Flickr Revisited: Open Source to the Rescue

As you know from my previous posting I am one of Flickr’s dissatisfied customers. Their homepage redesign has left many of us howling. It’s not change we abhor, it’s incompetent change. The Flickr changes were not merely cosmetic (and cluttered), they decreased the usability of the site by screwing up the way most of us checked on comments on our photos, and comments we left on the photos of others.

I was nearly ready to pull the plug on Fickr, which caused me pain because I have many friends and contacts there. But the new interface made me not want to be there.

Then, TA DA! Open-source programming to the rescue. A clever programmer and photographer, Steffen J, wrote a Greasemonkey hack that restored Flickr to the way we we wanted to use it:

Greasemonkey Script: More Activity Links (by Steffen J.)

If you’re a Flickr member and want this functionality, there are three things you must do:

1. Use Firefox

2. Install Greasemonkey

3. Install Steffen’s Greasemonkey script:

The instructions are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/steffenj/2951364296/

Fixing Things That Ain’t Broke: How Flickr and Facebook Screwed Their Members

I Hate the New Homepage (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s sad when web-based entities, especially the ones you like, betray you so fundamentally that you can never recover the warm feeling you might once have had for them. The two most flagrant examples of this recently are Facebook and Flickr.

In both cases these F-sites forced a new homepage interface on their members. In both cases they first offered a preview of the coming new design and supposedly were open to feedback. And in both cases, from what I can judge reading the comments, the majority of members hated the new design. This appeared not to have been the kind of feedback that the F-sites wanted or paid any attention to.

Not all members of course. Some liked the new design, or said they’d got used to it, but however you cut it, loyal users have been subjected to one of the worst sins a website can commit: forcing regulars to change how they use the site, with no recourse and no option to bring back the old look or use it as an alternative.

Facebook always baffled me anyway. A lot of it never made sense but I learned how to quickly get to what I wanted to see and I wasn’t forced to look at all the stuff that held no interest for me. After the ‘Facelift’ nothing made sense. And a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t interest me was all over my home page. Perhaps it could be customized away, I don’t know, because I made a decision to leave. I had some acquaintances I really like on Facebook, but no close friends so it was easy for me to pull the plug and lose a time-sucking site in the bargain. I deactivated my account.

The Flickr change bothered me far more. In fact, the Flickr change incensed me. The overwhelming consensus of the comments I’ve read — and I’ve read many — is that the new homepage sucks. And there’s no customizing it to work like the old page. The biggest source of grief was the decision made by someone to combine comments on your photos with the comments you made on the photos of others. Previously these were two independent functions.

Flickr did add a lot of filter options that you can tweak to regain somewhat the previous functionality, but it’s not a toggle. You have to select a bunch of things each time you want to do look at comments one way or the other.

The homepage, like that of Facebook, is now cluttered. The net result, as I said on Flickr, is that it makes me no longer want to visit the site. And I was a seriously active Flickr user — posting frequently on groups (some of which I created), adding photos almost daily, and commenting on those of my friends and contacts almost daily. I loved the exchange and sense of community.

So, what do I do? Acquiesce? Accept the new interface and simply get over it? Indeed that’s what Flickr management counts on — your friends are there, your photos are there, a large part of your Internet social dynamic is there. You won’t leave. They count on it. They’ve got you by the proverbials. I don’t want to leave my friends and contacts, but damned if I’ll just acquiesce.

Not that Flickr is going to care, but my decision, for now, is that I will participate far less frequently. I will post the occasional photo, but I’ve just taken out a Smugmug account and will post most of my new work there, with a link to Smugmug on each of my occasional Flickr postings. I will comment very little on the work of others because following the comment stream has become too painful. And I will no longer reward Flickr financially. I intend to delete most of my Flickr photos, move them to Smugmug, then revert to a free account, rather than the paid Pro account I currently have.

This is what a badly designed, forced new interface can do to a loyal user. How do these interfaces come about? We will never know for sure. There are some expensive and persuasive industry consultants who are skilled at convincing the brass that unless their site now has x, y, and z Web 2.0 features (which they can help with), they will fall hopeless behind and will lose membership. I suspect there is some of that going on. Have you noticed how much the new interfaces of the social networks have started to resemble one another? I think it’s more than coincidence at work.

Another possible scenario that pains me to think about, at least at Flickr, is sheer design incompetence. I’ve read that the lead programmers and founders of the site have moved on. Perhaps their former juniors are now in charge and have been itching for a long time to put their stamp on things. Except, if this is what happened, they don’t fully understand the original vision or how the site should work.

Whatever the reason, we’ll never know. One thing is certain though. I will hit on them for this change at every opportunity and to any ear willing to listen. It will have no effect on them, but it will make me feel better. I hate corporate stupidity and I’ll go down fighting and resisting it to the best of my ability. I refuse to reward them with sheep-like acquiescence.

Technology Boondoggle

Palm IIIc & Keyboard

I enjoy technology as much as the next techie, but there are times when it can conspire against all known logic.

Last week my Palm TX decided to call it quits, just after its warranty expired. These things happen so I wasn’t too upset. I suspected the problem was nothing more than a dead battery. I’ll get a new one from eBay or an online battery store, I thought, until I read up on what replacing the battery entailed.

The TX battery is soldered onto the TX system board. I could get a replacement battery from eBay for $15, but I’m not very good with small objects and I was nervous about the task of taking the TX apart. But soldering on top of it? I’m an absolute klutz with a soldering iron. When I was a boy scout I attempted to put together a small shortwave receiver from a kit. When I plugged it in, it spit, sparked, and splatted before imploding. The smell of charred, melted resistors and capacitors permeated my bedroom for days. I’ve experienced soldering-iron avoidance ever since.

Okay, says I, I’ll maybe send it to Palm and let them fix it. A little research showed that they would indeed fix it, for $150. Hmmm, that’s halfway to the price of one of the new ultracompact portables running Linux or XP. It didn’t seem like a winning strategy.

Keeping my equanimity very nicely, I decided to relegate the TX to my ‘history’ bin, and start using the Dell Axim X50v I used before I had the TX. It had much better battery life, the battery was user replaceable from the outside, and it had some nice features, such as Word and Excel built in. I wasn’t as fond of the ThinkOutside Stowaway BlueTooth portable keyboard though, mainly because it only has three rows of typing keys. To type numbers and symbols requires holding a blue or  green function key down first.

I’d used it before and assumed I could get used to it again so I charged the unit, reconnected the Windows cradle and attempted to install the  required driver for the keyboard. Every time I tried to install it, the keyboard control program would install but the critical driver itself would not. The error message said try again, so I did, about a dozen times, with no joy.

Because the unit had lost all its loaded software when the battery died from non-use, I thought maybe I’d applied an upgrade patch at some point. I roamed the Dell site and found two upgrades I duly installed. Then experienced another half dozen failed attempts to install the keyboard driver.

ThinkOutside, the company that made the Stowaway keyboard had in the intervening time been bought by another company, and that company no longer lists either ThinkOutside products or support. No knowledgebase to tap into. The keyboard has been orphaned.

At this point I actually thought about purchasing one of those nifty ultracompacts, like the Acer Aspire One, but I already have a 2-lb Neo that is fine for writing. Its only drawback, which is shared by ultracompacts, is that toting it around requires either a shoulder bag or backpack. In order to keep my photo walks light on weight, I prefer using a PDA with keyboard that will slip easily into a belt pack.

Unwilling to admit defeat, I dug deeper into my history bin, where I pitch bits of electronics and other things I can’t quite bear to throw away. There in the drawer was my old Palm IIIc with original Palm Portable Keyboard. The cradle was there too. I looked in my software archive CD folder and found the keyboard driver. I even had a copy of Palm Desktop 4.1, the version that always worked flawlessly with the IIIc.

Okay, I knew I was retrogressing but I needed a portable writing machine and didn’t want to buy a new one if I could get by with an old one. Besides, I recalled the Palm IIIc as not being all that bad.

I deleted the more recent Palm Desktop that came with the TX and installed the old 4.1. No problem. Then I installed the keyboard driver. No problem. It went right into the Palm Desktop which said it would stuff it into the Palm IIIc next time I synchronized.

The IIIc was finally charged and ready to go so I pushed it onto its cradle and looked for the serial port on my Dell portable. Right. No serial port. Old technology I guess. I looked at my Dell desktop. No serial port there either — just a honeycomb of USB ports. That rang a bell, so I went back to the history bin and found it: a USB-to-Serial converter. By gum, the driver for this was in my CD archives.

It worked. Everything sync’d and I had a working Palm IIIc with folding keyboard. Looking through my software archives I found the PalmOS text editor I once bought, called QED. Then I found the  registration key. It registered and I had an excellent little editor ready to use.

I grabbed a copy of eReader for the Palm and downloaded a few interesting eBook titles from ManyBooks.net — a great site for reformatted Gutenberg Project texts. I was feeling grumpy so I downloaded some H.L. Mencken.

Yesterday I used the combo for the first time and at first I thought I wasn’t going to be able to see the screen. To call it as dim as George Bush might be an understatement. Then I remembered to set the default font to bold. Voila! Suddenly I could see it as well as I see my Neo. And the keyboard? Mon ami, le keyboard, c’est douce. It’s the best full-size keyboard of any folding keyboard I’ve used. I’d forgot how fine it was.

The adventure of getting a PDA with keyboard working for me again generated enough tension and swearing for one week, I thought. I wasn’t prepared for the boomerang headed my way from HP.

We bought one of those little HP PhotoSmart inkjet printers. A wireless one that connects to my wireless router and can be parked anywhere in the house. Nice little unit. I installed the HP software on my Dell Portable. It seemed sluggish but not bad — providing a kind of photo kiosk experience. Useful, I thought, for those times I don’t want to do serious editing before generating a print.

When I rebooted my laptop it took so long to boot up and connect I thought my wireless connection had failed. I rebooted again before waiting more patiently. Eventually it connected and I was back on the net. Neat. I tested the printer using the HP software and got a nice 4×6 colour print.

Then I tried Photoshop CS3. I have Photoshop set so that in addition to RAW files, ACR opens jpegs as well. I find it a nice front end for making basic editing adjustments before the image goes to Photoshop for fine tuning. Every time I was done with ACR and clicked Open, Photoshop would hang. Totally unresponsive to clicks or profanity. Crikey. I live in Photoshop — this was seriously discomforting.

I next tried Photoshop Elements 6 so I could edit an image and send it to the new printer. Same thing. When it went from ACR to Elements, it hung as utterly as Tom Dooley. I suspected the HP software. The time-honoured First Rule of Troubleshooting says “what was the last thing that was changed? Look there first.”

I opened the HP software again and saw it was now sucking copies of all the images from my hard disk into its internal database. Without my asking it to. Well shit. Last night I deinstalled all the HP software. As soon as it was gone and I rebooted, both versions of Photoshop worked again. Nice work, HP.

Today I re-installed the print driver only, despite the installation software’s insistence that I needed the other packages to get the most from it.  I rebooted and the startup times were normal again. Best of all, Photoshop worked.

It could have been worse. Instead of XP I could have been using VISTA.