Disproductive Software

Talking to Blackboard About Applets

We implement software solutions to help us become more productive. These pieces of code allow us to do more through creating efficiencies. Bad software hinders our ability to do the work. Normally I would call this unproductive, but I had a weird thought fighting a human resources program this morning. Unproductive software is both disruptive and unproductive, so we should call it disproductive.

Not only are we not achieving as much as we ought, but we also become so frustrated with the lack of productivity that we whine and complain about how bad it is to others. There is a synergy of lost productivity due to the overwhelming frustration of having to deal with such horrible software. The amount of frustration become its own entity and source of workplace dysfunction.

Like, all I wanted was a simple report the software claims to be able to do. It tells me zero even after I try all the reported tricks to make it give me the correct value. So, I resorted to a different report that gives me all the details to add them up myself. And then I could not save the second report in Mozilla except to print it out on paper (or the HTML, but I hate that), so I had to re-do the same thing in Chrome in order to save it as a PDF. Annoying. The good thing is I discovered data entry problems I had not previously noticed due to a dropdown box defaulting to a useless value that I failed to change, which I had to fix. Everyone hates this program, which is probably why we are switching.

Textarea Backup

I am going through my software installed on my work computer in order to transfer to a new one. This came to my attention as something potentially relevant to others.

A common problem we hear doing web-based learning management system is the web browser crashed before the user could submit a form. The complaints we hear usually are because an assignment was lost so the student received a 0 for a major grade. The ones who managed to redo the assignment in time generally never reach us. Nor do the mail messages or discussions or anything else not for a grade. The causes are many. Naturally the blame lies with us for running such a crappy product. Smart applications like WordPress post/page editor automatically save these boxes. Unfortunately, 99.99% are not smart.

An interesting Greasemonkey script, Textarea Backup, will preserve information written into a textarea form element. When the browser restarts and returns to the page, the information written into the textarea will be there.

Google Chrome does native support for Greasemonkey scripts. Mozilla Firefox still requires the Greasemonkey add-on.

With Greasemonkey installed, one can just hit the install button on a scripts page at userscripts.org and click through the various confirms one really wants to download or install it. Pretty simple to install.

Do colleges or universities actually encourage add-ons like Textarea Backup to students? Or are they left to figure out stuff like this on their own?

Browser Checker Inconsistent With Bb Wiki

The below text is from a ticket I opened with Blackboard this morning.

I used this unix command to dump a list of all supported browsers from the browserchecker.xml.

grep -A 1 ‘supported=”true”‘ serverconfs/browserchecker.xml | grep descript | awk -F\> ‘{print $2}’ | awk -F\< ‘{print $1}’

The list of supported browsers does not match the list of supported browsers at Supported Technologies Vista 8.0 SP4+Re-Release which means users of unsupported browsers are not getting alerted to the fact they are using an unsupported browser.

This specifically arose because I’ve been depending on the wiki to describe which browsers are supported in my work for [ticket number]. Several recent cases I’ve reviewed were IE7 which the wiki says is unsupported on Vista 8.0.4. The browser checker says it is supported.

Here is the full list of supported browsers according to the browserchecker.xml file. Those in bold are supported according to the supported technologies wiki entry in the above link. By my count that is 6 supported out of the 22 listed. (Actually it is 46 listed but I consolidated those in the same version.) My favorite on the list is Netscape Navigator 5 which was never actually released for the general public.

Netscape Navigator 5.x

Netscape Navigator 7.x

Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 (Mac OS)

Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.2 (Mac OS)

Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5

Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0

Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 (only on Windows Vista)

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8.0

AOL Version 5.x(MAC)

AOL Version 9.x

AOL for Mac OS X

Safari Version 1.2

Safari Version 1.3.x

Safari Version 2.x

Safari Version 3.x

Safari Version 4.x

Mozilla Version 1.7

Firefox Version 1.0

Firefox Version 2.0

Firefox Version 3.0

Firefox Version 3.5

Firefox Version 3.6

When To Upgrade

After Firefox just upgraded, I noticed it did a check to on the compatibility of the Add-Ons I have. Should any be incompatible, then the add-on gets disabled. The rationale being, “Add-Ons which do not work under the current version should not be enabled.”

Seems like I as the user of the software really ought to have a choice:

  1. (Current) Immediately upgrade the browser and disable any incompatible add-ons.
  2. Check add-on compatibility first and delay the browser upgrade until add-ons are all compatible.
  3. Check add-on compatibility first and prompt the user to choose when to upgrade. (Whether #1 or #2 is desirable.)
  4. Allow the user to choose which add-ons are too important to be disabled and delay the browser upgrade until an add-on version is available which is compatible. Then offer to upgrade both.

Maybe not enough people care Mozilla takes away their functionality?

Google Chrome on Linux

I was excited to read today a Google Chrome Beta is now available on Linux. Gmail and Google Reader have weird font issues for me on both Linux and Window Firefox. So I tend split my browser load based on where the sites work best for me.

Making the Linux switch meant leaving Chrome behind unless I went for the unstable version. I was willing to wait for a beta. I just expected to wait a few more months. Whew.

So far so good!

Useful User Agents

Rather than depend on end users to accurately report the browser used, I look for the user-agent in the web server logs. (Yes, I know it can be spoofed. Power users would be trying different things to resolve their own issues not coming to us.)

Followers of this blog may recall I changed the Weblogic config.xml to record user agents to the webserver.log.

One trick I use is the double quotes in awk to identify just the user agent. This information is then sorting by name to count (uniq -c) how many of each is present. Finally, I sort again by number with the largest at the top to see which are the most common.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | sort | uniq -c | sort -n -r

This is what I will use looking for a specific user. If I am looking at a wider range, such as the user age for hits on a page, then I probably will use the head command to look at the top 20.

A “feature” of this is getting the build (Firefox 3.011) rather than just the version (Firefox 3). For getting the version, I tend to use something more like this to count the found version out of the log.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | grep -c ‘<version>’

I have yet to see many CE/Vista URIs with the names of web browsers. So these are the most common versions one would likely find (what to grep – name – notes):

  1. MSIE # – Microsoft Internet Explorer – I’ve seen 5 through 8 in the last few months.
  2. Firefox # – Mozilla Firefox – I’ve seen 2 through 3.5. There is enough difference between 3 and 3.5 (also 2 and 2.5) I would count them separately.
  3. Safari – Apple/WebKit – In searching for this one, I would add to the search a ‘grep -v Chrome’ or to eliminate Google Chrome user agents.
  4. Chrome # – Google Chrome – Only versions 1 and 2.

Naturally there many, many others. It surprised me to see iPhone and Android on the list.

reCAPTCHA and Chrome

Was using this RSVP form with Google Chrome and found the reCAPTCHA was telling me I repeatedly failed the Turing test. After the sixth time, I decided it might be my browser, so I tried it in Firefox which worked fine.

Curious, I went looking for a possible problem between reCAPTCHA and Chrome. According to a post there, the Transitional XHTML DOCTYPE is the cause. Changing that DOCTYPE to Strict ought to fix the issue. Given the audience, I doubt there is anyone else using Chrome to fill it. So fixing it probably isn’t worth it to them.

Interesting. I’ll have to look into issues with Chrome and the XHTML Transitional DOCTYPE.

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Firefox 3 and SSL Certificates

Apparently LinkedIn.com let their SSL certificate expire this morning. Assuming they really let it expire, this is a big oops. Hopefully, someone in their Production Operations Group has been alerted to the problem and is working on getting a new one.

The screenshot is from Firefox 3. In the old days, Firefox or Netscape used a frustrating pop-up for the user to choose how to handle security certificates which were not properly signed or expired. My first time, it took three readings to make sure I was doing the right thing. Even on my hundredth time, I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.

It’s a new day, I guess. Now, a page similar to the handling of HTTP error codes is shown. Useful facts? Good. Plain language? Excellent.

Firefox 3

The generic globe logo used when Firefox is compiled without the official branding
Image via Wikipedia

Apparently the official launch of Firefox 3 is tomorrow. So we get to look forward to 4+ months of students and faculty members asking why Blackboard Vista doesn’t recognize Fx 3 as supported. Every week’s call with Blackboard will have the conversation:

Us: Is it supported yet?
Bb: Not yet. We are working on it.
Us: When will it be supported?
Bb: We can’t tell you yet, but we will let you know when it is.

I bet Mozilla starts pushing it through auto-updates either tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. So it will be everywhere soon enough. Ugh.

Personally, I look forward to the upgrade as it will hopefully resolve a major issue for me: Firefox 2 regularly consumes in excess of 250 MB of RAM and becomes sluggish.

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Upgrade, Upgrade, Upgrade

Be more secure! Upgrade today.

Want better functionality? Upgrade today.

Save a developer! Upgrade today.

The save a developer thing is the impetus for this post.

The upgrade today mantra annoys me.

  1. Software rarely spends enough time in alpha and beta cycles to to identify all the issues.
  2. People have been so burned by using software in alpha and beta cycles, they are hesitant to try upgrades and help determine the issues.
  3. This lack of attention to the problems ensure, versions 1.0, 2.0, n.0 typically have a ton of unknown problems or are even less secure at times.

Unfortunately, the vendor who makes the application platform we run, Blackboard, has a philosophy to look at new web browsers while they are in beta but not actually work towards fixes for the new browsers until after the products are released. With most releases of Java or supported web browsers (Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox), Blackboard heard the complaints by the early adopters and released within a couple months an update which resolved the reported issues.

The students and faculty members fail to understand the issue. I think I do. Blackboard (like WebCT prior) understands there are differences between beta and final. Some of us argue these differences are usually minor. However, this is all asking someone to predict the future which we know is haphazard at best.

Long alpha and beta cycles allow more users to get involved, give those back to the developers, have them fixed before the version release. Burning users with buggy software ensures their lack of faith.