Categories
Computing

Why are you using still using Microsoft Internet Explorer?

You may just be wondering why it matters. Microsoft have their operating systems on over 90% of the world's desktops and these just happen to ship with IE as the default browser. Not only that some sites use code specifically designed for Microsoft technologies like Active-X, so why not just take it easy and reap the benefits of interoperability that stem from the dominant browser? Why not just leave Firefox to the geeks and besides "If the guys at Mozilla want to compete they might consider embracing Microsoft-compliant code".

First let's get a few facts straight.

  1. Firefox is simply better: Gecko-based browsers are way ahead of IE6 in their support for XHTML and cascading style sheets. IE7 may have copied tabbed browsing from Opera and Firefox but it hasn't fully embraced CSS 2.0.
  2. Firefox is almost infinitely extensible and customisable: Besides RSS feeds, multiple search bars, multi-coloured tabs with progress bars, image zooms, Wysiwyg HTML editors, you can even have a full integrated FTP client, automate the download of whole sites for offline reading, hundreds of themes or skins to choose from and more.
  3. Firefox blocks unwanted popups: by default Firefox only allows user-activated pop-up windows.
  4. Firefox does not let in viruses: As the browser shields itself from the operating system and does not use Active-X, you can only install viruses if you run a file that has permission to execute on your computer. This is primarily a problem with Windows, but user stupidity can wreak havoc on any system.
  5. Firefox lets you resize all text: Many Websites use absolute font sizes that IE will not resize without additional software. In Firefox just press Ctrl/Cmd with + or – to increase or decrease font size.
  6. Keep everything in one window: With the Tab Mix Plus extension you can easily force all external links to open in a new tab within the same window with tabs spanning multiple rows if necessary. Next time you restart your browser, it will restore your previous browsing session for you.
  7. What about e-mail integration: If you want an integrated mail client to replace Thunderbird (open-source alternative to MS Outlook), you can always install Sea Monkey with an advanced HTML editor and IRC chat client.
  8. Microsoft uses older technology: Only sites still using Active-X (which Microsoft is phasing out in IE7 and Windows Vista incidentally) and non-compliant J-Script as opposed to standard Javascript become unworkable in Firefox. There are no special tricks that can only be achieved in IE, only bad coding is responsible. The most notorious sites that caused problems with Firefox last year included http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk and http://www.odeon.co.uk . Both have now been upgraded. At one stage users of Yahoo's Web-mail service could not add rich-text formatting to their emails in Firefox. No longer, Yahoo has made its services Firefox-compatible. As many web designers know, with more sites now relying on style sheets for layout and ditching old in-line markup, you're more likely to encounter quirks in IE than Firefox. Consider this site, the Tux penguin below the menu has a transparent background in Firefox and Safari, but a appears on a white rectangle in IE.
  9. Firefox is free and open source: Anyone can download, install and redistribute it. Not only that the source code is publicly available.

So if you still think Firefox is just for Microsoft-bashing nerds, why on earth would the Redmond Giant want to turn its next version of Internet Explorer into Firefox Light with a legacy Microsoft quirks compatibility mode?

Download, install and try it! If you don't still like it and prefer IE, Safari or Konqueror, simply reset your preferred browser as default. But if you like surfing as much as I do, the only real competition is Opera.

What about Netscape?

Well, it's still around, but in 1999 AOL bought it and shortly after discontinued independent development of the old 4+ code base, promoting its own branded version of Internet Explorer instead. Back then IE had better support for W3C standards, as Netscape included a number of non-standard enhancements such as layer instead of div tags. User numbers dropped rapidly to under 3% until 2000 when Netscape 6.0 appeared with a beta Gecko engine at a time with few CSS-layout sites. Version 7 saw some improvements, but in an era of almost complete IE domination. The latest offering outsourced to Mercurial Communications but distributed by AOL combines Firefox's Gecko engine and IE's Trident engine with a few bells and whistles that you could add to Firefox simply by installing extensions. Moreover, Netscape 8 is only available for Windows XP. Current figures show Firefox with over 10% of browser usage and considerably more in continental Europe with Netscape still under 1% and both Opera and Safari gaining niches between 1% and 3%. However, as of this writing Firefox tends to appeal to heavy users and web developers (just consider the way the Web Developer's tool bar lets you deconstruct and analyse a Web site), so fewer than 10% of computer users have adopted an alternative to IE. Remember the web is yours and not the sole domain of one multinational corporation.

Categories
All in the Mind

A Curious Exchange on Gambling

I belong to the school of thought that views happiness as a state of emotional equilibrium in which one's desires and material expectations are socially and environmentally sustainable. Should one feel unable to attain the required dose of desires in a highly competitive setting, this can indeed lead to much misery. The broad theme I'd like to develop is that the mass entertainment industry would be more aptly named the misery industry. One does not need access to official statistics to claim that the gambling, booze and video-gaming industries, all growth sectors under New Labour, are responsible for many severe cases of emotional disturbances, in which short term thrills are soon offset by long term compulsive obsessions, bankruptcy, ill-health (lack of exercise, substance abuse) and depression.

I contacted Dr Mark Griffiths, professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, to enquire about the nature of his research. I had read his name in a letter to the Guardian newspaper (praising government policy) and in much Internet research on the psychological effects of gaming (either gambling or video-gaming, especially of the violent first-person shooter kind). Not surprisingly, though in true academic style erring on the side caution, Dr Griffiths works were nearly always cited by those defending the industry.

On 4/6/06 2:05 pm, "Neil Gardner" <neilgardner63@f2s.com> wrote:

Dear Mr Griffin (horror of horrors I used the wrong name and inadvertently downgraded a professor to a mere esquire),

I am writing a book about the psychosocial causes of the new generation of psychiatric labels, chiefly AS, OCD, ADHD and Tourettes. Although there may be genetic markers for the emergence of the traits associated with these new categories, I would dispute that they are primarily genetic in origin, but may develop as a result of chiefly environmental and some other physiological factors.

Childhood exposure to electronic media has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, broadly speaking the same time-frame in which these new mental disorders have gained prominence in the public psyche. I am not suggesting a direct causal link between ADHD and excessive exposure to TV or violent video games, but the latter certainly affect behaviour with dramatic effects in some vulnerable and emotionally deprived individuals. More important recent economic and technological changes have led to new patterns of socialisation with greater emphasis on presentation or smarminess.

Many contend that the entertainment industry merely responds to public demand, e.g. people like gambling, so business responds by offering gambling opportunities. Call me naive, but within 10 minutes walk of my flat in Cricklewood London are 3 William Hills, 2 Paddy Powers, 1 Gaming Centre and a Bingo Hall. Prominent adverts for gambling sites appear on billboards, buses, high-profile news Websites and in my e-mail inbox. As a Java/PHP programmer and database engineer I have been contacted to work on several gambling web sites, something I have refused. So if addiction to gambling had no environmental causes, then why would advertisers spend literally millions on attracting new gullible punters?

I note on your site:

Some of our research and consultancy is conducted in conjunction with and supported by the gaming industry as well as from academic research grants. We can offer our research services to investigate any of the areas outlined above.

Very few organisations (if any) can offer the depth of psychological knowledge on gaming that we can offer. We can carry out primary and secondary research, provide consultancy expertise, and promote staff development and training through helping staff understand the customer and their working environment and through brand development by raising their awareness regarding social responsibility.

Translated into plain English, this means "We will furnish research to support conclusions that serve the PR interests of the gaming industry" or rather if your gaming magazine/website wants some pseudo-scientific evidence to deny the psychological effects of 9 year-old kids playing Halo 2 on their X-Box 4 hours a day, we'll be happy to comply. The usual techniques deployed are:

  1. Downplay the extent ofthe problem (e.g. only late teens play "Kill Your Neighbour 3")
  2. Identify other causesof the psychological side effects associated with gaming
  3. Stress the positive aspects of gaming.
  4. Stress the choice available to consumers (e.g. X Gaming Company also produces a child-friendly ping pong simulator)
  5. Ridicule all research emphasising the adverse effects of addiction gaming
  6. Deny that it is addictive.
  7. Identify other related pursuits or games which may be addictive or psychologically damaging (e.g. fruit machines or online paedophile imagery, the former caserefers to outdated technology and the latter to a taboo almost universally condemned by public opinion, but if imagery of child sex corrupts, then surely imagery of hedonistic violence would do the same)
  8. Pepper your report withpreviously erudite terms that gaming journalists can quote to arguetheir case e.g. Many first-person shooters have been found to have a 'cathartic' effect on gamers (do a quick Google for the word cathartic and you'll find it re-quoted on thousands on gaming web sites).

I would welcome evidence that British academia is not, as would appear from your Web site, for sale.

Neil Gardner

And here is Prof. Griffith's highly professional reply:

On 5/6/06 08:10 am, Mark Griffiths <Mark.Griffiths@ntu.ac.uk> wrote:

  1. My name is Griffiths not Griffin
  2. I am both a Dr and a Professor and definitely not a Mr
  3. I have spent 20 years researching problem gambling and problem computer game playing and have never downplayed potential problems (see attached CV)
  4. Your interpretation of our unit's work couldn't be more wrong.
  5. Type in my name and addiction to computer games or gambling into Google and you will find 100s of hits
  6. Your e-mail is potentially libelous and I am passing it onto our legal department

Well readers can do the Googling for themselves and then do a little discrete research into their funding. A typical comment by the media-savvy professor is his remarks reported on the BBC Website in the aftermath of a school killing by a Manhunt-obsessed teenager:

"Research has shown those aged eight years or below do in the short-term re-enact or copy what they see on the screen.

"But there's been no longitudinal research following adolescents over a longer period, looking at how gaming violence might affect their behaviour."

This basically admits excessive or under-age gaming may cause some adverse effects, but essentially downplays their gravity and passes the buck over to parents or other potential causes. By using terms "longitudinal research" the professor belittles the fears of millions of readers unaware of what he means exactly. Now consider his piece in the British Medical Journal heralding video-games as a form of anaesthetic to distract children suffering pain. This must be an exceedingly marginal benefit, as other forms of hypnosis could also be used, e.g. imagery of a soccer match would have a similar effect in a football-obsessed child. But it convenienty allows the much-quoted researcher to once again downplay the adverse effects of obsessive video-gaming, noting merely that they are "prevalent among children and adolescents in industrialised countries" but without considering the huge disparities in prevalence within the industrialised world, e.g. Compare the prevalence of video game addiction in the UK or Denmark with that in Italy or Spain.

Indeed the CV Prof. Griffiths kindly sent me says it all:

GRANTS/CONSULTANCIES AWARDED

Dec 97 (BMG)£1500Effects of violent video games
Jan 98 (Interlotto)£5000Social impact of online lotteries
Mar 99 (AELLE)£2500Lottery addiction in Europe
Aug 99 (Action 2000)£500Millennium Bug Apathy
May 02 (British Academy)£5000Online multi-player computer game playing
Oct 02 (British Academy)£5000Computer game playing and time loss
Dec 02 (Intel)£1000Online computer game playing/spatial rotation
Feb 03 (British Academy)£5000Online computer game playing/addiction
Mar 03 (Centre for Ludomania)£1500Technology and gambling
July 03 (British Academy)£5000Aggression in slot machine playing
Oct 03 (RIGT)£45000Psychology of Internet gambling
Dec 03 (Herbert Smith)£1500Internet gambling
Apr 04 (Camelot PLC)£30000International Gaming Research Unit (Core funding)
May 04 (UQAM)$2500Slot machine gambling/Interactive technologies
July 04 (RIGT)£16000Coping skills in problem gamblers
Sept 04 (888.com)£1500Transferable skills in poker
Dec 04 (Paddy Power)£8500Social responsibility in Online Gambling
Jan 05 (Wace Morgan)Gambling addiction (Case study research court reports)
Jan 05 (Claude Hornby Cox)£1500Gambling addiction (Case study research court reports)
June 05 (Norwegian Government)£2000Gambling addiction
Jul 05 (Nat Lott Commission)£10000National adolescent gambling prevalence study
Aug 05 (Ultimate Poker)£3500Online poker identities
Nov 05 (Norwegian Government)£4000Slot machie addiction in Europe
Jan 06 (RIGT)£10000GamAid/GamStop evalution
Jan 06 (ALC)£8000PlaySphere evaluation
Feb 06 (RIGT)£240000Adolescent gambling (with Tacade)

Highlighted are organisations that are either in the gaming industry or spurious regulatory and research institutions funded by the gaming industry (e.g. RIGT, Resposnibility In Gambling Trust). It may seem odd for those of us who live in the real world that Prof. Griffiths should dedicate so much time to investigating the dangers of slot machines, when other more modern technologies pose a much more imminent danger to the psyche of millions of young people today. The very fact that such individuals are heralded as experts should ring alarm bells.

For fear of stating the obvious here is my reply:

On 5/6/06 11:18 pm, "Neil Gardner" <neilgardner63@f2s.com> wrote:

Dear Dr Griffiths,

Thanks you for CV and in particular for the list of grants you have received. I am intrigued as to why you would want to seek libel action against an e-mail? In my experience a person would only seek such action if a) they fear losing credibility (and why would you if are prepared to defend your findings intellectually) b) they are being smeared by the mass media. The second option hardly applies. Why not just let your work stand on its merits and let others investigate the funding and bias of your research?

I clearly believe that certain sections of the entertainment industry are at least in part responsible for a good deal of misery and psychological problems. But I would hardly expect the industry itself to fund research that would severely restrict its operations. What would you say if our opinions on the safety of tobacco were informed by research co-sponsored by tobacco multinationals or if the safety of methylphenidate were evaluated by research funded by GSK? (and I don't even support a smoking ban - as a rule I'd regulate big business rather than private individuals)

(1) My name is Griffiths not Griffin
(2) I am both a Dr and a Professor and definitely not a Mr

Is that of any great importance?

BTW did you write a letter to Guardian a few weeks backs commending the government on its new Gambling Regulation Act with key terms such as "responsible gambling" and stressing new restrictions on fruit machines (which IMHO is an extremely marginal problem)?

You may disagree with my assessments, but please don't libel me. The very action, as any psychologist should know, is a sign of weakness.

Categories
All in the Mind

Who Needs Psychiatry?

Most human beings have undergone moments of emotional disturbance and have at times engaged in unwise and irrational behaviour due to inexperience, extreme stress or intoxication. Our unconscious may have created sensory illusions, echoes of past ordeals. Many of us have felt the need to withdraw, if only temporarily, in a world of our own. A sense of insecurity, guilt or just personal fascination can lead us to obsess with actions, issues or objects. We may even sink into a mire of introspective self-worthlessness, known to others as depression. In some of us these tendencies may prevent us from leading our lives in a way that others may consider normal or functional.

If somebody behaves in a dysfunctionally irrational way, there may be two kinds of explanations. The first, and intuitively most obvious, is that something out there, whether a recent occurrence or a distant childhood memory, has altered his or her state of mind. Alternatively the brain itself could be defective. It's not quite that simple because drugs, medicines and food can change our metabolism and alter our mood. More to the point our brains rewire in response to environmental changes, especially during our formative years, but by and large we may seek either psycho-social (also known as environmental) or neurological causes of our troubles. Neither psychology nor neurology can exist in isolation. The former deals with the software and the latter with the hardware, which unlike computer hardware, may be subject to a process of continuous adaptation known as neuroplasticity.

Some behaviours are not only subjectively dysfunctional or culturally inappropriate, but immoral and dangerous to the rest of the community, e.g. If a person became convinced that all red-haired men were evil and proceeded to murder all such individuals in his neighbourhood, it would be perfectly correct to detain the perpetrator and thus protect the wider community. Psychologists may wonder what traumatic events caused the murderer to commit these heinous acts and neurologists may wonder if his brain had an inherent defect or had been afflicted by a physiological disease.

A short definition of psychiatry would be the study of pathological behavioural patterns or according to the Free Online Dictionary, the branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental and emotional disorders. A psychiatrist treats an aberrant behaviour as a disease. A complex of associated behaviours is then classified as a disorder. A psychiatric diagnosis is thus nothing more than a synopsis, albeit in erudite language, of observed symptoms, indeed the word clinical often preceding labels such as depression means just involving or based on direct observation of the patient. Surprisingly few people labelled with behavioural disorders have had their clinical diagnosis confirmed by PET or fMRI brain scans, but if any abnormalities were detected only an experienced neurologist would be able to make sense of the data. Nobody receives a psychiatric diagnosis based on the results of a brain scan and yet confusingly many victims of traumatic brain injuries and epilepsy manifesting conspicuous deficiencies in parts of the cerebral cortex allegedly responsible for reasoning and socialisation lead very successful lives free of psychotic episodes.

Psychoactive drugs rightly attract a great deal of controversy, but surely if they did help alleviate the worst symptoms of emotional distress and prevent extreme antisocial behaviours, the professional category responsible for their administration would be psycho-pharmacology.

Some see psychiatrists as the last line of defence when other law enforcement and social care professionals cannot deal with extremely abusive, dangerous or self-destructive behaviour. Psychiatry differs from psychology in defining aberrant behavioural patterns as endogenous diseases, which may have environmental triggers but are nonetheless inherent to the affected individual. Many parents and other close relatives go along with the psychiatric model because it absolves them of all responsibility. Schools, social services, police, state and corporate entities all tend towards psychiatric explanations for the same basic reason.

Don't Blame the Parents

This has long been the rallying cry of the burgeoning mental health industry, myriad charities, public and private sector institutions very much in the public limelight. Whenever anti-psychiatry raises its dissenting head, its advocates are vilified and often likened with Robert D Laing, and accused often in highly emotive language, of blaming parents. This misses three essential points:

  • Parents are only part of a child's environment and thus cannot be blamed for numerous other factors such as heightened social competition, mass consumerism, peer pressure, pervasive media etc.
  • Parents may themselves be victims of childhood neglect and adult stress, with a serious sense of inferiority, social alienation or addiction to hedonistic pursuits such as gambling.
  • If we stress the psycho-social causes of personal problems rather than endogenous biological causes, parents, and other close relatives and friends, have a greater role to play in rehabilitation. Many become depressed or experience psychotic episodes precisely because they lack full integration with their family and community. Even where neglectful or abusive parents are a large part of the problem, they may, except in the most extreme cases of abuse, be part of the solution.

So let's abolish psychiatry altogether. In some cases we may find answers in neuroscience, but in most we'd better take a good look at each other and wonder what we as individuals or as a society have done wrong to make an increasing number of us go insane.