FEMA Requires IE

Looks like you need IE to Request Disaster Help [Report RMO11260876651676]. Similar issue here [Report RMO112569096572]. A small story about this issue was published by Legit Reviews. This hinders people using some Linux based Kiosks being setup to let survivors get online.

Currently, the only solution is to call (or forge your UA).

Anyone know someone who works on the FEMA website? Would be great to get this resolved quickly (especially the first one, since it appears to be blocking for no reason) for anyone who really needs the services FEMA provides. If anyone can help, contact me, leave a comment, or just get to work on it (I may be a little slow to respond due to some laptop problems). Thanks in advance to anyone who could help.

Update: Asa pointed me to a MSNBC article on the issue.

General Personal

Yet another week

Yet another week with no laptop (though hope to have it back fixed shortly… perhaps more details on that later). So it’s lab only until Thursday. I’ll be checking in, but don’t count on speedy email replies until then.

Apple Google Mozilla

Features vs. Usability

There seems to be an ongoing debate in the software world about features. You know, the “new toys” that come with software each time you get a new version. There was a time where you would always ask “what new features does it add?” when upgrading a software package. The end result of this practice was bloated software with more features than anyone could ever manage to use. A more modern practice is to “remove features” hoping to simplify software for the end user. Asa Dotzler’s recently said:

“I’d be pleased as punch if we could remove a couple features for the upcoming Firefox release. A feature is a flaming hoop we make our users jump through and if we’re doing our jobs — writing software that actually works for people — we’d be removing those hoops, not adding more.”

I’m going to respectfully disagree with Asa on this one. Partially on a technicality, and partially on theory.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish the difference between features and usability. Features can have a negative impact on usability, but there’s no written rule stating that must be the case. For example, web browsers added support for the PNG image format without negatively impacting the user experience (I’d bet most end users don’t even know about PNG, but it silently works). That is a clear feature. There’s really no UI to go along with it, so usability is not negatively impacted. No “hoops” to jump through as Asa put it.

On the other hand, you can have a “feature” like Microsoft Office’s Mail Merge. It’s messy, has an awkward UI, and doesn’t always behave as the user would expect. It’s often considered to be one of the worst features in the entire suite (besides Microsoft Access with is a UI disaster). I think that’s an example of the ugliness Asa hopes to rip out (though different product).

I disagree with the philosophy of removing features, instead I believe the best method is to revamp the user experience. For example, the “new window” ability in web browsers was a problem. Managing windows is a sore spot in many operating systems (in particular pre-Windows XP where it would appear as small specs rather than collapse into groups when many windows were open). Rather than limit the web browser to one window, a clever solution was to use “tabs”, effectively creating many windows within one. This alleviated the sore spot in most operating systems, and provided a more inclusive way of managing websites currently being visited.

About a month ago, I proposed we cut out the current bookmarking system and replace it with a more modern and usable Intelligent Bookmarking system. Such a system is actually adding many features (including machine logic), but would improve the user experience by getting rid of awkward menu’s and by intuitively letting the user auto-program (without any effort on the user’s part) the bookmarks system. It would essentially minimize (if not eliminate) the need to manage bookmarks. Is this adding or removing a feature? Would this be adding or removing hoops?

Innovation is about adding features within intuitive yet minimal UI. If you want a great example check out Mac OS X. It’s loaded with it. Lots of features to support everyone from kids and computer novices to expert hackers. It’s a great OS for that reason. It’s also one of the persistent problems with Windows and Linux. Both have some good features, but they are implemented in ways that are very hard for people who aren’t geeks to understand and use. rsync is way ahead of it’s time. But try explaining rsync to someone who doesn’t use a computer to often. Even most wrappers I’ve seen to give rsync a UI do a pretty pathetic job. They are complex, use technical language, are confusing and intimidate the user. Want to see why Apple’s .Mac does such a great job? Because it’s simple to use. It adds a feature (backup), but makes it easy to use (no hoops). Another great example is the PalmOS. It had two handicaps (no effective keyboard, and small screen), not to mention for the longest time PDA’s were mainly grayscale. But still it provided a robust usable experience with an easy to use UI.

Google has done a similar feat. Their homepage is still extremely plain, but you can do a surprising amount with their search box. They have kept a minimal UI, but allowed the user to do great things with it. They can add entire features without expanding on the UI. Google Maps added hurricane Katrina coverage with a single button. They added movies in a similar intuitive way. They didn’t create new services, vast menu’s, registration for these features. They integrated them tightly and made them easy to use. I don’t need to really learn anything new to use these add-ons. They just work.

Can mature products change? I see no reason why they can’t. Take a look at Netscape 6. It was a bloated immature product. Slow, very unintuitive and had menu’s that could confuse even pro’s. It took time, but it got separated from it’s sibling mail client, and both matured into much cleaner applications (Firefox and Thunderbird respectively). Are they done? I don’t believe so. They can still slim down their UI more. Bookmarking is in my opinion the ugliest part. The only reason it’s acceptable in it’s current state is because nobody has a really good system (yet). But there is still room to improve.

In conclusion, I see no reason to remove features, or even block features from becoming part of a product. I think the essential requirement is to get beyond the “ooh new toy” feeling and demand that the UI be minimal, and intuitive. Features are important. Could you imagine a web browser without FTP support? Needing to open another program to download a file. That wouldn’t be intuitive. But integrated into the browser and using the same download manager as HTTP downloads allows it to integrate so well most users forget what they are using. The same can be done for BitTorrent. We could add the functionality without causing a bad user experience. It’s essentially another protocol. The key is to not use a new or awkward UI, instead using the Download Manager perhaps just modifying to reflect the upload dynamic of the protocol. Other than that, it should should be completely transparent to the end user. They shouldn’t be able to distinguish what protocol they are using in any other way.

Features are good. They set Firefox apart from others, and attract users. What bothers users is features that don’t have a mature user interface. The solution should be to fix the interface, not drop the feature.

In The News Internet Personal

Katrina Relief Online

I’ve been compiling a little list of some ways you can help online. There is a lot going on, so if you find one I haven’t mentioned, leave a comment so I can add it.

  • Flickr Auction – the popular photo sharing site is holding an auction for prints of some donated photo’s. There’s quite a few reflecting some very talented people. If you’ve got some space for a photo and want to help out, this is a great way.
  • eBay is using PayPals to collect money for United Way.
  • Amazon is collecting through it’s “Honor System” making it easy to donate to the Red Cross through your account. Google is pointing to this.
  • Yahoo is also collecting for the Red Cross through it’s website.
  • MSN (Microsoft) is collecting money for the Red Cross.
  • Apple made it easy to donate through it’s iTunes service (link opens in iTunes).
  • Comcast notes a dozen charities which you can donate to (some accept online, some don’t).
  • has been pushed rather extensively by
  • Major League Baseball (MLB) will be holding collections on September 7th (or a day of a teams choosing for teams away on that day).
  • AOL is linking to a bunch of charities through

Feel free to add.


Binary Patching

This is by far the best feature in 1.5. This capability allows Firefox to update much quicker (which means more people will keep up to date). This is not only a bandwidth saver, and a way to quickly update, but it’s a security enhancement. It makes staying secure easier and faster, which should translate to more people keeping their computers secure.

Awesome work!

I wonder if anyone is planning to port this to SeaMonkey or Camino. No clue how much work would be involved there, likely a fair amount. Anyone know if there are plans to spread the updating love?

Around The Web General In The News

International Blogging for Disaster Relief Day

Today is International Blogging for Disaster Relief Day (Andy Carvin’s Idea). I think it’s rather appropriate.

For those wanting up to date information on what’s going on, check which has a few slow loading, but information filled threads from people gathering news from all sources.

I think I’ll just leave it with a link to the Red Cross as it’s rather fitting.

Warning: anyone who gets political here may be spanked in a way that would likely be deemed “to far” by most, so I’d recommend avoiding it (I haven’t decided exactly how, but I have been known to be downright rotten when people cross that line). This is not the place for debating what politicians have said/done (or not said/done) in regards to this event.

In The News Politics

Hurricane Katrina Photo Part II

The individual who wrote the capture for the now infamous “finding” picture broke his silence today.

The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. there were a million items floating in the water – we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. it had no doors. the water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow.

looting, as defined by the dictionary is:

1. Valuables pillaged in time of war; spoils.
2. Stolen goods.
3. Informal. Goods illicitly obtained, as by bribery.

finding on the other hand, is defined in a way that makes it sound much more law abiding:

1. To come upon, often by accident; meet with.
2. To come upon or discover by searching or making an effort: found the leak in the pipe.

Taking property that isn’t yours without express consent, especially if it’s only feet away from a grocery store (which makes it obvious who the owner of the goods are) is still looting. Both definition 1 and 2 for looting 100% describe *both* pictures. The definition of “finding” doesn’t apply to either in the context of the caption. This is just like you can still be charged with armed robbery even if you don’t fire your weapon. Looting is looting. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or what type protection the property owner had in place to protect their goods. You steal them in a circumstance like this (this really falls under time of war like anarchy)… it’s looting.

Yahoo Letter

Yahoo published the following in regard to this topic aknowledging it and explaining (although they didn’t write the captions, they just syndicate it):

To Yahoo! News readers:

News photos are an especially popular section of Yahoo! News. In part, this is because we present thousands of news photos from some of the leading news services, including The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Press. To make this volume of photos available in a timely manner, we present the photos and their captions as written, edited and distributed by the news services with no additional editing at Yahoo! News.

In recent days, a number of readers of Yahoo! News have commented on differences in the language in two Hurricane Katrina-related photo captions (from two news services). Since the controversy began, the supplier of one of the photos – AFP – has asked all its clients to remove the photo from their databases. Yahoo! News has complied with the AFP request.

Here are a few of the postings that have commented on the photo caption language:





You can comment on the issue on this message board.

Yahoo! News regrets that these photos and captions, viewed together, may have suggested a racial bias on our part. We remain committed to bringing our readers the full collection of photos as transmitted by our wire service partners.

Neil Budde
General Manager
Yahoo! News

Update: added yahoo letter.