring photographer? Trying to make an impression on an online world with your nascent mastery of a century-old craft? Allow a fellow neophyte to offer a few words of advice.

Not all photographers have the time, opportunity or, heck, the money to take those seriously WTF, how-did-you-DO-that, I-will-see-the-world-differently-because-of-this kind of shot. Sadly, such moments are relatively rare. You may yet have your chance to blow the world away with your incandescent, visionary imagery. But in the mean time, here is a quick primer to help you put your own special genius into perspective.

Shots We Have Already Seen

This may come as a shock, but others have taken photographs before you. Some of them were very talented. Among the shots we have already seen:

  • The water droplet
  • The water droplet on a blade of grass
  • The water droplet on a blade of grass with a distorted reflection of something visible deep inside. (Tragically for you, the visual metaphor of Worlds Within has indeed been considered once or twice before.)
  • The blade of grass, without the water droplet
  • The forced-perspective skyscraper
  • Two forced-perspective skyscrapers
  • Forced-perspective anything, actually
  • The reflection in the window
  • The distorted reflection in the rainy window
  • The staircase (It turns out there are several spiral staircases in the world. They have, alas, all been photographed before. Yes, even that one.)
  • The beggar
  • The self-conscious hipster made edgy and cool by rotating the camera 30 degrees
  • Someone blowing smoke in a dimly lit room (Did you know this happens sometimes in bars? What brave new world is this, indeed.)
  • Footprints (in anything, leading anywhere)
  • Sunset

Shots We Didn’t Want To See In The First Place*

  • Your pet
  • Your girlfriend
  • Your child
  • Your street
  • That old farmhouse
  • Grass
  • That tree (not even at sunset)

* Don’t get we wrong. I’m sure your family and friends would love to see a well-taken shot of any of the above, but unless your date is truly unique, your pet looks like this or you have the skill to capture your child in a moment like this, we’d all rather you didn’t foist them on us for comment. After all, we hardly know you.

Shots Which Had Better Be Really Fucking Good Before You Even Consider Showing Them To Others

See, we don’t mind seeing these. They’re kinda cool. But you might want to think twice before crowing about them. The examples above are just a small sample of the stuff found on one website in about one month.

Things Which Are Never Tasteful, No Matter What

  • Watermarks (Seriously, if someone can’t immediately identify your photos from their own inimitable style, then a watermark isn’t going to help you. And no, cursive text does not make it all right.)
  • Women in bad makeup
  • Women on the railway tracks (I mean, seriously: Dude, what?)
  • Actually, nude women sitting anywhere they wouldn’t normally sit, if you hadn’t paid them*
  • More than two shots of any one thing (Remember: Shake it more than twice and you’re playing with it.)
  • Shots of your camera (especially if you’re holding it.)
  • Models who have been painted all one colour
  • Saturation. It is the photographer’s ketchup. Use it accordingly.
  • The one-colour wash (Guys, seriously, that sepia tone was an artifact of the chemical process required to develop the film. It does not make your model look hotter.)
  • The single colour element of an otherwise monochrome shot. (Shit, even the banks don’t use this in their ads any more; that’s how cliché it’s become.)
  • Captions that say what’s in the model’s thoughts (This goes double when the model is your pet.)
  • Tragically, wedding shots. Don’t know why. They just never are. Ever.

* Okay, on rare occasions, nude women in strange postures are genuinely beautiful. But are they more beautiful than normal postures, really?

Shots We* Actually Do Like To See, Really (Provided You Possess Any Skill At All)

* By ‘we’, of course I mean ‘I’. Shyeah…

Shots That Will Be Popular*, Whether You Do Them Well Or Not

  • Young women
  • Two women touching or nearly touching
  • Children
  • Pets, especially cats
  • Baby animals
  • Children
  • Shiny, especially red and gold

* These are all things we’re wired to stare at, and which can get you far in terms of popularity, until you discover that this hasn’t necessarily made you a better photographer. Then again, they’ve made you popular, so who cares?

Nice Work if You Can Get It

Andrew Sullivan links to a few posts about the continual struggle to make the Internet pay. Personally, I find both sides of this online payment argument silly. Neither Felix Salmon nor Seth Roberts are on the mark, and neither of them really understand what motivates people to make payments for non-material goods delivered over the Internet.

Micro-payment for Internet content is not flawed in and of itself. Like so many nice ideas, though, it has few decent exemplars at this stage of the development of the Internet.

People will find a way to manage micro-payments, and some people will profit thereby. Why? Because people are willing to reward people for their contributions. Radiohead made significant profits from the online release of their album ‘In Rainbows’. Many people paid more than the recommended minimum contribution Radiohead requested. President Obama’s online campaign was premised not on sales but on the moral argument that people should participate in the process of change. The monetary exchange in each case was symbolic; it was not payment for services rendered but reward for exemplary behaviour.

This really is the crux of the issue: Internet content is part of a gift economy, an economy of plenitude that bears a stronger resemblance to the West Coast native practice of potlatch than anything Adam Smith might have envisioned.

Simply put, people don’t pay for things on the Internet; they don’t have to. So we create content as a labour of love, and if people value it, they reward us, first with their attention, then, in certain circumstances, with their material support.

I put all my columns and photos online simply out of a desire to communicate. The fact that I’ve been able to parlay this output into a consultancy that is earning me more now than my previous salaried position is more than a happy accident, that’s true. My web presence is my calling card. But I would publish my material online regardless. The bottom line is that I love the act of creation, and I feel gratified when people derive some value from it.

Some people have recognised my expertise in my particular niche of the online world – and its applicability to their needs – and that provides enough income enough to keep me working online. Their rewards make my online work possible.

Lastly: Seth’s response is based on a false premise. The vast majority of Open Source developers are well remunerated for their efforts. This is a perfect case in point: Those who benefit from an improved environment (in this case, commoditised, easily customised software) are usually willing to reward those whose work improves it.

None of us have a well-developed understanding of how things will play out in online content creation. But we have to stop thinking about it in terms of product and sale. It’s reward for services rendered.

Form and Function

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

[Yes, it’s a re-hash of this rant. ed.]

As a computer geek, I’m supposed to be suffused with enthusiasm and excitement over the features of the latest software. By rights, I should be the one carrying the techno-tablets down from the mountain, telling you how the latest in frobnalising ephemetry is going to change everyone’s life. I’m the one supposed to show you where to sign up and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

I have a confession to make: I hate most software.

90% of software is crap. As author Theodore Sturgeon famously said, that’s because 90% of everything is crap.

I save a particular loathing for word processors. For any but the simplest tasks, their interfaces are utterly ridiculous. I haven’t liked a word processing interface since WordPerfect circa version 5, which ran on DOS (remember DOS?). If I had my own way, I’d still be using it.

Continue reading

Steaming Piles

I give up. I can’t support OpenOffice Write any more, and it’s nobody’s fault but their own. For anything more than simple tasks, the application is terrible. Their only saving grace is that Microsoft Office has its own brand of polished turd, named Word. Collectively, they are racing to the bottom of a decade-long decline in useability.

No, that’s too generous. The thing is, they’re at the bottom. They are useless for any but the most trivial tasks, and the most trivial tasks are better accomplished elsewhere, anyway.

Yes, I’m ranting. Let’s put this into a proper context:

I hate word processors. For any but the simplest tasks, their interfaces are utterly ridiculous. I haven’t liked a word processing interface since WordPerfect circa version 5, and if I had my own way, I’d author all my documents in either emacs or vi, depending on the circumstances.

Why do word processors suck so badly? Mostly, it’s because of the WYSIWYG approach. What You See Is What You Get, besides being one of the most ghastly marketing acronyms to see the light of day in the digital era, is ultimately a lie. It was a lie back in the early 1990s when it first hit the mainstream, and it remains a lie today. The fact of the matter is that trying to do structuring, page layout and content creation all at the same time is a mug’s game. Even on a medium as well understood as paper, it’s just too hard to control all the variables and still have a comprehensible interface.

But the real sin that word processors are guilty of is not that they’re trying to do WYSIWYG – okay it is that they’re trying to do WYSIWYG, but the way they go about it makes it even worse. Rather than insisting that the user enter data, structure it and then lay it out, they cram everything into the same step, short-circuiting each of those tasks, and in some cases rendering them next to impossible to achieve.

Learning how to write, then structure, then format a document (or even just doing each through its own interface) is easier to accomplish than the all-in approach we use today. For whatever reason, though, we users are deemed incapable of creating a document without knowing what it’s going to look like right now, and for our sins, that’s what we’ve become. And so we are stuck with word processors that are terrible at structuring and page layout as well as being second-rate text authoring interfaces. They do nothing well, and many things poorly, in no small part because of the inherent complexity of trying to do three things at once.

It doesn’t help that their technical implementation is poor. The Word document format is little better than a binary dump of memory at a particular moment in time. For our sins, OpenOffice is forced to work with that as well, in spite of having the much more parse-worthy ODF at its disposal these days.

There’s no changing any of this, of course. The horse is miles away, and anyway the barn burned down in the previous millennium. The document format proxy war currently underway at the ISO is all the evidence I need to know that I’ll be dealing with stupid stupid stupid formatting issues for years to come. I will continue to be unable to properly structure a document past about the 80th percentile, which is worse than not at all. I will continue to deal with visual formatting as my only means to infer context and structure, leaving me with very little capacity to do anything useful with the bloody things except to print them out and leave them on someone’s desk.

Maybe I’ll just stop using them at all. Maybe I’ll just start doing everything on the web and never print again.

I’m half serious about this, actually. At least on the Web, the idea that content and presentation are separate things isn’t heresy. At least on the Web, I can archive, search, contextualise, comment, plan, structure and collaborate without having to wade through steaming piles of cruft all the time.

At least on the Web, I can choose which steaming piles I step into.

I’m going to start recommending people stop using Word as an authoring medium. There are far better, simpler tools for every task, and the word processor has been appropriate for exactly none of them for too long now. Sometimes you have to destroy the document in order to save it.

Stop Bad Errors

I recently upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04, which comes with the most recent beta of Firefox 3.0. The new version of Firefox has a number of interesting features, not the least of which is a set of measures to reduce drive-by infection of PCs.

If they wander from the beaten path, people now see a big red sign warning them about so-called ‘Attack Sites’ – websites that are reported to have used various means to infect visiting systems with malicious software:

The graphic is fairly well done, but interestingly, there’s no obvious way to over-ride the warning and go to the site anyway. Not that one would want to, but it does raise the bar for circumventing this anti-rube device while raising questions about who gets to decide what’s bad and what’s good.

The ‘Get Me Out Of Here!’ button smacks of Flickr-style smarminess, sending (in my humble opinion) the wrong kind of message. Either be the police constable or be my buddy, but don’t try to be both. That’s just patronising.

I followed the second button to see how the situation would be explained to the curious. I was brought to a page providing a less-than-illuminating statement that the site in question had been reported to be infected by so-called ‘badware’.

The service tracks websites whose content has been compromised, deliberately or not, and provides data about these sites to the public in order to protect Internet users from drive-by infection. With sponsorship from Google, Lenovo, Sun, PayPal, VeriSign and others, the service is obviously viewed in the corporate community as a necessary and responsible answer to the issue of malware infection.

At the time of this writing, the Stop Badware databases listed over a quarter of a million websites as infected.

The report page itself was less than a stellar example of information presentation, especially about a security-related topic. In the top left corner is a colour-coded circle with three states:

Safe StopBadware testing has found badware behavior on this site.
Caution One or more StopBadware partners are reporting badware behavior on this site.
Badware No StopBadware partners are reporting badware behavior on this site.

So the difference between red and yellow here is not one of degree, it’s based on who reported it. Not only is this useless as a threat measurement, it sends the wrong message to people using the service, implying that there’s a distinction to be made between what Stop Badware finds out for themselves and what their partners find. By treating the sources differently, they’re inadvertently creating a distinction between gospel and rumour, implying that some sources are less reliable than others.

The report page for the domain in question is populated using the GET method, meaning that you can plug any domain name right into the address bar (if you know the URL components) and get a report on it. Unfortunately, it never occurred to the good people at Stop Badware that some might want to use this capability to check the status of an arbitrary domain. (Amusingly, this method also circumvents the captcha on the ‘official’ report page.)

When I checked the status of my own domain, I was informed that, in effect, I’d recently stopped beating my wife:

Google has removed the warning from this site.

It’s interesting when you’re faced with a sentence in which nearly every word is wrong. Google has removed the site? Where am I? Isn’t this Stop Badware? Removed the warning for this site? There never was one. And even if there was a warning at one point in time, people don’t need to be told that. This message is a bit like saying, ‘So-and-so is a great guy! He doesn’t drink at all any more.

I applaud the Stop Badware service and the concept, and I look forward to the day when someone actually does a bit of usability research for them.

P.S. Could we please do something about the term ‘badware’? It’s almost sickeningly patronising. Some might argue that terms like ‘virus’, ‘trojan’ and ‘malware’ are too arcane, but I say we should just pick one and stick with it, regardless of how accurate it actually is.

People know and (ab)use the term ‘virus’, so why don’t we get the geek-stick out of our lexical butt and just use it? It’s a virus. You’ve got a virus. Who cares what it is or how you got it. You got a virus and now your computer needs to be treated before you can use it safely again. Now, how hard was that?

Web Standards – A Rant

It’s very common on Slashdot and other, er, technical fora, to see people make assertions like the following:

IE extensions [of existing standards] have proven to be a very good thing for the web overall. It has always been IE that has pushed the limits of dynamic web pages through the inclusion of similar extensions (primarily for the development of Outlook Web Access) which have given birth to the technologies that fuel AJAX and other modern web techniques.

What an interesting viewpoint. I couldn’t disagree more.

The ‘Embrace and Extend’ strategy on which Microsoft has relied since about 1998 is designed to be divisive and ultimately to support Microsoft’s one interest: by hook or by crook, to land everyone on the Microsoft platform. They worked with little or no support or cooperation from any other body[*] and more often than not used their position to subvert the activities of others. They published competing specifications and duplicated functionality through their own proprietary implementations.

Now before we go any further, it’s important to remember that this strategy was dressed up nicely, spoken about politely in marketing euphemisms and was seldom openly disparaging of competing technologies. It is also important to note that very few of the people actually responsible for the creation and fostering of standards ever felt anything but frustration and animosity toward these efforts to subvert the process. I’ve seen such luminaries as Lawrence Lessig and Sir Tim Berners Lee stand up in public fora and state in absolutely unambiguous terms that ‘this MS technology is the single biggest threat faced by the web today.’ (WWW Conference, Amsterdam 2000, for those who care).

It’s true that there are some who have argued for accomodation, and while they’ve achieved short-term gains (RSS and SOAP, for example), the recent announcement of MS-only implementations and extensions of these standards offers further evidence that MS’ intentions are anything but benevolent.

Now, some may trot out the sorry old argument that a corporation’s job is to profit and damn the ethical/legal torpedoes, but the fact is that to most of the people working in standards, this is not the goal. Believe it or not, most of us actually care about the community, and feel that the way things are implemented is just as important as what gets done. So feel free to act as apologist for the soulless corporate machine if you must, but please, don’t pretend that that’s the only way things can be made to work.

Microsoft (and Netscape in its time) are not only guilty of skewing standards in their favour. They’re also guilty of something far more insidious: the infection of the application space with software designed to lock people into their proprietary approach to things. Often enough, the design is fatally compromised in the process. The example cited above, Outlook Web Access, is a prime example of how to break things in the name of lock-in.

Here’s a quick summary of just some of the ways in which Outlook Web Access, which encapsulates email access inside HTTP and passes it through ports 80/443 by default, is technically broken:

  • Caching proxy servers might or might not do the right thing – behaviour here is undefined
  • Traffic/network analysis is subverted
  • Security is compounded, as activity patterns have to be checked on more, not fewer ports (think about it)
  • Likewise, security audits are far more difficult, as traffic has to be disambiguated
  • Security is subverted, users can simply tunnel high volume traffic through to (at least) the DMZ with no guarantee that it’s being inspected (i.e. no one catches that the traffic is neither going to the web nor the Exchange server; each one assumes it’s going to the other and that it’s ‘okay’. Same goes with large volumes of outgoing information.)
  • Deliberate bypassing of firewall policies, promoting insecure configurations (e.g. pushing things through ports 80 and 443 as a matter of informal policy, reducing the firewall to an ornament)
  • Buggier software due to additional complexity
  • Non-standard, meaning (little or) nothing else will support it
  • Promotes software lock-in, which has cost and management implications
  • Promotes monoculture, which has cost, management and *security* implications
  • Protocols exist for this purpose already

That last point is the key. Why on earth would MS build an entirely new way to get one’s email when secure IMAP or POP3 already exist? Microsoft doesn’t particularly care about doing things better, they just want to make sure that their customers do things differently. Quality is seldom a concern, and as a result, it’s usually a casualty.

[*] It’s true that they were – and remain – members of such organisations as the World Wide Web Consortium.