Friday, February 15, 2008

Wait, did that look like that before?

Wait a second... In a previous post, I noted that gmail just quietly downgraded to HTML if you didn't have JavaScript turned on. But today, I noticed this message:

They could use a small fix to their formatting (ie: don't let the poor text jam into the side of the box like that -- I had to grab some of the surrounding window so this screenshot would be legible) but this is strangely more helpful than it was before.

Why the difference?

Well, much as I like to believe someone at Google saw my comments and made the change, I'm not quite arrogant enough to believe that's true. Although I suppose it could be -- there's a lot of Google people out there, and for all I know they've got something that scans Blogger for mentions of their products. It would be a clever, if time-consuming, way to find out what the public really thinks.

Err, I digress. Self-centred worldviews aside, I'd guess it more likely that this message has always been there, and I just missed it last time because of my NoScript configuration.

Why do I find this interesting? Well, I'm currently working on a theory that users will be more safe if they can disable JavaScript that they don't really need to run the page. This is the theory underlying NoScript, and it has some face validity. But if users start running only some JavaScript, what is this going to do to the usability of the web? My current answer is that if you leave JavaScript off entirely, you're going to turn some pages into a usability nightmare, where things will just not work (more on this later). But these different error messages based on my various setups indicate to me that you may have these usability problems even if you have partial JavaScript. In fact, the usability problems may be much worse because the page won't know to generate an appropriate error message!

I don't know how to solve this problem yet, but I guess that's what makes this research!

Another cute error message

One of my labmates pointed this one out:

That is possibly the most adorable of the JavaScript error messages

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Patented JavaScript

Another interesting line I turned up in examining JavaScript:

6,766,370. INFO:

(Wrapped by me so you can read it)

Now, given how much JavaScript I've found that's obfuscated, I shouldn't be too surprised to see patent numbers in there, but I was!

Best software conditions ever

This is just too amusing not to share. Got to love the conditions (I've coloured them to stand out) on this particular piece of code:
Copyright (c) 2005

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person
obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation
files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without
restriction, including without limitation the rights to use,
copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or
sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the
Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.


I turned that up on as I'm just roughly examining various types of code to see if I can see obvious similarities.

I wonder if the author believes is good or evil?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The web without JavaScript. Part 2: Black Holes and Revelations

As I implied in Part 1, while sites do sometimes provide helpful error messages related to JavaScript, often as not they just behave strangely.

Perhaps the most common issue I've seen is missing content. The things I notice most often are missing ads and missing video. Sometimes, it's nice and obvious that there's a missing element on the page:

Many pages leave very obvious spaces for their ads, and when they're filled with blank space, it's fairly obvious that there's a problem.

The videos are less obvious, however:

There's a video in there. Really. Normally, it would appear right below the header, so the page would look more like this:

There you can see the video loading in the big black box. But how would you tell that the previous page had anything missing? The page has nicely moved the text up, leaving no trace that there should be something there. In the case of the missing video, there are usually only a few clues:
  1. The page looks abnormally short (there isn't much text)
  2. I'm expecting a video on the page, and it's not there.
  3. I happen to check the JavaScript list from NoScript and notice something that looks like video.* or sounds like a domain that might host video.

Usually, the winning clue is #2, since a friend will send me a link and mention that it's a video, or the comments on the page will talk about the video, or sometimes the text itself will tip me off by what it says.

And often, you'll see both missing spaces and the lack thereof on the same page. The page featured below would normally have both an ad and a video:

Could you tell there was a video on this page? You can see the blank space for an advertisement, but the text automatically moves up so you can't tell that the page with the video looks like this:

That's the video in bright yellow at the bottom there.

But it gets even more fun when you've changed which sites are JavaScript disabled in NoScript. Check out that same site with all the JavaScript disabled:

They're pretty smart! If they can tell that JavaScript is disabled (ie: I've disabled it for the main site) then they both provide the helpful error text AND they provide a ad, showing that you don't really need JavaScript to do it. Unfortunately, my weird way of disabling some JavaScript but not others had limited their ability to do damage control on the page I was trying to break. Interesting...

Next up in this series: Sites that have more than a few holes, and sites that just don't work without their JavaScript!

Monday, February 4, 2008

What does the web look like without JavaScript? Part 1: Error Messages

So what does the web look like without JavaScript? This post focuses on the error messages you see when you decide to ditch the JavaScript, but the sad reality is that although some sites will give you warnings, this is hardly the norm. Still, it's worth looking at what you might see...

Without JavaScript, occasionally the web looks like this:

That's a nice big red error message indicating that there's no JavaScript. Simple, clear, informative, lets you know where to go for help, or even lets you use the website for things that don't require JavaScript.

In a similar vein, you sometimes get error messages like this one:

I find it hilarious that it first tells me that JavaScript is turned off, then tells me what to in the event that JavaScript redirection isn't working... even though if I saw this page at all, JavaScript redirection won't work. But maybe I'm too easily amused.

Anyhow, similarly, it lets you know in nice big red letters what the issue is and how to fix it. Good good.

But this isn't the norm among pages. Sometimes, you get error messages more like this one:

Well, it could be JavaScript, or maybe something else is wrong. Here's how to get Flash player! Err, that's almost helpful. I can see a lot of people reinstalling Flash player and assuming it was broken when JavaScript is the real culprit.

Also, although it's fairly clear where the error message is when you've got a nice little page fragment like this, it's pretty easy to miss that black text on a page with lots of black text and little images and video responses and so on and so on. Especially if you're looking at a video site where really, you're scanning the page for the big video window and mentally blocking out all the text, which you know isn't what you came to the page to see.

And then there's the not-quite-an-error message route:

Okay, so I know that the reason gmail is showing in basic HTML is that I don't have JavaScript enabled, because I've been out messing with it. But if you, say, sat down at my computer and tried to log in to gmail, you'd be asking me why it looks so funny on the mac. Or at least, that's how the friends who've tried to use my laptop reacted when I left things like this.

I do love how Google automatically downgrades when possible (and it does this with a lot of services) but sometimes it might be worth letting people know why you're seeing the reduced interface. This is really apparent if you use Google maps, which only gives driving directions (no maps!) if you have JavaScript disabled and search for one address to another instead of a single address. Very confusing if you're not the one who disabled JavaScript, or you did it because of some unrelated thing and didn't realise it was going to break the web.

But it's still better than no error message at all combined with pages that just don't work, which seems to be very common. Stay tuned for more broken pages!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Want to be safe from malicious web scripts?

Want to be safe from malicious web scripts? The solution, apparently, is to disable JavaScript.

It's always that last line of the security bulletin, the reminder that if we just didn't run this code, we'd be safe from the latest Facebook abuse, bad mojo in Yahoo, or whatever the (bad) flavour of the week is. But really, you might as well tell people that the only way to protect their computer is turn it off, lock it in a dark bunker disconnected from the world, and throw away the key. Sure, that'll keep it from getting the latest piece of web crud, but the machine won't do you very much good.

Think I'm exaggerating? Try turning off JavaScript and see how long you last before you need to turn it back on. The first time I tried it, I lasted half a day before I needed to change some configuration on my router and found that the settings pages wouldn't even load properly with JavaScript disabled.

However, I was raised by scientists. My parents are the sort of people who, when the stove clock broke, gave it to me and my brother, showed us how to use some screwdrivers and other hand tools, then let us experiment on the remains. I'd love to claim we somehow fixed it, but no, we just found new ways to break it and put parts of it back together in weird ways. But my parents are smart people: taking things apart and breaking them does teach you a fair bit about them. And now that we're older, we can put them back together as well as take them apart.

So with that thought in mind, I realised that if I was going to build a safer web, I needed to know how to take it apart and put it back together. In the "breaking things" phase, I decided I needed a nicer way to turn JavaScript on and off on a whim so I could see what else didn't work. Thankfully, Firefox has a lovely little add-on called NoScript which lets me disable or enable JavaScript on a per domain basis. I wouldn't recommend it to novices, but I'm a trained professional, so I set out to learn some stuff.

With that tool, I was ready to start breaking my web.