Leave My Scrollbars—and Scrub Bars—Alone

I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen about Lion’s iOS-like disappearing scrollbars since the day they were announced. I need now to take a moment to gloat. In his incredible-as-always review of the new version of the Mac OS, ArsTechnica’s John Siracusa takes my side, explaining why it’s jarring and terrible—my words—to have disappearing scrollbars on the Mac (even as it makes perfect sense on the iPhone, e.g.). (The whole 19-page review is worth reading, but if you don’t think so, then at least give the section on scrollbars a go.) Siracusa notes:

Scroll bars do more than just let us scroll. First, their state tells us whether there’s anything more to see. A window with “inactive” (usually shown as dimmed) scroll bars indicates that there is no content beyond what is currently visible in the window. Second, when a document has more content than can fit in a window, the scroll bars tell us our current position within that document. Finally, the size of the scroll thumb itself—or the amount of room the scroll thumb has to move within the scroll bar, if you want to look at it that way—gives some hint about the total size of the content.

Thankfully, as Siracusa points out, non-hiding scrollbar behavior can be restored in System Preferences. The issue persists elsewhere in the OS, however, and in fact, has been around since years before Lion’s release today. In particular, in watching video using either of Apple’s applications for doing so (QuickTime and DVD Player), you have to deal with the same kind of pretty-but-less-informative chrome-hiding that I’ve been griping about. Let’s take a moment to review the most influential video player in computing probably ever, YouTube:

YouTube’s standard player.

Nice. I get lots of good information out of YouTube’s standard, non-full-screen player, including:

  • how far along I am in the video (indicated both visually and with temporal data and useful when my patience is being tried by the content, as pictured here)
  • the video’s length (useful in deciding whether to watch now or later)
  • how much of the video has loaded (useful in knowing whether I should walk away for a bit to “manually” increase my buffer)
  • whether I am on play or pause (occasionally useful in troubleshooting)

If all’s going well and I know I’m going to settle in and watch the rest of this video, I may not care about that information anymore. It’s not in the way in the standard player, but it would be in full-screen mode. So YouTube smartly hides it there:

YouTube’s full-screen player. (On cursor activity over the video, the controls come back.)

Great. Well done, YouTube: I see what I want when I want it, and not when I don’t.

Let’s compare this approach to QuickTime’s (both Player and plug-in) and DVD Player’s behaviors. The full-screen versions behave much like YouTube’s, but, frustratingly, so do the standard players, hiding information:

QuickTime Player.
QuickTime Browser Plugin. (Thanks, pyroinnovations.com!)
DVD Player.

Yes, I get that everything’s a little bit prettier this way. But I desperately miss the information more often than I would’ve expected before these changes came about—and I resent the growing influence of this aesthetic in places where I’d rather it not be. (As one otherwise smart and talented designer friend said in designing a video player, “If it’s good enough for Apple…”. It’s not good enough for Apple, I wanted to retort.) After living with these video players, of course, it seemed a no-brainer that disappearing scrollbars in Lion would be maddening. I just don’t get why Apple’s pushing so hard to make the Mac OS more like iOS. As Siracusa notes, the devices these OSes run on present users with totally different models of interaction. Why try to combine them when they serve such different purposes?

How not to Email a Professor: A Lesson on Audience

Professor Michael Leddy’s “How to email a professor” is making the rounds on Facebook for the third time in as many years. While there’s much good advice in there, there’s also advice that seems useful mostly for students with professors who think like Leddy.

There are other ways to think, though, and examining a handful of differences between Leddy’s perspective and how I would have my students email me provides us with an interesting chance to think about the role of audience in professional communication (as I do in my advice at the end of this post). In what follows, I use Leddy’s headings to aid the reader in her comparisons of our positions.

I should say quickly that Leddy’s post dates from over six years ago, and his own opinions may well have changed in the interim. So I direct this post not to him, but to students and faculty everywhere. [Rainbow appears.]

“Write from your college or university email account.”

College and university email accounts that I’ve used are spam-ridden, have inconvenient webmail interfaces, and lack features for integration with desktop clients (e.g., fully-supported IMAP access). I try never to use mine; frankly I’d rather get a Facebook message from a student than a message to any institutional email address.

And while I agree that email addresses should be professional rather than “salacious”—which seems, at any rate, a strong word to describe any of the examples he uses (even “qtpie2005”)—I can’t see any difference in professionalism between “firstname.lastname@gmail.com” and the series of odd initials and numbers that comprise most email addresses. And since Gmail accounts are free, if I were the proverbial qtpie2005, I’d simply create a second account for my professional communications.

“Choose an appropriate greeting.”

Leddy bristles at “Dear ____,” but it’s quite common in my sphere. As a graduate student, many of my professors used it; I, in turn, picked up the habit of using it with my students, especially when addressing them as a group.

In fact, if I haven’t heard from a student before, I prefer they begin with “Dear,” as I would when writing to a colleague I didn’t know well, or to a writer who had submitted to the fledgling literary magazine I help out with. Here as in the first case, a student following Leddy’s advice would actually do slightly worse with me—to whatever insignificant extent they’d do better with Leddy, at least.

“Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.”

Leddy notes that signing “eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (‘I am a student in your such-and-such class’).” It seems to me, though, that making me scroll down to the end of your email to find out who’s email I’m reading is inconsiderate. If a student doubts that a professor will know him by name—as he probably should, depending on the class—he should identify himself as quickly as possible.

“Don’t send unexpected attachments.”

It’s not clear from Leddy’s post whether it’s the “attachments” or the “unexpected” that he has a bigger problem with, but the points he makes in this section and my responses are as follows:

  1. “It’s bad form.” Not so much an argument as an assertion, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. I’ve never thought for a second that it was rude to send me an attachment without some kind of prior authorization.
  2. “Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form.” Context is everything. If a student wants to send me a draft to glance at, I am more than happy to do so, and it saves me time. If we have a lot to talk about, I will suggest we meet in person—but why should it be on the student’s shoulders to decide that for both of us? After all, I’m the teacher here; she’s the one who’s not sure how to feel about her paper.
  3. “Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?” I never print out student work, and they only turn in work electronically. This issue is a non-starter for me.

My Advice: Know Your Audience.

To be fair, some of Leddy’s advice seems applicable across a far more broad sampling of professors (for example, “Proofread what you’ve written.”). Still, rather than issue a set of fixed rules, I would advise my students to learn as much as they can about how each of their professors prefers to communicate.

How? By observation, first of all. Start with the basics of professionalism, to be sure—and as always, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a fine guide—but beyond that, read your professors’ emails carefully and respond in ways that seem consistent with their tone and formatting. (If this process seems familiar, consider how you’re learning to write the academic essays with which you’re all apparently surprising Prof. Leddy.)

Also, by asking. A simple question like “Do you prefer to be called Prof. Goldstein?” goes a long way. I’d rather play a part in shaping your professional communication to my liking than have Prof. Leddy do it for me.

HTTPSEverywhere: Don’t Stop at Facebook’s HTTPS Option

Switching Facebook to HTTPS for use on un- or under-protected public networks (some coffeeshops, e.g.) is a good idea, and I’m glad to see a spate of status messages telling people how to do it. But those using Firefox might also consider the extension HTTPSEverywhere, which forces a number of common sites (including Facebook) into the same behavior.

Besides protecting you across a far greater range of websites, one advantage of the extension is that you can switch it on and off pretty easily—both globally and for individual sites. I turn it off while I’m on my home network (much more secure, much less at-risk) or on a school’s network (typically much, much more secure), so that I can access non-secure content like the Facebook’s SCRABBLE app, and so that pages load more quickly.

Regrettably, there is no good equivalent for other browsers, as of the last time I checked. (There are Chrome and Safari extensions, but they don’t cover your HTTP transaction from beginning to end, as I understand it.) But even when I was mostly using Safari, I would only use Firefox—with HTTPSEverywhere enabled—when I was at the coffeeshop. As it stands, I enable it for anything less than WPA2 networks.

I’m certainly no security expert, but I think this is a relatively safe practice. WPA2 networks are also inherently insecure—maybe all networks are?—but I’m just playing the numbers that nobody willing to take all the extra steps of getting into my data on a WPA2 network is going to happen to be in my coffeeshop at the same time I am. It’s sort of like deciding to unbuckle your seatbelt while the plane is still taxiing to the gate. Sure, something could happen, but…

For the record, even though I do use HTTPSEverywhere, I’ve also enabled Facebook’s HTTPS option. I like that it makes transparent the difference between secure and insecure content, and allows you the choice of switching to a plain old HTTP connection when you try to access insecure content:

Facebooks Insecure Content Warning
Facebook's Insecure Content Warning (Click to view full-size.)

I also like the Facebook option as a backup for one of the most important sites covered by the Firefox extension, which I could easily forget to enable someday. After all, until I get to the coffeeshop, I haven’t had my morning coffee, and without it, let’s just say my memory’s not so useful.

Time Edition vs. Stone Hill Time Card

My phenomenally bright and talented friend Nathan Peretic, of Full Stop Interactive, recently got caught up in a fit of uncharacteristic zeal and described Stone Hill Time Card as “a flawless time tracker.”

The contrarian in me bristles at such all-or-nothing language, but I swear that’s not why I’m writing this post documenting the flaws I see in Time Card—or at least, the ways in which the software seems not to be designed for me.

I’m writing this because I started to leave a second comment on Nate’s post, then started to compose an email to the developers, then decided to write the whole thing up here instead.

I want to admit quickly that TimeEdition, which I will continue to use, does crash too often, for example (though I haven’t lost any data), and has interface oddities like a mostly invisible, wholly undocumented AM/PM selector that can take days, nay weeks to decipher. I’m no fanboy, or whatever “fanboy” is in German, the native language in TimeEdition’s place of birth.

But I digress. As I mentioned in my comment on Nate’s post about Time Card, there’s a lot to like, and Nate covers that topic so well I won’t rehearse it here. In the comment, I go on to point out what I’d thought was “the one dealbreaker for me”: the lack of ability to specify separate projects for the same client.

Nate describes Time Code’s primary point of interaction—the “What are you working on?” field—as employing a magic ‘task for project’ syntax, though the help file suggests it’s actually intended as “task for client.” Either way, the lack of ability to specify both project and client for a given task—and to have that specification backed up by a data structure (just as the stuff that comes after the word “for” currently is”)—seems like an oversight.

It could be that, as a freelancer who works largely with agencies, I have a greater need than many to specify different clients as well as different projects. Still, I’m not the only one, and it seems to me that anyone who gets repeat business—either working on staff at an agency or freelancing with “direct” clients—would have the same problem I do.

As I acknowledge in my comment on Nate’s post, there are obvious ways around this problem, like creating and using your own syntax (e.g. “task for project—client,” “project: task for client”), but again, without the data structured behind the scenes, I can’t see using Time Card.

Here’s another issue: When I leave whatever coffee shop or ’40s-themed cocktail lounge I’m working in, I’m often in some kind of hurry, and sometimes I forget to stop my timer. Likewise, at home, I sometimes take a long phone call or have to change my work plans when I’ve just stepped away from my computer for a few minutes, and then I don’t typically go back to my machine to stop the timer. So I regularly have to edit entries after the fact.

In TimeEdition, editing an entry means editing start and end times—easy, since that’s pretty much how most humans keep track of their days. In SHTC, editing an entry means editing start time and duration (in minutes), which seems a needlessly complicated way to go. I’m not into having to figure out how many minutes have elapsed between the time I stopped working and the time I stopped my timer—some number of hours, typically—or how long I worked for based on. That’s the whole reason I use a time tracker to begin with: so I don’t have to do that math. Not that it’s running derivations or anything, but it’s some amount of hassle that I want to avoid.

As an aside, I can’t figure out the use case for the start-time/duration model. Somebody who just needs to fit their schedule to their budget or something? Seems a little shady to me, though it’s common enough in agency environments. And again, I’m probably missing the real purpose of this particular design.

URLs & Users

David Sklar’s claim that “people don’t care about URLs” (via Full Stop Interactive) seems like a wild overstatement, even taking “people” to mean “average” people.

At one point, he might have been right, but people who know what’s up with URLs have long been training others, through the kind of informal technical support so many of us give, to pay attention to them. I get a call from one of my parents from time to time saying, “This address looks funny. Should I trust this site?”

Internet literacy has grown to a point where people who might not have known how to open their browser a few years ago—I had a client like this in 2004—now understand that the thing with the blue line under it is called a link or hyperlink, and that some kind of code they can’t see tells their browser where to go when they click, and that “where to go” means, in a sense, “to what URL.”

(Besides, if you’re going to tweak URLs anyway, why not take “advanced” users into consideration?)