Flash Sucks

¿A world without Flash?

I’ve always been a hater of Macromedia/Adobe Flash. Now that the entire Apple-Adobe controversy has rekindled the debate of whether the web is a better or worse place because of Flash, I realized why it is I don’t like Flash.

Also, I realized most technically-inclined people dislike Flash too, because they recognize a lot of its shortcomings, unlike the layperson who only cares about the web being pretty, full of animations and beeps and stuff.

Now, before I begin, let me state this: I’m griping about Flash as a web content creation platform/tool. I couldn’t care less about its use as a mobile development tool. A lot of bloggers have expressed more informed opinions on this topic.

For me, a true flash hater, what Flash does is take control away from the end-user, the consumer of content, and give it to the content creator, the designer.

If you’re the designer this is all fine and dandy; you can control exactly what the user sees, you can tell your application to be exactly this many pixels wide, this many pixels high, and how to look and behave down to the pixel and the microsecond. This is why designers love Flash; it not only lets them work in a familiar environment and with familiar tools, but it also gives them complete control about how and what the user sees and can do.

By the way, don’t be fooled; a designer that claims to know web design but uses only Flash is not a web designer. Flash was created to allow designers (Adobe’s primary clientele) to be able to say (untruthfully) they can design web sites.

A flash-only website. Click it and weep.

The problem is, the web wasn’t meant to be this way. Fundamentally, the kind of content the web was created for, was meant to empower the user. This is why the web browser was designed from the very beginning to not impose those very parameters (width, height, fonts, and so on); the content should adjust to whatever the user’s agent can display. So web content reflows to adapt to your browser; it should degrade for those systems that for any reason lack a certain capability (think Lynx and visually-impaired users). It should also allow me, the user, to alter how it looks and is rendered. This is why I can disable cookies, javascript, replace or even remove altogether the CSS used to format my content, decide not to display images, and so on. Even the most complex non-flash web page consists of text and images; and with a bit of cleverness I can get both the text and the images and incorporate them in the rest of my workflow; paste them into a document, translate them, email them to someone else, the possibilities are limitless since web content is delivered to me as-is, as bytes I can not only look at, but also manipulate as I would any other kind of information on my computer.

This freedom is lost on a Flash-only (or mostly) website. What’s worse, instead of the content being, well, content, stuff I can get out of the browser and process and manipulate in other ways, it becomes merely an image, a photograph or a movie trapped in the clutches of the Flash plugin. I can’t copy the text, I can’t scroll except through the provisions the designer made for me, I can’t easily extract the audio or the images, and I’m basically limited, not by the constraints of my browser, but by those set forth by both Adobe through its display plugin, and the designer. And let’s face it, most designers are also clueless about user interfaces and ease-of-use, unlike the people who designed my web browser, which is rendered mostly useless on a Flash site.

It is this loss of freedom that makes Flash so dangerous, and why I think it would be a good thing for Flash to disappear eventually.

Flash adds nothing of true value to the Web, as we could all live happy without all the animations, all the desktop-apps-masquerading-as-web-apps made in Flash (write a Web app from the ground up, it’s not that hard), all the stupid content that forces me to work its way instead of my way, and luckily, thanks to the advent of HTML5, the one thing for which Flash has proven to be indispensible (web video) we won’t need it even for that. Because, let’s face it, web video was Flash’s killer application; everything else that could once be done only in Flash is now doable in AJAX, CSS and Javascript. And honestly, if Flash had been such a good technology for those things, we would have stayed with it and not bothered with anything else.

If anything, the existence of so many alternatives to Flash and whatever it can do, is evidence that the world at large truly does not like Flash.

Open letter to Amazon.com: Please make my Kindle not suck

Update: It appears Amazon is indeed listening; I was able to preorder Robert J. Sawyer’s latest for Kindle delivery, and most of the titles I talk about in this post are alerady available in my region. Thanks Amazon!

Like (according to Amazon.com) millions of people, I own a Kindle e-book reader. However, I’m a bit irked by the fact that Amazon is treating Kindle users as second-class citizens. As early adopters who paid a hefty sum for Amazon’s flagship product, I think we deserve better.

I’ve been a fan of e-ink technology since I first learned about the early, clumsy prototypes. When the original Kindle came out, I nearly jumped at the chance to get one. However I decided that the hassle of having a Kindle in a non-supported country (Mexico), meaning I’d have to jump through hoops to get content into the kindle, was not worth being an early adopter.

So patiently I waited, until, in late 2009, Amazon finally started selling the Kindle, complete with wireless content delivery, in Mexico and a host of other countries. “Great”, I thought. “I get to have my nice gadget, save on shipping costs and delivery time, and I still get to read a lot”.

The story has been a bit different. And it has more to do with politics and commercial interests than with technology. Let’s get this out of the way right now: I have only ONE complaint about the tech side of the Kindle, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the product itself. More about that later.

So I got my shiny new kindle and went online to get some books for it. I naturally searched for my favorite Sci-fi author, Canadian writer Robert J. Sawyer.

To my dismay, there’s very little from him available as Kindle content. None of the books I was interested in were available: nor Calculating God, the first RJS book I read; neither Factoring Humanity, my all-time RJS favorite; I can’t get the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, one of the very few RJS titles I haven’t read. They’re simply not available for the Kindle.

Titles are being “kindlefied” all the time. However selection is still quite shallow.

Sometimes I do find the title I’m looking for, only to be greeted by the message “not available in your region”. Amazon, if you CAN send physical books to my region, why can’t you deliver them to my Kindle? I know you’re going to say it’s not the same, but to me, that doesn’t cut it.

A few days ago I received a notification for Dan Simmons’ latest book. Black Hills was to come out in a few days, and I was offered a nice pre-order discount. However, it didn’t apply to the Kindle edition. So you mean to tell me that, even though I’d click on “buy now” this minute AND wait for the book to actually come out and be delivered to my Kindle, I can’t? and that the only way to take advantage of the discount is to wait for the dead-tree version to actually come out? well, never mind, because the book is for sale right now and there’s no Kindle edition in sight. So anyway I have to either get the hardcover or wait until the publisher decides it’s OK to let the Kindle edition out. It’s ridiculous that a hardcover book delivery will actually have me reading it sooner than the instantly-delivered electronic version.

Amazon, this is one area where you have to work with publishers and let them see what a big market they’re missing, and help them reach it. Because all these artificial restrictions, stemming from the irrational fear they have of electronic distribution, will only end up hurting their bottom line. I’m able (and more than willing) to purchase books. Look at my past history if you don’t believe me: even with a 50% delivery overcharge (the joys of not being in the United States) I routinely spent over $500 a year on books. Now I’m a bit weary of ordering physical books, since I’d prefer to offset the delivery cost with my Kindle; however, many of the titles that interest me aren’t available for the Kindle.

Interestingly, I find myself loading mostly classic literature on the Kindle; from Wilkie Collins to Jules Verne, these wonderful titles are available for free in Kindle-compatible formats. This is a consequence of the titles I want not being available on the Kindle; so if I have to choose between Jack London’s Call of the Wild  (old book, I’ve read it 1000 times, I can get it for free at mobipocket.com) and Robert Sawyer’s Starplex (haven’t read it, but is not available for the Kindle), guess what, I’ll get the former.

Now for my one technical quip: What’s this about “optimized for large screens” books? so now I need a Kindle DX to read content? That just sucks.

So Amazon, you have the clout, but also the flexibility to work with publishers and stop (both you and them) treating us like second-class citizens, just because we find the convenience of the e-book reader worth the high admission price. A lack of reasonably-priced content shouldn’t be part of that price.

Back to the stone age: a tale of two phones

So my iPhone fell and got damaged. To its credit I have to say I did hit it pretty hard several times in the past, and it’d survived. However this time it didn’t, and I had to get a replacement. I had to pay for it since it was out of warranty. However the truly painful thing was spending one week without the perks of the modern smartphone.

I had to dig out my trusty 5-year-old Nokia 7210 (not the SuperNova, I mean the original funky-buttoned 7210), a stylish and compact phone which, however, is pretty featureless by modern standards. You can talk on the phone, send SMS (barely; I don’t know how I sent messages without a full QWERTY keyboard) and that’s about it. It has no camera, no network access, the screen is only 128-color and uploading stuff requires a tedious conversion process, and it only supports 4-voice MIDI polyphonic tones.

This was due in no small part to the death of my Blackberry’s lame battery; the ‘berry would have been a decent temporary replacement for the iPhone,even though it’s not compatible with my data plan. So here’s a tip: when your phone is about to be left indefinitely in a drawer, remove the battery.

Being without the iPhone, what I missed the most was:

  • The QWERTY keyboard, without a doubt, is the most-missed feature. Whether virtual or real, it’s a necessity if you plan on composing a lot of text.
  • The camera, believe it or not, is really useful for a lot of purposes.
  • Synchronization with my computer’s address book. A lesser phone can do it but the Nokia lacked connectivity (only infrared).
  • The browser, being able to access the internet anywhere, anytime has become a true necessity.
  • E-mail. Yes, also not being able to receive emails periodically or, at least, on demand, is crippling and makes me feel out of touch and claustrophobic.
  • Music, I guess it’s a case of “if you have it, you will use it”. Somehow carrying the iPod around in addition to the Nokia didn’t seem like a good idea.

What I didn’t miss:

  • Ringtones. However weak the Nokia’s ringtone support is, it’s very loud and adequate, and my favorite ringtone ever (acceleration.mid) was available. I like it so much, I made an MP3 of it and loaded it on the iPhone.
  • GPS. It’s cool to have it but I really don’t use it all that often.
  • Most of my games. I don’t play on the iPhone that often. I must point out that neither the Nokia nor the iPhone had the “snakes” game from older (and newer) Nokia phones. I guess this 7210 got stuck in the past.

Also in case you hadn’t noticed, the entire point of this rant was so that I could have a new post before the 12th and thus keeping my blog updated “more than once every 6 months”.

Nasty bug with binary files, Rails and erb.rb – how to fix it

OK, so I happily hack away on my  Rails application on a Debian box with Ruby 1.8.7 and Rails 2.1.0, and then deploy to a Fedora 8 server with Ruby 1.8.6 and Rails 2.2.2. All of a sudden a particular release causes Passenger to spit an error page on application startup. The key error was:

undefined method `empty?’ for nil:NilClass

Now I’m combing all over my code to find where I’m using “empty?” but I’m sure it’s somewhere that gets run on application startup, otherwise it wouldn’t show up when Passenger tries to start the application. But I find nothing and I’m about to shoot myself.

Following the trace I end up hacking Ruby’s erb.rb file, as there appear to be some bugs in this; indeed, this one from 1.8.6 is different from what I have in 1.8.7, so the app runs fine here. I try to fix instances where empty? might get called on a nil object, but after fixing 3 of these the app stops responding altogether. Hmm, so something, somewhere, depends on erb.rb’s buggy behavior. Best to leave it alone.

HOWEVER, on the deployment server, running with script/server works fine; it’s only when using Passenger that things blow up.

Finally I find this thread that points me in the right direction:

One of the users dropped some
JPEG files into the /app/views/static directory, and that seems to be
jamming up the works with 2.2.2.

Indeed, as part of my last set of revisions, I’d left several samples of static content I was converting into dynamically generated pages; sure enough, they included JPGs and whatnot. Just to be safe, I decided to move the entire directory into public to avoid any problems.

Now the app runs just peachy and I only wasted 2 hours chasing down this bug. Thanks to the guys at Nabble!

Eventually it all boils down to this Rails bug reported at Lighthouse. So hopefully it’ll be fixed soon. In the meanwhile, keep binary files out of your views subtree.

I’m attaching the entire Passenger error page, in case it’s useful to anyone. Mainly so that Google can find it faster for other people with this problem.

Ruby on Rails application could not be started

These are the possible causes:

  • There may be a syntax error in the application’s code. Please check for such errors and fix them.
  • A required library may not installed. Please install all libraries that this application requires.
  • The application may not be properly configured. Please check whether all configuration files are written correctly, fix any incorrect configurations, and restart this application.
  • A service that the application relies on (such as the database server or the Ferret search engine server) may not have been started. Please start that service.

Further information about the error may have been written to the application’s log file. Please check it in order to analyse the problem.

Error message:
undefined method `empty?’ for nil:NilClass
Exception class:
Application root:
# File Line Location
0 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 478 in `scan’
1 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 524 in `compile’
2 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 691 in `initialize’
3 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handlers/erb.rb 51 in `new’
4 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handlers/erb.rb 51 in `compile’
5 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handler.rb 11 in `call’
6 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/renderable.rb 21 in `_unmemoized_compiled_source’
7 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 57 in `compiled_source’
8 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 25 in `__send__’
9 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 25 in `memoize_all’
10 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 22 in `each’
11 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 22 in `memoize_all’
12 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 17 in `freeze’
13 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 88 in `reload!’
14 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 102 in `templates_in_path’
15 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 100 in `each’
16 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 100 in `templates_in_path’
17 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 86 in `reload!’
18 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 78 in `load’
19 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in `load’
20 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in `each’
21 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in `load’
22 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 357 in `load_view_paths’
23 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 182 in `process’
24 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 112 in `send’
25 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 112 in `run’
26 ./config/environment.rb 13
27 /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems/custom_require.rb 31 in `gem_original_require’
28 /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems/custom_require.rb 31 in `require’
29 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 254 in `preload_application’
30 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 214 in `initialize_server’
31 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/utils.rb 179 in `report_app_init_status’
32 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 203 in `initialize_server’
33 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 166 in `start_synchronously’
34 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 135 in `start’
35 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 112 in `fork’
36 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 112 in `start’
37 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 179 in `start’
38 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 222 in `spawn_rails_application’
39 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 217 in `synchronize’
40 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 217 in `spawn_rails_application’
41 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 126 in `spawn_application’
42 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 251 in `handle_spawn_application’
43 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 317 in `__send__’
44 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 317 in `main_loop’
45 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 168 in `start_synchronously’
46 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server 46