Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blocking Procrastination

Dealing with e-procrastination issues or cyberslacking?

In the hopes of helping others, I'm going to admit that I deal with this problem sometimes... unfortunately when it's most important for me to focus. I found one helpful solution that may sound silly to those of you with rock-hard willpower, but for people like me, it's an important aid and reminder to get back to the task at hand. It's called "Simpleblock" and it's a Firefox extension that allows you to be your own "NetNanny". During thesis writing, I've used it to block Facebook, Google Reader, and Google News from my browser. Very helpful! You just have to resist turning it off.

Other focus-enhancing tools I've found include:
Good luck to everyone facing dissertation writing!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Spam Contact Requests from Skype

Skype has been plagued over the years with the problem of spam 'contact requests'. It's a way for 'sexy girls' to get around your privacy settings and still contact you. While I have my privacy set to allow contacts only from people in my contact list, there is no way to block contact requests, in in reality I wouldn't want to block contact requests anyway since sometime legitimate people do contact me.

So, several times a day I have to acknowledge, decline, and block requests like this:

The Skype forum indicates they are working on it, with 14+ pages of user complaints here and here. Many posters in this forum claim that it's a difficult problem and that users should just disable contact request notifications. I don't think it's a difficult issue, and I also don't want to miss out on legitimate contact requests.

What I don't understand is why this is such a problem for Skype (and Twitter), but not for other services. I don't receive spam friend requests on Facebook, MSN, or Google Talk. There seem to be a simple ways to fix this. Off the top of my head, using social network metrics:

[1] detect new accounts that send contact requests to > N (say, 100) people
[2] if within those N people, the interlinkage ratio is low (e.g. fewer than 2% are connected to one another), flag the account as spam and cancel all those contact requests, block the IP.

This might work because if someone populates their initial contact list for Skype from something like their email database, it's likely that within that email database there are people who are also mutually connected. Whereas a spammer choosing random names or using an alphabetic list will likely request contacts with people who for the large part do not know one another. This would be suspicious.

To augment this, what about some regular expression processing to detect suggestive words in the contact request?

Another option, which LinkedIn uses is to request you to enter an email address of the person you are trying to contact, to confirm that you really know them. I realize Skype intends to facilitate introductions of like-minded people who don't otherwise know one another, but I have never used it for this purpose and I don't intend to. Some sort of captcha/secret question should be an option in the privacy settings so that only requests from people who know me make it through.

I'm not sure how MSN/Google etc. manage these sorts of spam contact/link requests, but they do a good job.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Enter Key is Disabled (for our Super-Secret Reasons)

It's a sad day when the IEEE website makes it into my collection of 'infovis and usability pitfalls'. I've been saving a collection to use as icebreakers at the beginning of HCI classes I will teach. Today's instalment, courtesy of my own professional organization, is an arbitrary warning to 'please click the image' instead of pressing enter.

Issues with this of course include the fact that pressing [Enter] in search forms is the standard, assumed behaviour. Secondarily, there is the annoying popup box -- obviously the system knew I pressed [Enter], why give me an irritating message instead of just activating the darn search? Finally, this message ("Enter key is disabled, please click on the image to submit information") is infuriating as it offers no logical explanation as to why the key is disabled, making it seem like an arbitrary inconvenience. It also is not grammatical and does not end with any punctuation, making sticklers like me cringe. HCI 101: Write clear error messages.

These sorts of inconveniences seem minor on an individual basis, but I'd love to see the logs and know how many times a day this message is displayed. It's not even like this will be an easy-to-learn interaction technique, as it is (a) much slower than pressing [Enter] and (b) goes against the accepted conventions (my 'mental model' of how the web works).

It's shameful that an organization that hosts conferences on usability would create an interface like this. What's worse, I had to use Internet Explorer even to get this error message! In Firefox, my preferred browser, pressing [Enter] simply reloads the page with no apparent effect. No error, no search results. Just a reload. Hmmm, isn't the IEEE an advocate for web standards?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Library and Archives Canada Sells Out Canadian Students to US Publisher

I've just realized that Library and Archives Canada, the provider of the repository of Canadian theses, has outsourced the work of scanning and publishing theses to the US academic publisher ProQuest. It seems I'm way behind the times as this has been happening for years. I have some problems with this maddening situation:

  • ProQuest sells the theses and keeps the royalties (this was agreed to by the CFS in 2002!)
  • There is a 'minimum' 6 month delay for a thesis to appear online, but probably 4 years
  • I have to pay to have ProQuest micofiche my thesis (Microfiche? What the hell is that?)
  • "Space is limited in ProQuest's database. Therefore, when writing your abstract, make sure that you don't exceed 150 words for masters theses and 350 words for doctoral dissertations" -- what century are we in? Arbitrary restrictions like 350 words for my doctoral dissertation abstract because ProQuest has a faulty database?
  • I can purchase my thesis from ProQuest at a discount later (thanks!)
This system seems very antiquated. My dissertation will be in full colour with lots of images -- why would I want anyone to receive a reprint from a scanned hard copy? While I know that microfiche is arguably a more stable archival format than electronic files such as PDF, there is a lot of work right now in digital preservation. I think we are far enough along to assume that a PDF can be an archival document. My thesis will be available as a PDF on my personal website for free in any case.

I investigated alternatives -- answer: there are none. Apparently Library and Archives Canada can accept electronic versions directly, skipping the ProQuest step. Luckily, U of T is switching to electronic dissertations as of August 31, 2009. However, they just told me on the phone that ProQuest is still involved even with electronic theses. This is confusing, as the LAC site seems to suggest otherwise.

I asked if I could opt-out of that, and they said no, but that I should feel some comfort because (a) no one will actually buy my thesis from ProQuest so in reality the effect is negligible and (b) they agree with me and tried to get out of the ProQuest arrangement early but could not. They expect things to change in the next couple of years, including the demise of microfiche.

Well, on principle, that's not much comfort. But, as I told the helpful administrator at SGS, at this point actually graduating trumps my principles regarding personal intellectual property rights.

If only I could write dissertation pages as fast as blog posts.