Aslan is on the move

Yes, that’s better. The lamppost is burning brightly and the snow is falling. Did you hear the bells? Father Christmas must have stopped by here bringing a new website look to suit the season.

It is with excitement and some dread that I anticipate tonight’s opening of the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The book has been a favorite since it was first read to me as a child. Since then I have reread it many times and discovered much more to enjoy and contemplate. And the tradition has continued: I’ve loved reading it together as a family recently. I see the delight and enchantment in my children’s eyes that I had when I first heard the story.

It will be a challenge for the film to match our imaginations and be true to the story. All editions of the book have included the wonderful illustrations by Pauline Baynes, so fans of the book will expect a certain “look” for Narnia. From what I have seen from the trailers and “making of” segments, the movie is quite similar to the artwork by Baynes and the descriptions by Lewis, so I expect it will be fine. Having seen the black and white line art for so long, I was at first surprised by the vivid colors of the movie, but the more I think about it I believe it fits.

I’m somewhat concerned about the parts of the story that appear to have been expanded. I find it very interesting that Lewis chose to cut away at some of the most intense moments in the book. I fear they may show more than necessary of the death of Aslan. “The children did not see the actual moment of the killing. They couldn’t bear to look and had covered their eyes.” It is almost certain that the battle scenes will be longer than the few words Lewis uses to describe them. In the book only half a page is devoted to the battle and it is over almost as soon as the girls and Aslan arrive. Still, it would be fun to see Edmund fighting his way toward the Witch and smashing her wand instead of hearing it described by Peter afterwards as in the book. Once Aslan rose from the dead, I never had any doubt that all would work out, so perhaps showing this would not take away any suspense.

Despite all this, I’m greatly looking forward to the movie. After seeing the world premiere of the 9 minute super trailer during Narnia Night at Asbury College — which was an incredibly impressive and enjoyable evening with many friends of Narnia — I expect it will be a fantastic film and a box office hit.

Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, the beaver added in a low whisper — “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”

Savor the flavor

After watching and helping me scoop grounds into the basket to make my morning cup of coffee, my son exclaims “Daddy, I know how they make coffee — they get some dirt and they put it in a machine and then it comes out and it’s coffee.” I sit down and carefully explain to him how coffee is grown, picked, sorted, roasted and then ground. I grab some coffee beans and remind him that he has watched me grind them before. He runs out of the kitchen and proclaims “Mommy, it may taste like dirt but it’s really from the coffee bean.”

An Iconographer? Me? 2.0

Once again it is time for the Icon Writing Workshop. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks and have already been immersing myself in icons. Today we open with prayer and then will begin tracing the prototype.

I’m just the tiniest bit more confident than last year. At least I know what to expect. I’m excited and realize I’m very much a beginner. I spoke with master iconographer Xenia Pokrovsky a few days ago and she likened it to learning to play the piano. You don’t start out playing some complicated piece, but work up to it, learning a bit at a time. You start to memorize some of it. You have to practice the scales and chords so that playing the notes becomes part of you. Practice, practice, practice. You learn dynamics and improve your ability to flow through the piece. And someday, you know it.

I was delighted to see several prayers included in our workshop materials. Below is one that is a variation on the one that Fr. David prayed for me last year.

A Prayer Before Beginning an Icon

Oh Divine Lord of all that exists, Thou has illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent Thy most Holy Mother, the One who held Thee in her arms and said: The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread through the world.

Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Thine unworthy servant Timothy so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine Icon, that of Thy Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy Holy Church.

Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intervention of Thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. AMEN.

Usability Testing is Painful

Based on my observations of usability tests, I’ve known intellectually that when a website has usability problems, it can be a tremendously frustrating experience for those struggling to successfully use it. That theoretical knowledge became painful reality last night. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as angry, frustrated, and beaten. I was shouting at the website on my computer “I want to send you money! How do I complete the sale?”

The worst part was that I was fairly sure the site was broken. I’d used the site many times before and it had worked fine.

No, perhaps the worst part was that as a website designer and developer, I thought that perhaps I’d just overlooked something. Banner-ad blindness, you know. I took a long careful look, again, at the shopping cart for the “Complete Sale / Check Out” button. No button.

Like most people in usability tests, I blamed myself. What am I doing wrong!? Am I logged in correctly? Yes. Does the help on the site say anything? “Press the Complete Sale button…” Where? I search the rest of the help for anything, anything that might tell me what I’m doing wrong. Nothing. Wait, are my Greasemonkey user scripts or Firefox extensions breaking something? Nope. Was I blocking the images or something? No. Is my computer infected with spyware? I grabbed the latest update and tested to find a bunch of false positives, but nothing apparently wrong. Perhaps I should try another computer. Nothing. How can a hugely popular site be missing the button to complete the purchase!?

I was almost at the point of doing something crazy and trying the site in Internet Explorer when I stopped myself. If the site doesn’t work with my browser, do I really want to send them money? No. Sale lost!

When a website breaks, as in this case, there’s no obvious way for the user to know that the site is broken. At least in a physical store, if there’s no clerk around, I know it. The web user is left to wonder and blame himself, even when he should know better.

After sending off a sad email to the site’s customer support, I gave up, defeated. The next morning, the site’s shopping cart was fixed and worked as I’d expected it to. The button appeared in a sidebar that just hadn’t been there before. Too bad I no longer wanted to purchase anything.

I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for those we torture during usability testing. I now know why I’ve seen them close to tears while we think “It’s obvious! Just go back two pages and press that other button. Why are they getting so emotionally involved?”

Firefox Form Fix for 1.0.5

I noticed a little bit ago that the form autocomplete behavior was not working as I expected, but I hadn’t quite figured out why until recently. For whatever reason, I often start typing in a form field, wait for the autocomplete list to appear, press down arrow to pick the appropriate autocomplete selection, and then press right arrow. This works beautifully in the location bar: it positions the cursor at the end of the completed selection and lets you type in the rest of the path or press Enter to go to the location. Unfortunately, when you press right arrow in the form autocomplete, it just closes the autocomplete box and leaves you with nothing other than the characters you originally typed.

I’m happy to report that somebody noticed it, reported it in bug 283777 and fixed it. The fix is coming in the next Firefox 1.0.x update along with other good fixes.

Open Source Your Library

I was recently looking at Jon Udell’s library lookup bookmarklet generator and trying it with some local libraries. This got me thinking about web-based library catalogs: it is frustrating that there are so many different systems with widely varying capabilities and that the local Kinlaw library’s system apparently does not allow ISBN lookup. (If somebody can figure this out, I’d love to hear about it.)

Aside: In “Nobody expects the spontaneous integration” Jon notes how easy it can be to connect two websites and thereby create new and better services, and yet people don’t expect that nor do they design to make it easy. Having worked with bookmarklets for many of years, I know how painful it can be to create useful integrations. Thankfully, this is changing. For example, it is amazing to see the ways people are inserting new data into Google Maps, despite Google doing little to provide for this initially. Housing Maps combines Google Maps and housing information from Craigs List to make it easier to find a place to rent. Chicago Crime displays information about reported crime in Chicago on a map.

What if libraries designed their systems for integration with other web services? Do the many different systems provide a great benefit? Or is that wasted duplicate effort? It seems that a library catalog system would be a logical open source project. I mean, how hard could it be? All you’d need is a fairly simple database and web app. Then I started researching it and it seems it might be a little more complicated than I first suspected.

The OSS for Libraries site provides a wealth of information about open source projects related to libraries. From there I was delighted to find several fairly mature open source projects for full fledged library systems. I was primarily interested in what I believe are called OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs) but discovered that many of these systems also provide Circulation Desk features and various reporting capabilities.

  • I found Koha first and it seemed the most impressive. It was developed in New Zealand and is in use by a number of large libraries with multiple branches. It certainly would benefit from some user interface work, but that’s a typical problem for open source projects (and library OPAC systems in general if you ask me). I believe it uses Linux, MySql, and Perl. It is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

  • OpenBiblio was also impressive and offers similar features. It uses PHP and MySql. It is available under the GPL.

  • PHPMyLibrary seems a bit behind the other projects, but has a clear roadmap for improvements. From what I gather, MARC format is the standard for library interchange and it is working to improve its support for the format. I didn’t play with this one as much.

  • Finally, the PHPMyLibrary site pointed me to the Emilda project. I found this one somewhat clunky to use, because it seems to emphasize somewhat inscrutable graphics in the interface. It was developed in Finland and is in use by several school libraries there. It was recently open sourced under the GPL.

My love for libraries started at a young age. I’m increasingly fascinated by libraries and the activities involved with organizing the collections, managing the circulation, and preserving rare works. I think it would be fun to work on converting a library that is using a commercial system to an open source project. It would also be fun to help with improving these systems. Using and improving open source projects seems an obvious way for libraries to cut costs while potentially providing better services.

To think that I started this research because I simply wanted to be able to find out if a book was available in a local library. Of course better than finding out that a local library has the book would be for the book to be available online. I’ve been happy to see more libraries making their rare collections available online. This improves access as well as protecting and preserving. It would be nice if this could be done for more libraries’ collections. Given that many works just sit on the shelves, it would be terrific to find a way to virtually check them out from anywhere in the world.

Book Meme

I see Basil will do about anything to entice me to blog again, even infecting me with a meme. Apparently it worked.

  1. Total number of books I’ve owned

    I have absolutely no idea. If I counted the books I purchased for college alone, it is a sizable number. A rough extrapolation of the books on the shelves in my office is around 400. I’m sure I could double that with the books that are around the rest of the house. And I’ve got a whole slew of books that are still at my parents’. Perhaps a better answer is “enough for a small library”, although it would be a somewhat limited library of mostly user interaction design/computer programming, orthodox theology, and science fiction books.

  2. Last book I bought

    I think the last book I purchased was from our church bookstore, which is somewhat surprising as I buy many books online. I think it was either The Soul, the Body and Death by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo or Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers by Mark Gruber. I gave both books to BrBourbon. The last book I purchased for myself was also The Soul, the Body and Death. It was so good I figured BrBourbon needed a copy. The next book I purchase is likely to be DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using JavaScript & DOM by Stuart Langridge. Ignoring the silly title, this looks to be a terrific book about using JavaScript in modern web design.

  3. Last book I read

    I just reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams in preparation for the movie, but that doesn’t really count since I’ve read it several times before. Before that I think the last book I completed was Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale by Sam Posey, a fabulous book and yet another perfect gift from my sister. She says she didn’t know it was on my wish list and just thought of me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to any model railroaders, armchair or otherwise. I also recently finished Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American an autobiography by Jean-Robert Cadet. Provided insight into the Haitian culture and was somewhat disturbing. I speed read most of Journey Back to Eden before giving it away. At times very beautiful, it provided a look at the Copts through Western eyes.

    Technically, the last book I read, I read aloud to the kids. We’ve been reading the books in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The last one we finished was By the Shores of Silver Lake. We’re working on The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle now.

    As is normal for me, I’m currently reading several books. Here’s the main ones:

    • The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia Postrel — Has application to my computer work and makes me consider how the aesthetics of Orthodox worship impact me. Hopefully I will write more about this in the future.
    • The Soul, the Body and Death by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo — Very good. It’s taking me a long time to get through this one because it is so rich.
    • Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father translated by Vera Bouteneff — I just realized I haven’t read the Spiritual Father section.
  4. Five books that mean a lot to me

    1. The Bible
    2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis — I couldn’t pick just one, but if I had to it would probably be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or The Silver Chair, or The Last Battle, or… never mind.
    3. Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective by Daniel Clendenin and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware — Combined these books started me on a journey into the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    4. About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design by Alan Cooper
    5. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène Du Bois
  5. People I will infect with this meme

    BrBourbon, Moose and Chris.

I’d suggest that a better Book Meme would include the last book you received as a gift and the last book you gave as a gift. It appears I answered those as well.

Embracing America’s Christmas Culture

As Orthodox Christians begin the days of fasting in preparation for the Christmas, a time sometimes called Winter Lent, the culture in America seems to go into overdrive with crazy feasting and partying. Why is it that McDonald’s has to bring back the McRib this time of year!? Every time I turn around it seems there’s another thanksgiving meal and Christmas party.

I’ve tried to look at this hustle and bustle and ever-present Christmas decorations as a welcome reminder of the season. While the chaotic lights and light up snowmen are missing the reason for the season, they do bring a smile to my face. It’s especially pleasing to hear the delight in the voice of my children when they see Christmas lights as we drive around town. Truly, we should practice our fast with a joyful heart. Perhaps these lights can remind us to be of good cheer as we ponder and prepare for the birth of Christ.

As I stopped by the grocery store the other night I heard the jingling of a bell — a welcome sound reminder of Christmas. The Salvation Army bell ringer reminded me without saying a word that I should be giving alms while I fast. As I reflected on it afterward I remembered that the bell ringers start almost the same time as the fast, usually the week before Thanksgiving. What a good time for the up front reminder that there are those in need. The bell’s sound got me thinking that Orthodox churches often use bells to call us to prayer. When I hear bells this time of year, I’ll be reminded to pray and give alms.

Fixing Firefox 1.0 Tabs

Almost immediately before the release of Firefox 1.0, the tabs were changed so that they were separated from the page by a thin line. (See bug 258884.) I’ve grown used to having them attached to the page as they were in 1.0PR. I guess the reason for the change is that there were complaints that the tabs didn’t work as well with web pages that had dark backgrounds. From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of pages use a light background color. I don’t blame the Firefox team for the last minute tweak—cleanup and polish before a release is great—but at the same time I miss the old style.

To restore the tabs to the way they were prior to the 1.0 release, I tracked down what exactly was changed in the bug fix. If you add the following to the userChrome.css in your profile directory, it will restore the tabs to the 1.0PR style. You may need to create the userChrome.css file.

.tabbrowser-tabs { border-bottom: 0 !important; }

Firefox 1.0!

As you’ve probably already heard, Mozilla Firefox 1.0 has been released. Mozilla Firefox is a fantastic browser and the 1.0 release is a major accomplishment. After years of work, and leveraging and improving on the already solid Mozilla layout engine used by Netscape 6 and 7, Mozilla Firefox is ready. Having followed the project from the early days, I’m glad to see how true it has remained to its original vision. It is a small, fast, and usable tool. It has been my default browser of choice for at least a year and it just keeps getting better. A big thank you to the team that produced it and to the tireless community that supports it.

Go get it! Take back the web.