Archive for April, 2009

Superpowers I wish I had

Car stereo silencing stare

I wish that, with just one withering glance, I could silence the stereos of all the dicks who drive around with crap music thumping and their car windows open so we all have to hear it. (And why do boy racers listen to such bass-heavy tuneless shit?)

Mobile phone remote acid-seepage

Continuing the wanker-behind-the-wheel theme, I would love to be able to flick my fingers and cause people who drive while yapping into their mobiles unimaginable pain by somehow causing Hydrofluoric acid to exude from the ear and mouthpiece. Obviously, not face-melting quantities (I am, after all, a force for good) but enough droplets to teach them a lesson. (And why do so many people hold the phone against the opposite ear from the hand they’re using?)

Being Lord of All Software

97.4% of software is unusable shit, particularly operating systems. After all the excellent karma I’ve accumulated by being a force for good in this life, I hope to be reincarnated as Lord of All Software, able to make it to what I want it to do, when I want it to do it, through my Mighty Will alone—without tweaking arcane config files, delving into obscure menus or memorising keyboard shortcuts that would challenge an octopus.

Automatic bare-chest modesty-iser

When lads wander by shirtless as soon as the winter recedes, I would wiggle my nose B-witched style, and their pasty bare chests would immediately be draped in embarrassing lingerie. Or a burka. It’s a public decency service.

The power not to be incredibly gorgeous and irresistable to ladies

Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t a megahot standards-evangelisin’ love-machine. Only sometimes, mind you.

What superpower would you like?

rel=accessibility

While I was on my holidays there was a storm(ette) about rev=canonical and how it isn’t possible in HTML 5 because rev isn’t in the spec. (Apparently, the answer is to use rel=shortlink instead).

Mark Pilgrim published an article about link relations in HTML 5 with more information about the rel attribute, which I found interesting; I had no idea that relations such as rel=license and rel=author were available to allow auto-discovery of license information, and author details.

So I want to float the idea of rel=accessibility that would allow assistive technologies to discover and offer shortcuts to accessibility information, such as a WCAG 2 conformance claim, or a form to request content in alternate formats (for example).

The reason this would be useful is that links to such pages are generally right down in the footer of the web pages. This means that, for screenreader users, they have to navigate to the end of the page to find the link, or not know it exists.

Ironically, on sites that really do need a link to accessibility help (because of lack of structure to navigate with or huge amounts of content before the footer), those who need it are unlikely to find the link to the help.

In the “bad old days”, helpful developers would give an accesskey attribute to that link (which are generally undiscoverable to the human or to a parser, and which often conflict with assistive technologies’ command keystrokes).

A standardised way of indicating the related accessibility information would be better and not rely on arbitrary keys chosen by a developer.

So, should I propose that rel=accessibility be added to the list of values? It looks to be an arduous process; although you don’t need to prove your worth to the HTML 5 gatekeepers, you do have to prove your worth to the microformats gatekeepers.

I thought I’d ask you guys first—is this a good idea?

Emirates online check-in

I use the Web 9 to 10 hours a day, for work and for pleasure and I get highly irked by crap websites. As catharsis, I document the worst usability atrocities.

With Emirates, you can check in online a day before the flight and choose your seat. I like to be by the bulkhead, for the smidgeon of extra leg room.

So, exactly 24 hours before the flight time I did just this, and was asked to enter details such as passport number etc. The form also asked for “Nationality as it appears in passport”, but the drop down didn’t have an entry for Great Britain, my nationality as it appears in the passport.

form asking for nationality as shown on passport

After a few phone calls, I was passed to the web team who told me that I should select “United Kingdom” – different from my passport – because “they mean the same thing”.

By the time I’d done this, the seats I wanted were gone. Thanks Emirates.

(On the flight back from India, a greater usability atrocity occurred when they fed all the vegetarian Indian passengers meat by mistake.)

India travel tips

My over-arching travel tip is: travel with Shwetank. He’s very knowledgeable about Indian history and customs, polite enough not to roll his eyes at the thousandth stupid question of the day, and a Hindi speaker. His father is a microbiologist so he’s paranoid about eating safely, which helps enormously. At every monument, temple or government building, he encouragingly tells you that “two or three years ago there was a bomb blast here”.

However, if Shwetank’s excellent guiding skills are unavailable to you, here are some tips combining his wisdom and my experience.

  • Eat well—it’s the secret to gastro-intestinal happiness and security, which can make or break a trip. Whatever you eat, make sure it’s hot. Daal is always freshly made, as are Dosas in South India. Vegetarian food is more likely to be safe (and all that’s available in many places). Make sure you get an unopened mineral water, and crush the used bottle so it can’t be refilled from a tap. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating. Avoid salad or anything raw, unless it’s peelable such as banana. Spend a little bit more and eat in a mall or a hotel. There’s a reason that middle-class Indians don’t eat in those hole-in-the-wall places: they don’t want to shit themselves in a business meeting. Trust me, crapping yourself in public isn’t much fun.
  • Junk food: avoid pizza. The only times that we got slightly sick was after we both ate Domino’s and Pizza Hut. If you’re feeling a little delicate and need some stodge, MacDonald’s is surprisingly good. There’s no beef or pork, and plenty of veggie burgers to be had.
  • Don’t haggle too much. Accept that you will always pay more. In museums, that’s formalised; Indians pay 10 Rupees, foreigners pay 100, and that’s fair enough:the museums are built and maintained with Indian tax payers’ money. The disparity between your income and that of a rickshaw-wallah is so great that it’s discourteous, churlish and frankly ugly to get worked up about 5 or 10 Rupees.
  • Caucasian ladies might want to consider wearing salwar-kameez and a scarf so they don’t stand out too much. A cheap "wedding" ring will deter the more half-hearted subcontinental Romeo.
  • If you hire a car for the day, get the driver’s mobile number. Phone (or pretend to phone) someone and tell them that number and the car registration plate. That way, the driver knows that someone else knows who you’re travelling with. It also means that if he drops you somewhere, you can call him after you’ve eaten/ looked around so he can pick you up again.
  • Keep your money in a money belt as pickpocketing is rife, particularly in stations and markets. Have change (<100 Rupee notes) distributed amongst several pockets so that you’re not leafing through wads of dosh to pay people. Rickshaw-wallahs or roadside vendors will appreciate smaller bills rather than 100 Rupee notes as they may not have change.
  • In some cities, beggar children are controlled by gangs and never get to keep the money you give them. If you feel sorry for kid who say’s she’s hungry, buy her some daal, rice, chapati and fruit. The gangboss can’t take that off her.
  • Don’t photograph cremations, veiled muslim ladies or the cops (they’re justifiably paranoid about terrorism).
  • Have fun – it’s a wonderful country!

Reasons to love South India

Apart from the general chilled-out nature of the place, why do I love South India so much?

The food

A South Indian veg thali costs about £1 and is a banana leaf as a plate, with dosa (a wafer-thin pancake wrapped around spicy potato and veg), idli, papads with dips made from coconut and beans, some curd, and rice. Many venues top up for free.

South Indian vegetarian thali meal

Who needs meat, when there is vegetarian food this good? Then there is the strong black Indian coffee.

The temples

Southern Indian temples have tall structures above the gate, convered with statues of the gods and painted in bright colours.

Chennai

(Check out the super hi-res version.)

The women

Women here are so beautiful because they have almond eyes, dark dark skin, and they look proud and walk tall.

Chennai

Kerala, for example, is the state with the highest rate of female literacy in India and has a proper level of female births, as female infanticide and aborting female foetuses is less common in the south.

Many women plait intensely aromatic Jasmine in their hair, which smells gorgeous when they walk by.

Chennai

The poetry

Akka Mahadevi (or Mahadeviyakka as I first encountered her in Speaking Of Shiva, which I bought in 10 years ago Nepal) was a 12th century female mystic who wrote of an intensely personal relationship with god. She renounced the world and wrote her songs to Shiva whom she calls Chenna Mallikarjuna (“Lord of White Jasmine”) which are almost modernist in their approach:

I don’t know anything about meter/ I don’t know anything of rhyme/ As nothing will hurt you, My Lord Siva, I’ll sing as I love…

For hunger,/ there is the town’s rice in the/ begging bowl.
For thirst, / there are tanks, streams, wells.
For sleep,/ there are the ruins of temples.
For soul’s company/ I have you, O lord/ white as jasmine.

(More Mahadeviyakka poetry)

She’s a household name in the Southern state of Karnataka, although time didn’t allow me to visit her birthplace.

See Chennai photos, Hyderabad photos.

Up the Ganges in Varanasi

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some fantasic historic places, such as Stonehenge at the summer solstice, Ayutthaya in Thailand, Ephesus in Turkey, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borabadur in Indonesia (Borabadur photos), Saranth in India where Buddha preached his first sermon, but the most jaw-dropping must be Varanasi on the Gangees, the holiest site for Hindus. It was brilliant to return here for my first weekend off, and, unlike everywhere else I’ve been, it hasn’t changed since I came here 14 years ago. In fact, it probably hasn’t changed much for a thousand years.

It’s a long succession of ghats, river-front temples with steps leading into the river, and it’s full of pilgrims from all over India, boys playing cricket or swimming, saffron-robed sadhus (holy men), courting couples, beggars, ice-cream sellers and conmen. (See Varanasi photos.)

The reason that it’s so incredible is that people have been performing the same rites here since literally time immemorial—puja (offering), cremations on the river bank and, every night at 7pm is the ritual of Aarti.

It’s not easy to describe the ghats or the aarti, so come with me, Shwetank and Shwetank’s uncle for an eight minute journey up the Gangees from Assi Ghat to Dasashwamedh Ghat to watch the Aarti performed.