ReCAPTCHA’s quality is going down?

Several months ago, we implemented ReCAPTCHA on MetaFilter contact forms, to thwart spammers. It’s a good cause and a great idea: the nonsensical text you decode ends up helping public domain book scanning projects.

But lately, we’ve been getting a steady stream of complaints that it is not working or is unsolvable. Last night I tried out the contact form and was surprised that in the first ten images presented to me (keep hitting the little refresh button, the top of the three buttons on the control), at least half were totally undecipherable.

Here’s an actual screenshot of one I saw this morning. The first word is impossible to decipher. My question is, has ReCAPTCHA had such success that all we’re left with is the really, really bad book scans?

Bottom line, all weblog apps suck in some way

I spent most of the weekend elbow-deep in weblog archives and templates, trying to update my site to MT 4.01 and WP 2.3.2 (the former required the latter to export/import). After several hours, I started looking at Expression Engine and Tumblr and even considered Blogger to run this site. After getting fed up with shortcomings, I thought I’d describe my dream weblog engine instead.

For anyone that designs and builds a blog app or CMS, consider the following as typical use cases and design technology around these experiences. As a user, it feels like blog app design is instead about picking technology first and asking users to design their usage around that.

Admin Backend

When you’re working on a blog post or setting up a blog, the backend of the application should be as close to the database as possible. A blog backend is almost by definition very low-traffic (especially with a single author) and there should be no impediments between having a thought and pushing a publish button. Most every app I’ve used is too slow in this regard, so even if you have to use another technology or application design from your blog publishing core functions, keep the backend as fast as possible.

Here’s a design goal: writing a sentence, pressing publish, and seeing it live on the site should take a handful of seconds. Writers should never have to stare at a spinning graphic for a minute as they wait for the publishing engine.

Templates

Here’s how most designers interact with templates: They work on a layout for a day or two (in photoshop and/or plain HTML/CSS), implement in whatever blog code the system requires, then they tweak it 100s of times over a few hours until it is done. Then it stays the same for anywhere from three to twelve months until a new theme/design inspiration comes along.

I personally like tweaking templates in a text editor, directly interacting with files on the server (as opposed to within a web app window, having to regenerate to see changes). I also prefer not to see the guts and/or technology of the blog CMS. Abstract it with output tags that don’t require knowledge of programming languages. Keep application logic out of the layout whenever possible, and allow minor tweaks in simplified tools (clicking options in a widget editor) instead of requiring template changes.

Simplicity is golden. The fewer templates, the better. Blogger wins in this regard by allowing an entire site to be laid out with a single template file and some CSS. MT4 is kind of a nightmare in this regard with seemingly dozens of templates, sub-templates, and sub-sub-templates that can be tweaked.

My ideal template engine would be as simple as possible and allow me one general template to control layout, maybe a few specific templates for specialized output (an entry with comments is different than a list of archived posts), and allow for fast tweaks until the design is done. When a template is “done” convert it into some stable package the CMS can use and that I can share with others easily as an archive.

Import/Export

There really should be a standard of some sort that blog CMS companies can agree on for export and import. Users of blog engines shouldn’t be hostages to their applications. Data exit and entry is problematic in everything I’ve used and it’s a shame. Blogging is supposed to be fun and I prefer to be agnostic about what tools I’m using, so it’d be nice if I could change blog engines every three months without too much friction. I won’t even go into how every engine has its own URL scheme — it’d be nice if I could keep my permalinks forever, even as I change blogging apps.

Documentation

Every blog engine seems to suffer not only from poor documentation, but also extensions, template designs, and tutorials are almost always spread out across multiple sites (often out-of-date). If I download a blog CMS from Site A, plugins for it are on Site B, but they link to Site C where you can download things (but documentation for the plugin is back on Site B). Every blog engine seems to also have internal battles between “here are the free tools for your blog” and “here are our professional services for your blog” that leaves me wondering where to find more info or extensions after I download. Then there are random people that just setup galleries of plugins and templates that often rival or surpass the blog engine company’s version of the same. It’d be nice if there was a way to find those as well.

My ideal blog engine company would hire some seasoned blogger and technical writer to be a documentation czar, keeping docs up to date when new versions are launched, produce screencasts for introductory users, and provide complete documentation at a stable URL that applies to every version of the product. If an outside site does a better job of collecting and offering templates, a documentation leader should recognize that and link to them in highly visible places. There doesn’t seem to be anyone internal at these companies fighting for the users to make sure they can keep being informed about how to best use the product.

Server Load

I’ll admit I like simple, live code editing of my template files (as described above) when I’m tweaking a design, and I love fast admin screens that let me post instantly, but once a post is up, it’s just text on a web server and should exist as a flat file. I’ve clicked through way too many digg links and del.icio.us popular links only to end up at database connection errors or too many user errors on servers that can’t handle the load. I know building a perfect cache is hard to do, but failure of your site at the most visible and important time for you should never happen.

Anyone got any other ideas of how to build the perfect blog application?

A smarter audio manager

Here’s what I typically do in the course of a day.

  • Start iTunes, play some new songs while I code, read email, and surf the web
  • About every 15min or so, I run across a youtube video, mp3 link, or vimeo post that I want to watch, so I…
  • pause iTunes, let the video/music play in my browser, then return back to what I was doing

Here’s the rub: anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours later, I’ll realize I’ve been sitting in a room wearing headphones with nothing coming out of them. I don’t mind it, but I do wish I could have an app that could manage iTunes automatically for me.

This is my wish: I start playing iTunes music, surf along while some magical app watches my sound output. When something else sends output to the soundcard (I’d have to disable iChat message alerts), hit pause in iTunes for me, then when the soundcard is clear, push play on iTunes automatically (maybe with a bit of cross-fading to bring it up smoothly).

Is this impossible? I think I’ve seen something like this before — it doesn’t seem like it’d be impossible for a computer to manage for me.

Some lingering iPhone questions I haven’t heard answered anywhere…

So I’m thinking about getting an iPhone, but a few potential dealstoppers keep coming up and I haven’t seen much info on it even though it’s coming out in less than two weeks. Maybe some of you readers can help.

  1. Is there an airplane mode where phone functionality is shut off? The one place I find myself watching tv/movies on my iPod is on planes. Given the simple interface, so far I haven’t seen or heard that there are preferences menus that’d let you easily shut off your wireless phone functionality and just use the device as an audio/video player inside aircraft where phones are prohibited. Most smartphone/PDAs have this option.
  2. My existing iPod dock on my computer and the car charger/adapter I already have will work fine, right? When it was first announced, I believe Jobs said the iPod connector on the bottom was standard, but I’ve heard about companies making iPhone adapters for cars and I’m sort of unclear if I just simply use my existing Belkin iPod charger in the car (which also has audio out that I wire into my car stereo). I hope it all works.
  3. The interfaces all look fantastic, but is the music player going to be something I can use by feel? Currently I use an iPod in my car and I place it on a mount right next to my steering wheel. I barely have to take a finger off the wheel to change songs and I barely have to glance at the iPod to do it, letting me keep my eyes on the road. Given the iPhone interface, will I be able to change songs by simply clicking on the right side of the screen? Or am I going to be required to use CoverFlow at 65mph?
  4. Has AT&T announced their data plans for it? I can’t believe it’s less than two weeks away and no one seems to know if it’ll be $40 a month or $50 or $60 or more for unlimited data and a few hundred monthly minutes. They really do seem to be rushing this to market if they’re not openly sharing the plan pricing in advance.
  5. I’ve heard that every AT&T Wireless store in the US should get about 20 phones to sell on the first day, but I’m still concerned about availability. How is the 4Gb/8Gb split going to be in their inventory? 50-50%? Is the 6pm launch really going to happen? Should I line up in the afternoon? Can I get all my credit check/plan forms filled out before 6pm so I can just have the phone and leave the store at 6:01PM?
  6. Is there going to be a “turn off CSS” option in Safari for the iPhone? Sideways scrolling blows and I’m not going to use safari much if I have to point and drag all over the screen to read anything. I actually like my Blackberry Pearl’s browser because it ignores CSS and displays text versions of sites that are easy to read and navigate quickly. (also, I hope there’s a Gmail app coming soon for the iPhone, I’m not even going to use the default email client)